An Equilibrium of Selfish Interests

To what degree can politics rest on a moral foundation? Can we identify a range of conditions or government types that correlate with greater or lesser morality? To take an obvious pair of conditions, to what degree does public transparency impact the morality of decisions? The answer would seem obvious in theory, but is public debate about whether or not to launch a war truly conducive to making decision more solidly based on morality? Consider the loudly, openly discussed Neo-Con decision to invade Iraq. Solzhenitsyn’s Red Circle trilogy can be read as a series of case studies of Russian politics during WWI designed to answer this question–nicely posed below.

…вообще осуществимо ли последовательно нравственное действие в истории? Или — какова же должна быть нравственная зрелость общества для такой деятельности? Вот и 70 лет спустя и в самых незапретных странах, веками живущих развитою гибкой политической жизнью, — много ли соглашений и компромиссов достигается не из равновесия жадных интересов и сил, а — из высшего понимания, из дружелюбной уступчивости сделать друг другу добро? Почти ноль. [1916 53 on]

Does history admit of consistently moral activity? Or at what level of moral maturity in a given society does such activity become possible? Even seventy years later, in the most open of countries, with centuries of political maturity and flexibility behind them, how often does agreement and compromise result from a higher understanding, a friendly willingness to give way and oblige another, rather than from an equilibrium of selfish interests and forces? Hardly ever. [1916 540.]

While it is hardly surprising that Solzhenitsyn answered his own question in the negative when the topic was the rise of Bolshevism, would an analysis of, say, the politics surrounding U.S. financial and mortgage policy in the years leading up to the Recession of 2008 lead to a different answer?

David Stockman has an interesting answer:

…the state bears an inherent flaw that dwarfs the imperfections purported to afflict the free market; namely, that policies undertaken in the name of the public good inexorably become captured by special interests and crony capitalists who appropriate resources from society’s commons for their own private ends. [Stockman, The Great Deformation (New York: Public Affairs, 2013) 169.]

Marx surely would have concurred.

The conditions of Russia during WWI and the U.S. in the immediate aftermath of its historic emergence as the world’s only superpower would seem so utterly different as to constitute reasonable extremes for a continuum of political conditions, yet–counter-intuitively–political man showed himself to be equally immoral in each case. Solzhenitsyn’s pessimism is hard to refute.


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