August 13, 2008


Harmony and the Dream (DAVID BROOKS, 8/12/08, NY Times)

If Asia’s success reopens the debate between individualism and collectivism (which seemed closed after the cold war), then it’s unlikely that the forces of individualism will sweep the field or even gain an edge.

For one thing, there are relatively few individualistic societies on earth. For another, the essence of a lot of the latest scientific research is that the Western idea of individual choice is an illusion and the Chinese are right to put first emphasis on social contexts.

Scientists have delighted to show that so-called rational choice is shaped by a whole range of subconscious influences, like emotional contagions and priming effects (people who think of a professor before taking a test do better than people who think of a criminal). Meanwhile, human brains turn out to be extremely permeable (they naturally mimic the neural firings of people around them). Relationships are the key to happiness. People who live in the densest social networks tend to flourish, while people who live with few social bonds are much more prone to depression and suicide.

The rise of China isn’t only an economic event. It’s a cultural one. The ideal of a harmonious collective may turn out to be as attractive as the ideal of the American Dream.

Folks like Mr. Brooks used to make the same nonsensical claims about Japan in the '80s, ignoring things like the way the lack of individualism led to their societies being profoundly uncreative, so that their economic model is based almost exclusively on cheaply assembling products that we invent, and the looming demographic crises that ensure imminent decline. But, whereas Japan enjoyed a long run as factory floor for the developed world, China's moment comes at a period of maximal globalization and, not only has competition kept a lid on wages but as it becomes more expensive to hire its workers the jobs will just move elsewhere. As a result, the Chinese have a per capita GDP of a mere $5,300, about 1/9th of ours. Even Japan has made it to $33k before it heads down hill.

Even the most Darwinist among the Brights can't really believe that the Asiatic mind is so different that a dime is as attractive as a dollar to the Chinese.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 13, 2008 12:22 PM
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