Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Nations and Persons

Nations aren’t persons—which is rather obvious. This popped into my mind today for a number of reasons. To cite one, I was reminded of one of Castaneda’s stories in which Castaneda’s hero/guru, Don Juan, suggests that collectives should be viewed as natural phenomena—like storms, hurricanes, and floods rather than as agencies. Nations aren’t persons—but our reflexive behavior is to treat any and all structures formed by human beings as if they were. I can understand why we think so. People head up all collectives with one person in charge. Therefore we think that the collective ought to behave as a person does. But a moment’s reflection will remind us that collectives—and never mind nations—behave much more like unconscious animals or vegetative structures than as conscious individuals. The reason is that no person is able to feel the collective or make it move in response to his or her will. The intention of the leader is rapidly diluted as it moves outward to be implemented. The returning feedback is muted and deformed as it reaches the decision-maker.

Another source of today’s thought was pondering the rise of China into much greater prominence. This brought to mind Pat Buchanan’s long standing advocacy that the United States should abandon its imperial tendencies, concentrate on its limited role in the world, and just do things right for a change. And yet another source was looking at long-term trends in U.S. manufacturing (see recent entries on LaMarotte). I noted that the U.S. performance is not as shoddy as I had assumed it was; the hype doesn’t quite reflect the situation on the ground. And it occurred to me, in Buchanan style, that we’re all right, Jack—provided that we just pay attention to our knitting.

In both of the cases above, the underlying notion is that such phenomena as the U.S. international policy or the collective I label as Manufacturing are subject to intelligent and rational direction. They are subject to a certain influence, to be sure, but not to active steering. The U.S. international policy is, whether we like it or not, anchored in facts on the ground so vast and extensive as to be well beyond the control or even effective influence of a national government formed of an executive and a nearly deadlocked legislature. Executive and legislature are themselves collectives and only mildly subject to direction by figures such as Obama, Pelosi, and Reid.

The mistaken notion that great aggregates are human—and subject to the same laws of morality and reason that rest upon each of us individually—is the source of much frustration. We can be sure of disappointment. We’re expecting the weather cock to crow. It won’t. As usually ancient wisdom suggests what not to do. But notice that, even in the Psalms, the collectives are viewed as individuals: “Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help.” Psalms 146:3.

1 comment:

  1. A welcome reminder of the nature of institutions and collectives!