Friday, July 3, 2009

Gunshot, Poison or Hanging?

Okay... I have a follow-on question to my last post.

If we stipulate that Nueno is correct, and that the willingness of people in poverty to work long hours for minimal wages creates an effectively insurmountable competitive advantage, you still have the problem of implementation. Most industrialized Western nations are republics (or at least somewhat credible facsimiles thereof), and it really seems that saying: "Hey, everybody! We're going to slash the minimum wage and lengthen the working day to 12 hours. Oh, and kiss unemployment benefits buh-bye," is pretty much the very definition of "political suicide." Torch and pitchfork retailers would be forever in your debt.

So... how on Earth does one make such an idea fly? How do you get people to support importing poverty, rather than simply ratcheting up protectionist policies? You could lie to people, but once the policy goes into effect, you'd still have an uproar on your hands, and unless you disenfranchised everyone that loses out, someone would come along and make unseating you the main plank of their platform. So you'd have to convince workers that beating the third world's poor at their own game (and by their rules), while living in wealthy nations along side the richest people on the planet, is to their direct benefit.

I've been wracking my brain trying to figure this out, and I'm fast coming to the solution that economists would make terrible politicians.


Keifus said...

Well, how did they sell the old feudalism? Some combination of patriotism, religion, and a healthy injection of naturalist theories of class is my best guess.

Either that, or create conditions where horrible labor practices are still a better alternative than starving.

(And yes, it's interesting that economies seem to stagnate when only a few really participate in them, but it's in our nature to take advantage when we can. That said, I think that in the the last century, the growth came first, and then working conditions improved slowly, and with violence.)

Aaron said...

But you could make the point that for most people, feudalism was a step up, at first - I grow food for you, you use that big sword to protect me from barbarians. Each side had obligations to the other. Feudalism acquires a bad name once people higher up on the food chain start to use their monopoly on violence to make the obligations one way, and justified it through divine right - Lords demanded a lot of the peasantry, but would still leave them to fend for themselves if an attack came. The children's book idea that lords would let the local peasants into the castle if the countryside came under attack was a rarely seen ideal. I doubt that early medieval people would have readily entered into the late medieval form of serfdom by choice.

Keifus said...

I was thinking of feudalism as sort of an end-state of attempts at government that seems pretty stable. In an imprecise sense, maybe things do often tend to devolve to that notorious level of wealth inequality, where the many end up (inefficiently ) doing all the production, and the few end up doing the high-end consumption. But on second thought, (1) I don't think I ought to call that feudalism (you're right), and (2) I'm not sure I should tie it to stagnation of innovation. (In fact, the opposite--a long-term response to major innovation--might be more accurate, but I'm not liking these poorly-thought-out generalizations of mine at all just now.)

Aaron said...

I probably shouldn't have used the term "feudalism," either. "Serfdom," is likely a more accurate term for what I wanted to convey.

But you're on to something with the idea that creating a situation where starvation is the other option is a good way to get people to do things that otherwise suck out loud. I think my next post will look at that more closely, and how it ties into the global economy as we've currently got it.