Of Weeds and Flowers

3 December 2008

Two Institutions in Crisis

Over the past few days I have been reflecting further on my diverse assessments of two institutions in crisis. In The Strategic Consequences of Republican Meltdown and in More on Republican Disarray, I suggested that the Republican Party is faced with a crisis that may permanently damage the party’s ability to field a national candidate for office. In Economics or Secular Eschatology I suggested, despite the panic and the hyperbole, that the global financial system would bounce back and remain essentially unchanged. I have asked myself why I would make these different judgments, and in asking myself I clarified my thinking on both issues.

What makes the crisis facing the Republican Party distinct from the crisis facing the global financial system? Allow me to speak metaphorically. In my book Variations on the Theme of Life I wrote, “Capitalism is a weed among economic systems—hardy, ubiquitous, and impossible to eradicate—but unlike noxious weeds proliferating in the biosphere, usually as introduced non-native species, there is no place that capitalism is not native.” (section 253)

The State of Nature

The world financial system, in so far as it is a “system” at all, is a system in a state of nature. It is not a garden, but rather it is the wild, the wilderness. Philosophers have frequently had recourse to “state of nature” (1) thought experiments to imagine what human society would have been like before the advent of law and civilization. Almost all the peoples of the world today live within the territory of geographically defined nation-states that enforce the territorial principle of law, and as such most people live under the rule of law. But nation-states themselves do not live under the rule of law. There are attempts to make an international criminal court, and the have been attempts to formulate effective world institutions, but we all know that none of these can constrain a nation-state (or, for that matter, non-state actors) when a course of action contrary to “international law” is desired. Internally, nation-states enjoy the rule of law. Externally, nation-states live vis-à-vis each other in a state of nature. We have no need for a thought experiment here: we can see it played out on the news each evening.

Similarly, the commerce of nation-states is internally regulated, but externally, in relation to each other, the finances of nation-states exist in a state of nature. Again, while there are international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF, these are essentially charitable organizations set up by the industrialized nations in an attempt to stabilize world financial markets to the extent possible. Pakistan may get an IMF loan package; no one expects Germany or France to be bailed out by the IMF; it does not exist for the latter purpose, but for the former. And no major nation-state is going to sign on to a program to have its financial system monitored or controlled by an international body. (2) Thus the world financial system will continue to be anarchical, existing in the state of nature.

What plant grows best in a state of nature? That depends upon the time frame and the ecosystem concerned. We know from ecological succession that, when an area is damaged, say by a storm or a volcanic eruption, that the barren land is first colonized by the hardiest plants, that is to say, by weeds. After the weeds add nutrients to the soil, other less robust plants can follow their lead. Ultimately, given enough time, a climax ecosystem develops with a high degree of biodiversity. In such a climax ecosystem, weeds live alongside a great many other plants. But the weeds do not magically disappear in a climax ecosystem; they are part of the mix, they add their biological distinctiveness to the particular biome in which they grow. And when a storm comes, it will be the weeds that survive, and it will be the weeds that colonize the newly barren soil.

a hardy and robust weed, not easily exterminated

Capitalism: a hardy and robust weed, not easily exterminated

Capitalism is a weed, and the entire world economic system – whatever protests to the contrary – is based on capitalism. So when I wrote above that the current economic crisis would leave the world financial system “essentially unchanged” I mean to say that the world economy will perennially sprout the weedy capitalism that always erupts in the midst of the best-tended political garden. Decades of official communism in Russia and China, with educational programs designed to systematically create good communists, could not eradicate the entrepreneurial spirit that grew like weeds when these command economies were freed of their centralized control.

“Let us tend to our garden…”

Unlike the weedy character of the world financial system, an institution like the Republican Party is a flower, perhaps a hardy flower, but a flower nonetheless. A few flowers grow wild, but most are cultivated in gardens, the result of much care and attention, and protected by walls or fences. The political, military, and economic power of the US government is the garden wall that protects the institutions that flourish within the enclosed garden. The two party system of the US is like a charming French formal garden, after the manner of André Le Nôtre, with geometrical hedges, fountains, and sculpture.

The Republican Party?

The Republican Party?

While no competent gardener wants to see any of his flowers die, a sudden change in the weather – a heavy rain or an early frost – can kill even the best tended flower, although some flowers are better suited for certain conditions than others. A water lily will not be killed by a downpour, but it will be killed by a drought. If we knew what the weather was going to be, we could plant water lilies or flowering cacti. But we can no more predict the weather in detail than we can predict the coming of the next storm that will destroy all the flowers in the garden, and leave only the weeds.

A change in the American electorate is a change in the weather; a worldwide financial crisis is a storm. The combination of a change in weather patterns together with a violent storm may be enough to kill some flowers in the garden (certainly not all, as our garden is well protected from the storm), but neither weather nor storm will kill the weeds. As Voltaire famously concluded his Candide, “Let us tend to our garden.”

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Voltaire, horticulturist and author of the gardening guide Candide

Voltaire, horticulturist and author of the gardening guide Candide

. . . . .

1) I first looked for an article on state of nature thought experiments on the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, but while the concept was mentioned many times in the individual articles, there was no simple summary article devoted to the topic itself. However, the weedy knowledge represented by Wikipedia did present just such a simple summary, so I linked to this.

2) It could be argued that the Eurozone nation-states have in fact signed on to an agreement that monitors and controls their financial systems. While this is true, the Eurozone is geographically limited to a culturally homogeneous region (so that the “international body” is actually a “regional body”), the extent to which the “international” body regulates the finances of its signatory nation-states is limited, and accession to membership in the body is voluntary. Thus the Eurozone offers a limited counter-example to my above claim, but does not falsify it tout court.

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Tonight's musical selection

Tonight's musical selection...

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