The year 2023 is shaping up to be the start of long period of destruction and renewal. The old global world is collapsing under the impact of the war in Ukraine, the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic, high energy prices, supply chain disruption, and a declining public confidence in authority. The coming year will see the demolition continue until perhaps the point is reached when it is simply easier to start over again.
In the aftermath of WW2 the old colonial empires, which had lasted hundreds of years up to 1945, simply collapsed and were replaced by a bipolar world divided between the U.S. and USSR. But there was an upside; one of the attractions of the resulting period was that even the losers’ won as dysfunction perished along with the good and left people free to progress. Germany and Japan reached all-time heights of prosperity. The resulting post-war economic boom from 1950 to 1973 is now remembered as the “Golden Age of Capitalism”; that plus the extended postwar political stability historians call the Long Peace led to the widespread hope that a perpetual enlightenment had been attained.
Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker certainly seems to think … the “Great Peace” is upon us. Pinker attributes this improvement to the progress of mankind. Empathy, self-control, and reason are making strides against revenge and hate: the “angels” are beating the “demons.” As Pinker himself wrote: “The most promising explanation … is that the components of the human mind that inhibit violence—what Abraham Lincoln called ‘the better angels of our nature’—have become increasingly engaged.”
This has psychological appeal. People can underestimate the risk of economic collapse or major war because of normalcy bias, the inability to believe the world around them, so stable for so long, can collapse. You can see this in heirs who run out of money, or cocky defendants who’ve just been sentenced to life and can’t accept it is happening to them. Normalcy bias is why few think the federal deficit or debt can ever be too high, or another WW2 can ever happen. The lights have always been on; surely they must always stay on. Normalcy bias isn’t confined to the West. Some pundits point out that many Russians cannot imagine a world where Putin loses. But there’s no physical reason this is impossible, only a psychological one.
Still it’s nice to think we can keep on running if we don’t look down. Pinker’s “better angels” hypothesis explains why “Woke” or right-thinking is so important to today’s liberal ideologues. If the Long Peace is ultimately dependent on progressive consciousness than our present normal, indeed the very physical properties of the planet itself, like the climate, depends on whether we spend every Woking hour purging our minds of racism, misogyny, genderism and Gaia knows what else. Only with pure minds can we keep the lights on and avoid another war.
However Nassim Taleb argues that this normalcy bias is the result of a statistical illusion rather than fact. Not our better angels but fear has kept us on the straight and narrow. It is Taleb’s view that medium sized wars have become less common as a result of the invention of weapons of mass destruction, but at the expense of really catastrophic conflicts becoming more probable. If the “Long Peace” is really the Fat Tail, the old normal distribution of chronic little wars has been replaced by the more infrequent but disastrous event curve. We are not safer; just seemingly so.
More disturbing is the notion that war might actually be necessary to renew a world trapped in a dead end. Historian Paul Betts argued that “the end of World War II—’zero hour’ (Stunde Null), the Germans called it—was a new beginning … Betts argues instead that what Europe really did was reconstruct a civilization: a set of basic secular and religious values that Europeans share. In this account, the postwar period marked the moment when Europeans discovered—or perhaps rediscovered—humanitarianism, universal human rights, ecumenical Christianity, the appreciation of diverse cultures, a respect for science, and a broadly accessible consumer culture.” But at what cost? If humanity since 1945 can no longer resort to medium sized bloodlettings to to purge itself of poisonous humors, they can only store it up until the big one comes along to reboot to Stunde Null. No little pills, just one giant tablet.
Olav Dirkmaat argued there is a third way. “We do not need human beings to be ‘angels’ to achieve progress. We need institutions that are robust to ‘demons.’ And in fact, that is precisely what a Hayekian process of discovery and competition is about. Competition makes the world better through evolution and by strengthening institutions, rather than by creating angels.” Whether the current crisis could all have been averted if we had thought more Woke thoughts or if there had been more institutional competition is a question for history. But it really doesn’t help us now. The logic of escalation is that a failure to match the opponent leaves you worse off. To keep peace alive you can lag a step but never lead a step. However you are forced to remain close enough on the escalation ladder to stay in the game and the fight may spiral ever upward until the last rung is reached. We are at all events far down the slippery slope, or if you prefer, high on the ladder. Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine, or perhaps the little forgotten event that preceded it or provoked it, something at any rate, led to unforeseen consequences that politicians buoyed by the pomp of office, the deference of courtiers, the flattery of jesters thought they could handle, and could not.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.
Story cited here.
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