individuals,collectives and CDSs

John McCreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Thu, 8 Aug 1996 23:06:41 +0900

Continuing the discussion of why the bifurcation of social reality into
"the individual" and "the collective" may not be a good thing.

Among those of us who live and work in East Asia there is an ongoing debate
over how to explain the extraordinary economic performance of, first, Japan
and, then, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore. Conventionally the argument has pitted
rational-choice theorists who are heavily influenced by classic free-market
economics against culturalists who who urge the importance of Confucian
values which favor hard work and self-sacrifice in the interests of the
group. The former are baffled by the fact that while classical economic
theory suggests that political interference in the market will hamper
economic growth, economies in which there has been a great deal of
interference have been outstripping the rest of the world. Culturalists,
meanwhile, have a hard time dealing with history. Why, if hard-work and
self-sacrifice are the key was there no surge of economic growth in either
Tokugawa Japan or either late imperial or later Maoist China?

There is a revisionist approach,much maligned by both sides, whose
beginning is usually ascribed to the work of Chalmers Johnson, who
identified Japan as what he called a Capitalist Development State (CDS). In
discussing Johnson's work, Karel van Wolferen, the author of _The Enigma of
Japanese Power_ points out that classical economics is an individualist
theory whose animus is directed to getting the state off the backs of
individual businessmen and corporations who wish to be free to do whatever
they like. The socialist alternative has been to imagine people working for
the good of the whole; in the less than perfect world that precedes the
completion of the revolution, the political apparatus governs on behalf of
the whole and is given the power to suppress those who persist in being
selfish. One theory is individualist, the other is collectivist, but both
share the basic assumption that the regulatory state and market-oriented
business exist in a state of perpetual conflict, with one opposed to the
other. Both are blind to the possibility, developed in Japan following the
Meiji Restoration, of an interventionist state that sees its duty as lying
in active support of business while preventing the kind of inequities that
might lead to revolution. In practice the result is a dense network of
social relationships that are neither wholly individualistic (individuals
and corporations--who are legal individuals--do not always get their own
way, and those who get too far out of line will be punished and reined in)
nor wholly collectivist (there is still lots of room for maneuver and
plenty of support for fierce competition).

Is all well? Of course not. Japan and its East Asian neighbors are human
societies. They have been successful in promoting extraordinarily rapid
economic growth but are now having to face the consequences in
environmental degradation and what has become endemic corruption in
government-business relationships.In Japan, the process of building
consensus has become so complex that, while it may perform admirably in the
long-term, it becomes a stumbling block when sudden crises have to be dealt
with: last year the Kobe earthquake and the Aum subway gas attacks; this
year the O172 e.coli bacteria related food-poisoning scandal.

Does all of East Asia work the same way? Only in part. There are plenty of
specific differences to complicate the picture.One thinks, for example, of
the giant chaebol in Korea in contrast to the Taiwanese and Overseas
Chinese penchant for smaller companies: the result of the Chinese belief
expressed by the Taiwanese maxim that "It's better to be the cock in your
own barnyard, than the water buffalo in someone else's." Even in thinking
just about Chinese, we have to recognize that the histories and
institutional arrangements that have shaped economic growth in Taiwan, Hong
Kong and Singapore all have their special characteristics. And mainland
China? That's a whole 'nother ball game.

Needless to say, the debate goes on. One thing, however, is very clear.
Framing issues in terms of the individual vs. the collective barely
scratches the surface. Worse yet it can be seriously misleading.


John McCreery
3-206 Mitsusawa HT, 25-2 Miyagaya, Nishi-ku
Yokohama 220, JAPAN

"And the Lord said unto Cyrus, 'Shall the clay say to him who moldest it,
what makest thou? Let the potsherd of the earth speak to the potsherd of
the earth." --An anthropologist's credo