October 01, 2012

Revolution from below

In a recent column, David Brooks quotes from The End of Men by Hanna Rosin, who argues that "like immigrants who have moved to a new country," women adapt to new circumstances. Men are like immigrants "who have kept their minds in the old one."

If nothing else, here is more proof of Ann Althouse's maxim that any "research into the differences between men and women must portray women as superior."

Moreover, in his effort to be topical, Brooks misses a huge part of the equation, namely the unintended consequences of well-intentioned government interference in the free market, especially student loans and unemployment insurance.

Unemployment "insurance" incentivizes holding out for job opportunities that significantly exceed existing benefits. And pricey tuition has long been sold to gullible students as an "investment" guaranteed to return high returns in the form of wages.

Without a healthy income, a hundred grand in full-recourse student loans will become a Sisyphusian burden by the time the graduate hits middle age. The IRS owning his soul might have a lot to do with what employment choices a man tends to make.

However, Brooks thankfully gets to a more substantial point, that

this theory has more to do with social position. When there's big social change, the people who were on the top of the old order are bound to cling to the old ways. The people who were on the bottom are bound to experience a burst of energy. They're going to explore their new surroundings more enthusiastically.

As a case in point, the Meiji Restoration was a "revolution from below" led by lower-ranked samurai. Shut out of opportunities to climb the political or economic ladders past their assigned station in life, these samurai struck out in new directions.

As Seth Roberts puts it, they chose exploration over exploitation, many seizing the opportunity to travel abroad, even risking death (leaving Japan's territorial waters was considered treason) to secure passage, or stow away, on American warships.

In Satsuma province, rather than fighting the currents of change, the provincial governor reached down into the ranks of the lower-ranked samurai to fuel his own revolutionary aspirations.

In Tosa province, they fomented open insurrection. The most remarkable of them, Sakamoto Ryoma, forged an alliance between Choshu and Satsuma that would bring down the regime, while creating Japan's first privately-held corporation.

The dissolution of the feudal class system occurred during enormous disruptions to the status quo, with the regime overwhelmed by western technology and unable to prevent the forcible opening of Japan.

Up until then, however, the shoguns had ruled without significant opposition for two centuries. The era is still remembered with great nostalgia. Human beings are, without a doubt, strongly attracted to the reassurances of state paternalism.

A government that can appease the populace by handing out "free" goodies will be embraced until, like the Tokugawa shogunate, it gets run into the ground by an "extractive elite" unwilling to risk their own sinecures with real solutions.

Or as Alexis de Tocqueville put it, "The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public's money."

During the Edo period, samurai didn't run around like the Three Musketeers. The vast majority of them were government bureaucrats who inherited their positions and formed a nation-wide system of permanent political patronage.

A brief and bloody counterrevolutionary challenge to the early Meiji government (historically mangled and distorted beyond all recognition in The Last Samurai) was fought by samurai disgruntled about the loss of their feudal status and stipends.

The government could no longer afford to pay them simply for being born samurai because it was flat stinking broke. This is one of those "learning from the past" things, though I don't think many politicians are getting the lesson.

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