Thursday, June 14, 2007

Atlas shrugs in Japan?

This afternoon one of the local DPJ politicians supported by my boss was in the office, resting, and he asked whether I have read "Einrando." After some initial confusion, I finally figured out that he was asking about Ayn Rand — because he's in the process of reading Atlas Shrugged in Japanese (there are few books for which "in the process" is as apt as Atlas Shrugged).

We then proceeded to discuss the various "philosophers of liberty" — Hayek, Hume, Locke, Smith, Popper, Oakeshott — and he insisted upon the need for more liberty and smaller government in Japan.

I was taken aback, not necessarily because of his admiration, but because I had been discussing the applicability of Atlas Shrugged to Japan with Colonel Sturgeon just the other day. My point wasn't so much about Japan's needing smaller government and less exploitation of the government for private ends — it does — but the applicability of the novel's mood.

In the novel, the various sectors of society and economy fail, like a body wracked with disease that systematically attacks different organs. There is a pervasive gloom, with the action of the plot punctuated by news reports about one industrial sector after another failing. As I have watched reports of massive corruption in corporations in every sector of the Japanese economy — the latest example being NOVA, the leading English conversation school — and throughout the government, I cannot help but recall the atmosphere in Ayn Rand's dystopian America. While Japan might not be experiencing serial organ failure, it is suffering from a pervasive infection that has weakened every sector of the body politic.

Now, no one should construe this post as an unqualified endorsement of Ayn Rand. I consider my youthful infatuation with her thinking as one of those things that people should grow out of, like wearing velcro sneakers. As Stephen Fry said in an episode of A Bit of Fry and Laurie, "I don't believe in market forces. I used to, of course, when I was a child, but like everybody else, when I grew older, I discovered it was all made up." Now I would not go quite so far as that, but I did grow out of Rand: the world is far too complicated to be divided neatly into craven collectivists and heroic individualists.

But the discussion of the applicability of liberal (in the old sense, or the current sense for Europeans) thought to Japan is interesting. As I have written before, I have a hard time with importing Western political concepts into the Japanese context. Modern Japan has never known liberalism — it has had liberals, but never liberalism. Its institutions and political culture is steeped in constant interaction between state, economy, and society. Some would say that it is so as a function of Japanese culture, and is thus impervious to change. To me, that is neither here nor there. As far as I am concerned, it is a function of political culture, which while being slightly more susceptible to change is still a function of unique conditions in a given polity. As an Oakeshottian, I am content to let political culture be. Political culture grows over time, and is resistant to attempts by outsiders to change it. (Imagine what the New Dealers who came over to Japan with SCAP would think about what they wrought.) Would more liberalism in a political sense, with greater respect for the individual and a more dynamic civil society be enormously welcome in Japan? Absolutely. Would more economic liberalism, with more risk-taking, more dynamic enterprises, and less collusion among bureaucrats, politicians, and corporations be welcome? I must answer again in the affirmative.

But these will result only from long-term structural change; Japan will not change overnight. And as it changes, it will necessarily reflect Japanese conditions: for example, a more active civil society, but one that cooperates with the government and more risk-taking, but a strong safety net to protect people from getting too hurt. And with more than a quarter of Japan's population set to be over sixty-five in a few decades' time, there is a floor below which the Japanese welfare state will not recede. An aged society is necessarily a society in which the state will have an active role.

Nevertheless, the question of whether and how Japan will become more liberal is a fascinating one, that will only grow more interesting with time.

1 comment:

Ken said...

Well said. I think this Nova story is providing a bit of nice cover for the nasty goings-on at MUFG Financial Group. Part of this is due to the nature of the Ministries/Agencies involved; METI tends to be very public in their punitive measures and the FSA likes to keep things quiet, and occasionally even not issue press statements about much of what they do.

I think you're right that some rot in the system is being exposed. The accessibility of information is helping increase consumer awareness and is creating savvier consumers. I think a company such as Nova has long been protected by the veil of quietness which stops people from speaking out when they've been wronged and leads to the ability of the company to bully and lie to its customers, but this is slipping away.