Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

14 March 2018

Alpha-Male Rule


[For a discussion of how Facebook and other social media allow foreigners to subvert our government, click here. For an update with comment on how gun massacres reflect our national dysfunction, click here. For a note on how to do good by doing well and taking profits, click here. For seven reasons for us to deploy small nukes, click here. For comment on our desperate need to save the Dreamers, click here. For my prediction of a coming stock-market crash, click here. For links to popular recent posts, click here.]

Can our species progress beyond its biological evolution? Can social evolution, education, and deliberate application of our intelligence help us overcome an evolutionary limitation that is stunting our species’ development and could even cause our extinction?

These questions are hardly academic. They are playing out right now on a global scale.

More terrible still, they are playing out in the three most powerful nations on Earth: ours, China’s and Russia’s. In each, biological evolution is winning and human intelligent design is losing, big time.

We Americans have obsessed so much about ourselves and Russia lately. We deserve a break from navel gazing and Russophobia. So let’s look closely at China.

As little as five years ago—just pre-Xi—China may have had the most rational and effective executive structure on Earth. A nine-member committee, not a single man, made all important national decisions.

Not only that. China’s two top leaders had to come from that committee. They had to be selected by a consensus. And by custom they had to have served at least one five-year plan (an executive “term” in China) on the committee before assuming either of the two top spots. In addition, the committee’s members themselves were appointed in an opaque but largely democratic representative process in which top regional and national leaders participated.

If we leave aside China’s weak separation of powers and its largely vestigial legislative and judicial branches, we could easily have ranked this system as the world’s best executive. There are three main reasons why.

First, until this week, the system had customary but strict term limits. Every two five-year plans, the two top leaders would retire and be replaced by other members. This interchange insured a steady stream of “fresh blood” and new ideas at the very top of China’s government.

Second, the requirement for prior service on the committee created, in effect, an apprenticeship system. Each top leader had to serve as an “apprentice” on the committee—making and bearing responsibility for actual, real-time executive decisions for a full five-year term. What better way to make sure that a leader is ready for one of the two top posts? Demagogic direct primary campaigns, which gave us Donald Trump?

Finally, both the committee members and their self-selected top leaders were products of what may have been the world’s most impressive meritocracy. Of course it was not a meritocracy in the Western “democratic” sense. The vast majority of China’s 1.4 billion people had little or no input into it.

Yet shift the focus a bit and an entirely different picture appears. China’s Communist Party has over 80 million members, more than the population of every nation in the EU but Germany (at 82 million). And when that political “population” decides, it acts not by desultory votes of uninformed and propagandized individual citizens. The “voting” is by cadres who know the candidates personally and have worked with them, often for decades.

Which is better, a meritocracy like this, in which people who know the candidates thoroughly decide? or an electoral system that picks the short list of candidates in direct primaries controlled by a random 30% of voters, who get their information not from experience, but from random, targeted media, “fake news,” “active measures,” advertisements paid for by the rich, and other propaganda?

But lest China brag or gloat, this entire system is now under systematic attack. Xi Jinping reduced the committee from nine to seven members shortly after taking the top spot. Then, with years-long planning and plotting, he secured through patronage and cronyism the power, in effect, to appoint the committee’s members. More recently, by sabotaging the term limits that make the whole system work, he arrogated to himself the future power to pick its members and shape its policies to his will.

Apart from Angela Merkel, Xi Jinping may be the most personally skilled political leader on the global stage today. He certainly seems capable of getting his way without threatening violence or even making serious waves. And China, under his and his predecessors’ able rule, has brilliantly exploited the rules and customs of Western capitalism to catapult itself from economic pariah to soon-to-be leading global economy.

But for how long will Xi be the world’s best leader? Running a modern, technological nations of over 1.4 billion people is hardly a cake walk. Just look at all Obama’s grey hair, after only eight years spent running a nation of one-quarter the population.

More important yet, men do not get more flexible and creative as they age. They get more rigid, more intransigent, more reliant on habit and ideology, and more prone to rely on underlings and sycophants who lack their own skills. Equally important, the longer a leader stays in power, the more time and energy he must devote to keeping it, as others seek it and still others question his longevity.

Just as great leaders dig in, so do their subordinates, who are picked for likeness to their leader, or at least for compatibility, whether by patronage or executive power. That’s why Trump just fired Tillerson: with his small mind and tinier ego, Trump couldn’t suffer the constant mental stress of new and different ideas, not even for fourteen months.

The Chinese ought to know these truths better than any other people. As a military leader and unifier of modern China, Mao Zedong was a genius. If he had quit when he was ahead, as did our own George Washington, he would have succeeded in unifying China and consolidating his Party’s power. Then he might have remained one of humanity’s greatest political leaders ever.

Instead, Mao ruled as China’s supreme leader for another 26 years. During that time he nearly destroyed what he had created with bizarre and counterproductive economic theories (the “Great Leap Forward” and the “Thousand Flowers”) and increasingly isolated misrule.

So China’s modern economic “miracle” never began until Mao had died and Deng Xaioping began his regime of scientific-economic pragmatism. Deng, in effect, tossed Mao’s “Little Red Book” of simplistic ideology into the trash.

But the lure of the alpha male is strong in our species. It’s strong in him, and it’s strong in us. As time goes on, his rule into senility seems predestined, for he gains facility in disposing of rivals, no matter how skilled they themselves may be. And the less-skilled whom he anoints as his subordinates and sycophants help him dispose of rivals, for they know full well on whom the power of persons with their limited skill depends.

The longer an alpha male rules, the less accurately he evaluates his own skills and actions. The more he cements his misrule by attracting “talent” that never could have reached his level without him. Slowly but surely, the skill advantage that the alpha-male once had decays into the “skill” of political survival alone, with scant thought of advantage to his people.

So envy China not. It may be ascendant now, but it has just taken an invariably fatal misstep. Time and male ego will do the rest, converting what may have been history’s best executive system into just another empire, dependent on the skill and vitality of a single man.

Russia never really had a chance. Although freely elected several times, Vladimir Putin had no indigenous model for government succession, other than the tsars’ heredity. His skill and idealism have mutated into mere survival and nationalism—a dangerous form of tribalism that could culminate in species extinction. And as the number rises of Putin’s rivals and opponents who somehow end up dead, he comes to resemble, more and more, the alpha ape who gained “office” by physical combat.

The true last, best hope of mankind remains America, however abysmal may be the political skill and character of our current president. Thirty years, apparently, are too few for China to learn the value of term limits and a changing guard. So, too are 100 in Russia. Only the eight-century-old lessons of Magna Carta, transmitted to us and re-learned through 242 hard years—good times and bad, fair leaders and foul—seem sufficient to imprint the lesson.

Alpha-male leadership worked well for the small clans of thirty or so in which we evolved. For today’s great nations of tens or hundreds of millions, the very idea is ludicrous. It takes tens of thousands to make aircraft and make them fly. It takes many thousands to make cars, trains, computers and iPhones, let alone the infrastucture to run them. Modern society would not be possible without our species’ minute specialization and division of labor that no single individual can possibly master.

Yet here we are. In China, Russia and here at home, we are acting as if leadership by an alpha male who succeeds to leadership by something resembling physical combat is rational. This approach cannot succeed and will not last.

Like a spastic evolutionary reflex, the alpha male regains his attraction again and again. We humans have not yet figured out a better formula that can stick indelibly in our grapefruit-sized brains. We have not yet even figured out how to assimilate fully the lessons of term-limits—the secret to making anything resembling alpha-male rule actually work.

In the medium term, social evolution is the only antidote to these self-defeating aspects of our biological evolution. It works through habit. The nation with the longest tradition of effective rule—whether or not you can call it “democracy”—will prevail.

As China’s Xi, Russia’s Putin, Turkey’s Erdogan, Egypt’s El-Sisi, and probably soon the Philippine’s Duterte attest, even term limits are not hard for an alpha male to brush aside. What matters is the durability of the societal commitment to some form of sustainable collective rule.

On that, the jury is still out, as much here as in South Africa. Yet those nations that seek such rule have an advantage: many heads are invariably better than one. So the transition in Zimbabwe, while Mugabe is still alive, gives us all hope.

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