Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Serf versus the Entrepreneur?

This is a bit of a deviation from my usual topics, but I've been thinking a bit about economic development in various countries around the world (sort of a natural topic for me in that I travel a lot, have lived in several countries, and have done business and work in a lot of different countries including the US, Europe, Brazil, Hong Kong, Japan and China and Korea, Australia and NZ, etc.)

The hypothesis I'm going to put forth here is that the difference between development-prone and development-resistant countries, is related to whether the corresponding cultures tend to metaphorically view the individual as a serf or as an entrepreneur.

Of course, this is a very rough and high-level approximative perspective, but it seems to me to have some conceptual explanatory power.

Development-Prone versus Development-Resistant Cultures

The book "Culture Matters", which I borrowed from my dad (a sociologist) recently, contains a chapter by Mariano Grondona called "A Cultural Typology of Economic Development", which proposes a list of properties distinguishing development-prone cultures from development-resistant cultures. Put very crudely, the list goes something like this

  • Development-resistant vs. development-prone
  • Justice: present-focused vs future-focused
  • Work: not respected vs. respected
  • Heresy: reviled vs. tolerated
  • Education: brainwashing vs. more autonomy focused
  • Utilitarianism: no vs. yes
  • Lesser virtues (valuing a job well done, tidiness, punctuality, courtesy): no vs. yes
  • time focus: past/ spiritual far-future vs. practical moderately near future
  • rationality: not a focus vs. strongly valued
  • rule of man vs. rule of law
  • large group vs. individual as nexus of action
  • determinism vs. free will ism
  • salvation in the world (immanence) vs. salvation from the world (transcendence)
  • focus on utopian visions not rationally achievable vs. focus on distant utopias that are more likely rationally progressively achievable
  • optimism about action of "powers that be" vs. optimism about personal action
  • thoughts about political structure: absolutism vs compromise

A more thorough version of the list is given in this file "Typology of Progress-Prone and Progress-Resistant Cultures", which is Chapter 2 of book "The Central Liberal Truth: How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save it From Itself" by Lawrence Harrison. The title of Harrison's book (which I didn't read, I just read that chapter) presumably refers to the famous quote from Daniel Patrick Moynihan that

"The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself."

Harrison adds some other points to Grondona's list, such as

  • wealth: zero-sum vs. positive-sum
  • knowledge: theory vs. empirics
  • low risk tolerance (w/ occasional adventures) vs. moderate risk tolerance
  • advancement: social connections based vs. merit based
  • radius of trust: narrow vs. wide
  • entrepreneurship: rent-seeking vs. innovation

and presents it in a more nicely formatted and well-explained way than this blog post! I encourage you to click the above link and read the chapter for yourself.

Now, I find all this pretty interesting, but also in a way unsatisfying. A theory that centrally consists of a long list of bullet points always gives me the feeling of not getting to the essence of things.

Harrison attempts to sum up the core ideas of the typology as follows:

At the heart of the typology are two fundamental questions: (1) does the culture encourage the belief that people can influence their destinies? And (2) does the culture promote the Golden Rule. If people believe that they can influence their destinies, they are likely to focus on the future; see the world in positive-sum terms; attach a high priority to education; believe in the work ethic; save; become entrepreneurial; and so forth. If the Golden Rule has real meaning for them, they are likely to live by a reasonably rigorous ethical code; honor the lesser virtues; abide by the laws; identify with the broader society; form social capital; and so forth.

But this abstraction doesn't seem to me to sum up the essence of the typology all that well.

Lakoff's Analysis of the Metaphors Underlying Politics

When reading the above material, I was reminded of cognitive scientist George Lakoff's book "Moral Politics" whose core argument is summarized here.

Lakoff argues that much of liberal vs. conservative politics is based on the metaphor of the nation as a family, and that liberal politics tends to metaphorically view the government as a nurturing mother, whereas conservative politics tends to metaphorically view the government as a strict father.

While I don't agree with all Lakoff's views by any means (and I found his later cognitive/political writings generally less compelling than Moral Politics), I think his basic insight in that book is fairly interesting and significant. It seems to unify what otherwise appears a grab-bag of political beliefs.

For instance, the US Republican party is, at first sight, an odd combination of big-business advocacy with Christian moral strictness. To an extent this represents an opportunistic alliance between two interest groups that otherwise would be too small to gain power .. but Lakoff's analysis suggests it's more than this. As he points out, the "strict father" archetype binds together both moral strictness and the free-for-all, rough-and-tumble competitiveness advocated by the pro-big-business sector. And the "nurturant mother" archetype binds together the inclusiveness aspect of the US Democratic party, with the latter's focus on social programs to help the disadvantaged. Of course these archetypes don't have universal explanatory power, but they do seem to me to capture some of the unconscious patterns underlying contemporary politics.

So I started wondering whether there's some similar, significantly (though of course not completely) explanatory metaphorical/archetypal story one could use to explain comparative economic development. Such a story would then provide an explanation underlying the "laundry list" of cultural differences described above.

The Serf versus the Entrepreneur?

Getting to the point finally … it seems to me that the culture of development-resistant countries, as described above, is rather well aligned with the metaphor of the "serf and lord". If the individual views himself as the serf, and the state and government as the lord, then they will arrive at a fair approximation of the progress-resistant world-view as described in the above lists. So maybe we can say that progress-resistant nations tend to have a view of the individual/state relationship that is based on a "feudal" metaphor in some sense.

On the other hand, what is the metaphor corresponding to progress-friendly countries? One thing I see is a fairly close alignment with an entrepreneurial metaphor. Viewing the individual as an entrepreneur -- and the state as a sort of "social contract" between interacting, coopeting entrepreneurs -- seems to neatly wrap up a considerable majority of the bullet points associated with the progress-friendly countries, on the above list.

Note that this hypothetical analysis in terms of metaphors is not intended as a replacement for Lakoff's -- rather, it's intended as complementary. We understand the things in our world using a variety of different metaphors (as well as other means besides metaphor, a point Lakoff sometimes seems not to concede), and may match a single entity like a government to multiple metaphorical frames.

Finally... what value is this kind of analysis? Obviously, if we know the metaphorical frames underlying peoples' thinking, this may help us to better work with them, to encourage them to achieve their goals and fulfill themselves more thoroughly. If you know the metaphors underlying your OWN unconscious thinking, this can help you avoid being excessively controlled by these metaphors, taking more of your thinking and attitude under conscious control….

One way to empirically explore this sort of hypothesis would be to statistically study the language used in various cultures to describe the individual and the state and their relationship. However, this would require a lot of care due to the multiple languages involved, and certainly would be a large project, which I have no intention to personally pursue!

But nevertheless, in spite of the slipperiness and difficulty of validation of this sort of thinking, I find it interesting personally, as part of my quest to better understand the various cultures I come into contact with as I go about my various trans-continental doings....


Unknown said...

Thanks for the link to Lakoff's essay, which has the attribute of seeming obvious in retrospect (by making something unconscious conscious). Your own observations have the same attribute... thanks for the post!

Ben Goertzel said...

Yes... the main point of the post seemed so obvious in retrospect that I almost hesitated to post it!! ... but yet, none of the references I read seemed to make such a clear statement of the crux of the difference btw the two sorts of cultural attitude ... and, it did take me a bit of reflection to figure out what the items on the lists had in common...

I suspect that for a slightly superhuman AGI, the "obvious in hindsight" phenomenon will be significantly less common...

Anonymous said...

Check out the following:

Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell
Billions of Entrepreneurs, by Tarun Khanna
The Time Paradox, by Philip Zimbardo
Aftershock, by Robert Reich
Supercapitalism, by Robert Reich
Third World America, by Arianna Huffington
Make it in America, by Andrew Liveris

for more ideas which both support and contradict your thesis.

In my opinion: from an individual (developmental) standpoint other factors are more dominant than culture; from a societal (evolutionary) standpoint culture is mutable depending on exogenous triggers such as war, globalization, migration, etc.

A very deep subject and very complex. Definitely very thought provoking. It's good that you're thinking about it too.

~ Piaget Modeler

Unknown said...

Dear Ben,

what a great and fascinating comment, even if I mostly disagree. In short:

- Development is not about individual entrepreneurial commitment, but about large-scale, publicly available infrastructure. Individual entrepreneurship needs this infrastructure, not the other way around.

- To build such an infrastructure, a society needs two things, and entrepreneurship is not one of them. It needs: a culture compatible with the creation of surplus (which has historically been the case in the temperate climates), and some force to direct the creation of surplus. This force does not need to be a free market. The most effective one seems to be a fascist dictatorship, created in the image of an army.

- The idea of a society of free entrepreneurs is a fantasy that seems plausible in America, especially among IT people. However, modern economy (the real part of it) is still 90% benefits-of-scale type industrial production; individual entrepreneurship is practically a niche, and all the fabbing ideas of our wet dreams are unlikely to change that any time soon.

I would like to send you a slightly more detailed argument, if you can be interested!

Ben Goertzel said...


Your response makes it clear to me that I didn't phrase my ideas clearly enough....

What I meant to refer to was a very general mentality that I summarized, maybe crudely, with the term "Entrepreneur." I wasn't meaning to refer specifically to business entrepreneurship in the classic sense.

Rather, I meant the attitude of creatively taking individual initiative to work toward one's goals.... Maybe you can suggest a better term for this than "entrepreneurial"?

China, for example, is building out its infrastructure quite impressively. But I think that until the culture there comes to support a more entrepreneurial and less serf-like attitude (for a larger percentage of the population), it won't truly flourish in the way that the US and Western Europe have.

Lakoff laid out his ideas very clearly and nicely in his essay. I didn't take the time to do that for mine (yet) as this is just a quick blog post rather than a carefully wrought essay...

Thx for nudging me toward clearer expression ;-) ...

-- Ben G

Ígor said...

"One way to empirically explore this sort of hypothesis would be to statistically study the language used in various cultures to describe the individual and the state and their relationship."

Allow me to give some examples from Brazil.

What is termed "Obama's administration" in the US is generaly described as "Obama's government" in Brazil. Now, check these two verbs in the dictionary:

I think the word government reflects what most Brazilians believe the state to be: control, regulation, authority.

Another revealing phrase is related to the presidential inauguration. In Brazil, the inauguration ceremony is termed "cerimônia de posse". Taken literally, it means that the president now owns the government.

Unknown said...

Ben, when we put the ideological desirables aside, the question comes down to whether a society works best when it is globally (top-down) or locally (bottom-up, or distributedly) organized.

We will probably agree that a (mostly) locally organized society works best with pro-active, innovative, self-responsible individuals (what you called 'entrepreneurs'). A (mostly) centrally organized society will work best with punctual, highly devoted, rule-following members ('serfs').

An example for the former might be rural Alaska, an example for the latter could perhaps be Japan.

In the top-down society, innovation will be institutionalized (like in an army), and running it will come down to an engineering project, with lots of waste due to micromanagement difficulties, and the inherently higher risk associated with radical central decisions.

In the distributed society, innovation will take place everywhere, but large-scale projects are difficult to achieve, and will have to be justified against lots of particular interests. Also, parallel and small-scale production is less efficient, and individual players tend to externalize costs (resource use, pollution, social costs).

My point is that a well-organized top-down society works better in terms of development than a distributed one. (Even if I personally abhor serfdom.)

Ben Goertzel said...

Palmstroem... I've spent a lot of time in China recently, which is very much a top-down society promoting a serf-like attitude among its members... and I don't think it's more efficient than, say, the US, which has a weaker government and (in spite of a strong oligarchic aspect) much more strongly fosters the attitude I've loosely called "entrepreneurial."

My guess is that China, as more of its population urbanizes and links to the world outside China grow, will gradually shift toward a more enterpreneurial attitude. Chinese culture is complex and has both a Confucian aspect (serf-like) and a Taoist aspect (entrepreneur-like in a sense -- at least, freedom oriented rather than obedience oriented... the Chuang Tzu is sure not about serfdom...), and different aspects seem to rise to prominence in different dynasties or sub-dynasties...

Ben Goertzel said...

JAN KLAUCK made the following comment on this post on a mailing list, which I pasted here for easy archival:

Ben Goertzel wrote

> The basic thesis is that development-prone countries have cultures in
> which people unconsciously, metaphorically view themselves less as
> serfs and more as entrepreneurs.

Intuitively I agree and think your discriminator has some weak empirical
evidence. I'd like to add more aspects with weak empirical basis (that I
don't have at hand right now, so take it as an opinion) I use as rules of
thumb for quick assessments:

* Affinity for technology
The more a society is open to technology the more creation and
distribution of innovation happens. This is pretty much robust against the
political/cultural system, whether individualist or collectivist.

* Demographic pressure
Population growth is linked to economic growth. (Unless it's too much
growth [-> youth bulge] which leads to civil war or imperialist
adventures, e.g. what we have in the Middle East, either they kill each
other or they go against Israel.) And demographic implosion leads to
risk-averse nanny-states and full-spectrum sclerosis.

And here's a source I like very much (and that I promote whenever
appropriate). The one online chapter is enough to get the picture. It's a
longer but really nice read.

"The Birth of Plenty": Chapter 1 - A Hypothesis of Wealth

tl;dr: The drivers of economic/technological progress are:
(1) Property rights
(2) Scientific rationalism
(3) Capital markets
(4) Fast and efficient communications and transportation
Absence of just one cripples a society, absence of all keeps (or brings)
it down to subsistence level.

(Side note: Some years ago I sent this link to Peter Turchin, son of
Valentin, who works on mathematical models of historical social dynamics
[he calls it Cliodynamics], but he didn't like it. I guess he favors more
the pessimistic approaches which are typical for those thinking in cycles.

Ben Goertzel said...

And MARK NUZZOLILLO made the following mailing list comment, replying to Jan's comment...


I think that those same drivers of economic and technological progress can be applied to small virtual communities in a sense. However, most virtual communities on the Internet do not have capital markets on the scope of the community itself, and the members do not have virtual property (except their accounts and possibly their words, which likely have little value).

However, you can see examples (albeit not perfect) of these on virtual multiplayer RPGs and games such as World of Warcraft or Starcraft II. The property rights exist in the form of virtual items, which must be worked for through time. The rationalism exists in the form of trading strategies and game secrets. The capital markets exist in the form of trading such virtual items (and sometimes trading game secrets was more common in ye olde days). And there are fast and efficient communications as well, and transportation is near instant on many virtual worlds.

While online game players are not always the most sophisticated crowd, you still see major huge emergent properties, such as:

1) A caste hierarchy of players, separated by skill and virtual wealth
2) Extreme competitiveness of players, with the top 1% often having extremely impressive skills and strategies, and the rest continually improving so that they can be honored among the top tier.
3) An entire service based robust economy is created, with players performing services for money, or other services, to aid them in the perpetual quest for being the best
4) Assimilation of human mind resources into the virtual system becomes viral (players tell their friends to sign up, and players who play are 'contributing' their mental input to the system)
5) Viral assimilation can be turned into capital profit for the external overseers in the form of membership fees and taxes

I want to emphasize points 2 and 5. First, there is an extreme amount of competitiveness. This creates a set of users who have a lot of skill at doing one thing, and are good at whatever they are competing in. I think that this will occur for any market-based virtual community.

What if this competition were channeled and instead directed toward a recursively self-improving intellectual market of ideas? I think we would see more good inventors, scientists, and other people with skill.

Actually, we already have such a thing, called the stock market. But the concept is ancient, and does not meet the definition of "fast and efficient communications and transportation". The communication occurs in the form of predictions of how a company will perform in the next several years, rather than instant results, and therefore presents a bottleneck.

Ben Goertzel said...

Just to clarify one thing about my attitude, though...

Philosophically, I don't think we can say that certain cultures are "better" than others in an objective sense, because a culture defines its own goal system.

But technological and scientific advancement implicitly bias toward certain goal systems, it seems. And so to the extent that a society accepts modern science and technology, it gets fucked up in complex ways if it doesn't accept the cultural patterns that naturally accompany these things -- one has the disharmony of old-fashioned culture and mind patterns clashing with new technologies that push in a different direction.

nothopelessyet said...

Is this the "I want to be Ben Goertzel when I grow up" blog? Good.

FreddyFender said...

Hey Ben,
What is your take on Bitcoin and it's implications? Is this one of the drivers that information, freedom of currency, has been awaiting? Also what is your take on the math behind Bitcoin's engine? Some see it as a chain being built in a race condition, others see a constantly growing mountain. Topographically speaking, I envision an enclosed torus ring with the engine located centrally at the hub and adding area. The area consists of fractal information of currency (with timestamp). Patterns within patterns, within patterns, me thinks.

mike m said...


My understanding of how China reformed its economy is that it was more of a bottom-up approach.

This paper compares and contrasts the differences between Russia and China. It may not be the level that you seek, but it may provide some insight.

How China Won and Russia Lost
by Paul R. Gregory and Kate Zhou

beauty said...

The blog contains informational and educational material. The post enhance my thoughts and experience. So nice!

James said...

“it seems to me that the culture of development-resistant countries, as described above, is rather well aligned with the metaphor of the "serf and lord".

The thesis is interesting and like a lot of interesting hypotheses it provokes more questions, such as why do some countries adopt one set of cultural values and not another? It seems to be more of a description than an explanation. That's useful of course but it's also worth mulling over "why" question.

“If the individual views himself as the serf, and the state and government as the lord, then they will arrive at a fair approximation of the progress-resistant world-view as described in the above lists. So maybe we can say that progress-resistant nations tend to have a view of the individual/state relationship that is based on a "feudal" metaphor in some sense.”

It is worth remembering that much of the world is still in the transition to full on capitalism and that, in particular, the American experience of that transition is unique given that the more or less extermination of the native population and the construction of a society from scratch and at great distance from the imperial power centre meant it did not have to confront ancient patterns of culture in the same way as most other societies have had to do.

These other countries have to develop out of pre-existing conditions, mostly feudalism and what Marx called the Asiatic mode of production. Both such systems are distinctly aristocratic societies, where the ruling stratum have a degree of self-consciousness as people and a class with choices in their lives, with a prospect of increasing their power. Hence the constant aristocratic struggle both within a society and between societies.

Aristocrats, since they live almost totally by extracting a small surplus from low-in-productivity but high-in-numbers peasantry, do not have much incentive to develop more advanced forms of technology, including forms of social organisation. In Marxian terms, the means of production remain stagnant; thus the relations of production remain stagnant. And vice versa.

The best way to increase power and wealth is to gain more peasants to extract wealth from. Hence the ubiquity of war. Their success does not depend on developing an entrepreneurial culture (as understood in the broad sense that you are using here).

The vast, vast majority of the population in old school aristocratic societies are peasants. Later some commercial elements appear. A peasant's consciousness is almost always very narrow for a good many reasons (narrow horizon, domination of religion, level of severe exploitation, restricted knowledge of world outside the home village, the centuries upon centuries of social stability etc etc).

Capitalists, in contrast, need to increase productivity per worker, so war, although not completely redundant, does not possess the same internal dynamic that is has for an aristocratic ruling elite. The need for efficiency, that is making a worker more productive, requires technical innovation.

Thus a capitalist society must be more open to cultural change, both in terms of accepting new technology , but also with regard to a change in values. If a capitalist society is overly conservative its intelligentsia cannot and does not contribute very usefully to technical progress.

The USSR, although not capitalist, was industrialised, and by the late 1960s lost the confidence of its intelligentsia, thus dooming it.

As well as creating a class of capitalists, modern society creates a class of urban workers who, again for various reasons, are not, despite being as exploited as the peasants for their surplus, as confined in their consciousness as their rural brethern. They contribute massively to the culture of entrepenuership, again in the broad sense of the term.