Letter: Abandonment of values is at core of democratic rot

(This article was published by FT)


This letter first appeared in the FT

Martin Wolf is right to point out that democracies need to get their own house in order if their populations are to maintain faith in liberal democracy (June 23). But it is hard to avoid a feeling that the article perpetuates the mistaken notion that political liberalisation in China will naturally follow from its increasing prosperity and integration into global trade.

The idea that engagement rather than confrontation is more likely to change China’s approach, or that it is up to the Chinese people alone to drive political change, might sound hollow to those in Hong Kong or Taiwan.

It may be right to say that the west should not be telling everyone else how to live. However, it is also true that, as individuals, we often choose not to do business with those whom we perceive to be untrustworthy or who have very different values. Europe risks falling into what US president Barack Obama called “Hollandisation”. The idea is that as long as it’s good for business, we don’t care about values and principles. Is that what the voting public wants?

It could be argued that it is precisely this abandonment of values in favour of purely financial considerations that is at the core of the rot of western democracies. As Wolf points out in his review of Mark Carney’s new book Value(s), there is an ever increasing need to “recognise the value of values”. That applies to countries and regions as much as it applies to individuals and businesses.

Joe Zammit-Lucia

RADIX Centre for Business, Politics and Society, Amsterdam, The Netherlands


  1. Stephen Gwynne says

    Interesting. As I see it, the balance between universalism (unity) and particularism (diversity), whether at national or global scales, is fraught as societies seek to manage competitive free expression and cooperative free association within and between territories. In this respect, every institution whether civil or civic seeks parameters for both on a spectrum between authoritarian and anarchic.

    The values that embody these parameters, whether defined democratically or technocratically, are part of a greater biological diversity which directly contributes towards overall human resilience.

    In my view, narrow spectrum diversity reduces resilience due to a narrow range of alternatives that can be deployed within any given system. Similarly wide spectrum diversity can be damaging to resilience if the energy capacity of any given system means much of the diversity is superficial and unsustainable. Thus, the goal of resilience is to maintain an optimum level of sustainable diversity.

    China in this instance is very much an embedded part of overall sustainable global diversity and so despite embodying a different values system to other parts of the overall diversity needs to be valued for its contribution towards overall human global resilience.

    Diversity is useful for a number of reasons. It provides redundancy within a system, that is, it embeds fall back options. It also provides a field of comparison by which to evaluate and adapt our own systems so serves as an embedded knowledge bank.

    Thus the argument that needs to be engaged with, is not about whether diverse value systems should be ranked and in what order but whether a particular aspect of diversity contributes towards overall resilience and if not, why not.

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