14 April 2012

Bad Governance and Good Friendships

The social fabric is considerably different in US than in Russia.  For the sake of simplicity, I will narrow this discussion to two circles:  One small, consisting of family and friends, the other one large, consisting of the society at large.

In Russia, the smaller circle is far more integrated and tightly knit than its counterpart in the US.  Russian relationships in this circle are deep and loyal.  Individuals - sisters, sons, aunts, schoolmates, and so forth - go out of their way to be supportive.  They sacrifice themselves to contribute to their network in a manner should be the envy of any American.

In America, this circle exists but there is far less reliance on the network to get things done.  Family members do support each other, but it is normal for them to handle financial transactions contractually.  There are close American friends who sacrifice their own comfort for the sake of their friends' wellbeing exist, but this type of friendship is far more common in Russia.

Expand the circle to include the society at large, and the picture changes dramatically.  While this is an oversimplification, it is not out of bounds to describe that there is very little trust in this big circle in Russia. Per my observation, an operating assumption in Russia is that any person outside of my inner circle is out to get ahead at my expense; as such, I may take preemptive action and attempt to cement my advantage where needed.  This behavior is seen in daily situations, such as queues.  In the US, people normally line up in order of arrival; this is an understood social norm.  In Russia, the wily one who manages to cut in line and aggressively demands that his case takes priority gets ahead.  The behavior is also seen in business affairs where the concept of a "win-win" deal is lost to most people.

In the American society, it is understood that if someone is cheated or gets an unfair deal, he has a functioning legal and law-enforcement structure on which he can depend.  There are small claims courts, precedents, arbitration mechanisms, and so forth that facilitate social functions.  While these facilities exist in Russia, they are far more susceptible to manipulation and corruption (by the wily one).

Some of my American friends and family members have put forth a "constant social change" argument.  Per this argument, America's expanding multi-cultural nature is to blame for the lack of a tighter, more coherent social bond in the inner circle.  The explanation is that because there are so many different subcultures and backgrounds in the country, and there is a constant push for liberalization, the notion of "family" is being reinvented continuously (through interracial marriages or, more recently, through same-sex marriages).  This constant change creates confusion and confusion weakens tight social bonds in the inner circle.

Perhaps, there is something to this explanation; assuming that this argument is true, one natural conclusion is that tolerance and adaptability has certain costs, some of which are negative and lamentable given the weakened inter-friend and inter-family bonds.  But, this explanation has musk of offensiveness, insofar as it implies that tolerance and extending the same legal rights to all social subclasses is undesirable at some level.  In the current political climate, it is difficult to explore this angle seriously, as anyone who pontificates and expounds on this theme is at risk of being called a racist or a bigot, regardless of his intentions.  For Russian readers not familiar with the US culture, the "racist" label is an anathema that can kill careers and lead to social seclusion in the mainstream.

Be that as it may, "constant social change" argument does not address why the larger American societal circle is more tightly interwoven than the one in Russia.  Another explanation is that because there is a strong legal and law-enforcement structure that harmonizes relationships between individuals in the US, there is a lesser need for reliance on the inner circle of family and friends.  This lack of need leads to weaker bonds between friends and family than otherwise would exist.  Conversely, a more tightly integrated inner circle of friends and family is needed in order to compensate for a weaker social order structure, as provided by predictable, transparent laws and responsible law-enforcement public servants.

This explanation captures the differences of strength between the smaller circle of friends and family and the larger society in US and Russia.  It also maps well to my experience around the world:  Where there are  strong, consistent states that serve the public, as in Northern Europe, there is a lesser dependency on friends and family.  Conversely, where there are stronger friends and family bonds, governments tend to be weaker, less predictable, and more self-serving, as in the Middle East or Latin America.

So, as it turns out, a benefit of bad government is good friends.

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