TOC History lessons Your Turn

June 28, 2011

For Philip Stephens "the [European] Union is turning back the clock a few hundred years" as it "return[s] to Westphalia" (*). The sorry spectacle of European states squabbling over selfish interests speaks for itself. But a repetition of History this is not. While the treaties of Westphalia enshrined the fragmentation of Germany, today's troubles stem in part from the resurgence of the same, minus blood and iron.

Readers therefore are warned to savor my own historical comparisons with a grain of salt. Still I am not alone in finding current circumstances positively medieval, recalling the progressive decay of the Carolingian Empire, our proto-Europe, under the assaults of Norsemen and Magyars and the rising power of the local lords. Take for instance the following double standard of justice.

A pharmacy sells physicians' prescriptions for marketing purposes without their consents. Per Adam Liptak's report on a US Supreme Court's decision (**), forbidding it "present[s] fundamental First Amendment issues because it restrict[s] the use of truthful information in private hands". A private citizen shows he likes a song by inviting everyone to share it without the consent of its publisher. His right to free speech counts for nothing.

Some pirates appear to be more equal than others. George Orwell would appreciate.

This recent opinion however is less than one may think. Just as I warned New Hampshire's previous victory was precarious, Vermont's final defeat wounds rather than kills eprivacy. What Justice Kennedy condemned was the naked attempt by Vermont to protect physician privacy preferentially so as to suit its own needs. "Perhaps, he suggests, the State could have addressed physician confidentiality through a more coherent policy" (***).

In summary, powerful business interests oppress physicians' privacy, the New England States shortsightedly fail to properly defend their own physicians and US Justice finds expedient not to come to their rescue. In a medieval society, woe to those left without a protector.

For the same reason, I cannot see without great misgivings FICO's plan "to rate how likely people are to take prescribed medication", to quote Tara Parker-Pope (****). While it is highly meritorious to improve patient compliance, notice how "the FICO medication score is based on publicly available data [...] and so can be compiled without a person's knowledge or permission".

FICO exploits data slavery, the fact personal data collected through transaction fulfillment becomes the practical property of the counterparts, to do with it as they wish. Joel Tenenbaum meanwhile was fined for sharing 30 songs (1). Local lords don't look lightly on poaching by their own serfs.

The more unequal a society, the more popular the bandits who brave authority. "Lulz [Security] says it aims to amuse, if cruelly", reports Joseph Menn (*****). Despite its pledge to disband, "it looks like these sort of 'hacktivist' ideas are spreading and gaining popularity", according to a quote by Riva Richmond and Nick Bilton (******). Isn't Robin Hood the good guy in Jonathan Knudsen's book on Java cryptography?

But once again History is not circular, it marches on. It does not copy, it remixes eclectically . To better understand the failure of Western democracies, I have repeatedly pointed at how their fundamental corruption recalls the late Roman Republic.

Sallust relayed Jugurtha's opinion that Rome was for sale. The same spirit pervades what I have dubbed a pronaocracy. Elected office holders give priority to those who help finance their campaigns. Very few law makers, justices and executives are brazen enough to make such bargains explicit. But even fewer can hope to win the popular favor against better financed opponents. Even spending one's own money in the matter may backfire.

Jugurtha was an outsider whose own power was threatened by Rome. Half a century later and courtesy of the same Sallust, Cato the Younger gave an insider's diagnostic. Contrasting his times with the olden days, he derided his fellow citizens for rolling in opulence while letting the republic starve. It has always been a challenge to balance social solidarity with personal greed. Lest he saw Caesar's regime change, Cato committed suicide.

There is a danger though to insist too much on the negative side. Forget the Early Middle Ages and the fall of the Roman Republic.

Look at Singapore. This intringuing combination of diminutive real estate, authoritarian though enlightened government and economic success may be remote from Western democracies but reminds one of the muscular dictatorship which characterizes corporate governance. While the Group of twenty talks, companies like Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon, to name but a few, grow, enlist allies and fight one another on a global scale.

Isn't this turbulent world of real and quasi city states redolent of classical Greece? Forever increasing commercial links, extraordinarily curious and creative, bound by common ideals, the Greek cities could not however resolve their rivalries in a sustainable manner.

A city state based on commerce and surrounded by enemies is tempted to hire professional experts to maximize its chances of survival. Greek tyrans were a mere provincial lot. Italian cities went for the real thing, though Renaissance condottiere's excessive pay preyed on their prosperity.

Whether Greek or Italian, the cities eventually lost their freedom to bigger neighbors. Worse, their high spirits soon dissipated among their souvenirs.

If a lesson then is to be drawn from this kaleidoscopic review of History, it is that internal harmony and scale matter most. Furthermore and regardless of scale, the inability to balance personal greed and social solidarity, the resulting endless internal squabbling are a ready invitation for external intervention or internal takeover as well as a recipe for internal fragmentation. Thus society will lose scale or, at least, one's own identity.

Europe is free to return to the treaties of Westphalia but should remember that the scale of a XVIIth century state isn't much in the XXIst century.

Alas. I see Western democracies regressing further in impotence. In fact can internal harmony ever be secured by trampling on individuals' rights?

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ........... Europe's return to Westphalia, by Philip Stephens (Financial Times) - June 24, 2011
  • (**) ......... Drug Makers Win Two Supreme Court Decisions, by Adam Liptak (New York Times) - June 24, 2011
  • (***) ....... Sorrell v. IMS Health, opinion written by Justice Kennedy (US Supreme Court) - June 23, 2011
  • (****) ..... Keeping Score on How You Take Your Medicine, by Tara Parker-Pope (New York Times) - June 21, 2011
  • (*****) ... Hackers gain force from new media, by Joseph Menn (Financial Times) - June 23, 2011
  • (******) . Saying It's Disbanding, Hacker Group Urges New Cyberattacks, by Riva Richmond and Nick Bilton (New York Times) - June 27, 2011
  • (1) the decision on his appealing his $67,500 fine, down from an initial $675,000, is not known as of today. Check the wikipedia
June 2011
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