On cargo cults and democracy

Atanu Dey | Nov 08, 2012

Cargo Cult Wooden PlaneThere is an interesting anthropological curiosity which arose amongst the islands in the South Pacific after the Second World War. They are known as ‘cargo cults’ – a sort of religious practice in which the people believed that goods magically appear out of the heavens provided appropriate rituals were observed. I first came across it in the anthropologist Marvin Harris’s book Cows, Pigs, Wars & Witches many years ago. I highly recommend it.

The islanders had noticed that Europeans had some sort of powerful magic which allowed them to receive stuff from the skies. The islanders decided that they too must make arrangements to receive stuff. So they faithfully reproduced the outward looks of the artifacts they saw the Europeans use in magically making cargo fall out of the skies. They cleared a large area in the forest, lit bonfires around this, built a hut close by in which they put a box with antennae sticking out of it, made ‘headphones’ out of coconut shells, and spoke earnestly into a ‘microphone’. Then they waited for cargo to drop out of the skies, just as they had seen the Europeans receive during the war.

It is a fascinating tale and has wide-ranging implications. The islanders were not stupid, merely ignorant. They figured out what we could call the ‘front end’ of the whole enterprise. They did not know that there was a very deep back end to the deal. In their ignorance, they expected a facsimile to work and when it didn’t, they attempted to modify the front end to more accurately reflect the bits they had observed the Europeans use.

The ‘cargo cult’ is an amazingly important metaphor for our age. Technology is increasingly becoming more complex and the effective use of this complex technology confers immense advantage. However, the more complex the technology, the more its use is dependent on the complex ecology within which it is developed. Transplanting the technology without the supporting ecology is a waste because it does not work as advertised. The technology — whether it is hardware, software, all sorts of institutions — co-evolved with other bits that form an ecological whole which make the whole system function whereas any sub-system in isolation cannot work.

Let’s take an institution such as capitalism. The Peruvian economist Hernando DeSoto in his book The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else outlines the missing bits in the case of capitalism. DeSoto identifies well-defined property rights and free markets as the missing elements: Economies which don’t have those are unable to develop through capitalism.

 

Another example: Why did the shift to a market economy spell disaster for the former Soviet Union? A market economy has a very deep backend. That backend includes institutions such as the legal system which enforces contracts, a flexible labour market, a number of banking and financial intermediation institutions, and so on. Without the supporting institutions, the market institution is a non-starter. It is merely a ‘cargo cult’ market economy.

In the area of digital technology also, we see the ‘cargo cult’ mentality. The modern computer evolved in advanced industrialised countries or AICs. The AICs have other systems that support the use of computers and these systems also evolved to keep pace with the rapid evolution of computers. Transplanting computers to a place where these systems don’t exist is silly because the computers are then like the props used by the South Pacific islanders. It is no wonder that they frequently don’t work as advertised.

My final example of the ‘cargo cult’ metaphor is the institution called democracy. Voting every so often to elect representatives who sit in impressively big halls to decide matters of national importance is the front end. The deep back end requires an informed public at a minimum. All this begins with the exercise of voting – the expression of individual preferences which are then counted. Even under the best of circumstances, aggregating individual preferences is a risky venture as students of public choice theory will appreciate.

In the case of India, we have a ‘cargo cult’ democracy. It looks like one with electronic voting machines and election speeches and manifestos, with pollsters and pundits, with Election Commissioners and voting stations. Only the deep back end – informed voters who are immune to coercion or bribes – is missing. There is no understanding of issues of substance among the people who vote. Put up a name which is recognisable – oh let’s say ‘Gandhi’ – and they would vote for or against that name.

Promise enough freebies (free electricity, for instance) and they will vote for you, never mind that it may bankrupt the state and that eventually it will impoverish the same voting public. For democracy to work, you need accountability — both among those who vote and those who are elected. In an area where the Government is seen as a source for endless handouts by the people, and the leaders look upon their stint in the driving seat as an excellent opportunity to steal from the public, democracy is not likely to work.

This is not a new insight. Alexis de Tocqueville (1805 – 1859), the French political thinker and historian and author of the masterwork Democracy in America, asserted that “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of Government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world’s greatest civilisations has been 200 years.”

The Indian elections are around the corner – no later than 2014. Makes one wonder what entitlements the voting public will gift themselves this time. Still we have to remember that when the cargo does not arrive, the whole enterprise may end abruptly.

 

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ABOUT AUTHOR

Atanu Dey

Atanu Dey is an economist. He blogs on India's Development at deeshaa.org.