Why Rulers harm “their” people

Events in Syria are serious, pun not intended. Bashar Assad appears to be killing his own people, with helicopters, tanks, heavy artillery, and hand-to-hand slaughter. Meanwhile his country suffers under heavy trade sanctions imposed by the West. So we might ask why the ruler of such a country persists in his actions, while the whole country is going downhill, economically, socially, culturally.

To answer this I am going to use a study I read about, about values and sharing.

Imagine a small group, let’s say of ten young men who all know each other, are single, living in the same village. Our experimenter takes them aside, in secret, one by one, and tells each of them the same story. Every effort is made to be convincing; every proof required is carefully presented. The story goes like this:

A rich benefactor wants to anonymously benefit this village. He has decided to do so by giving money to ten selected young men (the names can be given) including the listener to this story. The money will presumably be spent in the village and the young men can do as they like with it. The money will be given out in one of two ways. In case A, all the other recipients will get $100,000 but the listener will get only $50,000. In case B, all the other recipients will get $30,000 but the listener will get $60,000.

The listener is assured that nobody will ever know that he made the decision, or what the choices were.

Think for a moment and guess what you, and the listener, would each decide to do. In case A the total benefit is $950,000. In case B the total benefit is $330,000. Decide before you scroll down, eh?

Almost every time this test is performed, the choice is B. Let me suggest why.

Suppose there is a shortage of eligible females in our village. In case A, there are nine guys with twice as much money as you. In case B, you have twice as much money as nine other guys. Guess in which case your odds of staying in the gene pool are higher?

Back to serious leaders such as Assad. As long as he is the “winner” in Syria, he will be OK in his own eyes. Doing better but not being in control of a much nicer country is not in his comparative self-interest.

Put another way, rulers harm “their” people because they are not their people. Assad’s family is his people, plus some business heads and certainly some army heads.

This explains the passive approach to global warming. Business leaders could make less profit by using less fossil fuel, less petrochemicals, less energy derived from fossil fuel; they could recapture carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. That would make them less money. They would rather live in a world where they have the money, and resources, more than the next guy. To an executive, the man-in-the-street is not one of his people.

This explains the disaster of free trade agreements. NAFTA gave us little but lost jobs. But the corporations and politicians and lobbyists are in their glory. We are not their people either.

This also explains the disaster of the Euro, at least to some extent. Business leaders in Germany have made record profits. Workers in Germany have had wages stalled for about seven years. They are not the main customers of German manufacturers. German exporters used German bank loans to their importers to pay for their exports, thus funding their own profits with bank loans. Now the debtor countries are becoming unwilling, perhaps unable, to repay. Only German businesses and executives have prospered. Now they want Greece to face austerity: they are not their people. Next will be Italy, Spain, Portugal. Eventually France, unless their new leader is in fact a wake-up call for them. Note that the workers in Germany are also not “their people” either, and have not shared in the financial bonanza of Germany’s productivity and exports.

Rulers try not to harm themselves. Left to a choice, they will keep their superior position, even if it means that all positions get worse. Better to rule a cesspool than be poor in Eden.

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