Cargo Cult and Democracy

There is an interesting anthropological curiosity which arose amongst the islands in the South Pacific after the Second World War. It is known as the Cargo Cult. I first came across it in Marvin Harris’s book Cows, Pigs, Wars & Witches many years ago. (By the by, I highly recommend Harris’s book OUR KIND: Who we are, Where we came from & Where are we going — Evolution of Human Life & Culture.)

The islanders had noticed that Europeans had some sort of powerful magic which allowed them to receive stuff from the heavens. The islanders decided that they too must make arrangements to receive stuff. So they faithfully reproduced the artifacts that they saw the Europeans use in magically making cargo appear 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 backend 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 a 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 subsystem in isolation will not work.

Let’s take an institution such as capitalism, for example. 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. 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 labor 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 industrialized countries (AIC). 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 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 that sit in a great big hall to decide matters of national importance is the front end. The deep backend requires an informed public at a minimum. Even under the best of circumstances, aggregating individual preferences is a risky venture as students of public choice theory will appreciate. (See Ken Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem.)

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 backend is missing. There is no understanding of issues of substance among the people who vote. Put up a name which is recognizable, 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. All the talk about the smart voter is so much hogwash that the mind boggles.

The Indian stock market is crashing. People are voting with their pocketbooks and sending an important signal. The signal, as I see it, is that the Indian economy is spinning around in the bowl and will soon be down the tubes as soon as the flush cycle finishes.

It is all karma, neh?