I learned the Golden Rule as a child from the New Testament of the Bible. It was among the chief teachings of Jesus: Treat others how you yourself want to be treated. Soon I learned its prohibitive form as well: Don’t do things to others that you yourself would resent. Since then I’ve learned that the rule was nearly universal in early civilizations: Egypt, China, India, the Near East, Greece, Persia, Rome.
Religion has retreated considerably since I was young – Christianity in particular. New disciplines have advanced from the social sciences to fill in some of the resulting gaps; arts & letters and, of course, the entertainment industry, fill others. The field with which I am most familiar is called, somewhat misleadingly, game theory, or, more plainly, strategic thought. The science-minded among us long ago translated the Golden Rule into the Law of Reciprocity. Thomas Schelling, one of its major prophets in the years since 1945, died earlier this month.
Schelling was one of those who showed that applications of the principle of reciprocity lay at the heart of relations among nations, tribes, neighborhoods, as well as persons. Conflicting interpretations of it today are at the heart of tensions among the United States, Russia and China. It was 38 years ago that China embarked on an ambitious program of economic reforms, and 25 years ago that the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Fifteen new nations, including Russia, emerged instead. To be reminded of what happened then, see this concise and wise account of that complicated event by Mary Dejevsky in London’s Independent.
It might be said that the communist experiment failed because it violated the Golden Rule in so many different ways, from horrific to banal. Equally well it might be said that the Russian Revolution succeeded because a highly motivated cadre of citizens imagined putting into practice another biblical injunction by replacing a constitutional monarchy with authoritarian rule. This religious norm was translated into social science “law” by Karl Marx, in the early years of the escape from religious authority in the Europe.
“From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” is a basic principle of sharing that animates much of human family life, and has been generalized with great restraint to other social circumstances, though hardly all. You have only to look at this Wikipedia entry to see how little progress has been made in understanding the project.
2017 is going to be a banner year for exegesis. Congress is planning to probe U.S. relations with Russia. Russia is planning to probe itself, in connection with the centenary of the October Revolution. Something will be learned in each case. If you’re among those becoming bored with Trump News All the Time, stay tuned here for developments in social science.
David Warsh, a veteran business journalist and economic historian, is proprietor of economicprincipals.com.