As have others over the years, I've been eager to see tension diminish between the great economic and social systems of the world -- between what the courageous call capitalism on the one hand and socialism-called-communism on the other. Both are highly sophisticated designs for organizing production and ordering social and political life in general. Neither would survive the kind of military collision that our bolder military strategists so calmly envisage.
Changing attitudes in these matters cannot be ruled out. The transformation of China in a mere two decades from being a nuclear-endowed agent of Asian communist aggression -- "the new communist yellow peril" -- to its present position as an honorary bastion of free enterprise shows what is possible. My purpose in this brief comment is to suggest that here in the United States, and thanks in part to developments under the Reagan administration, we are coming to have some social concerns that are solidly in common with those of the Soviet Union. These matters we should recognize if not exactly celebrate.
The first of these shared concerns is the modern role of bureaucracy. That the Soviets must contend with a vast and inflexible structure embracing ministries and productive apparatus none can doubt. It is a topic for compulsive discussion in the Soviet Union, the theme, above all, of Mikhail Gorbachev's noted speech to the communist leaders last January. But bureaucracy is also a major preoccupation here in the United States. Once it was a reference to the organization required for the civil functions of government and now extended, however cautiously, even to the Pentagon. In a time when all forms of ethnic and sexual denigration are under a powerful moral ban, it has remained possible to speak in a very derogatory way of government bureaucrats.
However, in these past years the attack on bureaucracy has gone beyond government to assail the managerial apparatus of the modern large corporation. Its economic performance is held as in Russia to be rigid in thought, repetitive in action and grossly overstaffed and expensive as to personnel. Because of bureaucracy, we compete ineffectually with the younger, leaner, more flexible enterprises of Japan, Korea and Taiwan. Recurrently we hear that a corporation, in the interests of greater efficiency, has sacked some hundreds or thousands of its management personnel. We ask, inevitably, what those men (and some women) were doing before and why they got there. The modern corporate raider acquires an admittedly dubious merit for his assault on entrenched and somnambulant corporate bureaucracy. Clearly as to bureaucracy we and the Russians have a common concern.
The more interesting and possibly more dramatic convergence concerns the ethics of socialism and of capitalism. For 70 years now in Russia there has been determined and mind-numbing emphasis on the socialist ethic. One does not work for one's own gain, not for that of one's family, certainly not for personal enrichment; one works always for the common good, for the well-being of the masses. Nothing has been so condemned as the pursuit of pecuniary self-interest, no one so reviled as the capitalist profiteer.
But now it is recognized that the modern economy, with its dismaying diversity of products, designs, designer styles and services, works only as individuals and firms identify and respond to what others want and, in greater or less measure, are compensated accordingly. The Russians, as do we, see the entrepreneur as an escape from the heavy hand of industrial bureaucracy.
Here emerges the ethic of self-interest. In keeping with this ethic, some will become affluent, perhaps even mildly rich. In larger consequence the social ethic must cohabit with that of personal gain.
Here again the parallel, or perhaps more precisely the mirror image. We, of course, avow the ethic of self-interest, and never in our history have we avowed it so eloquently, repetitiously, even righteously as in these last years under Ronald Reagan. Yet our system requires that a very large number of people, both in government and out, labor in the public interest. Any lapse into personal money-making is strongly condemned and can be the object of legal action. We too must combine the social ethic with that of private gain.
This is the greatly publicized problem of the Reagan administration. It has brought to Washington numerous of our most committed and articulate advocates of the free-enterprise faith -- of pecuniary self-interest as a primary and deeply justified motivation. But once in office these men and women must suppress that faith as regards all personal activity and bend themselves fully to the social purpose.
Not surprisingly, many have not bent or are revealed to have had a too unbending earlier record of commitment to the ethic of private gain. Such was the case of Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Thayer, even though the pecuniary reward was on behalf of his mistress. And lesser Pentagon officials who unduly anticipated their return to personal money-making in service to the defense industries. And this is the present travail of Mr. Deaver and Mr. Nofziger and of Mr. Meese in the matter of his Wedtech investment. None, I hasten to say, may be thought guilty of any felony before full legal proceedings are played out. All, however, are caught in a highly publicized way between the ethic of personal gain and that of social service. All can look with genuine sympathy on the Soviet entrepreneur who, taking advantage of the current liberalization, wonders if he won't one day be gravely condemned as an anti-social profiteer.
In Russia recently I asked a high Soviet official how he viewed the conflict there between the ethic of self-interest and that of socialism as it manifested itself in the current moves to liberalize the Soviet economy. Was it a danger to Gorbachev and his policy? He said no. The conflict existed without doubt. But it always had existed, and what was now being done was to legitimize the pursuit of pecuniary gain that previously had been corruption.
The example pressed powerfully on my mind. Perhaps President Reagan should seek legislation to allow the same legitimization here. Let his free enterprisers be freed to make money as their faith approves. Let public office and the social ethic no longer be at odds with deeper free-enterprise belief and motivation. However, I found myself drawing back. This could be carrying convergence one step too far. As Gorbachev allows escape from the social and socialist ethic, I'm forced to urge Ronald Reagan to affirm his commitment to it.The writer is an economist and professor emeritus at Harvard.