Friday, January 18, 2013
From Joel Fox:
The mechanical device called a "ratchet" lends its name to many phenomena that are not mechanical. It refers to any situation in which a force in one direction causes a movement in that direction while a compensating force in the opposite direction causes a lesser movement in that direction. The net effect is a drift in the less resistant direction. A political example, credited to Margret Thatcher, is "When the Left gets power, she said, they drive everything Left; when the Right gets power, they slow the Leftward drive, perhaps even halt it for a spell; but nothing ever gets moved to the Right." In the mechanical device, a part called a "pawl" jams the works and provides resistance to motion in one direction, leaving it free to move in the opposite direction. Our intellectual objective should be to find the pawl in each situation in order to learn what causes the machine to function.
For a while I lived in France, a country which is about as socialist as you can get. It was a period during which a conservative government had been voted into power because of a fiscal crisis. The new government tried to institute reforms; however, a mechanism existed which served as a pawl to prevent the reform from actually occurring. Students and union members who would lose in the short term, took to the streets to oppose the reforms by blocking traffic and stalling the metro. After weeks of painful disruption, the government and general public gave up on the reforms. In other words, the student-union groups acted as a pawl to prevent the society from moving to the right, because of the benefits that accrued to them in a leftist society, despite the democratically expressed will of the people to reform.
Another example of a ratchet effect is the well known "wage-price spiral." In a low unemployment situation, wage increments can be demanded which are not merited by increases in productivity. As a consequence, management must raise prices. If the situation is widespread, inflation occurs and labor demands higher wages to make up for the loss in buying power. The cycle starts again. In our lifetime one has never seen a deflationary wage-price spiral. Hence, there is a ratchet effect. The pawl which blocks the lowering of wages accompanied by deflation is simply human nature. Not since the early unionization days has one witnessed the violence of management troops against union strikes and violence. This causes the lack of symmetry required by a ratchet.
Another example of the ratchet effect was the battle between the Soviet Union and the Free World. The Soviets expressed their intention to fight "by all available means, including armed force, for the overthrow of the international bourgeoisie and for the creation of an international Soviet republic as a transition stage to the complete abolition of the State." While the Soviets maintained a policy of moving their program forward at every opportunity, the West's posture was one of resistance. Thus we have a classical situation of ratchet effect in which the West could only lose in the long run unless other powerful factors intervened (which obviously happened).