I am using some fuzzy terminology here. Both "modern state" and "Democracy" are fuzzy concepts, and someone who has studied political science would probably say I am using the terms incorrectly. But I am doing that on purpose, because I am not talking about a rigorous political thesis, but rather a general idea that most people in the United States implicitly believe. So by "Modern State" I mean a country that has a high standard of health and education, economic development, working infrastructure, and where people are relatively safe and secure. Basically, what might also be called a functioning, first world country. And by "Democracy", I mean a country with some form of elected representation, separation of powers, guaranteed rights, and respect for individual differences. Notice that many of the things I described under "Democracy" are not part of, or even the opposite, of what that term means in classical political science. What I am talking about here is a kind of folk political science that is generally believed, but because it is generally believed, it means the assumptions are tacit and harder to investigate.

But lets draw the assumption out as best as we can: basically, most people in the US believed that a certain level of prosperity or just functionality was due to our political and social system. Having elected leaders or functionaries meant that public works would be free of corruption, and thus more efficient. A free press meant that citizens would be informed about wastes of resources or things that didn't work. An impartial court system meant people would be confident that they could start a business and not have to worry about a company with connections suing them into oblivion. An egalitarian attitude towards public education meant that most citizens would be well educated, leading to greater economic productivity. Education also tied into the idea of meritocracy, that someone's career was due to their level of education, that anyone could attain, and not to nepotism, and that meritocracy meant the most skilled and educated people were running things, leading to things being more efficient. Social openness means that as many people as possible have a chance to advance and share their skills.

"But" you might be saying "I can think of so many counterexamples to this!" And of course, so can I. I am not saying that I believe each one of these is correct, or that they all work together as a whole. What I am saying is, that as someone raised in the United States, these were all tacit ideas for me. I want to give a concrete example of how someone might use them in real life.

You step into an elevator in a modern office building. Maybe you are there to consult a professional, maybe it is at some type of shopping center. When you step into the elevator, these are some things you probably believe:

  • That whoever built, installed, and maintains the elevator is educated enough to read, write and do math essential for the job.
  • That the contractor who inspects the elevator got the job through a transparent, legal process, following written laws that assured their ability to do the job.
  • That if the elevator catastrophically fails and people are killed/injured in an elevator accident, that news media are free to report on the matter.
  • That if negligence or corruption causes an elevator crash, and someone goes to either civil or criminal court over it, the judge is not going to be bribed, and neither are they going to be biased towards someone of the same racial or religious group as themselves.
  • That if elevator crashes keep happening, the public will put pressure on elected officials to somehow solve the problem.
These are just some examples from an every day occurrence. They could be applied to things much more complicated than an elevator, but the general idea is that our easy interaction with modern technology and our ability to trust that things around us will function is based on our political and social system. The concepts generally make sense.

As I write this, the 2022 Winter Olympics are going on in Beijing, despite protests about Beijing's human rights record. And Russian troops are currently massing on the Ukraine border, in what looks like a likely invasion. China and Russia are both decidedly not Democracies, and Russia is currently taken action to aggressively undermine and attack the Democratic order. And yet, both of those countries still function. Not perfectly, and at times not even very well, but both of those countries seem to ensure enough health, safety and welfare that things continue along. Without getting into a statistical search of how those countries are doing, whatever problems they have with crime, corruption, oppression, and dysfunction, they still have working elevators. There are other examples as well: most of the Middle East has managed to attain a level of economic functionality, and in some cases prosperity, even while maintaining autocracies that depend on a mixture of ethnic and religious supremacy. Depending on how the level of peace, prosperity and development is defined, at least half of the world's population that lives in "modern states" lives under a system of government that is some form of autocracy.

One question about this is whether this is a permanent (or at least long term) state, or just a step in development. One thing that should be mentioned is that while non-democratic states are good at adapting and using technology, the center of world technological development is still in the United States. For that matter, other countries are still consuming our media and culture. I think there is a reason for this: I do believe that democratic institutions, especially in education, are the only way that technology can grow and develop. Autocratic countries usually have educational systems that discourage initiative. The openness of ideas and debate that we have in the United States, and the meritocracy that is still there (despite many real barriers to education), allows our society to change and develop in a way that an autocracy can not. But "social adaptability" is a hard thing to operationalize. Given many metrics of development, such as lifespan or air travel safety, democracies and autocracies are probably on par. The things that democracies do better at now are often intangibles, such as cultural diversity and technological innovation.

In conclusion, while I've dealt with some squishy concepts here, I think they are important concepts. I grew up believing, tacitly, that certain political and social structures were necessary to enjoy a certain way of life. There are other people who believed the same thing in a much more rigorous way, and this is basically what Francis Fukuyama believed in and wrote about in "The End of History and the Last Man". And some of that basic thesis has been proven demonstrably false, because autocracies have turned into advanced states. But I don't believe, in the long run, that they can maintain themselves as such. But in any case, I think the question about what are preconceptions are, and whether those preconceptions are true, should be asked when we ask what our society is like, and how did it get this way.

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