The narcissism of cynicism

I recommend this short essay by Charlemagne/The Economist:

(…) Today, Europe suffers from the cynicism of the tax evader who assumes that his political masters are also stealing money, so why fund them? The insider who would rather be “furbo”, or sly enough to jump the queue, bribe the planning officer, pay off the environmental inspector or obtain a fictional job at the town hall, than “fesso”, or foolish enough to wait in line and obey the rules when nobody else is. I remember once asking someone in southern Europe why they opposed the privatisation of some terrible state monopoly. Privatisation would lead to “some idiot making a profit from me,” came the reply. But what if competition led to lower prices and better service, I asked. Was that not more important? No, I was told: allow businessmen in, and they will try to make money.

Similarly, I asked the Swedish political writer, Johan Norberg, why it would be considered a social gaffe to boast about tax evasion at a Swedish dinner party. His answer was that Sweden had never been feudal, with a system of landless peasants ground down by aristocratic landlords. For a very long time, Sweden had been a country of small farmers and yeomen, whose local governments were run by other people from more or less the same social background. So cheating the local authorities meant cheating your brother, or cousin, or neighbour.

In China, a country where the overwhelming majority have been all but powerless forever, it is striking how big a role cynicism plays in society, and the overwhelming fear of being tricked. A key battle-cry of the ordinary Chinese locked in argument with a taxi driver, a market stallholder or business associate is “Ni bie pian wo”, or “Don’t you try to trick me”. Watch any number of comedy films, especially those set in Chinese history, and the humour is all about trickery, fooling the rich and powerful, setting out to trick and being double crossed, and other revelations of humiliation.

I have heard similar battle cries covering political debates in Europe: the same angry insistence that someone will not be taken for granted by their bosses, or tricked by the government. Sometimes this is in European countries with long histories of something approaching feudalism. Sometimes it is in countries with long histories of foreign occupation, whether by the Ottomans, by the British, or the Soviet Union. In such places, you will endlessly hear that cheating the system under foreign occupation felt like a form of resistance, and has left deep roots of suspicion.

America feels different, and so do some parts of Europe. I am pretty sure at least some of that is to do with differing histories of enfranchisement and empowerment. [From The narcissism of cynicism]