Since antiquity, he points out, people have argued whether a people always gets the government it deserves or whether the government is so powerful that it can bend the population to its will and thus bears total responsibility for what happens with the people reduced to an irrelevancy.
It matters profoundly which view people and governments have, Travin says. If the people are totally responsible for what is happening in the country now, he continues, then “it turns out that Russia is hopeless. We will have an eternal stagnation in the economy with only those close to the Kremlin getting rich.”
And that means, he continues, that “each who does not want to live under those conditions must flee abroad. But if the government is to blame, then there is hope because the people can support a very different kind of regime and system in the future – if they work for it, Travin argues.
A first glance suggests that the Russian people have “precisely what they deserve. We go to the polls, we vote, we support one and the same kind of rulers again and again although our lives don’t become better.” The people don’t work better because they have few incentives, this view holds, and they have no interest in simply enriching those in power.
What Russians must remember, however, is that they aren’t building communism anymore. They are developing a market economy. And “in a market economy, be it ours or that of the Finns or the Americans, people seek to conduct themselves rationally, that is, they work exactly where it is profitable to do so.”
It is another question entirely, Travin continues, that “in some countries it is profitable to create a business, to increase one’s qualifications, and to invest money in long-term projects, while in others, the reverse is true.” In the latter, it is more profitable to seek part of the rents that the regime collects. Unfortunately, Russia’s “case is the second one.”
What that means is this: “our people conduct themselves approximately as do people in other market economies: they go where things are better and where they are led to do so by the stimuli available.” Unfortunately, the government “having established a system of anti-stimuli is forcing society not to work but to seek to seize.”
Finns and Americans “put in analogous situations,” would do the same” because “a market economy with good institutions, that is, rules of the game, is a means to become richer” but “a market economy under conditions of bad institutions is a path to degradation,” the path Russia is now on.
And he adds that a similar calculus holds in politics. Russians vote for Putin because it is more rational to do so than to vote for those the Kremlin has ensured have no chance of gaining office and who in all too many cases are “clowns” who would perform perhaps even worse than the incumbent, Travin continues.
“Our voter fears chaos in just the same way the successful citizen of any Western country does,” he says. The difference is this: Putin has managed to convince people that they would suffer far more without his patronage than is in fact the case. As a result, they sit still for what they shouldn’t.
“Both Germans and other peoples have at various times completely deserved the cannibalistic governments they created. And they conducted themselves with regard to these governments in a completely rational manner … For example, they killed Jews because such cruelty was then rewarded.”
“But when the powers changed, the Germans in an instance began to build a civilized society with democracy and tolerance” because in that society, these things were rewarded. Such a rapid shift, of course, is morally troubling; but it is an indication of what is possible when the rules of the game imposed from above change radically.
Not every people is capable of building democracy at every point, Travin acknowledges. “Normal development is usually impossible when irrational behavior openly dominates over the rational in society.”
A century ago, he writes, “the passions, motives and fantastic dreams of the broad masses clearly dominated over the efforts of a small part of society to build a market economy and democracy” in Russia and the result was the Soviet system.
“But today everything is reversed,” Travin says. “The masses have become extremely rational, indeed at seems, they seem excessively so. Rationalism leads to conformism and submission.” Irrationalism is in power. But “just like other peoples in the past, pragmatic, rational and conformist Russians can easily transform themselves into normal citizens of the civilized world.”
The only requirement is that the powers that be must stop imposing “destructive incentives.” Then, “normal elections will allow for people to think about which candidates are better” and “a normal economy will lead to the production of goods the population needs” rather than those that only benefit a thieving state.