There is a psychological principle that, when asked how best to allocate resources, study respondents tend to apply the principles of fairness and justice. Favoring fair allocation is a natural psychological response. However, when the research variables are altered so that this allocation involves the personal interests of the respondents themselves or a group they identify with, they tend to favor more practical allocation principles, rewarding people proportionally according to their performance.
There has been a debate recently on whether fairness and justice are simply myths, as if these ideals are now regarded as impediments to progress and reform. The feeling seems to be that one must move beyond idealism and take tough decisions if the creation of a better society is to be possible. This ignores the fact that, while fairness is not necessarily the all-encompassing, ultimate determinant for how justice is applied, a society lacking order and justice exposes itself to the failings of its leaders. Naturally, the government is accountable to the electorate. Indeed, the purpose of having popularity ratings for the Cabinet is as part of the checks and balances, showing approval when the government is doing well and applying the brakes when it is not.
However, Cabinet decisions are made within a group and groups have certain dynamics. In the “Hawthorne effect,” for example, high-performing members of a group, feeling as if they have no channel to express themselves within the context of the group structure, tend to avoid standing out, or perform less well to conform to the group’s overall level, causing the overall performance to decline.
Groupthink discourages in-group conflict and polarizes decisionmaking: It can equally lead to risky decisions, as well as more conservative, cautious ones. Witness the Cabinet’s policy decisions over the US beef controversy, corruption in state-owned enterprises and the capital gains tax. If decisions are made purely to diminish in-group conflict, as opposed to being primarily in the interests of responsible governance, members of the group become entrenched in their positions and impervious to suggestions of potential problems.
From the way the government is conducting itself, there seems to have been a resurgence of patriarchal leadership, with President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) trying to gloss over his reputation for incompetence by declaring grandiose concepts such as “improved well-being” and “social reform.” US linguist Noam Chomsky has talked about how those in power seek to exploit and control language, and how the language one uses can reveal much about human greed, selfishness, deceitfulness and willingness to exploit others.
In his A Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government, Song Dynasty statesman Sima Guang (司馬光) described the relationship between virtue and ability, saying that while ability is essential for justice to be realized, it also needs to be guided by virtue, by a sense of what is right. Both virtue and ability, then, are important leadership qualities. However, the Ma administration has become embroiled in suspicions of corruption, and its image of being clean and incorruptible is coming apart at the seams.
As German social psychologist Erich Fromm said, society in the past was stable but not free, and people wanted freedom; in the modern era, society is free, but a certain amount of security has been sacrificed in the process and people are seeing that freedom comes with its own problems. Taiwanese society is in the middle of structural change, but public trust in the belief systems of the stable order and transitional justice is already wavering. It is of paramount importance that responsible governance and a culture of trust are rebuilt.