"Authoritarian and Anti-Market traits of Russians" - A thinking fallacy

Gary Kasparov, the chess legend, is outspoken against Putin. In a recent interview on US elections, the interviewer asked Kasparov as to how would he explain huge public support to Putin? Also, the narrative that Russians have authoritarian instincts.

This is not an uncommon question considering the fact that many commentators of international relations often comment that Putin has huge public support from Russians because they have inherently authoritarian instincts and want to see Russia as a super power.

Gary Kasparov in his typical style responds - who told you that Russians support Putin and who told you that Russians have authoritarian inclinations? How can you go by Russian media narrative that is dictated by Russian? He further says that it's "bullshit" to say that some countries can't have democracy because of their character.

It reminded me of Robert Shiller's old column in Project Syndicate on this same question - Is Russia's national character authoritarian?

Robert Shiller says that some made similar argument prior to the fall of Soviet Union. The argument was that Russians don't perceive capitalism as a fair system and hence it would be to pursue capitalism mode of economic policy.

Shiller surveyed attitudes of Russians and Americans towards markets and democracy. The survey was conducted in 1990 and again in 2015 so that one can both compare and observe the trends. 

The survey had questions like "On a holiday, when there is a great demand for flowers, their prices usually go up. Is it fair for flower sellers to raise their prices like this?"; "The press should be protected by the law from persecution by the government"; "It is better to live in a society with strict order than to allow people so much freedom that they can bring destruction to the society". People had to agree or disagree.

Summarizing the results, Shiller says
while there are differences, the results do not lend strong support to the idea that recent events have a simple explanation in terms of differences in deep attitudes toward free markets or authoritarianism. It’s wrong to write Russia off as fundamentally different from the West. In 1991, we concluded that the Russian national character was not an obstacle to creating a market economy in Russia – and were proven right. We hope we are right again, and that national character will not prevent Russia from becoming a truly democratic society someday.

So, Gary Kasparov may have a point. Russians are inherently neither anti-market nor anti-democratic.

This is a good example of one of the fallacies of thinking that attributes "observed difference" to inherent traits of people.

Some examples are: "Many famous chess players are from Russia - Russians have special traits of intelligence that makes them good at chess", "There aren't any girls in top 100 of Chess (only 1) - It's because girls aren't cut out for Chess."

Such reasoning attributes the reason behind "observed differences" only to the individual traits ignoring the role of external factors.

In Russia's case, the long time sustenance of communism in Russia is falsely attributed to character of people ignoring the other external factors. As Shiller shows, Russia had authoritarian governments not because people have authoritarian inclinations, but because of external factors (it's forced on people etc.).

Similarly in case of 'girls in chess', it's a fact that there's an observed difference in players' rankings. But, it doesn't follow from this fact that it's due to some inherent traits of girls. It could also be due to external factors like low number of players, vulnerability to stereotype threat etc.

We should hence be careful of such line of reasoning that attributes "observed differences" (a fact) to inherent traits ignoring external factors.

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