Notes From Babel

Archive for the ‘Capitalism’ Category

Labor unions, and other compromises between capitalism and socialism

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First, on the off chance there is any doubt still left in your mind that public sector unions are a disaster, Kenneth Miller’s review of Steven Greenhut’s Plunder! gives a nice primer that you can consume in less than 10 minutes.

Though I’m pretty reflexively anti-union, I’ve come  to acknowledge they represent what is almost certainly an inevitable and necessary binding agent between a technologically and politically empowered industrial elite and a displaced working class.   As I explained in recent posts on the progressive movement here and here, unions and industrial regulations, though anti-competitive and anti-individualist, were in part a response to the destructive forces of rampant competition and individualism.  The most shrewd, competitive, and fiercely individualist of Americans helped create the most wealthy, productive economy in the world.  Yet, discontent with those elites seemed to grow in proportion with their success.

What would America’s economy be like without those rampant capitalists? This is the counter-factual the labor movement would have us imagine.  An America in which no individual need work more than just a few hours a day, allotting the balance for reflection and consumption.  I have to admit, I find it enticing, too.  And as far as I can tell, there are only two main objections, both of which are hard to make.   First, that man is made to work.  Second, that economies cannot long endure without hard, sustained effort.

The problem with the first proposition is that it is a value statement, not a fact statement.  Though I believe it to be true, it is not the sort of truth that wins any converts.  More problematic, most people probably do believe it, but will disagree on what exactly is meant by “work.”  While early 19th century Americans toiled hard on farms for a mere subsistence, their work defined them and gave them pride.  This probably cannot be said of modern laborers who work fewer hours than any other point of human history, yet vie for workweeks that contain less and less work.  Whatever modern laborers think man is made for, it is not for working.

The second proposition leaves me skeptical. Surely, we could devise a path to universal comfort not too unlike what folks like Edward Bellamy and Robert Heinlein have sketched out, in which “No man any more has any care for the morrow, either for himself or his children, for the nation guarantees the nurture, education, and comfortable maintenance of every citizen from the cradle to the grave.”  Oh, there would be sacrifices: inefficiency, a decline in the rate of growth and innovation, the yield of freedom to bureaucrats. But it could work, on paper. The problem is always with the first proposition: that man is made to work, to see the results and consequences of his own efforts and choices, and, ultimately, to be an individual in the world.

Man belongs to society, but not exclusively. He belongs first to God and to nature, and to himself. Attempts at socialsm have first to contend with these lienholders.

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Written by Tim Kowal

January 24, 2011 at 11:21 pm

The Conservative Contribution to Progressivism, Part 2

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This is the follow up to my first post describing the historical and social underpinnings of the progressive movement of the late 19th and early 20th century, drawing largely from Michael McGerr’s A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920.  The thesis, arrived at in this post, is that while conservative values may have played a role in progressivism’s initial volley, the ultimate goals of progressive movement were anything but conservative.

* * *

The new standard of living being conceived in the minds of Americans at the end of the 19th century put individualism in the crosshairs.  At the beginning of the 19th century, individualism was a hard lot, but a seemingly fair one.  A fledgling national government, a nigh-nonexistent system of roads, and a still sparsely populated nation rendered individual sustainability difficult but relatively predictable.  By the end of the 19th century, however, the vagaries of national macroeconomics were already beginning to render markets less predictable; the vast expansion of federal power rendered economic activity an increasingly political affair; and the maturing American economy, fortified by extensive rail and telegraph networks, saw industries becoming dominated by big firms.  All the while, increasing numbers of common working Americans were funneling into urban factory life.  While farms seldom provided more than subsistence living, Americans felt relatively proud and fulfilled.  They had a markedly different experience in the new American factories, however.  All this made working class Americans increasingly discontent—all they needed was a reason to impugn the individualism that sustained the unhappy state of affairs.

Conservative activists were all too eager to supply such reasons.  The expansion of pleasure-seeking to the middle-class worsened the problem of vice and had weakened the family structure.  The Social Gospel leader, Washington Gladden, for example, traced prostitution to middle- and upper-class affluence, as young men increasingly began to put off marriage “until they are able to support a wife in good style.”

“[A]nd as the wealth of the land increases and their neighbors live more and more luxuriously, the phrase ‘in good style’ is constantly undergoing changes of meaning. Young women become accustomed in their parental homes to a certain amount of comfort and of leisure, and they do not relish the thought of beginning to live more plainly and more laboriously in a home of their own.” When these people postponed marriage, Gladden affirmed, “one of the inevitable consequences is the increase of social immorality”: young men, single for too long, would seek sexual satisfaction with prostitutes. The attack on the brothel, then, might not get at the real problem that threatened the home. “I do not believe that there is any remedy for this social disease but the restoration of a more wholesome sentiment concerning this whole subject of family life,” Gladden concluded. “The morality of what we call our respectable classes needs toning up all along this line.”

(Emphasis added.)

It is this sentiment—that “morality . . . needs toning up”—that represents the conservative contribution to progressivism:  as new social, political, and economic forces began to disrupt cultural and moral values, many conservatives sought to push back in kind not merely to curtail those effects, but to counteract them.  Man and his moral character were no longer something to be left to the sole province of himself and his community; they must be “toned up” and remade through the law.  Under the progressive construction of man’s moral predicament, man was no longer accountable for his own actions.  Because people were malleable and defined by their environment, criminals were not wholly to blame, since their crimes owed in part to the sins of society.  “What we have got to have,” said Gladden, “is a different kind of men and women.”

Thus, a renewed vigor for morals legislation ensued, directed at card playing, gambling, horse racing, Sabbath breaking, pornography, dance halls, contraception, and, most famously, liquor.  Liquor, more than all other vices, was seen as the root of man’s moral decline—particularly, the breakup of the family and the degradation of women.  In this respect, McGerr recounts Carry Nation’s attack of a nude painting in the bar of the Carey Hotel in Wichita:

“It is very significant that the pictures of naked women are in saloons,” she explained. “Women are stripped of everything by them. Her husband is torn from her, she is robbed of her sons, her home, her food and her virtue, and then they strip her clothes off and hang her up bare in these dens of robbery and murder. Well does a saloon make a woman bare of all things!”

Yet, progressives quickly realized that prohibition of vices was not enough:  remaking man could not be achieved by negative campaign alone—it required an affirmative component.  Progressives would have to find “substitutes for the saloon.”

Alcohol free clubs and dance halls were needed to fulfill people’s desire to meet and socialize; libraries and gymnasiums were needed to fulfill the desire for stimulation. In short, the transformation of individuals required a more sweeping transformation of their environment.

With the progressives’ transition from a prohibitory campaign to more affirmative attempts to reshape mankind came the end of any partnership with conservatism.  Progressives moved beyond their “conservative” agenda to restore Victorian values, and instead began to explore a more radical, activist agenda.  Progressives began to remake rather than merely preserve society.  Law was not merely an anchor; it could serve as a sail.

This aspect of the progressive agenda was clear by the time of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, who stated:  “Our problem is not merely to help the students to adjust themselves to world life. . . . Our problem is to make them as unlike their fathers as we can.”  Progressivism had by this time become a different thing entirely than the post-Victorian conservatism it set out as.  Indeed, it could be said the project never was truly conservative in the first place, and that the lament of the decline of Victorian values was merely lip service to justify the brewing radicalist urges.  Thus, perhaps even the prescriptive components of the early progressive agenda were less about preserving Victorian values than preliminary efforts at remaking all of society—the symbols of Victorianism simply served as a convenient cover of authenticity for an otherwise radical movement.

Whatever their original intentions, progressives eventually settled on an agenda that harmed conservative values:

Ironically, reform could destroy what it was intended to preserve. Crusading in the name of the home, reformers were supplanting the very thing they wanted to protect. As outside agencies supervised children in and out of school, ordered the material environment of tenements and parks, and regulated adult behavior, the family and the home became less important. “As in the human organism, when one organ fails, its functions are often undertaken and more or less imperfectly performed by some other organ,” Josiah Strong noted; “so in the great social organism of the city, when the home fails, the church sometimes undertakes the functions of the home.” A host of other “organs”—settlements, playgrounds, Boys’ Clubs, schools, courts, municipalities, state governments, the federal government—were undertaking those functions as well. But even the most reflective progressive activists appeared oblivious to the actual impact of their reforms on many homes.

According to E.A. Ross, progressivism eroded man’s moral fiber:  “Too much consideration for moral weakness would fill the world with moral weaklings,” he insisted. “To abolish temptation is to deprive the self-controlled of their natural right to outlive and outnumber those who have a cotton string for a backbone.”

“Once work was so constant that married women did not realize their loneliness or the want of appreciation which befell them,” Kate Gannett Wells contended in an essay titled “Why More Girls Do Not Marry”: Now society and the middle class have leisure to examine their states of mental solitude, and to see just where husbands are wanting. Fifty years ago the woman was too busy to stop for the morning kiss as her husband went to work.  Now she has time to think about the absence or infrequency of the greeting for half an hour before she reads the morning paper, in which she finds some fresh instance of man’s wickedness.

Thus conceived, progressivism cannot be sustained as a practical tool put in the service of conservatism—it is a wholly new conception of man, society, and government.

Capitalism versus Socialism Is NOT a “Lesser of Two Evils” Question

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Elijah posted this comment over at CAI, suggesting that, even if socialism isn’t perfect, it’s no worse than capitalism:

Mark,

Under what conditions would any system qualify as ‘better’ to you? It seems as if you are completely closed to the possibility of anything else being better. The general opinion out here, even among conservatives, seems to point to the possibility of more socialism in a mixed economy. What is the ‘power’ necessary to convince you that a mixed system is better? What about the nations with the highest standard of living? Norway? Sweden? Canada? Each of these three countries at the top of a standard of living list has a strong mixed system. You’ve argued using the movement in Sweden to re-privatise healthcare, but that is a minority movement and most other European countries are very optimistic about the ‘Nordic Model’.

I know you and Tim have laid out how any amount of socialism is coercion, but I simply disagree. I take far greater issue with tax money being sent to fund wars in which soldiers are killing and being killed for a cause I strongly disagree with. The welfare of the state involves not only ‘protecting of borders’ (which is not necessarily what America is doing in the Middle East), but also the care of American citizens. Libertarianism is often associated with anarchy – do you believe in the complete dissolution of the federal government since it is so utterly corrupted and useless? Do you approve of a national military and national public works projects, or should this all be privatised?

Also, against Tim’s anti-populist views, American politics allows for the possibility of a greater implementation of socialism in America if the legislators (and correspondingly the majority of citizens) approve. I know you believe the government is utterly flawed, but I believe that while it is flawed the government has the infrastructure to accomplish great tasks and doing so while employing more Americans.

To which I responded (at least I think I responded—my comment didn’t show up right away):

I have a feeling I’ve corrected this before, but whatever you feel about the beneficence of state action, it is most certainly coercion.  It is only a matter of definition.  This is why the “nanny state” moniker is not merely a clever derogation—the relationship between a state that purports to restrict and compel action as it purports to know best how to serve the needs of its constituents is exactly the relationship between parent and progeny.

Sir Flinders Petrie said, “When democracy has attained full power, the majority without capital necessarily eat up the capital of the minority, and the civilization steadily decays.”  As Robert Weaver put it, the majority’s “outcry comes masked as an assertion that property rights should not be allowed to stand in the way of human rights, which would be well enough if human rights had not been divorced from duties.  But as it is, the mass simply decides that it can get something without submitting to the discipline of work and proceeds to dispossess.”  In short, a personal ethic that compels the forfeiture of property to those in need does not necessarily have anything to say about political theory.  More importantly—and here is an appeal to your own values, Elijah—why would you ever advocate for a political system that would allow others to decide whether you could express your personal ethics?  Indeed, if the “mixed” system is to succeed in besting a liberty-oriented system, it must reserve the right to commandeer the property that individuals might otherwise give to charitable causes that the state does not find to be in line with the “public good.”

Finally, there are strong reasons to believe that these “mixed” systems are not sustainable.  Europe will be crushed under the weight of its demography and entitlement systems.  And if the U.S. ever adopts a more European or Canadian style of regulations on medical and pharmaceutical research and development, the cost control issue will be a moot point.  As it is, cost controls work because there is at least one major market—the U.S.—where the medical industry’s investments and innovations pay off.  Take the U.S. out of that equation, and medical advancement will seriously diminish.  What will happen then?  Not much imagination is needed here:  coercion having gotten us that far, more coercion will be employed to get us out, and governments will begin considering taking over medical and pharmaceutical research altogether.  This lesson is played out over and over in the past.  The Left refuses to read the minutes of the last meeting.

Finally, I strongly object to the suggestion that socialism is permitted by our nation’s laws.  Perhaps if one takes the cynical legal realist position—that there are no natural rights or duties except what a judge or legislator declares—then the vast federal regulatory structure and expansion of the Commerce Clause can be explained.   But this view utterly betrays man’s moral quality, putting man below beasts in that regard.  See Tim Sandefur’s excellent explication of this here.

[Also, respectfully, what in blazes does anyone mean by a “mixed” system?  We already do live in a mixed system, if anyone cares to notice things like the U.S. government’s takeover of the world’s second (formerly first) largest auto maker, its stakehold in the national banks, and its control over whether Californians have access to water, to cite just a few.  I suspect this supposedly innocent plea for a sort of “middle ground” is the same brand of can’t-we-all-just-get-along flummery as all that fake “bi-partisan” claptrap.  It’s just re-branding:  “I’ve agreed to re-name my position “mixed regime,” so the least you can do is abandon your objections and go along with it.”  What kind of middle ground is that? ]

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Written by Tim Kowal

February 21, 2010 at 4:16 pm

Posted in Capitalism, Socialism

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