Notes From Babel

Posts Tagged ‘Capitalism

Socialism: Right Idea, Wrong Species

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Jason Brennan, discussing G.A. Cohen’s Why Not Socialism? shares an interesting thought experiment:

Cohen’s book proceeds as follows.  First, he has us imagine a camping trip among friends.  Food and goods are shared freely.  Everyone abides by  (purportedly) socialist principles of community and equality. Everyone does his part. No one takes advantage of anyone else. No one free rides. Everyone contributes. Everyone shares.

After a while, people begin to act like capitalists (as Cohen understands realistic capitalistic behavior). Harry demands extra food because he is especially good at fishing. Sylvia demands payment when she finds a good fishing spot. Leslie demands payment for her special knowledge of how to crack nuts. Harry, Sylvia, and Leslie refuse to share without extra payment. Morgan, whose father left him a well-stocked pond 30 years ago, gloats over having better food than the others.

Cohen concludes that the camping trip was better when the campers acted like socialists.  When the campers act like capitalists, the trip becomes stifling and repulsive.

. . . .

We tolerate capitalism only because we think we must.  Perhaps, given our moral and cognitive failings, capitalism delivers the goods.  But socialism would be the preferred system if only human beings were better.  On Cohen’s view, capitalism promotes the common good by relying upon greed, fear, and people’s limited knowledge. 

As I posted in the comments to that post, the problem with socialism, and specifically with Cohen’s camping trip, is that equality is a lie.  Even by the terms of Cohen’s thought experiment, each camper has unequal abilities.  Worse, they know they have unequal abilities.  Because of this, they naturally chafe against a system that provides no recourse for realizing the advantage of their unique skills and efforts, and instead forces the identical outcomes on non-identical individuals.

Again, the difference comes down to one between procedural and substantive justice: the ideal of substantive justice (i.e., equality) cannot withstand the natural human urge to see procedural justice done (i.e., a proper respect to each’s special, individualized talents and efforts). The idea that "socialism would be the preferred system if only human beings were better" might be more accurately stated: "socialism would be the preferred system if only human beings didn’t care about procedural justice." But they do. So socialism has a rough time mustering any intellectual force as a workable political theory.

Alternatively, it might be said that "socialism would be the preferred system if only human beings were truly equal." Again, they’re not, and basing a theory on a fundamental untruth results in a fundamentally untrue theory.  True reality is socialism’s worst enemy.  

Written by Tim Kowal

March 29, 2011 at 8:14 pm

What Really Bothers Us: Poverty or Inequality?

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I like this hypothetical by Jason Brennan over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, positing two competing societies, one which equalizes wealth, and the other which does not but expands economically at a much faster rate such that, within a number of years, it yields to its poor a greater absolute measure of wealth than the poor enjoy in the more equalized society.

This sets up many interesting questions.  Is a society better that views wealth inequality as intrinsically evil?  Is there any intrinsic value in property rights and owning one’s own labor?  Does it matter whether wealth inequality actually leads to greater absolute wealth, even for its poor, than if wealth were equalized?  If so, does it matter how long we’d have to wait for that greater absolute wealth to materialize?  Must it occur within a single generation?  Are there intergenerational equity arguments at stake, such that the poor are morally obligated to choose to endure wealth inequality if it meant their children would enjoy greater absolute wealth?

Not surprisingly, many of the comments on the post fight vigorously against the hypothetical, insisting it attempts to make empirical claims about the real world when it explicitly doesn’t.  But I found this comment by Andrew Levine particularly troubling:

The starting baseline still matters a lot to the answer. Developing countries rely on growth more than developed countries do. Once it’s feasible for every (or nearly every) citizen to get food, clean water, education, travel, and some other things that are taken for granted in developed countries, and which are essential to being free to pursue one’s destiny from youth to death, relative wealth becomes more important than further growth if that growth contributes to widening inequalities.

I drew precisely the opposite conclusion as Mr. Levine:  Once everyone has access to food, clean water, education, travel (!), etc., how can it be said that “relative wealth becomes more important”?  Certainly, it becomes less important, no?  Once the poor are doing ok, can’t we then, finally, start letting people keep what they earn?  If even at this point we can’t honor basic notions of procedural justice, we must be living in a society that either values substantive property rights at effectively zero, or is so incredibly petty that even though its members enjoy all the basic goods and amenities “that are taken for granted in developed countries,” they still refuse to tolerate even the existence of accumulations of earned wealth.

I do not maintain that grim a view of my fellow man, and I believe most Americans are not so petulant or discontented as to buy into such an extreme version of redistributionist justice.

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.

Producers vs. Parasites

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I’ll grant that the “producer or parasite” distinction paints with a pretty broad brush.  There are certainly some interesting discussions we can have about what it means to be a “producer,” and perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to categorize.  I often ponder exactly what my contribution is to society as a lawyer (which reminds me of something I wrote on that subject a while back that I might try to revise and post here). 

Jonathan Chait, on the other hand, complains that the “producer or parasite” slogan is repackaged white supremacy.  I suppose one way to attack a broad brush is to use an even broader, more ridiculous brush.

Written by Tim Kowal

June 23, 2010 at 6:46 pm

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:


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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