Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Our Subversive Individualism

I'm reading Francis Fukuyama's Trust, and there's a fabulous chapter where he compares the individualism of Anglo-Saxon Protestantism with the east Asian Confucian tradition.

Confucianism puts a big weight on conforming to society, particularly to the elders in the family.

But US Protestantism is radically individualistic. It began by cutting out the mediating position of the Catholic Church; now believers could have a direct relationship with God with no human gatekeepers in between.

In the long run, the individual's ability to have a direct relationship with God had extremely subversive consequences for all social relationships, becaue it gave individuals a moral ground to rebel against even the most broadly established traditions and social conventions.

Yet, Americans, freed from conformity, actively seek out voluntary relations in our famous aptitude for voluntary associations. So, in a way, by freeing us from the age-old obligations of being born into an existing social world, our individualism frees us to be freely social.

Here's an example of this working out in practice, with the American Thinker's recovering liberal, Robin of Berkeley. She notes how she has always been a perfectionist, ever since her mother threatened to withhold her love.

This is my first childhood memory, a hazy image seared into my brain: I am in my bedroom at around age 5 with my mother, having just done something naughty. My mother explodes, "If you keep doing things like that, I won't love you anymore."

Night after night, I cried myself to sleep, overwhelmed with despair at this potential tragedy. It didn't seem humanly possible to survive without her love.

Robin solved the fear of being cast out into loveless isolation by becoming a perfectionist. "I became an anxious adult, a pleaser, someone who bent over backwards not to offend." It meant, of course, that to make a mistake was always an appalling trauma.

Until now, until the scales fell off her eyes when Obama became president.

Recently, Robin made a mistake in one of her articles. But it wasn't a matter of life and death any more. Now she could ask God for forgiveness.

I realized this: it doesn't matter ultimately what any person thinks of me. I am living my life before an audience of One. And in the end, it is only His judgment that matters.

It is a profound mystery that, in her life as a liberal, Robin of Berkeley was imprisoned in a cruel world where there was no redemption except through liberalism. But the liberal priests never quite offer their congregants absolution and redemption. Certainly not Obama.

The extraordinary power of Protestant individualism is that, by loosening the age-old bonds of social conformity, it liberates us from our personal demons and empowers us, most of all in these United States, to open our hearts and enter into voluntary friendly social association with the whole world.

What a country.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Separation between Economy and State

Everyone seems to agree that the separation between church and state is a good thing. You don't want ministers legislating morality, and you don't want a "theocracy." When the political and the religious collapses into one, especially in the modern era of secular religions, you get tyranny and terror.

But what about separating economy and state? For some reason there is a lot less enthusiasm for that.

But why? The record on government meddling in the economy is dismal. Since time immemorial governments have abused their power to regulate currency, visiting untold miseries on their people. And governments have often thought that they had a much better idea of how to run a business than the business owners themselves. Has there ever been a case when a government has actually picked a winner?

At the US founding, people were divided about whether to encourage an agricultural economy or a manufacturing economy, the famous divide between Jefferson the landowner, and Hamilton the businessman, lawyer, administrator, and central banker. In the event their posturing was meaningless. The economy flowed and swelled into thousands of channels, more or less ignoring the government when it could. The federal government did have a lot of influence, of course, mainly by screwing up the credit system again and again.

Of course, nobody is suggesting that the economy should be completely separate from government. Business needs settled and predictable law about thousands of things, and it needs government force, on occasion, to enforce contracts that have gone bad, and wind up the affairs of bankrupts.

We stand at a moment that is particulary propitious for a change in the relationship between the economy and the state. We have had a particularly nasty banking and credit crisis mostly caused by government meddling in the market for housing credit. Government has encouraged, over the last century, reckless lending and borrowing for home mortgages. That is to say, the government has encouraged homeowners to get mortgages loans very close to the value of their homes. As we have seen, that sort of thing creates a systemic risk. When millions of homeowners can't pay their mortgages and/or have mortgages underwater, it raises questions about the solvency of major financial institutions, from banks to government-sponsored enterprises like Fannie and Freddie.

There are, obviously, bound to be occasions when the financial system will fail. I am thinking of nuclear war devastation and an asteroid collision. But it is unacceptable to have a financial system that fails in peacetime. When that happens there is only one answer. The system was set up to fail.

We know why the system failed. It was corrupted and weakened by a thousand different government interventions where the government warped the economic system to achieve political ends, and reserved the power to intervene in routine economic relationships for political gain.

Of course, businesses play their part in this racket. They importune for subsidies and privileges on the grounds of national defense or energy security, or local economic benefit. Usually, they are merely trying to raise the bar against new entrants into their business.

Obviously we can't change everything overnight. The government has got into the micro-management of business over decades, and a reckless change would be foolish. But here are some principles that could guide us in separating the economy from the state.

  1. Privatize the credit system. The government has utterly failed to manage the monetary and credit system safely. In fact it has used it, again and again, for political gain.
  2. More equity, less debt. Two hundred years ago we needed banks because there wasn't a big market in debt and equity securities. Today equity is easy, and it could be cheap.
  3. No government businesses. They are inefficient and they compete unfairly.
  4. No administrative regulation. In the recent meltdown the SEC failed, the Fed failed, the regulators of Fannie and Freddie failed. So what's the point?
  5. No more subsidies. Subsidies just encourage corruption, and waste resources.

Well, that's a start. The fact is that government is terrible at supervising business, and business ought to keep its hands out of bribing politicians. If they can do that, then we will all benefit, for it is the wealth created by business that provides revenue for government and it is the regime of peace provided by government and the performance of promises supported by law that allows business to thrive.

Surely that's something we can all agree on.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Government's Poisoned Chalice

The record of the last century is stark. Everything the government has gotten into it has screwed up. Royally.

Want to talk about education? Things are so bad that we are now starting to wonder whether college is really worth it.

Homeownership? Government has been encouraging home ownership for nearly 100 years. The result is that fewer Americans own their own homes than Canadians.

If you look at all the areas of public life that are screwed up, government is in the middle of it. And it all started, in every case, with the best intentions.

Government decided to get involved in education, to educate our children. Yet government has loved education to death. Maybe 150 years ago education was a little rude and crude. But now we incarcerate all our children in government educational facilities complete with metal detectors. It is incredibly expensive yet about 15 percent of adults are "below-basic" in literacy and numeracy. Fifty percent of kids entering college require remedial courses. Government has loved education to death.

A century ago government got interested in homeownership. It pushed lenders to offer riskier loans and then people lost their over-leveraged homes in the Great Depression. It solved that problem by making it even easier to borrow money on a house. The result is a huge overbuilding and overpricing of homes that all came crashing down in the last two years. It has loved home-owners to death.

There are the workers. It was 150 years ago that "educated youth and middle-class intellectuals" got all worked up about the workers. The workers were having a hard time in the middle of the greatest migration ever, from the country to the city. They started suffering and dying in public, while the peasants had been starving for thousands of years in private. So government decided to help the workers. They gave their labor unions special exemption from laws against monopoly, and looked the other way when they descended to thuggery. They stopped child labor. They regulated hours of work. Then they gave the workers "benefits" like health insurance and pensions and unemployment pay. Only the workers didn't own these benefits. They got them from loving politicians. Now the great industrial corporations are dying, throttled by their labor unions and work rules, and government workers are paid 50 or 100 percent more than private sector workers. Government has loved labor to death.

Then there are African Americans. First we enslaved them, then we liberated them, then we Jim Crowed them, then we segregated them, then we integrated them, then we affirmative actioned them. So now about 70 percent of African American children are born to a single parent, and more African American men are in jail than in college. We have loved African Americans to death.

In fact, there's a good argument that when government comes calling with a a communion cup of government spending and political patronage there is only one thing to do. Dash the poisoned chalice to the ground before a drop passes your lips.

There are only two things that government can do. It can do force and it can do compulsion. It amounts to the same thing. If it's a question of forcing a foreign power to respect American power, government can do it, albeit at enormous expense.

If it's a question of beating up rowdy young lower-class males, government can do that too.

But when it comes to making a society, government is helpless. Because society is not a question of force, it is a question of cooperation, of nudging, of influence, of somehow getting people to do the right thing short of forcing them.

In the face-to-face society, we get people to do the right thing with a frown and a shake of the head. Let's check with Rodney Stark in Discovering God.

Social life is only possible to the extent that groups exert social control--collective efforts to ensure conformity to the moral standards of the group... So, from infancy humans are raised to believe that the norms of their group are the "right" way to behave and are trained to conform.

But as society becomes larger we need formal methods of control.

Formal social control is expensive--contrast the cost of dirty looks from neighbors with that of maintaining a police officer.

When humans start living in towns and cities, the detection of violations of moral standards becomes a problem. People can be anonymous in the city, and soon find that nobody will know of their evil misdeeds.

Enter "sin," invented during the Axial Age in the millennium before Christ. It solved the problem of misdeeds in the anonymous city. Your neighbors may not know of your misdeeds, but God will know! God will punish misdeeds, and even if you manage to avoid paying for your misdeeds in this life, God will punish you in the next one. Pretty clever, as long as people believe in God, of course.

Our age is an age that has tried to abolish sin. Of course, it has not worked. In some cases sin has been smuggled in the back door, where "sexual harassment" has replaced the disapproval of the cad. But mostly sin has been replaced with a gigantic government bureaucracy empowered to look into every crevice of your life to detect evildoing.

Bureaucracy is not society. Heavy-handed law enforcement is not a replacement for self-responsible freedom. In life after liberalism we must find a new code so that most of the time social control stops short of force, what we so charmingly call "law enforcement."

Now, I wonder what that might be? I wonder if anyone has invented it already. I wonder if it is working, already, around us every day, only we just don't appreciate it.

What do you think?

Friday, September 3, 2010

Our Friendship vs. Their Resentment

After the success of the Glenn Beck Restoring Honor rally, some of our liberal friends are determined not to be outdone. Labor and religious leaders and the NAACP are organizing a rally on the National Mall for October 2.

"The AFL-CIO is determined that the Tea Party and its corporate backers are not going to get the final word,” said AFL-CIO executive vice president Arlene Holt Baker. "We will expect tens of thousands of union families to come."

"We are fueled by hope and not hate," Holt Baker said.

I have a suggestion for the labor and religious leaders and the NAACP. Don't.

If you chaps mount a rally it will show up a profound difference between the goal and the vision of the Beck folks and the goals and vision of you lefty chaps.

The difference that will come out for all to see is the difference between friendship, not to mention faith, hope and charity, and the resentment that powers the left.

The mainstream of western thought owes much to the commonplace assertion of Aristotle, that we are social animals. The notion of human sociability suggests the idea that we should resolve our differences in a spirit of friendly negotiation rather than by force.

That was the point of the Restoring Honor rally. It was a friendly gathering. In fact the folks that attended spent a lot of the time friending each other on Facebook. A young black woman at the rally told the media not to call her an African American, but an American. "These are my family," she asserted, echoing the words of an older black man who testified to the media back in the spring.

The speakers at the Beck rally also emphasized the Christian values of faith, hope, and charity, not to mention the notion of the providential God that is shared by both Christians and Jews.

They did not mention specific goodies they wanted in recompense for past injustice.

Living under a providential God, or blessed to live in the culture of American exceptionalism, we Americans discover a responsibility to deserve the providential love of God. So the rally speakers emphasized that the future begins with us, with our dedication to responsibility, friendship, kindness.

But the left believes in a culture of resentment, a resentment nurtured in the minds of helpless victims cheated of their rightful place in the world by oppressors and exploiters.

There is, of course, plenty of injustice in the world, and resentment is a natural sentiment that all of us experience. We resent the friend that got into Harvard when we didn't, the co-worker that gets a promotion that we didn't, the guy that got the girl that we didn't. Resentment shows up in the seven deadly sins as envy, only resentment is envy on steroids.

You want to watch that envy, because, according to Roger Scruton in A Political Philosophy resentment is the emotion that leads to totalitarianism.

I see [resentment] as an emotion that arises in all societies, being a natural offshoot of the competition for advantage. Totalitarian ideologies are adopted because they rationalize resentment, and also unite the resentful around a common cause. Totalitarian systems arise when the resentful, having seized power, proceed to abolish the institutions that have conferred power on others, institutions like law, property and religion which create hierarchies, authorities and privileges, and which enable individuals to assert sovereignty over their own lives.

Once the resentful acquire power they reduce everything to pure power, and "dispense with mediating institutions"; individual rights are replaced by central control. We have seen how this works. Central control everywhere seems to mean bureaucracy.

Converted into a "centralized power structure" society becomes transformed into an army. An army is, after all, a centralized power structure for projecting power on neighboring territories.

But in the totalitarian power structure the power is directed inside the territory, at groups targeted for punishment. These targeted groups become the replacement for the ancient scapegoat in which tribal societies purged themselves of the wrath of the gods.

The Jacobins targeted the aristocrats and then "emigrés." The Soviets targeted the bourgeoisie and then "kulaks." The Nazis targeted the Jews. Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) targeted Communists.

Our liberal friends, unfortunately, have too often toyed with this inflammatory material. They used to target the malefactors of great wealth. Then it was the big corporations. Then it was the racist South. It used to be the religious right, but now it is the Tea Party activists, who are stigmatized and marginalized as racists, bigots, sexists, and homophobes.

It is, of course, laughable to turn the Tea Party into the liberal scapegoat-du-jour. These chaps haven't done anything yet except go to rallies and pitch out a couple of Republican senators.

But there is a bigger issue in the resentment/scapegoat dynamic. In its original form, the scapegoat was the king. It had to be. It must be the king who must be sacrificed to propitiate the gods. That should be obvious. The king is the representative of the tribe or nation. If something has gone wrong, then he should take the blame. To sacrifice a lesser person is an insult to the gods, and would provoke the gods to greater wrath.

The scapegoat concept is understood in the corporate and military shibboleth that, when things go well you say that your team were the ones that made it possible. When things go wrong, then you, the leader, take the blame.

President Bush understood this. He understood that he had to be the national scapegoat for the unpopular war against terror. He bowed his head and took it like a man--like a mensch, you might say.

But liberals don't understand this. That is why they are going ahead with their October 2 rally, which will doubtless be a display of liberal resentment. Of course, Jim Wallis, liberal evangelical, insists that it will all be sweetness and light. "[W]e must move this country forward beyond divisiveness and hate, to rebuild and reclaim our destiny," he says.

But then why does organizer Holt Baker talk about the "Tea Party and its corporate backers?" Corporate backers? He means, one assumes, the libertarian billionaire Koch brothers and the Scaife family that fund groups like Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks.

My advice to liberals is to put money into keeping as many of your senators and representatives in the game as possible. make sure that your troops are properly led and execute on a good strategic retreat.

But don't try to pretend that you can turn out a grass-roots movement this fall that can rival the Tea Party.

Because if you showcase your political philosophy of resentment up against the Beck philosophy of Restoring Honor you guys are going to look like the sore losers.