Thursday, October 13, 2011

Government, Business, and Religion

In the lefty documentary The Corporation the usual suspects on the left excoriate business for its soulless attention to profit.  They, the corporations, don't believe in anything, says documentarist Michael Moore.  That's why they will sell him the rope to hang them with.

That's not really fair, Michael.  Corporations do too believe in something.  They believe in production for profit.

Generations of lefties have been outraged about this, and generations of practical people have tried to come to terms with it.  But it's true.  Business will do what it takes to make a profit, subject to the the natural and social limitations placed on it.

Wouldn't it be better to go back to a simpler age where economic activity was more closely integrated with human values?  Yes, it would.  And it would be nice to put all the evils of the world back in Pandora's Box.

But that fact is that humans are resourceful and inquiring creatures and over the recent millennia we have differentiated our simple hunter-gatherer culture.  No longer are governing, production, and meaning all mixed together in a unified single narrative and ritual.  Now they are differentiated and specialized.  Just like our knowledge of the world, which used to be called natural philosophy, is now differentiated into a hundred disciplines and specialties.

Today we have government, and government is the specialist in force.  Apologists for government spill barrels of ink trying to show that government is kind and compassionate, but they are fooling themselves.  People resort to government when they give up on getting what they want by exchange or persuasion.  They go to government to because they want to use its force.

Today we have religion, and religion is the specialist in meaning.  It may be that the world has no meaning, as the Stoics insisted, but humans, and indeed all living things, act as if it does.  It is the job of religion in its broadest sense, encompassing transcendental faith, secular faith, culture, and language to breathe meaning into the world.   It is meaning that tells us what we "ought" to do.

Today we have business, and business is the specialist in production.  As Marx realized, business in the old days was veiled in custom and mystery, but capitalism has stripped it of all its mystery, and reduced everything to "callous cash payment."  Business is all about exploitation: using human and physical resources in the most cost-effective way.  Exploitation is not necessarily good or bad.  It is just getting the best value for money.

So when the lefties rail on and on about the "harm" that corporations inflict, we have go say: so what?  If you don't want corporations to buy clothing from sweatshops then make it illegal and put the CEOs in jail if they break the law.  And when the CEO of a public member-owned cooperative does the same thing, put him in jail.  That is what government is for, en-"forcing" the law.  But in the real world, things aren't quite as simple as they appear in lefty documentaries.  The workers in sweatshops are usually teenage girls fresh off the farm.  And their wages, small as they seem to us, actually mean a lot to their families back on the farm.  So, do we insist that sweatshops pay more?  Even it that means that those teenage girls don't have jobs?

The bigger question is the question of meaning.  We think that human life means more than government force and capitalist production.  We humans are social animals, and that means that we don't like to force our kin, our friends and our neighbors. We would rather persuade them.  We don't like to use our kin and our friends as means to an end.  We want good for our friends for its own sake, because we wish them well.  The great challenge of the modern era, where people deal all the time with people who are not their kin or their neighbors is how to make the whole world social and persuadable, avoid treating strangers as numbers, and keep force to a minimum.

In other words, how do we create a culture where CEOs don't ruthlessly externalize all their costs, because we have built a culture that teaches people to think about the harm they do to other people before they act?

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