Thursday, October 20, 2011

Augustine and Government

Christianity is held up by two philosophical tent poles, and one of them is St. Augustine.  He had a jaundiced view of government.
Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies?  For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms?
He goes on to declare that the defining attribute of a kingdom over a robber band is "impunity", for only government can rob without consequence.

Every government loots the nation to feed its supporters, but some loot more than others.  Take Cuba, for example.  After the United States returned the government of Cuba to the people after the intervention of 1898, the free Cuban government quickly descended into the crudest corruption.  Writes Tom Gjelten in Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba:
Cuban politics had grown dirtier by the year, with electoral fraud practiced on all sites and widespread graft within the government itself... In the fall of 1905 Interior Secretary Fernando Freire de Andrade began dismissing government employees, even schoolmasters, who favored the opposition Liberal Party[.]
The Liberal Party withdrew its candidates from many races in the fall elections.  By August 1906 the Liberals had backed an insurgency that was marching on Havana.  By the end of September the government had resigned and the US took over again.

The more that people look at government for benefits and rewards, and the more that politics descends into a fight for spoils.

It's instinctive, of course.  People feel that the more the other guy has, the less than they have.  And it certainly applies for the agricultural age.  The more land that I have, the less that's available for others.  The more powerful my patron, the safer I feel, even if he keeps most of the loot for himself.

In the industrial age, things are different.  The more products that corporations make, the more that's available for everyone.  The richer the corporate CEOs get the more jobs they can create at their corporations,  And you never know when someone is going to invent something and create a whole new form of wealth: textiles, railroads, steel, electricity, autos, radio, TV, computers, internet.

The latest invention seems to be the horizontal fracking technology that is creating a boom in natural gas and is causing US domestic oil production to reverse its decades-long decline.

Here is the deal. We humans are programmed instinctively to believe in a fixed pie, with more for you meaning less for me.  Yet capitalism has produced a new reality.  The better I serve the consumer with better products and services the bigger the pie and the more there is for everyone.

When will President Obama get the message?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Bacardi and Fidel

In my view, everyone has it wrong.  The capitalists pride themselves on being rugged individualists when in fact nearly all capitalist enterprise is profoundly collective and cooperative.  The political activists pride themselves on being compassionate collectivists when in fact they are the most naked selfish and vain individualists imaginable.

Take the case of Cuba.  There was a time when the Bacardi rum company was the poster boy for Cuba: "the one that made Cuba famous."  But then along came Fidel Castro and nationalized the company--and everything else that moved in Cuba.  Bacardi's factory became "Administrative Unit 1, a subdivision of the Santiago Beverage Combine, which in turn was under the Provincial Directorate of Beverage and Liquor Enterprises."  It's all told with clarity and charm by NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten in Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba.

If you look at the story of the Bacardi company and the men that led it, they combined unquestioned leadership ability with the talent to herd a bunch of cats, from the Bacardi family to the talented employees.  Along the way there were numerous challenges, from bankruptcy after an earthquake in Santiago de Cuba to figuring out why the rum made at Bacardi's factory in Mexico tasted different from the rum made in Cuba.

Then there is Fidel Castro.  From his public debut as a student activist at the University of Havana he demonstrated himself as the most rugged individualist that ever lived.  Writes Gjelten:
Tall and solidly built, with a long, sloping nose and high forehead, the nineteen-year-old Castro projected self-confidence and authority.  His fellow students were either drawn to him as a natural leader or put off by his know-it-all attitude and his tendency to monopolize conversations.
And of course as he matured, he because more know-it-all and more monopolistic.

The fact is that even though capitalism ruthlessly uses people and resources, it must successfully mix them together and fine tune them in a thousand different ways every day; otherwise it will decline and die.  It lives and dies by cooperation, charming consumers into buying, and employees into over-performing.

But government is a horse of a different color.  It talks a good line about community and cooperation, but in fact what is does is force.  It divides people, exploits people, and everything it does has the taint of coercion.  And when things go wrong it blames the people.  Governments decline and die when the lose the will to use force.

In the 19th century and thereafter, business people and socialist activists have all agreed that business is the acme of rugged individualism and the survival of the fittest.  So it is, except that most of the time business is a team effort and a never-ending need to serve the consumer.

Government, on the other hand, tends always to an undeclared civil war and a naked attempt to loot the state on behalf of your supporters.  Because with government there is always the temptation to resort to force.  Why not?  The government has a monopoly on force.

Well, there's a reason why not.  Humans are social animals, and that means that they survive as cooperative beings that work with each other, because it turns out that cooperation is much more effective than individual effort.  When it is necessary to resort to force within the community it means that cooperative social behavior has failed.

And for anyone that doesn't get it, we humans have conducted a planet-wide experiment in the efficacy of force.  It was called Communism.  Everywhere it was tried it killed social cooperation and turned society into a prison where everything was conducted by the rule and nothing was done by trust and good will.

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?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Social Animals in an Age of Instrumental Reason

The trouble with capitalism, Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto, is that it is inhuman.
The bourgeoisie... has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous "cash payment."  It has drowned... [everything] in the icy water of egotistical calculation.  In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.
 And on top of that, the bourgeoisie had also conquered the "modern representative State" making it into a "committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie," and dominated presumably by the same commercial, calculating culture.

What Marx and Engels forgot to add is that culture itself had bowed to the cash nexus, for it was in the 18th century also when a professional writing class emerged into the public square, producing cultural product to be marketed to the great middle class by "publishers" with the idea of making money from culture, and truckling to the fantasies of the reading public.  And that leaves out the great calculating religious movements, specifically the Great Awakening of the mid 18th century in Britain and British North America that was run like a modern political campaign, with planning, advance men, advertising, and free media.  How inhuman, how calculating, exploitative, lacking in spontaneity, is that?

A century later, in the middle of World War II, a new generation of Marxists faced a world at war and looked into the abyss.  The whole modern project, they realized, from science to capitalism to the modern state was the project of "instrumental reason."  But instrumental reason, wrote Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, is pure domination.  Bourgeois business ends up as bourgeois domination, and this is already encoded in the idea of Enlightenment and the Age of Reason.  "What men want to learn from nature is how to dominate it and other men."  And so "Enlightenment behaves toward things as a dictator toward men."

The more you think about it the more you realize that everything is tainted by this indictment.  Business and its pursuit of profit, government bureaucracies and their attempt to confine the world in a box of rules and regulations, movies, books and their prurient exploitation of fantasy, academic scholars and their pursuit of knowledge for the sake of tenure and fame, everything is exploitation, using other people for your own ends.

So what do we do about it?  Let us propose three ideas.  First, there is the idea of the separation of powers.  The sine qua non of winning battles is the idea of strategic concentration.  Concentrate your forces and disperse the forces of the enemy.  The way to limit the exploitation by instrumental reason in all sectors of modern life, from business to government to moral/culture is by a greater separation of powers, preventing the sectors from ganging up against society as a whole: no crony capitalism and the unholy combination of politics and business; no established churches (and that includes secular churches like liberalism) and the unholy totalitarian combination of religion and politics.

But if the principle of force is to be reduced, then how does society work?  The second answer lies in the very structure of the human brain, its approximate division into rational, emotional, and instinctive spheres.  If the rational sphere is all about exploitation, bending the world to our will, and the instinctive is about staying alive from moment to moment, the emotional sphere is the world of the social animal, the reduction of conflict from the bloody murder of force and feud at least to social hierarchy, the hierarchy that kept the peace in the agricultural age, and at best to friendly social cooperation, the egalitarianism of the old hunter-gatherer groups.

Marx writes of what had been drowned in the "icy water of egotistical calculation."  It was the emotions: the "heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor," "chivalrous enthusiasm," and "philistine sentimentalism."  No doubt these emotions are as capable of dominatory excess as instrumental reason.  But as a mitigation between the pitiless gaze of reason and the blind workings of instinct, it provides the rose-colored vision of the social virtues.  If the world of the future is to be a world in which domination is minimized then it must be a world in which people cooperate and work together without the promptings of the lash or the enforcement officer.  That would be a world in which the four pagan virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, and courage; are joined to the three Christian virtues: faith, hope, and love.


The third idea is the working out of voluntary cooperation.  It was Adam Smith who noted the peculiar operation of economic cooperation.  Man the social animal takes care of his own needs by satisfying the wants of others, thus delivering public benefits from private selfishness.  Despite the despotism of instrumental reason, people do not often try to exploit each other, especially others with whom they have a long-term relationship.  They like to cooperate.  Even in the most rigorous bureaucratic organizations, even in the modern army, people have found that the best instrumental results are obtained when people are freed from the tyranny of rules, when they are given responsibility and are encouraged to work together and help each other.

Humans are social animals.  Humans do best when their natural sociability is encouraged and developed.  What a concept!