Monday, December 17, 2012

Fifty Years of "The Calculus of Consent"

The bible on political is The Calculus of Consent by James M. Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, first published back in 1962.

Wow!  That means that we are celebrating its golden anniversary.  I wonder why I wasn't aware of this until today.  It's not as if people haven't been celebrating.

But I have been reading the book, so you don't have to.  No sex, no plot twists, you see.  Nothing to keep the reader's attention, except a devotion to learning.

In Calculus Buchanan and Tullock analyze the behavior of electors and politicians using the normal economic assumption that people seek to maximize utility, and with occasional resort to game theory.

Since I've just finished the chapter on special-benefit legislation using general taxation and the chapter on general-benefit legislation using targeted taxation, I thought you'd be interested to know what Buchanan and Tullock have to say.

In the case of special-benefit legislation, (e.g., getting the whole county to pay for a few peoples' road improvements) the average individual voter is going to get screwed unless he is able to bargain for compensation from the majority.  Since this is usually called "corruption" except when legislators do it informally in the process known as "logrolling" you can see that special benefit legislation is a bad deal for the average person.

In the case of general-benefit legislation, let us just quote from the book:
If the dominant majority is able to impose the full costs of general-benefit projects on the minority, it follows that all projects yielding any benefits at all to the majority coalition members, and costing no more than the maximum taxable capacity of the minority, will be adopted without question... [F]or all such projects a member of the majority coalition may secure some net benefit without cost to himself.(p.166-7)
As in "the rich pay a little more" Mr. President.

So Buchanan and Tullock judge that: "There is nothing in the operation of majority rule to insure that public investment is more 'productive' than alternative employments of resources".

An interesting claim in Buchanan's and Tullock's analysis is that "side payments" (or logrolling or graft or bribes) tend to reduce the amount of over-investment.  In other words, when the majority has to pay off the minority in order to get its project passed, then the value of the project to the majority is reduced, and the less "productive" investments won't get passed.  This seems to go against common sense.  You would think that, if side payments were forbidden, that it would be harder to pass special interest legislation.

But you can see why limited government is a good idea.  If there is no identifiable benefit from public "investment" then maybe we should all get together and limit the ability of organized minorities and dominant majorities from imposing costs on their fellow citizens.

Try telling that to President Obama.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Canon of Limited Government

The foundation of the human condition is simple.  Humans are social animals.  We are groupish; we do things together.  In that we are like the chimpanzees, where the males work together to defend a food-bearing territory, and we are unlike the orangutans, where males are solitary except during the mating season.

It is said that if you put a group of Americans into a room to solve a problem they will do so, and they will solve the problem by trying to take care of everyone's concerns.  My own experience bears this out.  When I was sent into a room years ago with eleven other Americans to try a man for first-degree murder the question turned on two female teachers that weren't quite ready to go "beyond a reasonable doubt."  It took gentle persuasion to get to unanimity, helping the two holdouts to agree with the rest of the jury by satisfying their own doubts about the defendant's guilt.

But there is a serpent in the garden.  "Men like power and will seize it if they can," writes Nicholas Wade in The Faith Instinct.  Humans are not just social animals, from the Latin "socius" or companion.  Humans are political animals that like power.  So it is that politicians are dividers.  You can put a group of Americans into a room together, and they will likely work out a solution to their problem.  It follows that it takes a politician to keep Americans divided and get them to fight.  That is what an election is all about, to reduce the seizure of power from a real civil war into a civil war by other means, a vigorous exchange of insults and anathemas between two political armies arranged on the field of battle.  But of course a political election has winners and losers, unlike the consensual persuasion of Americans-in-a-room, and the winners get to occupy the seat of government and impose their will on the losers.

Which reminds us that government is force.  The word comes from the Latin "gubernare," to steer.  It is not true, as a video at the 2012 Democratic National Convention proposed, that "government's the only thing we all belong to."  We all belong to the human race; we all belong to society; we all belong on the Earth.  We belong to the government in the same way as soldiers belong to the army: both have the power to force us to do things.  Is that the best that we can hope for?  To belong to an organization with power over us?  Of course not.  We have another name for the "thing we all belong to" when you remove the force: we call it society: from the Latin "socius."  Thus David Cameron's catchphrase: "There is such a thing as society; it's just not the same thing as the state."

Let us return to Nicholas Wade and complete his maxim about men and power: "But if they can't rule, their next preference is that no one rule over them."  That is the calculus of power.  It's great to rule, and men like it when they can get it.  But if they can't rule, nobody else should either.

But how can you decide: between power and the absence of power?  The answer is that government should be limited.  There's nothing remarkable about that.  If we don't like other people seizing power over us, the solution is to go into a room together and hammer out a social contract that limits everyone's power over others, and limits the power of every group over other groups.

And as we know, humans are social animals; we are groupish.  If you put humans into a room together to solve a problem...

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Internal Colonialism in America

No, I am not talking about slavery or the Trail of Tears.  I am talking about the colonial regime of today's liberals, ruling class of the administrative welfare state.

Nor am I channeling some way-out right-wing whacko.  I am amplifying what Jürgen Habermas and James C. Scott have written.  And they are good card-carrying global lefty academicians.

The idea of "internal colonialism" is that the modern administrative welfare state acts towards its native citizens the way that colonial regimes once acted towards their "natives."  It treats them like children that aren't really competent to decide their own affairs.  It organizes the education of the nation's real children, because what about the children of illiterate parents that can't make the right decision for them?  It organizes unemployment relief because who can expect the workers to do it for themselves?  It organizes health care for grannie and pensions for grandpa--after all, who can trust their health care to insurance companies or their money to the Wall Street casino?

The reality, of course, is that nobody looks after other peoples' money--or anything else--better than they look after their own.  So the administrative welfare state is in the process of degenerating from a paternalistic welfare state into a naked grab for loot.

But how does the welfare state really compare with a real colonial regime, like the British in India?

The British started by establishing trading posts in the early 18th century, and then started meddling in local politics, because, after all, commerce may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in commerce.  By about 1800 Britain was a real power in India and Edmund Burke had made a scandal of Governor Warren Hastings and his looting of various Indian princes.  So we may say that 1800 marked the transition from a buccaneering era into a more avuncular era.  But then came the Great Mutiny of the Indian Army in 1857 that was experienced by the Indians as the Great Uprising.

The Great Uprising failed, let us say, because India was not yet a nation.  It hated the British, but it was not unified and organized.  But 1857 marked the beginning of the end, as the British became simply imperial overlords, expert in keeping India divided and subservient--for a while.

At the turn of the 20th century the Indian National Movement started to become a real power.  It was led by men like Mohandas Gandhi, a man from Gujarat who traveled to London to become a British barrister.  Then there was Jawaharlal Nehru; he went to Harrow, the same British public school as Winston Churchill, and then university at Cambridge.  When these men returned to India they understood the British through and through and they led the Indian National Movement to victory; they knew how to make British power in India into a worldwide scandal and an embarrassment to the British.   It was political idealism at its very best: that is why Gandhi's brilliant non-violence tactics have been emulated across the world.

When you look at liberal colonialism in America, it is clearly a horse of a different color.  It begins not in the messy buccaneering of Clive and Hastings but in a political ideal: to reform political corruption and make US politics more rational.  That is how the Progressive movement at the turn of the 20th century experienced itself.  America should have a proper central bank, progressive income taxes, and a social safety net, they said.  Ordinary Americans just couldn't do that on their own.

But then came the 1930s in which the Progressives utterly failed to make the central bank mitigate the Crash of 1929.  And then they administered the US into a ten year Slough of Despond by waging war on business.  A disaster like that requires a world-class coverup, and the Progressives became liberals, converting the failures of Franklin Delano Roosevelt into wonderful successes, and cementing their dynastic power by combining their movement with the big-city machines into a nation patronage operation.  So now the Progressives had graduated from being rational reformers into a ruling class with an agenda of maintaining their power.

The 1970s were a serious reverse for the liberal ruling class.  Their civil rights agenda ended in urban riots, their adventures in Vietnam into an unpopular war, and their social revolution into serious backlash.  So Ronald Reagan got to be president and show that it didn't need to be that way.  Anyone with eyes to see could tell that there were unintended consequences of administrative liberalism that even the liberals didn't see coming.  Liberals might think of themselves as the evolved, the educated people.  Others weren't so sure.

So liberalism entered its third phase.  The first Progressive phase was one of idealism and high-minded reform, the second New Deal phase one of benevolent dictatorship.  But in 1990, after the Reagan revolution, liberals opted for trench warfare and would do anything to keep their cultural and political power.  The party that passed the civil rights acts in the 1960s became the party that whipped the black vote into a monolithic bloc.  The party of the working man became the party of universal entitlements.  The party that urged us to rise above small-town narrowness cynically divided America any which way to win the next election.

Obviously, when a political class has descended to trench warfare to hold onto its power then it is entering a period of strategic retreat.  The only question that remains is whether its retreat is accompanied by scorched earth, whether it wrecks the nation in the process of losing its power.  In the Anglosphere the last two transitions of power have been benign: the landowners gave up power without a fight, and the bourgeoisie surrendered power to the working class even as it mucked up the economy.

But will liberals do the same?  Will they give up their internal colonial empire without a knockdown drag-out fight?  That is the great question as we head past the current "fiscal cliff" to the badlands of sovereign default and economic ruin.

Friday, December 7, 2012

"Internal Colonization"

Marxists may be terminally annoying, but they continue to produce compelling critiques of modern society.

Whereas liberals are totally useless.  Being the ruling class, liberals produce nothing but shoddy apology.

So let us look at Jürgen Habermas, a neo-Marxist who has brought the old Marxist idea of alienation to fruition.  The old Marxist idea was that modern labor under capitalism was alienating because labor was no longer social labor, working to create use value, but abstract labor, working to produce exchange value.

On top of that, Marx claimed, the actors in the capitalist market "reified" their activities.  They did not think of their relations as person-to-person, but thought of their activities in terms of thing-to-thing, an exchange of commodity for money.  That is what he meant by "commodity fetishism."

Habermas restates all this in terms that make sense to the average bear like me, by dividing the world up into "system" and "lifeworld."  Instead of abstract labor we have System.  Instead of social labor we have Lifeworld.  System is the market, and Lifeworld is the person-to-person relation.  More than that, System is the world of rational and strategic action.  You do almost everything in the market for gain, and it is very rational: sell, buy; make, create; up, down.  But the Lifeworld is not like that.  It is social, cooperative; it is language based, not reason based.  It is not up or down, but tries to create a consensus, a sharing.

Following Horkheimer and Adorno in A Dialectic of Enlightenment Habermas makes another important step.  He understands that the state, just as much as capitalism, is a rational system.  Both systems are based on "instrumental reason," trying to make things happen in the world by rational means.  And that means that government and business are both trying to "dominate nature and other men."  This means that government's project is the "internal colonization" of society.  Just as the European nations of the 18th and 19th century went around the world colonizing less powerful societies, so the modern state attempts to colonize its people with its experts and its bureaucrats, its regulation and its spending.

This is a punishing critique of the modern state, and a warning about its power.  We should be just as careful about government power as about business power.  Conservatives tend to worry about government power; liberals worry about corporate power.  But Habermas warns about all system power.

There is a difference between the two systems, beyond the analysis of Habermas.  It is that government is all about war.  When we say that government's primary job is to defend against enemies foreign and domestic we really mean that it is government's job to wage war on enemies foreign and domestic.  In other words, government is at loose ends unless it has an enemy to fight.  William James famously articulated this truth just before World War I when he advised that, since war was now unlikely, we would have to gussie up the "moral equivalent of war" to mobilize people to do important things.  We can see the truth of this in the periodic campaigns that government comes up with: War on Want, War on Poverty, War on Drugs, Whip Inflation Now.

But this gives conservatives and limited government advocates an opening.  When deciding whether to start a new government program we should ask ourselves: is war the best way to do this?  Because every government program is about force.  It does not say, wow, saving for retirement is really a good thing, why don't we all save from our wages!  It says you must pay 15 percent of your wages to the government in return for a pension, or else.

So then you ask: if saving against a rainy day is a natural human thing to do, why do we force everyone to save?  If insuring against sickness is a natural thing to do, why do we force everyone into Obamacare?  If everyone can see the importance of getting an education, why force everyone into a compulsory government plan?

The answer comes easily from Habermas' idea of "internal colonization."  Because we, the ruling class, want to rule.  We don't want you running off and saving your own money; we want to force you to bank the money with us.  We don't want you running off educating your kid according to your crazy ideas; we want your kid indoctrinated with ruling class ideas.

But why do people put up with this?  Simple: there is an obvious attraction to colonialism.  If you go with the colonial masters you get to enjoy the free stuff, and maybe sup at the master's table--below the salt, of course.

But for some reason the colonized peoples of the 19th century didn't like the overall package.  They preferred to rule themselves according to their own way rather than truckle to their European colonizers.

The question for us is whether we continue to truckle to our native-born internal colonizers in return for all the free stuff.  Or whether we rise up and declare that we would rather live in our own way, backward and flawed, rather than ape the ways of our colonial masters.

Of course, today the question is moot, as President Obama takes us into the miasma of internal colonization on steroids.

But when the Obama years, "the years the locusts have eaten" are over, we will visit the internal colonization question again.

Nobody knows what answer the American people will give.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Does Kant Rescue Cause and Effect from Hume?

Perhaps the stickiest wicket that Kant faces in his Critique of Pure Reason is to roll back Hume's argument that there ain't no such thing as cause and effect.  For Hume, all we can say about events in the world is that B follows A.  We can never say that A caused B.

Since the Brits invented cricket, you can see that the German Kant would have to be really on his game to deal with the googlies from bowler Hume.  (Although I don't know if googlies had been invented yet).

In a way, Kant's whole transcendental machinery is designed to deal with Hume's challenge: what warrant can there be for any assertion of A being the cause of B?  The whole idea of the external experience of objects as appearances rather than things-in-themselves is the center of Kant's cunning plan to deal with Hume and his tricky bowling.

Kant makes his argument that, for any experience in the world, there must be a rule that predicts the occurrence of an event from a previous event, for if there were no rule in the mind connecting events then indeed all sequences of perceptions would be merely subjective, received impressions having no connection with any outside object.  On that view there would be no way to cognize any outside object.

The cunning trick is, of course, that we are not talking about events-in-themselves or outside-objects-in-themselves.  The events are appearances, impressions that the mind processes into unified judgments about what is going on out there.  If I see a boy in the neighbor's yard in the act of throwing a baseball towards my house I take note of that appearance.  If half a second later I receive the impressions of a crash and tinkle in the front room and a a boyish squeak from the neighbor's yard, I am justifying in applying a rule that baseballs thrown at my house are quite likely to hit my house and that the appearance (or hear-ance) of a crash and tinkle shortly after the appearance of the neighbor boy and his baseball justify my judgment that it was the boy wot done it.

It all revolves around the appearances vs. things-in-themselves game.  In the game of appearances I could always be wrong.  It's possible that I didn't see the other kid across the street and his baseball.  Or it could be that a meteorite came out of the sky and broke my window.

But none of that matters.  What matters is that Kant's transcendental machinery describes how my sensibility receives impressions from the outside world, which I process in accordance with my forms of intuition about space and time and then combine them into a manifold using the categories of understanding.  Then I apply judgement to bring the manifold to a unified experience of possible external objects of experience.  But those objects are only appearances, not things-in-themselves.

Good old Kant.  Gin clear, as always.  And four runs for the Königsberger against the best bowling in England.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Kant's Problematic Refutation of Idealism

Immanuel Kant came up with a wonderful idea.  Let's just say, he writes, that we can't see things "in themselves" but only as appearances.  In that one idea he elegantly avoids claiming that we can ever know the whole truth about life, the universe and everything.

Kant's idea is, of course, not much different from St. Paul's talk about seeing through a glass, darkly.  And it is echoed by the quantum mechanical dictum that you can't see anything in the sub-atomic world without disturbing it.  So you do not see an item "in itself" but only after you have nudged it, with some kind of electromagnetic or sub-atomic energy.  So whatever you are looking at, it is not the same as it was.

But Kant feels the need to demolish his predecessors with his Refutation of Idealism.  He wants to dispatch the Dogmatic Idealism of Berkeley and the Problematic Idealism of Descartes.

Problem is that most everyone agrees that Kant doesn't quite pull it off, thus violating the first rule of politics that if you come to overthrow the king you had better succeed.  Or else.

Kant wants to refute the Cartesian idea that the outer world is "doubtful and indemonstrable."  Kant crosses over Descartes' division between knowledge of internal and external states by setting out to prove that the "empirical consciousness of my own existence proves the existence of objects in space outside me."  Kant's argument is based on the idea that I am conscious of my existence in time and the presupposition of something "persistent in perception" and so on.  

The commentators all seem to agree that Kant doesn't finish the job.  Actually, they begin with contesting the first premise of his proof: "I am conscious of my existence as determined in time."  They say he doesn't even start the job of refutation properly.  

Even a tyro like me can see the problem.  Way back in the Transcendental Aestshetic Kant declares that time is a form of intuition that resides in the mind.  So we are using an intuition cooked up in the mind to argue for the existence of the real world?  Come on Immanuel.  You can do better than that!  You are really arguing Descartes' point that the only thing we can be sure about is the thinking "I"!

Really, Kant should stick with the beauty and the elegance of his central creative insight.  We can't know things in themselves.  Everything we know about anything (including our internal self) is founded on belief.  We believe in an "I"; we believe in an external world.  And until our brains start to rot in old age, that belief seems to work for us.  It gets us food, shelter, and a new generation on the ground and out of the nest.  

There's a refutation of idealism for you: grandchildren!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Kant and "Dogmatic Idealism"

Kant set himself a big task in his Critique of Pure Reason. It was not perhaps as big a task as that of the Rev. Edward Casaubon in his "Key to All Mythologies," but big nonetheless.

Kant wanted to spike Descartes's skeptical idealism, that the "I" was indubitable, but the world not so much. He wanted to whack Berkeley for his dogmatic idealism that the world was an illusion.  But he also wanted to deal with Hume and his denial of cause and effect.  Never mind that he also had a mind to derail the whole global industry busily proving that God existed, not to mention the rapidly growing atheist startups aggressively insisting that God didn't exist.

Common sense tells us that the world exists; that's what Dr. Johnson insisted by kicking a stone with his foot and saying of Berkeley's idealism "I refute it thus."  Common sense tells us that every effect has a cause, even if we didn't see the cause coming before the effect.  So somehow those clever Dicks had to be wrong.

Now you might think that Kant was also a dogmatic idealist.  After all, his repeated insistence that we do not know things in themselves but only appearances suggests that we do not have knowledge of things in the outside world.

I prefer to interpret Kant as setting out the first modern attempt to figure how our mind/brain actually deals with the outside world.  He does this by accepting (even as he insists he refutes) the positions of his predecessors.  Yes it's true that we cannot be too certain about the outside world (Descartes) and that it could all be an illusion (Berkeley) and that cause-and-effect is a tricky business (Hume) especially if you get the cause for an effect wrong.  So what?

So Kant sets up what we would call a "model" of the way that humans deal with the outside world, whatever it really is.  We possess "sensibility", the "capacity... to acquire representations" from the outside world.  From the representations we form "intuitions" based on the forms of intuition inside us about space and time.  We apply the categories of the understanding to our intuitions and then form a unified judgment about the result through the power of "apperception" or self-consciousness.  This judgment is made about the object given in sensibility, its appearance as conditioned by our intuition our understanding and so on.  But what the object really is, in itself, can never be known to us.

It all comes down to common sense.  We know, if we know anything, that we should never assume that we have nothing left to learn, that we have grasped the complete truth about life, the universe, and everything.

Because the moment that you figure you have everything figured out, the world will refute you, "thus."

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Can Kant Comprehend Sub-atomic Particles?

Kant's transcendental philosophy is an odyssey between the Scylla of rationalism and the Charybdis of empiricism.

He does not deny that thoughts are real, or that the world is real.  He just says that we cannot know the world as it is in itself.  We can only know appearances.  Our knowledge of the world is constructed upon the way that we manipulate and synthesize sensation into a unified object of experience.

But what about quantum physics?  The recent discovery of the Higgs boson was predicated on the statistics of the recording of certain energetic events on certain detectors at a government-funded particle accelerator designed especially for the discovery of the Higgs boson.  Does that count as sensation?

Locke speculated about a "microscopical eye" that could  see into the "secret composition and radical texture of bodies".  And Kant in the Architectonic of Pure Reason talks about the limited reach of an idea, for the elaboration of the idea into a scientific schema "seldom corresponds to the idea; for this lies in reason like a seed... hardly recognizable even under microscopic observation."

But does the gigantic apparatus of a particle accelerator boil down, in essence, to a microscopical eye or a microscopic observation?  Is the experimentation of modern physics contemplated by Kant's transcendental machinery?  He says that the "capacity (receptivity) to acquire representations through the way in which we are affected by objects is called sensibility."  Does sensibility extend to the eye reading the report on the statistics prepared by a team of physicists detailing six months of particle collisions in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva?

So if we accept the results of the physicists, does that make the Higgs boson an "object of possible experience"?  Here, of course, we are getting beyond individual experience to the notion of science as the project of a social community of scientists, as divined by Thomas Kuhn.

The larger purpose of Kant's first Critique was to deal with the conundrums arising from Descartes, who thought that the "I" was indubitable but the world was dubitable, to Hume who argued that knowledge was a rickety construction built on a bundle of impressions, to the impossibility of proving God's existence on reason alone.  Yet here we were in Kant's time with science burgeoning and generals using the results of science in their very real artillery.  Kant built the first detailed analysis of human cognition, recognizing it as what we would call a feedback loop.  Objects act on us through our sensibility and we form judgments about objects as objects of possible experience.  But we do not know them as they are in themselves.  We only know them as they appear to us and as we think them.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of modern science and technology is how they have changed the way that objects can act on our sensibility.  Years ago I remember watching a TV science program in which they showed how human objects on a beach appeared in different forms of light, from infrared to ultraviolet.  Things look very different when you illuminate them with different light.  And how really do they look "in themselves?"  All we know is how they appear to us, as illuminated to us.  A snake has infra-red detectors, all the better to detect warm-bodied mice in the nighttime.  Why not?  Sense organs are not there just for the contemplation of the ineffable; they are there for survival.

Of course Kant didn't predict everything.  But he did set the stage for us moderns.  Don't think that what you see is what you get.  The "thing-in-itself" may be very different from its appearance.  If indeed there is such a thing as the "thing-in-itself."

Friday, November 16, 2012

Kuhnian Conservatism

Why don't the American people get it?  That's what conservatives ask themselves deep down.  Why don't the American people understand that the welfare state is doomed and that the only question is just when it goes over the cliff.

It helps to realize that nobody has the inside track on reality.  We are all, following Kant, looking at appearances.  Nobody gets to look behind the curtain at the really real, at the thing-in-itself.

If indeed there is such a thing as a thing in itself.

The guy that popularized this approach is Thomas S. Kuhn of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  He argued that most of the time scientists do "normal science;" they trog along taking their current "paradigm" of how-the-world-works for granted and solve the latest problems.  When they get a result that doesn't compute the ignore it as "anomalous."  But eventually the anomalous results start to pile up and the paradigm breaks down, at least to the satisfaction of the young-uns.  A period of revolution ensues with all its chaos and disappointment.  Eventually the old generation dies out and the new generation takes over doing normal science using the new paradigm.

For conservatives, the old paradigm of the administrative welfare state has broken down.  There are anomalous results as far as the eye can see.  Obviously, we argue, the Crash of 2008 was caused by decades of mortgage subsidies and liberal bullying of bankers.  Liberals, of course, don't agree; they think that the Crash was caused by greedy bankers and an out-of-control Wall Street.  If only the rich would pay a little more then everything would return to normal.  Taxes and regulation, that's the ticket.

The American people, of course, are stuck in the middle.  They are inclined to believe liberals that tell them that they deserve their entitlements and very likely free contraception.  But they sense that something is amiss.  But, like Scarlett, they will worry about that tomorrow.  But the main thing about the American people is that they don't really have a theory of how the world works.  Unlike conservatives, they don't passionately believe in the Invisible Hand and the power of the market to provide universal prosperity.  They are employees and their experience of hands is more the Visible Hand of the boss or the layoff notice.  But unlike liberals they don't have a deep and abiding faith in the power of large-minded liberals in rational programs to organize health, education, and welfare for other people.  To them, liberals are just another kind of boss.

Liberals got into trouble a generation ago when their economics and politics got the US into the Carter malaise with 10 percent inflation and 10 percent unemployment.  The result was that a conservative with radical ideas about cutting spending and tax rates could get elected president.

Now we are in another era where liberal ideas are failing miserably.  But they aren't yet failing miserably enough.

But obviously, the Kuhn approach speaks volumes to us.  In our era "normal politics" is the liberal approach of tax and spend and regulate.  But liberal politics ends up in inflation and debt default then people will experience that the old ways have broken down; it will be time for a new approach.

That is why I write about the era of the Welfare State Smashup.  People don't look for new ideas just for the fun of it.  They look for new ideas when the old ones don't seem to work any more.

The only way for conservative ideas to get a real tryout is for liberal ideas to demonstrably fail.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Next Great Moral Movement

Everyone keeps telling Republicans to lose the social issues.  Which is great advice, until the next great moral movement arrives.  Then you'd better get with the movement or disappear from the public square.

What do I mean?  I mean that human society runs partly on self-interest and partly on morality.  You may think that everyone operates purely on self-interest, but they don't.  People want to believe that they are on the side of the angels, and they spend a lot of energy persuading themselves that their nasty little hypocrisies are just minor and temporary diversions from the straight and true.  That is why they say that hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue.

If we look back at the modern age, we have seen two great moral movements.

The first was the anti-slavery movement.  The argument was simple.  Here we western chappies were drinking our tea and coffee with sugar from slave plantations, and making a nice little packet of money out of it too.  We were treating the slaves that put the sugar on our tables as mere human resources, human machines that we could exploit and use up without regard to their humanity.  The philosopher Immanuel Kant put it this way.  We should treat people as "ends" not as "means."  The plantation slave is the ultimate in treating a human as a means, a mere resource to be used and burned up like coal or oil.

The second great moral movement was similar to the first.  It was the socialist movement.  The argument was almost exactly the same.  We were treating the people that worked in factories, in mines, and mills, as if they were machines, to be worked hard until they were used up.  Again, like the plantation slave system, the factory system treated the worker as purely a means, a mere resource, rather than a brother or sister human.  It was inhuman.

It is easy to describe and to oppose such crimes against humanity, but much harder to really do something about them.  The battle against slavery ended in a century of Jim Crow for the liberated slaves, and the liberation of the worker spawned the most cruel and oppressive political regimes imaginable.

There is a reason why these noble movements went so far astray.  They put their faith in government and government is always and everywhere a system of force.  So, the activists decided that the solution to a system of exploitation and force was to substitute another system of force.  Tell me another one.

The upshot is that we have our modern gigantic governments careening out of control and enslaving their peoples in the name of liberation.

Obviously this will not go on forever.  A moral movement will arise to fight the injustice and the hypocrisy of a system that professes sweetness and light and practices the arts of oppression and exploitation.

Reenter the social issues.  The modern conservative critique of the liberal culture is that it is a culture of pure selfishness and encourages its votaries to treat all other humans as a means to an end.

Sex?  You can couple and uncouple as the mood takes you, but No means No except when it doesn't.  Marriage?  Critical for gays but optional for everyone else.  And babies.

Yeah.  A woman has the right to control her body.  And that means she can terminate the life of her "fetus" or "unborn baby" as she chooses, treating the life within her purely as a means rather than a end.

My guess is that, sooner or later, we will see a great moral movement arise about the whole question of sex, marriage, and abortion.  Whatever liberals say, the sexual revolution has been a mixed blessing to women and children--and men too.  You can see the results in Charles Murray's Coming Apart.  Marriage and family is doing fine in the upper-income educated class.  It is collapsing in the underclass and seriously damaged in the middle class.  Social collapse is really hard on the kiddies.

Nobody can predict the timeline on the next great moral movement, any more than people can predict the stock market.  My guess is that it will really get going in the debris of government debt and default that is coming in the next few years.  Probably it has already started, but we boobs can't see it because we are looking in the wrong places.

But when it comes it will change everything.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Indictment

Conservatives have only one real problem with the administrative welfare state. Our problem is that the welfare state is unjust. Of course, we don't like the fact that it is also cruel, corrupt, wasteful, and anti-human-welfare, but the extras are just penumbras on the basic indictment.  Don't agree?  Let me count the ways.

Force.  Government is force, and big government is big-time force.  The result is that many social functions become exercises in force.  We are forced to send our children to school, and for the overwhelming majority, that means a government school run by government supporters.  We are forced to contribute to a government pension scheme, and the government manages the scheme badly.  We are forced to contribute to a government health-care scheme for our retirement years, and the government has badly underestimated the resources it will take to deliver the promised services.  What is the solution?  For government, more force.

Division.  Government is the means to defend against enemies, foreign and domestic.  But government cannot fight the foe unless it unites the people against the enemy threat.  Thus politicians are experts in the art of uniting.  But that also means they are experts in the art of dividing.  If there is no foreign threat that politicians can use to unite us then they will unite one half of the nation, in a political party, to fight against the other half.  There is nothing sinister about this; that's just what politicians do.  Obviously the more the government does, and the more money it spends, the more scope there is for uniting and dividing.  You can do it with class, you can do it with race.  You can set employees against business owners, and health-care consumers against insurance companies.  The more division you can create, the more that you can mobilize your supporters against the evil greedy ones.  There has to be a better way.

Freeloading.  Freeloading is the great issue for social animals.  We derive enormous benefit from our social engagement with each other, but every society has to deal with the freeloaders, the people that want to get their share without contributing their share.  In the past, societies have developed ingenious ways of dealing with freeloaders short of force, including naming and shaming and divine justice.  Of course, societies have long accepted that some people just cannot contribute, for no fault of their own.  But now we have developed the cult of the victim, in which people are encouraged to define themselves as indigent and unable to contribute their fair share.  Politicians use the cult of the victim to build support.  Where once leaders frankly offered loot and plunder to the warriors in their feudal host, now they offer loot and plunder to people that vote for them and define themselves as victims.

Patronage and Clientage.  In the agricultural era the food producers lived under a peculiar disadvantage.  They needed to store food against the next harvest, but any pirate or plunderer could come by and steal their store.  So the food producers ended up as clients of feudal patrons; they became serfs to warriors that could keep the plunderers at bay.  Since the warrior lords were predatory as well as the pirates, you might say that the cure was often worse than the disease.  Now the bourgeois revolution in the early modern era proposed to ditch this patron-client social relationship with the national state model.  The monarch got an army to defend against marauders, and the people were free to produce and consume in a market economy without having to truckle to a powerful patron.

It is clear, from the history of the last 200 years, that when people first arrive in the city from the country they bring their old patron-client culture with them from the countryside.  All immigrants to the US have begun by joining some sort of patronage machine, from Tammany Hall to the modern Democratic Party.  That is what they understand.  It is only when they get confident and competent in the world of the city that they come to embrace the individualist creed, which asserts the notion of the responsible self that confidently offers services to the community based on the faith that the money will follow.

But really, do we need a patron-client relationship to govern government employment?  Do we want basic social services to be delivered by powerful bosses?  Do we want favors distributed to grateful clients on the basis of race or class?  That way lies injustice.

Impossibility of reform.  The market economy is a process of constant adjustment.  No job, no fortune is guaranteed.  Every participant must consider, every day, how to serve the consumer.  That is why so many of us look to government to guarantee our jobs with labor legislation and preserve our fortunes with crony capitalism; we just don't have confidence in our ability to serve the consumers.  But the result is that government makes impossible promises to its supporters that cannot be withdrawn without a fight.  That is what is happening in Europe right now as people riot in the streets to protest the cuts in social services.

Any system that cannot reform itself short of riots in the streets is a failed system.  The welfare state system is a process of political warfare, a battle to divide the spoils of taxation and borrowing and regulation.  But the winners in each battle seem to think that they have won for all time, and are willing to fight to assert that right of victory.  There has to be a better way.

There is a better way.  Conservatives have recommended a limited government since the dawn of the modern era.  But Marxists have come a close second.  It was Marx that wanted to free the workers from the alienation of wage labor in factories so they could develop their human capacity to the fullest.  It was the Marxists of the Frankfurt School that argued that government and business both had dominatory tendencies, reducing everything to the mechanics of rules and system.  There had to be another way, a social way, that resolved issues of social cooperation in communication and persuasion rather than rules and penalties.

Everybody wants a better way.  Liberals call it "peace and justice."  Conservatives call it "limited government and peaceful cooperation."  The question is how do we get there from here?

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Paradox of the Enlightenment

At the core of Immanuel Kant's great attack on his philosophical predecessors, from Descartes to Berkeley and Hume, is the great Paradox of the Enlightenment.

Here we had the most stunning development in human thought, Newtonian mechanics, that showed how us how the world worked.  Yet against that we have Descartes saying that "I" can't be sure of the external world, Berkeley saying that the exterior world is an illusion, and Hume saying we can't be sure about cause and effect.

Just when Newton has reduced the operation of the external world to a few equations that allowed, e.g., artillery officers to predict where artillery shells would land, the philosophers said: Don't get cocky, kid.

One of the places in in Critique of Pure Reason where Kant really concentrates his fire on his predecessors is in the "paralogisms," i.e. the logical mistakes of his predecessors.

In the Fourth Paralogism, Kant takes on the doubtful existence of outer reality, the real world.  In the first edition, Kant put the paralogism this way.  Things that can only be inferred from perceptions are doubtful.  All outer appearances are inferred.  Therefore "objects of outer sense" are doubtful.

In the second edition, Kant takes a different tack in a rather confused paragraph (B409) that already assumes the error.  He seems to be arguing against this syllogism:  I am distinguished from things outside me.  Other things are those that I think of as distinguished from me.  Therefore I exist as a thinking being.  Or maybe not.

But Kant drills a hole in this argument before he makes it, for by the second edition he can't be bothered too much about making the arguments of his predecessors.  His point is the Great Argument of his entire critique.  If I am confident that the "I" exists, then how could I know it without experience of the outside world?  For against Descartes, Kant argues that we cannot have any knowledge of ourselves apart from our moment to moment experience of self-consciousness as we deal with and process data given to our senses, and try to make sense of it.

Kant's "I" is a component in the human machinery that receives sense impressions, combines them with forms of intuition, gathers the sense impressions and intuitions with the categories of the understanding and creates, using the "I" of apperception (self-consciousness), a unified object of appearance, a judgment about the outside world.  And don't forget that this object in the outside world can only be known as an appearance, not as a thing-in-itself.

If you think about the world like Kant, then all the mind games about mental substances and material substances, the indubitable I and the dubitable outside world, all these things fall away, because they are all integrated together into what we would now call an OODA loop.

Notice that if you subtract the "I" of self-consciousness from Kant's machinery, then you still have a working model of existence in the real world, but one that applies to the "lower" animals.  As far as we know, they get their sense impressions and unify them with intuitions and categories of the understanding.  What they do not do is then apply reason to their unified understanding to get to judgment.  Their judgment is hard-wired rather than flexible.  So they operate in the real world without an I at all, but instead, as we highly advanced humans suppose, in an egoless flow of consciousness.

Since Kant's time, of course, the Paradox of the Enlightenment has increased and deepened.  For now we may know much more about the sensible world, and even in the interior mental world, yet we know less and less "what it's all about."

Friday, October 19, 2012

Why We Need Intuitions AND Concepts

OK, says Kant in the first Critique.  You could say that appearances that we get from our senses chunked together with intuitions are all there is.  Just as Hume suggests with his "associationism."  That's the point of his setup before the Transcendental Deduction:
Appearances might very well be so constituted that the understanding should not find them to be in accordance with the conditions of its unity.  And everything might lie in such confusion that, e.g., in the succession of appearances nothing would offer itself that would furnish a rule of synthesis and thus answer to the concept of cause and effect, so that this concept therefore would be entirely empty, nugatory, and without significance.  Appearances would nonetheless offer objects to our intuition, for intuition by no means requires the functions of thinking. (B123/A90)
Sorry to punch all that out, but it's important.  Kant here is making Hume's argument.  Hey, maybe our mind just gathers up appearances in a bundle and reads the patterns therein.  So maybe we just note the patterns and say, wow, there's a pattern here!  First the sun rose yesterday, and then it rose today!  Maybe there's a pattern here.  No need for analysis; no need for thinking; no need for concepts.

But Kant cannot accept this.  When we "cognize" an object, he claims, we do more than make a reactive burp in response to sense impressions.  And  so he lurches into the Transcendental Deduction to prove that we synthesize our bundle of intuitions using the forms of intuition in space and time and concepts derived from the categories, and then we unify the synthesis into a judgment about an object in an act of apperception, of a self-conscious validity claim.

Kant calls this objective validity, which is a bit of a push, since he's talking about a "valid" cognizing of a unity of synthesized intuitions with the help of the concepts of the understanding into a unified "object."  The notion of "objective validity" is obtained by calling things by the conveniently right names.

For us, the interesting thing about Kant's argument is its foreshadowing of the modern approach to reality.  Kant is claiming that we are not really passive consumers of appearances, but purposeful actors.  We take the stuff coming in over the transom and organize it in our minds in a strategic effort to understand and judge what is going on out there in the tough and challenging world.  We process our sense data and then construct in our minds a picture of what we have seen.  We "think" what we see and advance our claim of what we have seen and what we judge we have seen.

Forget Hume, Kant says.  I offer you a whole new world of active, purposeful "cognizing."

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Kant's Best Shot: "Objective Reality"

In the Transcendental Deduction, Kant hauls out his big gun against Hume's "associationism:" he calls it "objective reality."  The idea is that if you run your lumber through Kant's three-stage lumber mill, inserting raw logs of sense impressions into the circular saw that slices the sense impressions through the forms of intuition, and then you assemble the manifold of resulting log intuitions into the synthesis of a stacked pallet, then you can judge the resulting stack of Grade A two-by-fours as a "necessary unit of the apperception in the synthesis of intuitions."

Why is this objective?  Because writes Kant, "[the] transcendental unity of apperception is that unity through which all of the manifold given in an intuition is united in the concept of the object.  It is called objective on that account[.]"(§18, B140)  Get it?  Since the thinker has united his manifold of sense impressions into a unified single object, he now has an objective reality.  The "subjective unity of  consciousness"  (Hume's association) is merely a "determination of inner sense" without the uniting into a single object.

So while we have merely a bundle of sense impressions we don't have a unified object, and therefore no objective reality.

What Kant seems to be trying to argue is that an objectively valid judgement is one that makes a claim, an assertoric judgment, as "this body is heavy."  This is a claim that can be agreed to or denied by others.  The statement that "bodies and heaviness seem to go together," i.e., a weaker claim than Kant's phrase "If I carry a body I feel a pressure of weight" comes closer to the Humean idea of a bundle of impressions.

But really, it seems to be much more sensible to accept Hume's skepticism that you can never really apply objective criteria to a truth claim about an association, and move to modern neo-pragmatism and say that look, the science is settled on this, at least a low velocities, so we know, from our concepts of the understanding, that bodies are heavy and bodies of gold are really heavy.  Until someone proves us wrong.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

"Thoughts without content are empty"

It's one of the most quoted zingers in Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.
Thoughts without content are empty.  Intuitions without concepts are blind.
OK.  So what is the chap talking about?  Kant's whole game is to deal with the David Hume challenge, his so-called "associationism."  On this view we humans are more or less passive consumers of a bundle of sense impressions of the real world.  Kant's strategy is to turn this on its head.  No we don't associate sense impressions with the real world.  We take formless sense impressions, view them with the forms of intuition about space and time, synthesize them with intuitions, and then own them as ours by applying the pure concepts of the understanding to our intuitions and finally applying judgments.

The experts call this the "togetherness principle."  You need both concepts and intuitions to achieve useful judgments about the world as it appears to you.   Kant repeats his famous apothegm several times:
  • "[N]either concepts without intuition corresponding to them in some way nor intuition without concepts can yield a cognition."
  • "Thus pure intuition contains merely the form under which something is intuited, and pure concept only the form of thinking of an object in general."
  • "Without sensibility no object would be given to us, and without understanding none would be thought."
  • "The understanding is not capable of intuiting anything, and the senses are not capable of thinking anything."
All along, Kant is arguing for the importance of both intuition and concepts in full human cognition.  Thus, Kant might have made things clearer had he written:
Thoughts without sensible content cannot apply to the real world; intuitions without rational concepts cannot be used for judgment.
For all its famous difficulty.  Kant's Critique does have its moments.


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Are Space and Time Real?

We humans are born, live, and die, and experience ourselves moving through time.  We open our eyes and see objects before us.  It seems sensible to see space as a container, as Plato did, and time as the flow of a river.  But are they real?  Can we speak as Newton did of absolute space and time?

The early modern era brought these questions into sharp relief, and by the time that Kant came along there were several contesting notions abroad, from Newton's absolute space and time--though he insisted that humans could only experience relative space and time--to Bishop Berkeley's idealist notion that we cannot experience absolute space and time and so should content ourselves with experiencing sensible things.  For Hume, impressions come before ideas, so space is our interpretation of a bundle of impressions that seems to suggest extension.

Kant's Big Idea is to drive his ship between the Scylla of absolute space and time and the Charybdis of external impressions.  He doesn't want to prejudge the world as real, for Berkeley shows that our ideas of the world are all in the mind.  But he doesn't want to concede to Hume that the world imprints itself upon us.  Thus for him space and time are forms of intuition independent of experience.  They form a mental framework, forms of intuition, that the mind uses to make sense of sensible impressions.  Says he:
By means of outer sense [i.e. physical sensations of external objects]... we represent objects as outside us, and all as in space.
But he argues that the "representation of space" can't be obtained from experience but rather that "outer experience is itself possible only through this representation."  We do not get our experience from outside; we manufacture it inside us, and only then apply it to the outside world.

This is a theme that repeats itself again and again in Kant, and you can see that it comes down to us in current notions of the way that science works.  You have a problem, so you gather some data.  Then you come up with a theory in your mind, a mental idea of how the world works.  You test it against the data.  If it works, your mental idea is your new view of the world.  Until your wonderful theory crashes and burns and another theory comes up and supersedes it.

Now Kant does not consider space as an illusion, existing only in the mind.  He argues the reality of space for "everything that comes before us externally as an object."  But he insists on the "transcendental ideality" of space when we are talking about things in themselves.

When it comes to time, Kant asserts that "time is nothing other than the form of inner sense, i.e., of the intuition of our self and our inner state."  And it is a necessary condition of our experience of space as well, because we could not experience external objects unless they were experienced in time.

Again, Kant asserts the "empirical reality of time" an an objective reality of all "objects that may ever be given to our senses."  But not "absolute time". That "transcendental ideality" could "never be given to us through the senses."

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Kant and Copernicus

There's a sad truth about books with brilliant theories that change the world.  They often don't even cause a ripple, not at first.  And the audience for the book, the educated elite, sneers at it.

That's what happened to Kant after the publication of A Critique of Pure Reason in 1781.  Poor chap!  Here he had reformulated the whole basis of western philosophy and all he got for it was a few crank calls.

But the dear old chap set to work.  He published in 1783 the Dummies version of the Critique, a Prolegomena for Any Future Metaphysics.  Then in 1787 out came the heavily revised second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason.  It's in the preface to the second edition that Kant makes a bid for world domination.  Copernicus, he writes,
when he did not make good progress in the explanation of the celestial motions if he assumed that the entire celestial host revolves around the observer, tried to see if he might not have greater success if he made the observer revolve and let the stars at rest.
 Yeah, Manny.  Why not compare yourself with the Great One!

Kant's revolution is a little different from the Copernican revolution.  He's not concerned with the motions of the planets.  He just wants to know how we cognize the world.  As he says: "up to now it has been assumed that all our cognition must conform to the objects" but all our efforts on this line have "come to nothing."  So let's do it the other way around, he writes.  Let's assume "that the objects must conform to our cognition" on the view that our minds organize the world using "categories" to interpret the appearances of the world, so establishing "something about the objects before they are given to us."

One of the rewarding things about studying chaps like Kant is to see how these brilliant pioneers are getting the first fuzzy view of what the average bear takes for granted today.  In Leibniz we get the idea of "monads" which are non-visible elements of everything but which cannot be directly experienced.  That's an wonderful guess at our modern idea of "quanta" that we moderns have cognized using the penetrating power of what Locke called "microscopical eyes" and we call particle accelerators.

Then Kant, with his idea that the mind organizes reality according to categories formed in the mind, brilliantly prefigures modern knowledge about the brain and the way we organize the impulses coming into our brains from our senses.  I remember seeing a documentary as a kid where they gave people "upside-down" eye-glasses that made everything look upside down.  After about a month, the brains of the test subjects inverted the image the subject saw.  So then, if they took off the glasses, the world looked upside down again.

Then, of course, there is Noam Chomsky's idea that we are already programmed to do language before we start to speak.

Kant's brilliant step is to say: look, let's stop worrying about what the really-real is like.  Let's just think about how we experience the world and function in it.  Let's not worry about "things-in-themselves" when the only thing we know is what we experience, the appearances that we organize in our minds.

Today, two centuries after Kant, the latest "truth" about the really-real is that the universe is completely empty, except for tiny dots.  And the tiny dots turn out to be almost empty except for tiny nano-dots deep in the middle of the tiny dot.  The solidity that we experience with our eyes is just electromagnetic radiation in the "visible" part of the spectrum thrown off by pesky electrons fuzzing around a tiny dot.   If you illuminate an object with, e.g., X-rays, you see something completely different.

Of course, just as Marx turned Hegel upside down, converting Hegel's idealism into materialism, so Kant turned Copernicus upside down.  Copernicus said let's stop putting the observer at the center of the universe and put the sun at the center instead.  Kant said let's stop putting the objects out in the world at the center of our world and put the individual a priori cognition at the center of our understanding of the objects out in the world.

Hey, whatever floats your boat.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The History of the Ego

I've always thought that Michelangelo's vestibule and staircase to the Laurentian Library in Florence represents the Birth of the Ego.   At that moment, the artist and the architect ceased being a mere craftsman executing art for a client, but a fully fledged ego.  Now art was about the artist, not about the art.

But I was wrong.

In "Religious Evolution," a paper published in 1964, Robert Bellah puts the birth of the ego much earlier.  He puts it back in the Axial Age when Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhim, and Confucianism all began.  He calls them "historical religions", to differentiate them from the archaic religions that came before.  In the historical religion, the idea of the "self" clearly appears.
The identity diffusion characteristic of both primitive and archaic religions is radically challenged by the historic religious symbolization, which leads for the first time to a clearly structured conception of the self.  Devaluation of the empirical world and the empirical self highlights the conception of a responsible self, a core self or a true self, deeper than the flux of everyday experience, facing a reality over against itself, a reality which has a consistency belied by the fluctuations of mere sensory impressions... [T]he historic religions promise man for the first time that he can understand the fundamental structure of reality and through salvation participate actively in it.  The opportunity is far greater than before but so is the risk of failure.
And that is why, in the historic religions, we see for the first time the idea of the rejection of the world and the phenomenon that Rodney Stark calls "upper-class asceticism."  If the risk is so great then maybe it's best to retreat from the world in meditation or monastery.

Charles Taylor in his Sources of the Self talks a similar line, talking about the old "porous self," vulnerable to powers in the universe, and the new "buffered self" which is safe from spirits and demons.  With the porous self, evil just happens, but with the buffered self it is evil action of the self that entices Satan up from Hell.

There's a piece by Jeffrey Lord today about how liberals hate the middle class.  Exactly.  Liberals hate the responsible ego.  They hate American individualism, because they hate the responsible ego of the Axial Age religions.

But what about liberals?  They experience themselves as caring, compassionate communitarians, but are they?  Not a bit of it.  Let's tell the story of the Egos of the Western World.

The modern age begins with Descartes and his proclamation: "I think, therefore I am."  Let us call this the birth of the Rational Ego.  The 17th century and then the 18th century were full of rational ego heads.

But then what?  Obviously the next Big Thing is Romanticism, the reaction against the Age of Reason. What do we call those ego heads, your Rousseaus, your Herders, your Schillers?  We call them Creative Egos or Expressive Egos.  They are all about the transcendental work of art, the work of genius, the man who towered over the age because of his instinctive intellectual or artistic brilliance.

Next up, obviously, is the post-Napoleonic baby boom that burst upon the world in the 1840s.  Now we see the Revolutionary Ego.  The generation of Marx and Engels, according to Charles Taylor, combined the Rational and Expressive impulse.  The first baby boomers looked at the world and their creative feelings were outraged.  So they went out and built a science that would completely remake society according to their transcendent aesthetic plan.  Check Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott.

In the mid 19th century we also see the emergence of the Business Ego, as the industrial revolution went into overdrive and great railroad and steel corporations emerged from nowhere.  The Business Ego is a combination of the Responsible Ego and the Creative Ego, and that is why liberals hate it so much.  They don't like the Responsible Ego, and they resent the incandescent creativity of the great businessmen, the Rockefellers, the Carnegies, the Fords, the Waltons.  The achievements of the great business titans make liberal achievements seem puny, and they don't like that.  So liberals came up with a great idea:  why not call the great business titans Robber Barons?  No wonder the modern titans, the Gateses and the Buffetts, are careful to kowtow to their liberal masters.

Now we come to the late 19th century and the Progressive Era and its educated ruling class.  Here we see the birth of the Educated Ego, the dynasty of the people that think they have a right to rule ordinary Americans because they are educated.  Never mind that their ideas and their plans have devastated the middle-class culture of the Responsible Ego.

Maybe you think that the age of the great dictators calls for a new kind of ego, the Dictatorial Ego.  But the Dictatorial Ego is merely the final development of the Revolutionary Ego.  Nothing new there.

The next Big Thing is the Sixties.  But what should we say about the generation that tuned in, turned on, and dropped out?  Perfectly simple.  We should recognize the 1960s as the age of the Adolescent Ego.  That's when adolescent behavior reached critical mass and was celebrated by the great and the good.  It involves the Creative Ego but it's all done using Daddy's credit card in Mommie's basement.

Now here's a new idea.  Strictly speaking, the lower class and the underclass ought to be pre-egoic, because they don't experience responsibility for themselves, but only the distant "they" who are responsible for their problems.  But our liberal friends tend to exhibit members of the underclass to us as poster boys and girls for our greed and insensitivity towards human needs.  Once these people have been plucked out of obscurity and exhibited for the 15 minutes of fame, they become egos.  So we should call them Victimized Egos.  They aren't really victims, they just play victims on TV.

What about the environmentalists?  As celebrants of the cult of the Precautionary Principle, we should call them the Precautionary Egos.  They have come up with all kinds of reasons why nobody but themselves can be trusted to do anything.  They have revived the idea of upper-class asceticism and mapped it onto the oppressive regime of educational supervision.  So we have a combination of the Ascetic Ego and the Educated Ego.

Hmm.  That means that the Axial Age produced both the Responsible Ego and the Ascetic Ego.  Because, in my view, the ascetics, chaps like the Buddha, were total ego heads, whatever they said at the time.  If they weren't ego heads, we wouldn't know about them, right?

What about the good guys, the modern conservatives?  Well, the point about us is that we blend carefully and respectfully several ego themes.  We still honor the Responsible Ego, like Mitt Romney.  But we have certainly partaken of the Rational Ego and the Creative Ego in our celebration of modern business.  We are Communitarian Egos in our support for civil society and the mediating structures, the only true expression of community in the modern era that protects ordinary people from the power of the megastructures, big business and big government.  And we are Tolerant Egos.  No particular virtue there, of course.  We have to be tolerant, because we lack the cultural power to order other people around.

And what about President Obama?  How about the Failed Ego?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Can We Act Before It's Too Late?

Is it possible to Do Something about the federal budget mess before the nation goes over the cliff?  Probably not.  Writes Victor Davis Hanson about the Roman budget crisis:
The Roman satirist Juvenal lamented the ill effects of free food and free entertainment for the masses (“bread and circuses”) in part because he knew there was no remedy for the pathology in sight — and thus only a slow decline toward fiscal insolvency or riots were on the horizon.
Nothing changes.  The teachers of Wisconsin rioted against budget-balancing that made them contribute just a little more for their pensions.  And the Greeks are rioting against the reduction in their benefits from the state.  And these are regime supporters, people who support the idea of big government, people who should be all in favor of the government living within its means.

The irony is, as President Obama provokes the mob into rage against "the rich," that big-ticket thinkers of left and right agree that big government is a problem.  Conservatism was born in Edmund Burke as a reaction to the first hint of big government.  But it took the rise of fascism and pogroms against the Jews to get Jewish lefties like Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno to agree that the instrumental reason of the Enlightenment leads directly to domination and oppression: "what men want to learn from nature is how to dominate it and other men."

So you get lefties like Juergen Habermas differentiating between the strategic action of the governmental bureaucracy or the corporate bureaucracy and the communicative action of shared meaning in language.  The rational plan of the government or the corporation is domination, any way you look at it.  But the essential social nature of humans is expressed in language and consensus.  Of course, when it comes to facing up to the truth that your social consensus is transformed into strategic instrumental reason the moment you translate your consensus into a government program, the lefties go AWOL.  But at least they have begun to face the truth of their cruel and unjust system.

Meanwhile conservatives have insisted that community and society and compassion start with the face-to-face community.  Why?  Because it is at the face-to-face community that the basic social problem can be solved, getting people "to bide by the social contract [rather] than to pretend to bide by it", as Roger Scruton writes.  It is at the local level that people can judge whether their fellows are pulling their weight or freeloading.  But when the question of freeloading is obscured by "social justice" and a government program--for who is the freeloader, the businessman or the disabled on a pension--then people start to act like Sgt. Bilko.  They see all the free stuff passing by and figure, why not get my share and cash in?

Perhaps there is a silver lining to this cloud.  Maybe today in America the mass of people are frightened more by the collapse of government finances in a budget crisis than by suffering a reduction in their benefits in a budget deal.  After all, middle-class people depend on the system continuing to work for them.  They are not like the proletariat with "nothing left to lose."

But don't bet on it.  The strategy of President Obama is clear.  He will put off spending cuts until the moment of collapse.  And in that moment of collapse, of course, the people will be willing to agree to anything, from sovereign debt default to tax increases on the middle class.

Voila!  Problem solved.

Monday, August 20, 2012

America's Real Problems

Back in the 1870s Walter Bagehot, editor of The Economist, wrote his classic book Lombard Street. It was an analysis of the Bank of England's role as guarantor of the credit system. What should the Bank do to deal with a panic in the money market? That was Bagehot's topic, after two big panics in ten years, in 1857 and 1866.

You'll be amazed to learn that his solution was not more regulation. No, he wanted stronger leadership at the Bank of England, a permanent manager rather than the rotating Governors. He wanted the Bank to realize that it had to do everything in its power to stop a panic and restore confidence, principally by lending money without limit on any good security. And he wanted the Bank to maintain a higher "banking reserve."

The foundation of the credit system, he wrote, is that most people are "sound." They maintain their assets in a prudent way, and cannot be sold out because of excessive leverage. His approach to the money market assumed that people are responsible, and that the governance of market institutions should encourage people to follow their instinct to be responsible and "sound." He thought that the soundness of the credit system was the responsibility of the credit system participants.

The contrast with our own time is palpable. Today, we don't trust the business sector to mind its own business. We believe, with certainty, that political oversight is essential to a smooth economic system. But how well does that work, in business and in the other areas of government?

Of course, political oversight means bureaucratic regulation, and effective political control of the economic sector, and the record of the last century is that the cure is worse than the disease.

Money.  Two hundred years ago, the credit system in the US was founded on a funded national debt and the government ran a surplus.  This meant that the dollar was rock solid and the government was not trying to manipulate the credit system to get out of a jam.  Today the government is always in a jam, and is always manipulating the credit system to keep its operations going.  The government regulates banks not to make them safer but to make them into useful conduits of government debt.

Education.  For two hundred years the ruling class has liked the idea of government-run education.  Maybe it had a point in the early 19th century when the people coming off the land into the city were often illiterate.  But now, in the United States, the education system spends about a trillion dollars a year to do--what exactly?  Most likely its real purpose is to indoctrinate students into the ruling class ideology.  In my view it is time to return education to the private sector, to churches, and charities.  And also revive the idea of apprenticeship--getting hands-on teenagers out of school and into the workforce.

Healthcare.  Everyone seems to think that without government nobody except the rich could afford healthcare.  I doubt it.  The vast majority of people buy food and transportation without government, why not healthcare?  The problem is that we really don't know what people want in health care, because the government so completely dominates the system that individual consumer preference is blocked out.

Work.  Used to be that workers worked for cash.  Now the government is right in the middle of the employment transaction in many different ways with regulations and taxes.  It's all meant to help the workers, to prevent exploitation and provide social benefits like unemployment and retirement.  Are we really so helpless that we need government right in the middle of everything?  And the problem is that all the taxes and regulation almost force low-skill employers just avoid the complicated and confusing formal employment sector completely, and hire people off the books.  How safe it that?

Environment.  The current top-down system assumes that ordinary people are helpless victims that cannot look after themselves.  Shouldn't we try to find environmental approaches that empower ordinary people to protect the environment?  Roger Scruton recommends a bottom-up approach based on the idea of "home."  People want to protect their home.

When Walter Bagehot wrote Lombard Street he admitted that it would be impossible to change the governance of the Bank of England because people just accepted the way things were and wouldn't support any change.  In other words, people won't agree to change unless things are broken.

That's where we are with America.  There are lots of things that aren't really working, but they aren't broken.  Not yet.

Do we really have to wait to fix things until they are completely broken?


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Missing Liberal Canon

Why don't liberals have a canon, a list of thinkers and books that liberals can go to, to learn all about liberalism?  That's what liberals like Beverly Gage have been asking lately.  And conservatives have been eager to help them out.

Actually, liberals do too have a canon.  That is what Jonah Goldberg discovered when he wrote Liberal Fascism.  He wanted to know what liberals believed and where they got it from.  His journey led him to the Progressives, people like Herbert Croly and The Promise of American Life back at the turn of the 20th century.

But the worriers have a point.  Sensible liberals don't have a set of books that every liberal is supposed to read.  Unless you call out the wilder shores of Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky.  The reason is simple.  You don't need a canon, you don't need to study political philosophy when you are the ruling class.  Knowledge begins with a problem: why is the world so unjust?  But liberals are the ruling class. They sit in the catbird seat.  They don't have a problem, except the instrumental problem of how to pass the next comprehensive and mandatory social program.

Conservatives on the other hand do have a problem.  We cannot stand the current liberal welfare state that wants to make everyone into a compliant and obedient ward of the state.  We want something different.  So we delve into the books to find out what went wrong.  We want to know why Americans just sit there and take the welfare state without doing anything about it.  We want to know how we could change the political system so that the instrumental domination of big government bureaucracy could be changed to something less oppressive and less unjust.

So we read up on Edmund Burke.  We check out the marginal economists of 1870.  We read von Mises and Hayek.  We delve into Thomas Sowell and Michael Novak.  We check out Milton Friedman.  We read Roger Scruton, Charles Murray, George Gilder, Rodney Stark, Frederick Turner, F.S.C. Northrop.

For myself, I've deliberately looked to the left to find conservative themes.  Some lefties get that there is a problem.  There are Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno and their critique of instrumental reason.  There is Juergen Habermas and his attempt at solving the instrumental reason problem with the lifeworld and communicative action.  There is James C. Scott and Seeing Like a State,  my current enthusiasm.  There is even useful stuff to be learned from Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri and their wild lefty trilogy, Empire and Multitude and Commonwealth. 

Meanwhile, our liberal friends find themselves in a nasty spot, trying desperately to plug the leaks in their rusty ship.  They don't have time to read philosophical tomes.  They need to man the pumps and keep the welfare state and their power and their sinecures going for one more election cycle.

I wouldn't want to be a liberal.  Not in 2012.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

How To Defend Capitalism

Mitt Romney, writes Ramesh Ponnuru, ought to respond to Barack Obama's attack on capitalism with something more than ten point programs.
To respond to Obama’s attacks on outsourcing and Bain, Romney ought to unveil something more compelling than another tax return.
Yes, but how?  People are right to fear outsourcing.  And they are right to fear private equity companies like Bain.  Capitalism is a fearsome thing.  It may be true that you work for a company that is getting slowly flushed down the toilet, but if it lasts until you retire, why rush out to get Bain to fix things if they ain't quite broke?

Don't look back, as Satchel Paige said.  Something may be gaining on you.

Capitalism has always had to take the rap that it doesn't give a rip about people.  The market economy is the law of the jungle and the weakest go to the wall.   Back when I worked for a consulting firm, my fellow workers would get shocked when the firm laid people off.  Look what it says in the employee manual, they said.  Look how it says that the firm cares about employee development.

Yeah.  They may care a lot, but when they see the company in the red for three months in a row, they will do the instinctive thing.  They will act to save the company, not the employees.  And really, this is nothing out of the ordinary.  What do you think an army is all about?  It is about sacrificing young men so the nation as a whole will survive.  The government may idolize the Fallen every Memorial Day and  those who served every Veterans Day, but the fact is that those mother's sons are still dead.

Both corporations and governments are pretty ruthless when it comes to survival.  They sacrifice their employees and their young men generously during hard times.  But people understand the social requirement for the government to defend them.  Anyway, most people aren't young men.  But when it comes to corporations acting to save the corporation, people identify with the folks losing their jobs to machines or outsourcing.  There but for the grace of the fickle market go I.

But there are ways you can protect yourself against the vicissitudes of the market, just as there were ways for the agricultural villager to protect himself against the vicissitudes of the weather.  Workers can save.  If they don't earn much they can mutualize their savings by joining a benefit club or fraternal association.  In the old days, labor unions were mainly mutual-aid associations.  For those with a bit more money, there is insurance.  For those with more money still there are savings accounts, bonds, and stocks.  Oh, and guess what:  there is family.

Yes, but shouldn't all these benefits be provided by your employer or by the government?  Well, you tell me.  That employer thing didn't work out so well for the old-line steel companies, and the only reason that the auto workers aren't totally screwed is that the government stepped in, screwed the widow-and-orphan bond-holders, and made good the corporation's broken promises, courtesy of the taxpayers.  And as for government, how do you feel about collecting on your Medicare or your Social Security in 20 years?  The latest estimate is that we are about $100 trillion short if the government means to pay out on its promises.

The point is that both corporations and governments are ruthless outfits interested only in #1.  Individual people, to corporations and governments, are expendable.  But there is a solution.  It is called civil society.  It is the social space in between the mechanical monoliths, the megastructures of business and government.  Civil society includes every organization that is in the business of people helping people.  They don't have power; they don't have influence.  That is why they can afford to think about the needs of their members rather than the glory of the collective.

Conservatives have been banging on about civil society since Edmund Burke and his "little platoons" over two centuries ago.  Civil society flourished mightily in the 19th century, as ordinary people formed fraternal associations, churches, labor unions, charities, benefit clubs, friendly societies, you name it.  Of course, they couldn't perform miracles; for one thing, the world was a lot poorer back in the 19th century.  In the 20th century, government got into the act and nationalized most of the functions performed by the "little platoons."  There turned out to be a problem with that.

The problem is the age-old problem in any association of social humans.  It is the freeloader.  In any community, there will be people that don't pull their weight.  They figure out how to game the rules and they do.  Traditionally, society has confronted this problem with naming and shaming, which works in the face-to-face community.  And religion has solved the problem with the concept of divine justice.  You may think you are getting away with your cheating, but God is not mocked.  He knows, and he will deal with you in the next life when you find yourself burning in Hell or, in Plato, in the river of Tartarus down at the center of the Earth.  But the welfare state has turned out to be a veritable Springtime for Freeloaders.  Just get yourself defined as a victim and you can live at the expense of your fellows forever.  That is why the welfare state is going broke.

The solution to big business is not big government.  And the solution to big government is not big business.  Nor can we go back to an imagined Garden of Eden where true community reigned.  We have invented modern business and modern government and we can't uninvent them.

But we can create a human space in between the ruthless megastructures.   We can grow a vibrant civil society in the spaces between the Bigs. That is what conservatism has wanted to do for decades.  And that is how we reckon we can defend capitalism from itself.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

What Comes Next?

When you read an article about the failure of the global governing class: "The Governing Elite are the Greatest Threat to the World's Middle Class," it makes you think about what the governing elite and the world's middle class are going to do about it.

I am thinking about this in the context of the difference between the world of 1800-1850 and 1850-1900.  The first half of the century in Europe was about the absorption of the middle class into the councils of political power.  The second half was what to do about the new industrial working class.

The middle class wanted to bring its influence to bear on the general rules of society, particularly as they related to trade and subsidies.  The working class wanted "stuff."  All this is unexceptional.

Before the rise of the middle class, states were organized as the patrimonial estates of their rulers, but that did not work for the middle class which wants to work not in an Authority Ranking world of patrons and clients, but in a market world of exchange and commercial wealth creation.  The working class of 1850, on the other hand, was barely subsisting, so whenever the economy went into the tank due to wars or financial crises, then the workers would start starving.

Two kinds of politics arose from the rise of the working class.  The first was a top-down provision of social benefits, giving the working class what they needed in hard times.  The other was a bottom up revolutionary movement of refusal and opposition so the workers could take what they wanted.

Our welfare state today is the precipitate of those years in the second half of the 19th century.  It assumes that people are as helpless now as the working class was then, and that government should organize and provide against the vicissitudes of life.

Obviously, the working class of today is not the struggling working class of 1850, at least, not in the developed countries.  So just as obviously, we should be detecting a disconnect between what ordinary people want and need and what the political system wants to give them.  The political system offers more and more free stuff, and people take it and say "what have you done for me lately?"

The current debt crisis is the end game of the politics that began in the 19th century, the assumption that the way to avoid social unrest was to give the working class stuff.  But eventually you run out of other peoples' money.

The question is: what do the people of the 21st century want?  President Obama is playing the revolutionary politics of the late 19th century, telling the rich and the middle class that they need to cough up to prevent the lower classes from revolting.  Is he right?  Does the failure of the Occupy movement tell us something?  Candidate Romney is going around proposing that we release the private sector to do its job of producing goods and services and creating jobs.

What does the Tea Party mean?  It seems to want a return to common-sense middle-class prudence in government finance.

As soon as the governing elite figures out what the people want, and I would guess that "the people" here means the middle-middle class of families with some colllege education but not a lot, they will be racing to give the people what they want.

What the people want, I suspect, is a society that actually delivers the social services that government presently delivers badly: health care, education, relief of the poor, and they want an economy that doesn't feel like a roller-coaster.

The challenge for conservatives is to persuade the American people that they can have all that without big government.  It probably wouldn't hurt to have all the government provision of social services obviously broken.

And that's why I think that conservatives will come to love the future former-President Obama like a brother.  He seems to have succeeded in breaking everything he touches.

Common-sense people say that if it ain't broke, don't fix it.  But when President Obama and his lefty friends have broken everything in sight, well, then it is time for the great American handyman to get to work with his tool belt and his power tools.

Some time in the next ten years it will all become crystal clear, and everyone will say that the leaders of 2012 were idiots not to see it.