Friday, April 26, 2013

The Age of the Scrounger

If you are a conservative or Republican, chances are that you are a member in good standing of the People of the Responsible Self.

Nothing remarkable here.  The Responsible Self was invented during the Axial Age, according to Robert Bellah.  The idea developed that humans were not simply the helpless chattels of the gods but individuals, responsible before God for their lives.  It's the difference between the world of the Iliad in which the Greek warriors win or lose battles according to the politics on Mount Olympus and the world of the Hebrew prophets in which the Jews are urgently advised to get themselves straight with God.

But what about the rank-and-file Democratic voter?  I've been cudgeling my brain for weeks on this, just like dear old Alger Hiss back in the glory days of liberalism.  The key thing about a Democratic voter in the administrative welfare state is that she is not responsible.  She is marginalized, oppressed: a victim, so how could she be blamed for anything?

But what is the word, the one word, for someone like that.  Indignant? Malingering? Childish? Shameless? A day or so I came up with "subordinate," but that doesn't quite do it, because subordinates can be loyal and devoted, and the person I am thinking about is someone that doesn't think of themselves as part of a team but as an ill-used wife.

Wait!  That's it.  We are talking about the People of the Ill-used Self.  She is someone just sitting there, expecting to be taken care of.  Because she has been so ill-used.  Meanwhile she is scrounging off society for whatever is out there going for free.

I am not proposing this lightly, but as part of a comprehensive world view.

You see, back in the old days, humans were all happy campers living a cooperative collective life in the agricultural village.  Life was hard, but the risks and the perils were shared in the primitive communism of e.g. the Russian mir.

OK, in reality it wasn't like that at all because at all times some peasants had a fairly strong title to the land they farmed and others were practically slaves.  But the average agricultural village did pay its taxes in common and did reapportion land periodically in accordance with family size.

Enter the "enclosure" movement.  Our lefty friends like to represent this as the murrain of 1760 to 1850 but it is clear that it started hundreds of years before, as landowners started to acquire exclusive rights to land that had previously been held in common.

What was enclosure all about?  I suspect it had to do with an evolution in agricultural technique so that fewer hands were needed to farm and produce the crops.  But the downside was that people who lived on the margins of a village found themselves unable to access the land they were used to and were thrown on the scrapheap.

You'd expect that people like that would feel ill-used.  And they would be reduced to the life of a scrounger.  The fabled working class and the proletariat were, of course, the people that were thrown off the land in the late 18th and early 19th century and ended up working in textile manufactories and coal mines.  They felt ill-used.  They were right.

Right about then a great social revolution occurred in which the old landed ruling class got replaced by a new ruling class.  People like Karl Marx maintained with great fanfare that the new ruling class was the bourgeoisie, but really, he got it wrong.  The new ruling class was the rising intelligentsia of the 18th century, the coffee-house crowd like Samuel Johnson in England and the Encyclopedists in France.  The new ruling class was a class of educated publicists.  I call them the People of the Creative Self, or the Romantic Self, or the Educated Self.

This new class saw its opportunity and it took it.  It put itself at the head of the great mass of the ill-used, and declared them to be the salt of the earth.

There is no doubt that the folks getting pitched out of the agricultural world during the industrial revolution had a pretty hard time, although just how hard is difficult to determine through the fog of special pleading.  After all, it was in 1800 in Britain that all of a sudden the children of the poor started doing better than their parents in a world of rising expectations.

But the new class turned the worthy People of the Ill-Used Self into the deracinated People of the Scrounger Self, as they transformed the natural fear and rage of a people dispossessed into the institutionalized scrounging of the dependents of the administrative welfare state.

And that is the world in which we live:  the Age of the Scrounger.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

People of the Subordinate Self

You and I, we are the People of the Responsible Self.  We think that we are responsible for who we are, what we do, and what we accomplish in life.

But this kind of human is fairly new on the world stage.  According to chaps like Robert Bellah, the Responsible Self appeared during the Axial Age when the great world religions were founded.  Notoriously, this movement is exemplified by the Hebrew prophets, who told the Jews over and over again that each one of them stood responsible for their lives before God.

I've been having an email conversation over the past week with a person who doesn't believe that.  I've been toying with ways of describing such people, to contrast with the notion of the People of the Responsible Self.  I've tried People of the Victim Self, People of the Marginalized Self.  But I don't really want to make the name for "other" guy into too much of an insult.

So for today, I am coming up with "People of the Subordinate Self."  Such a person does not think of adversity as his own fault, or even his bad luck.  He thinks of it as society's fault.  It's because of exploitation or inequality.  Or robber barons, or Koch Brothers.
Do we as a nation want to take care or our elderly and disadvantaged and sick and poor or start more wars and continue to allow our nation to deteriorate in education, in infrastructure, in healthcare and in income disparity de[c]imating the middle class even more. 
Of course, my correspondent is not proposing that he should do anything about that.  He thinks that the nation should do something about it.  And the main problem is that the rich don't pay enough.
As I see it, America should be having a revolution to equalize the income disparity and the tax code so the top 1% does pay its fair share!  You ask how much is enough and I told you that the Eisenhower tax rate was 91%, and that is about right.
So I think that the right word for my liberal friend is People of the Subordinate Self.  You have seen people like him where you work.  "Why don't 'they' fix the pot holes around here?" Why doesn't management fix things?  Why don't the rich pay their fair share?  Why do they "continue to allow our nation to deteriorate in education, in infrastructure, in healthcare and in income disparity"?

In a parallel world, one Penelope Trunk is pushing the latest idea that you shouldn't go to college.  Here are the bulleted tips:
  1. Skip college
  2. Internships instead of school
  3. Start a company, not a resume
  4. Don't be linear
Most people react with enthusiasm, but some complain that not everyone can be a self-starting entrepreneur.  For, to make her idea work, you have to have a Churchillian obstinacy, and never, never, never, never give up.  Like her.

But that's the difference between the People of the Responsible Self and the People of the Subordinate Self.  It is between people that think that they are responsible for getting on the world, and people that think that the other "they" are responsible.

Mind you, I've always lived curiously in the middle of all this.  I'm not a hard-charging entrepreneur that works, works, works, until something works.  But I've never been someone to sit in a cubicle and whine about the management.  After all, management is human too, and muddling through like me.  

And I've always accepted the basic idea of "employment at will."  Because who would want to work for someone forced to keep you on the payroll by government force.

One thing the People of the Subordinate Self don't seem to get their minds around.  Suppose the political party or the political vision you have adopted fails.  As in: runs out of money for pensions, healthcare, education.  You got a backup plan?

But that is the whole point of the Subordinate Self.  You wait around for the boss to move.  And then you complain when he gets it wrong.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Murdoch Makes Moral Case for Capitalism

Media mogul Rupert Murdoch is evidently a supporter of the Australian free-market think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs.  So they called on him to give a speech at their 70th Anniversary dinner recently.

In his speech, Rupert Murdoch took the opportunity of insisting that conservatives forget about the efficiency argument for capitalism and concentrate instead on the moral case.  We will never win the argument on efficiency, he argued, because morality trumps efficiency every time.  We must insist on the (4:10 mark) "justice and fairness, yes, the morality of free markets."  At the 7:70 mark:
Crony capitalism is not capitalsm, it's cronyism.  So long as we allow the debate to be framed by people who think the market is efficient because it is based on a human failing  we are going to lose every argument.
So what moral argument did he make?  Simple.  He made the invisible hand argument, a staple of free-market apologetics since 1776 and Adam Smith.  But he made it very well, so here it is, at about the 8:00 minute mark.
The only way to uphold market freedom is to show the people that the market doesn't succeed because of greed.  In fact, it's just the opposite.  The market succeeds because it gives people incentives to put their own wants and needs aside to address the wants and needs of others.  To succeed you have to produce something that other people are willing to pay for.
And let's not forget the problem of the people that confuse being pro-free-market with pro-business (15:55 mark):
Many of the same people who appreciate that too much welfare can be bad for a single mother somehow believe that spending tax dollars on industrial hubs is an excellent investment.
Yes.  Rupert Murdoch, the prince of darkness, telling it like it is.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Marx: Five Big Mistakes

We all like to rag Karl Marx on the failure of his "immiseration" thesis, that the workers would get poorer as the capitalists got richer.

Well, not all of us.  Tens of thousands of "progressives" still firmly believe in the immiseration doctrine.  That's what makes the fight against inequality meaningful.

But that wasn't the only big mistake that Marx made.  Let's enumerate them, one by one, starting with the gold standard, the immiseration thesis.
  1. Immiseration of the workers. Marx argued that the progress of machine industry run by the capitalists would slowly drive the small operators out of business, leading to poverty in the lower bourgeoisie and the working class.  Of course, there's a big truth in that.  It happens all the time.  Some giant of capitalism that bestrode the marketplace slowly loses its mojo.  Think A&P pushed out by Safeway.  Think Detroit pushed out by the Germans and the Japanese.  But every time, jobs in new industries spring out of the ground as the old jobs wither away.  As long as we leave them the space to grow.
  2. Alienation. Marx argued that capitalism and the division of labor alienated workers from their true nature.  He had in mind the degradation of the manufactory where workers performed mind-numbing repetitive tasks that didn't require the skills of the old hand trades.  And there was a sense in which the working class was forced into the factories after being dispossessed of their rights by the enclosure movement that changed the tradition of collective ownership of the land to individual freehold.  But it is clear that many people actually choose to work for a big corporation.  They like the idea of the implied life-time employment, the benefits, and the meritocratic bureaucratic structure.  Is it alienation when people choose to work in the giant modern office factory over the hurly-burly of the small startup?
  3. Labor theory of value. Marx took the problematic theories of value promoted by the classical economists, the divided notion of use value and exchange value, and mixed them up into the nonsense of his labor theory of value.  Yes, it's true that everything we know and do comes out of the brain or the labor of somebody, somewhere.  But today we understand that everything from the past is simply a sunk cost, not a value.  All the work of the past is done, the work that helped feed millions and also the work that went into useless pyramids and bankrupted great empires.  When you have done your labor and finished your product, the labor, the effort, the genius, that is all in the past.  The question is: what will the next customer pay for that product?  And all the effort and the labor that meant so much to you means nothing to him.  The labor theory of value stinks.
  4. Socialism and bureaucracy.  Marx correctly sneered at Hegel's paen to the bureaucracy as a mediation between government and people.  That is rubbish, because the absolute monarchs generated their bureaucracies precisely as an instrument for taxing and controlling the people.  But Marx predicted that bureaucracy would wither away after the socialist revolution.  OK, Marx had an excuse back in the wild and crazy 19th century.  But we now know that the more socialism in a government, the more bureaucracy, and the more taxing and the more control.  Bureaucracy, as Marx insisted, is the administrative organ through which the sectional interest of the ruling class is imposed upon the people.  He was right on that one.
  5. Disappearance of the division of labor.  Marx maintained that the alienating division of labor would disappear under socialism.  No longer confined by the limited, dehumanizing task, the laborer would be able to develop the full range of his talents and capacities, making a product in the morning, gardening in the afternoon, and going to the theater in the evening.  This is rubbish.  People like to specialize; to become an expert in something.  And there is no division of labor more rigid and dehumanizing that the administratively organized workplace of the socialist state.
What is striking about the Marxian vision -- and for that matter the modern liberal vision -- is its oblivious turning away from the fundamental truth of life: the cycle of conception, gestation, birth, growth, maturity, decline and death, and the renewal of life in a new generation with all the genes remixed.  The old must die so that the young can inherit the earth.

The cosmic joke on the modern ruling class is that the very thing that it sets its shoulders against, capitalism, is the very thing that approximates in its operation the metaphor of life.  Ideas, businesses, industries are all the time, all around us, getting created, expanding, contracting and dying, just like life itself.  And what do we do?  We rebel against it.  We want to live forever, we want to preserve our traditional standard of life from all external shocks.  And we want the rest of the world to pay for it.

Thanks Chuck.  But I sometimes wonder if we will ever get this world out of the ditch you got us into.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Protecting Liberal Totems with Government Force

After gay marriage, you might be asking, then what?

How about the criminalization of people that don't want to do business with gays?  That's what Mark Steyn discussed in a recent column.

In Canada, where they have had gay marriage for a decade, you can get into trouble over gay marriage.  In other words, the race police, the folk that right now can get you into trouble for saying the wrong thing about minorities, will be expanding their remit to speech about gays.
The Diversity Celebrators have their exquisitely sensitive antennae attuned for anything less than enthusiastic approval. Very quickly, traditional religious teaching on homosexuality will be penned up within church sanctuaries, and “faith-based” ancillary institutions will be crowbarred into submission.
In Canada, right now, Catholic schools are required to have gay-straight alliances on campus.  And in the US you can get the local Human Rights Commission sicced on you if you don't want to photograph a gay wedding or if you write an article about race in Philadelphia.

What's happened to tolerance, you ask?  You thought liberals lived and died on their tolerance.

Let us leave on one side the hypocrites who talk a good line about tolerance just as a misdirection play.  Let us imagine instead a real thoughtful liberal.  Why would such a person want to criminalize people that disagree with her values?

I stumbled across the answer in a book by Anthony Giddens, Capitalism and modern social theory: an analysis of the writings of Marx, Durkheim and Max Weber.  Giddens?  He was Tony Blair's pet political philosopher for New Labour's "Third Way" back in the 1990s.

Giddens extracts an important notion from Emile Durkheim's study of Australian totemic religion.  It is the human need to foster a notion of the "sacred" and separate the sacred from the profane.

We humans need to hold close our ideal of what could be, what should be, and keep it separate from the everyday and the banal.  Thus the idea of the sacred temple, the sacred texts, and the sacred rituals in which we get together to renew our faith in a better world, and find strength to go on.  It must be kept separate and special.

The fact is that while science is a wonderful thing, chunking away and churning out knowledge, we cannot wait for it to decide everything, for our lives are here and now.  We must make a decision about how to live our lives right now, because it is bootless to say: well, we certainly should change, but all the ducks aren't in a row yet, so we better wait until the science is complete.

(That is why the global warming scientists have been fudging the science about climate.  They cannot wait, either.)

In our modern era, liberals experience themselves are carriers of a special "rational morality" relating to equality and liberation.  They feel that they possess a special moral authority to expound and implement their social beliefs.
Now the maintenance of moral authority demands that moral ideas are "as if surrounded by a mysterious barrier which keeps violators at arm's length, just as the religious domain is protected from the reach of the profane."(p114)
You can't have deeply-held beliefs without being outraged when someone treats them as routine and banal.

But if you "expunge all traces of religion from morality" then you get to the point where "all moral rules are rejected, because such rules can only survive this they are accorded respect and are regarded, within the conditions of their application, as being inviolable."  So liberals must defend their ideas as sacred, and that means, necessarily, punishing the violators of their sacred shrines.

If liberal ideas mean anything to liberals, they are good ideas leading to the good society.  Thus liberal race programs unwind the centuries of racial injustice; liberal gay programs unwind the centuries of gay-bashing.  And people that sneer at those ideas and those programs are racists, bigots and homophobes profaning the sacred spaces.

Now one of the central ideas of American exceptionalism is that there should be no establishment of religion.  Government should not get in the middle of arguments about the sacred, and it shouldn't become the enforcer for any particular sect or movement.  First Amendment and all that.

Of course, the First Amendment only works in the breach, because there is always a dominant religion that gets to use government as its cat's paw.  Thus Catholics had a rough time in the mid 19th century as the common school system was set up to favor Protestant bible-reading in school.  At the turn of the 20th century the Jews didn't like the frank bias towards Christianity in the US public square.

But now liberals are in the saddle, and they are using government to promote their sacred ideals and to protect them from sacrilege.  But why not, since liberal ideas are only based on "rational ethics" rather than superstitious ideas from the Dark Ages.

The thing is that with the decline of god-based religion, at least among the educated elite, a substitute has arisen, the modern phenomenon of "secular religion:" Communism, socialism, environmentalism, feminism, racial identity, gay rights, etc.  All these movements are secular churches with articles of faith and with sacred rites where members celebrate togetherness and the power of getting together.  And our modern society is drenched in these secular religious movements.

The problem is that, while denying that their faith amounts to a religion, the educated elite has more or less built an establishment of their secular religion, institutionalizing it in thousands of government programs, so that anyone that dissents from educated-class orthodoxy is branded not just as a bigot and a heretic but also as a criminal or even a rebel.

The whole notion of the First Amendment arose out of the bitter experience of the Reformation and the British Civil War where disagreements about religion--about the sacred--led to bloody war and bloody repression.  Let's get government out of the day-to-day arguments about the sacred, our founding fathers said.  Let's decide questions about faith and morality in a fair fight, without one side having the benefit of the government's guns.

But liberals are blissfully ignorant of all this, because they do not experience their liberal faith as a religion.  They believe--they know--that they have evolved beyond the iron cage of "organized religion."

In this, as in many things, liberals are woefully mistaken.  Get a clue, liberals.  Of course, your environmental and your "justice" organizations are churches.

And liberals have even developed their own form of ritual, the "peaceful protest."  Look at these photos of a peaceful protest in San Francisco against the Keystone XL pipeline and tell me that the demonstrators are not engaged in a religious ceremony.

It's easy to imagine that the big challenge of the immediate future is getting through the inevitable meltdown of the government finances.

But that will just be the start of our troubles.  I suspect that right up there will be the fight to extend the provisions against an establishment of religion to the modern secular religions that were not anticipated by the framers of the Constitution.

And it won't be pretty.