Monday, September 1, 2014

Who's the Real Freeloader?

Humans are social animals; we work together for the sake of society. But humans are not just social, we are also selfish.  And we like free stuff, from grocery coupons to government subsidies and handouts.  We are willing to work for our daily bread, but we wouldn't pass up an opportunity to get it for free.

Every human society has to deal with this human characteristic.  When other people sign up for free stuff, we call it freeloading.  When we do it, we call it "rights."

Longshoreman Eric Hoffer nails it as usual in The Ordeal of Change.
In practically all civilizations that we know of, and in the Occident for too many centuries, work was viewed as a curse, a mark of bondage, or, at best, a necessary evil.
In all those civilizations, it would appear, work happened because the ruler ordered it.  And that is also what happened in the modern socialist states.  The work of the people was organized in massive Five Year Plans that specified in mind-numbing bureaucratic detail, what work was to be done.  It was a set of marching orders for the people.

In such a system, the Russian people have joked, "we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us."

You could call such a system Springtime for Freeloaders.  People only do the minimum amount of work that will keep them out of trouble with their administrative bosses.  Their work and their emoluments are decided by higher-ups, and they have no opportunity to improve their lot by individual action.

But there is another way.  In this other way the worker is responsible for finding work that is beneficial to society and then doing it.  He may do it well, or he may do it badly. Either way, there are consequences to him.  In this system, it is clear, the freeloaders go to the wall.

Hoffer does not say this, but it seems pretty clear that the old way, in which work is a curse, the ruler takes responsibility for ordering the work to be done.  It is in the new way, in which work is a virtue, that the worker shoulders the responsibility for figuring out what needs doing and getting the work done.

That is why it is proper to call the first, age-old, system, collectivism, and the new worship of work individualism.  In the first system, social responsibility is collective; in the second system social responsibility is individual.

Collectivists like to advertise that collectivism is gentle and compassionate, while individualism is cruel and harsh.  And they are right, up until the first moment when there is work to be done.  At that point, the collectivist system starts to rely on coercion.  It may be the shaming by the tribal group, the physical presence of the village Big Man, the charisma of the feudal lord, or the Terror of the Communist commissar.  But force is needed.  The proof is in the failure of 19th and 20th century communes, starting with Robert Owen's New Harmony, Indiana, that lacked the power of coercion over its members and failed from an excess of freeloading.

Individualism is different.  It is true that it seems a most frightful thing, the individual pitched alone against the world, and its frightfulness would be true if man were not a social animal.   Man's social nature means that this aloneness is his fear that he might not discover what he can contribute to the world.  Once he has taken the first step to offer his services to the world his aloneness begins to soften.  Under individualism, the successful man is the one who has most to contribute to the world, and to whose charisma the whole world flocks.

On my view, individualism has been developing and spreading for over two millennia. Following Robert Bellah I date the birth of individualism to the Axial Age when the modern religions from Judaism to Hinduism to Christianity burst onto the world.  For these new religions began to dissolve the old idea of collective, tribal gods, and established an individual relationship to God.

But these religions did not immediately take over the world; they were city religions for people that were casting off their rural habits and entering the commercial world of the city.  In China, individualism went universal about 500 AD when feudalism collapsed and was replaced by imperial bureaucracy.  In Britain individualism started to spread in the 13th century when tenant farmers began to buy and sell their copyhold land as individuals in the local manor court.

But clearly individualism did not hit a critical mass until the industrial revolution when all of a sudden the British rural masses in their millions migrated from the land to the mining villages and the textile towns, and ran headlong into the global exchange economy and its culture of responsible individualism.

This industrial revolution has been going on now for over 200 years, and its flame front has burnt outwards from Britain to Europe and North America to Asia and to Africa. It is clear that the revolution has meant a startling change in the experience of life for those people that experience it.  The sudden exposure to full frontal individualism is terrifying and insulting to many people that first experience it as they immigrate in their millions to the city each year.

If there is one clear political fact of the last two hundred years it is that the immigrants to the city are not yet ready for individualism.  Socially, culturally, politically, they seek socialization under the old regime.  They celebrate their old ethnic origins and join ethnic fraternal associations to maintain their old solidarity; they join labor unions to mobilize against their employers; they vote for political machines that offer them benefits in return for their vote and their loyalty.  In fact they vote to continue the old regime of compulsion and coercion that obtained in the old country, the land they left when they decided to find opportunity in the New World. They are not reactionary in doing this; they are merely continuing their old traditions in the new place, and the old tradition said that you need a patron, a strong man, on your side if you are to survive in this brutal world of power red in tooth and claw.

Eventually the immigrants takes to the culture of individualism, but usually not in the first generation. Eventually they come to believe that the industrial economy rewards skills and effort and they step away from tribal affiliation and the old faith in safety inside the fortified castle walls of a patron lord.  They take up a new faith; they become People of the Responsible Self.  They socialize and connect to their fellow humans not by subservience to the patronage justice of a noble lord by by surrender to the justice of equality under the law of the market.

But meanwhile the immigrant feels that the only way to achieve safety and a decent standard of living is by picking up the crumbs from the table of economic redistribution.  He experiences corporations as exploitations, and small businessmen as cunning middle-men.  He cheers when government brings a corporation low and boosts the tax on rich people; else the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Only government can guarantee security.

From the point of view of responsible individualism the world-view of the city immigrant is self-destructive freeloading.  The immigrant votes for politicians that take money from hard-working citizens and spread it around among their political cronies, their contributors, and their lesser supporters.  These are monies ripped from the productive economy as much as a robber rips the purse of a citizen on the street and are then put to use in maintaining a political army that produces little or nothing of economic and productive value. It is the conflict between the idea that economic transaction are positive-sum events, a so-called "win-win" situation, and the idea that all transactions are zero-sum events, where one person wins only at the expense of a loser.

The zero-sum world-view is as old as the hills.  It stands to reason that if the tribe of the bull starts hunting in the lands of the tribe of the antelope that there will be less food for the tribe of the antelope.  If Farmer Adam and Farmer Bob each have identical acreage, the only way for Farmer Adam to increase the yield from his farm is to take some acres from Bob.  If I take a fish from the sea then there is one less fish for others to catch.  It just stands to reason that you have to fight for your share of the pie, and the only practical way to do that is to find a powerful patron that will defend you from the exploiters. And if some rich person earns more money than you, it stands to reason that somehow that rich guy stole it from the likes of you.

There's only one problem with the zero-sum world view. In the human exchange economy of the city it's dead wrong. It's wrong because when people specialize and exchange their goods and services both parties to each exchange benefit.  It's a positive-sum, win-win world in the city.

This is the great divide in the modern era.  It is the divide between the people that look at a corporation and see a predatory beast or a robber baron and the people that see a productive enterprise showering the consumers with mass products.  It's the divide between people that revolt at the idea of corporate "personhood" and people like Mitt Romney that say that corporations are composed of people.  One kind of person believes we must tether and yoke corporations before they impoverish us all; the other kind of person wants to set corporations free so they can commit "creative destruction" and bury the world in products that enrich us all. One kind of person thinks that we must tax the freeloading rich in order to bring justice to the poor; the other kind of person thinks that taxation is theft, and the people on the receiving end of government spending are freeloaders.

Now we can understand the major dimensions of modern politics.  There must be a political party to represent the world-view of the zero-sum believers, and there must be a political party to represent the world-view of the positive-sum believers.  In the United States the Democratic Party represents the zero-sum believers, who include many recent immigrants, African Americans still struggling to make it in the city, feminists and gays that believe government power is needed to fight discrimination, and the educated class that stands to gain from the opportunity to administer big government programs.  In the back row are the rich, who benefit from a big government that regulates business and looks after its well-established friends. The Republican Party represents the middle class that has risen up from indigence and believes in hard work and opportunity. Typically Republican Party voters are more religious than Democratic Party voters because they naturally take up the Axial Age religions that encourage the transformation of consciousness from a collective to an individualistic, self-responsible world view.

The history of the last two centuries seem to suggest that as immigrants live their lives in the city they begin to learn its ways, and their children learn it even better. They gradually come to recognize that they can make it in the city.  They begin almost helpless, ignorant of the ways of the city; they eventually graduate into full membership in the freedom of the city.  If this is true then it makes sense for a zero-sum political party to provide benefits to immigrants in their early years of indigence and ignorance of the ways of the city. And it makes sense for a positive-sum political party to sell the idea of the American Dream, that opportunity is available to all, provided we don't throttle all opportunity with a too-large and too-powerful government that plays favorites and substitutes the judgement of fallible politicians and experts for the daily judgements of the market.

The question is how to balance these two opposing positions: how to give comfort to the helpless beginners struggling to learn life in the city while also providing the environment that allows talent to flourish and businesses to grow without an overweening government that siphons off wealth to reward its supporters.

In other words the challenge is to soften the hard edge of the two positions: one that regards corporations and wealthy producers as freeloaders skimming the profits off the economy; the other that looks at the timid people just learning the ways of the city and branding them as freeloaders and welfare cheats.

That is the challenge for Americans in the waning years of the Obama era.

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