Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Domination and Dependency

The great theme of the Left is oppression and domination. When it's not exercised about the ordinary domination of traditionally marginalized peoples and groups, it ponders how reason itself creates domination.

Reason, argue Horkheimer and Adorno in The Dialectics of Enlightenment is man's effort to dominate the world. You can see the development already of bourgeois consciousness and rationality in Homer's hero, the cunning Odysseus, as he battles, using instrumental reason, with pre-rational forces from Cyclops to Circe to the Sirens. And notice that Odysseus makes his followers block their ears with wax so they they will keep rowing his ship for him and won't hear and respond to the entreaties of the Sirens. There's domination for you, exploiting the workers to get himself out of a jam!

So Odysseus is just like the bourgeois businessman that tries to dominate nature and less-developed humans with his technological developments and energies.

There are three strong objections to this argument.

First, what makes humans any different than all the other living things? Humans must battle and adapt to carve out a niche in this world just like other living things. If humans have been spectacularly successful in doing this, what's the big deal?

Second, the great question about domination is: what does the dominator do with his domination? Does he dominate the rest of creation and create a desert for all the competing humans and species? Does bourgeois capitalism make a desert out of its economic domination? The answer is that, starting at the latest with the Romantic rebellion and the beginning of the industrial era, mankind has understood with penetrating insight the limits of instrumental reason. Humans cannot live a slash-and-burn life, using and abusing without limit. With great power comes great responsibility, as the comic hero says. The counter-theme of the great power of instrumental reason is the need to curb and to mitigate its power. This is remarkably well developed in the culture of free enterprise which dislikes extreme power, and has developed a legal system to protect the weak from the domination of the powerful.

Thirdly, the real domination threat comes from the dominatory culture of modern governments, which, under the encouragement of left-wing elites, has driven the size and power of government to unprecedented levels. In the United States, the government's credit is under threat from the huge programs that transfer monies from the productive sector to the dependency sector. (In other words, the rich, dominating capitalists are paying swingeing taxes and penalties so that the politicians can pay off their supporters.) Thomas Sowell writes about this in "Dependency and Votes." Whenever we discuss cutting "entitlement" spending, he writes, the politicians rush out and peddle scary stories about the poor going without food and the elderly going without their meds. But the poor are presently fatter than ordinary Americans and the elderly are richer (15 times richer than the under 35 year-olds) than ordinary Americans. So what is going on?

The goal is not to keep the poor from starving but to create dependency — because dependency translates into votes for politicians who play Santa Claus... Independence makes for a healthier society, but dependency is what gets votes for politicians... “Entitlement” is just a fancy word for dependency.

And dependency is just the other side of the coin from domination. If you dominate someone, you hold them in dependency.

So here is a question. Why does the Left, that cries out to the reverberate hills about the evils of domination, support, defend and expand the most dominatory system ever devised by the instrumental rationality of mankind?

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Embarrassing Poor

Our lefty friends like to tell a story about the poor that goes like this. In the old days of the feudal era the people had their place and the lords had their responsibilities. The result was that the poor got taken care of. But then came the rise of trade and the poor fell through the cracks. Over and over, beginning with the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601, the state tried to come up with a way to meet society's obligation to care for the least among us, but more and more, as capitalism developed, the poor got shunted to the margins of society. But then came the modern era of social politics, and the state finally developed compassionate and targeted programs to help the poor and to mitigate their marginalized status. What's needed to finish the job is more funding to help people in need.

The reality is that the poor have always been an embarrassment and an afterthought. That is why the poor always features in moral and religious systems. We want so much to forget about them, but the moral critics insist that we remember them.

Were the poor really looked after in the feudal era? It's hard to know, of course. But the numbers indicate that they didn't do well. Poor people had fewer surviving children than rich people, according to Gregory Clark in A Farewell to Alms. Anyway, the reality of the feudal era was periodic famines and wars. Guess who got the short end of the stick? In the early modern era, with more wealth available, society could afford to spend money on bureaucratic responses to the poverty problem. Instead of personally doing something about the poor, communities could hire it done. There were two kinds of relief: "indoor" relief where the poor were warehoused, and "outdoor" relief where the poor were helped outside of actual institutions in private homes. In the 18th century in the Anglosphere this "doing something" developed into the workhouse, the place where the poor were warehoused and supervised by masters and beadles like Dickens' Mr. Bumble. By the end of the 19th century, inspired by Dickens and a new generation of social activists, everyone was disgusted with beadles and workhouses and so the relief of the poor was changed from institutional assistance in insane asylums and workhouses to the provision of assistance with money. Now in the early 21st century the notion of "welfare" through outdoor relief is perceived as a failure, so a new approach is likely.

But really, nothing has changed. The poor are, then as now, an embarrassment--people that don't socialize in socially acceptable ways. They have damaged families, they have limited work skills, and they survive by their wits and by scams rather than through mainstream work for wages. The solution to the "poverty problem" is for each of us, individual by individual, to work with the poor and reintegrate them into socially acceptable roles within society. But that takes work. We would rather pay the government to do it, and forget about the poor. No doubt that is why we have been willing to listen to our liberal friends when they told us that it was the height of compassion to give liberals money to help the poor. We believed them because we wanted to believe them. But now the poor, though materially better off than ever before, are socially and spiritually worse off, as Robert William Fogel asserts inThe Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism. And the reason why is that the modern welfare state shovels money out to the poor but lets their culture wither away. So now, people are starting to demand that we "do something" about the rampant pathologies of the "underclass."

The question is: shall we "do something" in the old bureaucratic way, maybe forcing the poor to work, or shall we "do something" about ourselves, reawakening the old moral obligation to do something personally about the poor?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Wages of Centralism

Back in the mid 19th century a cabal of Bostonians decided to centralize the education of children in the Bay State into a state board of education. This plan would lower the crime rate by 90 percent, promised Horace Mann, the "father of the common school." Over the decades schooling for American children changed from the education favored by parents to the education favored by the upper middle class. It evolved from a combination of babysitting and basic literacy and numeracy that prepared most children for an entry into apprenticeship and work in the early teens to the present system of government child custody, in which parents are legally required to surrender their children for a twelve year term without possibility of parole. Not surprisingly, the system fails to educate children well, and particularly fails to educate the children of barely literate parents.

Given how well centralism worked in education the educated elite decided that the same principle should apply to a variety of other social activities from the economy to health care. In the 1940s liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith developed the idea of "countervailing power" in which the Big Units of business, labor unions, and government would negotiate outcomes in the national economy by the weight of power. It seemed to work well for a few years, but in fact ended up pledging the wealth of the nation for unaffordable benefits. Thus the Big Unit corporations pledged future profits that turned out to be insufficient to pay for worker pensions. Big Unit unions looted profitable corporations and reduced the steel industry and then the automobile industry to contemptible shells. Big Unit government created entitlements to pensions and health care that have resulted in an unfunded liability of $100 trillion.

The problem is that Big Unit politics hollows out the mediating institutions that provide the real strength and resilience of society. Big Unit administrative centralism reduces everything to a conceit of elite competence, an assumption that you can design an effective, adaptable education system for all children. It reduces business corporations to crony capitalists, cringing for political favors. It reduces the luxuriant web of self-help social welfare organizations to a bare government safety net. It tempts people to wither their family and social connections and obligations and rely in the first place upon government benefits.

We can see the wages of centralism by looking at the society wide numbers. People who rely primarily upon government benefits present significant social pathologies. Marriage in the upper middle class is about as prevalent as ever; marriage in the lower 20 percent is off from 83 percent to 48 percent. Back in the 1950s 96 percent of men were in the labor force, and only four percent were not in the labor force either working or looking for work. Now 20 percent of men are out of the labor force, and for men without a high-school education 35 percent are absent from the labor force.

The century from 1848 to 1948 was called by F.A. Hayek the century of socialism. The years before 1848 were years of preparation for socialism; the years after have been years of exhaustion. But the problem is that socialism is not and never was "social," or, in the words of John Dewey, the Great Community in which to conduct a discourse among citizens about their communal life. Socialism has always been an elite ruling the many through administrative centralism, and administrative bureaucracy is, by design, a system for controlling people, not for discourse among people.

The great irony of our age is that precisely the system that the educated elite has been fighting against for 150 years is the system that is, in the true sense of the word, "socialist." It is the combination of a free, property-owning economy where the "discourse" is conducted through economic actors communicating in their buying and selling, producing, advertising, borrowing, lending, and investing. It is achieved through political actors discussing the limits of force, and through cultural and moral actors discussing the meaning, the "why" of it all.

But that is what the educated elite cannot bear, for a truly "social" society would deny the educated elite its "leading role." It would be reduced to merely one voice among many.

The breakthrough moment for modern humans will be the moment when they smash the power of the educated elite and demand to live in a world purged of the totalizing strangulation of political hegemony. Humans are social animals, not servile animals, and it's about time we refused the humiliating wages of centralism.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Why Obamomics is Failing

Today, with 244,000 new jobs from the Labor Department's Establishment Survey, people are talking about "better than expected."

But if you look, as I do, at the Household Survey you see a downtick in Employment of 190,000 and an uptick in Labor Force of 15,000. (That's why the Unemployment Rate went up to 9.0 percent.)

What is going wrong with the Obama recovery, which Jay Cost shows is the worst in 50 years? I will tell you why. The problem is that the ruling class of the educated elite is grasping the wrong end of the stick. At both ends.

Back in the old days, humans lived in egalitarian hunter-gatherer bands. Their government was up close and personal, and it wasn't very powerful. Humans hate it when other people have power over them. Then came the agricultural age, and egalitarianism went out the window, replaced by rigid hierarchy that we know and hate as the feudal system.

But then, about 500 years ago, a new age began to dawn. It combined, in a curious way, both hierarchy and equality. We call it democratic capitalism.

On the one hand, everyone was to be considered equal "in the sight of God" as we say. On the other hand, hierarchy was allowed to form as successful businessmen piled up huge fortunes in the new economy that delivered mass-produced goods for the ordinary person. So we may say that, while the hunter-gatherers were egalitarian right across the board, and the agriculturalists were hierarchical right across the board, the new democratic capitalism embraced political equality and economic hierarchy.

But then arose a reactionary movement that tried to turn the new democratic capitalism upside down. Let us call it social democracy, the rule of the educated elite. This movement of well-born and well-educated men and women sought to impose egalitarianism on the economy, and hierarchy on politics. They were scandalized by inequality of economic condition, but insisted that government should be controlled and staffed by people like them, educated experts that could develop a rational economy and politics out of the chaos of the free market. But the trouble is that it doesn't work.

The new rule of the educated elite doesn't work in economic terms because the hierarchy of the educated experts, attempting to impose equality on the economy with their faddish ideas on planning, energy, education, health care, and the relief of the poor, just cannot adapt to the irreducible complexity of the economy. You can say: we should pursue alternative, clean energy solutions. But the economy is likely to prove you wrong, or deliver clean energy in an unexpected way. As things start to go wrong, of course, the educated experts turn to more and more hierarchy and compulsion to impose their egalitarian solutions on the economy.

The Obama administration is testing the concept of social democracy, the rule of the educated experts, to destruction. What is needed is not for targeted government programs to create green jobs and very fast trains with the rich paying "a little more" in taxes to make sure that the results are egalitarian. What is needed is for the government to create a level economic playing field where all people can compete to serve the consumers with the best products and services. That means dissolving all the special subsidies and mandates that assume that the educated expert knows best, and lowering tax rates and regulations so that the best economic actors can get on with finding out what a recovering economy needs to get its mojo going.

Let's say this again. The whole point of democratic capitalism is to treat everyone equally before government and the law. Then it says: go get 'em, and the people that figure out what the consumers want, and deliver it to them with innovation and reliability get to make tons of money, which they then probably give away in philanthropy years later. People that are good at this, or just lucky, get to climb the greasy pole and get more resources to deploy to back up their ideas. People that aren't so good at this game get to work for other people.

The question is: why does the educated elite work to hard to destroy the remarkable combination of equality and hierarchy that we call democratic capitalism and turn it upside down? What is their problem?