Friday, November 18, 2011

When Does Justice Become Freeloading?

In the old days of the agricultural age, justice suited the ruling landowner class.  Nobody thought about the needs of the agricultural laborer.  The only thing was to make sure that he paid dearly when he poached a rabbit or stole a sheep.

Even divines like Martin Luther were clear that the new liberty was for the townsman.  The peasants should obey their landlords.

So when the modern era dawned some time in the 18th century, your average man was pretty well held down by a yoke of injustice.  There was slavery, there was serfdom, there was indentured servitude, you name it.  In the new conception of justice, that all men are created equal, the old hierarchical ethos no longer applied.

If we take the words of Robert William Fogel, a scholar of slavery, there are several things wrong with slavery, when viewed from our modern society.  In Without Contract or Consent he sets forth a four count indictment of slavery:
  1. "Slavery permitted one group of people to exercise unrestrained personal domination over another group of people."
  2. "Denial of economic opportunity."
  3. "Denial of citizenship... the utter exclusion of slaves from civil and political rights."
  4. "Denial of cultural self-identification."

Obviously these are the words of a liberal, but they resonate with me, not just in the case of slavery but in all questions of justice.  For in modern politics, the question of justice is usually decided by analysis of these four points but at a less extreme situation.  If there is a question of injustice, then people are asking these questions: Is domination a problem? Is economic opportunity constrained?  Is access to civil and political rights diminished?  Is cultural bullying a problem?

Our liberal friends are experts at this sort of thing and they have unerringly focused on the one thing that validates the four questions.  Is the person or group in question a victim?  If he/she or the group is a victim then the power of the state can be deployed legitimately to redress the victim's grievance or claim of injustice.

But here is a thought.  Let us categorize degrees of victimhood.  Let us say that slavery is the worst.  Then would come, in descending order, serfdom, political repression, economic exploitation, and last of all marginalization.

The question that conservatives ask is whether government is always the appropriate vehicle to redress these grievances.  For our liberal friends it goes without saying that all of it, down to marginalization, can and should be addressed by legislation and government programs.  But conservatives aren't so sure.  We look at economic exploitation and say, well, if there is no serfdom or political repression then a free laborer is free to leave an exploitative situation.  If you get the government involved in fighting economic exploitation you end up with collusion between big business and big labor, economic regulation, crony capitalism, and Solyndra.  You get duelling exploitation.  If we set up a government program to provide pensions for the disabled, then all of a sudden, people find ways of qualifying as disabled.   Government employees seem to be expert at this kind of work.

And as for marginalization, which is worse, the marginalization of immigrants by conservatives that tell them to get with the program and Americanize or liberals that ruthlessly marginalize conservatives at the university with speech codes?  Freedom means that people are free to deal or not to deal with other people.  At what point does the freedom not to deal with someone become a marginalization or repression that requires the intervention of the state?

The problem with empowering the state to interfere at the lower levels of the slavery, serfdom, political repression, economic exploitation, marginalization axis is that people are human.  They naturally think that government action is warranted when their friends are damaged.  But they are quite unmoved when people they don't like are harmed.

One big reason for our gigantic government is that politics has recognized no limit on government action.  If people are hurting, said President Bush, then the government must help. "We have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, government has got to move."

But that means that limited government is out the window.

But if someone is hurting then surely we must do something to help.  The question is: who is we?  Is the the government?  Is it the neighbors?  Is it business?  Is it "society"?  Our liberal friends are too quick to assume that if someone is hurting, then government must move.  But it would be better for all of us if, instead of government, Americans moved.  Because society, at bottom, comes down to humans acting sociably.  When government moves, people don't need to, and their social instincts atrophy.

It comes down to the basic truth about government: government is force.  So in every question about justice or marginalization, the question comes down to this: Is force the only way we can deal with this?  Because when you use force, then the four count indictment above may apply.  Never mind what the action does for the "victim."  Does it end up dominating someone else?  Or denying them economic opportunity?  Or abridging their political and civil rights? Or their cultural self-identification?  Chances are that it will, so we have to judge whether the cost is worth the benefit.

Because every time someone gets something from the government, the chances are that it amounts to freeloading.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Movements, Crowds, and Obama

Everywhere we look we see movements, writes sociologist Peter Berger.  But what is a movement?  It is a crowd, but a special type of crowd, for "A movement is the preservation of a crowd experience over time."

But what is a crowd?  Quoting Gustave LeBon, Berger defines a crowd as a collective event, and
a crowd creates a sort of collective mind, which is impulsive, impervious to reason and potentially murderous. Put in different terms: The crowd is inherently de-individuating, dismantling the moral restraints of civilization and reverting to a primitive state of unquestioned solidarity. There is a lethal progression from crowd to mob to lynch mob.
 We can see the proto-crowd in the great apes and early humans.
Chimpanzees, our closest anthropoid relatives, engage in group dancing if faced with danger. So do tribal warriors as they go into battle... The individual surrenders his separateness to the sacred unity of the group, an experience often including possession by a divine being.
So it is with modern crowds and movements.  Berger isn't too pleased with this, and he doesn't like the Tea Party or the Occupy movement, preferring the "vital center, spread across the two major political parties, thus marginalizing the extremes to their right and left."  No doubt, and in this vital center, of course, the intellectual elite gets to call the shots.

But the point to get from this is that when any social animals experience themselves in danger they form into crowds, for in dangerous times you need to surrender some or all of your individuality for the benefit of the whole.  That is what happens in armies, and any fighting unit. The individual must be persuaded to accept his own death or injury in the process of fighting for victory, for if every individual thought only of his own safety, an army would dissolve when the first shot is fired.

The Tea Party spontaneously formed as conservative Americans sensed danger immediately upon the election of Barack Obama.  They came together in crowds, and formed a movement to "preserve that crowd experience over time."  That movement helped cause the big 63 seat change in the US House of Representatives in 2010.

The Occupy movement is a similar movement on the left.  Its members feel danger in the threat of budget cuts, so they are crowding together to find the collective courage to oppose them.  They have chosen Wall Street as the symbol of their fear.  Walter Russell Mead writes that it is curious that the Occupy folk see Wall Street as the enemy, since Wall Street is as vital an element in the blue Democratic coalition as the goo-goo upper middle class, the public sector union employees and the welfare beneficiaries.

The trick, of course, is for your movement to be effective.  If it progresses immediately into a lynch mob then it may provoke opposition from another movement.  If it is too individualistic it may not accumulate the collective power to make changes.

The reason that the United States is dividing into two opposing movements is instructive.  It is because the current ruling class, the "vital center," has failed to govern well.  It has failed to moderate the demands of conflicting movements and interests to a level that can be comfortably afforded by the overall society.  Thus the United States is dividing into two extremes that feel profoundly threatened by the other.

President Obama seems to be doing his darnedest to accelerate the process.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Freeloading: What We Give for Free

The big problem for humans as social animals is the question of free ridership.  For nothing destroys social cohesion like freeloaders.

We have seen how human societies deal with freeloading: through government force, through the notion of divine justice in religion, and through the free choice in economic relationships.

In fact though, society actually encourages the freeloading of people who aren't doing well.  We have a variety of ways of talking about this: helping the less fortunate, feeding the hungry, reaching out to the poor.  There is clearly a suspension of judgment.  Never mind how the poor got to be poor, let's just help.  Judgment, if any, is on those expected to help.  It is considered a moral failing not to help.   Judgement is not canceled; it is merely suspended.  It reappears as soon as we start to differentiate between the deserving and the undeserving poor, as George Bernard Shaw did so cunningly in Pygmalion.

In the abstract, we all sit around and wonder why we all can't just get along.  Noam Chomsky, famous leftist, told the Occupy Boston folks that they should "Occupy the Future."  Said he:
The Occupy outposts are trying to create cooperative communities that just might be the basis for the kinds of lasting organizations necessary to overcome the barriers ahead and the backlash that’s already coming.
The thing is, Noam, that everyone is in favor of cooperative communities.  That is what "human society" means.  The problem comes in the next moment.  For instance, your cooperative communities seem to be having a real problem with crime and pilfering.  Not to mention sexual assault.  According to reports the Occupy folks are investigating and dealing with these problems on their own without referring them to the police.

Earth to Noam.  When communities deal with crime without the police it is called vigilantism.

The whole idea is that government has a monopoly on force.  If someone has broken the peace, by sexual assault or by theft, then the peace forces are the only chaps supposed to deal with it.  It's called due process.  Law enforcement without the government leads to lynching.  And so on.

In other words, the newly created "cooperative communities" are already having to deal with the free-rider problem.  And one of the ways of dealing with freeloading is with force.  When force is needed you call in the government.

Years ago, a communications engineer told me that when a electronic communication works, that is a non-problem.  The whole point of communications protocols is to deal with cases where communication has failed.  The same is true of human society, or "cooperative communities."  What do you do when things go wrong?

One way that things can go wrong is that someone commits a sexual assault on another person.  WHen that happens you call in the police.

Another way that things can go wrong is when Democrat banker Jon Corzine bets the firm on Eurobond default and bankrupts the firm MF Global.  What do you do then?  Call in the government's bankruptcy court.

As soon as things start to go wrong, then the question of being free to do what you want and collaborate in communities any way you want comes into question.

Now it is obvious that the Occupy folks don't want to have government getting in the middle of their community affairs.  That's natural.  We capitalists don't like the government getting in the middle of our capitalist acts between consenting adults either.

But at some point, the freeloading has to stop.  We give freely to others.  Up to a point.

The point at which the freeloading has to stop is what we are all arguing about.  It is called politics.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Freeloading, Welfare and the Rich

For any human society--for any social animal--the big issue is freeloading.  The biggest threat to social solidarity is free-ridership.

At one level, we are all free riders.  We all benefit from society way beyond our contribution.  Even a chap like the late Steve Jobs could not bring forth his consumer-electronic trinkets without the rest of society.   After all, what did he know about solid-state physics, computer processor design, software design, touch display technology?  The brilliance of Steve Jobs was his ability to put things together: as in entrepreneur.

Despite the huge benefit each of us obtains from our membership in  society, we humans are quick to accuse the other chap of freeloading.  Lefties accuse the rich of "exploiting" the poor.  Union members accuse the bosses of screwing the working man.  Righties tell the poor to "get a job."  And President Obama wants the rich to "pay their fair share."

Obviously, we all care deeply about free riding.  The question is: what do we do about it?  Here, as usual, we turn to Michael Novak and his Gaulian division of society into three parts: political, economic, and moral-cultural.

We can attack the free-rider problem politically, by using force.  If we want to do that then we assign the politicians to do the job.  Government is force, and politics is power.  Politicians will gladly go after the rich and make them pay more taxes.  But the problem with that is that the politicians will also listen to the would-be crony capitalist that comes bearing political contributions.  And the politicians aren't all that smart.  They will find, in a crisis, that all kinds of institutions are "too big to fail" and that in the present emergency they must free ride on the rest of society.  You could also ask the politicians to tell the poor "to get a job."  We did that back in the 1990s when President Clinton signed the welfare reform bill that reformed one of the 79 federal welfare programs.  But many people disapprove.  They call welfare reform "balancing the budget on the backs of the poor."

If you don't like force, there is an alternative.  You can shame the freeloaders.  According to Nicholas Wade in The Faith Instinct, this is what religion is all about.  Policing freeloaders is a costly business, and you make people mad because nobody likes being bullied around and told to pay more taxes or get a job.  So you discover that, in addition to the usual earthly policemen there is a divine police force that is willing to catch the freeloaders and make them pay.  Even if the freeloader gets away with it throughout his earthly life, the gods will make him pay in the next life.  It's a cunning system, but it requires a proper socialization in childhood to inculcate the idea of divine justice.

Another way to deal with free riding is to let the economic sector worry about it.  The economic sector works like this.  If you think that Joe over there is a free rider, you don't deal with him.  You don't hire him.  You don't work for him.  You don't buy from him.  There is a certain elegance in this approach.  It doesn't require force.  It doesn't require a government program.  It doesn't even require public shaming.  It's just a private thing.  You say to yourself: "I don't like the cut of that fellow's jib."  And that is that.

Let us do a bit of reckless simplifying and tell a story of freeloading down the ages.  In the hunter-gatherer age, the dominant response to freeloading was religion.  It was appropriate because force was expensive and created blood feuds, and because communities were small enough that an individual couldn't really decide that another individual was a bad apple and refuse to deal with him.

In the agricultural age there was an increase in the use of force, because the political elite was rich enough to afford an army.  But still, the idea of divine justice was very strong.

In our age we have reduced sharply the use of divine justice to curb freeloading.  In response the political sector has stepped up its enforcement against freeloading.  Unfortunately, as we saw above, there is a lot of disagreement about who the freeloaders are. It isn't me, it isn't thee; it's probably that guy behind the tree.  The modern age has also seen a big increase in the regulation of freeloading by the economic sector.  Arguments over freeloading create division in society.  So modern man has expanded the economic approach to freeloading.

The loosening of social ties and the breakdown of the local extended family in the modern age means that you can choose who you will deal with.  You can even refuse to deal with a family member, and it isn't the end of the world.  Control of freeloading by refusal to deal works.  People who try to cheat other people are likely to suffer a reduction in income, and therefore pay a penalty for their freeloading.

Many people have tried to revive the divine justice approach to freeloading, especially our environmental friends.  They urge us to "save the planet" by recycling and by reducing our carbon footprints.

When you look at freeloading this way, one thing comes out very strongly.  We have a wonderful solution to the freeloading problem in our market system economy, but nobody gives it any credit.  Attack freeloading with government force, and you create division in society because everyone disagrees about who the real culprits are.  Attack freeloading with religion, and you must face the problem that in recent centuries the belief in divine justice has declined.  Even among believers there is more belief in a loving, forgiving God than a stern divine patriarch.

The obvious choice is to let the people be the judge of freeloading in their own lives.  If they make a mistake, and refuse to deal with a guy who really does contribute to society they are only hurting themselves.

But that would be too easy, and not as much fun as a public humiliation of the evil doers.