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.

Friday, July 13, 2012

My Cunning Plan

Most conservatives are happy to belabor liberals with the transcendent truth of conservatives thinkers from Burke to Sowell. You know the schtick: conservatives use reason and liberals use emotion.

But I have a cunning plan.  I want to belabor liberals with with the transcendent truth of liberal ideas.

Just today my "seeing like a state" take on ObamaCare and the welfare state was linked by  It uses the notions developed by Marxist professor James C. Scott in Seeing Like a State.  The idea is that modern states try to simplify complex social structures into uniform centralized rationalized plans--not because the old social structures are backward but because they are impenetrable to the bureaucrat and the tax collector.  And we couldn't have that!

So whatever liberals think they are doing with ObamaCare they are just acting like governments always act.  They want to know what the people are doing (in case they might want to mount a head of rebellion) and they want to control whatever they do.  It's not that liberals are evil or wrongheaded.  It's just that when you get in charge of government you start to "see like a state" and then act like a state.

That's what the whole idea of limited government is about.

I'm also working on liberal moral psychology professor Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind.   He's concerned with the "problem" liberals have trying to understand conservatives and communicate with people that don't think like liberals.  But in doing so he unravels the whole moral case for the welfare state because he says that the basis of human sociality is the group and the moral persuasion the group can bring to bear on free riders.  He inadvertently exposes the welfare state as a theme park, a Disneyland, for freeloaders.

Then there are the Frankfurt School chappies, Horkheimer and Adorno.  They show in Dialectic of Enlightenment that bourgeois capitalism and big government are two sides of the same coin.  They both privilege reason, one as the basis of the economy and one as the basis of government.  But reason is instrumental; you use it as a tool.  People use reason to dominate nature and other humans.  By the time you get to Adorno's student Habermas, we are talking about "strategic" instrumental reason and "systems" on the one hand and communicative discourse and the "lifeworld" on the other.  You can see that "system" is the world of money and power while "lifeworld" is the world of discourse and civil society, Burke's "little platoons."

In Jonathan Haidt we get the idea that human reason first evolved as a way of rationalizing and excusing our naughty behavior to our fellow humans--just like kids do when they are caught lying.  That's a tricky concept.  Reason as a way to squirrel out of a tight spot?

The really important thing, I believe, is to adjudicate the two Big Ideas of the modern era.  Is it more correct to view the relations of our society as Adam Smith's Invisible Hand where people thrive so long as they serve others with goods and services?  Or should we think of the Marxian Exploitation narrative where the labor of the working class is alienated because exploited by the employers and driven by necessity.

The view you take is important.  If you think that, by and large, everyone benefits who puts a shoulder to the wheel, then you won't think that extraordinary government power is needed to regulate the economy.  If you believe that exploitation is everywhere then you will believe that government needs to be run by people like you that see the problem and can apply its power to liberating the people from exploitation.  Today "inequality" serves this function.  Liberals believe in inequality and believe that this justifies their redistributive economic policies.

Maybe it's time to revise the two concepts.  The Invisible Hand applies when free people interact in a free market.  Exploitation applies whenever big government is flat-footing around taxing and regulating good honest labor and playing favorites with subsidies and crony capitalism for its supporters.

In my view, when you assemble these notions together you get the idea that it takes government to give society genuine exploitation.  Humans are social animals--"ultrasocial" according to Jonathan Haidt--and really care what other people think about them.  Therefore we have the means in our genes and in our culture to curb exploiters and freeloaders.  It takes government and a ruling class to gin up genuine large-scale exploitation.  Without government people would just decide not to deal with exploiters and defaulters, and the exploiters and defaulters would soon get with the program.

Once we have decided on all this, that to get real exploitation and oppression you need big government, then we can apply good conservative principles about limited government and civil society--from Burke, from Hayek, from Sowell, from Novak, and lately from Lawrence Cahoone (another liberal professor)--and get on with the job of making America the last best hope of freedom on earth, the beacon, the magnet, for all those who must have freedom.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Jonathan Haidt and the Liberals' Problem

In a well-regarded book published this year, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt has challenged his liberal friends.

We humans, he argues, are wired to make instinctive moral judgments, and he has identified a moral matrix with 6 different axes, including Care/harm, Liberty/oppression, Fairness/cheating, Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion, and Sanctity/degradation, that differentiates out our moral instincts.  He and his associates have developed a bunch of survey questions to identify where people score on these 6 moral axes at  Conservatives score about equally on each of the six axes, implying that conservatives value each of these moral axes as of equal importance.

But liberals don't.  They rate Care/harm of overwhelming importance, Liberty/oppression pretty highly, Fairness/cheating moderately, and Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion, and Sanctity/degradation hardly at all.  So liberals have a problem in talking to the American people when they believe in such a limited range of moral concerns, whereas conservatives cover the waterfront.  That's what Haidt concludes.

But wait a minute!  Liberals do too believe in Sanctity/degradation: that is what environmentalism and climate change are all about.  They tell us that we are morally defective for eating too much, that corporations are evil for polluting too much; people that disagree with liberals on climate change are called "deniers" or at very least anti-social people that won't sign onto the "consensus."  Liberals do too believe in Authority/subversion.  They believe in the authority of political "idealists" and activists, and in the authority of educated experts to make the rules for the rest of us to live by.  And liberals certainly believe in Loyalty/betrayal.  They made a big deal about forcing liberals to declare their loyalty during the McCarthy era, for sure.  But try and get a job in Hollywood or in the academy if you show that you belong to the conservative team.  Liberals think that entertainment and education should be limited to members of the liberal team.

The whole point of liberalism is to change the rules on Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity.  Liberals don't like loyalty for families, tribes, nations.  They want us to be loyal to the idea of humanity in general.  They don't like the authority of kings, warrior landowners, clerics, and the old-fashioned WASPy "pillars of the community."  They want to substitute the authority of people like themselves: educated, evolved, and open-minded.  They don't want Sanctity founded of the love of God but on the love for the planet.  And they are pretty Calvinistic about all this.  Either you are a member of the liberal Elect or you will roast in secular Hell.  James Piereson called this "Punitive Liberalism" back in 2004.
According to this doctrine, America had been responsible for numerous crimes and misdeeds through its history for which it deserved punishment and chastisement. White Americans had enslaved blacks and committed genocide against Native Americans. They had oppressed women and tyrannized minority groups, such as the Japanese who had been interned in camps during World War II. They had been harsh and unfeeling toward the poor. By our greed, we had despoiled the environment and were consuming a disproportionate share of the world's wealth and resources. We had coddled dictators abroad and violated human rights out of our irrational fear of communism.
It's pretty obvious to me that in this indictment liberals thought they were calling Americans to a new moral order with different parameters for measuring Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity.  The only reason that liberals don't score well on those axes in Haidt survey questions must be that he's not trying to measure them.

Jonathan Haidt is not a fool.  He understands that our moral instincts are there for a reason.  They help us function successfully as social animals.  The groups in which we live are social and cultural artifacts that allow us to work together as teams and provide the means to control free-loading.  Here is what he writes about this.
Everybody loves social capital.  Whether you're left, right, or center, who could fail to see the value of being able to trust and rely upon others?  But now let's broaden our focus... and let's think about a school, a commune, a corporation, or even a whole nation that wants to improve moral behavior...  To achieve almost any moral vision, you'd probably want high levels of social capital...
This social or moral capital refers to 
the degree to which a community possesses interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and technologies that mesh well with evolved psychological mechanisms and thereby enable the community to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible.
This is what conservatives, as Haidt realizes, have been talking about every since Burke and the "little platoons."

Of course, when it comes to the solutions chapter of The Righteous Mind Jonathan Haidt jumps immediately to politics, confirming the liberal belief in control of corporations and regulation, and admitting that the libertarians have a point in declaring the miracle of the market and that social conservatives have a point that you "don't usually help the bees by destroying the hive."

The problem is that Haidt doesn't see the basic problem of liberalism.  In advancing its cause of caring and its fight against oppression and its revaluation of the values of Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity, it enforces its world view with the brute force of government.  We are to care for the poor with our taxes.  We are to fight oppression with government set-asides and subsidies.  And we must destroy the mediating organizations that don't get with the program.  Moreover, we are not to task the poor with any social responsibility.  Here in Seattle we have just enacted a plastic bag ban in grocery stores.  You must pay 5 cents for each paper bag so we will reduce the blight and litter of plastic bags.  Only, of course, people that pay with EBT, the electronic food stamps, are exempt.

That's a tiny example of a gigantic problem.  Whenever liberals legislate some big new reform, they always exempt themselves and their clients from paying the costs of the program.

There is a word for this.  It is called freeloading.

That is the Liberal Problem.  At the very heart of their political program is the promotion and expansion and encouragement of freeloading.  When people give, it is because they are forced to give in their taxes.  When they receive it is because they are entitled to a benefit by right.  This sort of thing does not build community.  It destroys it.

Yet the social scientists tell us that the basic problem for all social animals is the need to find a way to curb the free rider problem, and inspire each other to give rather than to receive.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

My Faith in America

When plotting to hoodwink White Snake's husband, after he has unfortunately seen White Snake in her true form, White Snake and Green Snake agree, in Mary Zimmerman's The White Snake, to tell him that he didn't see what he saw.  "Believing is seeing," they say.

So it is with these United States of America.  If you believe that "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness" is a good thing then you will look out at America and see that it it good.

Or you could believe that human Life is a disease on this fragile Earth, that Liberty is nothing but selfish individualism, and the Pursuit of Happiness is nothing but feckless hedonism.

The way you look at America depends on how you look at the world.

There are two modern beliefs that dominate men's minds today.  One is the Invisible Hand of Adam Smith.  It argues that, in order to meet our selfish needs, humans must work to satisfy the needs of others.  On this view the "inalienable rights" of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness are mild and beneficial, for they urge us to cooperate with our fellow humans, but without the yoke of compulsion.

There is another modern faith; it is the Exploitation theory of the left.  On this view society is irretrievably broken.  The laborer cannot earn the full fruit of his labor because its full value is siphoned off by his employer and only a fraction returned to him in wages.  Workers are therefore coerced into working for others to stave off the pangs of hunger and experience their work as alienation from their true metier.

Notice how these two faiths essentially agree.  If you want to eat, you have to work.  The Invisible Hand idea says that this is a good thing, for it encourages selfish individuals to be social.  The Exploitation idea says it is a bad thing because it forces people into working for others.

So with the American troika of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.  Human life is a blessing, according to Christians, or a curse, according to environmentalists.  Liberty is a blessing, according to libertarians, or a curse, according to socialists.  The Pursuit of Happiness is all-embracing, according to optimists, or narrowly selfish, according to pessimists.

But we Americans, those of us that believe in American exceptionalism, believe in Life, because that is what living things are for, to live life and produce new life.  We believe in Liberty, because Liberty is creative, expansive, generous and good, while compulsion is cramped, narrow, brutish, and short.  We believe in the Pursuit of Happiness, because that upward, hopeful gaze is the very essence of what it means to be human.

Arthur C. Brooks in The Road to Freedom argues, from modern social science, that the Pursuit of Happiness has two components.  The first is the pursuit of meaningful work and earned success.  Not just any success, for unearned success doesn't make us happy.  The other component is giving.  If you want to be happy then you have to give.  This is not new.  The Methodist creed was: Work all you can, save all you can, give all you can.

Now go back and look at the two modern world views: the Invisible Hand view and the Exploitation view.  What do you think?