Monday, June 6, 2016

The Paradox of Power and Not-so-Power

In the last week or so, while cudgeling my brain, like an Alger Hiss, over the newly published Bourgeois Equality by Deirdre McCloskey, I used my dissatisfaction with its 787 pages to come up with a new catchphrase.

I asserted that the notion that ties the bourgeois experience together -- its rhetoric, its innovation, its having-a-go -- is that the middle class is not that interested in power.

The "post-1848 clerisy" -- liberals and progressives and lefties --  are very interested in power, and especially political power. The Judgment of Marx in 1848 was that the economic power of the bourgeoisie, upon which rested the superstructure of its political power, could only be reduced by a countervailing political power organized by a revolutionary avant-garde of chaps like him. Liberals and progressives and lefties have not changed their opinion since.

For the left, the first and last and only way to change the world is through politics.

The counter argument, proposed down the ages, is that while political power has its moments, the key to life, the universe, and everything -- not forgetting the Key to All Mythologies -- is the limitation of political power.

Deirdre McCloskey makes this clear in her oft-repeated assertion that the last 200 years has seen a Great Enrichment in per-capita income from $3 per day to $100 per day wherever capitalism -- or innovation or "trade-tested betterment" or "having a go" -- was allowed to germinate and grow by the local political power structure. And there has been nothing like it before in history. Ever.

Her point is that the norm in human history is that the political powers-that-be have tended always to smother any signs of innovation in their cradles. That's because innovation and Schumpeter's "creative destruction" always threatens the status quo and the established interests, the regime supporters that get rewards for their support from the ruling class. And really, what is the difference between innovation and rebellion, from the point of view of the ruling class and its regime supporters?

The point is that enrichment is only possible when the political class takes its clunking fist off the brow of labor and allows it to innovate and creatively destroy the status quo. The more the ruling class believes in power the less it is likely to allow innovators and have-a-goers to innovate and have a go (and by the way, the less that the economy will throw off lovely lucre and tax revenue to increase the power of the state). The opposite is also true. The more a ruling class is not that interested in power and the more that it allows innovators and have-a-goers to have a go, the more enrichment will occur (and, by the way, the more that the enrichment will throw off lovely lucre and tax revenue to increase the power of the state).

Here we see the fundamental error that the "post-1848 clerisy" has been living for the last 170 years. The answer to the problem of injustice is not government power, because government is injustice. The answer to the problem of poverty is not yet another Poor Law, because the best solution to poverty is more enrichment from innovation and having-a-go.

Of course, we should not be so hard on the "post-1848 clerisy." They are not the only people that think the solution is power. Almost anyone that gets into politics ends up following the sterile road of power. Politics is about power, and it is a contradiction in terms to run for office and political power by promising to reduce the incidence of political power. Donald Trump is proposing to use the power of government to teach the Chinese and the Mexicans a lesson. His opponents in the Democratic Party are proposing the usual list of new expansions of government power to teach the One Percent a lesson.

And when we turn to the American people they always call for politicians to "do something" rather than "undo something."

It is, of course, a paradox that in order to promote enrichment the ruling class needs to lighten up on political power. It also makes complete sense.

The best way to increase the power and scope of the human experience is that you are not that interested in power.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Mr. Chantrill,

    I think you've put your finger on a very useful amendment to my reasoning and evidence. Of course, my frequent remarks about the misuses of the "monopoly of violence" (Max Weber's minimal definition of a state)does suggest a similar thought, as I believe you'll agree. Still, my distaste for the remark my left-wing friends make all the time---"But you've forgotten power," which they use to not think about anything other than power---may have led me away from your insight.