Monday, July 4, 2016

What Do We Mean by "Empower?"

In my e-mail conversation with liberal Craig Greeman he proposes that progressives are interested in the empowering of people.
I'd be willing to bet that, if we defined "progressive" more narrowly in some ways -- as, perhaps, someone who *is* interested in power, specifically, the *empowering* of other people -- then conservatives might also agree with others.  After all, conservatives are interested in individual freedom and responsibility; and to enact that, individuals need to have the power to choose and accomplish, whether that's on a market or in a civil situation.  Of course, the question is how far to get the government involved in empowering people (as you said in your blog responding to my little piece, one man's "help" is another man's tyranny).  But I think that if we could agree on that, that both progressives and conservatives are interested in empowering of the individual, then we'd at least have a place to start.
I think that the key phrase that stops me is "how far to get the government involved in empowering people." I suppose Craig means that when the government enacts a Ten Hours law to regulate working hours that empowers people because employers can no longer demand that they work 12 hours a day.

But does that wage and hour law have anything to do with empowerment? The Lady Marjorie's mother presently lives in a retirement community where she is attended 24-7 by aides. Each aide works a 12-hour shift. But recently the State of Florida passed a wage and hour law requiring time-and-a-half for more than 40 hours a week. The response of Lady Marjorie and the agencies she uses to deliver these services was to cut the hours of the aides so they wouldn't be going over 40 hours per week. Is this empowerment or just jerking around?

If you ask me, wage and hour laws are not empowering people; they are protecting them, and mostly protecting them from themselves. The aides looking after Lady Marjorie's mother are immigrants that want to make money, and they are willing to endure considerable privation to do that. Working all night, from 8:00 pm to 8:00 am every day is not my idea of a walk in the park. Maybe "we" should prevent workers from working that hard; maybe we should limit their hours so that other people can get jobs. Or maybe out thicket of helping laws actually makes life harder for people.

Here's a story I heard recently. A 16-year-old high-school girl was sexually assaulted at her home by two boys from high school, but she did nothing about it until her parents found out. They went to the school, but the school basically did nothing about it, and meanwhile the boys and their friends were intimidating the girl with unspeakable verbal cruelty. Finally the 16-year-old girl heard that a 14-year-old girl had been assaulted by the same two boys and determined to go to the police. Today the 16-year-old girl belongs to a rape survivors group and gives interviews.

Now I would say that the empowerment in question occurred when the 16-year-old girl decided to take action and report her rape to the police. That's when she stopped relying on parents and school officials and actually took positive action. At that moment she achieved personal agency.

My problem with progressivism is that is often confuses empowerment with patronage. It is not empowering for liberals to enact social legislation. The workers protected by wage-and-hour laws are not empowered, they just have two masters, the employer and the government labor-law bureaucracy. It is an obvious conceit to imagine that when you are swanning around the world playing Lady Bountiful that you are empowering people.

I don't think so. The book, To Empower People by Peter L. Berger and Richard John Neuhaus is subtitled "The Role of Mediating Structures in Public Policy" and in its second edition "From State to Civil Society." Berger and Neuhaus define empowerment as the development of a civil society of institutions, "mediating structures" between the "megastructures" of government and industry. These mediating structures are not sponsored or patronized by the powerful. They are authentic self-governing institutions occupying their own space in the public square.

This is not to say that government has no role in the adjudication of power relationships. It is just to warn our liberal friends that we humans are capable of extraordinary conceits and delusions. It is to warn our friends that scientists say that humans developed reason in order to manage their social status, not to discover the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.

That's why I think that it is best to start with uncompromising ideas like Government is Force; Politics is Violence and go on from there. The whole point of social animals, I like to say, is the retreat of force. Animals within the group don't use force on each other.

The overwhelming fact of the modern industrial era, apart from the Great Enrichment by a factor of ten and more, is its reduction in violent death by a factor of ten. How did this happen? I suggest it is the market that is to blame. In the market you don't have to enforce your will to survive or surrender to a powerful patron to survive; you only have to surrender to the market and its prices: labor prices, product prices, service prices. For many people, liberals and progressives among them, this new surrender to the market is an abomination.

Maybe it is, but I suspect that the concept of surrender to the market is the most empowering thing that has come along since sliced bread.

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