Monday, March 21, 2005

Examining the Right--and wrong

The contemporary right likes to focus on concentrated power in government--a legitimate concern which I share, for obvious reasons. The contemporary dishonest right (typically those in power) focus exclusively on the power of government because they advocate a different kind of concentrated power--private control over the economy in the form of corporations--and because they recognize a flaw in government not present in corporate institutions: government is potentially democratic. Corporations, if you bother to look at their internal distribution of power, are not. Well, the reason why traditional conservatives were so concerned with government is because concentrated power is dangerous no matter where you find it. At the same time, they recognized that government had the potential not to be totalitarian, which is why they championed its democratic forms. How we judge government, economic institutions, or anything else should be on the basis of whether they are democratic or not. That's the only thing that gives them any legitimacy; I don't care what you're talking about. If they're not democratic, then they're one or another form of tyranny--as any classical Enlightenment figure (for instance Adam Smith, who had quite a bit to say about this) would readily tell you--and deserve to be dismantled, thus diffusing power and widening the scope of human liberty, in the classical conception.

Beware the conservative who blames everything on government without taking into account other forms of concentrated power in society. What these powerful interests advocate is not getting rid of all forms of illegitimate authority (see libertarian socialism, a branch of anarchism), but simply replacing one for another--and, in this case, eliminating the potential for democratic rule by the citizenry in the process. Private management of the economy combined with the attenuation of democratic federal structures is fascism.


Sheryl said...

OK, let me throw out a question.

Theoretically capitalism is driven by the attempt to accumulate capital, and accumulation is an attempt to concentrate and thus centralize resources. So would say that the traditional conservative is anti-capitalist?

J.R. Boyd said...

Well, that depends on what you mean by "traditional conservative." If we mean conservative to the traditions of classical liberalism, then I think the answer is yes: classical liberalism is anti-capitalist. You simply can't reconcile an enlightenment ideal like "the goal of production is to produce free people" with wage-slavery--having to rent your self to others who own and control the things we need for survival simply because it benefits them, with incidental effects for everyone else. Most enlightment figures didn't live to see capitalism, but they were pretty explicitly opposed to the monopoly forms of power they observed in their time: the feudal system, the Church, absolutist government structures, etc. So if we want to adapt the same ideals to the modern era, we have to look at the places where concentrated power lies and ask ourselves whether the concentration is justified for everyone it affects--if everyone shouldn't instead have some say in the decisions that affect them, thus diffusing power, widening the scope of human freedom, and so on.

You're right to focus on the accumulation, consolidation and centralization of economic power under capitalism. That's always the case. I'm not aware of any example where it's not. And it inevitably leads to governments for sale to the highest bidder, not exactly compatible with government "of, by, and for the people"--if by "people" we mean a nation's citizenry, not its "moneyed incorporations" as Jefferson would say.

Sheryl said...

Traditional conservative=classical liberal?

I look at this in a different way. Here is how I have always seen the traditional liberal conservative dichotomy. It's like building a fire. There are those who say put wood on the fire or it will go out (the liberals.) And the conservatives who say that you only should put as much wood on the fire as is necessary. Otherwise you will use up all your wood.

And since the conservatives are conserving rather than consuming, they tend to accumulate more and therefore are anti-taxation as well as anti-government. Like the early german settlers in Texas. They figure the individual is better at taking care of himself.

The liberal is more into cooperative efforts, and therefore believes that there is such a thing as public good and everyone should pitch in and contribute to that public good.

When the conservative is left to accrue wealth, he sets up businesses and gets rich. The corporation is just a method of A) financing the endeavor and B) keeping those pansy liberals at bay from trying to sue him when he destroys the environment or does some other nasty thing.

Fascism is just the bastard son of liberalism and conservatism. It's using the state to further concentrate wealth into the hands of those who traditionally opposed it. It's taking a structure created for one purpose and using it for the opposite.

Because you take someone like Thomas Jefferson, who was clearly for decentralized wealth, but he was also for public education and created the Library of Congress, so he obviously had a stake in those aspects of government. Except for the slave issue, he was a liberal just like any modern liberal.

J.R. Boyd said...

"Traditional conservative=classical liberal?"

In some cases, yes: I think the tendency for conservatives to focus on the dangers of state power come straight out of classical liberalism. So contemporary conservatives find plenty of arguments against "big government" in Enlightenment thought, and use them to argue in defense of private property rights, which classical figures like Jefferson, for example, also argued in favor of as a safeguard against the state.

Of course, all of this happens before the industrial revolution, which turned everything on its head. "Private property" is no longer a plot of land or the tools used by a blacksmith--things that theoretically could be distributed on a more or less equal basis througout communities--but rather capital-intensive property like a factory or a railroad company. That just goes to whomever can buy it, which is not most people, obviously. Industry becomes hinged on advanced technology and capital-intensive property--how do you keep it democratic? How do you sustain an industrial production base while extending control of production to all citizens, like it was when communities produced their own goods directly by hand? Well, that's the question socialists asked in 19th century. They were trying to adapt classical liberalism to the modern era, since nobody was living in the world of Adam Smith anymore. There was no point in arguing private ownership over productive property if that property was effectively off limits to the majority of people. The fact that contemporary conservatism borrows arguments from the 18th century while ignoring the developments of the 19th should tell us something about whose interests it seeks to protect.

Sheryl said...

You know, I was just thinking. Philosophy itself needs to be every bit as decentralized as these other resources we are discussing. Historians and philosophers try to generalize complex issues into simple explanations for easy digestion, but people behave relative to their environments and their histories.

When you talk about classical liberalism what percentage of the population at that time was even literate? The creation of town criers probably helped, but I doubt the philosophical conversations of the elites have had that great a bearing on Joe Shmuck's ideas of wealth and entitlement.

Nor can you really say that Cesar Chavez was being motivated by the same things as Ted Kennedy. Yet both could be called modern liberals. Nor could you say that President Bush is getting his philosophy from the same origins as Billy Bob Redneck or any of my other cousins. X-) Even if he pretends to be a bubba boy, we both know Bush is an ivy league aristocrat.

Where people are in our class system has a great bearing on what versions of conservatism or liberalism they will identify with. I think it has more to do with how people figure they will benefit from policy than anything so structured as history or philosophical traditions.

I would suspect that middle class and poor "conservatives" would be a lot more excited by small business than the multimillionaire class of "conservatives" purely because they are approaching things from a different angle. When you see people who started off as middle class or poor conservatives but get rich, they often adapt their versions of what is ideal to fit their new circumstances. Some middle class and poor will defend the rich conservatism because they are daydreamers who think that they will be immensely rich some day. Some choose to defend it because then they feel like they are part of a greater class--the "winners" as opposed to the losers in this "dog eat dog world.".

I totally agree with you that classical liberalism is at odds with capitalism and restrictions on freedom. I think modern liberalism is also at odds with these things. But I think people write their philosophies to match their situations.

Poor people often turn deprivation into a virtue. If you have no money, then you aren't "materialistic" or "spoiled." At the same time, if you have lots of money, then you look down on the poor bastards who you see as "depriving themselves" of all the beautiful things the world has to offer. You start acting as if you are more "refined" because you drink the more expensive bottle of wine and eat snails and fish eggs.

I also agree that the bigger the structure of something, the more bureaucratic and the less democratic things become. I attribute that to cronyism and the heuristical methods used to classify and organize things, such as generalizations. But also just in terms of the bigger the tent, the more diverse the people under it. The more diverse the people under it, the greater probability that their needs will conflict with one another.

In terms of the democracy, that's the problem for places like Yugoslavia, Lebanon, Indonesia, or various tribes in Africa. Democracy is probably just the solution to the unfortunate aspects of diversity. Diversity=Choice=Freedom and democracy is what holds it all together. Unless you go the Tito route and just use force. :( Sorry this was long winded. I was partially brainstorming as I wrote it.