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August 11, 2006

Comments

This is a long post, and I'll need to re-read it a couple of times to get a good handle on where you're trying to go with it.

I have one specific question/comment.

When you talk about capitalism, it seems like what you're really talking about is government enforcement of contracts. It's not clear to me that these are one and the same thing.

What do you think capitalism is?

Thanks -

This is a long post, and I'll need to re-read it a couple of times to get a good handle on where you're trying to go with it.

I have one specific question/comment.

When you talk about capitalism, it seems like what you're really talking about is government enforcement of contracts. It's not clear to me that these are one and the same thing.

What do you think capitalism is?

Thanks -

as a public service, i repost in a readable font size the message at the bottom of the post:

For the record, the unexamined life may not be worth living, but it can save you a lot of headaches. It's hard to believe I'm actually trained to take in a batch of disparate information and make good decisions based on that data, isn't it?

Andrew, we largely agree. As far as I'm concerned, there is virtually no way to draw a principled line between that which should be federalized and that which is federalized.

Telecommunications policy -- yup.
Minimum pollution standards -- absolutely.
Ag. supports -- ?
Education -- ?
Health care [no comment]

"How do we determine what we should believe?"

Ask a physicist. Next question?

What are 'states rights' other than the asserted ability of some majority somewhere to infringe on the individual rights of particular persons?

The various intrusions of the federal animal into what we think of as the state sphere arise, in my view, less from dreams of aggrandizement than from the failures of state based systems. We have federal civil rights law because states weren't protecting the rights of individuals. We have federal banks because states didn't regulate their banks well enough. We have federal pollution regulations, and auto safety regulations, because states can't do this. We have federally funded welfare because poor states can't deal with poverty.

there is virtually no way to draw a principled line

Consequently, we all send representatives to a big building where they argue about this year in and year out. They come to decisions about one thing or another one at a time, based on the arguments for doing it one way or the other that appear reasonable. It's a subject of discussion regarding virtually every area of domestic federal effort. Few of the choices are objectively wrong, if you consider the context beyond just a search for principles.

It's the worst system you could have, except for all the others.

"The various intrusions of the federal animal into what we think of as the state sphere arise, in my view, less from dreams of aggrandizement than from the failures of state based systems."

Indeed, but it's also often the case, particularly in these days of Republican federal control, that State Constitutions better protect our freedoms and civil rights than U.S. Supreme Court decisions or Congress does, and often against intrusions by the federal government.

As witness gay marriage in Massachussetts, or the right to die or Oregon, or any of dozens of other examples I could give with a little more poking around for cites. Sometimes it's not a matter of rights, but simply of better policy, and the right to have it, such as a better minimum wage than the federal minimum wage, or the right of a municipality to set a living wage. It can be the right of a state to set up a decent state health care system, such as, again, Oregon's, or such as TennCare was before it was gutted.

Quite a few states have Constitutions, and state Supreme Courts (or the equivalent by another name) that are more liberal and expansive than the U.S. Constitution is presently interpreted as being.

Oh, and look how the SCOTUS overrode the Florida Supreme Court in a certain well-remembered 2000 decision.

Andrew: I think I agree with much of this, but with a few crucial differences. The one that seems most salient just now is the part about the level playing field. I agree completely that it's impossible to put people on a completely level playing field. Even if there weren't genetic differences, there are differences in families, and the sort of intrusion required to even try to compensate for the fact that one kid has great parents while another does not would be, imho, wildly counterproductive, as well as unpleasant.

That said, I think that the position of most pro-level-playing field types, and certainly my position, is that when we're asking ourselves what set of rules to adopt, we should adopt that set that allows us to secure as much equality of opportunity over the course of a lifetime as possible. This isn't rendered pointless by the observation that we can never make it perfectly level, any more than the claim that we should try to be good people is rendered pointless by the thought that only God is perfect, and He might or might not even exist.

At this point you might reply that these attempts to level the playing field would run afoul of people's rights, and (if so) I would make the argument I made here, about property and property rights being social artifacts.

Ha, perfect timing! Since you're all in a morality sort of mood, allow me to ask you to participate in a survey, either over at Tacitus or my own nearly moribund site. I'll be happy to share the results with ObWi, and it deals directly with matters that apparently already concern you.

Since this post is on beliefs, let me offer a counterpoint.

"While I am not using this as an argument in favor of letting the poor take life as it comes, the fact is that the average poor person in the United States is better off in most ways than the nobility just two centuries ago."

On the other hand, that was far less true 70 years ago, before what Janice Rogers Brown calls our socialist revolution (that is, the condition of the average poor but free person [since I don't want to get into the issue of slavery] was not too much different in 1936 than in 1736). And that the comparison becomes even more obvious when we compare periods before other increases in the power of Federal government, such as the change in living conditions of the poor between 1880 and 1680.

I happen to believe that the two are related, and that the primary reason for the increase in living standards among the poor is the intervention of an activist government. I also believe that it is a wholly good thing, which justifies the powers given to government in the last 100+ years to do more than protect negative rights, but to create positive ones for the common good.

"How do we determine what we should believe?"
Ask a physicist. Next question?
Posted by: rilkefan | August 11, 2006 at 06:56 PM

Do you really think a physicist can tell us anything about what to believe in the areas of (for example) politics, morality, or religion? Reductionism with a vengeance.

My first thought on reading the sentence you quote was, "hm, there's one that Hilzoy should be able to get her teeth into." But it's an awfully broad question.

(qua physicist, I should perhaps clarify)

"Do you really think a physicist can tell us anything about what to believe in the areas of (for example) politics, morality, or religion?"

I dunno, I hear that new 10-dimensional string morality is hot stuff.

We are all unique

I'm not.

"On the other hand, that was far less true 70 years ago"

Dan, you are indeed the man.

I was born in 1956. My life, overall, has been peachy keen.

When my father, born in 1920, was a young man, Christmas meant a tangerine and a new pair of overalls. The overalls he got the previous year became his work clothes. Shoes were for school and Sunday.

When my mother in law was in high school, her parents couldn't afford to keep both her and her brother at home. There wasn't enough to eat. Full stop. So, in the summer her brother got sent to live with relatives who owned a farm, where he worked his ass off for his keep. No money, just food and a place to sleep. The rest of the year, my mother in law got sent there, where she was treated exactly as the unwelcome imposition she was. Think "Cindrella" without Prince Charming or a fairy godmother.

A little later, my mother in law's father lost his job. He left the family, telling them he'd get in touch when he found work. Fortunately, he found a factory job in the rubber industry in Akron, otherwise they would likely have never heard from him again.

My mother grew up in Brooklyn. Her brother, my uncle, had a full basketball scholarship to Columbia. The family could not afford to lose his income, so he could not go. Period. He eventually joined the NYFD, a more than honorable career, but with no disrespect to firemen, he could have done more.

Not one of these stories is unusual. In fact, my family had it better than many. Ask your parents or grandparents, they'll tell you how it was. That's what life was like before our "socialist revolution".

And, as a point of fact, with the possible exception of the general availability of antibiotics, poor people in this country nowadays do not enjoy a standard of living "better... than the nobility two centuries ago".

In what way? Because they have central heat and TV? With all due respect, that statement is bogus.

Thanks -

I agree with Russell and Dantheman: quality of life improved for so many in the 20th century precisely because of measures that the entrenched powers that were fought at every step. One of the really vivid lessons of the last couple decades is that there are more than enough bosses who will, given the slightest opening, rush to recreate the Gilded Age - they will resume contaminating food, cheating employees out of wages and benefits, silence critics with legal leverage all the way to threats of and actual violence. It doesn't have to take a lot of them to make a lot of misery - a single Enron can push millions into misery and dozens into death for the sake of a bigger profit margin, and there are enoough of those folks to go around.

Decent libertarians, who genuinely care about others' well-being, usually figure that the capitalist class has learned its collective lesson, and is willing to thrive on a somewhat smaller share of a much larger pie. But no, it turns out that it hasn't, and too many of its members are quite willing to help plunge the whole society into ruin for the sake of a larger piece for themselves.

In large measure because of the demonstrated vicious greed lying around at the top, I just don't care as much about efficiency as I used to. The people most likely to preach the necessity of efficiency and to condemn wicked waste and all turn out not to care about inefficiency at all, as long as they can push it onto others. As a class, they're not serious about overall efficiency, in the sense of considering everybody's labor and expenses nor the returns to everyone involved in making modern industry and commerce happen. A society in which more tasks are turned over to the private sector is not in fact more efficient; it simply slops the waste and misery around differently, and is often significantly worse than the alternative when everything's taken into account.

In some cases, it seems, the government service will do its job with efficiency equal to or greater than the private version, as long as it's not deliberately sabotaged from the top down. And if it's no more efficient, or even less, but is in fact providing for some aspect of the safety, health, and opportunity of our cities...then I don't really give a damn about the efficiency. I do care about fraud, and I like it when waste can be reduced to as low a level as possible, but the older I get, the less I believe that waste is in itself a sufficient charge to condemn the government's provision of a useful service.

I can relate to Russel. My mom was born in 1936, my father in 1931. They had to work when they were 12 (school was obligatory till that age) - even though in my mums case teachers offered to take her in their house so she could have more schooling. If my grandma could have gotten away with it she would have started work at an even earlier age - they needed the money.

My mother had to get married (on her 18th birthday) to leave house; in those days women weren't allowed to act independently, they couldn't even open their own bankaccounts or rent a house; for the law they were minors till they got married.

My father was an alcoholic; my mum had to work. Women were not paid the same amount of money (some companies even fired you when you got married, since your duty was with the homelife then) so she could not provide for us as well.

She tried to do better for us, but just didn't know enough. She thought I had a great diploma when I had my highschool, because she never got that far. She thought I was crazy to study more when I could have had a paid job instead.

If I hadn't lived in a society that tried to create equal changes for all, I would not have HAD a change to study, to get where I am now. Many of our kids would not have had glasses (check ups at school identify the need, universal health care pays for it) or hearing aids, or other remedies that have a hugh impact on how they develop if not for the system the government provides.

Government shapes the society you live in, and there are more components than the purely economical. I think kids should have protection and changes, because they shape the society that we all will live in too.

I also think that there are many groups in a society that have their own idea's about what shape society should have and I want the freedom to shape as much of my life as I can. So the power should not be with one group with their own agenda, government should go compromise, for what is best for most people. That is why I like our coalition governments even if they are less decisive and drastic; it's a feature, not a bug.

I should have freedom where it doesn't effect others. But they have their freedom too and quite often those freedoms clash. I should be able to decide fully about my own body - that includes anything that grow in there until it is enough of an individual to be entitled to protection on its own (equal changes were possible). I should be able to die when I want to, no matter what someone else's religion states. I should not be able to drive in a manner that endangers others. My freedom to drink stops when that drinking causes harm for others.

Another thing I thought of, Andrew, on the way home last night: your critique of Republicans and Democrats was that they were both statist would seem to apply equally -- better perhaps -- to a comparison of state and federal governments.

Maybe it's worth talking about specifics: what federal programs would you eliminate? Which of those would you allow to be done at the state level, as opposed to simply ruling beyond the scope of government?

Um, someone left a rather long and nasty comment on the birth pangs thread (It wasn't me, I swear) that, if possible, should be removed.

Thanks, whoever did that.

people who enter into agreements with one another

as a description of capitalism this is very popular among libertarians, unfortunately it is also a totally inaccurate description of capitalism, as it leaves out the role of the, erm, capital, corporations, banks and finally the state as a player not a referee; if capitalism were only about individuals creating and buying stuff from each other, there wouldn't be many critics of capitalism left, indeed it would be the state of affairs that many critics of capitalism envision

Thank you, Russell and Bruce. I don't know too many details of my ancestors' lives beyond my grandparents' early years, but I can provide similar stories of their youth, even though they were by no means poor.

On the other hand, last year, I was in Phoenix for a convention, and with a few hours to kill, went to see a recreated mining village from the 1890's. The miners lived on average less than 1 year from the time they got into the mines, during which time they became blind (after spending 12 hours below ground with only candle light, going into afternoon sun was too much for their eyes) and deaf (from the lack of protection for their ears during blasting). And yet people were camping out hoping to become miners under these conditions, because it paid better than being a farmer or ranch hand, and allowed them to send money home to their kids, in the hopes they will have a better life. These are the sorts of conditions which unbridled capitalism will allow the poor to live in if unregulated by the state, and I defy anyone to say that preventing it is an abuse of state power.

I've been thinking some more and wanted to add one more thing:

I don't think that objections of the form "but this is an arbitrary line" impress me all that much any more. Yes, they are. But the alternatives are to either not draw lines, or to leave every adjudicating instance covered by a principle purely to the discretion involved. Neither is preferable.

So yes, saying $X income is taxable at 7% is arbitrary. So're speed limits, blood alcohol limits, purity standards in coins, all kinds of things. I think that if the law has a clear foundation and a practical standard that reasonably clearly connects to it, that's as good as we're going to get. And yes, this will mean that sometimes I personally regard the standards set as not the best. Since when do I get exactly what I want all the time ever, in any context?

The question really at issue is: Will the sundry inefficiencies and other foul-ups exist in a system that supports many citizens in diverse needs, or one that supports a handful of the chosen few at everyone else's expense?

"How do we determine what we should believe?"

Ask a physicist. Next question?

A physicist will tell us what's true, which is a different matter entirely.

A number of commenters have pointed out very clearly one of the major flaws not only in libertarianism but in some brands of conservative beliefs: the naive worship of capitalism, the erroneaous assumption that capitalism is based on human nature and therefore somehow a self-righting system that works out for those who are willing to work.
It isn't a self-righting system. It has to be managed for the greater good or it degenerates into a ruthless concentration of wealth that the citizens of no genuine democracy would tolerate unless the voters' attention is distracted by appeals to hate/fear/religous fanatism so they vote against their own economic interests.
Which the current Republican party leadership understands very well.
Supposedly capitalism and democracy are linked, one inevitably partnered with the other. Highly ideological liberatians or conservatives will sometimes announce this like a divine truth: democracy and capitalism go togeher, one leads to the other. This is an exaggeration, however. If people can vote, they will vote for government interventions for their economic well-being. This is why democracies are never purely capitalistic, only a mix of capitalism plus lots of govenment interventions, many of them socialist. It is true that if people vote they will choose a system that allows for individual for-profit economic initiatives (ie capitalism), but only within the context of government constraints. Capitalism and democracy are linked only in that limited sense. A truer perception would be that democracies are linked to mixed economies.
All of which means it is a mistake to be too ideological about economic matters.
Or anything else, for that matter.

True in their particular sphere, I should've said.

"A physicist will us what's true, which is a different matter altogether."

Yes, the physicist can tell me which way my protons are spinning or explain the dark matter in the background of the universe. But he or she can't tell me why I feel badly on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon.

For this, he or she becomes a poet. Not that I feel any better.

For this, he or she becomes a poet. Not that I feel any better.

Yes, he does.

I'm generally pro-capitalism, but always with this assumption: that capitalism requires rules, and that those rules can take various forms.

Capitalism wouldn't require rules beyond the enforcement of contracts if it did not include things like: intellectual property, capital markets, various forms of financial instruments, limited liability corporations, regulated banking (beats 1929 style runs on banks, in my opinion), and all the other things that make capitalism work more efficiently. Since capitalism as we know it does include those things, it requires regulation above and beyond the enforcement of contracts, both to constitute these things, and to ensure their efficient working. (E.g., the rules governing financial markets, which (ought to) work to ensure things like transparency.)

That being the case, it seems to me that there are lots of different variants of capitalism, and being "pro-capitalism" does not indicate which one you think best, or which you'd even be prepared to tolerate. My being "pro-capitalist" is sort of like my being pro free trade (which I am): trade agreements also come in many different forms, and the devil is in the details.

I also think that being in favor of capitalism doesn't say much about which things you think should be tradable in markets, or about whether, and when, you think things should be done by non-market means. (It's presumably inconsistent with some views on these topics, for instance the view that everything should be done by government and nothing by markets, but it's not inconsistent with, say, the idea that we should not rely on the free market to provide us with an army.)

"...the idea that we should not rely on the free market to provide us with an army."

Communist. Any loyal American can see that free enterprise armies are far more efficient, have less waste and fraud, and are unconstrained by government regulations that cause them to fight with one hand behind their back, making America's government-run military a bunch of loser-defeatists.

True Americans want pro-capitalist, for-profit, militaries, which have an incentive to win!

Besides, everyone knows that governments can't be trusted with jack-booted thugs; only the free market can be trusted.

Only a commie would disagree.

Well, vegetables might help. But that's a short-term solution, to be repeated often.

Sorry.

"How do we determine what we should believe?"
Ask a physicist. Next question?
Posted by: rilkefan | August 11, 2006 at 06:56 PM

Or, trying again: I'd say ask an epistemologist, with additional input from a cognitive psychologist.

rights are what would happen in the absence of outside interference. So, for example, we have a right to the things we build, because in the absence of outside interference, we would be able to control those things we create.

We create government to protect our rights.

As a practical matter, this is way too simple. Like it or not, something like government is needed to define rights as well. Not the broad rights of political rhetoric, but the day-to-day manifestations of those rights.

You own the table you build. OK, but how did you come to own the wood you used? You have the right to take water from the river, but how much? Can you use all the water for irrigation? You have the right to build a factory, but what about my right to clean air?

Also, of course, in the absence of government, nobody but the strongest (whether measured in physical force or persuasion) would be able to reliably keep or control anything, and even they would only have somewhat less unreliable possession. A social consensus strong enough to act in the place of a government - which of course would scarcely exist at or above the community level - is a government, as far as I'm concerned. Either there's enough of a working agreement on the use of force to keep even a substantial minority of disagreers intimidated, or there isn't.

Most people most of the time are pretty mellow and cooperative, and even when they don't feel actively cooperative, they will tend to go mind their own business, which is almost as good. The problem is that "most" and "tend to" aren't good enough for the security of either ownership in the present moment or the ability to plan for the future.

"While I am not using this as an argument in favor of letting the poor take life as it comes, the fact is that the average poor person in the United States is better off in most ways than the nobility just two centuries ago."

Enough food? Clean water? Nope, not even that's guaranteed if you're a person living in poverty in this country. All the fancy medical care available today doesn't mean shit if you can't get access to it - and the lack of enough rest and decent diet is a major contributing factor to shortened lifespans among the poor in America today. I guarantee that if you had to choose between spending the rest of your life as an eighteenth century aristocrat, or a poverty-level inner city or rez dweller, if you had any real idea of what what you're talking about, you would choose the one that gave you the better chance of a long and pleasant life - unless you killed yourself with overindulgence of the fatty foods and alcohol, or drove your fast vehicle into a wreck, or got incurable VD, not-uncommon fates of rich young men in England two centuries ago. Survive the childhood diseases, and ensure that you didn't have to work manual labor for ungodly hours on not enough food, and could afford to travel to cooler climates in the summer and warmer ones in the winter, and didn't have to live cheek-by-jowl with unhealthy teeming masses.

Better to be middle class in the developed world nowdays, than middle class or poor then, yes. Or possibly better to be poor nowdays in the developed world than poor then, although it's hard to see how starving, freezing, or dying of a preventable medical condition these days is more fun just because there are people rich enough to have Game Boys down the street...

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