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January 21, 2005

When Principles Skirt Politics

I don't wish to drive away a new reader — particularly one with whom I've fundamental disagreements, but who seems willing to engage in straightforward discussion — and I hope I will not do so with this post. Be that as it may, Norm (aka "reality based") has left a comment that lends itself to an analysis that is worth sharing on the main blog. You may read the post and the appended conversation at that link, but I've culled out the text here:

The reason that I believe the government is a better entity [than "the market"] to make such decisions is because I believe in democracy - in government of the people, by the people and for the people. In other words, I believe that we the people should make decisions about such things ( and yes, the media is the topic at hand here, but I am personally more concerned about the other issues I mentioned) - and I believe that in a democracy, the government is the means through which the people decide such things.

We the people, speaking and acting through our elected representitives, can consider more factors when making such decisions than does "the market". The only factor in the impersonal decisions of the market is money. ...

I am not nearly as angry and sad about the possibility of children hearing a "dirty" word or seeing an exposed breast. I am angry and sad about the millions of children growing up in poverty, even though they live in the richest country in the world. I am angry and sad about the children who can't afford to see a doctor or a dentist or even to have enough food to eat. I am angry and sad that a great "Christian" president would call ketchup a vegetable in order to spend less money on school lunches for children who don't have access to adequate nutrition. I am angry and sad that we always seem to find the money to build more prisons, yet we are so miserly with the money that we spend on schools. ...

Access to food and medical care are life and death issues, access to quality education is a life determining issue; I just don't see that swear words or exposed breasts are anywhere close on that scale of importance.

And again: if you are so offended by such things (as I am by other aspects of popular media) I challenge you to kick the habit, kill your television. There are far better forms of entertainment, and far more accurate sources of information available. If that is an unthinkable thought for you, ask yourself why. Is there the slightest chance that you are addicted to TV? Are you like one of those smokers who "could quit anytime you want to?" Prove it to yourself; unplug it for a week and see what happens.

I'm going to skip through the myriad differences on specific policies to get to a point that ought to come quickly to mind to anybody who's read much conservative debate: "the market" is precisely "we the people" making decisions. In capitalism, those decisions are expressed in terms of money; in democracy, they are expressed in terms of votes (well, money too, but leave that aside).

A healthy society will determine which of the two systems — or what other system, or what combination — ought to resolve particular problems. The market does disproportionately weight the wealthy, but the government disproportionately weights those with political infrastructure and, especially in pure democracy, those willing to manipulate the ignorant. In short, neither the government nor the market is always the answer, in whole or in part.

Now look at Norm's actual handling of specific issues. Initially, it appears that he wishes to use the government (votes) to help those at a disadvantage in the market (money). But then he laments that we the people, acting through our elected representatives to consider more factors than the market does, enact policies involving prisons and schools with which he disagrees.

(I'll pause on a specific issue just long enough to note that calling our education spending "miserly" is simply erroneous. With this issue, the flaws of government clearly require a market-based correction, albeit not a total one.)

Ultimately, it appears that Norm understands — and approves of — the principles of market-based society. Wherever he places objectionable entertainment on the scale of social importance, Norm's preference for making public decisions via government ought to dictate a government solution to the problem. And yet, his solution in that respect is a market-based one.

Posted by Justin Katz at January 21, 2005 8:13 PM
Liberalism vs. Conservatism
Comments

Justin,

You wrote: "I don't wish to drive away a new reader —"

Reasonably argued disagreement is why I am here. If all you could manage to do was call me names, I would lose interest, but you present reasonable arguments, therefore I'm still reading.

Now, to get to the point: I agree with you to a considerable extent, yet I still disagree with your conclusions. For example, you say that the market is we the people making decisions – I agree: every dollar spent is a vote for the policies and practices of the recipient of our spending. You then save me the trouble of pointing out that “the market does disproportionately weight the wealthy”, but you don’t seem to consider that to be much of a problem. I consider that to be a huge problem: the wealthy are using their disproportionate power to accumulate more and more wealth as the poor get poorer. This is the major source of all sorts of societal ills like crime and drug use, not to mention the fact that its simply not right that so many millions of people in the world don’t have access to clean food, air, water, adequate health care and education.


About 15 years ago, I went to work for a fish processor in Alaska. The contract I had to sign in order to do so was grossly unfair in terms of wages, benefits, and working conditions. My choice [and yes, for me it was a choice: I am an intelligent white American male; I have more job/career options than many] was to sign the contract or not; if I didn’t want to, the company had a filing cabinet full of applications from others who eagerly wanted one of these low-paying, unpleasant, dangerous jobs. As an individual, I had no power to negotiate for a more reasonable share of the wealth generated by my labor.

The barge that I worked on had 5 survival suits (guess who they were for). If worse came to worse, the other 100 or so of us would have to make do with life jackets, which in Alaskan waters would do no more than keep our dead frozen bodies afloat. A couple of years later, the Coast Guard either had new rules, or started enforcing the rules that it already had, and the company was forced to buy enough survival suits for all of us. A couple of years after that, my company’s other fish-processing vessel sunk – and all hands survived. If they had not had survival suits, many would have died that day.

This company also employed illegal aliens; and they saved a lot of money one year when the INS happened to come on board and took them away just a few days before their contracts were finished (a significant portion of our pay was in a “bonus” that we could only collect if we completed our 4 month contracts. We also had to pay our own airfare to and from Dutch Harbor if we left early.)

The point of these stories of my life as an unskilled factory worker is this: corporations’ prime function is to maximize their profits for shareholders. In this pursuit, workers are paid as little as possible, and working conditions and safety concerns are neglected to the extent that the company can get away with it (remember Bhopal? a lot more people died there than in the WTC). The individual worker has no power to demand fairer treatment from a large and wealthy company– the only power that can be exercised by poor workers comes through uniting and negotiating as a group.

This is clearly an argument for labor unions and government regulation of industry. It is also an argument that one of the vital functions of good government is to act as a sort of citizens’ union: to protect the needs and rights of relatively powerless citizens against powerful corporations and wealthy individuals because without that organized power of a government working on behalf of its citizens, the wealthy and powerful will almost invariably exploit them.

That is why I believe that we need more government control and less market control than we currently have. I am the first to admit that our present government is far from perfect and that it needs a whole lot of improvement. But the market makes no pretense of any concern for human rights and dignity – its sole function is to maximize shareholders’ profits. Therefore, I believe we have a better chance of approaching the American ideal of liberty and justice for all through the mechanism of the government created by our Constitution than through ceding control of our society to the wealthy and powerful few who are able to manipulate the market for their own exclusive benefit.


I apologize for not being able to write a concise post. Or even a concise sentence, by the end.

Posted by: reality based at January 22, 2005 8:05 AM

Aren't you forgetting Reality Based, that liberty should be applied to all, the ultra-rich as well as the poor. In order for liberty to be equal for all, then the ultra-rich must be allowed to make more money. The poor should have the same opportunity as the ultra-rich. If we curtail the freedoms of the ultra-rich by limiting the profit maximizing practices (that do not endanger workers and consumers), then are we not going against the faith and practice of the ideals set forth in our constitution? So you want to reduce the power of the ultra-rich and the rich through democratic action? Uncontrolled democratic action is just mob rule. This is one of the reasons why our fore-fathers installed a constitutional democracy instead of a true democracy.

Why do you think America has so many rags-to-riches stories than any other country? Are you aware that well over half of the rich people in this country are self made millionaires/billionaires? Some of them started out with little more than a couple of dimes to rub together. They didn't let the lack of money constrain them though. They seized an opportunity they saw or made an opportunity for themselves. This wouldn't have been the case if the environment stifled opportunity by redistributing wealth as you seem to be suggesting. Neither would it have been the case if government favored the poor more than the rich. Neither should the rich be forced to provide relief for the world's poor.

Posted by: smmtheory at January 22, 2005 12:49 PM

[non]reality based says,

the wealthy are using their disproportionate power to accumulate more and more wealth as the poor get poorer. This is the major source of all sorts of societal ills like crime and drug use, not to mention the fact that its simply not right that so many millions of people in the world don’t have access to clean food, air, water, adequate health care and education.

This is a comical recitation of the liberal mantra that social ills are caused by poverty. What evidence do you have that the poor are getting poorer in this country? It may be that the much talked about gap between the rich and poor is getting bigger, and I agree that it is not healthy for that gap to get too large, but I don't think we are near that point yet. But this is quite different from saying that the poor are getting poorer.

More importantly, what evidence do you have that poverty causes social ills? Have you ever pondered the proposition that social ills cause poverty (or make it worse, or make it harder to escape)? Certainly most of those in poverty aren't there through any fault of their own, and they deserve some help. But it's also true that large fractions of those below the poverty line at any given moment will not stay there very long - there is a lot of flux, at both ends of the economic spectrum. There are only a small number of people who are perennially in poverty.

Human beings are selfish. Your socialist-leaning views are predicated on the idea that we are not. You think that people will work just as hard if they will receive less money. Or that if they just had some more money from the government they would change their behaviors (e.g. become more industrious and/or more responsible with money).

Posted by: Mike S. at January 22, 2005 4:21 PM
It is also an argument that one of the vital functions of good government is to act as a sort of citizens’ union: to protect the needs and rights of relatively powerless citizens against powerful corporations and wealthy individuals because without that organized power of a government working on behalf of its citizens, the wealthy and powerful will almost invariably exploit them.

Sure, but the government, or government bureaucrats and politicians, can exploit people, too. And union leaders can exploit their members. There is no panacea. Our system depends upon citizens all operating under a set of basic principles of honesty and trust. Simply increasing the amount of government regulation will not help.

Posted by: Mike S. at January 22, 2005 4:27 PM

"Redistributing Wealth" - the great evil, to be avoided at all costs.

Unless you are an absolute anarchist and completely condemn all forms of commerce, then you agree with me that wealth should be redistributed. If I sell you a widget from my factory which you pay for with money you earned as a doctor, then wealth has been redistributed. If there is even one government program that you agree with (like, say, highways, or the fire department), then you must admit there must be some tax to fund it. Wealth has again been redistributed, this time less voluntarily.

Our point of disagreement is what constitutes a fair distribution of wealth.

"So you want to reduce the power of the ultra-rich and the rich through democratic action?"

To a certain extent, yes. To the extent that the rich have an unfair advantage over the poor, as in my example of the individual worker having no power to negotiate a fair contract with the fishing company. I believe that it is legitimate and proper for the workers to gain bargaining power by organizing themselves. This is a form of democratic action. I want to reduce the power of the ultra-rich through uniting as trade unions, and as a democratic government, because otherwise the ultra-rich have more power than is fair, and they use that power to take more than their fair share of the wealth that is generated.

I don't believe your assertion that "well over half of the rich people in this country are self made millionaires/ billionaires", but I will not argue that point here.

While it is undoubtedly true that many people have risen from rags to riches through their own hard work, (and with a fair bit of luck, as well), not everyone is able to do that. Not everyone is intelligent enough to do that. There are also many who work very hard, yet are barely able to feed their children or send them to a doctor when they need to.

As to the rich being forced to provide relief for the world's poor - its in their own best interest to help people attain at least a minimal standard of living. Simply to reduce things like crime and terrorism. More importantly, its immoral to do nothing while children starve in a world with more than enough food, where they die for the lack of fifty cents worth of a vaccine.
And in most cases, the rich have become and remain rich by taking an unfair portion of the wealth generated by the labor of the poor - when the top management of a company is making 3 or four Hundred times as much as a worker, then the wealth generated by that company is not being distributed fairly. Maybe the CEO is some kind of Einstein, he is able to negotiate such a huge compensation for his labor because he knows how to help the company prosper far better than anybody else does; nevertheless, even the person at the bottom who is barely smart enough to clean the toilets should be able to provide his family with a decent standard of living.
Certainly people should be rewarded for their extraordinary talents, skills, and work - but not so much that it leaves only crumbs for everyone else.

Posted by: reality based at January 22, 2005 5:02 PM

http://www.thenewatlantis.com/archive/7/cohen.htm

I just read this essay by Eric Cohen on stem cells. He addresses some of the same issues of equality and egalitarianism that are present in the rich vs. poor debate. They both come down to the same tradeoff: life is not fair, and attempts to force it to be fair require treating some people unequally.

Posted by: Mike S. at January 22, 2005 5:05 PM

I have more to say on this thread, but I think this points the way to one key disagreement:

Certainly people should be rewarded for their extraordinary talents, skills, and work - but not so much that it leaves only crumbs for everyone else.

Who decides what "extraordinary talents, skills, and work" are worth? For that matter, who decides what counts as "only crumbs"? The problem is that there's no objective scale, and there's no objective judge (at least one who is available for direct consultation on such matters).

I'm not going to go in search of it, right now, but not long ago, I read an article describing the typical "impoverished" household. Two televisions, two cars, cell phones, and so on. This raises two issues:

  1. The objective judge (i.e., the government, in RB's view) can be bought through votes and mass pressure to forever increase the level of crumbhood to the extent that the hardworking and talented no longer find it worthwhile to exercise those abilities.
  2. The cause of "fairness" inevitably will require the government to increase not only business regulation, but also personal regulation to keep crumbhood from become ridiculously defined (e.g., by regulating purchases and behavior related to health).
Posted by: Justin Katz at January 22, 2005 5:16 PM

Love of money is:

a) the root of all evil

b) the force that we depend on to drive our economy

c) both a and b

Certainly human beings are greedy; we are also generous. Why base our society on our negative traits - why not try to build on our positive ones?

when I said this: "This is the major source of all sorts of societal ills like crime and drug use", it clearly would have been more correct to say "a source" not "the source". As to which came first, the chicken or the egg, I agree with you that the causality (poverty and social ills) goes both ways.

As to union leaders and government officials exploiting people, you are again correct that this happens, too. But the original goal of unions and our government is to secure liberty and justice for citizens - they both often fail miserably in these goals, but they have a better chance of succeeding in these goals than entities which make no pretense of trying to fulfill these goals.

Posted by: reality based at January 22, 2005 5:19 PM
Certainly human beings are greedy; we are also generous. Why base our society on our negative traits - why not try to build on our positive ones?

But it isn't generous to give away what somebody else has earned.

Posted by: Justin Katz at January 22, 2005 5:22 PM

Reality Based,
Purchasing something is not redistribution of wealth unless the purchaser receives nothing (either value or commodity) in return. Arbitrarily taking wealth from one person and giving it to others for the primary reason of "to be fair" is despotic at best.

As you said yourself, it was your choice to sign or not sign up for that job in Alaska. You could have attempted to negotiate the contract. That was perfectly within your rights, just as it was perfectly within the rights of the company to refuse to negotiate. That you did not choose to reject the offer makes it suspect that the contract was not to your liking. I find it hard to believe that it was the absolutely only opportunity you had available. You must have received something of value for it, even if that value was the opportunity to bitch and moan about your experience.

It is only your subjective judgement that we base our society on our negative traits. It seems to me that we based our society upon "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal,..."

Posted by: smmtheory at January 22, 2005 8:41 PM

"But it isn't generous to give away what somebody else has earned."

And there is no faster way to kill a generous impulse than to force people to act on it. And also by taking away the personal element and filtering it through a faceless bureaucracy.

Posted by: Mike S. at January 23, 2005 9:46 PM

Check it out - an admission from a committed socialist (ok, so it's a decade old) that capitalism works better than socialism, and that socialism requires giving up individual freedoms...

Posted by: Mike S. at January 24, 2005 3:59 PM