Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Paradox of Individualism

In our age we are taught from our cradle to honor altruism and fear selfishness.  Of course, we are social animals and we survive by sticking together and helping each other.  And our mothers start working on us at an early age: "don't be selfish, share your toys."

On the other hand, our Marxist friends like to conjure up a collectivist golden age when everyone got along and people worked producing things only for use.  Alienation began when people started working for wages, producing for exchange rather than for use.

What a bunch of baloney!  There was never a collectivist golden age.  Before the modern age people were slaves and serfs; they worked, according to the medieval scholars, for the household, the family unit.  Guess what that meant?  It meant that everyone in the family was subordinate to the head of the household.

People weren't producing for use, whatever that means, in those far off days: people were producing for the family unit and producing what the household head told them to do.  Women and young people, especially, were ruthlessly exploited in peasant families.  In return for their labor they got what the head of the household said they could have.  There was no responsibility; there was no accountability.  It was the rule of the strong, and the weak knew that it was best to go along to get along.  It was the world of the aggressive and the passive aggressive.

But the modern era of individualism is different.  It is not, as Ayn Rand seems to suggest, celebrating the "virtue of selfishness."  It is encoded in the idea of the invisible hand.  You got some selfish needs?  Then produce something for other people that other people are prepared to pay you for.  It is encoded in the idea of individualism.  Individualism is not individual selfishness, it is a notion of individual responsibility, and it starts with the Axial Age religions that converted the tribal collective gods, the ones that distributed gifts to humans in response to propitiatory sacrifice, into the one God before Whom we are each individually responsible for our actions.

Notice how the invisible hand fits together with the notion of individual responsibility.  You, the responsible individual, are not sitting in some peasant family, waiting for the boss to tell you what to do.  You are an individual, free and responsible, and you wake up in the morning thinking: wow, what can I do to earn a living, to get my next meal?  Well, you do what Booker T. Washington did, on his journey across the South to get him an education, when he woke up in the morning after a night under the wooden sidewalk.  He went down to the dock and offered to help unload a ship.  With his wages he bought him a breakfast.

It's a paradox.  Under collectivism we become whining victims pushed around by the local household boss or the government, endlessly complaining about what "they" have done, and crawling around to find ways to scam the system.  Under individualism we become responsible individuals that spend our lives worrying about what the other person wants and needs -- and is willing to pay for.

Which is more selfish?  Which is more self-centered?  Which is more social?  Which is more "alienated?"  On the answers we give to those questions about collectivism and individualism depends all that the world can do for us, and all we can do for the world.

It all reduces to a curious paradox.  The notion of collectivism, which seems to evoke altruism and solidarity, always requires the application of force.  The notion of individualism, which seems to encourage unbridled selfishness and egoism, in fact demands of us a constant solicitude for the needs of others.

Why is that?  It starts, perhaps, with the recognition that society is not a system, a mechanical contraption driven by Newton's laws, but an unconscious biological organism of constantly interacting cells.  Under Newton, each cog in the system responds to force.  Under biology, each cell instinctively knows what to do and does it.

And then?  Well, that is up to us to decide.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Hate Killed JFK, and other liberal myths

Fifty years ago today, President John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas, Texas by Lee Harvey Oswald, an avowed Marxist who had traveled to the Soviet Union and had a curious relationship with the Castro regime in Cuba.

So it makes complete sense that for fifty years liberals have been blaming the assassination on right-wing hate in Dallas.

For seventy years, since the end of World War II, liberals have been mucking about with healthcare, so it makes complete sense that they attribute the mess to insurance company profits.  Only insurance companies don't have high profit margins.  In 2009 when President Obama was talking about "insurance companies making record profits" they were actually #86 on the list of profitability.  Brewers were #1 at 25.9% profit margin.   Oil and gas production came in at #23 and 9.7% and Health Care Plans came in as #86 and 3.3% profit margin. Latest profit margin for Microsoft in 2013 is over 28%. So how about an Affordable Beer and Software Act?

What about greedy bankers that tell the politicians what to do and caused the crash of 2008?  In that case why is the government fining J.P. Morgan $13 billion for lying to investors back in 2006 about the quality of mortgages they were selling?  Shouldn't the big banks have the Justice Department in their pockets?  Apparently the Obama administration is worried about the perception they were too easy on the banks.  But guess what?  Back in the 2000s the banks were getting in trouble for not lending to low-quality borrowers?  When the government can blow one way in the 2000s and another way in the 2010s, as the mood takes it, who is in charge?

Thankfully, it is the liberals' own mentors, the postmodernists, that can tell us what is happening.  History, they say, is an apology for power.  Or, to turn it around, power needs a narrative, a story, to give it legitimacy.  Every bid for power is like that.  Think how the North American colonists railed against the evil King George.  Think how the liberals railed against George W. Bush.

If the liberals want to muck around with the health care system they need to find a plausible story to justify it: hence the record insurance company profits.  Yeah, just imagine those greedy CEOs wallowing in profits while little kids die of disease!  And just imagine how much money the government will need, forever, to run its fabled health insurance exchanges.

If liberals want to muck around with the credit system they need to find a plausible story to justify: first their desire to force banks to lend to high credit risks, and second, their need to blame someone when the credit system busts a gasket.  It's all the greedy bankers, chum.  In course it is.

The lesson of the Obama years is that the politicians will say anything, absolutely anything, to get their program of power passed in Congress.  And they they will say anything, absolutely anything, to keep the program going when it hits the iceberg.

So let's get a clue, shall we?

There's a difference between power politicians and greedy businessmen.  When businessmen lie and defraud they can be prosecuted and fined.  But there is no penalty for a political lie, except being voted out of office.  When a businessman lies you can have him up in court where there are detailed rules about admissible evidence and about perjury, and detailed instructions for the jury.  But in politics there are no rules, and the ultimate jury, the voters, can freely vote their hopes and fears and refuse to face the truth.

But obviously, right now, the American people are seeing a trial of liberal credibility such as we have never seen in our lifetimes.  We conservatives had better make the most of it.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

GOP: Conservatives vs. Moderates

On the O'Reilly Factor, Dr. Charles Krauthammer tried to pour oil on the troubled waters of the Republican divide.  All this is just a question of tactics, he said.

But conservative firebrand Jeffrey Lord begs to differ.  Republican moderates, he argues, are willing to accede to the leftwards ratchet.  Republican conservatives want to ratchet the government to the right.  Moderate George W. Bush wanted a compassionate expansion of federal education funding with No Child Left Behind.  Conservative Ronald Reagan wanted to abolish the federal Department of Education.

Allow me to translate.

Republican conservatives are ideologues.  We believe in limited government.  Republican moderates are pragmatists.  They do not believe in any principled limits to government.  If someone comes up with a good idea for a government program to help children, why, what's the harm?

The harm, according to conservatives, is the free stuff.  Politics is almost always about politicians promising free stuff to their supporters.

When some politician comes up with a plan for a government program to help children, it always involves a free or subsidized delivery of benefits to the children of the politician's supporters with funds to be supplied by taxing or regulating people who are not the politician's supporters.

That is unjust.  It is force.  But worse, it doesn't even work, because the program to help children slowly turns into a jobs program for the program's bureaucrats and doesn't help children.

Or take Obamacare.  The "good idea" is to provide health insurance to people that currently don't "have" it.  It is claimed that about 30-45 million people don't have health insurance.  You can see that these 30-45 million people would approve of "getting" insurance, provided that they didn't have to pay for it.  Now it stands to reason that such a plan, if it subsidizes the previously uninsured, is bound to shift costs to the presently insured.  But Obama and the boys wouldn't admit that.  They claimed, from behind a barricade of complications, that "if you like your plan, you can keep your plan."

In fact, of course, as we are experiencing day to day, Obamacare does shift costs to the insured.  And the mechanism that the Obamis used to do this is to force health insurance companies to change the pricing and the content of their health insurance plans.  This year the government is forcing people with individual plans to pay more for coverage; next year it will be the turn of employer plans.

Now, the whole point of politics is, as the song goes:
You've got to accentuate the positive
eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
But don't mess with mister inbetween
Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of Obama and the boys, the negative has decided not to get eliminated. Tens of millions of people are going to have to pay more for health insurance, and they know it.

So the Obamis have screwed up on the basics of free-stuff-ology.  They have failed to hide the costs of the free stuff that were always going to be forced upon average middle-class Americans that go to work, pay their taxes, obey the law, and make sure to have health insurance.  Result: political death spiral.

Back to the difference between Republican moderates and Republican conservatives.

Republican moderates believe that there's not much you can do about free-stuff politics.  The American people want free stuff and they will vote for politicians that promise it.  You gotta go along to get along.

Republican conservatives believe that free-stuff politics is morally wrong.  It amounts to the dictum that Might is Right.  You gotta majority, you get to plunder the minority to hand out free stuff to your supporters.  Call it the Divine Right of Majorities; it's no better than the old Divine Right of Kings.

Republican conservatives believe that if the notion of humans as social animals means anything it means that we do not use force on each other, except in the case of murder and robbery.  This means, obviously, a policy of No Free Stuff, because free stuff always means that someone has been taxed or otherwise compelled to surrender their labor or property so it can be handed out to someone else.

Bottom line for Republican conservatives is that we believe we should always be trying to reduce the amount of free stuff handed out by the politicians and fighting attempts to increase it.

Leaving aside the moral question, there is the practical question.  As government has got bigger and bigger it has gotten harder and harder to find new ways to hide the fact that free stuff always has to be paid for.  Also, each free-stuff initiative kills off a zone of voluntary cooperation and freezes a relationship in place: so much money has be collected in taxes and so much money has be handed out to the government's supporters, and don't you dare try to "cut" the amount of free stuff.  Eventually, you run out of other peoples' money to hand out.

The idea of voluntary cooperation and the market has always struggled against the idea that the poor could never get an even break.  Of course the rich would use their power to loot and plunder.  Of course the poor would go to the wall.  Stand to reason.

The modern innovation is to come up with an explanation of why this isn't true.  If you prevent the powerful from using their power to loot and plunder you find that people can and will cooperate for mutual advantage.  The Invisible Hand doctrine says that if you go out into the world to serve people rather than plunder them you will find that there are people who are prepared to pay for your services.  The better you figure out their needs the more you are likely to get paid.  The newly escaped Negro slave Frederick Douglass went out into New Bedford, Massachusetts one morning and offered a woman to move a pile of coal.  After the job was done the woman paid him with two silver half-dollars.  And that was just the beginning of Douglass' life in freedom.

The great Question of the last two hundred years is over precisely this issue.  Can the market economy really deliver justice to the poor laborer?  Or is the relationship between employer and employee inherently unjust and exploitative?

The whole point of socialism/liberalism/progressivism is that only politics can repair the inherently unequal relationship between laborer and employer.

The whole point of modern conservatism is that socialism/liberalism/progressivism only makes it worse.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Clueless Liberal in the Academy

Much of the time it seems to conservatives that liberals and Democrats have everything figured out.  They know how to rile up the base; they know how to frighten women with their "war on women" tactic.  They all seem to get the same talking points and stick to them.

But then some liberal academic writes an article for CNN that demonstrates their utter cluelessness.

Take Prof. Julian Zelizer.  He's a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and he has written a bunch of histories and a biography of Jimmy Carter.  He's looking at the wreck of Obamacare and writing that liberals really screwed up by proposing a half-baked proposal like Obamacare.  Let's give him his say:
The ACA was a product of a kind of half-baked liberalism that has been popular among many Democrats for several decades.

Since the 1990s, many Democrats have settled for jerry-built proposals that shy away from direct and aggressive federal intervention. Many Democrats have concluded that in the current era, the only domestic programs that stand a chance of passing Congress are those that rely on the participation of market-based actors, limited federal funding and heavy federal-state collaboration in the administrative process.
 The problem for full-baked Democrats is that it's hard to develop a clear message that lets people see the benefits of a program, and it turns into the mess that Stephen Teles has called "kludgocracy."  The solution is clear: well presented programs like Social Security, with clear benefits and clear funding that people can understand.

So, according to Teles,
if the government chose cleaner solutions to big challenges such as health care and education, "government would be bigger and more energetic where it clearly chose to act . . . but smaller and less intrusive outside of that sphere."
The cluelessness of this idea is nothing short of breathtaking.  Let's go through it all step by step.

  1. "Cleaner solutions."  Social Security is a stupid example, and it shows the insular thinking of our modern academics.  The point about Social Security is that it is just about money.  The government takes in money and it hands it out to its supporters.  It doesn't have to do anything, like run a health care or education or welfare system.  The science is in on this.  Government can't do anything well except shovel money at its supporters.  The reason is that government is force, but the production and consumption of goods and services needs to be price and consumer driven.
  2. "Half-baked liberalism."  The reason that liberals have been offering half-baked liberalism is that, as Rush Limbaugh says all the time, liberals can't admit who they are and what they really want to do.  Liberals would love to offer comprehensive and mandatory programs for everything.  It's just that the American people would upchuck on the spot if they ever did.
  3. "Less intrusive".  Give me a break.  Where in the United States is the government not intrusive?  The government wants to tell us how to do everything, from sugary drinks to toilet flushing.  And all because of liberals.  The reason we have the "kludgocracy" is not because liberals have been stymied in their grand plans but because there are 100,000 liberal activists all beavering away on their one little issue and getting legislation and regulations passed to intrude on every aspect of human life.
It ought to be obvious, to anyone that has a clue, that all government is a "kludge."  What do you think the Soviet Union amounted to?  It was a kludge with terror on the side.  Ditto Cuba and all the rest.  When you get government without terror on the side then you just get kludge.  You get politicians offering more and more benefits to get elected.  But without the terror.

Let's look at things another way.  Let's start with Mises.  Socialism can't compute prices.  Expanded to its full potential this means that all government programs are a mess because they are always trying to deny the reality of prices.  What does that mean?  It means politicians are always trying to pretend that their grand plans don't have real and inescapable costs.

You can see this with the progression from Social Security to Medicare to Obamacare.  Social Security was, at least in the prospectus, all paid for by the payroll tax.  But remember, it was never a real savings program.  It was always "pay as you go."  Medicare was only partly "paid for."  It was a kludge job.  It had to be, because, no doubt, people in 1965 wouldn't have agreed to pay the real costs.  Anyway, government lowballed the costs, conveniently forgetting that people would line up to consume free stuff, and how.  Then with Obamacare the government had to flat out lie, because nobody would agree to any new program that wouldn't let them "keep their plan."  And that would apply to a single-payer program as well as the half-baked kludge of Obamacare.

OK. Now let's go to Hayek.  The bureaucrat in Washington can't out-perform a million producers and consumers in the marketplace.  Producing and consuming products and services -- including so-called public goods like health care -- are complex operations, and require constant adjustment by consumers and producers to the marketplace.  "Marketplace" means adjusting every day what people want, what they are willing to pay for, what producers can produce, and at what cost.  Government can't do that.  It simply can't.  Government is a system that responds to activists, special interests and "peaceful protesters" instead.  In other words, government responds to the threat of force.

Finally, there's Buchanan and Tullock and "public choice theory." (Why am I having to educate a distinguished academic on this?)  Public choice theory tells us that every government initiative involves log-rolling.  Any proposed use of government force means that a majority of the legislature votes to tax a group of people to fund some program that will provide certain benefits to another group of people.  Typically, the people asked to pay the costs of the program will vote against it.  So the proposers need to buy the votes of people only mildly hurt by the program to bring the full force of the law on the hapless minority.  That's why every legislative bill these days is a 1,000 page monster.  You have to pay off all the big interest to get their buy in.  It makes sense -- see the progression from Social Security to Medicare to Obamacare above -- that this problem will get bigger and bigger as the government itself gets bigger and bigger.

Right at the end of The Calculus of Consent Buchanan  and Tullock describe the only just voting system.  It is unanimous consent.  Under unanimous consent the majority that benefits from a program must pay the costs of the minority in order to get their buy in.  Notice that the market is a system of unanimous consent.  Nothing gets produced or bought and sold unless the buyer and the seller agree.  What a concept.

Unanimous consent, I think, is a process that would truly give us a government that "would be bigger and more energetic where it clearly chose to act . . . but smaller and less intrusive outside of that sphere."

But Zelizer is an academic.  He would know that.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Bonfire of Interest Group Liberalism

For over half a century conservatives have been warning that nothing good will come of interest group liberalism.  It leads to the special interest state and reduces society to unconstrained scramble for loot in the halls of government.

Back in the 1940s, with the golden glow of the New Deal in their rear-view mirrors, the hagiographers of the the Roosevelt era were inclined to see the clash of special interests as a good thing.  It was a natural way for coalitions to come together and hash out their differences.  But then in 1969 Theodore Lowi argued in The End of Liberalism that interest group liberalism was just a contest of political power and had nothing to do with the rational or moral questions underlying political questions.

Well, now we have Obamacare and its bonfire of the special interests.  Former regulator James V. DeLong reprises the appalling record of special interest log-rolling that it took to concoct this monster.

And now liberals are shocked, shocked, that it is all falling apart, that the president's promise that you can keep your health plan was all a lie, that millions of people are losing their health plans, and that people are experiencing sticker-shock as they shop for new plans.

Listen, liberals.  The science has been in on this for decades.  Hayek wrote that the government could never have the bandwidth to run anything.  Buchanan and Tullock invented public choice theory to show how special interest lobbying and voting always resulted in the majority eating the minority for lunch.  And then there is "regulatory capture," the idea that an regulated industry always ends up capturing the minds of the regulators set up to control them.

Actually, I think that liberals know all this deep in their hearts.  Their problem is that they are riding the dragon and they don't know how to get off.  They got the power they have by promising stuff to people, and their power depends on keeping on keeping on.  They have even figured out ways to import more voters likely to vote for more programs.

Anyway, there's a chance that the American people will make a decisive turn in the next two election cycles as ordinary middle-class Americans experience directly how interest group liberalism hurts them.

Or maybe they won't, and we'll keep on floating down the river to the waterfall.