October 17, 2010
"Capitalist" or "Socialist"? It depends. And I reserve the right to change my mind.
Jonathan Haidt penned an essay for yesterday's WSJ entitled "What the Tea Partiers Really Want," wherein he argues that: "The passion behind the populist insurgency is less about liberty than a particularly American idea of karma." I found it to be an interesting read, but what jumped out at me was the oft-repeated refrain: "Everyone should be free to do as they choose, so long as they don't infringe upon the equal freedom of others." I've always thought this is somewhat of an empty proposition because two people can agree perfectly on it in principle while disagreeing widely as to what constitutes "infring[ing] upon the equal freedom of others."
Take for example the protection of personal property, a foundational element of capitalist society. One could view the distribution of property to be primarily a function of circumstance rather than some type of scorecard for who "deserves" to call what property "mine." For example, I could look at my life and conclude that I have managed to accumulate enough property to call myself a success according to some set of generally accepted metrics. However, when I try to identify the personal attributes that justify my ownership, I may ultimately conclude that I have primarily "nature and nurture" to thank. That is, I never chose, in any meaningful sense, the personal attributes most likely associated with my success such as intelligence, drive, wisdom, passion, etc. These were all either given to me at birth or developed by others/circumstances (E.g., my mom surrounding me with books and music as I grew up--thanks, Mom!). If that is correct, and we also assume a limited amount of property to be distributed, then my asserting a right to exclude others from partaking in some part of "my" property is arguably infringing upon their equal freedom to enjoy what would otherwise be a more equal distribution of property. In sum, I have never found defenses of expansive interpretations of personal property rights based on notions of "I earned it" to be particularly convincing. (I realize I'm ultimately taking on the entire concept of free will here, but at least I have cause-and-effect on my side. Beyond that, I'll just have to leave that discussion for some later date . . . or lifetime, given how busy I am.)
Having said that, what I do find compelling are utilitarian and similar arguments. That is to say, one could well agree with my foregoing assessment of justice and fairness yet nevertheless conclude that a system protective of expansive private property rights is best (or least worst) because it maximizes, for example, overall well-being. However, if you are going to ask me to give some quarter in terms of my beliefs about justice and fairness on that basis, you'll likely need to do more than plop the "Bible of Unbridled Faith in Free Markets" on my desk, or offer up some cost-benefit analysis rooted in assumptions of perfect human actor rationality and commonly held assessments of value. Empirical studies obviously advance the ball further, but even then one need only spend a little time with empiricists to realize that the seemingly few times they progress beyond arguing about study design they seem to rarely be able to get beyond arguing about implications. (I'm obviously exaggerating here, but I hope you take my point.)
So, have I painted myself in a corner here? Are my assertions of open-mindedness just hot air? I certainly hope not. And I believe those who know me would agree that I'm more open to what are generally deemed to be conservative or classically liberal positions than I was even a year ago. (I guess one can only read ProfessorBainbridge.com and Truth on the Market on a semi-regular basis so long before becoming at least somewhat brainwashed ... errr, influenced by the assertions commonly put forward on those sites.) I can certainly confess that I'm just about one more billion dollar IOU away from switching my political identification from Democrat to Independent, and I say that as someone who strongly believes the bailout--or at least some meaningful portion of it--was necessary to avoid a repeat of 1929.
Anyway, if you've made it this far you probably deserve some sort of prize, and you're also likely thinking something along the lines of: "Duh!"; "Huh?"; or, "So what?" To this my likely best reply is that I just needed to vent, and I remain--as is often the case--at least somewhat vulnerable to the criticisms launched by Will (Matt Damon) against the Harvard grad student Clark in the movie "Good Will Hunting." Proceed past the jump if you're not sure what I'm talking about.
Clark: There's no problem. I was just hoping you could give me some insight into the evolution of the market economy in the early colonies. My contention is that prior to the Revolutionary War the economic modalities, especially of the southern colonies could most aptly be characterized as agrarian pre-capitalist and...
Will: [interrupting] Of course that's your contention. You're a first year grad student. You just got finished reading some Marxian historian, Pete Garrison prob’ly, you’re gonna be convinced of that until next month when you get to James Lemon, then you’re gonna be talkin’ about how the economies of Virginia and Pennsylvania were entrepreneurial and capitalist back in 1740. That's gonna last until next year, when you’re gonna be in here regurgitating Gordon Wood, talkin’ about you know, the Pre-revolutionary utopia and the capital-forming effects of military mobilization.
Clark: [taken aback] Well, as a matter of fact, I won't, because Wood drastically underestimates the impact of--
Will: ..."Wood drastically underestimates the impact of social distinctions predicated upon wealth, especially inherited wealth..." You got that from "Work in Essex County," Page 98, right? Yeah I read that too. Were you gonna plagiarize the whole thing for us- you have any thoughts of- of your own on this matter? Or do- is that your thing, you come into a bar, you read some obscure passage and then you pretend- you pawn it off as your own- your own idea just to impress some girls? Embarrass my friend?
[Clark is stunned]
Will: See the sad thing about a guy like you, is in about 50 years you’re gonna start doin' some thinkin' on your own and you’re gonna come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life. One, don't do that. And two, you dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a [freakin'] education you coulda' got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the Public Library.
People dont understand why capitalists are against socialism I am a conservative capitalist and i am dirt broke with no way to pay for college or anything. But I dont need Big Brother to come in and nurse me or anything and I refuse to surrender my rights to an authoritarian government...
Posted by: scoremore | Oct 20, 2010 4:40:23 AM