Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Further Thoughts

Following on my last post, "Legislating Morality," I have two additional thoughts that were implied or left inchoate in that posting.

FIRST, the belief that the natural or default position of human beings is that of autonomous, free individual in fact requires a massive investment of political power and intervention to realize. This belief began as a philosophical argument proposing that we are naturally unrestrainted by law, according to the thought of Hobbes and Locke, but had to be politically realized by means of the formation of strong centralized state structures. It is not a coincidence that Locke builds on the thought of Hobbes, author of "The Leviathan." While seemingly offering a defense of smaller government, Locke in fact authorizes the Sovereign to exercise nearly as much power (or, "prerogative") as Hobbes's Leviathan to ensure peace and unleashed productivity in society. The "industrious and rational" are to be encouraged, and the "lazy and contentious" either re-educated or constrained. A strong central government was needed to build the social and material structures that fostered "free" markets - a fact with which we are well aware if we consider the great public works projects of America, from the canals to the railroads to the interstate highway system (what was once called "internal improvements"). An extensive court system, investments in education aimed at supporting "the useful arts and sciences" (a phrase from the U.S. Constitution), the frequent exercise of eminent domain - these and other forms of central power have proven to be the necessary pre-requisites for a well-functioning "free" market system. The latest massive government intervention in the financial system really falls well within the general scope of these activities, a more visible exercise of government power in support of the markets than an exception to the rule.

More importantly, these centralized structures needed to restrain the natural tendency of human beings to seek and achieve stability and moral grounding in their lives. Every society before the advent of the "free market" system has shown that human societies aim at a certain, often high, degree of stability and continuity in the face of nature and a world in which entropy makes things fall apart. Societies are small collectivities of entropy resistance, using ancestral knowledge and customs to create continuities between past, present and future. The strong central state of modern free market capitalism was based upon a philosophy - again, central in Hobbes and Locke - that was deeply hostile to claims of the "ancestral" (Locke's almost entirely unread First Treatise is an attack on "patriarchy") and sought to unleash human productivity, and with it, the instability that is associated with markets. Much of the record of the modern liberal State - in contrast to the view of doctrinaire libertarians - is the record of the State playing defense against the natural human inclination to rein in the instability fostered by free markets. While that will, at times, ironically mean acceding to some constraints on the market (e.g., the New Deal), these constraints are accepted in a deeper defense of the markets, forestalling the impulse to make stability a paramount feature of society, and thereby threatening modern free market systems. The extent to which we have accepted this instability as a sheer fact of doing business in the modern world is reflected in the popular willingness to permit the dismantling of the social safety net, the widespread hostility to trade unions, the agreeableness to all sorts of free trade agreements, the demise of the idea that one job would suffice for a lifetime, and our reliance upon uncertain markets to secure our retirements even as we know that Social Security will not survive into the future, and so on. More than "enforcing" such willingness to accept instability upon us, the modern State reinforces a set of cultural presuppositions that encourages our belief in individual self-reliance and autonomy. We should note, however, that this belief is not "natural," but the result of concerted and powerful forms of cultivation.

SECOND, occasionally some of my posts - such as this one - will provoke a comment or two accusing me of being a socialist. This is pretty risible, but I can see why some people would think this. When the operating cultural paradigm is the Lockean belief that we are by nature free, autonomous individuals, any suggestion that an unconstrained free market is not good for humans according to nature can only be processed in modern terms - mainly, that opponents to unconstrained free markets are necessarily socialists. My own understanding of a morally grounded community that fosters self-restraint in both the "personal" and "economic" spheres is Aristotelian and Thomist, not Marxist. It begins with the assumption that a certain kind of well-formed culture will cultivate salutary forms of self-restraint that will not be experienced as external impositions. Marx begins with Locke's assumptions that our stage of history has made us free market capitalists, but that with the massive intervention of the State it can make us into post-historical communists. Both we and Marx alike reflect our unconscious and intuitive Lockeanism in which any constraint upon our market freedom must necessarily be an unnatural imposition (hence, Marx reveals his own Lockeanism by proposing a "dictatorship of the proletariat"). The sad irony is that our false liberal view of human nature - that one advanced by Hobbes and Locke (Bertrand de Jouvenel waggishly commented that such a philosophy was obviously imagined by "childless men who had forgotten their childhoods") - in turn engendered further false views of human nature (in which we could altogether overcome our alienation from one another), such as that advanced by Marx. BOTH are species of an impoverished and false modern understanding of humankind. To move beyond the tired and (what has now stood to be revealed to be) false debate between the Lockeians and the Marxists, we need to re-discover Aristotelian and Thomistic understandings of humanity's true nature. It will not be easy, since Aristotle himself argues that habituation is a powerful shaper of men's mores, and we must acknowledge that most of our contemporary habituation - in the form of popular culture, deep philosophic presuppositions, national mythology, and ubiquitous advertising - instruct us that we are monadic bundles of appetite seeking satiation. We have a highly successful culture of anti-culture, and it is difficult to see how it can be assailed, short of the slow drip-dripping of arguments and practices against it.


Black Sea said...

"We have a highly successful culture of anti-culture, . . . "

Your post raises the question, I think, as to whether capitalism is built upon a foundation of social capital which it slowly erodes.

I believe I mentioned in a previous thread that my students were earlier reading Wendell Berry on the topic of community. They're now reading Fukuyama on trust and social virtues, so this question about free markets and social capital is very much on my mind. I have no ready-made answer, but I do believe that there is some truth to the claim that a well-functioning market economy depends upon a set of values that are in certain ways contrary to that system.

You may find this quotation interesting:

"Recently, on the front page of Section C of the Wall Street Journal, a hedge fund manager who was also closing up shop (a $300 million fund), was quoted as saying, “What I have learned about the hedge fund business is that I hate it.” I could not agree more with that statement. I was in this game for the money. The low hanging fruit, i.e. idiots whose parents paid for prep school, Yale, and then the Harvard MBA, was there for the taking. These people who were (often) truly not worthy of the education they received (or supposedly received) rose to the top of companies such as AIG, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers and all levels of our government. All of this behavior supporting the Aristocracy only ended up making it easier for me to find people stupid enough to take the other side of my trades. God bless America."

From the resignation letter of Andrew Lahde, of Lahde Capital Management

Russell Arben Fox said...

Patrick, your argument that Marx's thought was reflective of the same fundamental Lockeanism which undergirds Western modernity more generally is persausive. But does it fully account for Marx's philosophy? Does it account, for example, for the passages in the Communist Manifesto which reveal Marx's sensitivity to the destruction which the individual pursuit and acquisition of, and competition over, capital had wrecked upon traditional social orders, upon traditional community and family life? Marx is, I think, obviously modern, but his modernity is not a product of Whiggish (or Enlightenment) history, but is more a product of Rousseau's despairing take on that history which we now cannot avoid. That may not change your defense of yourself against the "socialist" accusation, of coure, but I think it does suggest that that "socialism," broadly conceived--as by Marx and many others--has more resources to imagine responses to our present condition that just one more iteration of Lockean thought might include.

Pym said...

"Occasionally some of my posts - such as this one - will provoke a comment or two accusing me of being a socialist."

What's wrong with being a socialist? The Apostles were socialists, if the book of acts is to be credited. The earliest known use of the word "socialist" by Wm. Hazlitt, in his 1826 "Persons One Would Wish to Have Seen," refers to "those profound and redoubted socialists, Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus." :-) Throughout the early 19th century, socialism was chiefly religious, voluntary and utopian; why let secular usage of later French origin define the term for us?

Socialism is above all an aspiration to community and cooperation.

The problem lies in fancying either that that aspiration suffices, or that we know how to realize it well. Ditto for our aspirations to enjoy individual liberty, or to conserve the best of our heritage from our forebears. Mere socialism does not suffice; neither does mere (classical) liberalism or mere conservatism; ideology is idolatry.

Patrick Deneen said...

Russell and Pym raise good questions here: it's very easy in modern America, and particularly in the wake of the catastrophe of the Soviet experiment, to dismiss socialism as an evil not worthy of consideration. Russell is right that Marx was a keen observer of the destruction that capitalism wrought upon traditional society, as expressed most eloquently in the opening passages of the Communist Manifesto (one of my favorite passages in all of political theory). Still, we need to understand that Marx was not so much lamenting this destruction (as Russell and I might) as recognizing that capitalism succeeded in obliterating traditional cultures and thereby opening the possibility of the awareness of an internationally shared interest of workers (proletariat) - and hence the opening line, "Workers of the World, Unite!" The destruction of cultures and traditions was the necessary step that preceded the possibility of true communism, and thus we can see even more clearly that Marx relies upon, even as he rejects, the work of Locke, Smith and other early modern liberals.

Pym (and I assume Russell) are rightly drawn to an alternative understanding of socialism, mainly its pre-modern Christian form. I can't really object to that either, though I think it's one thing to admire these forms of small scale, local community, and another to enact them. Efforts to enact them (in modernity) have proven to be fanciful and short-lived. Indeed, it could be argued (and I would argue) that Christianity itself points to the impossibility of achieving a truly selfless small-scale commune: even such on such a small scale, we still tend to prefer our own, and ultimately ourselves. That is simply part of being human after the Fall. Recognizing this, there is a strong justification for ownership and private property (for much the same grounds suggested by Aristotle - we care more about that which is ours, and that care will be manifested publically), centered largely around the family and small-scale ownership. The model here would be along the lines of Chesterton's and Belloc's Distributivism, that is, widespread ownership in the form of small-scale family-based and community-centered businesses. I think this combines the insight of capitalism that we work hard when a form of personal gain is possible, and socialism, that we need to attend to the concerns and demands of the common weal. Modernity set these two options at odds with each other (in the forms of Locke and Marx); our task is to bring them more closely together.