Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Politics: scoffing at free markets

Berkeleyite that I am, I frequently hear political conversations in which self-described liberals make derisive references to the free market. These are people who take the general stance of preferring government solutions over the free market alternative. Government solutions involve men with guns enforcing particular values on the public. A market involves people not being forced to choose one option over another.

Whenever you desire a particular outcome, the use of violence, force, or government is the most effective way to get it quickly and completely. That in itself comes nowhere close to justifying that option. The Golden Rule demands that if we don't like others forcing their values on us, we ought to refrain from doing so to them, no matter how effective or convenient it may be.

This came up today on Arianna Huffington's blog. In talking about Alan Greenspan's new book, Huffington wrote of his "free market uber alles" philosophy. This turn of a phrase frames the free market alternative in the most derisive manner possible, by associating it with Nazism. Here's the response I posted in her Comments section:

I find it hypocritical when the same people who are critical of the "free market" (e.g., Huffington here using the phrase "free market uber alles") can elsewhere be found uncritically championing "peace." The two words mean essentially the same thing. Either you have people with guns who use violence and threats to force their values on others, or you have the absence of that, which we call "free market" or "peace."

Of course "peace" isn't the magical answer to everything. No matter how much "peace" you have, it won't end sickness, old age, and death. When powerful, murderous tyrants sometimes appear in the world, it may be vital to control them with force, and "peace" would be catastrophic to human well-being.

The fact that "peace" doesn't solve everything doesn't matter. The important thing is that "peace" is superior to the alternative, and should always be championed over its alternative, unless and until exceptional circumstances demand temporarily departing from it.

Anyone who fails to see this, and would mock "peace" for being less than a panacea, is confused and dangerous. And the exact same is true of people who mock the "free market."

12 comments:

Stuart said...

My follow-up comment to this same Huffington article was triggered by her statement:

The problem is, what's in the self-interest of the CEO of Halliburton is most likely not in the self-interest of your average American.

It's a perspective I hear frequently, this idea that in a perfect world, everyone in America would unite to advance a common interest. It's like when someone says, "Our public schools should provide the best education." They seem to mistakenly believe that there's a particular type of mass-produced education that's best for everyone. In fact, for each child, a different type of education will be subjectively the "best."

Here's the comment I wrote to Huffington (which may or may not get published):

It's natural that everyone's self-interest is different. It's dishonest to pretend that this isn't the case, and suspicious to call it a "problem." Where exactly is the problem??

Most of us have got a problem when someone forces us to act according to their interests. That's why we value our freedoms. Ain't nothing wrong when someone simply has self-interest different from my own, and they pursue it without "scaring the horses." At best I applaud them (since their efforts may produce unintended secondary benefits to society); at worst I'm indifferent.

Rather than condemning force or violence, Huffington is suggesting that our diverse self-interest is the "problem." But in fact that diversity is a virtue. I may devote minimal efforts to acquiring possessions so that I can focus on spiritual pursuits; my neighbor may choose to go whole hog for wealth accumulation. In the process, we can leave each other in peace, and even join together on those particular occasions when our interests happen to intersect.

That's what America is about, not some pretense that all of us can or should be interested in the same things.

David said...

"Free markets" do not mean peace. Free, unregulated markets mean the most powerful rule over the less powerful. Before we had government regulation, we had free markets--and child labor, no unions, exploitation of all kinds. Government regulation is necessary to keep the corporate world in check. Otherwise they would pollute the environment and exploit employees and consumers without end in many cases.

Sometimes it is a very good thing to force values on other people. For example, some people will steal if laws against stealing are not enforced. Similarly, laws against exploiting consumers, employees, and the environment need to be enforced on corporations.

Stuart said...

David said...
Sometimes it is a very good thing to force values on other people.

Sure, as I suggested in my original post, no reasonable person would claim that war isn't sometimes a very good thing.

But the use of force ought to be the exception, resorted to in extreme situations, and requiring strong justification. Our default stance should be "Live and let live." Just because a law sounds like a good idea to you, that doesn't begin to provide moral justification for you to force it on others.

Besides the moral argument, we can at least be aware of the cause and effect. If you're a liberal and you crusade to, say, force a minimum-wage law on everyone, that may feel like a very good thing. But that leads to other people trying to force their values on society (say, the religious right crusading for anti-sodomy laws), and eventually somebody will find some value to force on you that doesn't feel so good at all.

It's not a coincidence. When you force your opinions on others, and find that the result is others forcing their opinions on you, don't be surprised!

some people will steal if laws against stealing are not enforced.

There's no disagreement that when someone acts to directly harm others (i.e., assault, threats, stealing, and lying), force is necessary to stop it. That's a value we all share.

It's going beyond that, trying to force your values on people who aren't forcing anything on anyone, that creates problems.

Anonymous said...

I like your Zen writings, but saying that "free markets" and "peace" mean essentially the same thing is utter tripe. I'm surpised someone who has done some serious acid could come up with such a fatuoous and insightless comment.
Maybe a little less navel gazing and more political awareness is called for.

David said...

Hi Stuart,

Yes, your response makes sense. Sorry if I misunderstood you or anything. It's an interesting subject to me; I've contemplated this sort of thing a lot.

"Our default stance should be "Live and let live."

Yes, there's definitely a lot to that, for sure. And it's great as long as there's an active engagement there, a readiness, and as long as that stance doesn't overrule our best judgement. I also like this line from the Hippocratic Oath: "First do no harm." That implies a readiness to get in there and help and even push on occassion. But when you start to push at all you also increase the risk of doing harm, breaking relationships, etc.

Also, I don't think the "live and let live" stance entirely innoculates a person from others forcing their views on us. To some extent I think it does, but I think the creative intelligence, to put it in a dualistic way, wants us to be engaged, and offering the best of our minds and hearts. If we take ourselves out of the game sooner or later it seems likely we will be forced back into it, forced to take a more active stance, or at least being open to taking stands, even when very unpopular. I'm not saying you were suggesting otherwise.

Everyone pretty much is trying to force their values on others already; some are just more subtle about it. I do agree with your general sentiment about a live and let live society, though. Most of the world could use a little of that. The creative intelligence works through everyone, and each person, to varying degrees of course, knows what's best for them. That said, we can help eachother a lot if we care enough to stick our necks out and take a bruising for it if necessary. Also, we have to take a stand sometimes against people who have no qualms about forcing their views on others; otherwise they will run amok.

Yes, your point on karma is well taken, only, to repeat myself a little, it seems to me that within a context of live and let live we need to be ready to take stands and even push things on occassion. I'm pretty sure you'll agree. I kind of see it as a balance between male and female value spheres--progress and compasssion, agency and relationship. We need to stay together, nurture, love, and yet move forward at the same time. Kind of like when Roshi Bernie Glassman said, "My feeling is that the world at every moment is the perfect world as it is. It's not like something is broken that I'm going to put together. But I'm going to work toward making a more loving situation."

From this interview:

http://www.wie.org/j19/glassman.asp?page=1

Ken Wilber and Andrew Cohen talk a little bit about it here:

AC: Because in relationship to the question of what enlightenment means, the notion of pushing against the world of form, or the inertia of the world, in order to enlighten it is something a lot of people find challenging and even antithetical to what "spirituality" is supposed to be all about.

KW: Again, I can understand some of the hesitancies and problems with it. . . . . The mystery is that you are radically the only thing that exists in the entire universe and yet all these forms are arising within you. And in a sense, the denser forms are just your slow left foot. But you have to push against your own density in the manifest world in order to penetrate it with the awareness that you eternally are. It's that "pushing against" part—if people can't really engage with that, then I'm afraid they do just get caught in states of mere quietude or cessation, or mere immersion in sensory manifestation.

From this interview:
http://www.wie.org/j21/gurupandit.asp?page=3

So, the way I see it, we need to love everyone and everything as it is and as they are, to see the perfection in everyone and everything as they are, but at the same time love what they could be. But if you make a mistake there, you can do harm; you can harm someone, you can ruin a relationship, bring some tough karma on yourself, harm the process. That's a hell of a mistake to make, and yet there are times when we have to take a strong stand without fear. Seems to be particularly dicey when working with women, who seem to have a tendency to interpret "loving what they could be" as opposed to "loving them as they are" as not loving them at all.

Just a few random thoughts of my own,

:)

David

Stuart said...

Thanks, David, for taking the time to make your thoughtful contribution.

David wrote...
we can help each other a lot if we care enough to stick our necks out

I'm not at all arguing for passivity, but for consistency and balance. I'm not saying it's possible or desireable for me to never impose my views on your life. I am saying that I ought to be suspicious if I'm regarding you differently than I regard myself. That is, I shouldn't impose my views on you beyond the point where I'd accept you imposing your views on me.

I just don't see value to any moral or ethical stance that ignores the golden rule.

The type of imbalance that I'm talking about: years ago when we all got tax rebate checks in the mail, the majority of Berkeleyites strongly objected, insisting that the government could do far more good with that money than the individuals receiving the checks. But when I suggested that they simply tear up their check so that it'd revert to the US Treasury, I didn't find one single person who'd even contemplated it.

They were staunch supporters of the government keeping other people's money, while not even considering voluntarily giving the government their own money.

Or another example: when it was recently put up for a vote whether "race" should be a factor in college admissions and government hiring, well over 70% percent of Berkeleyites voted that it should be. But when, for example, these same people have some serious health problem and are seeking a doctor, I hear them talk only about finding the doctor who's most qualified, most skillful, most likely to help them. When their personal interest is so directly involved, the doctor's skin color becomes an absolute non-issue.

Judging people based on skin color, they seem to believe, is wonderful when it's imposed on people in general. But when it comes to how they actually live their own lives, it's a different story.

In these examples, tax rebate may be good or bad; race-conscious policies may be good or bad. In whatever case, the golden rule demands some sort of balance between the values we force on others through public policy, and how we ourselves act when our personal interests are at stake.

it seems to me that within a context of live and let live we need to be ready to take stands and even push things on occassion.

Hopefully it's clear from the above that I don't disagree with this, and I'm advocating awareness of the connection that when you push things, things will push back at you, so don't be surprised when they do.

Stuart said...

Anonymous said...
utter tripe... fatuoous and insightless... Maybe a little less navel gazing and more political awareness is called for.

Hi, anony, thanks for posting. If you re-read what you said in its entirely, you may realize that you're only strongly stating your opinion, but you're offering zero in the way of intelligent reasons to support your opinion.

Inside your head, there's some process that results in you holding the opinions you do. You may or may not have any insight into this process yourself. But for those of us who live outside your head, we haven't the slightest clue why you believe this or that. For us, it's nothing but blah blah blah until you make some effort to communicate a reasoning process behind your opinions.

So maybe a little less declaring your opinions combatively, and a little more examination of why you think, feel, and act the way you do.

David said...

Thank you for your eloquent response, Stuart. That's so important, so fundamental--the golden rule, I'm speaking of. But it's such a great rule of thumb it should never go out of style. All people in power, whether gurus or parents or teachers or CEOs should keep that in mind. No amount of crazy wisdom should overrule that golden rule, right? You illustrated it very nicely.

I think it's great to remind people of that connection, the karma involved. It can help people get in touch with their shadows, from one perspective, or not be ruled by their shadows. Would I do this to me? That's a great inquiry, and one that I will add to my repetoire on a continual basis. It should be a real operating principle, shouldn't it?

I think you demonstrated it all really well in your response to anonymous.

Best,

David

Stuart said...

David said...
That's so important, so fundamental--the golden rule, I'm speaking of. But it's such a great rule of thumb it should never go out of style.

The Christians say, "Love thy neighbor as thyself." We don't quite phrase it like that in Zen-style, since we're still wondering what this "thyself" is. I've been wondering about if and how our self-inquiry points to the same thing as the explicit golden rule.

Lots of things in life are just personal preference; I want this movie to win the Oscar and you want that one. Other times, like when we decide on political policies, we have to go beyond that, and somehow decide on values to be applied to everyone.

I don't believe in anything merely because others do. But maybe there really is something we could call accummulated wisdom, and it merits special consideration. If so, the golden rule may be the ultimate that our civilization has come up with.

Anyway: thanks more for your kindness in contributing here. I'll try to pass it on to the beings around me, and if our intuition is correct, it may return to you in the fullness of time.

Anonymous said...

Re: Free markets" do not mean peace. Free, unregulated markets mean the most powerful rule over the less powerful. Before we had government regulation, we had free markets--and child labor, no unions, exploitation of all kinds. Government regulation is necessary to keep the corporate world in check. Otherwise they would pollute the environment and exploit employees and consumers without end in many cases.

Sometimes it is a very good thing to force values on other people. For example, some people will steal if laws against stealing are not enforced. Similarly, laws against exploiting consumers, employees, and the environment need to be enforced on corporations.

6:32 PM

--------

I'll have to work my way slowly through this fascinating thread. this is as fars as I am getting

to the above, like SY I was hung in the thinking you describe about solving the social dillemmas of taking care of the weak, preventing harm to others .

Newt Gingrich, you know the guy who divorced his wife while she was in the hospital dying of cancer, believed in Plato's Republic idea of you get sick, you die. That's how the Republicans play it. Democrats you know, FDR New Deal, Johnson Great Society, ruined us. But a lot of people got rich.

What is next. Monasteries are my favorite model. Good, cheese, dogs, wine, champagne. What's not to like? ;=)

MC

Stuart said...

MC wrote...
Monasteries are my favorite model.

Another interesting model is the Hassidic community, which I've read about a bit over the past year. No one in the community has to worry about being left alone when sick or old or down on their luck. Their neighbors always support them. Likewise with the Amish or Mormons or many other groups.

It's so wonderful. Unless of course you're a bit of a non-conformist, and don't want to think or act according the group's rules. Then it's pretty awful. Looks like there's no free lunch.

The key think is that people are free to choose whether or not to remain in those communities. It's one thing to have a group where people volutarily agree to support each other. It's quite another when the government of the whole country forces all its citizens to support a particular idea of "helping."

Often in political discussions (I'm in Berkeley remember), I hear people talk as if the only type of compassion that's ever possible is the kind that's forced on everyone by the government. It's worthwhile to at least poke at that particular delusion.

Stuart said...

MC wrote...
I'll have to work my way slowly through this fascinating thread.

Thanks for taking the time to read and respond. By the by, I've done one other political blog posting; it's in the July folder, titled "What's the Matter With Berkeley?"