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Libertarianism

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The basic thesis is laid out in the Introductory section of 1600 words, followed by documentation and argumentation in three sections, on History, Human Nature, and Morality. With these additions, the essay comes to 13,200 words, followed by eight appendices totaling an additional 18,000 words. But you can read just the first 1600 words in as little as five minutes or so.

-by Jim Bechtel

www.jimbechtel.com

 

As a founder of R.E.A.S.O.N. (  www.reason.ws ), Rationalists, Empiricists, And Skeptics Of  Nebraska, my writing has a Nebraska slant (e.g., citations of “WH” refer to the Omaha World Herald newspaper).

 

Introduction (1600 words):

Economic Fundamentalism.

The Garden of Eden.

Sweden.

 

1. History:

 

   a) E Pluribus Unum

Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian models of government.

 

   b) Laissez faire liberalism

The unstable 19th century pyramid of exploitation.

 

   c) Laissez faire conservatism

Railroads. TV Violence. Modernity. Anarchy. New Deal pragmatism. Ideology.

Minimum wage. Eliminating poverty. Class war. Abortion.

 

2. Human Nature

Individual and group. Evolutionary psychology and evolutionary social sciences.

Cheaters and saints. Primate stress.

 

3. Morality.

Slavery, capitalism and poverty. Problems of modernity.

 

4. Conclusions.

Apologetics. Extremism.

 

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Appendices:

1. Letter on Reagan, with documentation

2. For America’s Sake, by Bill Moyers

3. Krugman on Milton Friedman

4. Walter Williams on Disparity

5. Social Security

6. Abortion

7. Religion

8. Altruism

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Introduction

 

Economic Fundamentalism

In my years in the peace movement I met many wonderful people, some of whom called themselves anarchists, libertarians, or pacifists. One thing we had in common was our rejection of the militarism of the mainstream culture. In the rationalist/skeptic movement I’ve also met people attracted by our rejection of mainstream ideas. And we’ve attracted our share of crackpots! Since our meetings are open to the public, we have to cope with them as best we can. One old fellow is a Nazi (definitely out of place), one young fellow is a Gold Standard Monetarist, one was a Christian Socialist, several are Libertarians, and so on. If they come with a sense of humor and openness they’re welcomed, and maybe we can learn from each other, but if they come with the grim dogmatism of a Cultist it becomes (as one member wrote to me)  “wearisome” trying to debate with them, especially the dedicated economic fundamentalists. I’m going to use “Libertarian” as a shorthand umbrella term for them, with the understanding that it includes all shades of definition. (You can find discussions & links in the Wikipedia articles on Libertarianism, Anarcho-capitalism,  Minarchism, Objectivism, Free Market Anarchism, Classical laissez faire Liberalism, etc.)

 

 

The Garden of Eden!

Just think what Adam and Eve got to enjoy! No rules & regulations, no taxes, no governing councils, no laws! (Well, OK, there was that one law against eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Early on we see Yahweh's hostility toward knowledge.) Every culture seems to look back with longing at a mythical Golden Age when mankind lived together in harmony, free as the birds. Maybe this longing is a dim reflection of the time we spent as hunter-gatherers, living in a state of relative equality which left traces in our psychology, an instinctive egalitarianism that stemmed partly from the fact that our groups were our extended families, and partly from the fact that stone-age nomads can't accumulate much to distinguish them from each other. Burial mounds reveal status symbols like jewelry and swords only after transitioning away from simpler hunter-gather economies. (More on this in Part Two, Human Nature.)

One of the Big Questions facing modern man is: How do we preserve what was good in the traditional, small-scale, face-to-face way of life, in the midst of this vast, complex, impersonal civilization we have constructed? How do we build the ideal society?

There have been many answers to that question, from Fascism on the Right to Communism on the Left, and I don't claim to be omniscient enough to pick the best one, but I think we can apply the power of reason and whittle down the possible candidates. First, let's grant good intentions to all such seekers. Everybody wants to return to Eden and harmony, but those whose ideas aren't grounded in reality are doomed to come to grief. Just as Ockham's Razor eliminates the Creationist answer to the origin of species, it can eliminate unlikely social theories. In the case of evolution we have the fossil record, biogeography, and the history recorded in our DNA, but in the social sciences we have nothing as solid as DNA analysis. However, that doesn't relegate the social sciences (and they are!) to mere opinion and conjecture; there is still a place for empirical evidence. (More on this in Part One, History.)

But even before getting into that level of detail, why not simply first look around the world and ask which social systems seem to be the most successful at producing a good life for their practitioners? "By their fruits ye shall know them," so to speak? If we take this unbiased empirical approach and look at measurable results, we immediately have to disqualify the USA, with the world’s highest percent of its population in prisons, highest poverty rates of any developed nation, and far down the list in infant mortality, longevity, etc. Certainly there's a lot of wealth on this continent, lots of cars and televisions, but many countries of western and northern Europe put us to shame in the statistics that matter. In fact, I think this evidence favors systems of "economic democracy," not our beloved “free enterprise.”

 

Sweden.

The Garden of Sweden may not be the Garden of Eden, but they must be doing something right: Number One in The Economist's Intelligence Unit's "democracy index," second lowest infant mortality in the world, number one in the "mother's index," in third place in global competitiveness, near the top in technology, high in the UN's "human development index," in Quality of Life, etc. High taxes, yes, but in return they enjoy free university education (!), free child care, very generous sick leave and parental leave, a ceiling on health care costs, cheap and efficient public transportation, and so on. In other words, the economic system is run for the benefit of the people! It’s no coincidence that they are also among the world’s staunchest environmentalists. Whereas capitalism is committed to maximizing private profit from the natural world, alternative economic models allow more weight to ideas of “public good.” 

Libertarians and other True Believers can bad-mouth the Swedes as "heretics" all they want in the name of their various abstract orthodoxies, but in real-world terms the Scandinavians have far lower crime rates and poverty rates than we do, and a better life in virtually every measurable way. Why? Many variables, but in my opinion one of the main reasons is because, like the other "leftist" western and northern European countries, they rejected Stalinist Communism and Marxist Revolution in favor of Fabian Socialism or, to use its less demonized label, economic democracy, simply the use of the vote to make the economic system more humane  --a system built up in Sweden by the Social Democratic Party and the trade unions. Half the delegates in the Swedish Parliament are members of unions (a dirty word in the US), and fifty percent of national government positions are filled by women. So, what do you get in a society where workers and women have a greater say? Economic democracy!

(Incidentally, in 2006 79% of Americans said they'd like to belong to "an employee association for an independent voice" -i.e., a union.  So four out of five want it, but fewer than one in ten actually belong to such an organization, which raises a question for another day: Why are Americans powerless to get what they need? Hint: the power of propaganda.)

I can already hear one objection to the term “socialism:” What about the likes of Hugo Chavez? In early 2007 the Venezuelan National Assembly voted him the power to rule by decree so he could “build socialism.” Certainly not very democratic. Well, let’s face it, Third World nations without the equivalents of the Magna Charta and the Fabian Society in their background are unlikely to evolve easily into economic democracy, as England and other Western European nations did.

If they’re lucky, systems of benevolent paternalism or authoritarianism can succeed for a while (Singapore) but, as with hereditary monarchy (George III), they are eventually doomed to crash against the long-range problem of getting rid of incompetent oligarchs or murderous Leaders (Pinochet). Sometimes they place their hopes in military intervention to restore order or keep the peace, as we saw recently in Turkey and Thailand. But it’s far less risky and violent to vote rulers out of office peacefully as we do under the Rule of Law. So we are lucky in that regard. 

 

“Socialism” is a broad and vague enough term to begin with, but it has been so demonized by its enemies that it is practically useless. Ironic, since it was once such a popular term that even right-wing regimes claimed the label. Hitler’s “National Socialists” purged the socialists from the S.A., the Sturmabteilung, had them killed in the “Night of the Long Knives,” and then jailed labor leaders and sent leftists to concentration camps. (In fact the earliest inmates at Auschwitz were these ideological enemies from the left, not ethnic Jews.) Nor was Stalin’s Union of Soviet Socialist Republics any more hospitable to democratic socialists like Trotsky, whom Stalin assassinated.

 

But it’s only a word, so we’d just as well abandon it in favor of “economic democracy.” After all, the word is less important than the idea behind it: Using the power of the vote to make the economic system more humane and beneficial. As George Bernard Shaw and the other Fabians understood, it is the natural extension of democracy. Incidentally, Shaw’s book, The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism, is still a very enjoyable introduction to the basic concepts. (As a famous playwright, he often attended High Society events in which some Grande Dame would inevitably ask how he could possibly be a -sniff- sewcialist. He wrote the book in reply.)

 

Voting democratically to make the American economic system more humane is rejected outright by Libertarians. It’s “collectivism,” taboo, even though the logic is clear. Businessmen enjoy the invisible benefits of living in the cooperative effort we call civilization: a work force educated in public schools, kept healthy by water treatment plants and meat inspection laws, traveling to work on publicly constructed highways, vacationing in National Parks, etc. But taxing the businessman to help pay for his benefits is rejected by Libertarians as "tyranny." By default then, they allow the machinery of the State to be monopolized by private power. In the name of some fictional utopian world  --in which water magically gets purified, National Parks preserved from commercial use, and schools & roads built, all without collective decisions and enforcement--  in the name of this incoherent vision, the economic fundamentalists would disarm us of the best weapon we have in the real world, leaving us as defenseless against concentrations of corporate power as 19th century serfs.

Fundamentalism: Just as Creationists reject our best tool for dealing with biology, Libertarians reject our best tool for dealing with social problems.

And they do so by distorting (or simply ignoring) history, human nature, and morality.

 

 

 

 

1. History

Popular historian David McCullough warns us that amnesia is as harmful to a nation as it is to a person. It’s important for us to understand: How did we get here?

What follows is selective and simplified, to be sure, but accurate. And the events and conclusions, as contrary to common beliefs as they might be, can be found in any standard college text. It’s the job of the professional historian to see through popular myths. For example, Ronald Reagan was an idol to many Libertarians and one of the most popular presidents ever, with the public ranking him right up there with FDR, but we  historians rank him as mediocre (only 26th) for many reasons including his disastrous  economic ideology. See Appendix 1.

 

a) E Pluribus Unum

When some of the English colonies in North America (but not all  --thus Canada) broke away from the mother country they adopted the Articles of Confederation, little more than a loose alliance, reflecting their distrust of governmental power. But defects quickly became obvious. If you’re a blacksmith near the border of a state, will you be charged a toll to carry a wagon wheel to a customer across the state line? There is no national market. If you’re a wine salesman from France, with whom do you arrange an import license? Do you have to go around to each individual state? There is no central government. If a mob gets out of hand and your local militia is inadequate to keep order, what do you do? There is no national militia to call on. And so on. Pressure grew to solve these problems.

Delegates assigned to reform the Articles of Confederation decided instead to scrap them and create a genuine national government. The result was the Constitution. Fear of centralized power led the Jeffersonians to strike a bargain. Admitting the need for reform, they agreed to support the Constitution only if it were first amended to protect individual rights from officialdom (and from majorities). Thus the first ten amendments to the Constitution, the “Bill of Rights.” Freedom of speech and freedom of the press would ensure that minority opinions could survive and compete.

Political parties were born from this. On the right were the Federalists, exemplified by Hamilton. They were the wealthier traders along the coasts, distrustful of democracy, supporters of natural hierarchy and a strong, active, central government that could pursue business interests on their behalf. The Constitution was their baby. On the left were the Anti-Federalists, backed by the rural frontiersmen, supporting Jefferson and others who admired the French Revolutionary spirit: Down with tyranny, up with the Rights of Man, ensured by minimal government.

So the conservatives of the time believed in strong, active, central government, while the liberals of this period embraced laissez faire and “states’ rights.” Ironic, how these ideas would shift. But also instructive. 

 

b) Laissez faire liberalism abandoned

In a world of widely scattered log cabins, a laissez faire anti-government philosophy may have made some sense. Why was it abandoned?

In the first place liberalism, being pragmatic, is more interested in results and is thus willing to change ideology. If laissez faire no longer protects rights, scrap it.

(Here I follow J. Livingston and R. Thompson: Liberalism is procedural, conservatism substantive. Liberalism sees democracy not as belief in specific dogmas but as an evolving system of procedures such as free speech, which ensure liberty. It seeks the guidance of reason, inspired by the ideals of the Enlightenment. Conservatism sees society as residing in the substance behind specific symbols to which there is an emotional commitment: Flag, Capitalism, Religion, Hierarchy. It seeks permanence, guided by Tradition.)  

From time to time human suffering challenges a society’s conscience; the post-Civil War was such a period. One example: Mill owners preferred to hire children to serve the looms; their small arms could more easily reach into the machinery to untangle knots. Of course, so the complaint went, they tended to become less alert as the 12-hour workday dragged on (nap time), and sometimes a little kid would get her arm torn off. If  she survived, what could you do but fire her? She’s obviously useless with just one arm. She’s “free” to sit on the curb with a begging bowl. (Unless she’s jailed for vagrancy.) The grim reality of every-day life in the 19th century is beyond imagining for most of us modern pampered Americans, although it still exists in the Third World if you want to see it. Laissez faire had now become the philosophy of the business elites: You can’t tell me how to run my business. Minimal government.

 

Clay Naff: "I endorse the claim that capitalism creates wealth better than any other system of economy. I also think fire cooks food really well, but that doesn't mean I want fires blazing out of control in my home. Like fire, capitalism needs to be carefully regulated."

 

Novelists like Stephen Crane (Maggie, Girl of the Streets), Edward Bellamy (Looking Backward), Mark Twain (The Gilded Age) and Theodore Dreiser (Sister Carrie) captured the spirit of the times -and anyone, libertarian or not, who wants to understand America should read the literature of the late 19th century. Ignatius Donnelly’s novel, Caesar’s Column, envisioned a future in which the poor rise up in rage, kill their rich tormentors, and cement their bodies into a pillar. The people of the nineteenth century feared class war the way we feared nuclear war. Why? The misery and desperation created by raw unregulated capitalism threatened the survival of civilization.

Robert Wiebe‘s classic, The Search for Order, interpreted the reform movements of the Progressive era as the response to unsustainable chaos. The search for order led to a re-thinking of the old laissez faire dog-eat-dog ideas.

J. P. Morgan created the world’s first billion dollar corporation, U.S. Steel,  and paid himself a fee of $150,000,000 for arranging the deal. Now, folks, this was when a beer cost a nickel and a meal cost a quarter; a million bucks was a lot of money, and 150 million was staggering. What did this vast fortune rest on? Protective tariffs, shutting down competitors, etc, but most importantly, it came from “working 200,000 men twelve hours a day for wages that barely kept their families alive,” as Howard Zinn puts it. 

Forget the morality of it, if you like, and just look at the practical side. It didn’t work. There were no customers. With all the wealth concentrated at the top and masses of workers at the bottom too poor to buy anything, the system was unstable, the pyramid of exploitation was top-heavy, and it collapsed over and over again. And there were no social services; if you were out of work, you were “free” to face the terror of starving or freezing to death. Depressions and recessions happened every few years. You could have been born during the one in 1857, witnessed the collapses of 1865, 1873, 1893, 1907, 1910, and 1917, lived into your seventies, and died during the crash of 1929, never having seen a ray of hope in your entire desperate lifetime. (Note: most of these collapses preceded -and thus could not have been caused by- the Federal Reserve System, the favorite scapegoat of monetarists.) Imagine such a fearful life, never knowing if you’ll survive from one crash to the next. Talk about hopelessness! The situation was intolerable; the cry was “Do something!” Mary Ellen Lease, Kansas farm wife, told Populist rallies to “raise less corn and more hell!”

The pressure mounted for one simple idea: Government had to become active on behalf of all people, not just the elites. Republican Teddy Roosevelt marks the change. His active, even hyperactive, personality fit the times; you couldn’t keep him from doing what needed doing, involved in everything. He had to be “the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral,“ as his daughter said. TR was a man of action; he was eager to “do something” about the social problems tearing society apart: Inspect meat-packers, broaden the banking system, set aside land for national parks, break up monopolies, regulate the railroads, label drugs, etc. A member of the elites himself, he was not catering to some kind of resentment of the rich from the poor (most of whom wished to become capitalists themselves) but to the widespread understanding that vast riches were accumulated unfairly, on the backs of poorly-paid working people.

Liberalism now abandoned the old Jeffersonian utopian mythos of Arcadia for the more realistic “New Nationalism” of Teddy Roosevelt. He believed that with the right kind of leadership (his, of course), government could be used to further the common good, the interests of those with little power, over the opposition of the powerful. (In the Libertarians’ mythical version of history there were no Robber Barons, which would have come as a surprise to TR, who spent much energy fighting these “malefactors of great wealth,“ as he called them.)

The seeds of TR‘s “New Nationalism” came to fruition a generation later in the wide-ranging New Deal of his Democratic cousin Franklin Roosevelt. (Eric F. Goldman’s Rendezvous with Destiny captures the excitement of this era.)

“Mindful of Plutarch's warning that ‘an imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics,’ [Franklin D.] Roosevelt ... gathered together the remnants of the great reform movements of the Progressive Age --including those of his late-blooming cousin, Teddy-- into a singular political cause that would be ratified again and again by people who categorically rejected the laissez-faire anarchy that had produced destructive, unfettered and ungovernable power. Now came collective bargaining and workplace rules, cash assistance for poor children, Social Security, the GI Bill, home mortgage subsidies, progressive taxation --democratic instruments that checked economic tyranny and helped secure America's great middle class.”

From the good background essay by Moyers, Appendix 2

 

Using the power of the vote to make the system more democratic included the 16th Amendment (Income Tax), aimed at tapping into that concentration of wealth at the top to make life better for everyone, including those at the bottom whose sweat helped create that wealth. Of course, nobody enjoys paying taxes, and those with power can skew tax laws to their benefit, but that is an argument for more effective democracy, not for abolishing taxes. Libertarian cultists often claim the 16th Amendment is unconstitutional because some States, when ratifying it, replaced commas with semicolons, and other such arguments without merit, which are listed and analyzed at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tax_protester_constitutional_arguments

(Incidentally, regarding taxes, if someone offered me a job paying ten million dollars a year on the condition that I pay 90% taxes, leaving me with a million to live on, I’d jump on it so fast …. The point is that taxes are an abstraction, what is REAL is the living standard you’re able to enjoy.)

 

 

c) Laissez faire conservatism

 

First off, we can agree with libertarians and conservatives on the dangers of the excesses of State power, and the need for vigilance (see below, under Morality). Woodcock's heroic history of Anarchism reveals a wonderful spirit of resistance to oppression. And we can acknowledge the unintended dysfunctions of modern society. The problem is in diagnosing the causes of these dysfunctions. A good example is the negative impact of capitalism. Two case studies:

1. Railroads. Everyone knew the railroad would create a national market and bring prosperity along its route, which it did. And since it was far beyond the resources of private enterprise for the first generation or so, conservatives demanded that government subsidize its construction. Corruption was one result (the Credit Mobilier scandals).  What no one could have predicted was that it would erode the strength of the family farm, where most Americans lived, and where family members had been strongly dependent on each other in their rural isolation. Railroads pushed the farm in the direction of cash crops (dependent on distant markets and mail-order goods), eroding self-sufficiency and increasing urbanization, weakening the family, and ultimately contributing to the rise of divorce (details: Henslin, 1998).

2. Violence. Commercial television, through desensitization, role modeling, and operant conditioning, increases the level of violence in society. This is well-documented.  For example, Dr. Brandon Centerwall has tracked the doubling of homicides that follows 10 to 15 years after TV is introduced into previously isolated communities, in South Africa and Canada, and Lt. Col. David Grossman, a military expert on the psychology of killing, has detailed how it works. Why is nothing done about this mental health threat? Because TV is a profitable branch of Big Business, and therefore sacred and untouchable.  

In both cases conservatives, including their libertarian allies, correctly identify social problems (weakening of the family, violence) but are unable to identify the causes because of their ideological blinders. So “liberalism” is blamed or, if you’re James Dobson, “secular humanism” is the convenient, if illogical, scapegoat.

 

The modern world. Libertarians often target “bureaucracy” when they argue for shrinking government but, as Max Weber showed, bureaucracy is a basic feature of modern industrial society, replacing the oath of personal loyalty in medieval feudalism with the impersonal rules of the office. The Roman Empire had bureaucracy, but nothing compared to what was born from the telegraph, adding machines, printing presses and carbon paper. My great-grandfather was station manager for the Union Pacific at St. Louis, and his correspondence shows the rise of bureaucracy. At first his letters are hand-written, and he’s making decisions. Later, they’re typed, and he’s passing on instructions from headquarters, a cog in the wheels. The railroads were the first modern corporations, and their corporate model of bureaucracy soon spread to government. (Again, see Wiebe’s Search for Order.)

 

It’s not enough to just say “bureaucracy is bad.“ The creation of a professional civil service in 1883 was a great step forward. More or less nonpartisan, the pride of the dedicated career bureaucrat was efficient public service. But changes in the Civil Service 30 years ago expanded the number of political appointees in place of public servants, and under Dubya Bush the partisan politicization of the bureaucracy reached disastrous new levels. Competence was secondary to ideological loyalty. The result? Hurricane Katrina: “Heck of a job, Brownie.“ H. George Frederickson of the Department of Public Administration at the University of Kansas has written a significant essay on “Repairing Broken Government,” which, among other things, addresses the need to focus on competence more than ideology.

Max Weber interpreted modernization as the replacement of tradition with rationality (bureaucracy as an efficient way to pursue profit, initially), Durkheim defined the modern world as one of increased specialization (“organic solidarity“), and Tonnies saw it as the loss of intimate community or Gemeinschaft. Now, wouldn’t it be nice if there were a simple answer to “the Gemeinschaft problem“? Wouldn’t it also be nice if there were a simple answer to the diversity of species? But neither the Creationists’ bumper stickers (God made them) nor the Libertarians’ (gummint bad) are fruitful. Biology is complicated, societies are complicated, and these shortcuts are dead ends.

 

Anarchy. An “archon” was a priest-king, and the prefix “a“ means “without.” As a-theism is life without a god, a-archon or anarchy is life without a ruler. The idea is that self-organization will occur, people will voluntarily form associations to accomplish their goals. Indeed this does happen in simple pastoral/horticultural societies (see “the CAP problem” in the section on human nature). So far so good. But recall JP Morgan’s pyramid of exploitation. What “voluntary association” would have any effect on that? In industrial/capitalist societies, anarchy means not only “a-archon” but also “a-public interest.”

We saw that the practical objection to exploitation was that there was no base of customers, leading to constant collapse. Teddy Roosevelt’s response was to take action to address the problems of inequality. But old anarchist and libertarian ideas -“do nothing”- remain powerful despite the lessons of history, just as in religion the zeal of the creationist overcomes the facts of the geologist. As government began to be used for the common good, government activism became more & more suspect in the eyes of the ruling elites (until Reagan could announce “government is the problem“). 

After Teddy Roosevelt, reformers and progressives no longer had a home in the Republican party as True Believers in the Invisible Hand of the Market recaptured it. President Coolidge said “the business of America is business.”

 

New Deal pragmatism. By the 1920s conservatives had completed their switch to embracing laissez faire: “Mind your own business, government! Taxes are evil. That’s MY money! Jail the Reds and pinkos advocating leftist ideas. And don’t tell me I can’t run my looms with child labor!”

 But the Great Depression of the 1930s ended that, as the homeless unemployed threw together grim shanty-towns and set up cooperatives in which barter replaced money (see the 1934  movie Our Daily Bread) and radical ideas spread (read Steinbeck‘s In Dubious Battle). This time the collapse was the ultimate one. In 1933 four thousand banks failed (zero after New Deal reforms). In those days before deposit insurance, if your bank folded you were plumb out of luck. “In one Midwestern town … one woman, shouting and sobbing, beat on the [bank’s] closed plate-glass doors; all of her savings from a quarter century of making rag rugs had vanished. A woman who had taught the fourth grade for fifty-two years lost every penny she had set aside for her old age.” Farm foreclosures skyrocketed. “One account reported that on a single day in April, 1932, one fourth of the entire area of the state of Mississippi went under the hammer of auctioneers.” The governor said “some people are about ready to lead a mob. In fact, I‘m getting a little pink myself.”

(To understand what happened in the 1930s, the events that created modern America, read Wm. E. Leuchtenberg’s enjoyable and highly detailed account of Franklin D. Roosevelt and The New Deal, from which these quotes were taken.)

 In the face of such social problems, in such an extreme crisis, the question is how do we protect the public interest; what safeguards work? Do nothing? Continue to have blind faith in the fairy-tale “Invisible Hand” of Adam Smith, as classical “free market” economists had traditionally insisted? 

FDR’s advisor wrote: “The cat is out of the bag. There is no invisible hand. There never was. We must now supply a real and visible guiding hand to do the task which that mythical, nonexistent, invisible agency was supposed to perform, but never did.”  (Rexford Tugwell, quoted in Leuchtenberg, p. 34.)

 

If you listen to conservative Congressmen spouting on C-Span, you’ll see that the ideology of the free market has never admitted defeat. Just as the creationists can’t win on facts but will never quit, thus inflicting on us an endless “culture war,” likewise the economic fundamentalists can’t win on facts but won’t quit, so we have to suffer endless “spin-doctoring” (propaganda) to convince us to embrace their ruling-class ideology.

Note: Sociologists define “ideology” differently from most dictionaries. We define it as cultural beliefs that justify stratification. (Henslin, p. 160.) Three examples: The Divine Right of Kings was the ideology, the cultural belief, that justified aristocracy, racism was the ideology that justified slavery, and Social Darwinism was the ideology that justified the Robber Barons. Political ideologies are, therefore, closed systems masking economic interests, and their believers become defensive & belligerent when challenged, as we see with the same three examples. The Diggers (“True Levellers”) challenged the 17th century power structure (Divine Right) and were executed, abolitionists challenged slavery and got tarred and feathered; reformers challenged Social Darwinism and risked being jailed as “Reds,” and so on. (Slavoj Zizek goes further, with his metaphysical definition: ideology, even when transparently false or cynical, subconsciously restructures social reality itself to conform to its fantasies. “Cultural beliefs that justify stratification“ is adequate for our purposes.)

 

Libertarianism is ideological; it asks “is this orthodox?” (that is, does it comply with their elaborate & sophisticated dogma?) while economic democracy is pragmatic, and asks “does this reduce poverty?” Being more outcomes-based, economic democracy is self-correcting  -as long as it stays democratic. (From Bentham’s utilitarian “shoe-pinch” theory of democracy: Who else can best tell where the shoe pinches than he who is wearing it? Who‘s a better judge of governing than the governed?) 

The practical FDR said: Try something. If it doesn’t work, try something else. The result is that the New Deal programs ranged across a broad spectrum from the highly successful TVA on the far left (brainchild of Nebraska’s own George Norris) to the Blue Eagle flag of the fascist National Recovery Administration on the far right (too collectivist, struck down by the Supreme Court). His successor Eisenhower left New Deal accomplishments in place and Americans enjoyed an era of consensus.

By contrast Reagan and Dubya Bush were the exact opposite of FDR the pragmatist; they were pure ideologues, pursuing their narrow, divisive, right-wing ideological goals with religious fervor regardless of practical consequences. Their ruthless quest for power has produced the present bitterness and gridlock. It was Michael Deaver’s job to sell Reagan’s image (versus substance), Karl Rove’s intent was to govern by arousing the narrow “base,” and his successor Ed Gillespie is known for his “fierce partisanship.” How long it will take to undo the damage I don’t know.    

 

The Minimum Wage: Used to be if productivity went up, wages went up. If the company made higher profits, the good fortune was shared with the workforce. But no more. On Labor Day 2001 a study was released that showed that if the minimum wage had kept pace with productivity it would be $13.80, and if it had risen with profits it would be $20.46. Nobody with a job would be poor. (Inflationary pressures are another story.) So the rules of the game have changed, back toward the way it was played in Marx’s day: Lower wages = higher profits.

For decades I’ve had to listen to the mouthpieces for Big Business roll out their predictions of the unemployment and  doom that would result if fast-food cooks got a decent wage. Their argument usually goes like this: If Melvin pays three cooks five bucks an hour (total $15) he can only pay two at 7.50 an hour (total $15). True but irrelevant. Or relevant only temporarily and only on the micro-scale of the individual cafe. On the macro-level what happens nationally is, there is more money in the hands of cooks and others with a high “marginal propensity to consume” (the lower the income the more you’re forced to spend all you get, just to survive). More demand is injected into the local economy, stimulating it, and as the economy grows Melvin finds his business booming, and hires back anyone he might have actually laid off in the panic that resulted from listening to the prophets of doom. That’s how it has worked since the Great Depression:  A constantly increasing minimum wage and a constantly expanding economy. And right-wing prophets who are constantly wrong.

As part of his War on Poverty in the 1960s, President Johnson got the minimum wage boosted to 111 % of the poverty level (“if you work you won‘t have to live in poverty“), and unemployment was 2.6 %.  But President Reagan listened to the right-wingers, the minimum wage declined to 77% of poverty (“screw you“), and unemployment reached 10.8 %.  More recently, several studies of Washington State, with the nation’s highest minimum wage, found negligible impact on employment.

For a good discussion of recent economic history, with attention to Milton Friedman, the patron saint of the Right, see Appendix Three.

 

Poverty. When asked what causes poverty, “personal laziness or societal injustice,” 60 % of Americans blamed the poor (to 40% blaming society), while Swedes saw it just the opposite and blamed the social structure 61 to 17. West Germans agreed 54 to 12. (Inglehart et al, “Modernization, Cultural Change, and the Persistence of Traditional Values,” American Sociological Review, Feb 2000.)

Now, if it’s a personal defect, why help “those people”? On the other hand if it’s a social problem, why not fix it? So the Europeans plunge right ahead and eliminate poverty. (And, by the way, note that nothing disastrous happens as a result.) What do I mean by saying they eliminate poverty? More accurately, they reduce it to very small percentages (one percent of the Dutch are poor over a five year period.). The “Old World” of Europe creates a new world, a more humane reality to live in.

Europeans see a social problem  -poverty and the human suffering it brings-  and attack it. We insist on moralizing about it (dividing the victims into the “deserving poor” and the “undeserving poor”) and hold back. So one reason we do such a poor job of reducing poverty is we are out of touch with reality, blinded by our harmful ideological beliefs.

 

A brief history of our dominant ideology: 1600s, John Calvin (Calvinism: wealth is God‘s reward for virtue); 1800s, Herbert Spencer (“Social Darwinism:” let the poor die out), and most recently Davis-Moore (unequal rewards are functional; a necessary incentive for meritocracy), rebutted by Tumin‘s four questions about whether or not people actually get what they deserve:

a) Is work rewarded in an objective way? Norman Borlaug, an Iowa State agronomist, fathered the “green revolution” that doubled crop yields and saved millions of people from famine, but he’s neither rich nor famous. How is it decided that Paris Hilton is more valuable than he is?

b) Is the system a true meritocracy? The most accurate predictor of success in college is family income, not grades. CEO salaries have become a scandal, golden parachutes of millions of dollars awarded for failure. More like a rigid caste system than a meritocracy: The best long-term recent study of social mobility found that “five or six generations are required, to erase the advantage or disadvantage of your economic origins” (WH 11/17/02). 

c) What about unpaid work, such as mothers at home? Is the job of raising children really worthless?

d) What about the waste of talent in the “reserve labor pool” of the unemployed, or the conflict brought on by glaring inequality? Conclusion: Dysfunctional.

 

Regarding d): Americans love the Horatio Alger myth of “rags to riches” because it reinforces the ruling-class ideology of success. In the movie “Finding Forrester” an unrecognized genius, a black kid, is rescued from the ghetto by a curmudgeonly old white professor (Sean Connery). In “Good Will Hunting” the unrecognized genius is rescued by his therapist (Robin Williams). Nobody asks, what happens to all those without a rescuer? Millions trapped in poverty with no rescue = wasted talents = dysfunctional. 

 

The “free market” actually means control by those with influence; the wealthy. But the ideal of competition, the vision of the village street lined with mom & pop shops, is an attractive myth. More than a myth, it was true once upon a time, in European villages of 1500 AD, or in the Punjab in the 1960s,where I bought meat daily in the butcher’s bazaar. I’d ride my bike there, rolling up a dense cloud of flies ahead of me, and buy from a different butcher each time to spread my custom around. None dared charge me more than his neighbor, or I’d not be back. It worked (all were poor equally). But Wal-Mart is the new model. No big corporation has any interest in competing; the name of the game is to either destroy or absorb your competitors.

Here’s a recent example: How we lost our leadership in internet access:

“…. Clinton administration officials tried to ensure that open competition would continue. But the telecommunications giants sabotaged their efforts.
And when the Bush administration put Michael Powell in charge of the Federal Communications Commission, the digital robber barons were basically set free to do  whatever they liked. As a result, there’s little competition in U.S. broad­band — if you’re lucky, you have a choice between the services offered by the local cable monopoly and the local phone monopoly. The price is high and the service is poor, but there’s no­where else to go.
Meanwhile, as a recent article in Business Week explains, the real French bureaucrats used judicious regulation to promote competition. As a result, French consumers get to choose from a variety of service providers that offer reasonably priced Internet access much faster than anything I can get. And it comes with free voice calls, TV and Wi-Fi.
It’s too early to say how much harm the broadband lag will do to the U.S. economy as a whole. But it’s interesting to learn that health care isn’t the only area in which the French, who can take a pragmatic approach because they aren’t prisoners of free­market ideology, simply do things better.” Economist Paul Krugman, NYT, in the WH of 7/24/07
.

 

Equating capitalism with material “wealth creation,” as libertarians do, overlooks the fact that wealth creation also happens in non-capitalist and pre-capitalist societies, is a joint effort, and ignores immaterial wealth, intangibles like those contributed to society by humorists and satirists (what’s the dollar value of the last joke you told?) or by educators (what is the value of the knowledge you acquired in college?). Yes, our markets benefit from the “Rule of Law,” but law is not exclusive to capitalism; in fact the Robber Barons scorned it.

There are Left and Right versions of anarchism: the boring Right believes in free markets (the mom & pop myths), the wild Left is less orthodox and so is much more interesting: Why not go all the way, to Proudhon? “All property is theft.” Yikes! Get your hands off my bicycle! But there’s a kernel of truth behind it: Property rights do not automatically override all other values or considerations, such as the goal “to promote the general welfare,” as the Preamble to the Constitution puts it. In the 1890s, when the concept of the public interest began to emerge, Robber Baron Vanderbilt said simply “the public be damned!”

It’s a rarity to find a business leader who will admit, as Edward Filene did during the New Deal: “Why shouldn’t the American people take half my money from me? I took all of it from them.” (Leuchtenberg, p. 190.)

 

Class war: The Roman empire’s “Clash of The Orders” was messy, bloody. Rome became the Roman Church, and peasants & slaves were pacified by religion. Divine Right Theory and religious fatalism (see the Rubaiyat) were ideologies, systems of thought by which people willingly embraced their assigned subordinate positions. Now for capitalism, belief in the Davis-Moore rationalizations (“incentives”) serves the same function, better than chains and whips. Once people gain the right to vote, you have to persuade them to embrace ruling class ideology by stealth. Noam Chomsky put it succinctly: “propaganda is to democracy what terror is to dictatorships.” It is the means of social control.

Does this stress on class war make me a Marxist? No, I recognize other factors. Most historians endorse a “multi-causal” view of history. Four quick examples of these other factors: From William H. McNeil I learned to appreciate the overlooked role of the nomad warrior tribes who struck across the Eurasian steppes, bringing down or transforming dynasties in China, empires across the Muslim World, and kingdoms in Christendom, for over a thousand years. And Jared Diamond has shown us the importance of biogeography on the macro level, explaining why the first civilizations predictably arose in Eurasia; along the Nile, the Euphrates, the Indus, and the Yellow River. A third factor is disease, also dealt with by both McNeil and Diamond. And finally a fourth viewpoint is that of William Ogburn, who stressed the role of technological change, and cultural adaptation to it.

So Marx’s economic determinism is not the only explanation for the shape of history, but certainly the struggle for economic power is a real part of social evolution, and we wear blinders if we ignore it. Especially when those with wealth and power are waging and winning a class war right under our noses (Appendix Four).

The dominant ideology is so well propagated, working people identify with ruling class beliefs. Financier Jay Gould boasted in 1886 “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half“ because desperate working men did not identify with their brothers but with their masters. The Homestead Steel Strike six years later was a perfect example. Three hundred down-and-out cowboys, miners, and roughnecks were hired to attack the strikers, resulting in a day-long gun battle.

Marx called this “false consciousness,“ as opposed to “class consciousness.” One libertarian recently told us he considered himself a capitalist because he is selling his labor in exchange for a salary. Fellow Reasonnaire Jim G replied “no, labor is one of the factors of production for a capitalist, and so is slavery--some factors are just compensated better than others.”

Are Nebraska teachers free to discuss these issues? At UNL, a right-wing group want to organize students to put a Red Star on the door of any teacher who acknowledges Marx’s insights (WH 2/26/07). 

 

Privatization:  Scandals at Walter Reed hospital, attributed to the private contractors (http://www.tompaine.com/articles/2007/03/06/outsourcing_walter_reed.php), remind me of when I was at HUD a quarter century ago. The Reagan Administration, also under this same spell, the myth of private enterprise efficiency, outsourced the appraisal of FHA homes, allegedly to "reduce the cost of government." It was a joke. Immediately all the old FHA appraisers quit the government and went to work for private appraisal firms because they could make more money. It ended up costing the government more. Around the same time a study showed that the Public Housing program cost less than Section 8 private-owner subsidy, for providing low-income housing. The "common good" can often be achieved at lower cost by public investment ("gummint"), but is opposed by Reaganites & Busheviks for ideological reasons.

The American Prospect’s Michael Tomasky sums up the present: “The two parties ... have fought to a draw  --the irresistible force of secular belief in public investment set against the immovable object of faith-based laissez-faireism.”

 

But the Right knows how to break the deadlock. LBJ, President Lyndon Johnson, may have been a disaster in foreign policy but his background in hard-scrabble East Texas gave him a sincere compassion for Americans at the bottom of the ladder. But Johnson was forced by Dixiecrat Senator John Stennis (head of the Armed Services Committee) to give up his successful “War on Poverty” -the number of Americans in poverty had dropped from 40 million to 24 million-  in order to keep his war in Viet Nam, and ever since then boneheads on the Right can claim you can’t eliminate poverty (“LBJ failed!”). Conservatives like to badmouth Johnson’s War on Poverty because of their religious belief that wealth is God’s reward, and that government action to help people upsets the natural order (John Calvin and Herbert Spencer live on). But the reality is that the War on Poverty didn’t fail, it was cancelled.

The Slavery analogy: From pharaohs, Hebrew patriarchs and Roman senators, to Dutch ship captains, African emperors and Virginia plantation patricians, throughout history the elites (who profited) always defended slavery as inevitable and natural. Now they accept poverty as inevitable and natural. But we can see how successful Europeans have been in reducing poverty: why not here? 

Because the New Deal tidal wave of support and LBJ’s trouncing of Goldwater showed conservatives that they could never win on the bread & butter issues. Then  -jackpot! They hit on the snake-oil approach described by Thomas Frank: Distract voters away from the real collective issues like poverty with the modern equivalent of ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?’ Now it’s ‘when does the ghost arrive to inhabit a clump of cells?’ which they word as ‘When does the embryo acquire a soul?’ The ruling class can pursue its goals undisturbed, while those they regard as peons are sidetracked by the magic show. (The abortion debate always comes down to unprovable religious assertions: See Appendix 6.)

And then there’s this other outlet for dissatisfaction with the ruling class: Libertarianism. With the destruction of a real Left (Red Scare 1920s, McCarthyism 1950s) Libertarianism is the only permitted alternative. If you can clearly see the defects in unrestrained corporate capitalism, but the effective challenge has been eliminated from consciousness, you join the Libertarians and enjoy the illusion that you’re embracing an alternative. In reality you’re defending corporations from regulation. The Libertarian  attack” on capitalism actually defends it, as Libertarian-Right lobbies like ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, pursue pro-business anti-regulation legislation (and even the weakening of church-state separation). 

The power of the nation-state is also needed to address the looming environmental crisis. A great danger here is that the crisis may be misinterpreted or “spun” as a free-market problem of “supply,“ ie, access to dwindling petroleum supplies, leading to a militarized and fascist America dominating the oil-producing parts of the world. See M. Klare: http://www.tomdispatch.com/index.mhtml?pid=157241

 

 

 

2. Human Nature

 

Homo economicus (Adam Smith) = classical liberalism (Jefferson) = modern conservatism (Reagan). But Homo economicus is imaginary, as we shall see.

Ultimately, political ideologies rest on deeply buried assumptions about human nature. On one side -the left- we have the belief that human nature is flexible*: Thus the environment in which you are raised does in fact influence you (why else are we communicating in the thought-processes of English?), so education can improve people and humans can learn from their mistakes, must be trusted to govern themselves, and therefore deserve to be free, all equally. “Do what you wish.” The extremes of this individualism are libertarianism (rejection of collective decisions) and anarchism (not to be confused with nihilism). *Human nature, flexible but not “blank:” See Phenotypic Plasticity, Pigliucci, 2001.

On the other side -the right- we have the belief that human nature is incurably evil (sinful), that mankind never learns and therefore needs to be firmly controlled through hierarchy, and this requires inequality. Edmund Burke (d. 1797) founded conservatism (on rhetoric, per Hannah Arendt) and rejected individualism. Society is organic, he said, and thus Parliament should represent historic functional interests  --the Church, the nobility in the House of Lords, etc. “Do what you’re told.” The extremes of this view are totalitarianism (Stalin, Hitler).

Perhaps the truth lies somewhere between: We are both individuals and members of a group.

 

----- Original Message -----

Sent: Friday, June 20, 2003 5:51 PM

Subject: [Reason-Omaha] Conference: evolutionary psychology, human nature, and the social sciences

How we got to this point in our understanding:

 

a) Evolution:  Charles Darwin, Alfred Russell Wallace.

Darwin's work sparks the gathering of mountains of evidence for evolution, from a variety of disciplines. Noah's Ark has to be abandoned. Science knocks out the underpinnings of the cherished beliefs of religious fundamentalism (but can't "defeat" it, because it fills various functions). The new paradigm requires generations to become second-nature. Question: Can evolution explain human behavior?

 

b) Sociobiology:  E.O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins.

Wilson's work sparks the gathering of mountains of evidence for sociobiology. Starting from his expertise on ants, Wilson marshals the data to explain the social behavior of other animals. Science knocks out the underpinnings of the cherished beliefs of religious exceptionalism: Humans are social animals like all the others. This clarifies many things about the way we behave. Question: Can sociobiology explain human psychology?

 

c) Evolutionary Psychology:  Richard Alexander, David Buss, Cosmides & Tooby.

Summarized & popularized by Robert Wright in The Moral Animal (why we care) and Geoffrey Miller in The Mating Mind (why rock stars get the girls), many researchers are out there probing the psychology of various branches of the animal kingdom, exploring how selection pressures shape brains to think the way they do.  http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/ep.html

 Question: Can evolutionary psychology explain human societies?

 

d) Evolutionary Social Sciences:

In its infancy. The outlines are becoming visible in the papers presented at conferences like the HBES conference in Lincoln. The actual titles of the workshops are way over on the right-hand side of this page:  http://www.unl.edu/hbes/meeting_information/schedule.

You can see what a variety there was, from stalking & spying as a mate retention tactic, and measuring the sexiness of humor; through detecting free-riders in collective actions, and resisting invasion by tit-for-tat strategies; to Paleolithic demography, and culture as superorganism. (It was hard to decide which ones to attend.)

 

BTW, in a brave pioneering book that in my opinion will be reinforced as the research advances, one social scientist has already applied what we know of evolutionary psychology to economics, sociology, and politics:  [Book: The Evolution of Human Sociality] http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0847695352/ref=lib_dp_TFCV/103-5357420-8892651?v=glance&s=books&vi=reader#reader-link

 I believe science will knock out the underpinnings of the cherished beliefs of economic fundamentalists as thoroughly as with religious fundamentalists, but with as little success in defeating them, for similar reasons. The new paradigm will require generations to become second-nature, as did Darwinism.

 

The keynote speech by zoologist Pete Richerson of UC-Davis and anthropologist Robert Boyd of UCLA at the HBES conference was based on an upcoming book by them on "The Nature of Culture" which should take this subject to a new level. One thing that struck me was how much of the collaborative research in this field is inter-disciplinary; contributors are biologists, anthropologists, mathematicians & computer whizzes (for game theory & simulations), medical specialists, psychologists, neurobiologists, and a scattering of other fields (management, astronomy, poli sci). You can get some idea of the flavor of the keynote speech from a different piece of theirs available in pdf: It gets interesting from about halfway down:  http://www.des.ucdavis.edu/faculty/Richerson/Speed_PhilLife.pdf

[End 6/20/03 email.]

 

Drawing on Darwin for support is tricky business. Herbert Spencer and the other 19th century Social Darwinists were sure that evolution supported the vicious free-for-all of raw capitalism, but as we’ve seen above capitalism was so inimical to the well-being of humans that spontaneous rejection, movements of rebellion or reform, sprang up all over the world, and even in its more humane, modified form it still displays enormous defects and dysfunctions.

Not surprisingly, Social Darwinism isn’t dead, and some conservatives even fantasize incorporating the insights of evolutionary psychology; “Neo-Social Darwinism.” On this struggle to fit Darwin into the GOP’s “big tent,” see P. Cohen’s article in the NYT, 5/5/07.

 

We can get some idea of what original human nature was like by looking at surviving hunter-gatherers (see Melvin Konner, "Dim Beginnings," NYRB 3/1/07, and the exchange of letters in the 3/29/07 issue) or by looking at other primates, especially our closest relatives, the chimps. In this regard, bonobos (formerly "pygmy chimps") have been a favorite topic because they "make love, not war," using sex in place of violence to resolve conflicts. On the political spin-doctoring about the bonobos:
http://www.skeptic.com/eskeptic/07-08-08.html  (Laugh out loud at the Paula Jones part.)

In any case, we have evolved a sense of morality and fair play alongside our aggressiveness. By the way, evolution is relevant for understanding much more than just economics. Why religion and generosity? Why bar-room brawls and child abuse? Why creative arts and intelligence? Why obesity and shyness? Check out David Sloan Wilson's  book, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives. It’s all there, and it‘s great fun to learn:

http://urel.binghamton.edu/PressReleases/2006/Jan-Feb%2006/EvoS.html

 

For FAQ on evolutionary psychology: http://www.anth.ucsb.edu/projects/human/evpsychfaq.html  For evolutionary psychology & economics: http://else.econ.ucl.ac.uk/newweb/index.php  For a typical demonstration in the neuroscience laboratory that homo economicus is extinct, see Scientific American: http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?chanID=sa006&colID=13&articleID=27333871-E7F2-99DF-3A66FD19F6C2AF91  This essay will become endless if I divert further into “ev psych,” so I’ll just limit myself to two more comments:

 

1. One area of research is CAPs, Collective Action Problems, where tribes or villages work together for mutual benefits (which may not be equally distributed). CAPs are of special interest to the evolutionary psychologists and anthropologists working on these issues. Why do people all over the world often sacrifice for the common good? Game theory folks have worked out the math for equilibrium between “cheaters” & “saints” in societies. Too many of either type and the system can crash. It is in our biological nature to work out systems of balance between individual selfishness and group altruism. The math isn’t built-in but the emotions are; that‘s what they‘re for. “Mirror neuron” systems in the brain enable us to experience what others are experiencing, and this empathy creates an almost organic bonding. We feel stressed if we suspect there’s too much exploitation in the system. And we feel good when we do good for others. For more on the pleasure of altruism, see Appendix Eight.

 

2. Primate stress. Here is another example of the kind of insights into human social systems that we can glean from biology. One of our R.E.A.S.O.N members follows this field closely and keeps us supplied with frequent updates on the research. This is a recent example, almost at random. This is a narrative for the layman; the websites above can provide access to actual research.

Begin excerpt from http://www.eurekalert.org/bysubject/index.php?kw=16

Why do humans and their primate cousins get more stress-related diseases than any other member of the animal kingdom? The answer, says Stanford University neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, is that people, apes and monkeys are highly intelligent, social creatures with far too much spare time on their hands.

"Primates are super smart and organized just enough to devote their free time to being miserable to each other and stressing each other out," he said. "But if you get chronically, psychosocially stressed, you're going to compromise your health. So, essentially, we've evolved to be smart enough to make ourselves sick."

A professor of biological sciences and of neurology and neurological sciences, Sapolsky has spent more than three decades studying the physiological effects of stress on health. His pioneering work includes ongoing studies of laboratory rats and wild baboons in the African wilderness. [And a wonderful book, A Primate’s Memoir.]

He will [did] discuss the biological and sociological implications of stress at 12:45 p.m. Feb. 17, 2007, in a lecture titled "Stress, Health and Coping" at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco.

 

What can baboons teach humans about coping with all the stress-inducing psychosocial nonsense we encounter in our daily lives?

"Ideally, we have a lot more behavioral flexibility than the baboon," Sapolsky said, adding that, unlike baboons, humans can overcome their low social status and isolation by belonging to multiple hierarchies.

"We are capable of social supports that no other primate can even dream of," he said. "For example, I might say, 'This job, where I'm a lowly mailroom clerk, really doesn't matter. What really matters is that I'm the captain of my softball team or deacon of my church'--that sort of thing. It's not just somebody sitting here, grooming you with their own hands. We can actually feel comfort from the discovery that somebody on the other side of the planet is going through the same experience we are and feel, I'm not alone. We can even take comfort reading about a fictional character, and there's no [other] primate out there that can feel better in life just by listening to Beethoven. So the range of supports that we're capable of is extraordinary."

But many of the qualities that make us human also can induce stress, he noted. "We can be pained or empathetic about somebody in Darfur," he said. "We can be pained by some movie character that something terrible happens to that doesn't even exist. We could be made to feel inadequate by seeing Bill Gates on the news at night, and we've never even been in the same village as him or seen our goats next to his. So the realm of space and time that we can extend our emotions means that there are a whole lot more abstract things that can make us feel stressed."

Pursuit of happiness

The Founding Fathers probably weren't thinking about health when they declared the pursuit of happiness to be an inalienable right, but when it comes to understanding the importance of a stress-free life, they may have been ahead of their time.

"When you get to Westernized humans, it's only in the last century or two that our health problems have become ones of chronic lifestyle issues," Sapolsky said. "It's only 10,000 years or so that most humans have been living in high-density settlements--a world of strangers jostling and psychologically stressing each other. But being able to live long enough to get heart disease, that's a fairly new world."

According to Sapolsky, happiness and self-esteem are important factors in reducing stress. Yet the definition of "happiness" has less to do with material comfort than Westerners might assume, he noted: "An extraordinary finding that's been replicated over and over is that once you get past the 25 percent or so poorest countries on Earth, where the only question is survival and subsistence, there is no relationship between gross national product, per capita income, any of those things, and levels of happiness."

Surveys show that in Greece, for example, one of Western Europe's poorest countries, people are much happier than in the United States, the world's richest nation. And while Greece is ranked number 30 in life expectancy, the United States--with the biggest per capita expenditure on medical care--is only slighter higher, coming in at 29.

"The United States has the biggest discrepancy in health and longevity between our wealthiest and our poorest of any country on Earth," Sapolsky noted. "We're also ranked way up in stress-related diseases."

Japan is number one in life expectancy, largely because of its extremely supportive social network, according to Sapolsky. He cited similar findings in the United States. "Two of the healthiest states are Vermont and Utah, while two of the unhealthiest are Nevada and New Hampshire," he noted. "Vermont is a much more left-leaning state in terms of its social support systems, while its neighbor New Hampshire prides itself on no income tax and ‘go it alone.’ In Utah, the Mormon church provides extended social support, explanations for why things are and structure. You can't ask for more than that. And next door is Nevada, where people are keeling over dead from all of their excesses. It's very interesting."

Typically, observant Mormons and other religious people are less likely to smoke and drink, he noted. "But once you control for that, religiosity in and of itself is good for your health in some ways, although less than some of its advocates would have you believe," Sapolsky said. "It infuriates me, because I'm an atheist, so it makes me absolutely crazy, but it makes perfect sense. If you have come up with a system that not only tells you why things are but is capped off with certain knowledge that some thing or things respond preferentially to you, you're filling a whole lot of pieces there--gaining some predictability, attribution, social support and control over the scariest realms of our lives."

End excerpt from http://www.eurekalert.org/bysubject/index.php?kw=16

 

In the State of Nature we evolved instinctive cravings for fat and sweets, which in our original environment were rare treats, and were harmless. Likewise our status-seeking instincts were constrained until leveraged into hierarchy by first the Agricultural Revolution (pharaohs/slaves) and then the Industrial Revolution (owners/laborers). We can depart from our original EEA (Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation) in several different directions, as Sapolsky noted (Vermont, Utah): We ought to learn from these experiments.

 

The Nation-State has been seen as the alternative to the State of Nature. But what were we in the State of Nature? Ants live entirely for the collective; the individual ant is of no more importance than a blood cell sacrificed to form a clot. At the other extreme, spiders live alone; when the female mates she eats the male  -not much of a social life. We are neither as collective as ants nor as individual as spiders (or grumpy bears). Like wolves and whales we are in-between; social animals who live in groups. From this fact flows our morality and our politics. Some anarchists (Kropotkin) depart from extreme individualism and admit our cooperative nature, and some moderns admit we get our morality from our social nature (Robert Wright). But many still don’t get it:

Granted natural selection, what is the Unit of social selection? It is the atomized & alienated individual for the Libertarians (Margaret Thatcher: “There is no such thing as society!”), it is class for the Communists (use the State undemocratically if necessary to enforce an end to class struggle -cf. Chavez in Venezuela), it is Race for the Nazis (use the State to protect Blut & Boden). They don’t get it.

 

Rousseau (d. 1778) wrote that everywhere man is born free but lives in chains. He thought that if we just returned to the state of nature, discarded the corrupting influences of government, harmony would prevail, while Hobbes (d. 1679) saw us as so evil in the state of nature that we needed strict rulers to keep us under control. Rousseau mistook us for ants (the automatic harmony of the General Will), Hobbes mistook us for bears (“nasty, brutish“). Neither Rousseau (anarchism) nor Hobbes (fascism) turns out to be correct. It’s not an either/or, not nature/nurture but both. Modern Conservatives, like their 19th cent Social Darwinist predecessors, admire Hobbes (Leviathan = dictator) and still enjoy denouncing Rousseau (under the mistaken either/or) in the name of a poorly understood pop version of sociobiology. A good example of this is the David Brooks column on Hobbes and Rousseau, NYT 2/25/07. He doesn’t get it either.

 

My old mentor Paul Beck used to ask his class: In perfect freedom, what do we do about red lights?

None of us likes to be told what to do, that’s human nature, but is it really helpful to think of traffic lights as immoral, a form of “coercion,” stealing our liberty to cross the intersection when we feel like it? Rules are inherent in social animals, sorry. You don’t get to be the whiny kid in the sandbox all your life; growing up means giving up some liberties and accepting some responsibilities. But True Believers don’t get it:

 

WH Public Pulse 3/16/07

Beware busybodies
In response to Jim Elsener’s March 9 letter regarding smoking bans:
 The proposed smoking ban is not about smokers’ rights. It is about the right of each business owner to permit smoking in his establishment.
 Smokers do not expose anyone to any risk against his will. …. Any trouble between my family and me due to my smoking is between us.
 Lastly, in a free society, we do absorb some costs on account of our neighbors’ enjoying the benefits of liberty. This is preferable to having our behavior forcibly restricted.
History has shown that busybodies cause more harm than cigarettes.
I can only hope the Legislature keeps that in mind.
Jan W. Calinger, Omaha

 

 

Endless theological debates about the esoteric nature of liberty, and whether or not it outweighs all other values, are futile and must yield to the verdicts of history and biology. The simple truth is, humans as social animals do take collective actions  -yes, even through government-  to address their problems. Get over it.  

By the same token, as social animals we have evolved finely-tuned cheating detection modules and anti-exploitation instincts (which produced the reform movements discussed above). Excess exploitation threatens group solidarity: See Appendix 4.

 

3. Morality

Perhaps the most indefensible claim libertarians like to make is that they are the lone guardians of virtue, that all other systems are immoral. My reply to that is: Slave markets. There is nothing in capitalism that forbids making profit from the buying and selling of human beings. Capitalism’s only commandment is: Buy low, sell high. In fact, history suggests that slavery was worse where capitalism was stronger.

The classic study of Brazilian culture is The Masters and the Slaves, by Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre (of Columbia and Stanford). Among other topics, Freyre points out that Roman Catholic Brazil preserved ancient Roman ideas, customs which ameliorated the practice of slavery  --on Festival Days (Church “Holy Days“) they were free to work for themselves to save money to buy their freedom, for example, whereas the Protestants who settled North America subsumed slaves under the category of private property, and being good capitalists, held that the sacred rights of private property meant nobody could tell the slave owner what to do. In Brazil, moral considerations weakened capitalism, resulting in today’s multi-racial society. In America, economic considerations strengthened slavery, resulting in today’s racism and segregation.

One libertarian replied that slave traders, those Dutch and English Protestant sea captains, weren’t “real” capitalists, which would have dumbfounded their investors in the early stock exchanges in Amsterdam’s Beurs and London’s Threadneedle Street. This argument is akin to the one they make about the 1890s; the Robber Barons weren’t “real” capitalists  -or even  (Orwellian) that there never was any such thing as Robber Barons.

Capitalism and religion both co-existed comfortably with slavery for centuries. I can’t resist quoting Nobelist Stephen Weinberg on this. After reviewing the history of secular abolitionism and the resistance from religion (especially from pious pro-slavery Southern Baptists), he commented “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil, but for good people to do evil  --that takes religion.” (NYR 10/21/99).   

To me, it seems that capitalist slave markets must be for Libertarians what fossils are for Creationists: a huge embarrassment, with no way to explain them away, and devastating to their side. But in both cases you could waste the rest of your life trying to get through to the True Believers. Neither slave markets nor fossils matter if you “have faith.” And capitalism is, at heart, a religious faith.

 

Capitalism’s big boost came out of the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s. Calvinist merchants and traders convinced themselves that “wealth is God’s reward for virtue” (and if so then poverty is obviously His punishment for sin). Catholics, having their own agenda, were never as committed to capitalism’s defense, since it wasn’t their invention. Pope John Paul II, as the supposed shepherd of all his flock, the poor as well as the rich, felt free to criticize atheistic communism on the left as well as unregulated capitalism on the right. Here in Omaha these historical roots were reflected in an exchange in the World Herald in 1999, and it bears on our discussion of morality.

When the Pope criticized capitalism, the Protestant publisher, quintessential WASP Harold Anderson, wrote an editorial implying the Pope didn’t know what he’s talking about. Archbishop Elden Curtiss rose to the Pope’s defense. In an op-ed piece (2/14/99) he wrote: “I always appreciate Andy’s commentary ... but I think he missed the point ....John Paul II ... is concerned about capitalism that has as its only purpose increased returns to investors. He reminds people of the world to consider what the economy does to people as well as what it does for certain ones. Capitalism, even in our own country, becomes immoral when little consideration is given to the plight of people who struggle beneath the poverty level. Exploitation of people by corporations and individual capitalists is always wrong.” Amen.

 

To the extent that we are living in a more humane world now than we did in the 1890s, with their terror of class war, it’s because we’ve adopted the reforms demanded by our ancestors in the Populist and Progressive movements, ideas initially advocated by, yes, socialists like Upton Sinclair and Norman Thomas. Unable to admit this truth, reactionaries have concocted the elaborate, sophisticated and successful rhetorical cults of Reaganism and Friedmanism to get us to agree to roll back the clock and reverse the progress. (How they do this is covered by Thomas Frank and David Brock.)

As part of their sophisticated media campaign, they even pressured PBS into producing a triumphalist TV documentary, Commanding Heights, often shown to college students, which presents Hayek and Friedman as victorious heroes in the struggle for acceptance of free-market ideas. Oddly, there are virtually no statistics in the entire thing! Imagine a discussion of economics without empirical data! Instead it focuses on their political victories (led by cowboy actor Ronald Reagan).

 

For most Americans the label “socialism” ends the discussion. Yet if it weren't for them, we wouldn’t have the things we take for granted and embrace as normal and desirable: Overtime pay, Social Security, vacations, unemployment compensation, the ending of child labor ... In fact some extremists do try to argue that we should get rid of all that, but they get nowhere  --thus always the temptation to win the argument by force. (See the discussion of fascism in The New Dark Age essay.) 

Wall Street would love to get their hands on the Social Security trust fund, pump those billions into the stock market for a one-time rush. Thus the Right’s push to “privatize” Social Security, which requires whipping up fears about the program’s future. See Appendix 5.

 

Rejecting Libertarianism as a philosophy doesn’t mean defending the excesses of modern society. Of course we are subject to the evils of mass scale. And of course bad laws get passed, especially laws based on Grover Norquist’s perversities and the Busheviks‘ inanities. For example, the “No Child Left Behind” fiasco. By analogy: Penalize the dentist if his patients have lots of cavities. Nebraska’s Commissioner Doug Christensen understands that schools can’t undo all else, can’t single-handedly reverse the socialization of students by their families & peers & a shallow commercial culture. And hospitals suffer human error, resulting in thousands of unnecessary fatalities. So what’s the answer to problems like these?

a) Abolish schools & hospitals?

b) Abolish bureaucracies?

c) Work to improve them?

Clearly a) and b) are mere wishful thinking, the lazy way out because c) requires effort. Yes, it’s immoral to allow children’s brains to go undeveloped; yes it’s immoral to let patients die in hospitals from mistakes. But abolishing public education, or embracing alternative-medicine quackery, are not solutions.

Yes, we suffer under Michels’ “Iron Law of Oligarchy;” officials at the top are far removed from those they serve. And yes, we pay a price for Weber’s “bureaucratic rationalization.” Magic has been replaced by science, the courage of the warrior by the Pentagon’s machines, and the craftsman’s pride by the drudgery of the assembly line. That’s a different problem. But is a requirement to register as a gun owner “immoral” in the same sense that shooting someone is? Libertarians get too easily outraged by trivial inconveniences and too easily ignore devastating human suffering. Which brings us to:

 

Is it moral to accept poverty, as it once was moral to accept slavery? Recently Jeffrey Sachs reported in Scientific American (11/06), on Sustainable Developments: Welfare States, Beyond Ideology.

Preview:

“One of the great challenges of sustainable development is to combine society's desires for economic prosperity and social security. For decades economists and politicians have debated how to reconcile the undoubted power of markets with the reassuring protections of social insurance. America's supply-siders claim that the best way to achieve well-being for America's poor is by spurring rapid economic growth and that the higher taxes needed to fund high levels of social insurance would cripple prosperity. Austrian-born free-market economist Friedrich August von Hayek suggested in the 1940s that high taxation would be a ‘road to serfdom,’ a threat to freedom itself.

Most of the debate in the U.S. is clouded by vested interests and by ideology. Yet there is by now a rich empirical record to judge these issues scientifically. The evidence may be found by comparing a group of relatively free-market economies that have low to moderate rates of taxation and social outlays with a group of social-welfare states that have high rates of taxation and social outlays.” By now you can surely guess what the data show.

 

 An older study (Kenworthy), part of Sachs’s “rich empirical record,” shows Europeans far more successful than us at eliminating poverty, with no ill effects. Poverty rates prior to the application of social programs are pretty comparable in the US and many European countries, at around 20%, but there's a big difference in how effectively they deal with poverty. The Netherlands takes it from that same one in five level (20.5%) to only one in twenty-three in poverty after application of social programs (4.3%). And over a five year period only one percent of their population is in poverty. Ireland, Germany, Italy, France, etc, all have similar success. We go from that same one in five to only one in eight (11.7%), pretty unimpressive. Australia, the second worst, goes from one in five to one in fifteen (6.4%), still twice as good as we do.

For a more complete discussion see Do Social Welfare Policies Reduce Poverty? A Cross-National Assessment, by Lane Kenworthy, Luxembourg Income Studies Working paper No. 188, Sept 1998. Hard to find. Try this link:

http://64.233.167.104/search?q=cache:FqI5Vfc7z3cJ:www.lisproject.org/publications/liswps/188.pdf+Do+Social-Welfare+Policies+Reduce+Poverty%3F+LANE+KENWORTHY&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=3&gl=us

 

 

 

 

Conclusions

 

As with the claims of Creationists and alternative medicine quacks, the Libertarian’s utopian claims must be subjected to the creed of the skeptic: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.“ We have seen that Libertarian claims are extraordinarily lacking in extraordinary evidence. Face the facts: From the Wild West anarchy we saw in the HBO series, Deadwood, to the real life anarchy of Somalia, less government is not in itself automatically better. “Gummint is bad” is false.

Libertarians, like Creationists, practice apologetics: Their conclusion comes first, that liberty is the only value that counts, and that it outweighs all other cultural values, moral considerations or practical utility. As with religious apologetics, after the conclusion is embraced history is then ransacked for examples to be shoe-horned into the thesis, mistaking anecdotes for proof, or submerging us in marvelous Jesuitical sophistry.

Examples of this can be seen in Reason, the misnamed magazine dedicated to worshipping the free market idol, a lesson to us that Rationality without Empiricism = Cult. And cultists easily lose track of objectivity on the slippery slope “From Foolishness to Fraud.”  (See Robert Park’s book by that title.)

Libertarians enjoy publicity that we humanists can only envy. John Stossel is mainstream and very obnoxious but Bill Maher is less so, and Michael Shermer, a very decent man whom I admire greatly as a possible successor to Sagan  --even Shermer calls himself a libertarian. Like chiropractic, libertarianism is widespread and considered legitimate.

Libertarians are not in themselves dangerous but when they respond to the very real problems of modern societies by retreating into their utopian fantasies they weaken our ability to reform society realistically. As with religious fundamentalists, economic fundamentalists also contribute to the removal of large numbers of followers from reality, leaving them ripe for exploitation by extremist movements.

People who feel betrayed by the world turn to easy promises of transformation. In his book American Fascists, Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize winning Harvard theology graduate, examines the dangers of the Religious Right, whose goal is the dismantling of the Open Society. This dangerous movement recruits easily from those who have already learned how to reject reason and reality in favor of propaganda, myth and magic. True Believers in Adam Smith’s invisible hand or in the invisible Jehovah’s handiwork, Adam, are already lost; it needs only a demagogue to fire them up to destroy the world that has betrayed their hopes. Chris Hedges points out that the Religious Right, so strong within the GOP, is not religious but a mass political movement, relying on emotional rhetoric about defending free enterprise and the flag from liberals and secular humanists.

(For secular humanists this is another reason to be wary of Libertarianism: religion. For the crime-and-poverty connection between religion and libertarianism, see Appendix Seven.)

 

Ursula LeGuin's wonderful anarchist utopian novel, The Dispossessed, is a favorite of mine. The problem isn't that the ideas aren't attractive; they are! The problem is they're not grounded in reality.

 

Jim Bechtel, 2007.

 

Other critiques:

http://web.inter.nl.net/users/Paul.Treanor/libertarian.html

http://sethf.com/essays/major/libstupid.php

 http://world.std.com/~mhuben/libindex.html

 

 

 

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