Monday, September 19, 2011

"The Morality of Capitalism"

A Review of Libertarian Propaganda
If you thought the social ramifications of free-market ideals on the human experience COULDN'T be fully addressed in 122 pages. . .yeah, you were pretty much right. 

I’ve written about libertarianism a couple of times before, and the feedback always seems to come in two varieties: it’s either hate mail from lunk-headed college kids that consider themselves in the upper tax bracket even though they work at Starbucks, or it’s quasi-well thought out (if not someone surprised) reciprocal praise from blue stater slackers that actually know what the heck (to a certain, degree, anyway) they’re talking about.

Honestly, I don’t really like criticizing libertarianism, primarily because there’s just so much to renounce. Do I begin with the hypocritical, egotistical libertarian tank-thinkers that consider themselves monopolists on issues like reason and logic, or do I go after the fact that one of their canonized philosophers is the absolute worst science fiction hack this side of L. Ron Hubbard? How about Ron Paul and his grandiose visions of reverting back to a double eagle-dependent economy, or how about all of those basement-dwelling ne’er-do-wells that blame the Federal Reserve Board for the fact that they can’t get laid? Just skimming the surface of libertarianism is like running your finger down the slimy curtains of a campground shower, and actually getting into their “literature” is akin to taking a swan dive into a septic tank: you know you’re dealing with crap from a mile away, and when you get knee-deep in it, the only thing more overpowering than the stench of intestinal butter is the repugnant stench of hypocrisy.

I’ve always considered libertarianism to be an illogical, anti-philosophy. For guys that go on and on about the merits of “rationality” and “common sense,” isn’t it just mildly ironic that they’re ideology is fundamentally BUILT open a heap of contradictions and double standards? Reading libertarian propaganda is filled with more paradoxes than a freaking cyberpunk novel: inconsistent terms like “creative destruction,” spontaneous order,” and “compete-to-control” litter the libertarian lexicon with the same sort of casualness and regularity that normal folk say “hello” and “good day.” Try counting up the contradictions and examples of charlatanry in the standard libertarian rant, and there’s a pretty high probability that you’re calculator will run out of battery power before you can add that final +1 to the tabulation.

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed that someone was leaving a bunch of free copies of an “intro to libertarianism” rag all around campus, so being the masochist that I am, I decided to swoop up a copy and give it a good look-see. At first, I was just going to skim through it and scribble down a couple of turd-tastic quotes here and there, but after pushing myself through all 120-something pages of the pamphlet sized manifesto, I decided the abomination of nature/waste of printing press lubricant deserved a thorough, chapter by chapter lambasting on this very blog. Believe you me, some of this stuff is downright AMAZING.

To begin with, the “book” itself is called “The Morality of Capitalism: What Your Professors Won’t Tell You.” The cover of the book looks like something Desktop Publisher puked out, with a dove carrying a Benjamin and a Yuan in its clutches while nose diving into a globe that consists of ONLY the United States and China. The tome, edited by a fellow named Tom G. Palmer (don’t worry, there’s more rabblerousing from him later on), is basically a collection of super-brief essays on why capitalism is great and poor people deserve to be poor. You know, the standard nonsense we’ve been hearing for years and years. Apparently, the book was published by an organization known as the Atlas Network  (boy, I wonder what that could be referencing?) and looks like it has funding from a number of organizations, including the Cato Institute’s version of the Hitler Youth (just remember kids: if you spew out cockamamie drivel about the free market and “the morality of value exchange” in YOUR school newspaper, you might just win yourself $500 from a bunch of nerds, ding-dongs and crater-faced  dweebs that think student loans are a form of Trotskyism.)

At first, you kind of think to yourself, “how bad can this really be?” and before you get past PAGE ONE of the introduction, you’re already on the verge of punching a hole in the nearest wall/face you encounter. Palmer begins the tract by stating that capitalism is a “system of innovation, wealth creation and social change” that has “brought billions of people to prosperity” - which, of course, explains why a good 33 million people in the United States are jobless while another 48 million are incapable of securing anything above part time labor. From there, Palmer goes on a euphemism spree, discussing libertarian ideals like elitism (“careers open to talent”) while championing inherently faulty concepts like “voluntary process of market exchange” - you know, because it’s totally our CHOICE to be involved in the economic cycle. If Palmer had a hard-on for biology, he’d probably lecture us on the “voluntary process of breathing,” as well.

 Nothing says "marketplace efficiency" quite like having to GIVE away your product to get people to consume it...
He then goes off on a tangent about “state imposed monopolies,” concluding that capitalism has resulted in a system in which people can “commonly become wealthy without becoming criminals.” Well, considering the number of Wall Street crooks and swindlers that get busted for insider trading, book cooking and tax evasion (not to mention all of the human rights violations most of them get away with like overseas sweatshop labor and rug-swept D.O.L. infringements), perhaps it’s just that we wait until we already make our fortune before we let all of those antisocial traits flare up. Palmer spends a couple of pages going after Marx and Werner Sombart (yeah, you tell those long-dead socialist scribes what-for!) and he concludes his introductory spiel by advocating an economic system based on “choice and consent” instead of “birth or status,” saying that we can only get rid of “poverty” via “wealth creation.” Apparently, nobody clued Palmer in on the fact that despite being the wealthiest nation on Earth, we actually have a pretty sizable homeless population here in the States: maybe if we cut property taxes by one percent, all of those makeshift hobo towns in New Jersey will magically dissipate, huh?

Up next, we have a real treat as Palmer interviews Whole Foods Market founder John Mackey; and much like his diabetes-flavored comestibles, his diatribe is sure to have you lunging towards the commode in a hurry.

According to Mackey, there’s a false dichotomy between altruism and selfishness (Translation: “I really, really, really like having money and the fact that the guy next door is starving makes it even better.”) Mackey thinks that capitalism has been the greatest source of good for the world over the last 300 years - so if you’re a slave, a displaced indigent, or a four year old working in a Nike factory in Manila, just remember your ON THE SIDE OF GOOD, AMIGO. He says that he supports creating a culture that supports purpose, stakeholders and leadership, meaning, of course, that he supports creating a culture that’s more profitable for him and his company shareholders. And no, he actually DOES say that in the book. To reiterate the point that the free market is great and totally without fault, he says that only 20 percent of the world population is currently living on less than one U.S. dollar per day. He refrains from mentioning that means 2 billion people across the globe are living in so much abject poverty as to be considered economically invisible, nor does he bring up the fact that about HALF of the planet makes less than three U.S. dollars a day - or heck, even the fact that in several major metropolitan areas in the U.S., gargantuan portions of the populace make less then three dollars a day right here in freaking America. Mackey does some more cheerleading for the free market, saying it made us “a prosperous, authentically rich country,” and with it, “everybody ultimately rises over time,“ - you know, more claptrap that makes it sound like rampant poverty is a petty, trivial issue compared to the MASS suffering of these conglomerates and subordinate creepozoids that think cutting mental health facility and adult literacy programs are a “good start” to the rebirth of American industrialization. It should really come as no surprise that Mackey concludes his segment with praise of Ronald Reagan, claiming that deregulation is THE artifact that led to American prosperity (which may or may not have also led to an economic implosion twenty five years later, but really, who cares about something that insignificant, huh?) I guess Mackey didn’t pick up the newspaper when the Gipper gave S&L billions in government bail bonds, or take note that while Reagan crusaded for a Constitutional Amendment to “balance the budget,” the two-faced wad did more deficit spending than any administration in history. Then again, it is sort of a fitting conclusion, with one hypocrite paying ode to his hypocritical forerunners. 

Because you have the individual freedom. . .to develop type 2 diabetes before you're in middle school.

We follow that up with an essay by Deirdre McCloskey. There really isn’t too much to talk about here; according to her, the Industrial Revolution is one of mankind’s greatest moral paradigms (well, after you discount the slave wages, black lung, daily dismemberments and child endangerment, I suppose you can consider it that), notes that the average capitalist citizen makes OR consumes $100 a day (without a source detailing where she got such an estimate, of course) and calls the fact that there has been a 2,900 percent increase in food production, travel and educational development since 1700 the “Great Fact of History.” Of course, by that same token, you can say that the SAME production levels just prior to the Industrial Revolution were about 2,900 percent higher than they were in 1400, which had 2,900 percent higher production levels of 1100. Feasibly (and using McCloskey’s exact same line of logic), you can say that mercantilism and the Crusades produced the same increase in production levels as did the Industrial Revolution, but COME ON! That’s just plain crazy talk about arbitrarily selecting points in history and gauging lineal progression as  unfounded, presumed-to-be-direct outcomes of those same points, isn’t it?

David Boaz decides to stroke Adam Smith’s long dead ego in the next essay, stating that a “Great Society” is based upon “self-interest, limited generosity and resource scarcity” - essentially, three different ways of justifying the fact that you’re acting like a self-absorbed putz. Boaz says that state associations are instinctively “coercive” while every other possible form of association is both natural and voluntary. Because as we ALL know, private industry and civic organizations NEVER, EVER use force or fear to motivate people. Like I said, NEVER.

Parker then returns with an essay entitled For Profit Medicine. Basically, he’s giving us the same argument Thomas Szasz gave us in The Myth of Mental Illness - “in a free market economy, the profit motive may be but another name for the compassion motive,” he declares. Well, I think we can all agree upon that, since it’s a common facet of knowledge that ALL businesses EVERYWHERE act with the best interests of their clients and customers in mind AT ALL CONCEIVABLE TIMES.

From there, Mao Yushi gives us The Paradox of Morality, which includes, among others, these cheery quips:

“Looking out for the interests of others, it is a breeding ground for vile characters.”

“If humankind were to directly and exclusively seek the benefit of others, no ideals would be realized.”

“Those who act contrarily to their own self interests during the course of an exchange suffer from an incoherence of motives.”

Needless to say, Christmastime at the Yushis has to be all kinds of awkward, I’m guessing.
And from cynical egotists of the Chinese variety, we get a look at the same love of self and moolah from Leonid Nikoniv. “Economic freedom,” Nikoniv states, “that is, equal standards of justice and equal respect for the rights of all to produce and to exchange, is the right standard of justice for moral beings.” Now, such a definition certainly can be applied to non-capitalist systems, as text book socialism attempts to create just such an equality based on moral justices, too, but . . uh, well, Nikoniv never really explains why capitalism is inherently a better means of achieving said equality and justice, but it’s not like you have to make valid points to win an argument or anything, right? Nikoniv then goes off on a long tirade about the evils of “forced redistribution”, and I think you could get about as much as insight out of an unplugged air conditioner as you would the sputtering rhetoric about “deontic modality” and how the Pythagoreans gave gender traits to certain numbers.

There’s an essay about Adam Smith up next. The only really noteworthy thing about it is the line “markets make possibility the charity of the charitable” as a universal defense for promoting one’s financial self-interests over the well-being of others. Of course, the counter-argument is that such greed-oriented business policies ultimately end up costing others their livelihoods, which results in formerly self-sustained individuals becoming dependent on redistribution because. . .DING-DING! The freaking market put them out on their keisters to begin with. In that, the statement that the market makes charity possible is an inadvertently truthful one in well more ways than one

As we all know, your stance on the legality of black tar heroin makes you either a champion of freedom or the modern day equivalent of Joey Stalin. 
As an added bonus, the pamphlet came with two complimentary political quizzes, which were provided by some self-government advocacy group (which I guess explains the why and how of how the darn books ended up on campus, anyway). Needless to say, the quizzes themselves are pretty biased and steered towards generating a “gee whiz, I’m a Libertarian!” answer. The quiz asks you such vague questions as “are you in favor of a national identification card?”, which, somehow, determines your rank and file in the political system. Not that there’s a lot of room for analysis with these things as it is,  but I find even the questions asked here to be prone to false positives. Isn’t a “driver’s license” and a “passport” basically a “national I.D.,” anyway?

The real centerpiece of the book is an essay by David Kelley entitled “Ayn Rand and Capitalism: The Moral Revolution.” Kelley gets off to a good start, noting the tried-and-true-trifecta of things that made the modern world great (liberalism, “spontaneous order” capitalism and the Industrial Revolution) before heading into the Randian platitude that altruism as self-sacrifice OR “submersion of self into the collective” is B-A-D. Welfarism? BAD. Egalitarianism? BAD. Egotism? BAD, not because it hurts other people, but because it may inadvertently be bad for the individual. The only social good we have going for us, per Kelley, is the system of “voluntary trade,” and if you’re poor, he has the following for you to chew on:

“There is no ground in justice for holding the poor or the meek in any special esteem or regarding their needs as primary.”

Kelley concludes his essay by saying that if given the choice between a “free” society and a society in which people did not starve, “the free one is the moral choice.” Obviously, Kelley’s proposition is a false dichotomy so massive that if you peer out your window, you might just be able to see it over the horizon, as it doesn’t even attempt to define the parameters of what a free society is, nor does it even remotely consider the reality that a society can have capitalistic markets and still have soaring poverty rates (Hint: if you’re reading this in America, try taking a stroll outside sometime for empirical refutation of Kelley’s assertion.) Kelley’s kicker is that he believes that privatized “charities” outside the market should be in charge of non-state-funded welfare and public assistance programs - basically, the social service equivalent of equipping firefighters with squirt guns instead of fire hoses.

After that we have a long string of micro-essays. Ludwig Lachmann’s essay is the only entry in the compilation that recognizes the whole idea of “inherited wealth,” even if he (from a rhetorical standpoint, wisely) refuses to discuss it at length in promoting the free market as “socially equitable” and all that jazz. Temba A. Nolutshungu says that “economic wellbeing is a consequence of freedom,” and that capitalism ensures “trade without force or fraud”. . .which is, well, yeah. According to Julie Arunga voluntary exchange is a “natural act” and that a free market somehow off puts monopolies and collusion in society. . .which is, well, also kind of yeah. Drawing upon the framework of noteworthy black person hater David Hume, Vernon Smith says that we have “nothing to fear” from outsourcing, stating that it worked just fine and dandy for textile mills in the southeast in the 1960s (up until the factories were shipped off to Thailand thirty years later, anyway) and that from 1999-2003, that good old “creative destruction” created two million more “service sector” jobs than it destroyed in the United States. Of course, Smith doesn’t say what exactly “constitutes” a service sector job, nor does he state whether or not technically American jobs outsourced to international personnel “counted” in his findings. In defense of multinationalists, he says that for every dollar a Fortune 500 company invests in foreign markets, they typically invest around three dollars in the U.S. market. The thing is, the market of which he speaks consists of the multinationals themselves and not the American public, many of whom have had their jobs (and in some extreme cases, entire career fields) whisked away to Southeast Asia so that their ex-employer can preemptively save a dime or two on forecasted losses.

  A photograph of the elusive Tom G. Palmer. . .who looks so much like that cigarette-smoking dude from The X-Files that it HAS TO MAKE YOU WONDER.

The grand finale for the tome is a reprint of Mario Vargas Llosa’s January 2001 essay “The Culture of Liberty,” and boy, did they ever save the best for last here. To begin with, Llosa wants us to know that we all have the terminology wrong - it’s not globalization, it’s modernism, and we’d all have to be a bunch of buffoons to reject modernity, wouldn’t we? Per Llosa, cultural identity is dangerous, and no form of cultural identity is more dangerous than nationalism, which Llosa says creates a dominant culture which is forcibly imposed upon local ones. “Globalism must be welcomed,” Llosa writes, “because it notably expands the horizon of individual liberty.” But, for all of you traditionalists out there, don’t worry, because according to Llosa, globalism will usher in a grand, new era in which “all that is valuable and worthy of survival in local cultures will find fertile ground in which to bloom. This is something, Llosa states, “we must be happy about.”

I think Llosa’s essay pretty much sums up why libertarianism is at best mendacious and at worst flat out schizophrenic as a philosophy. Let’s count up the contradictions here, shall we?

For starters, Llosa says that national identity is bad because it imposes culture on local populations. However, Llosa doesn’t say a dadgum thing about how local identity imposes culture on individuals within that locality. Speaking of impositions, how many times did Llosa say that we had to embrace globalism? For a philosophy that supposedly espouses human choice, Llosa has no interest in giving us, well, a human choice regarding the matter - alike a “vegetarian” chomping down on a steak and chicken quesadilla, we’re getting a severely mixed message here. Ultimately, my biggest complaint with Llosa’s argument is my biggest complaint about libertarianism in general: just what the hell constitutes “liberty” to begin with? Surely, you are not in favor of complete and utter freedom, but it’s next to impossible to gage the parameters of liberty we’re talking about here. At one point does individual liberty become a negative? Is total and complete liberty, abolishment of any regulation from another human being, the eventual goal of such an ethos? Since we have no control over the economic system we’re born into, doesn’t that make capitalism itself an imposition upon the individual? Surely, we can’t choose which economic system we want to partake of in a given society, so what gives? The libertarian folk seem to want both individual rights and unfettered capitalism, and you don’t need me to tell you that those AREN’T ideologies that go firmly knuckle-through-knuckle. As a result, and “The Morality of Capitalism” demonstrates this to a big, fat “T”, libertarianism is a system that thrives on contradictions and obfuscation through euphemisms, because, hey, that’s the ONLY way this [expletive deleted] racket can get off the ground at all.

A decentralized government? Great, now let’s replace it with centralized industry. Promotion of civil knowledge and understanding? Let’s get started, but first, let’s starve off all of those undesirables in the trailer park and barrios. A better world can be created, but only if “the capitalist elite” are the ones calling all of the shots. Most libertarians think that industry should supplant government as the main overseer of the peoples, and to me, that’s about the most ­absurd thing I can dare fathom, for as much as the government sucks, at least they never went out of business before. All libertarianism is is exchanging a spork for a foon. . .and it’s a way worse foon than the spork we’re currently using.

The last page of the book includes and ordering form for copies of the tome. “This book will give you that power,” it promises would be bulk-purchasers. And then, after yelling and moaning and complaining and bellyaching and raising cane about “wealth redistribution,” you know what the final sentence in the book is?

“Illinois residents, please add 6.5% sales tax.”

If you ever wanted a primer on what libertarianism is all about, that’s pretty much all you need to know about it right there

Just remember: The Morality of Capitalism is cheaper than toilet paper (although nowhere near as readable.)

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post! Love, love it. Witty, hilarious and insightful all at once. Keep it up!