Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Road to Serfdom: Part 4

Hayek's wide-ranging critique of collectivism is difficult to summarize. Much of his argument is based on his observations on human nature, especially our individual and collective capacity to both compete and cooperate. The basic problem with collectivism is our infinite capacity to identify ourselves (as individuals) with groups. As Hayek and most social psychologists note, group indentification leads to "in-group out-group bias," or the tendency to cooperate with other members of our group, and compete with outsiders. When we compete with outsiders we tend to dehumanize them and therefore justify coercive force based on their non-human status. Of course, not all forms of out-group behavior ends up violent. As a rule, the losers of Kentucky v. Tennessee basketball games rarely dehumanize the victors and violence is rare. However, other forms of competition are typically less civil. Worldwide, intra-group competition often leads to coercive violence. Think competition between competing: nations, religious groups, ethnic groups, tribal groups, racial groups, and gender groups. Hence, the rise of group-based partiality: nationalism, religious fanaticism, ethno-centrism, tribalism, racism, and sexism. The difference between being a Kentucky Basketball fan and a white male, is that I cannot exit from the brotherhood of white males, unless I change my genetic code. Thus, barring skin grafts and a sex change operation, whether I like it or not, I'm a white male. Although, I'm an American, I am not a "flag waving" patriot! At the moment, those "flag wavers" tolerate me, but I can imagine a time when that toleration may wear thin. The most likely scenario would be during wartime. Fortunately, recent wars in Irag and Afghanistan have not produced a plurality of flag wavers so I'm still safe. However, another catastrophic 911 event might change all that.

Hayek observes that fear tends to increase the number of flag wavers, and that Philosopher Kings (controllers) have a vested interest in perpetuating that fear via the use of propaganda. As nation states cultivate nationalism via public education, or at least undermine the development of the critical skills of students, we invariably find ourselves in a perpetual state of emergency. Unfortunately, its not just Americans that are bombarded with emergency propaganda (war on terror, war on drugs, war on disease etc.). Every other in-group on earth (nations, religions, ethnic groups, etc.) are all equally suject to in-group/out-group bias.

So what are the prospects for world peace? There are two possibilities: we can all rally behind one Philosopher King and form one single group, called humanity. But what are the prospects for uniting the world without an out-group to rally against? Or we can return to the Enlightenment vision of individualism that makes group identity voluntary. It will be tough! We'll have to overcome our natural inclination to identify with non-voluntary groups and we'll have to be intelligent enough to stop demonizing everyone that looks, thinks, or acts in ways that contradict what our own Philosopher Kings tell us. Hayek defends that second option. World peace is unlikely no matter what, but individualism and commercial society offers a more likely strategy than in-group/out-group bias. What do you think?

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Road to Serfdom: Part 3

Socialism relies heavily on central planners; that is "Philosopher-Kings" that allegedly know what's "Good" for the whole community. The longstanding assumption that underlies all communitarian philosophy is that empowered "experts" are better suited to decide what's good for us as individuals. In short, socialism is inexorably paternalistic. One of Hayek's main arguments against socialism is that, in the real world, Philosopher-Kings are not impartial, but tend to distribute social goods based are group favoritism and cronyism. Let's sort this out.

Socialism is based on the notion that political organization must be based on groups: Plato (leaders, military, populace), Marx (Bourgeosie, Proletariats) etc. Philosopher-Kings are empowered to eliminate competition by serving as the master-distributer. Why does this lead us down "the Road to Serfdom?" Well, the basic problem is that human beings have an infinite capacity for group membership. I am a member of many different groups: white males, college professors, faculty member at MSJ, band member, AARP member, etc. Now what happens when there is a central planner? Well, suppose that central planner decides to build a new football stadium for UC. How would other colleges in the region respond? Hayek says "envy!" We'd probably want a new dorm. So how does this allegedly "unbiased" central planner proceed? Well, he'd (it would be a guy, right?) probably aim at equality. Thus if UC get's $12 million, so does every other college. Suppose the zoo asks for more money, what does the Freedom Center ask for? Union Terminal? Get the idea...?

Now let's get down to it. What kind of person would want to be a Philosopher-King? Well, Plato got it right! Anyone with a high-degree of intelligence would NOT want to be a Philosopher-King. If you're not willing to force intelligent persons to serve as Philosopher-Kings, what kinds of persons will volunteer for the job? Will they be intelligent? Would they be unbiased? Let's look at what's going on today. Congress has already "bailed out" several large Wall Street banks, an enormous insurance company, and two "American" automobile companies. How about "cash for clunkers?" Tax breaks for "Green Corporations." Tax breaks for first-time home owners? Note the cascading effect that Hayek predicted. And of course, when Philosopher-Kings pay for these favors, where does the money come from? You would think that it comes from taxpayers, but taxpayers also are a group that lobby the Philosopher-Kings. One recent group that lobby against increased taxation are called "Tea-Partiers." So right now, the money for these schemes comes from loans from China, which someone must pay back someday? Who will that be? The rich? The poor? The middle-class? The elderly? Corporations? Small businesses? White people? Black people? Native Americans? How about future generations? That's my guess! Why because future generations do not yet exist and therefore do not have well-funded lobbyists.

What does all of this say about the prospects for group-based equality? My fourth and final blog on Hayek will explore Hayek's defense of individualism as an alternative to collectivism and speculate on the prospects for world peace.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Road to Serfdom: Part 2

Social and political philosophy is often couched in the language of "isms;" that is, highly idealised conceptual frameworks. These polarized idealizations never exist in the "real world," but they usually represent broad sociopolitical tendencies. In short, societies tend to "lean" one way or another. F.A. Hayek's, The Road to Serfdom identifies two of these "isms:" individualism and collectivism. His basic argument is that eighteenth-century individualism (John Locke, Adam Smith) led to dramatic increases in the quality of life in the Western world; and that nineteenth-century collectivism has led to equally dramatic decreases in that quality of life. Hence, the book's title: The Road to Serfdom. Hayek argues that social and political philosophy is a matter of choice, we are not predestined toward one or the other: philosophical ideas matter! In the United States today, the Democratic Party leans toward collectivism and the Republican Party leans toward individualism, however neither party seem to be very cognizant of the philosophical bases that Hayek identifies. So let's sketch in the broad drift of these two polar "isms."

Individualism argues that personal liberty, individual planning, free market competition, and democratic political institutions are essential for the realization of the "Good Life." Moreover, individualism argues that the relatively unfettered pursuit of self interest by individuals contributes leads to the social good. In other words, society as a whole benefits when individuals are allowed to plan their own lives (pursue their own self-interest) by forging voluntary contracts with others. We all pursue what we believe is "good" for us as individuals. We can best realize these personal individual ends (get a good job) by means of voluntary cooperation with others (paying tuition at the College of Mount St. Joseph). No one forced you come to MSJ. If the college fails to meet your expectations you can choose to take your tuition money and go to another college. If over time, enough students decide to go to another college, MSJ will go bankrupt. However, if we meet student expectations, we'll not only survive but also drive our competitors out of business. (Look out UC, Xavier, Miami, Thomas More, and NKU!) When we earn that monopoly, we cannot sit back and enjoy that enviable position, because our current or future competitors will copy what we did to earn that monopoly. Thus, over the long run competition leads to higher quality education at a lower cost. Not that government had little to do with it. The only thing the free market really needs is to enforce contracts, and monitor and enforce laws against theft and fraud.

Collectivism argues that the free market generates inequalities that cannot be overcome. That's because all markets are subject to business cycles that, by their very nature, wax and wane. Of course, those who own the means of production survive by cutting back on labor costs: buying machines to replace works, making workers work longer hours for less money etc. At the bottom of the business cycle, competition does not work because there are more workers than jobs and therefore dissatified workers are easily replaced. Thus, when workers find themselves at the bottom of one of these cycles, they become alienated from themselves, their family, and their work. They lack economic security. Collectivism, therefore seeks to spread out this risk by using the coercive power of government to plan national and global economies. Collective planners are experts that replace the free market mechanism with a collective system that insures the well being of everyone. Typical collectivist mechanisms include social welfare, unemployment insurance, socialized medicine, centalized banking, and public education. When government control is complete we call it totalitarianism. Under totalitarian collectivist regimes private property, private institutions, and individual planning are replaced by public property, public institutions, and collective planning. Therefore, under a totalitarian regime the College of Mount St. Joseph would be taken over by government's central planners. At that point, all colleges would be controlled by government and you would have no choice of which college you want to attend. My guess is that if MSJ were to continue as a public institution, planners would keep its health care programs and scrap all the other programs. There would be no competition between programs because they'll all be the same. Central planners would decide what is taught, who teaches, how much they get paid, and which students get admitted. Of course, UC would be converted to a football college that trains men to play football. But it would be very boring to watch because the teams wouldn't be allowed to keep score.

My next blog will discuss what Hayek says about the nature of leadership and followership under individualism and collectivism.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Road to Serfdom: Part 1

My philosophy class has been finishing up the semester by reading F.A. Hayek's classic work, The Road to Serfdom. Admittedly, its not often assigned in introduction to philosophy courses. Philosophers will forgive me, given that we also read: Plato's Republic; Machiavelli's, The Prince; Marx's Communist Manefesto; and Skinner's, Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Throughout the course I emphasized three major relational themes: the nature of human knowledge and it's relationship to politics, the relationship between leaders and followers, and relationship between social groupings and individuals. I thought I'd devote the next two blog entries to Hayek as a social and political philosopher.

Before we get started, it is important to note that Hayek acknowledges that human beings are individuals that live in communities organized via leadership and followership. We usually organize communities via dominance hierarchies, ruled by Alpha Males. He also acknowledges that we are emotional beings driven by fear, and that much of our communal life is aimed at securing our individual lives from the forces that provoke those fears. The central question for social and political philosophy is to what degree we ought to empower government to provide that security? There are two closely related forms of security: physical security (fear of physical pain, suffering, and death: think terrorism) and economic security (fear from deprivation of material sustenance: think food, clothing, shelter). Hayek also distinguishes between two public policy options the pursuit of limited security and the pursuit of absolute security. The Road to Serfdom is a long argument against the socialist (Marxist) idea that the public policy goal must be the pursuit of absolute economic security, but his arguments apply equally to physical security. His arguments ultimately hinge on his views on the nature of cooperation.

We humans cooperate with one another either by choice or by coercion. Socialists argue that absolute economic security can be provided via large scale cooperation masterminded by a governmentally empowered "central planner." Central planning is by it's very nature coercive, in so far as it requires taking from some individuals and giving to other individual (usually via taxation). Therefore the basic question for social and political philosophy is what can we reasonably expect out of central planning in terms of providing economic and physical security? What kinds human activities, if any, ought to be centrally controlled by government, and what kinds of activities ought to be left to individual planning via non-coercive cooperation and competition?

Recall from my earlier blogs that some libertarians are anarchists. Hayek is not an anarchist, but a minarchist that recognizes that government must play role in human affairs. In fact, anarcho-libertarians often criticise Hayek for suggesting that government ought to provide a basic security "safety net" for citizens. Exactly what this net includes is left unclear. (Think hurricane relief, basic retirement, and basic health care.) What is clear, is that the goal of providing this safety net must be limited security and NOT absolute security. Why? Because when central governments pursue absolute security, the cost is an inevitable loss of individual planning. Why is this the case?

Well it has to do with the fact that human beings, by nature, plan for the future as both individuals and as communities. Now, what exactly is individual planning? In the economic realm its about buying and selling products and services; that is, engaging in cooperative, self-interested, voluntary exchanges with other humans in a free market. In the end, voluntary exchange is inexorably both competitive and cooperative: buyers compete with sellers, sellers compete with other sellers, buyers compete with other buyers etc. Thus individual planning in a capitalist society is moderated by supply and demand. But it's not necessarily "dog eat dog" competition. Buyers and sellers can also cooperate with each other via the formation of corporations, unions, and other non-governmental organizations. (Hint: Walmart, American Medical Association, and the Red Cross)

What is collective planning? Collective planning is when a central authority (a leader) plans for the well being of the whole community. "One size fits all!" In the political realm, this can only be accomplished by employing the coercive power of government to take money from one constituency and give it to another. (Remember Robin Hood?) Hence, the central planner(s) decide "who gets what and when." Collective planning entails replacing (or at least modifying) the act of "buying and selling." So what kinds of goods and services ought to be provided via by free market voluntary exchange and what ought to be provided by government? Military, Police and Fire Departments, Health Care, Retirement? If you believe that government ought to provide most of our economic security, you are a collectivist and a socialist. If you believe all of our needs and wants ought to be centrally distributed by government you are a totalitarian. If you believe most of our material sustence ought to be left to individual voluntary exchange within a free market, you are a individualist and a capitalist. If you believe that government ought to leave everything to the free market with no input from government, you are an anarchist.

In my next blog, I'll explore some of Hayek's specific arguments against collectivism, socialism, and central planning.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Paternalism and the Rise of Risk-Averse Culture

So far I've suggested that paternalistic intervention is an other-regarding act performed on behalf of a beneficiary (or beneficiaries) by a benefactor. By definition it requires the violation of the liberty of that beneficiary in order to provide that benefit. Therefore, paternalism requires the application varying degrees of coercive force; usually in the form the imposition of a physical or economic threat. If the beneficiary voluntarily agrees to submit to the intervention without threat, it is NOT paternalistic, and interventions that merely entice beneficiaries (via rewards) without threatening a harms are NOT paternalistic. The case for paternalism is strongest when the benefactor seeks the removal of a harm. Harm is relative to individual and collective risk hierarchies. Irrationality, therefore, is relative to individual and collective risk hierarchies. And finally, paternalistic interventions either advance the interests of the beneficiary or they do not. Many interventions are either unsafe or ineffective, therefore, paternalism has an empirical component. An intervention that does not, in fact, provide a benefit (a positive cost-benefit ratio)is, strictly speaking, not paternalistic.

Authoritarian regimes are more prone to violate the liberty of citizens under the guise of paternalistic intervention. Indeed, citizens often become so acclimated to governmental authority that they willingly submit to governmental management of their personal risk-taking. Now, what happens when government uses its coercive power to define acceptable and unacceptable risk-taking? What are the social implications? Well, the first thing that happens is that minor risks are transformed into major risks and the range of acceptable risk-taking behavior narrows. Second, citizens begin to expect government to protect them from more and more low level risks, and over the long run, society become increasingly risk-averse. Admittedly, that is an empirical observation. Does it hold water? As a 58 year old libertarian, my observation is that the United States has become increasingly risk-averse. The most obvious examples are: increasingly strict drug laws, laws against smoking, laws against the use of transfats in restaurants, seat belts, child seats, helmet laws (I never wore a helmet when I rode my bike as a child). How about laws require that the organizers of large public gatherings take out liability insurance? Increasingly intrusive airport surveilance under the guise of protecting us from terrorists? Of course, in each of these cases we must ask the hard empirical question: "Do these interventions REALLY make us safer" Is government "better" at managing risk than I am? I don't know about you, but I'm willing to match my risk-taking acumen against government's any time. Then, pour me another beer, pass me the butter, and light me up a joint.