Irving, TX. The Front Porch Republic has been graced by two contributions from Mark Mitchell and Caleb Stegall on the political agenda for front-porchers. And while one may quibble with this or that point, no one here, I think, will disagree with the overall purpose and intent, and everybody will find—as I have found—much that is useful and practical.
However, there is a question that ought to be asked when dealing with political reform, and it is this: “Why do we have the kind of government that we have?” One might be tempted to answer that there is some defect in the American character, some structural fault line in the political order, or some lacuna in the constitution. However, when we look across the oceans at the Europeans or the Japanese, we find basically the same concentrations of political power among peoples of different character, politics of a different order, and constitutions of a different type. Hence, the answer cannot be found there.
The answer I think is more basic: we have the kind of government we have because we have the kind of economic system we have. So long as there is a concentration of economic power, there will be a concentration of political power; the one depends on the other. One might talk of European or Japanese “socialism,” but in fact the differences between our governments are differences of degree rather than of kind. Hence I believe that when one talks of political reform, one must at least be conscious of the need for economic reform. Even is power were suddenly devolved back to the states and the cities, you would have business entities with far more power than any one, or any combination, of these political entities, and the situation might be at best the same. At worst, the political order would be even more crippled in relation to the economic order. My own modest contribution to the question of economic reform can be found here.
Speaking of political reform apart from economic reform implicitly endorses the fracturing of “Political economy” into its political and economic components, a split that occurred in the late 19th century. This unfortunate split deprived politics of its economic base, and economics of its political and moral foundations; both sciences were thereby impoverished and rendered incapable of dealing fully with their own subject matters.
But at this point, we come to a great problem for conservatives, for while there is a general consensus on political goals (a consensus somewhat weakened by “neo-conservatism”) there is no consensus on the economic goals. In fact, we see incompatible economic philosophies thrown together in an alliance that is at best uneasy. This has been a long standing problem for conservatism, at least since the 50’s when William Buckley and Frank Chodorov tried to unite the warring factions under the banner of The National Review. There was a tension between the various contributors that gave TNR a great deal of its intellectual depth. However, while the journal helped unite the factions politically, it could never reach an resolution on economic goals. It is interesting to note here that one of the long-standing conservative institutions, The Intercollegiate Studies Institute, was originally called the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists. However, Russell Kirk objected to that name, and it was changed. Kirk was a personality, but certainly not an individualist.
On the economic side of the equation, the major conservative “contenders” are distributism, mutualist libertarianism, and Austrian libertarianism. Some of these debates have been played out in the pages of FPR and have generated heated discussions, which is good. But until some broad economic consensus can be reached, conservatism will have a schizophrenic character about it.
So then, what should be the agenda of The Front Porch Republic? Perhaps the first order of business should be to restore the position of political economy, to speak of the two as a unified entity (which they always are). The questions are now critical and immediate in a way they have not been since 1929. I am convinced that Obama will fail, although it gives me no pleasure to say that. And with his failure, there will be a failure of the Republic itself, a Republic that long ago ceased to be a republic and become a mere oligarchy, both politically and economically. That oligarchy is falling, killed by its own greed and lust for power. Our question is, “What comes next?” In the last crack-up, we were able to avoid widespread revolution, violence, and bloodshed, and to keep the nation together, albeit on a very different course. We are at a similar time, and face similar questions.
Maybe the nation fails. Then what?
We will still have Hell’s Angels, Mormons, Amish, Indian tribes, militia, bloods, crips and families–some large and powerful.
I doubt Exxon, Coca Cola and Microsoft will be able to maintain a lot of power
John. You are right to point out that power flows from possession of money and property as well as government but also that unless checked this power will flow at the local as well as the national level. Contributors to FPR don’t talk much about this latter fact. This is perhaps understandable in the land of the American Dream. Particularly here in the “New World” the commoditization of nature has been perceived as a free lunch without the realization that nature had kick back not just from a sustainability viewpoint but also as a splitter, or class divider, of human society. Even Thomas Jefferson and John Adams despite studying Native American governance seemed unable to figure this out. Now commoditization has turned into “hot” money that sloshes around the world looking for yet more free lunches irrespective of the further damage it does to the subservient classes and environments of countries. The direction of this money is by an oligarchy, or Socialism of the Rich, who loudly shout that only if the making of money is separated from government interference all will be well. Staring them in the face is the stark reality of the governments of East Asia, especially China, who have successfully used government to both plan their economies and mitigate the flows of abusive “hot” money. Now these countries are dictating America’s future. The Neoliberal market fundamentalists have been greedy fools!
It now behoves the contributors of FPR to understand the necessity of working on two things; that subsidiarity means clearly identifying the necessary functions of central government especially in an age of globalization, and secondly, identifying which of the political system “contenders” John names has a workable theory of democracy that will check the power flowing from disproportionate ownership of money and property and enable a consequent redistribution of economic and political power that will heal this broken society.
With all due respect, Mr. Médaille, I believe you’ve missed something pretty significant about the economic philosophical climate around here. It seems to me that rather than a dispute between competing contemporary liberal concepts of economics, which largely assume a significant degree of centralization, the real dispute seems to me to be along the lines of the one between Jefferson and Hamilton.
Jefferson, a confirmed physiocrat, believed with Quesnay that all economic productivity came from agriculture. While he recognized some limited need for manufacturing, he considered it a necessary evil at best and was entirely content to leave the actual manufacturing to Europe, advocating a nation of citizen farmers. Furthermore, he largely believed the aristocratic ideal that virtue comes only with moral independence, and that moral independence requires economic independence. Given his thoughts on the origins of economic productivity, it was only natural that he would want everyone to be a farmer.
Hamilton, on the other hand, was more or less an acolyte of Adam Smith. He actually wrote a lengthy commentary on The Wealth of Nations, which has unfortunately been lost to history. But given his other writings, Hamilton seems to have agreed with Smith, who made the following assessment:
[T]he understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging, and unless very particular pains have been taken to render him otherwise, he is equally incapable of defending his country in war. The uniformity of his stationary life naturally corrupts the courage of his mind, and makes him regard with abhorrence the irregular, uncertain, and adventurous life of a soldier. It corrupts even the activity of his body, and renders him incapable of exerting his strength with vigour and perseverance in any other employment than that to which he has been bred. His dexterity at his own particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expense of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues. But in every improved and civilised society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it.
It is otherwise in the barbarous societies, as they are commonly called, of hunters, of shepherds, and even of husbandmen in that rude state of husbandry which precedes the improvement of manufactures and the extension of foreign commerce. In such societies the varied occupations of every man oblige every man to exert his capacity and to invent expedients for removing difficulties which are continually occurring. Invention is kept alive, and the mind is not suffered to fall into that drowsy stupidity which, in a civilised society, seems to benumb the understanding of almost all the inferior ranks of people. In those barbarous societies, as they are called, every man, it has already been observed, is a warrior. Every man, too, is in some measure a statesman, and can form a tolerable judgment concerning the interest of the society and the conduct of those who govern it. How far their chiefs are good judges in peace, or good leaders in war, is obvious to the observation of almost every single man among them. In such a society, indeed, no man can well acquire that improved and refined understanding which a few men sometimes possess in a more civilised state. Though in a rude society there is a good deal of variety in the occupations of every individual, there is not a great deal in those of the whole society. Every man does, or is capable of doing, almost every thing which any other man does, or is capable of doing. Every man has a considerable degree of knowledge, ingenuity, and invention: but scarce any man has a great degree. The degree, however, which is commonly possessed, is generally sufficient for conducting the whole simple business of the society. In a civilised state, on the contrary, though there is little variety in the occupations of the greater part of individuals, there is an almost infinite variety in those of the whole society. These varied occupations present an almost infinite variety of objects to the contemplation of those few, who, being attached to no particular occupation themselves, have leisure and inclination to examine the occupations of other people. The contemplation of so great a variety of objects necessarily exercises their minds in endless comparisons and combinations, and renders their understandings, in an extraordinary degree, both acute and comprehensive. Unless those few, however, happen to be placed in some very particular situations, their great abilities, though honourable to themselves, may contribute very little to the good government or happiness of their society. Notwithstanding the great abilities of those few, all the nobler parts of the human character may be, in a great measure, obliterated and extinguished in the great body of the people.
And this from the man who is widely regarded as the father of modern capitalism! That little gem is tucked away in the last book of Wealth. Most people read the happy parts in Books I-II, talking about the benefits to be had from division of labor. Smith wasn’t stupid: he put all the good parts in the beginning, hoping that people would get tired of reading before they get to the nasty parts at the end. If that was in fact his goal, it’s worked. Smith recognized the benefits of modern economic structures as well as the costs discussed above, but he viewed the enormous increase in material wealth to be worth the costs he identified. He urged, among other things, the creation of a public school system to mitigate some of those costs. A free-market libertarian the man was not. He’s pretty clear about that. Essentially, he puts it this way: “You want a modern society that can move beyond subsistence agriculture? Okay, this is what it’s going to look like, and it ain’t pretty. The only way to avoid these costs will be pretty substantial government undertakings. But on balance, it’ll be worth it.”
What I constantly see around here is people arguing that Smith was wrong, and that the cost hasn’t been worth it. Arguments against centralization and for agrarianism are essentially arguments against Smith and for Quesnay. This is frustrating to me, not just because I tend to side with Smith, and not just because Quesnay’s math is even worse than Smith’s, but because that choice has already been made. Western society has gone with Smith, for good or ill. Sounding off about the wonders of options no longer available to us does no one any good. We live in a modern state, and getting rid of it will be unimaginably costly, and that cost will not be limited to relative degrees of material comfort. The butcher’s bill will be atrocious, not only because a population of our size cannot exist without modern economic infrastructure, but because the vast majority of the population–myself included–doesn’t know the first thing about how to survive without it if it came to that.
Mr. Médaille, you and others may be able to accept that without batting an eye, but I can’t. I won’t. Any answer to the question “What comes next?” which fails to treat the prospect of a billion deaths with gravity is one which I contend cannot be taken seriously. Thus, the question which is most important to me, and which seems to receive precious little attention around here, is how to have a society of front porches given the realities that we face without simply writing off hundreds of millions if not billions of lives.
To bring this back on point, if you wish, as I would agree that you should, to resurrect “political economy”–which after all was originally considered a sub-discipline of ethics, not the sciences–these are the kinds of questions you have to ask. You can’t talk about tweaking the political system without economic consequences, and given the current state of affairs, those consequences are pretty stark. It’s like trying to do repairs on an engine that’s cranking 10k RPM. You’re likely to lose a finger or three, and the odds of burning down the building far outweigh the odds of any improvements. Changes may need to be made–I’d argue that they’re necessary and long overdue–but I’ve no illusions that this is going to be pleasant or that I or anyone can predict the likely outcome.
Gah. Curse the lack of preview!
Some mod want to fix my links?
This economic issue is truly the question of the moment. Thank you for laying it out so clearly and elegantly. We can go our merry way talking about states’ rights, etc., but the multinationals are just going to eat us for lunch.
Ryan is spot on about the population mathematics. That ship has sailed. A medieval farming culture is out of reach. Efforts in that direction would probably result, not so much in massive depopulation, but in people who are even more powerless and more indentured to the global financial system.
However, I think that FPR does, as a whole, recoil from Smith’s conclusion that “the nobler parts of the human character may be, in a great measure, obliterated and extinguished in the great body of the people”. We must believe that we are capable of governing ourselves, politically and economically, in a way that is humane and befitting to our abilities of rationality and industry. That would make our front porches much more enjoyable.
The argument as I see it is the undemocratic effects of monopolization of economic power. For example, at the local level the way we lead our lives is increasingly dictated by monopolization coming from afar. However, it is not so much an issue of scale I believe but a matter of who controls the behemoth. A supermarket co-operatively owned by local people offers less of a threat than one owned by some distant undemocratic conglomerate but whether it is there, or not, within a community must be decided politically as well as economically. The market fundamentalists loudly preach that denying the power of money is denying freedom but they never stop to think that its merely denying the freedom of a few in order to give the rest of us a say.
It frustrates me too that everybody rushes to bad mouth government particularly Federal government without appearing to understand its relationship to supporting capitalism and its role in mitigating the abuses of capitalism. Subsidiarity properly understood, however, attempts to ensure that decisions concerning both political and economic power are taken at the appropriate level, be it central or local, with a bias towards the local since embedding power within a community usually, but not always, makes change easier and faster.
Ryan, I am delighted to read your comments because they are exactly the same points I make in my book The Vocation of Business. I also quote the same passage. The first quote, by the way, is from the second edition of the Wealth of Nations, where Smith seems to have second thoughts about the whole division of labor thing.
There is, alas, an elaborate “Smythology” in the reading of Smith’s work. He gets praised for opinions he never held and attacked for things he never said. It may be his fate to be the most widely cited and least actually read of all the modern philosophers.
I would correct one point, however. The choice is not between Smith and Quesnay because Smith thought of himself as a follower of Quesnay. He thought he was merely transcribing the Physiocrats into English. Of the Physiocrats he said,
“This system, however, with all its imperfections is, perhaps, the nearest approximation to the truth that has yet been published upon the subject of political œconomy, and is upon that account well worth the consideration of every man who wishes to examine with attention the principles of that very important science. Though in representing the labour which is employed upon land as the only productive labour, the notions which it inculcates are perhaps too narrow and confined; yet in representing the wealth of nations as consisting, not in the unconsumable riches of money, but in the consumable goods annually reproduced by the labour of the society, and in representing perfect liberty as the only effectual expedient for rendering this annual reproduction the greatest possible, its doctrine seems to be in every respect as just as it is generous and liberal.” (IV.9.38)
The point is easy to miss since Smith, as a true Scotsman, he writes dozens of chapters on what he doesn’t like and only one on what he does (I’ll catch hell for that remark from the kilted members of the Front Porch community). But the real choice is not therefore between Smith and Quesnay, but between Smith and Mandeville. The later is the true father of modern economics, and all texts since have merely been a commentary on The Fable of the Bees: Private Vices, Publick Benefits.
It’s a bit strange for me because I generally agree with about 95% of what’s written here, including this, and yet do not at all consider myself to be a political conservative. Of course, I’ve also heard many of the same arguments made by writers identified as “post left anarchists”, so perhaps the labels are irrelevant. But the general sense that cultural, economic, and political power must devolve away from the state and large corporations and towards small, voluntary, collective, non-hierarchical, local communities before we can start talking about real democracy doesn’t really strike me as “conservative” or “liberal”. Am I way off base on that?
Without proposing to address every aspect of Ryan’s Smithian critique, I’d like to pose, as succinctly as possible, the politico-economic dilemma that confronts conservatism: given the concentrations of economic power, infinitely convertible into political and social power, made possible by capitalism – specifically in its limited-liability, and now, financialized forms – there is no choice, if conservative social forms – and with them conservative traditions – are to be preserved, save that between dismantling much of actually-existing capitalism and embracing some form of social democracy.
Conservatives are loathe to concede the latter, for the historical experience of social democracy has, at a minimum, coincided with an accelerating decrepitude of traditional society, and, at most, facilitated that decomposition. Conservatives are also loathe to embrace the former, for a variety of reasons, ranging from commitments to Progress, tacit and explicit (which is to say, an adulterated conservatism best regarded as a modality of liberalism), to stark terror of the alleged consequences of regressing from modernity. There is, however, no prospect of evading the dilemma, of muddling through and feigning to break the horns of the thing by, for example, nattering on about tax cuts and starving the beast, to name but two of the distractions which have enervated the conservative movement for generations. It is the sheerest utopianism to imagine that the structures and accoutrements of social democracy, such of them as we now have, can be swept away, leaving the vast structures of capitalism, now globalized, intact and hegemonic over the entirety of man’s social existence. If nothing else, the historical example of early British capitalism, which conjoined increasingly ‘free’ markets with primitive accumulation and nugatory social welfare provisions, should demonstrate the dubiousness of the proposition; given, moreover, the reality of representative politics, however degraded in their mass-democratic forms, it would be impossible to dismantle social democracy, or to maintain its absence, could it ever be accomplished by a determined faction. The dynamic is not an ethical or spiritual one, as though benighted parasites cling irrationally and spitefully to social democracy, dragging down their betters out of ressentiment. No, the dynamic is structural, at deep levels of psychology and history, and even human nature. Capitalism had its origins in the attempt to have done with traditional society, and not simply particular traditional societies as they existed in early modern Europe, but with the very concept of traditional society, in which markets were socially-embedded, conditioned and constrained and regulated by all manner of social and legal customs, all of which afforded ordinary men a sheltering bulwark against the remorseless logic of the cash nexus, of what classical political economy defined as the value of labour (bare subsistence as the cost of reproduction): you are worth only so much as you can contribute to exchange valuations. And this is the rub for conservatism: you cannot thus deconstruct, and ultimately extirpate, the last vestiges of this social contextualization of the market, and leave the people utterly uncompensated for the loss. Not only will fundamental human psychology bid them to rebel against it, for mankind did not evolve as the homo oeconomicus presupposed by classical economics, nor did mankind evolve in social environments based on the maximization of exchange values, but, if you permit them the franchise, they will move speedily to establish compensatory structures for the loss of traditional society – as they have throughout the world, except where constrained by authoritarian governance, often in the form of military juntas. Hence, if you would have contemporary capitalism bereft of a structural counterbalance in the form of social democracy – as in some Latin American nations – you must exercise repression; this is the reason for the periodic flirtations of libertarianism with Hobbesian and other seemingly illiberal modes of political philosophy: authority shall repress the masses in the name of the divine rights of Capital, which now assumes the significance, in theory, that the divine rights of kings once possessed.
Conservatives must reckon with the reality that they cannot combine capitalism (Progress), representative governance (republicanism), and resistance to social democracy. The presence of the former two, given human nature in some of its nobler aspects, will get you the latter. If conservatives, therefore, would be rid of the latter, they must sacrifice either of the former two, instantiating either an authoritarian liberalism (Pinochet’s Chile) or some hypothetical ‘third way’.
This is not, again, an attempt to address the question of resource utilization and the provisioning of the population under an hypothetical ‘third way’; it’s merely an argument that conservatism cannot continue to dither in the netherworld between Progress and Tradition: dithering is de facto commitment to Progress.
I guess that wasn’t so succinct.
Glad to find that we’re in agreement.
I am aware that Smith is essentially a subset of physiocrat, but I’d draw a distinction between Smith and Quesnay in that while Quesnay seems to have believed that agriculture was the only source of wealth in an economy, Smith included manufacturing as well, as suggested by the passage you quote above. That’s a pretty significant departure, and was one of the main debates between Jefferson and Hamilton at the close of the eighteenth century.
I’d also point out that Quesnay seems to have viewed any and all growth as unhealthy. “Consumption,” which we now use as a term unencumbered by any value judgment, was introduced by Quesnay to describe a “diseased” economy. Quesnay borrowed the term from medicine, where it was used to describe tuberculosis. But even in the passage you quote, we see Smith using the term neutrally or even positively.
Smith, on the whole, seems pretty comfortable with the idea that the economy can produce a surplus of goods over an extended period of time, leading to an increase in material wealth. Whereas Quesnay believed the proper function of political economy was to reproduce existing conditions indefinitely, Smith believed that political economy could be used to turn backward nations into powerhouses of wealth. Indeed, he was largely motivated out of a desire to do exactly this for his native Scotland.
Finally, I’m not sure we really need “choose” between Smith and Mandeville. If anything, Smith demonstrates how the Enlightenment transformed medieval vices into modern virtues. What for Mandeville was the vice of greed, for Smith was the virtue of self-interest. I’d follow Hirschman’s analysis there: while the characterization of motivations changes, the nature of the motivations being characterized does not.
All that being said though, would you agree with my assertion that much of the discussion on FPR seems to be aimed at rejecting Smith’s insights, arguing that he got the calculus wrong?
It’s doubtful that Adam Smith really made the connection that the accumulation of capital was in power terms the equivalent of garnering substantially more votes than the usual one person-one vote of political democracy although he would have been aware of wealth purchasing Rotten Boroughs (Much the same I think as wealth purchasing the Senate and House of Representatives in this country). Nevertheless, he would be quite amazed, I think, to witness how a relatively small number of individuals on Wall Street could come close to crashing the world’s economy. I believe John’s main point for FPR is the importance of re-connecting political power with economic power to achieve a real democracy and not the current fake one we are saddled with. Here is a British conservative, Phillip Blond, doing the same by preaching a new form of conservatism modeled around distributism:-
Bruce Smith, though you’re right in that Smith was unlikely to have perceived the toxic effect of concentration of wealth on representative democracy, he could not have been unaware of the effects of the concentration of wealth as such. The UK didn’t even have universal male suffrage until the twentieth century, for crying out loud. The vast majority of the land in eighteenth-century Britain was owned by a tiny minority of the population. So while you’re right in that he probably hadn’t really thought of the potential effects of money and monied interests on democratic governments, he does seem to have assumed that monied interests would be running the show.
Clearly with regard to Adam Smith there is a missing book “Morality and the Wealth of Nations.” in which he might have combined his views on ethics and economics in such a way that the dysfunction generating dangers of capital accumulation were spelt out unambiguously, how the Invisible Hand masks this and what the role of government should be to mitigate the dangers. As it stands Adam Smith seems to get used by all manner of people of different political persuasions to justify their ideology. He is well past his sell-by-date!
Suffrage in the UK during the 18th century was confined to male property owners and on a one person-one vote.
Rufus. The left-anarchists, or mutualists, if I understand the term, are more or less pre-Austrian libertarians, more in the mold of Proudhon, or Hodgkins, or Tucker. There is an excellent body of work from the mutualists, particularly Kevin Carson, whose research informs a lot of my work. The Austrians never did socialism any damage that I could see, but they sure changed the nature of libertarianism. I find much to admire with the mutualists, even though there are anarchists and I am a monarchist. So I am not in the least surprised to find you on the Porch. Come on in anytime.
Ryan, Smith still gave priority to agriculture in the Wealth of Nations, he just credits more to manufacturing than Quesnay did, and frankly the Big Q was not altogether coherent on that point. As for self-interest, it really doesn’t mean in Smith what it means in Mandeville or in the writers who followed Smith. For Smith, it was just the Butcher looking after his own business, the basis of a sensible commercial life. This Smith clearly distinguished “private interests” of the merchants, who could not meet (Smith tells us) even for social reasons without it resulting in “a conspiracy against the public or some contrivance to raise prices.”
Bruce, Smith did have a moral view of the market, and it cries out throughout the WON. He had no “invisible hand” mysticism; the phrase appears but once in the book, and that to refer to foreign trade. He was merely stating that no public bureaucracy was needed to insure a favorable balance of trade, as the Mercantilists claimed; it would manage itself. He was a bit naive on that score, but the statement has been generalized to all trade in a way Smith really didn’t do himself.
Smith’s moral problem lay elsewhere. He had a good grasp of distributive and commutative justice, but he separated them into two incompatible theories. The former was handled by the Labor Theory of Value, while the later by utility. The whole of 19th century economics is nothing but a battle between these two theories. Marginal utility is supposed to solve both problems by using utility itself to drive prices to the costs of production, which all reduce to labor (if you ignore economic rent.) But the theory only functions in a frictionless free market where any commodity is supplied by a vast number of firms, a situation that describes no important sector of any advanced economy.
Smith did understand the problem of property, and comments on it in bitter tones. But he was dependent on the propertied class, and was himself no revolutionary. At the beginning of his career, he thought it didn’t matter (In the Theory of Moral Sentiments, for example) but he definitely changed his mind on that.
Maximos, accept no “hypothetical third ways,” for first or second ways, for that matter. Abstract systems are a dime a dozen, and armchair theorizing is a fool’s game. If it is not on the ground and working, it likely won’t work. Austrianism has no examples, the communist examples are all disasters, and capitalism has never worked apart from gov’t intervention on an increasingly massive scale.
I advocate a “third way” I can see. I can see in in Mondragon, in Emilia Romagna, in Taiwan, and in thousands of employee owned enterprises. I can see it producing great wealth over long periods of time and varied economic conditions. Without this test no theory of human actions can have any validity.
“Do not believe me,” I tell my students, “and do not believe the pope. Believe what you can see, in mundane matters at least. But keep your eyes open so you can really see things. No theory without practice, no practice without practical examples. Test everything, hold fast to what is good.”
I keep coming back to this site because of discussions like this.
fails to treat the prospect of a billion deaths with gravity is one which I contend cannot be taken seriously.
This is my great concern re: a nation of small farmers. Now let me say right off – I hate the way agriculture is managed in this country today. I grieve everytime another small farm in my area hits the dust and gets covered with those wretched faux chateaus. I hate the way our food is produced and what it is doing to us.
But there is a reality we ignore – that the population we sustain – 300 million – has been made possible by modern agriculture which in turn has been made possible by the availability of cheap oil. I believe that now our farmers feed 5 families per acre, 3 families here in the US and 2 families outside the US. A return to small farms will reduce our yields. So not only will people in the US starve, but given how dependent people all over the world are on food we produce, people in other countries will starve. A solution which ignores this dooms as you say billions to starvation. It is no solution.
It is great to see suggestions on how we might change – but those suggestions must take into account the complexity of the systems which assure our survival. A solution must include a bridge which gets us from here to there without killing off millions of our fellow citizens (even if we don’t like what they name their kids).
Porchers, to be sure…. are hardly monolithic in their thinking nor are they, as has been asserted “anti-Smith”. If I were to attempt boiling down the sentiment…to a degree a fools errand…. I would say that it is not a function of Capitalism vs. Socialism or Smith vs. Quesnay/ Mandeville or agrarians vs. industrialists (these are all interesting discussions but they should not be armed camps) but one of a wide variety of people who find the centralized consumer society we have busily slouched into to be a perversion. After all , we cannot effectively target the various “isms” of this dark-comic age because the manic dysfunctions of the current system have elevated Irony to the status of a deity. Attack something whose outward display is wanting and you will likely arrive at a point that is worse than what you think it is you are assailing. The Institutional Globalist Bait and Switch has carried the Field.
Consumer society and its paradise of service jobs has created a white collar serfdom ably controlled by both our public education system of leveling and tidy conceits…the cult of easy answers and a half hour time horizon..as well as Fiat Money and Debt in thrall to the gluttonous “growth economy “. It is not so much the innate abuses of capitalism that have brought us to this day as it is the seemingly innate ability of the people to disenfranchise themselves from their responsibilities under a Republic , insuring that the language of free exchange is perverted in the manner it has been.
Boiling further, one need perhaps look simply at the changes in the top tax rate since Eisenhower and how we think we can now run a government that gleans an Eisenhower tax rate at the current tax rate. Though a formidable protagonist, the Chinese are hardly our masters, their economy is still a fraction of ours and even though they could plunge us into a deep hole by abandoning the dollar, this would simply plunge them backwards as well…it is a Faustian Bargain for Oriental and Occidental Strivers. We also think it is our job to solve the ills of the rest of the world , largely because they inhabit the resources and potential markets of the Corporate Masters of the vaunted Consumer society. The real absence of cause and effect that has habituated the American to a life of service serfdom and idle pursuits may have been aided and abetted by a form of capitalism but it is not to capitalism alone we can ascribe it to. Rather, it is a kind of pidgen capitalism, a perversion of the language of transaction that we can ascribe it to. Property ownership, stewardship, the simple clarity of a quid pro quo transaction along with certain other wealth building and spreading aspects of capitalism remain as firm as they have always been . We have simply become rubes and ham-handed in it and surrendered both personal productivity and local awareness. We let economics become profoundly uneconomic and the fiat money, reserve currency status has been roundly abused for short term purposes and the interests of the War Party….a bi-partisan, international cabal.
Perhaps monolithiphobia is as good a description as anything of the Porcher mentality. Like the Checks and Balances of the lapsed-Republic, we may need a variety of forces to counter-balance one another and function within a system of subsidiarity that matches mode with landscape. But we will need citizens to do this, not factotums. The goal is civilization and so a tad more civitas is required.
Above all, it is the compulsion to define one’s opponent through demonization , the neo-conservatives favorite pastime…. that occupies way too much of our time, mine included. At times, I read Smith with wonder and agreement and at times I read Jefferson or Tocqueville with similar respect. At other times, I read the Marquis de Sade or even Marx and react with alarm that I have been muttering what they say . This does not make me a Marxist nor a Smither nor a Jeffersonian, it makes me an American, in the modern age and aware that it is the present we are missing in our constant gaze at two poles we yearn for: the past and the future. One we can do something about but only if we observe the other closely. However, we will never discern that ineffable thing called the present….and do it well…until we stop the various demonizations that are, more and more, simply in service to the Moloch Irony ruling our aggressive lives. Ive met truth and false in a substantially mis-spent life that is treasured still but the older I get, the more it becomes apparent that about the time someone says they have the exclusive license on truth and do it with the greatest vigor, I know false is about to come in and lay down the law.
Heres to a messy porch…….but a bit more clarity of mind, a mind tempered by humility and humor…that thing which beyond all, seems most lost to this frustrated triumphalist known as the Red White and Blue American. We talk City on a Hill but pave the approach roads with a macadam of nihilism.
I think the difficulty I have with Adam Smith is that he doesn’t seem to be able to make up his mind about fairness in society including the market place. On the one hand he expresses repeated mistrust of business people and seems to commiserate with the workers, then you come across the following statement:-
“The rich only select from the heap what is most precious and agreeable. They consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ, be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species. When Providence divided the earth among a few lordly masters, it neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been left out in the partition. These last too enjoy their share of all that it produces. In what constitutes the real happiness of human life, they are in no respect inferior to those who would seem so much above them. In ease of body and peace of mind, all the different ranks of life are nearly upon a level, and the beggar, who suns himself by the side of the highway, possesses that security which kings are fighting for.”
The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Part IV.I.10. Of the Effect of Utility upon the Sentiment of Approbation.
It almost seems as though Adam Smith was wrapped up in some sort of cocoon and perhaps he was as an academic. You wonder whether he was aware of all the historical struggles ordinary people were involved in before and during his lifetime, not least perhaps the resistance to enclosure that was taking place throughout the eighteenth century and obtained the first notoriety in Scotland a year after Smith’s birth with the Galloway Levellers. Anyway here is a list of those struggles based around land which was the primary focus of production up until the Industrial Revolution:-
These struggles continue to this day but to land has been added capital as an issue of focus. We could say that the issue of political suffrage has been largely settled but has not proved to be the panacea the workers believed it to be in relieving economic injustice. It is now obvious, in the light of the Financial Crash (precipitated by the capital rich Rich) and the experience of universal male followed by female suffrage over the last two centuries, that political suffrage without economic suffrage will not create fairness. The arguments in FPR and the interest in distributism reflect that growing awareness if not to the point of seeing concisely that economic suffrage has to be the next big push.
Bruce, the TMS is much earlier than the Wealth of Nations. This is what I meant when I said that Smith’s views on the matter changed, not only between TMS and WON, but between the first and later editions of WON.
He knew more about property than he let on. His few statement in WON are bitter and sardonic. Such as(quoting from memory, and therefore not precisely) “Government is establish to protect those who have some property against those who have none; that is, to protect the rich against the poor.” And “But when all the land of a nation becomes owned, then landlords, seeking to reap where they never sowed, demand a rent even for the natural produce of the land.”
Re: the supposed low-yield of alternatives to industrial agriculture–
Sustainable Agriculture FAQ
pb, you just aren’t getting it. Every single one of the suggestions in the page you linked has to do with sustainable agriculture, not small-scale agriculture. I’m all for reforming the techniques we use in farming, and would strongly support a return to crop rotation as a replacement for the wasteful and environmentally toxic methods used today. But we’re still talking about industrial farms, where a handful of people work hundreds or thousands of acres.
Just because the new techniques are more sustainable doesn’t mean that they’re any less industrialized. It’s just smarter industry.
John. I’m sure you are right that Adam Smith’s views changed as he grew older but I’m taking my cue from Wikipedia which tells me that he continuously revised “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” right up to his death. See the section on the book:-
This story of revision up to his death is a quote from Robert L. Heilbroner’s book “The Essential Adam Smith.” Of course, Adam Smith may have accidentally missed revising the section I quoted but given the opening sentence of his book I do not understand why:-
” How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”
This is the Strong Reciprocity of Bowles and Gintis and the Reverse Dominance of Boehm. I guess Adam Smith will remain an enigma for me.
Ryan Davidson —
Truly sustainable agriculture refers to methods is opposed to industrial agriculture, which is heavily dependent upon cheap oil, and this dependency is not sustainable. It must be small scale as a result.
I’ll grant that the link I provided may not be a very good one, but there are other websites that talk about what sustainable agriculture is, vis-a-vis the problem of oil.
It was one thing for me to state that I see Adam Smith as something of an enigma. It’s another thing for me to leave such an enigma unresolved. After further thinking I now realize that Adam Smith at the time simply didn’t have the conceptual tools, or knowledge, to think through two of his opposing ideas and integrate, or link them up very clearly. His first idea was the Invisible Hand theory by which he saw self-concern, or opportunism, as the main motor that helped human beings meet their needs. The second was other-concern, or cooperation, which he sensed helped moderate that self-concern, or opportunism. This article by David Sloan Wilson in the Huffington Post best explains what I mean:-
In short, the phrase “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance,” often attributed to Thomas Jefferson, could be re-phrased as “The price of a free-market is eternal vigilance.” Clearly, America has been taken over by a Mutant Disorder in the last thirty years, introduced mainly but not entirely by the Republican Party, and which we can best describe as Libertarianism, or unregulated opportunism. These thirty years have witnessed epic battles between the Opportunists and the Co-operators which is only now starting to be seen for what it is after the Opportunists came close to destroying America’s economy. It remains to be seen whether sufficient American people wake up to the fact they have been taken over by a mutant ideology and decide to act to eradicate it.
John On the economic side of the equation, the major conservative “contenders” are distributism, mutualist libertarianism, and Austrian libertarianism. is a good start for a debate, simplified thusly
an economy of shared sharing,
an economy of shared owning,
an economy of property owning?
Before I can begin to pick this apart, please give us your definition of ‘property’ and ‘sharing’ (in positive law aka lex humana) being an avowed pragmatist I don’t want to bog you down with the minutae of metaphysics and athropocentricisms of natural law.
and Bruce The direction of this money is by an oligarchy, or Socialism of the Rich, who loudly shout that only if the making of money is separated from government interference all will be well whence do you arrive at “direction” of money and “making” of same? Coins and other fiduciary media of legal tender ought be subject to simple laws of physics, no? That’s why we have weights-n-measures buraucrats, right? What use scolding a Publican in a tavern for tampering with his liquor glasses when the coin used to pay for their contents is not subject to the same scrutiny?
seconding Ryan: Is it might makes right or right makes might? Does Maximos espouse a top-down artitrary empiricism or a subjective subsidiarity from below? Voluntas is a prerequisite for libertas/caritas. A third term has since crept in: capitalism, also much in need of definition — for the Austrians define it logically, whereas the shared-owning types get a little confused, with fractional reserve banking and FIAT legal tender dictates messing with the conceptual frameworks (ie houses of made of straw and sticks, not bricks) and breach of contract a privilege of the public authorities tasked with defending the law of contracts! The crash was not “precipitated by the capital rich Rich” but by the financial sector usurping YOUR capital, YOUR savings in the public and private pension funds they manage! They don’t “own” the money in all those accounts. They don’t “own” the dollar in your pocket or cash register that has lost 90% of its purchasing power since the Fed was charged as lender of last resort. Its your capital that crashed, buyer beware! The notion that money can simple retain value by being baby-sat by fat cats is hilarious. Cash is nothing more than another good to be exchanged in the market, it facilitates the trade of things your have for things you want. Its value is derived from the immutability or incorruptability as a mobile and divisible store of worth. The green sheets of paper we currently use have no such value, they are underwritten merely by the government’s creditors good will (the Chinese and other foreign potentates, in other words).
Does man have free will (Smith didn’t think so nor did Marx, but I’m with Mica’s affirming inherent dignity, most dictionaries include the female productive definition of parturition as labour rather than the male reductionist agrarian cost factor)?
Or is man/woman merely obligated to submit to an arbitrary reductionism of the hive a la Islamic Sharia or literally, as is the case of Chinese one-child policy? Without adequate laws protecting property rights, what prevents the encroachment of the Front Porch by “sharers” of a different stripe?
Postscript. Marginal utility does not require “vast numbers of firms” or “examples on the ground” for its not an abstraction, its a law of human action. Denying prudential judgement is like someone denying the validity of the perfectly common sense notion that “parents raise their kids” because the interlocutor has no evidence of social structures dedicated to teaching “parenting.” Nonsense – we don’t need such academies because that skill occurs spontaneously in the normal course of social exchange.
Note: “normal” is what is at stake here – an ontology or anthropology of what sustains a good individual. We cannot exercise a just society without a model for the perfect man (we Christians know we have it in the Logos of the Eternal Word, others may only wish to concede the tenets of natural law contained in the Decalog: lying, stealing, adulterating, coveting, killing, and denying we’re not self-created or owe respect to those who came before us, are all incompatible with human flourishing, ie iniquitous conduct unbecoming a Front Porcher)
Informative podcast on policy driven drop in purchasing power of dollar here:
Our economy is out of our control so long as the currency is out of our control!
A lot of confusions in this post and thread…despite the good stuff about population and Sabin’s sound porch-summarizing…I’d advise (any of ya) against concluding you’ve got the economy all sussed out, and I’d advise against ever using the word “oligarchy” except for shorthand needs. The term almost never helps us understand what we’re dealing with.
Predictions of the imminent collapse of the U.S.A. usually aren’t a good sign of intellectual health, either.
So that’s my advice–as to the whole debate about how much to base our understanding of society/politics on political economy, that is a more serious can of worms, but suffice it to say I have a lot of reservations about how Mr. Medaille wants to proceed. We certainly should not think that “we have the kind of government we have because we have the kind of economic system we have.”
Clare, I liked your talk of the anthropology we need–I think you really would love Chantal Delsol’s books, who talks about this quite a bit, especially in Unlearned Lessons of the 20th Century.
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