Friday, October 17, 2008

freely cho$en



Markets are called "free"
because actors in them are permitted certain choices--about whether and how to form contracts, what to do with "their" goods, and so forth.

This description of how some of those freedoms tend to actually work themselves out under capitalism is much truncated for the demands of bloggery; hopefully any unclarity can be worked out through discussion. The ideas, even the analogy, are not mine; I'm told they've been liberated mostly from Hegel and Zizek, and they've come to me through the much appreciated vicarious scholarship of my friend Greg.


Let's say I want to become a world class violinist. Given that I have the talent and basic physical abilities:

If I'm a member of the lower class, there are objective material restrictions on my ability to accomplish this. If I live in tar paper shack, sell rubbish for a living, and haul water an hour every day, I think we can all agree that no matter how much I'm willing to sacrifice it is practically impossible for me to succeed.

If I'm a member of the middle class, my success is significantly contingent on my ability to manipulate relationships to my material gain. I can maintain good relationships with family members in hopes that they will pay for lessons; if my boss likes the work I put in at my day job, he's more likely to be understanding of my need for flexibility in hours and travel to competitions. Even my access to the teachers I need may be a matter of presenting myself amicably.

If I'm a member of the upper class, the limits on my ability to accomplish are largely the limits of myself; for the most part, I just have to want it enough.


So, when the upper class says, "you just have to want it enough,"
it is true. . . for them. And they have to believe at some level that it's true for everyone else too.

That's part of why the middle class believes them. . . but the statement transfers well enough into a middle class paradigm anyway; you just have to want it enough to develop the skills, the relationships, the networking. If you want it enough to do those things, you have a very decent shot. Arguably this is why the middle class has such a neurotically selfish mentality; lurking in the background, there's always the possibility that their relationships will fail, and the material reality is that their success is contingent on all those relationships.

This is also why, in the realm of charity, they will speak of doing all they can--of giving all they can--while their house is not filled with the homeless and they spend their tax returns on expensive hobbies. To be middle class is to build a wall around me and mine and allow every relationship to become a commodity; morality is only efficient it in so far as it is less fun than a new boat, or appropriate Christmas presents for your family. . . with whom, of course, you must maintain certain relationships.

It's at the lower class level that reality intervenes; there is a material world, and without material wealth it intervenes in everything, no matter how much you want it. On top of this, the material manifestations of racism, of class culture, and of literal inability to transition to a middle class approach, are omnipresent in day to day life.


To some of us, this does not seem like a system to optimize freedom.

That was all.

9 comments:

Makayla said...

While I don't know enough about how capitalism and socialism ACTUALLY function (as opposed to how they should theoretically function), I glazed through a few websites the other day that explained the two, and came upon something that completely surprised me. I don't know if you're familiar with Ayn Rand, but she's kind of a philosophical descendant of Nietzsche, and she is a supporter of laissez-faire capitalism. She came up with a new moral code for capitalism called "Rational Selfisness," suggesting that she didn't justify capitalism on
the grounds of pure "practicality" (that it is the best wealth-creating system), or the supernatural (that God or religion supports capitalism), or because it benefits the most people, but maintained that it is the only morally valid socio-political system because it allows people to be free to act in their rational self-interest. (explanation is from Wikipedia, as it was the most succinct explanation I could find at the moment - there are other places where her views are discussed as well).

I don't know exactly how I feel about that, mainly because self-interestedness does not often seem like such a great thing. But I thought it was interesting, just the same, especially coming from her.

This post of yours was really interesting too. Good food for thought to start my morning. :)

Day said...

hmn. . .

I don't see how this is remotely the case. Is it not acting in rational self-interest for a very poor person to wish to become a musician? If it is rational self interest for a very poor person to wish to become a musician, how exactly is capitalism supporting that ability to act?

Or, let's suppose for some reason it's in my rational self-interest to become a nun, or to spend my life in non-profit work of some kind. How exactly would a non-market system Not enable me to act in rational self-interest?

As far as I can tell, laissez-faire capitalism supports the freedom of some people to own a lot more material goods than everyone else. . . . and that's about it.

So.. . two points, I guess. First, to be an actor on the "free market" is not nearly the only way to act in rational self-interest.

Secondly, socialism does not exclude the possibility of individuals being actors in "free markets." Suppose, by law, all firms must be owned and controlled with non-transferable voting shares that must be held in direct proportion to number of hours worked? Firms are acting on the market; they compete, and consumers continue to make their choices on the market as well. We've simply eliminated the step where we have a class of the super-rich who make the decisions about everything, and where profit becomes concentrated. . . and we've done this by re-defining what we consider to be the just acquisition of property, which has certainly been done before.

It is worth noting that "free markets" are generally pretty ill defined; virtually everyone wants some degree of regulation, and closer examination of what the ideology of that regulation is generally reveals something about the ideology of those it best serves.

Makayla said...

Well, like I said, I'm not sold on her perspective, I just though it was interesting, coming from Ayn Rand.

Also, it seems to me that there are going to be rich and poor in every type of economic system. I can't think of anywhere in the world where this is not currently the case. Which leads me to believe, once again, that there is a definite gap between theory (of any kind) and practice. I'm not saying that socialism isn't worth trying, or that capitalism shouldn't be critiqued and changed, I'm just wondering how practical it is to expect (based on human nature - which we've discussed at some length now) poverty to be completely wiped out. That would be a great thing, and we SHOULD do all sorts of things to ensure that such is the case... but I don't see that any system has yet been able to do it. Misuse of power, in every case, I guess.

Day said...

I'm not suggesting that poverty or inequality can be completely wiped out.

The argument I made was that capitalism only optimizes a certain kind of freedom, and that there are more meaningful types of freedom I'd rather see optimized.


As for Ayn Rand, I don't see how that idea is atypical for her. Can you explain?

___________________________ said...

Hmm... I must have forgotten to post.

Anyway, right, the issue of freedom falls upon definition.

I think libertarian capitalists tend to argue that definitions other than their definition are too flexible and thus dangerous(which I think was the argument in Isaiah Berlin's essay/speech/whatever on the 2 liberties- positive and negative).

They also might argue that their notion of rights is more fundamental, and argue that other notions are illegitimate by abridging those rights.

I also end up liking Robert Nozick's argument for "utopia" in the last section of his book, as he argues that free association would allow for socialism and other societal set-ups without imposing them on others.

Day said...

interesting-- I have a friend whose reading Nozic right now. I'll have to ask him about that. :)

Can you summarize the rights argument for me?

As far as the other. . . as this post was intended to point out, while property-based notions of freedom may be more clear, they in some respects defy common sense understandings of freedom. . . which should render them less credible, at the very least.

___________________________ said...

If it is Anarchy, State, and Utopia, it would probably be worth asking about.

Well, Isaiah Berlin's argument on positive and negative liberty is to reflect that there are 2 conceptions of liberty. Being free from intervention(negative), and the other being free to do something(positive). The notion of the dangers of the latter is from the fact that having positive liberties means having to curtail negative liberties and mobilize society towards whatever positive liberty that has been now decided as necessary. Berlin was writing in the time of the USSR, so he thought that they were an example of this. Hayek also thought there were examples of this in socialist movements in his book "The Road to Serfdom"(he was not aware of Berlin's distinctions, and I think he wrote before the distinctions)

The libertarian rights argument would basically be a statement of self-ownership of some form. I own myself, therefore I own my labor, therefore I own whatever I mix my labor with. By owning myself, I get to form whatever agreements I want with other people. And so on. Taking my wealth is infringement. Interfering with my contracts is also an infringement. Because of that, most attempts at intervening in capitalism are invalid.

Well, I know that may be so. However, this just goes back to Isaiah Berlin's 2 conceptions of liberty. Positive liberty may be seen as valid to some, however, it is not clearly demarcated, and because it undermines negative liberty, it can be viewed as dangerous. Given that Berlin noted that there were 2 concepts of liberty, and that they conflicted on some level, our native notions of liberty do not have full integrity.

Reclaimed Dasein said...

Nozick's arguments are laughable as are any arguments of "labor mixing". The two presuppositions essential to any libertarian argument entails a fundamental poverty of vision.

First, all our property emerges from a history. Nothing can honestly and legitimately called entitled.The United States government and the entirety of our prosperity is contingent on previous oppression. Until a libertarian deals with the historicity of property through reification, they are nothing more then selfish socialists. We believe in justly acquired goods... starting... now... wait, let's have you bail out our banking system... starting now...

The only way to property distribute these goods would be through massive redistribution of wealth that would almost certainly entail a huge state. Otherwise, they're just engaging in the most duplicitous of philosophical games to justify their universal plunder.

These leads to the second point. The system is not neutral. There is no reason to think given the nature of language, society, force, violence, history, politics, economics, or anything else that we have the radical individuality libertarians need to presuppose to make their arguments coherent. Moreover, their arguments to radically "free" individuals serve to reinforce the already existing violence within the system.

For one to take a libertarian seriously, one should demand they answer how they will ensure the proper distribution of goods.

___________________________ said...

Nozick explicitly appealed to Locke. Most of the book was on other topics.

Actually, I think Nozick recognized that all property emerges from a past, and that injustices existed. A major issue that he noted is that there is no way of determining the impact of the past, especially extended over a long period of time.

To say that all of American wealth is due to oppression seems completely wrong by a libertarian notion of just acquisition. To say it is all right also seems wrong. However, to say that this makes the notion the same as socialism is also completely wrong.

The fact that you point to the bank bailout is really just a sign of your *lack* of knowledge, as most libertarians have at most been skeptical and often have considered the bill to be garbage.

No, the real issue is that there is not a proper way to perfectly satisfy justice, not that they need a massive redistributionary state at all. Also, who doesn't engage in duplicitous philosophical games? I think you are engaging in a duplicitous game, and one far worse than Nozick.

What is neutral? If you listen to a Christian presuppositionalist, then nothing is neutral, and the only thing that can rationally be accepted is God's authority. So, the issue of non-neutrality needs to be developed more. To be honest, I think that radical individuality is just a good starting point given that subjective experience and subjective valuation are necessities of the human experience, and I would argue that notions of society and governing power usually end up being ones of arbitrary lines more so.

It sounds to me that you just don't want to take people seriously. People that have a well-developed, internally consistent grand-scale idea are a rarity, and usually on some detail, you will see some sloppiness. Even those who analyze the workings of existing systems are sloppy on the actual functioning.