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Yosemite Bound

Happy Thanksgiving.

November 23, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Uncle Miltie

As usual, I'm woefully late to comment on "current events" - nearly all of my meditations here are untimely.

Although, in a pinch, I'll still describe my political sympathies as lowercase-l-libertarianism, these days I prefer more obscure descriptors such as "Ordo Liberalism" or Liberalisme Triste. Like many "libertarians," I harbor a wish to reclaim the august mantle of "Liberalism" from its modern expropriators - the statocrats and securitarians - who besmirch that noble name with the advocacy of a markedly illiberal political and economic program.

I join libertarian orthodoxy in some of my negative assessment of Milton Friedman - both qua economist and philosopher. Notably, I differed with Uncle Miltie over, for example, his repudiation of the Gold Standard and the privatization of roads, and his enthusiasm for "flexible exchange rates" (not to mention the  whole "monetarism" can of worms).

Nevertheless, in addition to being a vigorous and powerful voice on behalf of Economic Liberty - or, in deference to Anatole France, the "right to be allowed to starve" -  Friedman earned my esteem both for his vigorous opposition to the "War on Drugs" (including a critical open letter addressed to William Bennett) and his key role in ending conscription in this country. He aimed to embrace the dimensions of liberty consistently.

Although Uncle Miltie often engaged in controversies and polemics that took him outside of his area of expertise as a technical economist (and did so with self-awareness of such a shift in categories), perhaps the following criticism of "economism" might apply to him in the end as well; it certainly does to many of the economist-heroes of libertarian orthodoxy.

"... Whenever the current concepts of right conduct are disturbed, the social harmony in in danger ... and it happens almost inevitably in a rapidly developing society, in which new functions and new ways of life are continually coming into being.

"... Once the complexity of the problem is grasped, the functional disorders which in fact occur in a developing society seem less matter for surprise than the high degree of adjustment secured it by a hidden automatism; the admiration felt by the men of the nineteenth century for self-regulating mechanisms is understandable ... [but] these mechanisms are much misconceived ...[T]here lies the mistake, in thinking that the whole problem in its entirety falls within the province of the economists.

"What makes it possible for political economy to be a science at all is that it looks on social life, and all the activities, relationships, and satisfactions of human beings, as the regular flow of one and the same energy: sometimes - as in the case of labour - active, sometimes - as in the case of wealth - potential. But the very feature which makes a science of it makes it incapable of explaining the whole of social reality, or even of taking account of all the phenomena which occur within its proper sphere. It reveals the reasons for which local savings are diverted from accounts into vast central reservoirs from which they are distributed nationally and even internationally; but it is no part of its business to stress the fact that the manipulators of th savings are now not the same set of men, and that the old and the new types are quite different, in nothing more unlike than in their respective concepts of right conduct. It justifies the money market as a useful piece of regulative machinery, but is not concerned to know what temperaments it attracts and what characters it develops. It is a valuable science, but one grafted on to a false psychology, which regards the race of men as a physical mass pin-pointed in place and acted upon only by the mechanical force of self-interest.

"Hence it is that the point of view of the economist is the worst of all for discerning social disharmonies: these must react on quantitative adaptations before they receive his attention. That is what in the end happened. Disturbance in the sphere of economic functions appeared as a sort of tertiary ague compelling attention to a social disease which had been long in progress."

De Jouvenel, On Power: The Natural History of Its Growth, pp. 408 - 410

November 22, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

The Plebiscitary Regime

Friend and foil Roger wrote to encourage me to comment on the recent elections. I'll call to my assistance two trenchant thinkers to commemorate our acquisition of new Masters.

'As it is a feature of democracies that to all appearance the people does almost exactly what it wishes, men have supposed that democratic governments where the abiding-place of liberty: they confused the power of the people with the liberty of the people.'

- Montesquieu, Esprit des Lois, Book XI, chap ii.

'When, as happens in democracies, the representative assembly becomes the repository of Power, the appetite for command impels members to group themselves in permanent factions, thereby sacrificing something of their own personalities to the effective cohesion of the group in its quest for victory.

'The forthcoming elections are no longer regarded as held with the object of bringing to the assembly an accession of fresh talent but rather of strengthening or weakening the various groups to which all belong. Anxious to strengthen itself, the group makes its presence felt in the electoral body, from which it asks that it choose a man who stands in the name of the group in preference to a man with distinguished personal qualifications. "In voting for a man as such, you are abandoning your sovereignty to him," is the way in which it is put to the electors - and it is true. "Vote rather for an opinion; that is to say in practice for a man of whose merits, like himself, you are necessarily ignorant, but who is the standard bearer of an opinion. In this way you will be exercising your sovereignty, and will be impressing on the government the way in which it is to go."  Through the prestige of its leaders and the popularity of its principles the group brings victory to its candidates, whom it has chosen less for their personal worth than for their pledge of their obedience to itself; moreover, they will be the more faithful to their party from the inability to make their way without it.

'The first result of this is a degradation of the assembly, which no longer draws its recruits from the best men. A man must now be ready to rely on the support of the controller of his group's votes and to let his name be boosted for election by his whip. He must be ready to become a mere numerical, and not a qualitative, addition to the assembly.

'Another result is the debasement of the elector's position. He is now regarded only for the weight which he can throw into one or the other of the scales.  By hook or by crook the vote of which he disposes must be got from him. When the Reform Act of 1832 had widened the franchise, the chief preoccupation of the two English parties was to get put on the register the electors whose support each believed itself to have won, and to fetch them in carriages on polling day, for fear that otherwise they would omit to record their vote. The spectacle was not so much that of people proudly exercising their rights as citizens, as of two factions touting in every way open to them for the votes which could confer Power.'

De Jouvenel, On Power, XIV: Totalitarian Democracy

November 12, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack