I have been remiss. Ive been writing this blog for three and a half years now, and I think Ive mentioned twice, in passing, the guy whos guided my thinking more than any single other person on the internet. That would be Mark Rosenfelder, or Zompist as he calls himself online. He has a blog, which youll see on my sidebar, but thats mostly about computer games. The essays on his website Zompist.com are much more interesting. A large part of it is devoted to a fantasy world hes created, which may or may not be your thing its more detailed by now than Middle-Earth. But Rosenfelder is also a sophisticated political thinker, and thats where this blog post starts.
Recently Rosenfelder posted a piece called The Morality of Liberalism. Its a follow-up to one from four years ago, simply titled Liberalism which goes to show that Rosenfelder writes like me. (I will finish the Imponderable series some day...) Liberalism was mainly about why the political philosophy of Franklin Roosevelt and his successors was pragmatically better than the one which has prevailed since Ronald Reagans presidency; the recent essay is about why its also morally better. I can find very little to disagree with, and hence write about, in either one. Im just about reduced to nitpicking side details like this:
Some researchers claim that liberals arent motivated by feelings of moral disgust, but I disagree. Liberals think incidents like these are disgusting. Racism is viscerally wrong, its unacceptable, and it needs to stop.
I take this to be a reference to Jonathan Haidt, who doesnt actually say that liberals, as people, arent motivated by disgust. The moral instinct is cross-wired with the disgust response; thats a feature of most human brains, liberal or conservative. What Haidt says is that liberal moral philosophy doesnt begin with disgust. Things like racism are disgusting because they are immoral, but nothing is immoral because it is disgusting.
Haidt contrasts this with the conservative stance (which Rosenfelder himself attributes to a fear of modernity) that most sexual practices are immoral not because they harm anybody but because they somehow contaminate some undefinable thing called purity. For reasons I do not understand, human sexuality, like morality, is cross-wired with disgust. Likewise, many conservatives oppose immigration and ethnic diversity not because there is anything objectively wrong with Them Over There but because, I dont know, cultures are like wet paint and if you mix the colours up you lose them, or something.
But, like I said, side detail. The real reason I sat down to write this was because of a political-studies lecture I take notes for on Thursdays. The course is titled Global Political Economy, and the lecturer substantially agrees with what Rosenfelder says in the two Liberalism essays. The third quarter of the twentieth century was an era of increasing equality and rapid economic growth, with the market held in check by regulation, and tax-funded social benefits keeping things safe for humans. And then from the Reagan era onward we saw the return of market utopianism and the dismantlement of the welfare state, with a consequent ballooning of inequality and poverty.
The main difference between them? Rosenfelder uses the word liberal for the Rooseveltian welfare state. Our lecturer uses it for the Reaganite market-utopians.
I read a lot of internet political commentary in one form or another. Most of it these days is from my general region of the political spectrum, so that I dont lie awake all night coming up with counter-arguments. I can cope with the heat that political debates generate when theyre about substantive issues. What gets my goat is when people get into capslock-matches over nothing but words. Rosenfelder and this lecturer are both thoughtful people, who wouldnt be taken in by that. But I can just see two people, one a POLS student at Otago and one a Rosenfelder fan, getting into a rancorous quarrel over liberalism without ever noticing that theyre on the same side.
Like more of my philosophy than I care to admit, I learned this principle from Rosenfelder himself:
A correspondent tried to define libertarianism at me the other day. Naturally, I didnt stand for that nonsense.
People love to work out definitions, as if this told them something about the world. In Understanding Comics, to use a neutral example, Scott McCloud defines comics as juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence blah blah blah. Its nice to say what youre going to talk about, but it would have been simpler and no less accurate just to enumerate: Im going to talk about comics, but I wont be talking about single images or animated cartoons.
He borrows this method from academics, who love to begin by defining their subject. Generally youd might as well skip to Chapter Two, where theyll forget about their own definition and start to actually talk about things.
When it comes to political terms, definitions are little more than propaganda. Libertarians like to talk about freedom with a very idiosyncratic definition of freedom such that if you cant leave your house because the roads are privatized and you cant get a job because the employers dont care to offer a living wage, you are enjoying absolute freedom. If you accept this, they can then paint their opponents as enemies of freedom.
Anyone can play this game; for instance, I can define liberals as people who are for prosperity, liberty, and justice. Naturally, then, anyone whos not a liberal is for poverty, slavery, and oppression.
Our perceptions are not determined by our language (contrary to postmodernist claims), but we do use language to decide how to categorize the world, sometimes even when it clashes with reality. An example: apparently, wherever in the world a Medical School and a Dental School share a building, the corridor joining them is colloquially known as the Time-Tunnel the dental students are about a century behind. Dentists just dont get the respect, nor the funding, that doctors do. Now, by any rational standard, if an optometrist is an eye doctor then a dentist is a mouth doctor. But we dont call dentists doctors; we speak of doctors and dentists. That contentless verbal distinction has consigned at least four generations to needless lifelong oral health problems.
So when Rosenfelder heads a section of his essay Capitalism is . . . OK I guess, thats when I have to write a response instead of simply posting a link to him on Facebook. Because I know I have a mild allergy to the word capitalism, which I share with my sociopolitical tribe. I have to be very careful, when arguing about capitalism, to be sure Im responding to the substance and not merely to a label. Under this heading Rosenfelder goes on to say
Corporations will put filth in your food, defraud you, poison the environment, and avoid paying a living wage if they can get away with it. Capitalism needs activist consumers, workers willing to organize, a nosy media, and a strong government to make it work for the population as a whole...
If you have some radical ideas besides throw out everything . . . Im not necessarily against them, and I might even be convinced. My personal bugbear is the CEO system: I think weve kept monarchical rule in corporations long after realizing that its a terrible system for governments.
If youre wondering how someone could put all that under the heading Capitalism is OK, Rosenfelder points out that
Other folks, of course, think that capitalism is evil. But you know, working alternatives are hard to come by. Premodern societies were miserable for everyone except the elite. Fascism and communism were disasters... Anarchism is at best untried, and at worst seems completely unprepared to handle human violence and oppression.
The system Rosenfelder favours would run on private property and open markets, and thus meets the minimum diagnostic criteria for capitalism as used by our POLS lecturer. But if we ditch monarchical rule in corporations were looking at an arrangement where the working class controls the means of production, which is the diagnostic criterion for socialism. (Obviously you cant have working-class control applied via the state and also private property and open markets, but not everyone who identifies as socialist favours the state as the instrument of working-class control.) What if firms trading in the open market were privately owned and democratically run by worker-shareholders? Is that capitalist or socialist? Or both?