Tuesday, December 29, 2009

And Another Thing

I wrote the following couple of paragraphs in a comment thread about the prospects for a split in the Democratic Party:

"I don't think the issue is capitalism versus anti-capitalism so much as democracy versus oligarchy. While the New Democrats and the Old Republicans disagree as to whether experts or billionaires should be in charge, they agree that the history of the last couple of hundred years has taught us that government by consent of the governed is a childish idea on a par with the fantasies such as legal equality. A certain faction of the Democratic Party base disagrees about all this and actually believes that, for example, if the majority of the country is in favor of having a public option or not invading Afghanistan, their wishes should mean something. For that matter, these feckless idealists believe that government agents should not be allowed to get away with torturing people. Imagine that!

Snark aside, I just don't encounter very many people who are interested in nationalizing the toilet paper factories. What I do hear are voices that oppose the current organization of American business, not because the corporations are private but because they are politically powerful and deeply irresponsible, even to their erstwhile owners. Like feudal barons, the corporations have taken over part of the sovereignty of the state—they even maintain their own courts. The perceived problem is at root more political than straightforwardly economic. Is this our country or theirs?"

I would ask for unanimous consent to revise and extend my remarks, except that the Talmud of ifs, ands, and buts I would ideally like to append to this tiny Torah would run to at least as many volumes as the Short History of Human Vanity. Nevertheless, a few additional thoughts:

1. A serious critique of how American society is organized would have to look as hard at the NGOs as at the for-profit corporations. The mentality and often enough the salaries of top bureaucrats are comparable to those of private CEOs. Anyhow, the term “corporatism” is too unspecific to capture the essence of the current conjuncture.

2. Property rights are not natural facts but historical constructions, and the proof of their artificiality is that they have obviously changed dramatically over the two and third centuries of our national existence. In particular, one form of property, the modern corporation, was a 19th Century invention like the cotton gin. The point of insisting on the social construction of property is not, as Conservatives always assume, to badmouth property rights in general. Indeed what bothers me about corporations is the way in which they weaken one of the great advantages of private property by disassociating ownership and responsibility. Nobody washes a rented car, and no stockholder or executive gives a damn what happens to General Motors after he sells out or retires. Limited liability may be a good thing insofar as it promotes the flow of capital to productive uses and yet a bad thing insofar as it serves as an all purpose mechanism for dumping externalities on the public. The point is not to restore some sort of Jeffersonian utopia of yeomen farmers holding forty acres in fee simple, but to work towards new legal forms that restore some accountability in a knowledge economy.

3. The usual complaint about Democracy is that the people are too ignorant to make meaningful decisions, but the irony is this notion is trotted out most often in connection with issues like war and peace or social equity where the public often turns out to be wiser than the self-appointed wise men. Where the public really is wretchedly informed, for example, on issues like global warming or the true state of the American health care system, it’s vox populi, vox dei. I have a different perspective. I don’t think there is anything sacred about democracy—as ought to be obvious, I don’t think there is anything sacred at all—and I certainly don’t believe that the majority is always right or should have unlimited sway; but my reading of history has led me to conclusion that societies are both more stable and more dynamic when they are responsive to the wishes and interests of their members and do the many things that are necessary to ensure that the People are something different and better than a mob. Where the leading classes don’t recognize—and fear—the authority of the population, they won’t be zealous in looking after their interests either. They may make populist appeals for strategic or tactical reasons and they will certainly continue to repeat the usual pieties, but they will inevitably end up favoring the interests of themselves and their class.

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