Thursday, September 9, 2010

Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences - Chapter 7 - More Equal Than Others

So far we have established that liberalism, as well as almost all modern political and economic theories which support government interference with economic and social processes, depend, either explicitly or implicitly upon three basic propositions. Those propositions are (1) that man is basically incompetent to manage his own affairs, (2) that there is a single right choice for a given decision1, and (3) there exist a group of elites who, through some means, can discern these correct answers, unlike the rest of humanity. We have spent some time discussing the first two propositions, as well as a the corollary belief that man cannot learn from his mistakes effectively, but we have yet to touch upon the third.

The third proposition, that there is an insightful minority, capable of finding the correct answers2, is essential to the theoretical foundation of liberalism as a political theory. That may not sound significant, as I have argued that all three propositions are essential to liberalism, but there is a small difference. While the other two establish the environment required for liberalism, creating the problems that liberal, and other authoritarian, approaches are intended to solve, this proposition is somewhat different. It is necessary for any solution to be possible.

Let us look at it this way. If we accept the first two propositions only, they are adequate to destroy the foundation upon which the free market rests. Incompetent individuals unable to find the singular right answer cannot be entrusted with a free market, as the results will be disastrous. However, for us to propose a solution, to form a government to allow them to enjoy a better existence, we need to find a means to reach those right decisions which the average man cannot find. If there is no way for us to determine such answers, then there really is no justification for giving government additional power. Yes, if we allow the first two propositions man cannot be trusted to run his own life, but without the third government will do not better, and so it makes no difference whether the state or individual runs things.

It is only when we postulate some form of elite, which has some means of obtaining information or insight unavailable to the common man3, that the necessity of granting government additional power becomes obvious4. Once we have some individuals who can find the answers others cannot, it becomes possible to formulate a government which can produce results superior to individual action. And, at that point, the arguments in favor of liberalism,or in favor of any intervention, start to make sense, as the elite are now capable of saving individuals from their own mistakes.

And that is why I say this element of the theory is essential for the theory as a political philosophy. All of the elements are necessary for a general philosophy, even for an economic philosophy, but in as much as political philosophy is characterized by normative statements, by plans for action5, this thesis is necessary, as without this elite, or one of the alternatives, the liberal demands for greater power, for the right to control various aspects of the economy, or even private life, seem nothing more than the greed of power hungry politicians. Only by postulating an elite, and supposing such an elite will be given control, do these demands for power become something altruistic, rather than the power hunger of a dictator6.

But that only serves to establish how essential this proposition is. What is the proposition? What does it mean in practice? What are the implications of this theory? How does it relate to the other two? And what evidence exists for or against such a belief?

The basic proposition, though very rarely stated explicitly (for reasons which should be obvious) is that, while the average man is unable to competently run his affairs, there exists an elite which is capable of knowing, not just for themselves, but for everyone else, what the correct course of action is7. Sometimes this takes the form of technocratic assertions, that experts can, through their technical training, and perhaps some personal insight, establish the rationally optimal solutions, and so should be placed in charge. In other cases it takes the form of being able to tap into some non-rational source of illumination. Depending on the orientation of the theory, this can be related to class consciousness, as in Marxism and its class driven identities, or it can arise from one's racial identity, as in many nationalist theories.

For the most part, just as the elite are not explicitly mentioned, neither is an explicit explanation offered. As democratic governments tend to have an aversion to elitism, explicit or implicit8, making it a dangerous proposition to base an appeal upon the public's faith in an elite's capabilities. And so, instead, the public is made to feel as if they were somehow part of the elite themselves.And so we have the absurdity of political speeches, made to the masses, calling them an educated minority who must care for the ignorant masses, who somehow are not any part of the audience. Only in a democracy could 50% be a tiny elite of enlightened souls, while the other 50% contains a massive, benighted majority, as well as the sinister forces holding them down, the sincere political opposition, and probably a few groups more.

And yet that is what we have. A completely dishonest appeal to arrogance. A group which considers itself an enlightened minority, speaking to a group it considers the unenlightened masses, and yet pretending to them that they too are part of the elite, and the masses are made up of some other people, somewhere else, ill defined, but clearly not present in the audience. it is absurd, and yet no one ever notices the absurdity9.

But that is not my point here, the absurdity of the argument. Instead we are trying to discover the nature of the argument, and its implications. So, rather than dwell on the public statements, and their absurdity, let us try to discern what the liberals' true thoughts are about this elite, what is truly present in their minds, as shown by their actions, and their more theoretical and abstract writing and discussions, rather than the dissembling they do when making political speeches.

The most basic premise upon which this theory is founded is not in dispute. It is clear to everyone that humans differ in their general intellectual capacity, as well as their specific knowledge, and their ability to apply that knowledge to specific problems.  Given a specific type of problem, or a specific body of knowledge, there will be those more and those less capable of understanding that information, and those who can better apply that knowledge usefully. We can debate whether this ability is inborn, is culturally instilled, is learned, and whether or not one can gain this capacity through his own efforts or not. What we cannot dispute is that such differences exist.

But that is the only point upon which everyone agrees. Going beyond that, our thoughts diverge, and the liberal position begins to deviate from those beliefs which do not support expansive government power.

The liberal position, as already stated, is predicated upon the existence of a singular correct answer to any given question. That is, given a choice, be it economic, personal, social or political, one solution will be objectively superior to all others, whether all individuals in a state recognize it or not. And this is a necessary belief, as this belief must exist for there to be experts.

It is easy to see why it is so. If there is a single answer, and we agree there are experts who can find the best answers more easily than others, then it follows those experts would be better able to identify the one correct answer than the public at large. And, as liberals believe it the duty of the state to help others select the optimal solution10, it clearly follows that these experts not only exist, and not only can select the best answers, but that they should be given positions of authority in order to assist others in following that ideal solution as well11.

If we refuse to accept the belief in a single solution, then we can see the problem. If various solutions are better for some and worse for others, then we enter into the realm of  pressure politics, as the government fiat ends up favoring one over the other, with the decree of the "ideal" solution providing , not an unlimited boon to all, but a victory for some and a defeat for others12.

And that is precisely what we see so often in the real world. Despite the claims that the government is producing ideal solutions for the general good, what we see in practice are endless mobs of lobbyists attempting to secure advantage for their clients, or else avoid regulations which will do harm. The efforts which supposedly secure the general good seem more like a feeding frenzy of those trying to use the power of the state to secure a momentary advantage.

And I suppose that reality answers most of our more pragmatic questions. How does this work out in reality? One need only look at the practice to see the results. What evidence is there for such an elite? The fact that the Federal Reserve promised to end not only depressions, but recessions and even slumps, ensuring constant growth, and yet produced nothing but an amplified boom-bust cycle, from the great depression to our current "Stagflation mark II", that should tell us that experts can produce just as dreadful results as the "uneducated" market forces.

But there is much more to discuss, mostly in terms of how variations upon our perception of such experts influence the form government will take, as well as the nature of the regulations it will pass, and the specific manner in which it will exercise its power. But those will be discussed in future chapters, when we move on to examine specific aspects of the way these theories are implemented.

And so, let us begin to look at those specifics. Or, let us do so after two small digressions, as we still have to look at some topics we mentioned a little earlier. First, let us ask what it would mean for a political theory, if we assume that there is some sort of collective intelligence unavailable to individuals. And after that, let us  look at what the implications are for political theory if we postulate an irrational government.

Continue to "Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences - Chapter 8 - Two Heads Are Better Than One".
Return to "Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences - Preface".

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1. Though I usually shorten this to the existence of a single right choice, in reality it is only required that there be a small set of correct answers. The answer does not need to be singular, it needs only to be definite, and not related to individual preference. In other words, there has to be a hierarchy of answers, and subjective value approaches must be invalid. However, as that is a rather difficult description to give in a short space, it is easiest to shorten it to a single right answer. And as that is usually the case in most theories, it seems unobjectionable to use that to make my writing less cluttered without sacrificing much clarity.

2. There is also the possibility that answers impossible for individuals to discover may be illuminated by collective inquiry, as we shall discuss in our next chapter.

3. Again, in the next chapter we will discuss the possibility of a solution coming not from an elite but from collective activity. In addition, later in this chapter we will examine the possible ways in which one may become a member of this elite, examining inborn, learned, status based and other forms of enlightenment.

4. As we will discuss in Chapter 12 (using the numbering scheme in the second postscript, below), there is still some room for argument, as it is quite possible to assume incompetence on the part of man, and enlightenment on the part of the elite, and yet postulate a system which does not require the elite to "save" the unenlightened masses. However, since most modern thought does believe in changing systems to optimize results, and also believe it is a duty to save our fellows from error, as well as to improve their economic well being to the degree possible, it is likely most casual listeners and readers, encountering this argument in its usual form will be convinced that the incapacity of man, as well as the ability of the elite to correct the consequences of man's incompetence, demands the elite be allowed to act to correct any problems.

5. I suppose it is possible to call something a political philosophy which says "the universe is irrational, no government works, and so it makes no difference which you select" but, outside of Hume's negative philosophy, we generally reserve the term "political philosophy" for those systems of beliefs which tell us how to organize our governments. (And, for that matter, Hume, for all his pessimism, did include the positive instructions that man should resist overthrowing government should submit to his state for the good of all.) We do not tend to call anything political philosophy if it fails to provide direction.

6. Obviously, not all using the liberal argument are sincere, and some may be making this argument precisely because they are power hungry would be dictators.  Nor are even sincere liberals immune from becoming simple dictators. As I have argued in other writing, even the most benevolent despot, ruling under the most altruistic version of the liberal philosophy, will likely end up in the same situation as an open dictator given time. But that was not my point here. All I wanted to point out was, from the perspective of his audience, the politician's motives seem much less selfish if he appeals to the existence of this elite, rather than simply demanding his ideas be made law.

7. This should help show why the second proposition is so essential. If there are multiple correct answers, or, worse, one for each individual, then the proposition that this elite can answer for everyone better than the individual himself becomes obviously absurd. However, if there is one correct answer, one which works for everyone, then it is quite possible that an enlightened elite could answer for everyone.

8. What is more bizarre is the tendency in democratic states to make our own elites, and then deny we recognize elitism. We have politicians who are treated as above the law. We have socialites, and certain wealthy or famous families, who are treated as inherently worthwhile despite their actions. We have sports stars, actors, and other celebrities. All of whom are treated as elites. And yet we deny we have any inequalities. Perhaps it is not so much that we do not want elites, as we dislike anyone claiming they are themselves elite. We like elites, but we want them to pretend they are common folk. (By the way, I recognize there is a considerable difference between political elites, say politicians who are excluded from laws, and hold office for life due to incumbent protection laws, which amounts to political elitism, and social elites, like stars and heiresses, who have social status but no political privileges -- though in some areas sports figures are protected from arrest in lesser crimes, so there is a bit of blurring between the two. Still political and social elitism are very different beasts. But both are forms of elitism in general, and so for this argument alone, confusing them is legitimate.)

9. The fact that the liberal leadership can sell this absurd claim is the one proof I have found that their theory may be correct. That a majority of liberals can be convinced they are all part of an elite, while somehow everyone else is not may be the one clear piece of evidence they might not be ready to run their own lives. (Before anyone objects, this is a joke.)

10. As I have mentioned elsewhere, liberals tend to treat it as self-evident that the government should try to ensure everyone chooses the optimal path. It is akin to the economic belief, at least among many academic economists, that the "system" should be arranged in such a way to ensure "optimal" solutions. However, as we shall discuss in a future chapter -- chapter 12 under our current numbering scheme -- this is not a self-evident statement, and only the domination of our culture by liberal thought has made it seem so to most modern day thinkers.

11. This is yet another place where our theory relies on the interdependence of the three main propositions. If humans are incompetent, then they cannot be trusted to find their own solutions, and cannot be trusted to recognize a better solution when one is presented. Thus, the government must be able to force others to follow its advice, as otherwise ignorant humans may persist in their error despite being shown the right path to take.

12. Yes, in the free market the same situation exists, where some solutions would favor one or the other. However, in the free market there are two differences. First, there is no single monolithic imposed solution, and so we have a multitude of small decisions which help to balance out the inequalities of any single choice. Second, because the decisions made are based upon the individual application of purchasing power, each individual can influence those decisions which matter most to him, and so the solution tends to be more satisfactory to a majority of individuals.

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POSTSCRIPT

My earliest expression of my thoughts on the liberal philosophy were based on this specific topic. To be precise, in "A Question", I asked how men, incompetent to manage things alone, were endowed with omniscience by being elected to office. At the time it was just a passing thought (and one I later recognized as being inspired by some of Bastiat's writing), but in the months that followed it came to form the basis of the earliest writings ("The Essence of Liberalism","Man's Nature and Government","The Citizen Dichotomy") that would eventually form the foundation of this essay. (As well as many others, including "The Most Misleading Word", "Luxury and Necessity", "The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism", "Individual and Aggregate", "Worker Safety" and many, many more.)

The essays dealing specifically with this topic are relatively few, as most writing about this aspect of liberal thought tended to be combined with essays on the other two aspects. However, it is safe to say those posts dealing specifically with arrogance are examinations of this topic. These include "The Essence of Liberalism", "Arrogance and Gun Control", "Our View of Our Fellow Citizens", "Those Other People", "Seeing People As Stupid" and "Appealing to Arrogance". It  is also touched on in essays which are not directly on point such as "The Intellectual Elite", "Trusting Mankind", ""Stupid Viewers"", "A Certain Mindset", "Three Types of Supporters of Big Government" and "". Even some of the topics discussed in "Deadly Cynicism", "The Presumption of Dishonesty", "Eurocentrism? Racism? Liberal Traits All", "Tolerance? Really?", "The Condescention of "Understanding" and "Non Sequitur Allegations" deal with this topic.

The discussion of the use of government for personal advantage can be understood by reading "A Thought on Technology and Technocrats" as well as "The Road to Violence" for one possible extreme outcome. It may also be sueful to read "The Danger Inherent in Banning "Bad Ideas"","The Most Misleading Word", "Luxury and Necessity" and "My Censorship Is Your Discretion".

Regarding one specific footnote, footnote 12, I would recommend readers examine "Who Will Decide", "Fairness and the Free Market", "Greed Versus Evil", "The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism", "A Virtue of Necessity", "Envy Kills", "Envy And Analogy", "Bad Economics Part 10", "Pro Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc", "Cutting "Costs"", "Misunderstanding Profits",  "Two Examples of "Inefficiency" in Capitalism", "Redundancy as a Protective Measure", "Adaptability and Government" and "In Praise of Contracts". I realize this overlaps somewhat with other links above, but all are specifically relevant to this footnote, and I want to make sure anyone interested in the justification for my argument there find a list of relevant links.

POSTSCRIPT II

In my post "Chapter Listing", I gave the following list of chapters:

And so, without additional comment, here is the chapter list:
Preface: Preface
Introduction: Introduction
One: The Trinity and Its Necessity - An overview of the three core ideas behind liberalism
Two: Saving You From Yourself - What is and is not a proper role for government
Three: The Truth is Out There - Principle One: There is an objectively best choice for every question
Four: Our Foolish Compatriots - Principle Two: The average man is unable to make the correct decision
Five: We Don't Need No Education - Corollary One: The common individual cannot learn from experience
Six: Us and Them - The differences between theories founded on sinister forces versus those founded on incompetent actors
Seven: Untitled - Principle Three: The existence of an elite capable of providing correct answers
Eight: Untitled - A look at the theory of an irrational universe and how its consequences differ
Nine: Untitled - The allegations of arrogance and their relationship to these foundations (and the use of arrogance to sell these points)
Ten: Untitled - A look at how this theory corresponds with modern environmentalism
Eleven: Untitled - An examination of the reason this theory implies a need to correct errors others make
Following chapter eleven,we will go into the consequences of these theories, in general and specific terms. For example, the answers found in chapter eleven will be used to look at the issues with perfectionism mentioned in several recent posts (eg "The Threat of Perfection"). I also plan to look at some topics we have raised before, such as the topic mentioned in "One More Update on "Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences"" concerning the apparently contradictory nature of some liberal beliefs.
That has now changed slightly. Rather than simply list the alterations, let me give the entire revised list.
Preface: Preface
Introduction: Introduction
One: The Trinity and Its Necessity - An overview of the three core ideas behind liberalism
Two: Saving You From Yourself - What is and is not a proper role for government
Three: The Truth is Out There - Principle One: There is an objectively best choice for every question
Four: Our Foolish Compatriots - Principle Two: The average man is unable to make the correct decision
Five: We Don't Need No Education - Corollary One: The common individual cannot learn from experience
Six: Us and Them - The differences between theories founded on sinister forces versus those founded on incompetent actors
Seven: More Equal Than Others - Principle Three: The existence of an elite capable of providing correct answers
Eight: Two Heads Are Better Than One - The theory of collective competence
Nine: A Is Null-A - A look at the theory of an irrational universe and how its consequences differ
Ten: Untitled - The allegations of arrogance and their relationship to these foundations (and the use of arrogance to sell these points)
Eleven: Untitled - A look at how this theory corresponds with modern environmentalism
Twelve: Untitled - An examination of the reason this theory implies a need to correct errors others make
We still need to define the chapters making up the second part of the work, but I think this may be the final modification to the first half. In the second half we will likely follow the rather nebulous notes given in the quote above. Also, as it came up in this essay, I want to include at least one chapter explaining that the outcomes of liberal philosophy are little different from the outcomes of open dictatorship. (See "Recipe For Disaster", "The Endless Cycle of Intervention",  "The Cycle of Compassion" and "Government Quackery".) I also plan to end with two chapters. "From Small Beginnings" explaining how all human behavior, on any scale, relating to any topic, can be understood by starting with very basic propositions and some minimal logic and introspection. Sort of a review of  the basics of catallactics in Human Action. And then "The Big Picture" which will provide a closing overview of the whole topic, as well as providing a sort of elaborated summary of "Greed Versus Evil", "In Praise of Contracts" and "Planning For Imperfection", arguing for freedom and against embracing the liberal argument.

POSTSCRIPT III

As this essay was in development for so long, another topic has been added to the scheme above while I was completing it. In writing my essay "More Off Topic Musings", I began to consider the topic of the perfectibility of man.As it relates to the topics proposed for chapter 12, that of the need to save our fellows, I think it would be safe to add a chapter 13, which discusses the implications to liberal theories of the possibility that man, at some point, may be able to throw off his incapacity and perfect himself. (One example of such would be the Marxist theory of the "withering away of the state". Or, on the opposite end of the perfectibility spectrum, the Nazi state's plans for permanent feudal-like institutions, at least in the conception of some SS theorists.)

Thus, the current chapter list is:
Preface: Preface
Introduction: Introduction
One: The Trinity and Its Necessity - An overview of the three core ideas behind liberalism
Two: Saving You From Yourself - What is and is not a proper role for government
Three: The Truth is Out There - Principle One: There is an objectively best choice for every question
Four: Our Foolish Compatriots - Principle Two: The average man is unable to make the correct decision
Five: We Don't Need No Education - Corollary One: The common individual cannot learn from experience
Six: Us and Them - The differences between theories founded on sinister forces versus those founded on incompetent actors
Seven: More Equal Than Others - Principle Three: The existence of an elite capable of providing correct answers
Eight: Two Heads Are Better Than One - The theory of collective competence
Nine: A Is Null-A - A look at the theory of an irrational universe and how its consequences differ
Ten: Untitled - The allegations of arrogance and their relationship to these foundations (and the use of arrogance to sell these points)
Eleven: Untitled - A look at how this theory corresponds with modern environmentalism
Twelve: Untitled - An examination of the reason this theory implies a need to correct errors others make
Thirteen: Untitled - The possibility of human perfectibility, and the implications for political theory
Hopefully, I will complete this chapter today, and this will be the final postscript, as I don't want this single chapter lingering around any longer.

POSTSCRIPT IV


As I have yet to decide what to do with my newest blog "The Ghost Squirrels" -- my other blogs being "Examining the War on Drugs" and "Nation of Whiners" -- I have decided to post this serialized book there without interruptions as it is completed. The first six chapters are up already, and this one will be posted soon after it is posted on Townhall. You can start by connecting to "Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences - Preface". You can read a similar announcement at "What Next?".

Originally Published in Random Notes on 2010/09/09.

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