Wednesday, June 01, 2005

June 1st, 2005... A Watershed?

A modicum of sanity leaks through the doctrinal filter today, again on FOX News' website. You'll notice the source of this piece is the Cato Institute, a right-wing libertarian think tank.

Right-wing libertarianism is a weird discipline, but nowadays most people who self-identify as libertarian are right-wing libertarians, so most people when they think of libertarianism think of right-wing, rabidly pro-corporate ideology such as that which is practiced and promoted by Cato.

Libertarianism of the Cato variety is a key underpinning, you could argue THE key underpinning, of bourgeious Republicanism's (as distinct from proletarian Republicanism, which is mostly about emotional appeals to pseudopopulist crapola that Cato-ites find quite embarrassing) socioeconomic theory. So while few people out in TV-land know what Cato is, they are very influential among important Republican intellectuals.

Interestingly, Cato opposed the Iraq war pretty vigorously at the time. The reason that this did little or nothing to stop support from the war among folks who normally view Cato's pronouncements with something approaching ecstatic awe is open to analysis. But my point is the reverse - why did Cato, corporate capitalism's house organ, oppose the invasion of Iraq?

In my view, the answer to this question is that besides from being clearly morally bankrupt, dishonestly peddled, and incompetently prosecuted [I can find no way to enforce parllel structure here - suggestions for "bankrupt" synonyms that are also verbs will be taken in the comments], the Iraq war was completely fucking crazy.

From a 2002 policy analysis paper by Cato:

There are less costly strategies for dealing with Hussein than conducting a war. Hussein, while he may not act morally, is rational in the sense that economists and political scientists use the term. An examination of his past actions indicates that his principal need is to maintain his own physical and political survival. Using that knowledge, Washington can develop a strategy that would allow the United States to deter Hussein from taking actions detrimental to U.S. national security, without engaging him in warfare.

The free-market faithful may be somewhat deluded when it comes to macroeconomic theory, but sadly, their heads are apparently screwed on a lot straighter than so-called "mainstream" politicians and their boosters.

Something to think about.


Uncle said...

I believe the neo-conservatives basically get their "neo" title because basically they won't disagree with the CATO wing of the movement, they'll just ignore the heck out of them when necessary.

Adam P. Short said...

Yeah, that's the funny part is that one of the big failures of the Iraq war, probably the biggest single failure, came as a direct result of the fact that the Bush Administration sent dozens of true believer, free market faithful types over to Iraq to run things and it was a complete disaster from beginning to end.

Ironically, even the high priests of God Market thought it sounded like hokum. It's as if these folks distilled Cato's Kool-Aid to the point that they now think Cato's just a bunch of communists like the rest of the liberal media.


Anonymous said...

How about "overdrawn"?

I find your representation of "right-wing libertarianism" to be confused. Libertarians are definitely rabidly pro-free market, that's for sure. Many are therefore rabidly pro-corporation. But they don't support banning gay marriage, they're generally pro-choice, and many of their radical proposals for government overhaul (drug legalization, private roads) look absolutely nothing like conservativism. So what, exactly, is "right-wing" about them, other than their belief in the right-ness of the market? I've dropped the right-wing moniker altogether because, as someone once told me, it serves only to convey that I'm a libertarian that doesn't smoke pot.

Your analysis of "right-wing libertarianism" is really only applicable to libertarian Republicans, who like Cato but find it a little weird. Put simplistically, such people have decided that winning is more important than the principles involved. These are my old colleagues that I tear my hair out trying to reach as they justify every stupid war we've ever fought. They're worse than the Catholic church at admitting past mistakes.

As for (pride tag on) Self-identifying libertarians, we have schizophrenic positions on matters of defense, tending to be isolationist when the case for war is anything less than decisive. The big-L party is rife with arguments about whether libertarians should be focused on defense or on realpolitik, but these arguments are shaped by political concerns more than anything. It's still the official policy of the Libertarian Party that the military should be used only to protect America from attack.

Now on the free market front: since I've been living in the bosom of the doctrinal filter, perhaps I missed all the substantive arguments against Cato-style macroeconomics that weren't grounded primarily in ethical principles to control "market failures". Can you give me any?

The Greatness

Adam P. Short said...

I'm not sure I understand the justification for the qualification you make in your question at the end. Regardless, I would say that the "substantive" rebuttals you seek may not seem substantive to you, but you might have noticed that Cato-style macroeconomic policy does not exist, has never been practiced by anybody, and is not itself considered substantive by the vast majority of economists. This is not because no one has heard of them.

I will hunt around for some back-and-forth between Cato and mainstream economists. In the meantime let me clarify my characterization of "right-wing libertarianism;" historically libertarianism was primarily a left-wing phenomenon, with the main ideological struggle of the 20th century being between Trotskyists (such as David Horowitz) and others (such as Noam Chomsky and, it so happens, the current author.)

I call right-wing libertarianism that in order to distinguish it from left-libertarianism, not for any other reason. The two are very different; what separates them is the belief among right-wing libertarians, undeserving of refutation, that corporations have no power beyond their ability to participate as sellers in the "free market."

This is plainly a fantasy, as is any resultant socioeconomic theory.

Anonymous said...

Well, I thought the actual question was pretty obvious, but I guess not. So I'll ask it as directly as I know how.

Why is "the belief...that corporations have no power beyond their ability to participate as sellers in the "free market"...plainly a fantasy, as is any resultant socioeconomic theory."?

You have made this type of statement multiple times without any sort of explanation. Consdier this your opportunity for refutation. I would absolutely be thrilled like a little girl at a Ryan Cabrera concert if you would do so now.


Adam P. Short said...

BTW Greatness:

I see where you're coming from on "overdrawn" but in this context it is confusing... "Morally overdrawn" is not a clear construction.


The fact that the question can be asked in apparent earnest makes me doubt that it is worth answering. I am fairly confident that if you thought seriously about the role of corporations in American society you could come up with a few ways that corporations have influence over your life, other than their magnanimous offers to sell you their products.

However, since you've asked twice, here is one very specific (and important) example of why the very idea of corporations as they exist in this country is antilibertarian.

A corporation, we can probably agree, does not need to breathe. Thus it has not interest of its own in protecting air quality, particularly if the owners of the corporation are located in some area remote from the point of actual production.

In Texas under George W. Bush, this was illustrated very nicely as the Texas legislature slashed pollution controls for oil and gas production and refinery operations, resulting in a massive increase in industrial pollution.

The people who breathe the air in Houston (which under Bush surpassed LA as the smoggiest in America) did not purchase anything from a corporation. But they have to breathe, unlike the corporations that are polluting their air.

Production has a social cost not borne by the seller or buyer. Without regulation, the general public pays this cost and receives no benefit. What's libertarian about that?

Anonymous said...

Okay, I'll refine what I meant. Much as naturalists argue that the naturalistic fallacy is not a fallacy at all, libertarians of the Cato persuasion argue that "market failures" aren't a bug but a feature. All disagreements between their macroeconomic theory and others can come down to this, for macroeconomics is a discipine with as many flavors as there are ethical systems. No doubt certain members of the Cato Institute display an affinity for Austrian economics, which sets philosophical demands on economics that aren't really sustainable. But for the rank-and-file, such a position does not require that one assume corporations have no power beyond its ability to supply a demand. The "article of faith" here, you might say, is that ultimately government is the most important source of power abuse, and if a corporation has power disproportionate to its role in the market, you can bet there was government complicity and that's where we should start.

Hmm, while I was composing you were composing. So I'll apply that to your case in question. I agree with you that the corporation got off with a discount in the sense that it maximized its payoff without regard for other stakeholders. And I think the government complicity here goes without saying. But this is a "commons" problem, for which there is no good solution if the air is considered communal. The standard prescription here is to figure out how to assign ownership rights, which has worked very well in land management but takes some inventive thinking to realistically apply to the air. I can give you a situation where government puts the shoe on the other foot: In Canada and other nations where the Kyoto treaty has been ratified, the government has accepted responsibility to protect the world against CO2 production, most of which is not industrial point-source but is produced by the lifestyle of its own citizens. Because all people produce CO2 by their lifestyle and even by breathing, they are affecting the implementation of this treaty in a way that could make them criminal in the aggregate. Where do we point the finger then?


Anonymous said...

Okay, I'll work with that example. And I'll even go at it from a different angle then TG, the "commons" side, assuming that air itself is one of the very few (maybe water supply as well) things that are "common" to all people, without ownership rights. If a corporation causes air pollution through it's own actions that affects someone else and can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt (which I assume it can be), then it's no different then a person lighting a huge fire on someone else's lawn and causing them to suffer from smoke inhalation. They are liable for an aggressive act against a person's health and should be faced with either criminal charges or civil action and force to pay damages.

And in fact, government involvement in something more than a judicial/enforcement capacity was necessary to both create a legal pollution level and then to have it lowered by special corporate interest. If pollution was causing a problem (which it obviously was), why wasn't it handled as a criminal violation of people's rights (basically, a physcial attack) initially?

Look, I don't have some crazy love of corporations. Obviously, people trying to make money get greedy and cut corners and commit acts that are not acceptable. But certainly, a pretty straightforward law like "don't cause physical injury to someone else" can cover that. Then the basic police function of government can do what it is supposed to do.

Here's some more discussion of the concept TG refers to of air ownership rights.

See the homesteading section.

You may disagree with this method as the correct or right way to handle this, and that's fine. There are other "libertarian" ways of handling the air pollution problem. But I fail to see how this "resultant socioeconomic theory" is "plainly a fantasy." I guess you can call it a fantasy in that it has not been tried, but you have no evidence that it wouldn't work (for the same reason).


Anonymous said...

When I said "can cover that," I meant the specific air pollution issue. Otherwise, that might not make a lot of sense. All apologies.


Adam P. Short said...

Stop apologizing. I'm intentionally trying to start fights and attract trolls as part of a blog promotion operation.

Speaking of which, I know there are people out there reading this other than the folks commenting.

Come on, you pansies! Come on down and tell us what's what!

And for all those who self-identify as pansies, and therefore unmoved by my name-calling, well, you are probably right-wing pansies!

Traveller said...

I'll tell you what's my take on this what before the air gets too rarified in here, you eggheads!!

A born Dem, I lived in Europe between '60 and '80 during which there was an enormous change in my fellow Dems so that by the time I returned in the '80's the Dems seemed hardly less authoritarian than the Reps. The tone and vocabulary was different, as was the kind of conformity each had come to demand, but both parties had moved in a generally northeasterly direction on that "Political Compass" diagram. Both had become increasingly authoritarian socially, economically more capitalistic -- that myth of "free markets" which are only free for the vendors.

The result: Howard Dean was about as far left as Eisenhower while Wellstone was into the economic left, into suspect "socialism." The effect: Fellow Dems had become nanny tut-tutters over social issues while also moving away from the socio-economics of the working class.

Dems have become johnny-one-notes about particular issues, waggling fingers at those who don't adhere to the party line on. Johnny-one-note on abortion, on how to apply our increasing understanding of damage to the environment, on public schools... and on and on. Even for a pro-choice environmentalist like myself, the litmus-test atmosphere of the party is deadening. Where did liberty go? Where is the imagination and creativity? Why are new ways of solving problems so threatening now?

Go away!, I often want to say to those who still breathe the air of the '60's and '70's! Dealing with evangelists on the Right isn't that much more oppressive than dealing with intrusive self-righteousness on the Left. Is it any wonder so many have leaked away into that great catch-all, "independent"? No, "independent" doesn't mean can't decide between Dem and Rep, by the way. Is it surprising that many of us hold our noses now as we continue to vote Dem -- lesser of two etc. Have you any idea how good it would feel to have a solid economy, a wide variety of genuinely good educational choices available to all, an end to the enormous inequities in pay scales, freedom from corporate and government (where's the dividing line?)intrusion, and healthcare system geared to the individual rather than the group?

What is the Democratic Party doing for those of us who are appalled by what our government has become, only slightly less bad than what corporations have become in our lives? Not all libertarians are pro-corporation, not by a long shot!

Cato always seems like kind of a fond joke, kind of like Dke or Bones or Fence or Pudding -- only important to itself. It doesn't figure in my view of left-libertarian. They don't own liberty!

Yrs truly,


Adam P. Short said...

Hey, thanks PW. It's great to see another left-libertarian posting. It's funny, I have this feeling there are a lot of people out there like you and me, who have these views but they never see them represented anywhere. Left-libertarianism doesn't have these well-financed think tanks and other institutions constantly propagandizing, offering scholarships to kids who can parrot its talking points in essays, etc. `

For that reason we have to be vocal. In fact, more and more I think we have to be rude. When someone starts in with some claptrap, whether it's singing the theoretical praises of the theoretical free market, or crowing about some vicious war or other that didn't happen to get thousands of Americans killed, we have to be willing to call bullshit.

Noam Chomsky will be dead soon. What will we have then? Who will pick up the mantle of left-libertarianism? It's a heavy burden and we will all have to shoulder some of it.

Traveller said...

Adam -- Take a look at Kevin Drum's (Washington Monthly dot com) excerpt from Rich Pearlstein, Drum's comments, and readers' comments. Pearlstein is right about many things, but I don't think he comes anywhere near the dilemma of the social libertarianism which is a strong thread among "Independents," "Progressives," and other present and former Dems.

Anonymous said...

I'm playing catch-up on the left-libertarian front, as I've heard of it but never much read about it. You cite Noam Chomsky, whom Wikipedia says "describes himself as a libertarian socialist and a sympathizer of anarcho-syndicalism". Do those terms accurately reflect Chomsky's, and to some similar extent, your political position? Because at first glance, those belief systems seem to be based on macroeconomic principles every bit as theoretical and out-there as "right-wing libertarianism".

But I want to fairly consider them. I am interested in knowing more about the subject and good references would be appreciated -- especially if Wikipedia's labeling is misleading.