Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Why I have Trouble Paying Attention to Libertarians

From a naive reading, it would seem that I'd have a lot in common with libertarians, after all the policies I favor can generally be described as socially liberal and economically conservative, at least in some senses of the term since I think spending has to rise but that deficits need to be closed (if the groups still existed I think Teddy Roosevelt Progressive or Eisenhower Republican updated to the 21st century most accurately describes my views).  But this isn't accurate once policy tendencies beyond the completely facile come into play, myself and libertarians exist in completely different and incompatible paradigms.

I was going to let this past, but it has been nagging at me.  Over at DiA a post on the new MLK memorial reminds me of why I disagree with libertarians so vehemently.  They simply don't have any well developed theory of the state, how humans groups form or act, or really about the very concepts of identity and culture and the role these play in human societies and the economy.  Their perspective is simply grossly inadequate for exploring political economy questions generally since they stick so closely to a fundamentalist definition of individualism without considering its historical evolution or role.  While a very minor issue, I think the MLK memorial post exhibits the very worst aspects of libertarian ideology and exposes why it is so ill equipped for understanding human action.

That King's monumental likeness was chiseled from stone by an ace aesthetic hype man for Mao, a dictator responsible for " one of the most deadly mass killings of human history", suggests a couple things. First, and most obviously, it suggests that monuments like this one are pieces of propaganda, attempts to manipulate a state's citizens (or subjects, as the case may be) into parcelling out honour, reverence and esteem according to an "official" account of the country's history. This is a line of business most states are in, but it is not a line of business I think liberal states ought to be in, even if from time to time they happen to exalt worthy heroes, such as Martin Luther King. Second, not only is propaganda morally dubious, but it is almost always aesthetically repugnant. The "worker's-paradise seriousness" Mr Page rightly detects in Mr Lei's new work is a sign that the artist has no notable interest in his subjects, but is instead a master of achieving a certain cheap effect, a vacuous sublimity easily mistaken for awed reverence, by means of a formulaic, emotionally rote approach to monumentality. Mr Lei is not hired to offer his interpretation of a subject—to create a portrait of a real, complicated man which reflects the insight and judgment of his personal artistic genius. On the contrary, he is hired not to interpret, to apply the same psychologically dead and mendaciously indifferent treatment to all his subjects. Mr Lei is a political bullshit artist, and it shows. That Chinese white granite is especially durable is a stupid reason to get stuck with this kind of soulless stone agitprop.

The first thing I'll deal with is the factual nature of these statements, though this is just to illustrate how ideologically biased this post it, it has little bearing on my critiques of the libertarian point of view.  First of all, the state played only an indirect role in developing this monument, only $10 million of the projects roughly $120 million cost was paid by the state as matching funds.  Most of the funds were raised by a foundation originating with King's fraternity and donations by private charities.

While the government did have to prove the design, they were not the motivating force behind suggesting what was chosen.  In fact, at least one government agency overseeing the design objected to it initially, though their objections were (obviously) overcome. 

The United States Commission of Fine Arts, which must sign off on every inch of the $100 million memorial, from typeface to tree variety to color scheme, said in a letter that “the colossal scale and Social Realist style of the proposed sculpture recalls a genre of political sculpture that has recently been pulled down in other countries.”
While I think it's reasonable to not like this design, it is hard to see state propaganda in this, even using the peculiar definition of propaganda used at DiA.

Which gets me beyond the niggling little details and onto my main objection.  The libertarian perspective seems unable to distinguish between the kind of identity building exercises that are necessary to a common culture and thus economic and social development and propaganda.  Lets look at a more serious definition of propaganda from Norman Davies' Europe: A History (admittedly chosen for how easy it is to find quotes like this rather than this being an authoritative take on propaganda).

Theories of propaganda have identified five basic rules:
1. The rule of simplification: reducing all data to a simple confrontation between 'Good and Bad', 'Friend and Foe'
2. The rule of disfiguration: discrediting the opposition by crude smears and parodies
3. The rule of transfusion: manipulating the consensus values of the target audience for one's own ends
4. The rule of unanimity: presenting one's viewpoint as if it were the unanimous opinion of all right thinking people: drawing the doubting individual into agreement by the appeal of star performers, by social pressure, and by psychological contagion
5. The rule of orchestration: endlessly repeating the same messages in different variations and combinations
Failing to distinguish between the basic need for creating a shared culture and propaganda gets to the essence of the failure of libertarian philosophy.  It is legitimate to not like the MLK memorial but it's hard to see how it can be legitimately called propaganda when its purpose is to commemorate a man that citizens have asked the state to commemorate.  It doesn't manipulate individuals, it allows them to share common experiences and beliefs.  Nothing about the memorial meets the five criteria for propaganda, the memorial does nothing to reduce the complexity of King, after all he is presented in the National Mall of the country whose repression he was speaking out against, there is no smear or parody of those that resisted his message (as far as I can tell they aren't mentioned), the monument is the result of a public effort rather than a top down initiative so I don't think this involves manipulating consensus values for the state's ends (perhaps Alpha Phi Alpha is but this would be weird), given the amount of debate over this I certainly don't think the rule of unanimity is being violated, and finally this doesn't meet the rule of orchestration either, it's not like we're getting unending uniform messages about King recently.

This points towards a deeper failing to understand the role of the state and culture in society, as well as in markets.  At the risk of going far enough off topic to be rambling, I'd like to point out that this shares a common root cause with the tendency towards investment centric policies.  Libertarian philosophy seems to share some common roots with Marxism in this area, they both start from a capital centric explanation of social change, though libertariansim emphasizes something close to the heroic individual actor while Marxism instead emphasizes deterministic social forces, but both emphasize the role that capital plays in economic and social development.

I have a major problem with this paradigm.  As we've learned more about economic development we've seen that it is largely bottom up rather than capital centric.  The focus should be on market integration more than it is on capital.  While capital was involved with the most rapidly growing sectors research has revealed that these sectors made up a relatively small portion of overall economic growth.  The larger portion was the result of growth lower down the economic ladder.  There were a few different causes of this, demand shifts such as those described in de Vries' The Industrious Economy, and market integration, described in many, many places.  Both these changes were linked to culture.

Culture of course is a hard concept to grapple with and neither fully in control of the state or wholly spontaneous.  But understanding economic development requires at least some understanding of its role.  The state played a key role in creating a more homogenous culture allowing for a greater level of interactions across all levels of society.  The role of culture (though not the state's role in creating mass culture, which is more complicated) is brought out particularly well by looking at groups often described as proto-capitalist, such as Venetian and Genoese traders, Chinese merchants in Southeast Asia, Jews across Europe and the Near East, or Armenians across the Near East and India.  Their shared cultural heritage played a key role in allowing market interactions to take place across these great distances, just as the development of a shared cultural heritage would help to allow national markets to replace inefficient local markets as development proceeded. 

Failing to understand the role of the state and culture in this process, and instead romanticizing about past institutions, whether Marxism's claim about less alienation between the worker and results of labor or the market fundamentalist point of view expressed by Schumpeter where pre-capitalist institutions serve to protect the market, leads to a failure to understand what markets are and how they contributed to growth.  The non-market institutions in both instances served as significant impediments to growth and human well being, market integrating institutions at the state level have played a key role in assisting economic growth by eroding local institutions that interfered with market functions.  Ignoring the cultural aspects that go into shaping these institutions, such as symbolic monuments meant to provide a story of shared heritage and history for a nation's citizens, means leaving a fairly large, and critical, piece out of the story of not just political institutions or the economy but society more generally.  Neither markets nor political institutions can reach everyone in a society without having a shared culture to work within, it's an essential precondition.  Criticizing the state for fulfilling one of its most basic and critical functions shows a serious lack of understanding of social and cultural matters and how these interact with other social institutions.

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