Monday, December 29, 2008

Truth & Reconciliation Addendum: How radical might it all get?

Following up on the last two unconventional suggestions, with a little deep perspective.  All this talk about dealing with recent crimes and “truth commissions” has got me thinking about the Big Picture Context -- where all this may fit in the epic of human history.  So let’s take a little time to play thought experiment.

Suppose we discover the worst, to our blinking, unbelieving dismay, is worse than we ever imagined. What if the coming wave of revelations really rocks us back in stunned dismay.

Thomas Jefferson said that each generation must hammer together a new and revolutionary set of methods to use, in vigorously defending freedom.  One reason for this is that technologies and other social factors change, requiring new and innovative solutions.  Also, the “solutions” of a previous generation often get spoiled or suborned by new waves of parasites, who learn how to twist them to their advantage.

Take the way agencies like the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) and the Bell System all started with the intent of overcoming monopolistic abuses, but wound up being “captured” by the industries they were supposed to regulate.  Hence a little known historical fact -- that it was the Democratic Party, particularly under Jimmy Carter, who performed the biggest and most effective deregulations in U.S. history, by breaking up all three of these calcified entities and several others, restoring healthy competition to railroads, trucking, airlines, telecommunications and many other fields.

(In contrast, GOP-led ‘deregulations’ in S&Ls, banking, securities and mortgage lending all led directly to locust-swarms of loophole-using vampirism. The clear lesson of history: if you want decent de-regulation, that both reduces government meddling and fosters open, honest competition, ask Dems to do it.)

Or witness what happened to the supposedly “progressive” income tax. An innovation that appreciably limited aristocratic power for a while, but now seems fine-tuned to serve the interests of a newer aristocratic clade—one that grew up knowing every twist in the creaky and arcane and outdated law.

Why do I raise this now?  Because we do not yet know how deep the rot goes, how far parasitic tentacles have penetrated, during the last decade.  Suppose Special Prosecutors or a “truth commission” were to reveal something truly pervasive and nasty?  Might our leaders try to hide this information from us, for our own good? (See #16.)  Or, if it’s revealed, might people be so radicalized they demand draconian, even revolutionary measures?

This is the ultimate, illogical foolishness of insatiable/rapacious, top-level parasitism.  Aristocrats who think they are mutant-smart (instead of merely lucky) tend to assume they are immune to history.  That cyclical patterns can never apply to them, or that sheep don’t look up. Or that tumbrels can never again roll through the streets.

Time for a historical factoid. At around the time of the 1775 uprising that sparked the American Revolution, vast sections (up to half) of the colonies of Georgia, New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland were owned by individual families under charters granted by the British crown. The great landlords were mostly royal cronies - personal friends of the king - who never even visited their vast new fiefs. (Such cronyism was cited by Adam Smith as the great destroyer of free markets, rather than socialism, which he considered a much less worrisme threat.)

How did that earlier generation of Founders solve the problem? Certainly seizure of some Tory assets had a great deal to do with the breakup of those grossly unfair, unearned estates -- and such things might happen again, if the People must rise up against a new feudalism. Still, mass confiscation is a bludgeon, at-best unreliable. Often, it only leads to a new class of meddling masters, even worse than those who came before.

Fortunately the main rebalancing technique that was used, just after the revolution was far gentler and less socialistic. Across the 1780s and 1790s, many states passed laws against “primogeniture"... the automatic inheritance of all real property and titles by the eldest son.

That was it.  Simple.  But it sufficed.

Recall that primogeniture had been a strong tradition, that let aristocratic wealth and power remain concentrated in a few families.  Hence, for a generation, American society (through consensus political action) stepped in to severely limit a landowner's right to decide which of his children would receive what. Instead, for a while, the law demanded equal distribution among all offspring.

It sounds meddlesome and anathema to libertarian principles. Yet, without such innovations, America would have started as a true feudal-oligarchy. But thanks to anti-primogeniture laws, within two generations all the remaining giant estates had broken down to fair economic units, without much actual confiscation, by simple division of inheritance among large families.

The result: a win-win situation. Profit motive was retained and wealth continued to be a draw for innovators, yet aristocracy was forestalled. Moreover, having done its job, the solution was then allowed to wither away! Today, by phrasing a will correctly, a man or woman can bequeath to whichever child he or she likes best.

Why do I raise this now?  Making this posting so long that hardly anybody will have reached this point anyway?

Because we were blessed, since the era of George Marshall, with an era that featured the flattest social structure in human history, a period without major class conflict, dominated by a highly mobile and empowered middle class.  One in which by far a majority of American millionaires were “self-made” through having delivered competitive goods or services or innovations. A time when billionaires left far more to their foundations than to hyper-privileged offspring.

But we need to prepare against the very real possibility that we’re re-entering a more “normal” period of history.  One riven by steep cliffs of disparity of and inherited privilege -- tendencies that appear to be rooted in human nature and our genes. The very same trends that ruined free markets and democracy in hundreds of other nations and eras. Precisely the trends that the Enlightenment was invented to resist.

 This could be our generation’s time of testing.

Just suppose that it is so, then we have a duty.  We must emulate our pragmatic reformer ancestors and avoid the excesses seen in France, Germany, Russia and China and so many other places, where anti-artistocracy uprisings went too fgar.  Where they radicalized and then turned monstrous, in their own right. Resisting the tempting allure of class hatred and simplistic ideology, we should recall that nothing good ever came of the hoary and stupid and utterly destructive/insane so-called “left-right political axis.” It has nothing to tell us. Toss it out! (After all, isn’t it... French?)

No. If we find our nation slipping into an age-old human failure mode -- if some fraction of the monied elites... if disloyal capitalists and kleptocratic thieves... are doing the same-old, tiresomely predictable human thing that over-privileged fools have done in most eras -- trying to turn their advantages permanent, into something like feudalism -- that doesn’t automatically make the answer socialism!

Indeed, I doubt very many Democrats -- and certainly not the pragmatists currently running the party -- lean that way, even slightly.  After all, Adam Smith would be a Democrat, today.

No, if we do find ourselves in such a crisis, forced to reconsider the fate of class and nation on a basic level, well, there are many details of capitalism that might be revised. But we are Americans. No one ever benefited more from the positive side of markets  We can and must do as our ancestors did, when they faced similar problems.  Fine-tuning in ways punish the wicked and prevent feudalism while still incentivizing the creative and dynamically inventive!  Ways that serve to stimulate new and brighter and better and more competitive/creative markets.

We need to save and care for the baby, even if the bathwater stinks.

Every generation of Americans has had to strike the balance in new ways.  We need to gird ourselves with courage, imagination, goodwill, pragmatism, dedication and plenty of good old common sense

--Continue to Suggestion #17: Political matters


11 comments:

Marino said...

Just a tiny bit of citokate about Adam Smith and "socialism".
It seems that the word "socialist" (in Latin) was created by a late 18. Catholic theologian and polemist, Daniele Concina (dead in 1756), to label those who believed that men were capable to live together by nature, without need of religious law and sanction: his target were the Italian supporters of Enlightenement like Beccaria, and Enlightenment in general. But it would apply to Smith, too, at last the Smith of the Theory of moral sentiments...Funny, that in eyes of its enemies Enlightenment was "socialism"...

But in the current meaning the word "socialism" dates to 1820-1830, while the first attempt of "socialist" or "communist" political action was Babeuf's Plot for Equality (1797), well after the death of Smith, so it's simply impossible that Smith could have attacked socialism, as neither the word nor the political movement did exist. I did also a search on the online text of the Wealth of nations, with no result...

Robert said...

There is disparity in wealth, and in political power. Why is the focus only on the disparity in wealth? Personally I am much more concerned with the disparity in political power. While there can be an exchange between the two, political power is much more likely to go deadly awry. If the solution to the wealth disparity is to increase the political disparity by giving the politicians more power to alter the wealth in society then thats not a clear win. It seems like a solution that is more dangerous than the problem. The politicians are demonstrating that they can move wealth around in ways that would make Buffet and Gates blush. They need more help in this?

The earlier American example of wealth concentration that you gave was due to political power as you said, not due to a free market system. Libertarian philosophy as such doesn't have much to say about how to re-normalize after the result of mass economic distortion by political forces. That is not to say its not an important problem. Libertarians also don't have a philosophy that deals with how to gain and keep political power, hence the immense political power held by libertarians world wide.

There are places to look outside of government to alter the balance of wealth. The "finance and investment" models are being shown to be greatly flawed, with way to much reward for short term gains while imposing long term risk. People were making way more than the value they were really producing. These things need correction, but does the recent bailouts help that correction or stunt it? Do we expect the bailouts and stimulus given out by the next administration to be better? Time will tell.

Woozle said...

Perhaps it's time to bring up a theory I've been refining for a few years now: we are already in the early stages of a new feudalism. Here's the argument:

First, most of our real estate isn't actually owned by us, but by banks. (This is also true for our personal transportation, though the dollar volume is obviously less.) The banks are increasingly owned by humongous banking conglomerates located in national or international centers of power, rather than by their members or even by local aristocrats.

(Aside: They achieved this position by doing the monetary equivalent of selling arms to both sides in a war -- giving cheap loans to all home-buyers, who could then afford to bid higher and higher against each other as "property values" bubbled seemingly ever upwards. If that bubble truly is collapsing now, then maybe my theory is wrong... but I haven't yet seen home prices come down to anything that an individual might actually save up for in a few years' time -- say $5000 to $50,000 -- except in the most distressed and "undesirable" areas.)

Second... if we want decent health care, we are metaphorically chained to a desk. You have to have a job with a company which can afford to make a deal ("group rates") with a health insurer if you don't want to pay absurd prices for care.

Third... the price of a "real" education is following the same pattern; college loans take years to pay off, and the monthly payments set a high minimum on the salary you must start with in order to keep up. Who gets the interest? Not the university...

Some scattered anecdotal evidence: driving around Durham, one sees...

(a) huge tracts of land devoted to selling us more overpriced new cars with easy bank loans attached

(b) disused buildings, falling into disrepair, which nobody can do anything with because they are being held onto by people who are apparently hoping for a big payoff when someone with money decides they want to develop that area

(c) huge tracts of land devoted to selling us things we can really only afford if we put them on credit cards

(d) huge tracts of land formerly owned by local individuals or families, often the remnants of working farms, being parceled off into tiny lots with large, cheaply-built houses sold at exorbitant prices -- to people who are effectively indentured to a bank for 30 years in exchange, or who have previously bought into this system by buying a house elsewhere which they must be able to resell at a comparable price in order to be able to move with their job as they head up the corporate ladder

I could go on, but this is already more rant-y than I originally had in mind, and I think you get the picture.

rewinn said...

Woozle - I've been thinking about the New Feudalism as well, but with a difference.

In classical feudalism, the royal families consist of natural creatures: small collections of human beings. In contemporary feudalism, the royal families consist of organizations, chiefly but not exclusively for-profit corporations. These are effectively immortal (they do not die of old age, although they can be eaten by another such creature), completely amoral (by law, American corporations must work to profit their shareholders, not for any "moral" purpose), and very very hungry. Perhaps this explains the popularity of the vampire novel.

ErnieG said...

The fact that the federal government behaves as if the Constitution did not exist makes it is just an icon representing some ideal of government.

The only legitimate purpose of government is to protect life liberty and property.

What we have now is not that limited government.

The fact that the government interferes in every aspect of life makes it a honey pot to be controlled.

To control the government an auction occurs to buy the influence of every officer of the government.

It takes a saint to not give in to blandishments of power or money.

I don't see any saints, only imperfect men.

If the government behaved as if the supreme law was the constitution then the influence peddling would be minimized.

As to the current economic situation the actions of the federal reserve an uncondtitutional body lowered the price of money(interest) below the real market value leading to poor investment choices.

This shows that in any economy if prices are changed by government actions, rent control,price controls, anti-gouging laws,etcetera, there are unintended consequences.

David you should read Frederic Bastiat , 'The Law', and 'That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen'. For every law such as primogeneture there is an unseen consequence, so another law forbidding primogeneture must have unforseen consequences. There is no free lunch there are always negative results from any law.

There are too many laws tha are victimless . A crime by common law is only when there is damage to person, property, or freedom. The government is a tool it cannot be a surrogate for a victim.

William_Shatner said...

ErnieG said...
The fact that the federal government behaves as if the Constitution did not exist makes it is just an icon representing some ideal of government.

The only legitimate purpose of government is to protect life liberty and property.


Dude, we are not Plutocrats in ancient England. The Constitution protects "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." Get it right. We are not an ancient English share cropper-- but the new Feudal Lords, definitely have moved it to only protect property. What you are suggesting is a Libertarian ideal, seems to resemble what their goals are. Be careful who is educating you.

The tyranny of the minority is the robber barons who are turning this country on its head. Because we have been convinced we are powerless, and that becoming involved in politics is a sin, we've left a power vacuum in Washington, which has been filled by the scum that floats to the top.

We've got to scrape the pond periodically, because scum rising to power is the nature of life. There is no panacea wherein we do not have corruption -- only a dead pond stays clean.

The founding fathers, such as Jefferson, were considering paying for citizens to go to college -- but it was considered extreme, because high school was an advanced degree for the average person at the time. I would be very confident, that if they were alive today, they would endorse Universal Health Care and education. These investments, would reduce the anxiety, and inefficiency in our nation, and would return back to us many fold.

But the "Conservatives" who are really proxies for the Rich, with "Democrats in Name Only" their willing assistants, only want investments that Don't have a widespread benefit.

Anyway, it's kind of silly to debate this anymore. If someone thinks we are FREE-ER because of 750 military bases around the world, and a few trillion $ wasted in Iraq, versus the ability with the same money to send everyone to college, free health care, and end starvation in the world -- wow. I just don't get that anyone thinks there is even a debate of how wasteful it has been to let Business decide what we deserve, rather than let government with the people riding heard, decide what we need. It is a fricken' crime against humanity.

Doug S. said...

"Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" is a quote from the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution.

The purpose of the Constitution is explained in the Preamble:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Ernieg said...

Wlliam Shatner

What is your address?
Please make a list of your stuff so I can see if it is worth my while to rent a truck and come clean out all your so called property.

Since you believe that the purpose of government is not to protect your property , you must not believe in property. The fruit of your labor is for the taking.

Reductio absurdum!!!

My point is it is absurd to believe that the reason people go into government remains some sense of duty, or that they are providing a service. In the end they are seduced to the side of power and money.

By its defacto mode of operation government is influenced by self serving groups.

The most illogical thing you said was that government can provide anything, education, health care, etcetera. Who pays for this??

The government has no resources it can only take stuff from some people and give it to others.

That is the primary purpose of sodom on the potomoc. To provide a market for the buying and selling of influence, so that one group can take stuff from the rest, or defensively stop others from taking theirs.

Like flies to honey the knaves and dupes are drawn to government. The knaves are the sociopaths and the dupes are the ones wearing blinders and are well meaning.

Woozle said...

rewinn: I've seen that claim -- that corporations are legally required to serve the bottom line -- repeated elsewhere, and I've consequently become suspicious of the accuracy of this interpretation. Shouldn't it be that corporations are required to serve the interests of their shareholders, regardless of what those interests may be (as long as they're legal)? The difference may seem subtle, but it changes the shape of the solution-space significantly.

Can anyone point me to the exact language which specifies this rule?

Ernieg: the conversation is getting confused between goals and means. The goal of defending the right to life, liberty, & the pursuit of happiness is served via the means of defending personal property -- but there are certainly other ways to do it, and I think what Shatner is saying is that we are not bound (by any of our Founding documents) to stick with it if it's no longer working.

Anonymous said...

Since neither Obama nor anyone else in the Democratically-controlled congress will hold even one hearing, let all truth and reconciliation commissions, not even to speak of the absurdly unlikelihood of actual criminal charges being filed against anyone in the current criminal administration...well, it won't get radical at all.

What we should really be talking about is how Obama's presidency will fail and collapse. Because as soon as Obama bought into the crazy concept of expanding the failed and futile occupation of Afghanistan, he guaranteed that his presidency will fail. The Afghan debacle will define Obama's presidency and destroy it just as surely as the Iraq debacle defined and destroyed the president of the current drunken lout who infests the Oval Office.

David Brin unwisely claimed that I'm just slamming him because he's not far enough to the left. That's extremely presumptuous: David Brin knows nothing about me. He has no idea what my political beliefs are.

In fact, Obama is currently fumbling and bumbling, and his nostrums (so far) look like the standard muddleheaded liberal pabulum that wrecked past Democratic administrations.

Example: Obama proposes to piss away billions of dollars of the stimulus package on computers and better internet for K-12 schools. But plenty of studies have been done, and they show that throwing tech at classrooms does nothing to improve education. The real improvement comes from great teachers, not from whiz-bang computers and internet technology.

Moreover, this is an old failed idea. The idea of automated learning was tried back in the 70s and 80s, and it failed spectacularly. "Distance learning" was tried -- failed utterly. One-on-one personal interaction with a good teacher is what works. Liberals keep tossing these failed ideas at our social problems, and they're almost (not quite, but almost) as bad the conservatives who keep tossing failed ideas like "laissez faire" capitalism and capital gains tax cuts at our social problems.

Oh, but, wait...there's more. Obama proposes to dump more billions of dollars down the rathole of highway improvement. If there's anything we don't need, it's better highways -- we need fewer highways, and more rail. We need to improve our rail system and start replacing cars with railroad passenger trains. The fastest train in 1890 travelled faster than the fastest train in America today...can you believe that? It's crazy! A diesel locomotive is uneblievably efficient: it can haul 1 ton 450 miles on a single gallon of diesel fuel. Want to try that with an 18-wheeler truck or a transit bus?

David Brin keeps talking about the so-called "conservatives" (they aren't, they're lunatic Jaconib Trotskyite crazies intent on revoultion, who don't believe in the rule of law or even reason when it conflicts with their ideology) reforming themselves. This is a pipe dream. Every sign points to the Republicans getting nuttier and more extreme. The far-right extremist Republicans now in congress are so far out of the mainstream, you need a telescope to see them. These nut jobs are going to filibuster Obama's stimulus package on pure ideological principle...and it will insure the final irrelevance and collapse of the Republican party. That's a shame, because with the foolish and muddleheaded mountain of pork Obama is going to flush away in the form of this stimulus package, you can bet we need some genuine conservatives to make sure the stimulus package isn't wasted.

Alas, all evidence suggests that the stimulus package will get wasted. 100% wasted, burned up in Democratic pork. Worthless sops to the teachers unions like computers in classrooms, which won't educate kids, but will let them download lots more porn. Worthless sops to the construction unions in the form of highway improvements...just in time for gasoline to hit $6 a gallon, so everyone will stop driving.

It's insane and wasteful, and the Republicans are forming a circular firing squad, so there's no one to stop the Democrats.

Hey, David Brin...does that sound like a far-left body-pierced liberal to you?

Moreover, David Brin keeps talking as though Barry Goldwater was the spiritual father of the modern Republican party. But he wasn't. Clearly Joseph McCarthy was the spiritual father of the current conservative movement, as this article points out quite clearly.

Every since McCarthy and Nixon's ascendency in the late 50s and early 60s, the modern Republican party has been McCarthist to the core. They sowed the wind with hate and divisiness and fearmongering and witch hunts for 40 years, and now the Republican party is reaping the whirlwind.

Unfortunately, the Democratic party doesn't seem to offer much of an alternative. Obama's presidency will be defined by the Afghanistan quagmire, which British commanders on the ground have already decribed as "hopeless" and "unwinnable" and "already lost." His presidency will collapse in the Afghan quagmire, and when the trillion dollars of stimulus gets pissed away on Democratic pork, the country will turn livid with rage...but they'll have nowhere to turn.

That's the situation I see shaping up in the next 4 years. Does that sound like a liberal fellow-traveller to you? Think again, kiddies. I have scarcely any patience for woolly-headed temporizers like Nancy Pelosi than I do for criminal sociopaths like Dick Cheney. They're both wrecking America, and I don't see a viable alternative on the horizon right now.

Gavin Kennedy said...

Adam Smith wrote about the political economy of colonies in Wealth Of Nations (WN IV.vii.b), which David Brin may wish to read to correct the false impression he has that it was the genius of the first generation of the Revolution alone to have discovered the means by which the newly independent colonies altered the economic history of the new states. It was certainly their political savvy which made the difference between the former British colonies and their South American counterparts.

The Revolution’s leaders and many of their luminaries, were familiar with Wealth Of Nations, for many years imported from Britain before an American edition was published (the Library of the US Congress still holds George Washington's signed copy).

In Wealth Of Nations, many American readers no doubt turned to Chapter vii of Book IV: ‘Of Colonies’, and Part 2: ‘Causes of Prosperity of new Colonies’, where he discusses the failings of the Spanish, Portuguese, and French administrations (and has a disquisition of the early Greek colonies of antiquity), within which they would find the following:

“But there are no colonies of which the progress has been more rapid than that of the English in North America.

Plenty of good land, and liberty to manage their own affairs their own way, seem to be the two great causes of the prosperity of all new colonies.

But the political institutions of the English colonies have been more favourable to the improvement and cultivation of this land than those of any of the other three nations [Spain, Portugal and France].

First, the engrossing of uncultivated land, though it has by no means been prevented altogether, has been more restrained in the English colonies than in any other. The colony law which imposes upon every proprietor the obligation of improving and cultivating, within a limited time, a certain proportion of his lands, and which in case of failure, declares those neglected lands grantable to any other person, though it has not, perhaps, been very strictly executed, has, however, had some effect.

Secondly, in Pennsylvania there is no right of primogeniture, and lands, like movables, are divided equally among all the children of the family. In three of the provinces of New England the oldest has only a double share, as in the Mosaical law. Though in those provinces, therefore, too great a quantity of land should sometimes be engrossed by a particular individual, it is likely, in the course of a generation or two, to be sufficiently divided again. In the other English colonies, indeed, the right of primogeniture takes place, as in the law of England. But in all the English colonies the tenure of the lands, which are all held by free socage, facilitates alienation, and the grantee of any extensive tract of land generally finds it for his interest to alienate, as fast as he can, the greater part of it, reserving only a small quit-rent. … But in a new colony a great uncultivated estate is likely to be much more speedily divided by alienation than by succession. The plenty and cheapness of good land, it has already been observed, are the principal causes of the rapid prosperity of new colonies. The engrossing of land, in effect, destroys this plenty and cheapness. The engrossing of uncultivated land, besides, is the greatest obstruction to its improvement. But the labour that is employed in the improvement and cultivation of land affords the greatest and most valuable produce to the society. The produce of labour, in this case, pays not only its own wages, and the profit of the stock which employs it, but the rent of the land too upon which it is employed. The labour of the English colonists, therefore, being more employed in the improvement and cultivation of land, is likely to afford a greater and more valuable produce than that of any of the other three nations, which, by the engrossing of land, is more or less diverted towards other employments.” [WN IV.ii.16-19: pp 572-73]

Primogeniture, a regular target of Adam Smith’s, was pernicious for all the reasons stated by David Brin.

The law of primogeniture was made even more onerous by ‘entails’, which locked the entire estate into a non-divisible whole: no part could be inherited or sold separately; the whole estate could only be purchased and subject to the entail applying in perpetuity.

An inheritor could not dispose of parts of the estate; he had to sell, or pledge, the whole estate in one package. This prevented the development of a yeoman class of farmers, and ensured the steady decline of landed estates inherited by persons uninterested in agricultural improvement.

No Revolutionary politician was unaware of the problems caused by primogeniture and entails. That some states had legislated before 1776 under British administration to reform primogeniture and entail laws was an excellent example to the rest post-independence. Adam Smith provided the political economy of the benefits of these moves.

I think David Brin should at least acknowledge that British thinking from Adam Smith, played a not insignificant role in the deliberations of the post-Revolution leaders and those who influenced them.