Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- October 14, 2008

The Road to Catastrophe

Ernest Partridge

The economy of the United States, and by extension of the world, has arrived at the present crisis after traveling along a road marked with an abundance of warning signs. At this moment in time, it is rather easy to recognize the folly that caused the present emergency. “Hindsight,” as they say, “is 20/20.” However, in this case foresight was not blind. A decade ago, an intelligent and unbiased observer could readily realize that ongoing trends were unsustainable and thus could forecast that sooner or later the ongoing economic circus would lead to disaster. “Hubert Stein’s Law” predicted the outcome: “That which can not go on forever, won’t.”

The American public has been led along this road to ruin by a set of dogmas that are unsupported by the historical record, by empirical evidence, and by practical experience.  Nevertheless, these dogmas have been promoted by publications, by “think tanks,” and by a media, that have been lavishly funded by enormously wealthy private individuals and corporations. And over the past forty years, following the resounding defeat of Barry Goldwater’s conservatism in 1964, these promoters have accomplished through repetition and propaganda what they could not accomplish through reason and evidence: the support of a sizeable portion of the American public, the media, the courts, the Congress, and the Executive Branch of the U.S. government.

Below is an enumeration of three of these dogmas, which are generally labeled as “conservative.” I prefer to call them “regressive,” since they repudiate much of the economic and political wisdom acquired in the past century, and embrace, instead, doctrines once believed to have been decisively refuted by that wisdom.

Following that enumeration, I will list a few policy guidelines that might lead us out of the crisis into which these dogmas have brought us.

Because I will examine a broad field of inquiry in a brief space, many of my assertions might be properly criticized as oversimplified, unsupported, and, dare I admit it, “dogmatic.”  Fortunately, I have presented and argued these points at greater length in numerous Crisis Papers essays and in my book in progress, Conscience of a Progressive, which can be found online here. I will provide links to these sources in the following text. (For a start, here is a list  of twelve contrasting “elements” of the ideologies of the regressive right and of the liberal left).

Social Atomism

The concepts of “society” and “the public” have a diminutive place in regressive ideology.  In fact, in the minds of many regressive libertarians, these concepts are mere myths. For example, Margaret Thatcher proclaimed, “There is no such thing as society – there are individuals and there are families.”  And Ayn Rand: “There is no such entity as 'the public' ... the public is merely a number of individuals."

If “there is no such thing as society” or “the public,” it follows that there is no such thing as “public goods” and “the public interest,” apart from summation of private goods and interests. Accordingly, there are no “victims of society.” The poor choose their condition; poverty is the result of “laziness” or, as the religious right would put it, a “sin.”

The regressive is convinced that if each individual confines one’s concern to the pursuit of one’s private interests and the achievement of one’s personal goals, the optimum satisfaction of all will be accomplished, “as if by an invisible hand.” (Adam Smith). That which is good for each, is good for all.

Accordingly, the functions of government should be confined to the protection of individual “natural rights” to life, liberty, and property.. Otherwise, the regressive insists, “you are on your own.” Private initiative and private property will always produce superior results to public institutions.

The liberal, on the other hand, insists that “society” and “the public” are more than the sum of their individual, personal, components. As John Rawls puts it, a society is: “a cooperative venture for mutual advantage [which] makes possible a better life for all than any would have if each were to live solely by his own efforts.” (A Theory of Justice, p. 4).  Thus there are “public goods” and “social values.” In numerous easily identifiable cases, individual self-serving behavior results in social harm, and conversely, individual sacrifice is required to accomplish public goods. In brief, that which is good for each may be bad for all, and that which is bad for each may be good for all.

Market Absolutism

Regressives are convinced that “the wisdom of free markets” will always produce superior results than would government initiatives. As David Boaz writes:

“[T]he free market allows more people to satisfy more of their desires, and ultimately to enjoy a higher standard of living than any other social system... We need simply to remember to let the market process work in its apparent magic and not let the government clumsily intervene in it so deeply that it grinds to a halt." (Libertarianism, a Primer, p. 40, 185.)

And Milton and Rose Friedman:

"A free market [co-ordinates] the activity of millions of people, each seeking his own interest, in such a way as to make everyone better off... Economic order can emerge as the unintended consequence of the actions of many people, each seeking his own interest." (Free to Choose, pp 13-14).

The theoretical core of regressive economic policy is based upon an imaginary creature inhabiting a mythical environment.

The imaginary creature is “economic man” (homo economicus), a pure egoist, motivated solely by the self-interested desire to maximize his “utility" – a concept variously described as "want-" or "preference satisfaction." This motivation is manifested and measured by "economic man's" willingness-to-pay for these "satisfactions" in a “perfect” market.

That “perfect market” exhibits the following conditions: the participants (all "economic men" of course) must be numerous and completely informed, and their transactions must be voluntary, mutually beneficial, open, without collusion, and their exchanges free of transaction costs and externalities (such as pollution of others' air and water).

Small wonder that this ideology does not fit the “real world” of individuals with moral, aesthetic, and sentimental motives in addition to economic motives, facing markets that deceive and withhold information, and engaged in transactions that seriously affect non-consenting third-parties (i.e., “externalities” affecting “stakeholders”).

Moreover, this “neo-classical” economic theory (of “economic man” and “perfect markets”) has not captivated most economists, some of whom are fully cognizant of its limitations. Among them, the Nobel laureate, Amartya Sen:

"The economist . . . keeps the motivations of human beings pure, simple and hard-headed, and not messed up by such things as goodwill or moral sentiments... [T]here is ... something quite extraordinary in the fact that economics has in fact evolved in this way, characterizing human motivation in such spectacularly narrow terms. One reason why this is extraordinary is that economics is supposed to be concerned with real people. It is hard to believe that real people could be completely unaffected by the reach of the self-examination induced by the Socratic question, 'how should one live?'" (On Ethics and Economics, Oxford: Blackwell, 1987, pp 1-2.)

Spontaneous Order

The regressive’s disdain for government is buttressed by a conviction that an ideal social order arises “spontaneously,” without government initiative or regulation, out of voluntary human interaction. As the libertarian, David Boaz writes:

... order in society arises spontaneously, out of the actions of thousands or millions of individuals who coordinate their actions with those of others in order to achieve their purposes... The most important institutions in human society – language, law, money and markets – all developed spontaneously, without central direction. (Libertarianism: A Primer, p. 16).

While “spontaneous order” may be true of natural languages, Boaz's claim that law, money and markets arise "spontaneously" and thrive without deliberate governance, is resoundingly refuted by both history and practical experience.  In fact, few if any complex human activities can take place without rules and the active enforcement thereof.  For example, all team sports require referees. Even markets operate under sets of rules, and sanctions against those who violate these rules.  And we are now, to our profound regret, discovering what happens when markets are allowed to function "spontaneously" without regulation.

No known civilized society has ever existed without some form of government, some oppressive and others democratic and just. Few municipalities are prepared to abolish fire and police departments, merely because these civic institutions are less than perfect. If, as Ronald Reagan complained, “government is not the solution, government is the problem,” then the rational remedy is not necessarily less government (albeit such remedies are occasionally in order). That remedy might be found in improved government.

The Road Back

These three regressive dogmas -- social atomism, market absolutism and spontaneous order -- among several others that I have dealt with elsewhere, have led us to the economic crisis now before us. An escape from this economic morass begins with a repudiation of regressive ideology, which, happily, is now under way.

That repudiation must be followed by a vigorous program of economic and social renewal, highly unlikely under a McCain/Palin administration, but just possible under the leadership of President Barack Obama.

Here are a few proposals:

  • An immediate restoration of personal liberties, a diverse media, and the rule of law.

  • Investment in public education for responsible citizenship, including the teaching at an early age of United States and world history, the foundations of American democracy, and the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. The public media should be required (under the “public interest” clause of the Federal Communications Act) to supplement these lessons.

  • Authentic free enterprise must be reinvigorated, and the so-called “free enterprise” promoted by the regressives recognized as the monopolistic and anti-competitive fraud that it is. Corporate gigantism must be abolished through anti-trust legislation and enforcement, which will reintroduce competition. The domestic manufacturing base must be restored. If profit is to be privatized, then so too must risk. No private corporation can be allowed to grow so large that it might hold the national economy hostage. As Senator Bernie Sanders puts it, “Too big to fail is too big to exist.”

  • “The profit motive” must be recognized as merely one productive motive among many. In addition, careers dedicated to service to others, and to the search for knowledge must be celebrated, encouraged, and generously rewarded.

  • The nation’s wealth, privately acquired by the privileged few through tax cuts and de-regulation, must be reacquired by the national treasury through tax reform, and invested in public institutions such as infrastructure, education, scientific research, universal health care, transition to sustainable energy, environmental restoration, etc.

  • The U.S. Military budget, now equal to that of the rest of the entire world combined, must be cut, in half at least, and the “Defense Department,” true to its name, must limit its objectives to national defense thus restricting its capacity for offensive warfare abroad.  American imperialism, proudly proclaimed by "The Project for the New American Century," must now be officially repudiated.

  • Economic recovery policies, proven in the past in The New Deal (FDR), The Fair Deal (Truman), The New Frontier (Kennedy) and The Great Society (Johnson), must be reinstituted, but adapted to present circumstances.

It should be noted that many of the above proposals – for service careers, infrastructure repair, education, research and development, expanded health care, alternative energy development, etc. – would directly address the urgent economic problem of unemployment.

As recently as a month ago, such a program of economic restoration and national renewal would have been flatly impossible, due to the overwhelming political power of financial institutions and mega-corporations, and the influence of the corporate media. But today, with the stock market collapse, the acute and widespread economic distress among all but the most wealthy Americans, and the consequent political unrest and activism, we may have arrived at one of those “hinges of history” which just might move the United States and the world in a new and more hopeful direction.

We’ll begin to find an answer in three weeks, as the Americans go to the polls.

If dirty tricks, lies, caging lists, and corrupt voting machines do their worst and McCain/Palin prevail, then apres Bush, le deluge.

But if Barack Obama wins, the struggle continues as political pressure must then be applied to his administration, forcefully and persistently. President Obama, like FDR before him, might then be heard to say, “I agree with your objectives, now go out and make me do it.”

Copyright 2008 by Ernest Partridge

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .