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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Practical, Marginal Revolution

It's commonly aphorized that socialism is good in theory, but not in practice. Socialists consider this is a sad joke, because they have seen socialism work in practice, never mind the theory. We have public libraries, collectively owned roads, medicine, public schools, public welfare, etc. And though there are often attendant problems, there are some cities in the world in which these socialistic models thrive. More primordially, the family is evidence that spontaneous cooperation and collective pooling of resources independent of market mechanisms is not only viable, but optimal in diverse contexts. It works. Mises' classic argument about the impossibility of economic calculation in socialism is an overstatement. It is a difficulty inherent in socialistic planning, perhaps, but not an impossibility. The state of theoretical investigations seems irrelevant and distracting to tried and true paths developed by trial and error. There is a tendency in libertarian and conservative circles to deride socialism, but there is a pressing need to respect our differences and work past political ideologies when possible.

My own attitude toward politics began to form in junior high school. A recent convert to the fortress of atheism, deciding that the best we hairless apes could do was to help each other out and give justice on Earth to those with none, I naturally gravitated to socialism. There may have been no Heavenly Father, but we could still act as brothers and sisters to those in need, doing our best to create a heaven in this life. A cursory look at all the various political postures suggested that all those who championed similar causes were leftists. UNICEF, the Peace Corps, local charities-- filled with leftists. Sincere leftists want to relieve suffering and misery in a world where suffering and misery are ubiquitous. But for those that seek rational causes of the economic and social ills that plague society and gravitate toward economics and political science, government itself is eventually seen to be the destructive Golem churning civil society for its own sake. Thusly paved is the path from socialism to libertarianism. Centralized socialism doesn't work well, while free markets are organic, spontaneous networks of cooperation that benefit all actors at any level of society.

Still, there seem to be considerable gaps for those maintaining a steady eye on social justice. Market failures occur. Poverty cannot be solved by markets alone; there will be uninsured, addicts, children born in conditions difficult to escape from. There are many elegant arguments for why these problems can often be traced to government intervention, or why private mechanisms will naturally, of their own accord, help those at the margins that don't succeed. But this remains an obscure gray region in the typical libertarian orthodoxy, and a glaring chasm to leftists. Realizing that markets work doesn't mean we suddenly have a free society in which there are no losers. There are people on the bottom, people suffering at this very moment who need help. There is a tendency among libertarians who have gone through a bleeding heart progressive phase to be eviscerated by the libertarian vision, just as a Rapture Christian sees no need to improve the world when the eschaton is just around the corner. There is a pervasive tendency to armchair activism. Those suffering under the current system want to better themselves before they care to understand the economic causes of poverty. That in the long run people will be better off with less government does not relieve present suffering and doesn't, in itself, provide a vision of what will replace the safety net.

Though there are some Randroids libertarians who won't admit it, humans are responsible for one another. If someone can't afford to feed their children, it affects me. If someone can't afford to pay for a vital medical operation, it affects me. No man is an island. Rare is the individual whose utopia is an egoistic society. What is the state of the libertarian movement when government is growing by leaps and bounds, wars are being fought and new ones being dreamed up, local governments are mimicking national models and a police state is cropping up like an alien species in our heartland. There's a lot of cause to be pessimistic about the supposed victories of the ideological dialectic. On the other hand, the surprising grassroots support for Ron Paul suggests that there may yet be a political revolution. But deep down most libertarians know this can't be counted on. Voters are irrational and political activism is rarely efficacious. Centralized government has an incredible inertia and dark gravity. It's easier to imagine Ron Paul being assassinated than the IRS, CIA and most government departments being shut down. It's much more likely that Ron Paul will soon be forgotten, like Barry Goldwater was forgotten and many more before him.

Instead of waiting for people to "wake up", it is time to realize it will not happen. There will not be an ideological revolution divorced from practical considerations. Economics is not called the dismal science for nothing; political theorizing and arcane moral deontologies don't resonate with the masses. People want to see local, tangible improvement in their lives and in the lives of others. What is needed is a practical revolution. If people have not tasted a voluntary society for themselves, how can they hunger for it?

A free society must grow from the ground up. Rather than an ideological crusade, a practical, concrete activism needs to be nurtured. This means working in soup kitchens and homeless shelters, creating voluntary mutual aid networks, supporting charter school movements locally, delivering groceries to poor families, cleaning up the dirty parts of the city. This means getting your hands dirty and giving practical freedom to other people. Sometimes it may mean going to a city council meeting or supporting a political cause or even voting in local elections. It will mean working with leftists, the religious right and people of various ideologies on voluntary solutions to tangible problems. The hell of government interference will only be rejected when there is at least a practical, malleable purgatory available as a substitute.

Addendum: In response to a commentator, this site has not been hacked. The point is not that the socialist critique of the free market model is correct per se, nor that families prove socialism could work on a large scale. My overall suggestion is that not only is ecumenicism theoretically possible between libertarians and leftists, but that it is practically possible right now. Many socialist visions do not strictly contradict a free market society and in fact are assumed by most libertarians as necessary organizational models on local levels to "fill the gaps" where markets are not desirable or practicable. The challenge then, is to acknowledge that there are gaps right now that need attention by volunteers, especially those conscious that it is better to create a voluntary, responsive system than to depend on government. There are a great many practical steps toward a free society that might be taken independent of the current level of government interference, including the most simple volunteering and working for the poor on local levels. This is work that needs to be done in a libertarian society as much as the current one and should be considered by the libertarian as a pure free market activity.

18 comments:

  1. Anonymous10:29 AM

    "Socialists consider this is a sad joke, because they have seen socialism work in practice, never mind the theory. We have public libraries, collectively owned roads, medicine, public schools, public welfare, etc."

    Has this site been hacked?

    MCLA

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  2. "More primordially, the family is evidence that spontaneous cooperation and collective pooling of resources independent of market mechanisms is not only viable, but optimal in diverse contexts. It works. Mises' classic argument about the impossibility of economic calculation in socialism is an overstatement."

    Only if you mistake what he's saying. (Mises was quite aware that most families do not put out competitive bids for taking out the garbage, so citing that against his argument can't be right, can it?)

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  3. Gene said:

    "(Mises was quite aware that most families do not put out competitive bids for taking out the garbage, so citing that against his argument can't be right, can it?)"

    I think this is a bit strong, Gene. Someone can make a statement that contradicts something he himself knows. In fact, most claims of counterexamples in political economy refer to cases that the original speaker would be familiar with.

    Now I guess you're probably meaning the stronger thing, that Mises explicitly acknowledged Swiss Family Robinson could plan their economy, etc., but said that a modern industrial economy was far more complex. But then John would have to read your Mises.org article explaining this subtle point. (The one on ancient arithmetic or something like that, and yes I'm too lazy to go look it up and link it.)

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  4. As I wrote in the addendum, I agree that central planning doesn't work; I'm a market anarchist, myself. The point is it's not IMPOSSIBLE, it points to an inherent difficulty in socialistic planning.

    The larger point, though, is that socialists and leftists generally, have many goals on the local level that should be shared by libertarians. Libertarians have an advantage, in fact, because of their stress on voluntary, creative solutions. Theoretical duels have their place, but if libertarianism is to be a movement it needs to be something more than armchair activist. The socialist who works locally to improve the condition of those with little is much more worthy of praise than armchair activists.

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  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  6. I think this is an excellent post. So what is the Libertarian version of a practical revolution (whilst understanding ideological battles have their place)? Entrepreneurship. See what value gaps exist in the world around you, work towards filling them while making a living. Making a lot of mistakes along the way of course, but growing stronger and wiser for having made them.

    Y'all might want to check out these guys:
    http://www.flowidealism.org
    http://www2.agsm.edu.au/agsm/web.nsf/Content/AGSMMagazine-PeaceThroughLeadershipEqualityThroughEntrepreneurship

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  7. But Mises' point was not that socialism could not be implemented in various settings imbedded in a market economy; the impossibility he was indicating is that a worldwide socialist commonwealth, with no market exchanges and no money, which was the aim of the major socialists of that time, would have no way of rationally allocating resources. As Kirzner notes, Mises never regarded the continuing existence of the USSR as having anything to do with his thesis. He was not contending that public libraries could not successfully lend out books; he was arguing that an entire economic system that lacked money prices would result in economic collapse.

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  8. But economic collapse is not such a clear cut consequence of the difficulty of economic calculation in socialism. I think of the argument as proving that there will be a tendency for centralized allocation to rely on more decentralized, market like mechanisms to allocate goods, but not that it is absolutely impossible in the sense that it literally could never be implemented. It just couldn't be implemented without misallocation of goods, the cost of such a cumbersome system.

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  9. Lionel, good point about entrepreneurship, I shouldn't have omitted mention of such an important function of civil society. But, I also wanted to suggest that purely profit-motivated (monetary profit) entrepreneurship alone will not create the free society most people want to live in. Charity, mutual aid and collective solutions to very local problems are an integral part of a free society. There is no reason why libertarians should not focus on social justice as much as socialists do.

    Thanks for the links, by the way.

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  10. "But economic collapse is not such a clear cut consequence of the difficulty of economic calculation in socialism."

    For a real case that comes close to what Mises' was indicating, look at what happened in the USSR when they briefly tried to implement "real" socialism: there were vast famines, cannibalism, roving troops of marauders on the roads. Lenin quickly backed off and restored a money-based economy with interest rates.

    Your point "that there will be a tendency for centralized allocation to rely on more decentralized, market like mechanisms to allocate goods" actually backs Mises' case -- pure socialism on a large scale is impossible, and instead humans will always establish market mechanisms to handle allocation.

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  11. "Your point "that there will be a tendency for centralized allocation to rely on more decentralized, market like mechanisms to allocate goods" actually backs Mises' case -- pure socialism on a large scale is impossible, and instead humans will always establish market mechanisms to handle allocation."

    This may be a quibble. Pol Pot enacted pure socialism in Cambodia. Would you say it collapsed because it didn't last for ever or because 1/3 of the population had to die? It wasn't impossible during Pol Pot's reign it seems, nor with the Soviets. It seems more accurate to say it is incredibly inefficient and costly, due to limits inherent in the centralization of economic decisions.

    In the article, the point is that socialists are generally not big believers in centralized economies anymore (at least the more radical ones, Catholic workers, etc), but believe that centralization to a certain degree carries an acceptable cost. The point of my post, though, was not to suggest that they are right, but that if such a program was carried out voluntarily, through mutual aid societies and the like with a high degree of centralization and non-market structure, it is fine to experiment with such models and libertarians in many instances have a moral obligation, as individuals, to support local efforts to alleviate suffering and share the burden of the weak.

    Of course this will take place in the wider context of a market economy, insofar as we have a market economy. Insofar as the socialist's actions are tend toward decentralized solutions to local problems, they are nearly indistinguishable from libertarian solutions. There is common ground, especially with respect to local problems.

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  12. I'm not very familiar with the history of Cambodia, so I won't comment on that. But I highly recommend Pete Boettke's work on the economic history of the USSR. He argues that what actually existed was a system in which the bureaucratic managers of state enterprises became the de facto owners, and ran those enterprises guided by the profit they could draw from them -- i.e., the USSR was a market economy with a vast amount of government intervention.

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  13. I'll check it out, thanks. De Jasay argues something similar in The State, in discussing State Capitalism as a Plantation.

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