Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Trusting each other

There is no “magic bullet” for democracy.  That is, democracy cannot reside in the institutions, alone.  The people, or a large majority of them, must take their role as responsible decision makers seriously, and they must do their job well.  This idea used to be common to the democratic movements, as in the English lyrics of “The Internationale”:  “We must, ourselves decide our duty.  We must decide, and do it well.”  Democracy requires us to have mutual respect and a sense of justice.  We must make a good-faith effort to exercise good judgment.  We must exercise self-restraint.  We must honestly weigh the good of others against our own interests.  Otherwise, democracy devolves into a struggle between different groups of “the strong” for their own immediate good, and the political quagmire the ancient Greeks called “stasis” prevails.

The people’s faith in each other cannot be na├»ve.  The problem of the “free rider” serves as an example.  If almost all the people in a society are good, do their jobs, and share the resulting wealth, then it will, at least superficially,  be beneficial for some people to try to take a share without working for it.   Concern about  free riders is certainly a slippery slope.  People of relative privilege may label the less privileged “free riders” (as they are inclined to do in our own, plutocratic society), so as to argue against sharing their wealth.  But despite the potential for abuse, the potential for free riders is real, so this is a slippery slope that must be navigated.  Judgment is required (see above).  But denial is not a solution.

False dichotomies and either-or decision making must be avoided.  The problem of correctly identifying free riders (for example) cannot be turned into a battle between a “right” which identifies all poor people as presumptive free riders, and a “left” which argues that abusers of social privileges do not exist.

Democracy is prey to the problem of generalizing from particulars.  One person or ten betrays our trust, so we conclude that people, in general, cannot be trusted, and design laws to limit people’s freedom of action to narrow, “safe” paths.  This leads to Byzantine, alienating laws, and ironically worsens the problem of people breaking trust, because a person who feels alienated from “the system” sees little reason, other than the fear of punishment, to commit the effort required to make it work.  Transferring the exercise of judgment from the people to the laws, limiting the degree to which people have to think and take conscious responsibility for their participation, is tempting, but is another slippery slope.  There is no magic bullet.  Taken too far, this process weakens democracy, rather than strengthening it.

Trusting people doesn’t mean believing that the people are always right.  It means recognizing, first, that laws, too, can fail.  The laws, after all, are written by some of the same people you’re deciding you can’t trust!  But more importantly, laws cannot be made sufficiently detailed to anticipate every possible situation.  The basis of law is a process of abstraction.  Prioritizing law over judgment means ignoring many of the particulars that arise in any possible situation.  This tends to separate law from justice.  Separating law from justice is alienating, and alienation (as we saw) undermines democracy.

Secondly, trusting the people means recognizing that even if the people err, it is their mistake to make.

The first of these recognitions is that no alternative to trusting the people is functional; the second is that no alternative to trusting the people is just.

This does not mean that a democracy should not establish institutions or pass laws.  (This is where I break, perhaps, with the anarchists.)  But a law should not be viewed as a once-for-all solution to a problem.  The laws should be seen as documentation of a part of the collective experience and wisdom of the past, preserved to inform the judgments of the present.  Such laws exist to prevent the necessity of reinventing the wheel – of forming all judgments fully de novo at all times.  The law should support, and not preclude , the exercise of judgment, and especially it should not preclude the recognition of cases in which the requirements of justice differ from the letter of the law.

Allowing judgment to take priority over the law may require different institutions of justice.  In our legal system, we have a (rather small) jury which is charged with considering only matters of fact, and a judge who is charged with deciding on matters of law.  Nobody is specifically charged with considering matters of justice –  if justice is thought about at all, it is assumed to be fully embedded within the law.  The ancient Athenians heard cases with much larger juries, and no judge.  The advocates for both sides were assumed to bring up relevant points of law, of which jurors were also expected to be reasonably well-informed, and the jury judged (by majority vote) with few restrictions on their scope of responsibility. 

Some kind of hybrid system may be best.  A democratic justice system may require larger juries, randomly selected, with full scope to consider matters of justice as well as matters of fact.  A panel of judges or other learned persons could serve to bring the jury’s attention to matters of law (considered, as above, as a repository of wisdom, to be used as a resource, to guide, but not to bind).  Options other than punishment or acquittal could be considered – mediation, negotiation, restitution for example.  Decisions could be made preferably by consensus, with a fall back of a majority, or super-majority vote if consensus is judged to have failed despite all good-faith efforts.

It’s something to wonder about, at any rate…


Note:  The musings in this post arose as reflections on a book I am reading, The Origins of Democratic Thinking: The invention of politics in classical Athens, by Cynthia Farrar.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Root of All Evil

The root of capitalism is the principle that the possession of property entitles you to a claim on the fruits of someone else's labor.  There is no moral justification for this.  It is on a par with "might makes right" or "the Devil take the hindmost."  Capitalism is thus corrupt at its very core, whatever social benefits it might be deemed to have in any specific time and place.

The logic of capitalism only makes sense if there is an unequal distribution of wealth.  If everybody had equal wealth, there would be no sense in property employing labor; rather, we would tend to evolve a system where men and women collectively used their property and their labor in order to socially produce things (since social production is more efficient than individual production).  Equal distribution of wealth would tend toward a cooperative society, rather than a capitalistic one.

So capitalism arises only in an unequal society; its essential logic guarantees that.  The logic of the working-out of capitalism increases the initial inequality.  If you have only a small amount of property, it is very difficult to make it grow.  Generally, only your constant labor can keep it from shrinking.  If you have a large amount of property, however, it is very difficult to PREVENT it from growing.  The process of being paid for the use of your property returns the borrowed property plus a dividend, over and over again.  The more property you possess, the larger the dividend.  If the amount of property you possess is very large, it becomes virtually impossible to spend the dividend.  Even if your wealth is a bit smaller, only a modest amount of self-restraint is necessary for savings.  So the wealth of rich people grows and grows.  Yes, it is possible for a wealthy person to "go bust" because of bad investments.  But it doesn't happen very often.  And even a wealthy person who, with great fanfare, has  "gone bust",  generally has more residual wealth than a person who wasn't rich to begin with.  Squalor turns out to be relative.

Capitalism is inherently incompatible with democracy, because capitalism concentrates concentrations wealth, and wealth is inevitably power. There is no way to decouple the relationship of wealth and power.  Regulatory tinkering, such as campaign finance rules, can only act as an impediment, an inconvenience to the wealthy when they act to assert their money-power.  Capitalist countries, then, even with republican governmental forms, tend to devolve into de facto oligarchies.  This process can be resisted only by constant vigilance, to limit accumulation of wealth, to restrain the free political exercise of wealth, to balance people power against money power (unions and voter empowerment campaigns).  This vigilance is a lot of work.  When we have won some improvements, "we the people" tend to slack off.  The capitalists never do.  The differential rewards for them - the incentives - are just too immediate and great.  Thus, when times got somewhat better in the postwar period - at least in Europe, the U.S. and Canada - the people became complacent, and in the mid-1970s the capitalists, with their neoliberal/Reaganite/Thatcherite agenda, counter attacked.  And so, here we are today, with economic inequality and poverty at record levels, with a stagnant economy, but with many capitalists declaring "recovery" despite the fact that so many remain unemployed, many, many more underemployed, and almost all of us economically insecure.

So it turns out that not money, but private capital is the root of all evil, arising only in conditions of inequality, sustaining and promoting inequality, and undermining democracy.  Ultimately, if we want secure and just economies, we need to decouple property and income, by recognizing that all capital is socially constructed, and must be socially owned.