Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Government control

One “common sense” argument put forth against socialism, in the (limited) sense of direct government control over the economy, is that the government cannot be trusted to invest wisely.  They may keep non-viable enterprises going, for example, pouring in money drawn from better-performing portions of the economy, in order to win votes.

As a prima facie argument, this strikes me as silly.  After all, private capitalists cannot be trusted to invest wisely, either, and to the extent that they do, they invest for their own benefit, not ours, and the public weal follows as a side effect, if at all.  It’s not that I don’t believe in the existence of the “invisible hand”.  I just think its reach only extends so far.  Maintaining jobs in a money-losing business that produces a useful commodity may actually be a perfectly reasonable public investment in some circumstances, but not one that would ever appeal to the private capitalist.

On a more detailed, implementation-focused level, of course the anti-socialist objection is not entirely ridiculous.  If we have publicly managed investments, we do want them to be managed well, and managing investments well is not a trivially easy job.  We also need to protect ourselves from outright corruption.  Addressing these issues is partly a matter of management, of checks and balances, of trying to design a system as free as possible from irrelevant, systematic distortions.  But to get a well-balanced, robust plan of public investment that takes all direct and indirect costs and benefits into account, I think we would need a much more participatory planning process.   (Note that taking ALL direct and indirect costs and benefits into account is something that capitalist enterprise management NEVER does.)

Can we get a suitable democratic planning process within our current models of government?  I do not believe in the blanket statement, asserted by some on the left, that “you cannot tear down the master’s house using the master’s tools.”  But some of the master’s tools are in fact rather specifically engineered to serve the master’s purposes, and are not so readily adapted to the needs and purposes of the folk.  In my mind, our really-existing systems of representative government are examples of such tools.

Representative governments originated, in Europe, as a way for kings to appease the aristocracy, and eventually the richer bourgeoisie, without ceding too much central control.  Some constitutions, of course, were constructed as a conscious break with the rule of kings; however, the one such “revolutionary” constitution I know something about – our own in the U.S. – was consciously created to keep hoi polloi at arm’s length, and guarantee effective control by the richer classes.  Obviously, there have been modifications in these constitutions over the centuries, most of which (I think)  have been in the direction of greater democratization, but there still is a long way to go.  Most ordinary folks participate in democracy only by spending ten minutes every 2-4 years in voting  (if they even do that).  “Debate” takes place between politicians and pundits in the commercial news media (primarily), and is, to most people, at best a spectator sport.  People’s own discussions tend to take place amongst small groups of their own friends, and can influence the broader process of policy formulation only to the extent they happen to be queried through the passive (and eminently manipulable) process of polling. 

A truly democratic process would have people involved in interactive debate, with both themselves and opponents as participants; a debate taking place in a public forum that fed directly into the decision making process.  Listening to arguments pro and con, and being forced to make a meaningful decision afterwards, focuses the intelligence, I believe, like almost nothing else.

The punditry would assure us that people just don’t want to be that involved in their own government.  Maybe that’s only because they’ve never had the chance.