Scientist, speaker and technology consultant,David Brin, applies his unique understanding of human history to current events and predicting the future. (David is, after all, one of theWorld’s Best Futurists.) You can find David's best-selling books and short stories at hiswebsiteand all his latest articles at hisblog. ~ Ilene
Courtesy of David Brin
(Originally published on July 29, 2018)
If I seem repetitive, it's because some crucial points keep not being made, in the fight over where to steer civilization.
Sure, moral issues — like a narcissistic toddler who steals thousands of children — belong front and center. But they cannot be the only battle front. Because confederates have been schooled to shrug aside moral arguments.
"While sappy-socialist liberals preach, we are the pragmatic competitors who innovate and invest and make America rich!" By styling themselves as defenders of enterprise and creative markets, oligarchs offer a rhetoric that attracts populist fervor from hardworking farmers and auto mechanics, who know that life is — and at some level should be — highly competitive.
By ceding this ground to the New Lords, liberals make their worst mistake. Because liberalism is justifiable in practical terms! In the health of creative markets. In terms of measurable outcomes. In the general, rising good of all. And especially in keeping faith with the Great Experiment of Freedom…
… and one of its principal founders: Adam Smith.
A Great Rediscovery
The Financial Times (U.K.) is so vastly better than any of its largely lobotomized (or else oligarchy-suborned) U.S. equivalents. A recently published essay - How Adam Smith would fix capitalism - summons what I’ve pushed for years — a rediscovery of this co-founder — along with Franklin and those Americans — of our great, Periclean experiment. Writer Jesse Norman (a British Member of Parliament) gets Smith, showing that the author of The Theory of Moral Sentiments was a deeply caring man, who wanted a balanced use of market forces to benefit everyone, truly raising all boats.
Yes, Smith extolled the unmatched creative power of competition. But the author of The Wealth of Nations, gazed across 6000 years of wretched history and drew a clear conclusion — that humans who gain undue power tend to use it to cheat. To warp markets until they no longer function.
We forget that the actual Boston Tea Party, and the American Revolution, were against a king and his crony oligarchs who commanded that all commerce pass through their docks, paying extortion to lordly monopolists on everything from paper to porcelain, rents that they never earned. The very cheating Adam Smith denounced… and the very opposite lesson of today’s raving “tea-party” confederates.
Those betraying Smith are the ones who most-often claim to extol him, yet do everything in their power to enhance cheating by today’s oligarchs. Says Jesse Norman:
> “…what matters is not the largely empty rhetoric of “free markets”, but the reality of effective competition. And effective competition requires mechanisms that force companies to internalise their own costs and not push them on to others, that bear down on crony capitalism, rent extraction, “insider” vs “outsider” asymmetries of information and power, and political lobbying.”
To Norman’s list, I would add two more vital ways that liberal “market meddling” is highly justifiable in Smithian terms:
- Adjusting market forces to incorporate “externalities” like the good of our posterity, our grandchildren and the ecosystem they’ll depend upon. Adam Smith wrote repeatedly that a society’s values can legitimately be emphasized, so long as the resulting strictures (e.g. tobacco or carbon taxes) are simple, fair, consistent and not another excuse for cheating.
2. Stop wasting talent. A nation that chooses to maximize the feedstock of confident, skilled, joyfully ready competitors is one that will maximize the effectiveness of markets. And hence it is a society that invests in children, in education and health and civil rights, maximizing opportunity without meddling overmuch in equalizing outcomes. Even the doyen of conservative (not-fascist) economics — Friedrich Hayek — conceded this point.
Norman makes clear that this is a matter of survival for any system that seeks the immense benefits of flat-fair-open market accountability:
> “This is a complex and nuanced message, as befits our ever more complex world. It is threatening enough to current orthodoxies that many on all sides, libertarian and socialist, will resist it. Properly understood, however, these Smithian ideas remain absolutely fundamental to any attempt to defend, reform or renew the market system.”
Now, for a shocker that should not surprise. Jesse Norman is the Conservative Party MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire, and the author of a biography of Edmund Burke: The First Conservative. And clearly, the word “conservative” has an older, better meaning, over there. He has a new book out in September:Adam Smith: Father of Economics.
The rediscovery continues
Evonomics is back on high octane. Jonathan Haidt begins a series called 'Darwin's business' that starts by appraising the CEO of Sears, whose management approach – modeled on Ayn Rand – has taken an American giant and corporate icon to the verge of utter collapse. Also, Peter Turchin asks whether morality can apply to capitalism.
Ironies abound. For example, Sears earlier (1992) abandoned its 140 year old mail order business at the very moment the first online stores set up on the Web. Can you believe that coincidence? Sears had been poised to own it all… to be Amazon-squared… and threw it all away!
But the deeper irony in these two articles is simpler. It is only on a liberal site like Evonomics that you find bright folks talking seriously about Adam Smith, and whether it might be possible to rescue market competitive enterprise from its worst enemies across 6000 years…
…not 'socialists,' but cheaters and shortsighted fools.
Alas, liberals are supposed to be the smart ones, on this side of the Atlantic. But you’ll not find one in a hundred who know that their entire movement had a few fathers other than ol’ Ben Franklin and that crew. And number one on that list was Adam Smith. Reclaim him.
The roots of the Confederate Counter-Attack
I’ve somewhat famously – or infamously – called our present predicament “Phase 8” of an American Civil war that has recurred since 1778, when General Cornwallis knew he would find more romantics loyal to King and Lords, down south. Later, the plantation/slave-owning caste filled the top niche that all-too easily plunges into cheating, while crushing fair competition – the same corrupt modality that Adam Smith denounced.
What about the “Greatest Generation” (GG) that overcame the First Depression, smashed Hitler, contained communism, built American science, got us to the moon, and crafted the greatest middle class in history? Is that “when America was great?" (Ask that question incessantly!)
You mean back then the GG's favorite living human was FDR? In that era of strong unions and spectacular economic growth — when the great push to reform our racial and gender and other blindnesses began? When we achieved a social structure (for white males at first, but then others) flatter than any ever known. Markets were regulated to keep competition flat, and the results were inarguable.
Except there were a few arguing for a return older ways. Based upon a core germ of truth — that government regulation can sometimes become cloying or stifling — they began a cult that grew to declare evil any and all regulation to keep competition flat or fair… a cult filled with incantations of loathing against the Greatest Generation’s methods for controlling cheating.
I’ve spoken of Milton Friedman, whose incantations led to the shrinking of corporate ROI (Return on Investment) horizons from ten years to today’s ten weeks. But in a truly scary article, Lynn Parramore describes historian Nancy MacLean’s book - Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America - about Nobel laureate James Buchanan, “who is the intellectual linchpin of the Koch-funded attack on democratic institutions.”
In works like Property as a Guarantor of Liberty (1993). Buchanan saw society as a cutthroat realm of makers (entrepreneurs) constantly under siege by takers (everybody else) His own language was often more stark, warning the alleged “prey” of “parasites” and “predators” out to fleece them.
Never mind that feudalism — (rule by the owner caste) — had 6000 years to prove its case, and exactly zero examples of good governance. What Buchanan illustrates is the way that aristocrats and their paid priests have suborned our natural, libertarian instincts, so that today hardly any libertarians ever even mention Smith’s core notion of flat-fair competition — the "C-Word" -- anymore, parroting instead Buchanan’s (and Pharaoh’s) worship of the word, “property.”
“Adam Smith saw human beings as self-interested and hungry for personal power and material comfort, but he also acknowledged social instincts like compassion and fairness. Buchanan, in contrast, insisted that people were primarily driven by venal self-interest.”
If you have time, look at this essay and realize how long we have been complacent about this counter-attack by the old enemy of human freedom and creativity and happiness, a cabal of zero-sum fools who will win nothing, if they succeed in this oligarchic putsch.
Nothing but a ride in tumbrels.
Aaaaand… more about… Adam Smith…
I wrote a lot about this fellow, who liberals should rediscover and embrace, in order to free him from the right wingers and libertarians who always, always misquote and betray him. Well, since OpenSalon dumped my work, let me offer a few quotations here, and a link to Blogging Adam Smith. Or actually read Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, a book that any politically-minded person should know, top to bottom. (See where I tie in Adam Smith with Hari Seldon and Isaac Asimov!)
Start with what could be a slogan for liberalism.
> “No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.”
The whole tenor of this next passage would, or should, outrage any Ayn Rand cultist. Smith certainly didn’t take the view that the important agents of capitalism were CEOs or even inventors.
> “Observe the accommodation of the most common artificer or day-labourer in a civilized and thriving country, and you will perceive that the number of people whose industry a part, though a small part, has been employed in procuring him this accommodation, exceeds all computation.”
Then there is the natural trend, described by Marx, for industries to drift into monopoly or conspiratorial duopoly, a trend that our parents and grandparents wisely fought down under both Roosevelts.
> “The monopolists, by keeping the market constantly understocked… sell their commodities much above the natural price… The price of monopoly is upon every occasion the highest which can be got. The natural price, or the price of free competition, on the contrary, is the lowest which can be taken….”
And another passage skipped over by the libertarians:
> “We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combinations of masters [cartels]; though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labour….”
Modern context? See how Robert Reich explains the “Monopolization of America.” And be outraged that the Boomers let slide the wisdom of their parents and grandparents who adored Roosevelts for good reasons. (And why can't we find one?)
Choose a side, libertarians
Finally, what all of this comes down to is a tactic for this civil war. Again and again I will remind you it is worthwhile ministering to libertarians!
They share with you a central reflex -- Suspicion of Authority (SoA) -- though clever oligarchs have spent gushers to divert the movement away from ever casting that suspicious eye on them!
Cozened into defending property at all cost, and forgetting the word competition, most of the libertarian movement is currently under complete control by those who bought and paid for it – Steve Forbes, the Kochs, and the lords’ wholly-owned propaganda arm, the Cato Institute.
It’s a pity! Libertarians – were they to learn from their endless failures at both election and prediction – might become a real force on the landscape of both ideas and political reform. No one is asking them to stop questioning Big Government! But to recognize a core historical fact: that monopoly and feudal oligarchies have destroyed more glimmering eras of freedom and market creativity than all the government bureaucrats who ever lived.
Minister to them! They share so many of your basic, impudent, pro-freedom instincts. (See this FB group for "Cyber-Libertarian Democrats.") Tell your libertarian friends:
> "Stop letting the worst enemies of freedom bribe you into only hating on a secondary foe! The original American Revolution was not hatred of “government,” but a king and his cronies who used a gerrymandered Parliament to pass laws favoring the owner-lord aristocracy, forcing all American commerce through their ports and wharves, buying from their monopolies. Do fight to keep the hand of government regulation light! But also fight to keep the hands of oligarchy off of our republic."
Cite a fellow who no libertarian ever reads anymore, so much wiser and smarter and more effective than Ayn bloody Rand that they aren’t arguably the same species.
Among many excellent articles on David's blog, here are some that discuss topics related to this post:
Liars, cowards and scoundrels ~ A not-so-flattering, well-deserved look at the GOP.
Atlas Shrugged: The Hidden Context of the Book and Film ~ A critique of Ayn Rand.
Phases of the American Civil War ~ Today's political map is following a pattern that repeats.
And if you missed it, be sure to read our interview.