Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Caplan and Bruenig on Capitalism vs Socialism

Sometimes a debate is an interesting way to see proponents of opposing views confront the roots of their disagreement, and sometimes it's more an exercise in rhetorical ships passing in the night. As far as I can tell from the text parts posted online (a recording of the debate itself is not available, at least as of yet) the debate at LibertyCon between libertarian Bryan Caplan (opening statement posted here) and Christian socialist Elizabeth Bruenig (opening statement here) seems to be more the latter kind of debate, but their pieces are both interesting, though frustrating at times in both their limitations. There's also a follow-up post where Caplan responds in writing to Bruenig's opening statement.

I clearly agree far more on economics with Caplan. However, the philosophy he roots his argument in is that 'capitalism' is good because it's based on utterly free choice:
What's so awesome about the capitalist ideal? It's a system based on individual freedom and voluntary consent. You're allowed to do what you want with your own body and your own stuff. If other people want to cooperate with you, they have to persuade you; if you want other people to cooperate with you, you have to persuade them. Can consent really be "voluntary" if some people have a lot more to offer than others? Absolutely. Some people are vastly more attractive than others, but that does nothing to undermine the voluntariness of dating. Under capitalism, how people use their freedom is up to them; they can try to get rich, they can relax, they can help the poor, all three, or none of the above.
The extreme individualism of his thought is shown by this example he uses:
Socialists like to compare their ideal society to a family. But in actual families, you don't have to support your siblings if you don't want to. Indeed, you don't even have to support your parents who gave you life. Why should your moral obligations to complete strangers be any stronger? The idea that the rich are morally obliged to give away everything they don't need until poverty is vanquished has some superficial appeal. But objectively speaking, almost all of us have vastly more than we need, especially if you remember the market value of all your free time. I loathe hyperbole, but if a socialist government enforced the obligation to give away all your surplus to the poor, you would literally be a slave.
I have moral disagreements with this. I think that we do indeed have obligations to help our siblings, our parents, our friends and neighbors in their times of need. Does this mean we have an enforced obligation to, as Caplan says "give away all your surplus to the poor"? No, not necessarily. I'm not sure that our moral obligation to others is quantified in terms of how much of our goods are "surplus" and how much of them we have to give away. However, I am certain that it's an immoral response to someone who comes to us in real need to say, "Too bad. I don't care."

Caplan seems to think of the ideal society primarily in terms of material goods. In his followup piece, he reacts with some scorn to Bruenig's citations of great Western thinkers and says:
I spent many years studying intellectual history. Still, my honest reaction: While these "luminaries" were smart, most were also profoundly ignorant and dogmatic - and apologists for the brutal societies in which they lived. Most had near-zero knowledge of what actually sustains the true and beautiful in our culture, namely: science, tolerance, and markets. They have far more to learn from us - both factually and morally - than we do from them.

That said, I suspect the large majority of these luminaries would look at us with amazement. Indeed, when they exited of the time machine, they'd wonder if they'd died and gone to heaven. After all, they'd witness amazingly well-fed, healthy people enjoying a cornucopia of technology and art beyond their wildest dreams. Then they'd learn about the abolition of slavery and serfdom, the amazing progress of women, and the peaceful co-existence of conflicting religions and philosophies. And hygiene. And Netflix.

Would any of the luminaries till have the nerve to call us "unfree"? Probably a few misanthropes and hate-mongers like Augustine and Marx, though perhaps even they could be shock-and-awed to their senses by our resplendent world.
I clearly hold figures like Augustine and Socrates in rather more regard than Caplan does, and I feel confident that if they encountered our modern society that while they would indeed be impressed by our clean water, our medicine, our fast transportation, and the leisure time which our technology allows us, that they would in no way confuse our modern world with heaven because they would recognize people themselves as being morally very much what they have been in the past. Now as in the 4th century BC or the fourth century AD, people are sometimes virtuous and sometimes wicked, sometimes generous and sometimes selfish, etc.

Given all this, one might expect me to be in more agreement with Bruenig's piece. And yet, if I often found Caplan's piece to be blind towards the moral aspects of society, I found Bruenig full of her own problems. She opens with a nice classical allusion:
It seems very fitting to me that we should discuss these matters at LibertyCon, as I do agree that we are currently facing a crisis of liberty. The great authors of the Western tradition, the ancients and the late antique and medieval luminaries who laid out the foundations for what remains true and beautiful in our culture, would look see us as profoundly unfree.

There is the first and greatest matter of interior unfreedom. In the Phaedrus, one of his Socratic dialogues, Plato had his mentor liken the human soul to a team of two winged horses led by their charioteer. “The horse that is on the right, or nobler, side,” Socrates says, “is a lover of honor with modesty and self-control; companion to true glory, he needs no whip, and is guided by verbal commands alone.” Meanwhile, “the other horse is a companion to wild boasts and indecency, he is shaggy around the ears-deaf as a post-and just barely yields to horsewhip and goad combined.” The bad horse, undisciplined and self-indulgent, is always dragging its poor yokemate and charioteer into pathetic and immoral behavior; it is unbridled lust and greed and ravenous want, and its domination of its team is the very definition of unfreedom. Nobody ruled by such mad appetites could be said to be truly free.

Then there is the matter of exterior freedom. In Politics, Aristotle considered the natural slave, “one who is,” in the words of Greek philosophy scholar Joseph Karbowski, “naturally suited for slavery…a human being who is by nature suited to be a piece of property that belongs to someone else and functions as a second-order tool for action.” Aristotle’s natural slaves are confined to pursuing the interests and purposes of others, he imagines, by a kind of moral and psychological weakness; so much less binds us to the same sort of existence, performing labor that only serves another person’s ends, selling off the possibility of living toward our own. And we are not short on masters: St. John Chrysostom, the fourth-century bishop of Constantinople, warned the idle rich of his day: “Possessions are so called so that we may possess them, not so that they possess us. Why do you regard the master as a slave? Why do you invert the order?” No longer is this inversion an affliction strictly of the rich; it characterizes our entire social order.

It’s something of a shame now to see these greats peering down at us from the occasional courthouse pediment or Cathedral niche. What would they make of us now? We’re ruled by passions and owned by things; we have been taught that freedom is a vast blankness defined only by its featurelessness, and we spend our lives laboring at the behest of others, in hopes of surpassing those nearest to us instead of cooperating with them.

The story of how we got to where we are is the story of the rise of capitalism — a historical condition in which economic and political power are arrayed according to the interests of capital owners, who in turn dominate their social landscapes. Capitalism itself sits at the center of a web of mutually reinforcing ideological and material structures which, taken together, diminish human freedom from the inside out, and militate against human flourishing.
I quote this first block of argument at some length because it seems to lay out Bruenig's central thinking on the topic. The problem identified is, of course, a real one. Many people are ruled by appetite, weighed down by attachment to their material possessions, etc. However, I'm unclear that this is necessarily much different from other eras. Does the fact that our economy is market based rather than being hunter gatherer or feudal or socialist mean that people like their things more now than at other times? The timelessness of these vices (even though they do come out in different ways in different places and times) can be seen in the satirical power which Petronius's Satyricon or Apuleius's The Golden Ass retain to this day. If Caplan is wrong to think that ancients would have believed today's world to be heaven, Bruenig seems equally wrong to think that the ancients would recognize humanity as clearly worse today than in ancient Greece and Rome. We're different, and our vices take different shape, but the universality of humanity in both its virtues and vices is precisely what makes the insights of writers such as Augustine as applicable today as sixteen hundred years ago.

Bruenig wants to imagine that capitalism is uniquely bad in terms of appealing to people's worse instincts:
Capitalism fosters an obsessive focus on one’s interests, meaning one’s material well-being, and argues that the pursuit of such is an unqualified moral good; it renders sustained contemplation for no other purpose than to know the truth utterly useless and irrational, and largely impossible. It is preferable, for capitalists, that we do not spend any time shaping or educating our wills, and thus they’re simultaneously weak and tyrannical.
It seems to me that this means giving "capitalism" much more philosophical robustness than needs or deserves. I'd argue that a decent definition of a capitalist or market economy would be one in which the means of production are owned by people or people grouped together in corporations or associations and in which the prices of product and of labor are set by the market, in other words by the balance of what buyers are willing to pay and sellers are willing to accept.

Does the fact that I can sell goods or labor for what price I choose rather than a price set by some sort of state agency or semi-formal democratic process mean that I care about my income more than about my love and obligations for family, church, town, etc.? Does the fact that I spend many of my hours in the office doing analysis to determine the right price to set for various consumer products mean that I must at other times be a beast of pure consumption and buy whatever widget comes before me while refusing to think about God, about truth, about art? Certainly not. Indeed, it is to a great extent because of the leisure time and comfort I earn through my market employment that I in turn have the time and resources to support my church, to read books, to produce art. Few of the workers of Socrates' day or Augustine's had the leisure and material comfort that I do. And indeed, everyone (even the richest) lived much more in danger of want and illness than I do in our modern, capitalist society. Certainly, many people today use their free time and their resources to do things which are shallow or materialistic, but that, again, is a very universal human failing. And while, in general, people in the past had fewer material comforts than we do today, that does not mean that they were less attached to them than we are to ours. Indeed, at times, the very scarcity of material comforts is what drives people to be all the more attached to what they do have.

Bruenig expresses concern that capitalism presents the false appearance of freedom, and in fact people are coerced by necessity into doing work from which they feel alienated:
The basic fact of capitalism is that the vast majority of people in society will work toward ends that are not their own, and are in some cases barely even known to them. In these circumstances, per Hughes, “the goal of the [worker’s] activity is no longer immediately present in the action, nor even partially inherent in it, but rather utterly extrinsic to it, and often quite distant.” Workers sell their labor — which, as Hegel pointed out in his Philosophy of Right, means nothing less than “alienating the whole of my time, as crystallized in my work, and everything I produced,” thus “making into another’s property the substance of my being,…my personality” — and in return receive a wage, essentially protection money to pay off other rentiers and commodity dealers for the use of the world.
One hears this account of alienation in capitalistic societies often from their critics, and yet a struggle to understand how this is necessarily different from other societies. Socrates, for instance, was a stone mason. When he cut stones, did he do so with the full knowledge of where those stones would fit in the finished building and they the building was being built? Or did he cut stone for a living because that was the trade he had been taught as a youth and thus the way that he could put bread on the table? Was he, in this sense, any different from the modern person who stocks shelves at Walmart or shuffles TPS reports around the office or installs back seats in cars on the assembly line?

And does socialism provide any closer connection between the worker and the meaning of his work? There is the old cynical line from the Eastern Bloc, "They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work," which hardly suggests a lack of alienation.

Here in the democratic West, many point to union work as how the whole economy ought to focus. And yet, whenever I have dealt with union work, the union mentality seems to be, "I don't care about the job or its object, I only care about following the maximal interpretation of the work rules and getting my breaks."

To my mind, work in a market economy is the least alienating work. Yes, modern economies are complex and companies can be bureaucratic despite their private ownership, but there is at least the basic human connection between the price of a thing and the value which someone else places upon it. If I want to earn more, I do it not by applying to the worker's committee or by seeking favor with the local lord, but by providing move value to others and thus by receiving more payment from them in return. This is the sense in which a market economy and its pricing mechanisms is a very human centered economy. What critics like to call the tyranny of the market can also be described as a system in which we earn money in proportion to how much we do things that are of value to others.

Bruenig talks about the goal of de-commodifying labor, saying:
education, for instance, is largely de-commodified; there is also a major grassroots movement to de-commodify healthcare. All this means is to protect certain domains from total domination by market-based forces. The de-commodification of labor, as my friend C.W. Strand has pointed out, leads to a circumstance in which “one’s livelihood — one’s survival, or economic reproduction — is no longer market-dependent.” Once labor is liberated from the pressures and caprices of the market, Strand also observed, “then the nature of the market itself changes: it ceases being a realm of imperatives, and instead becomes one of opportunities.” It returns a person’s creativity, agency, and time to them; it removes the penalty, or lowers the cost, if you like, of contemplation.
Of course, what is it that we see in some of the more de-commodified corners of education? Schools in which there are as many administrators as teachers and where the administrators are actually payed more than the teachers are. We critics of Bruenig's brand of socialism would point out this is rather what you would expect when an organization gets is money via politics and patronage rather than via providing actual value to those who benefit from it.

This is not to say that there are no difficulties with the market driven approach. A market economy works rather as democracy is described: it gives the people what they want and gives it to them good and hard. This means that when people refuse to pay as much as they should for some good (say, childcare workers) they get in return some mix of not-very-good workers providing that need (people unable to find something more highly paid to do) and people whose desire to provide a needed and important service is too strong to be dissuaded by the low pay. It's not unreasonable to think of that latter category as being harmed by the unwillingness of the majority of people to pay more for that important service. I can understand why it is that some people think the solution is to have the government step in and mandate that said service be paid at a higher level. Yet what this misses is two problems. First off, if our problem is that the great swathe of people are trying to get away with paying too little for a service to attract good workers, having the question decided by vote rather than by market will not necessarily produce better results. Secondly, disconnecting the pay for a service from the willingness of those receiving it to pay for it often itself degrades the quality. We see this in the area of education, where districts with powerful union presences often see bad teachers protected by the union despite the fact they're clearly not doing a good job of providing education.

I do not make some Panglossian argument that a market economy will fix all ills. It will not, because it is merely a mechanism for conveying to sellers what buyers are willing to pay, and the buyers themselves are often not virtuous. And yet, imperfect though a market economy is, it seems in general to function better than the alternatives.


Foxfier said...

It "feels" like they've got a similar weakness- they're trying to build a system that can automatically produce the great result that in real life, comes out of humanity being...well, rather moral, in the Christian model.

The level of decency that most Libertarians assume is rather striking. (If I hear one more "people just won't do that!" in the face of centuries of people actually doing it, I may scream.) And the various flavors of communism/socialism/planned society are kinda infamous for requiring God to plan them, and Angels to do the running.

Joel A. said...

This analysis is refreshing to read in its honest, down-to-earth assessment of the Caplan-Bruenig debate. You've definitely treated the latter's deliberately-dangerously naive (IMO) view of pro-socialism/anti-capitalism far more graciously than I would have. Thank you for your thoughts and to Bryan Caplan for retweeting your post.

Darwin said...

Thanks, Joel. I was flattered that Bryan linked to it. I've enjoyed his interviews on EconTalk over the years and his Ideological Turing Test concept.

Ian said...

It seems to me that one of the best arguments against capitalism would be Caplan's own arguments: he paints capitalism as a very inhuman system, and I would find Bruenig's vision much more appealing if all I had to go on were the passages quoted in this post. Caplan comes off as a mental and moral midget.

Does Bruenig explicitly argue for socialism in the sense of nationalized industries? This doesn't come through in the passages quoted.

Agnes said...

My problem with both sides is that there is no economical system that can be a salvation on earth. So long as the persons at the wheel are human beings beset by temptation and sin, there will always be misuse of power, whether the power lies in the money (capitalism) or in the bureocratic leadership (socialism).
I find these ideas very dangerous: the selfish individualistic idea that there is no moral obligation to support one's family members and the poor of society; the naive statement that in capitalist countries there is little real poverty and that elderly people would be better off if they all arranged for their own retirement financial security; and that private charity could solve the problem of the remaining poor.

The reason the US is richer than most countries is not that it has a capitalist economy (or not exclusivey that). I lived through the change of economy in a former socialist country to capitalist economy and the poverty we saw former middle class people sink into was very real. I know third world people are even more poor than average poor people in the Western countries are, but that's again, not because Subsaharan Africa isn't capitalist enough. Capitalist economy favors those who already have the money, and it's best not to ask where they got their first lump of money. I also highly doubt the well developed areas would remain the same if there was a mass immigration into them.
On the other hand, I perceive alienation of labor (if I understand the concept at all, and I'm not sure I can see what is so truly important about it) a result of industrialization rather than any specific economical system. I also don't know of any example how socialism could truly reduce "social and political inequality", and while it can "diminish capital's control over politics, society and economy", it only puts a different control on it.

Steven Hankin said...

This discussion seems misguided in that it comes off as debating whether capitalism or socialism is the better panacea for ridding of us of our moral shortcomings. Yet, capitalism is only a process, not some idealistic, end game to be achieved It is a process based on individual choices; yet, it is a social process, so describing it as being overly individualistic is also misleading. On the other hand, socialism does seems to incorporate an idealist, end game for society

Morality is the province of each individual, as serving to define an individual's ethical character. This should not to be confused with violations of individual rights, which is a legal concern (concerning rights not to have one's life, liberty or property interfered with).
My point is that capitalism and socialism are not two systems of political and economic organization that can be readily compared on a societal-based moral dimension, as this debate suggests.

Notice, that Ms. Bruenig can't help but talk down to everyone else about what their morality ought to be, and yet she fails to consider that capitalism (as premised on private property rights) by increasing the choices, available to everyone, enables individuals, to better able, to live according to their own moral code. It is the capitalist system that allows more people to engage in charitable activities, that a socialist system. Steven Hankin