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June 20, 2010

Postscript on Cultural Keynesianism

Just a couple of days after writing the last post, which referenced Camille Paglia’s comparison of postmodernists to Wall Street financiers, a book I had recently ordered arrived in the mail: David Lehman’s Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man, from 1991, when the philosophy still had very high cachet in academe. De Man was a Yale professor who had emigrated from Belgium after WWII, and was one of the primary proselytizers for deconstruction. Thought by his cult-like admirers to be a man of the Left (though his actual writing is rather apolitical), he was discovered after his death to have written pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic articles for Belgium’s collaborationist newspaper Le Soir in the early 1940’s. De Man turns out in Lehman’s investigation to have been a lifelong liar, bigamist, and petty thief. An opponent of deconstruction could use these facts as an ad hominem attack on such ideas (and in the wake of the scandalous revelations, many did), but Lehman does a great job of avoiding arguments, on the one hand that deconstruction necessarily entails the despicable facts of de Man’s life, and on the other that such facts are irrelevant to it.

I was particularly struck by this passage:

This is not a pipe.

Has deconstruction hit Wall Street? Richard Rand of the University of Alabama, co-translator of Derrida’s Glas, thinks so. In the spring of 1989, when Michael Milken was slapped with a ninety-eight-count indictment on charges of racketeering and securities fraud, Rand- an English professor- sent a letter to the Wall Street Journal defending the misunderstood junk-bond king as a “deconstructive financier.” Rand stated that the two things he had studied with rapt attention over the course of twenty years were Jacques Derrida’s texts and the Journal’s financial pages. To Rand’s mind there was quite a continuity between the two, and particularly between Derrida’s theoretical maneuvers and Milken’s leveraged buyouts. Milken had apparently made a deconstructive move when he turned the junk bond from “a ‘marginal’ (and despised) ‘supplement’ to the overall investment machine” into “a central and dynamic feature.” With his leveraged buyouts he had accomplished a “reversal” and “rewriting”- two more terms from the Derrida lexicon- of the merger-and-acquisition strategies already in place in postwar America.

There is nothing outside the text.

This Rand guy reminds me of a character named Murray in Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise, an academic who has abandoned arts and letters for the signs and wonders of the supermarket’s cereal isle. Reading Lehman’s account of de Man also brought to mind DeLillo’s main character, Jack Gladney, professor of the trendy new field he has pioneered, Hitler Studies.

But what is the significance of the parallel? Again I would refer to the Paul Cantor essay about hyperinflation in Thomas Mann’s “Disorder and Early Sorrow.” He writes that “Everything threatens to become unreal once money loses its reality.” Severed from its origin as a real commodity valued by real actors in a market economy, money becomes a manipulative game, and so to does language when severed from reality. I don’t think anybody will dispute Saussure’s insight that the relation between sign and signifier is arbitrary, but in no way does this have the nihilistic implications of post-structuralism. The selection of gold, say, as a medium of exchange has a mixture of objective and arbitrary qualities to it. Austrians stress the former, but Keynesian and other neoclassical theories tend to see only the latter, with the result that manipulation of the money is seen as the sole key to prosperity. But it is folly to see society as reducible to linguistic discourse and economy as reducible to finance.

June 14, 2010

A Critique of Cultural Keynesianism

Filed under: Contra Keynes,Economics,Literature — rmangum @ 9:07 pm

I’ve often wondered why most literary and cultural theory is Marxist. Conservative claims notwithstanding, most academic intellectuals, especially those in the humanities, are not Marxists. They are not radicals, mostly, but rather polite NPR-listening Democrats. So why isn’t there, for instance, a Keynesian critical theory? A post over at the blog Steamboats are Ruining Everything provides a good example of what this might look like.

The post is quite rambling, proceeding from a scene in Jane Austen that provides a metaphor for capitalist speculation to ruminations on economic metaphors in general, to the current Keynesian stance on whether “WWII solved the Great Depression”, and then on to a quasi-“Crusoe” analysis (islanders trading shells) of the role of money and representation. Obviously, since I think Keynesian economics is wrong, I find that Keynesian assumptions mar the post. But otherwise it is quite interesting, especially comparing it with Paul Cantor’s essay “Hyperinflation and Hyperreality,” on Thomas Mann’s Wiemar-era short story “Disorder and Early Sorrow,” which similarly explores, from an Austrian perspective, the parallels between representation and value in money and representation and value in culture.

A few points:

1) Not long ago, I had coffee with an undergraduate who reported that he had just read Derrida and Lacan on Poe and was excited by the idea that criticism might be the new literature. Twenty years ago, when I read Derrida and Lacan on Poe, my professors teased me the same exciting possibility. It occurs to me now that the idea is about as old as, and has certain structural parallels to, the notion that finance is the new manufacturing. Like criticism over literature, finance traditionally supervised manufacturing yet was thought to be parasitic upon it and less “creative” than it.

Finance is not necessarily parasitic upon production, but it tends to replace real economic activity in a central banking regime, which breaks the link between money and real wealth. Likewise criticism is not necessarily parasitic upon literature. Just as one can probably find money and finance as soon as soon as trade emerges, so too literary theory is almost as old as literature (there’s no reason to assume it began ex nihilo with Aristotle’s Poetics). But the period from the 1970’s to the 1990’s was a sort of “theory bubble.” The metaphor has already been deployed by Camille Paglia in her essay “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf,” from 1991, which may well be the point when the bubble began to burst. (The equivalent of the economic “flight into real value” being the flight of intelligent students out of the humanities.)

2) I don’t see how Keynes’ theory of the “propensity to consume” necessarily entails equal distribution of wealth (or at any rate a more equal distribution of wealth).

But according to Keynes, there is a problem with concentrating wealth in the hands of the rich: they don’t spend as much of it. They aren’t, after all, in need. “Consumption — to repeat the obvious — is the sole end and object of all economic activity,” writes Keynes, in a sentence quoted by Swartz. That is, money in the bank is for the interim worthless; its value is suspended until it is put into use. Give a rich person ten dollars, and he is likely to put nine dollars in his savings account. Give a poor person ten dollars, and he will have spent all ten by lunchtime on food and services, and its beneficiaries will be people who have to work for a living and who are therefore more likely to spend it themselves. The original ten dollars, if spent by a person of modest means, will multiply their value as they work their way through the economic system.

If aggregate consumption is the goal, and if higher incomes mean lower consumption, then it wouldn’t matter if wealth was redistributed. Consumption by the rich would go up, but consumption by the poor would go down. In fact, we are led to the paradox that we would all be poor if we were all rich, and all rich if all poor.

3) The moral of the story seems to be that when the rich have most of the money and hoard it, the symbolic value of money becomes somewhat unreal—the conversion of money, which is imaginary, into value, which is real, breaks down.

Again, see the Cantor essay on how this is precisely what happens because of the government monopoly on the production of money. But these views are not necessarily mutually exclusive, since a left-libertarian analysis would find that inequality of wealth increases with government monopoly. One can see a bit of this in Cantor and Mann, who find that capitalists (speculators and war-profiteers specifically) are in fact the main beneficiaries of inflation. (There is also a conservative thrust to both, too, but I won’t go into that.)

4) The whole analysis of islanders using shells as a medium of exchange imports facets which characterize a modern central-banking economy into a primitive market situation. Shells would not emerge as money if they had no intrinsic value to the islanders in addition to being a medium of exchange. Therefore it does not matter that “The durability of the shells misrepresents the nature of fish and breadfruit” because the shells are not mere stand-ins for other goods but also goods in themselves. But even if they were just symbolic, it is in the nature of all symbols, all media, to distort what they represent. This is in a sense a defect, but we only use a symbolic medium if it has advantages over the “real thing” as well (usually simplification, but “durability” often applies as well, especially with words).  The point is that in a free market we are much less likely to confuse the map with the territory than we do in a fiat money economy.

5) The question has to be asked of every liberal follower of Keynes: how do you square the belief that in the economy consumption is king with the desire for a less consumerist society? I have my own thoughts on this subject.

June 13, 2010

A Song for Sunday #48

Filed under: A Song for Sunday,Music — rmangum @ 4:17 pm
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“St. Louis Blues” was published by W.C. Handy in 1914. It was not the first blues song, as is sometimes asserted, nor is Handy the “Father of the Blues,” as is more frequently asserted. The blues is elemental, an veritable axiom upon which American popular song rests, so it can have no such thing as a “father.” But it is a great tune, and perhaps the 20th-century standard.  Notes at Art of the Mix contain some interesting facts, such as, “It was first performed publicly by an unknown female impersonator,” and, “in the 1930s when Ethiopia was invaded by Italy, the Ethiopians adopted it as their battle hymn.” I don’t know what battle-hymns normally sound like in Ethiopia, but I wouldn’t immediately think of a song with the famous lyric, “I hate to see that evening sun go down.”

Notable versions of the St. Louis Blues have been recorded by Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Bob Wills, and John Fahey. Here are two of my favorite versions, one by John Kirby and His Orchestra, and one by the great Sicilian trumpeter and vocalist Louis Prima.

June 12, 2010

Pabst Blue Ribbon, Man!

Filed under: Drugs,Personal — rmangum @ 11:00 pm
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So I’m about two weeks late on this but, whatever, this isn’t a news site. I wanted to add my own little R.I.P. for Dennis Hopper. First, I must admit that  though I’m not immune to its virtues, I’m not that big a fan of Easy Rider. But for Apocalypse Now, Blue Velvet, and River’s Edge, Hopper belongs in the late-20th century Pantheon of iconic actors. Dig Jesse Walker’s Reason retrospective, which reveals that Hopper was already a Republican by 1980.

I should also confess that I had a freaky nightmare a few years back which “starred” Hopper as the leader of a Manson-like killer hippie-cult. Sorry for the typecasting, Mr. Hopper.

The Only Thing We Have to Fear . . .

Filed under: Notes Toward a Supreme Conspiracy Theory,State,U.S.A,War — rmangum @ 9:58 pm
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I’ve been reading Phillip Jenkins‘ political and social history of 1970’s America, Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America. The first thing I have to note is the striking similarities between our current period and the one Jenkins covers (focusing specifically on 1974 to 1977). But I really had an epiphany when I read about what Jenkins calls “The Terror Noncrisis.” He argues that the mid-seventies saw a wave of domestic terrorism in America. He writes, “In terms of the scale and frequency of attacks , America during the mid-1970’s was suffering one of the worst waves of terrorist violence in its history to that point.” He cites some well-known events, such as the Patty Hearst kidnapping, the ’75 bombing of the State Department by the Weather Underground, as well as some which were news to me, such as the “Zebra murders” in San Francisco and a Puerto Rican nationalist group called the FALN, supposedly responsible for “over thirty bomb attacks in New York, Chicago, and Washington.” These groups didn’t really have anything to do with each other, but all could be broadly categorized as subscribing to some Leftish variety of radicalism. But Jenkins also notes that anti-Castro Cuban exiles in Miami “became the heart of a flourishing terrorist and guerilla subculture.”

So what is the point in linking all of these together under the rubric of a “terror wave”? 1970’s domestic terrorism as a single phenomenon has been largely ignored by historians (“as late as 1995, writers on Oklahoma City were still remarking that finally ‘terrorism had come to the United States'”) and, more shockingly from a post-9/11 perspective, was not high on the list of earth-shaking fears of Americans at the time. As I said, the various groups were not linked (except as they each represented the death-spasms of the New Left), but it is strange that it was not thought to be the case at the time (except by usual anti-commie suspects like the Birchers). A mere 10 years earlier every longhair with a peace sign was suspected as an agent of Moscow, but now that the longhairs were actually blowing things up, nobody thought the revolution was finally upon us?  And its not as if the seventies lacked the paranoid mindset. As Jenkins demonstrates, this was the decade when the conspiracy theory went mainstream. So what happened?

The short answer is that Richard Nixon happened. The revelations about Watergate, COINTELPRO, the American-backed coup in Chile, and other government scandals had everyone looking to Washington as the source of crime and corruption. “The near-total focus on abuses by government and law enforcement meant that political dangers of a kind that in any other political environment would have demanded an urgent response. . . . The powerful focus on evils committed by the state diverted attention from subversives or revolutionary threats, however well-documented those dangers.”

While Jenkins does not deny that government agencies brought it on themselves, he seems to lament that the CIA and FBI were weakened, and thus unable to deal with new terror threats. “Infiltration and surveillance of the sort that once would have been commonplace was now highly unpopular . . .” But that’s the rub! Every single terror group Jenkins writes about fizzled out within the decade. Precisely nothing came of these threats beyond the isolated events. There was no revolution, because it was not televised. Americans quite rationally feared being spied on by government, but they did not fear that the Symbionese Liberation Army would force them all to smoke dope in communes while having orgies in front of a Chairman Mao poster. But let’s say that the Feds had retained the organization and legitimacy to “mobilize public concern.” It might have been civil war, and people might have felt like the wheels were coming off entirely (as they arguably did in ’69-70, the time of the Manson Family murders and Kent State). Consequently, they would have demanded greater force and more expansive measures.

Obviously, we can learn something from this era. As it stands, we have a president who refuses to prosecute his predecessor, the latter being guilty of crime and corruption at least on the level, and probably far exceeding that of Nixon and LBJ. And, oh yeah, then there’s the whole police state thing. And what are we worried about? The Hutaree.

The terror wave of 1974-1977, unlike that of the 2000’s, was a “noncrisis” because terrorism doesn’t work if you don’t become terrorized.

Well, this is just awesome

Filed under: Uncategorized — rmangum @ 5:09 pm
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Here’s an illustration of a possible hidden pattern in Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam,” courtesy of the humor site Cracked.com.

The Wikipedia article on this famous work explains: In 1990 a physician named Frank Lynn Meshberger noted in the medical publication the Journal of the American Medical Association that the background figures and shapes portrayed behind the figure of God appeared to be an anatomically accurate picture of the human brain, including the frontal lobe, optic chiasm, brain stem, pituitary gland, and the major sulci of the cerebrum.

It certainly looks convincing, but is it plausible that Michelangelo intended it? Plausible, yes. Like his fellow Renaissance master Da Vinci, Michelangelo was fascinated with anatomy, and was known to cut up corpses. But if he did put this “Easter egg” into the painting, what did he mean by it? That God is a product of the human brain? Or something more mystical, like “God and the imagination are one?”

June 10, 2010

Follow-Up on Property Rights and Racism

Filed under: Anarchy,State,Utopia — rmangum @ 8:28 pm
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This article by Sheldon Richman, inspired by Rand Paul’s infamous appearance on Rachel Maddow, is almost two weeks old now, which is like two months in blog time, but since it covers (more articulately) many of the same points I made in my last post, plus one important elaboration, I ought to mention it. Previously, I had mentioned that the bulk of what was accomplished by the civil rights movement had nothing to do with government legislation, but I failed to mention one notorious feature which almost certainly conflicts with the libertarian theory of property rights: the sit-in, which is a property-violation almost by definition. Richman admirably addresses this point:

Isn’t a sit-in at a private lunch counter a trespass? It is — and the students who staged the sit-ins did not resist when they were removed by police. (Sometimes they were beaten by thugs who themselves were not subjected to police action.) The students never forced their way into any establishment. They simply entered, sat well-behaved at the counter, and waited to be served. When told they would not be served, they said through their actions, “You can remove me, but I will not help you.”

So without resisting forcible removal and without damaging any property, the violation is minimal enough that owners would not even be due recompense (and if the force used to remove the protesters exceeds what is necessary, they might be liable for damages themselves). So with the costs of such action being so low, we might expect more of this type of demonstration in a libertarian society, not less. A comment by Brad Spangler elaborates:

It’s also important to understand that the libertarian theory of justice is that violation of the non-aggression principle justifies compulsory restitution for damages. In some cases, it will make sense to voluntarily assume those costs and approach it as a matter of calculation — rather than holding a pseudo-religious view in which one is either in state of grace or held to have fallen from same.

For example, in a stateless society of private law and security, there would be no such thing as a “search warrant”. No private arbitrator would be empowered to license burglary or home invasion. Searches for evidence would still happen, though. Investigators would have to do enough of the serious, hard work of a conscientious investigation first in order to make a rational gamble that they could commit a crime to search for evidence and wind up owing less restitution than the subject of the investigation would.

Lunch counter sit-ins were trespassing — but so what, if the restitution owed was trivial in comparison to the larger issue?

Indeed, and the logic applies to any other form of civil disobedience directed at private property, such as the sit-down strike. Spangler is right to bring up the example of police investigations, since it emphasizes that in a free society, the law applies to the cops just as well as to the rest of us, whereas in our society they are “the law.” Police violate the property rights of the poor pretty much every day and are never required to pay restitution, even if it turns out that they harmed innocent people. (And of course it is no accident that state police are the primary aggressors against peaceful protests throughout the history of civil disobedience as a political tactic.) Murray Rothbard addresses the issue in a different context in The Ethics of Liberty:

Take, for example, the police practice of beating and torturing suspects—or, at least, of tapping their wires. People who object to these practices are invariably accused by conservatives of “coddling criminals.” But the whole point is that we don’t know if these are criminals or not, and until convicted, they must be presumed not to be criminals and to enjoy all the rights of the innocent: in the words of the famous phrase, “they are innocent until proven guilty.” (The only exception would be a victim exerting self-defense on the spot against an aggressor, for he knows that the criminal is invading his home.) “Coddling criminals” then becomes, in actuality, making sure that police do not criminally invade the rights of self-ownership of presumptive innocents whom they suspect of crime. In that case, the “coddler,” and the restrainer of the police, proves to be far more of a genuine defender of property rights than is the conservative.

We may qualify this discussion in one important sense: police may use such coercive methods provided that the suspect turns out to be guilty, and provided that the police are treated as themselves criminal if the suspect is not proven guilty. For, in that case, the rule of no force against non-criminals would still apply. Suppose, for example, that police beat and torture a suspected murderer to find information (not to wring a confession, since obviously a coerced confession could never be considered valid). If the suspect turns out to be guilty, then the police should be exonerated, for then they have only ladled out to the murderer a parcel of what he deserves in return; his rights had already been forfeited by more than that extent. But if the suspect is not convicted, then that means that the police have beaten and tortured an innocent man, and that they in turn must be put into the dock for criminal assault. In short, in all cases, police must be treated in precisely the same way as anyone else; in a libertarian world, every man has equal liberty, equal rights under the libertarian law. There can be no special immunities, special licenses to commit crime. That means that police, in a libertarian society, must take their chances like anyone else; if they commit an act of invasion against someone, that someone had better turn out to deserve it, otherwise they are the criminals.

As a corollary, police can never be allowed to commit an invasion that is worse than, or that is more than proportionate to, the crime under investigation. Thus, the police can never be allowed to beat and torture someone charged with petty theft, since the beating is far more proportionate a violation of a man’s rights than the theft, even if the man is indeed the thief.

The upshot of all this is that in situations which may involve rights violations for which restitution would have to be paid, such as searching a home for evidence or interrogating the suspect, the libertarian police would tend to be far less violent than the state police. Doubly so, for there is not only no sovereign immunity for their actions, but they would be either a for-profit firm disinclined to pay out reparations and lose business to competitors, or they operate are at the behest and under the watchful eye of some kind of autonomous community who may deny their legitimacy at any moment.

But while what we are now obliged to call “the authorities” have the incentive to mind their manners or pay the price, the calculation might be quite different for the oppressed and marginalized.

June 6, 2010

A Song for Sunday #47

Filed under: A Song for Sunday,Music — rmangum @ 8:22 pm
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My my, I’ve been slacking, haven’t I? Well no, actually my girlfriend Jane and I have been sick with strep throat for almost a week, rarely leaving the bed and trying to cheer ourselves up by watching Monty Python and Star Wars. Not that you need to healthy to blog of course, in body or mind, but let’s just say the muse split on me for a while there.

The last SfS featured punk stuff of slightly disturbing origin, so for this week how about a little hippie stuff? Aw, come on, you’ll like it.

Basho

The late ’60s and early ’70s saw a flowering of solo steel-string acoustic guitar in a genre that was never really named. It was mostly instrumental, based in traditional American folk and blues music, though more virtuosic and featuring expansive and innovative song-structures (“compositions”), to which it added a diverse array of world influences, particularly Indian. The most well known of these guitarists are John Fahey and Leo Kottke, and many important figures recorded on Fahey’s Takoma label, such as Kottke, Robbie Basho, Peter Lang, and Max Ochs. It was mostly an American phenomenon, but a few Brits such as Davey Graham and Bert Jansch should be included. In a way this is just an outgrowth or development of the 1960’s folk revival, a mutant instrumental counterpart to the singer-songwriter genre of the Joni Mitchell/James Taylor variety which the ’60s folk scene also produced. Fahey called it “American Primitive,” which may be accurate in terms of the driving emotions behind his work, but is deceptive as a musical descriptor. Fahey was actually creating a kind of modernism out of American musical traditions, in the way Bartok (a favorite of Fahey’s) had done with Romanian and Hungarian folk music. Well, as you might expect, this stuff didn’t really crack the charts.

Bull

Robbie Basho changed his name from Daniel Robinson, Jr. in honor of the haiku master Matsuo Basho. (Basho composed perhaps the exemplary haiku, “In the Old Stone Pool.” It goes, “In the old stone pool/a frogjump:/ splishhhhh.”) As the name suggests, Basho had a certain fondness for the East, and his music is characterized by Eastern influences. For example, check out The Hajj.

Sandy Bull may have been the most eclectic musician of the lot, playing guitar, banjo, and oud (a sort of Arabic lute). He liked to overdub multiple tracks in order to, uh, play with himself. He was fond reinterpreting disparate songs into his unique idiom, such as Orff’s “Carmina Burana” and Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee.” Here’s Gospel Tune, an original composition, which sounds like a mildly psychedelicized Lightnin’ Hopkins.

May 25, 2010

My two (dialectical) bits on the Rand Paul thing

Filed under: Philosophy,State,U.S.A — rmangum @ 7:48 pm

As you probably know, Rachel Maddow recently grilled Rand Paul on whether he would have supported the 1964 Civil Rights act, and whether a strict enforcement of property rights would lead to a segregated society. You can read a transcript, along with a defense of Paul here. Of course an anarchist cannot agree that only federal legislation can stop racism, but I want to critique the defenses of Rand that have been offered by some libertarians as well. First of all, Paul’s responses were not at all straightforward, but incredibly evasive. Other defenses have taken the following form: “Segregation and discrimination were the fault of Jim Crow laws, which come from government, and not private business, which have a natural economic incentive not to discriminate.” There is some truth to this, but it is limited and fails to see the whole picture. Of course Jim Crow laws made things much worse, but laws do not come from nowhere. Laws which have no broad popular support do not last long, and often cannot be passed at all. And while the profit motive does indeed offer an incentive against discrimination, since black or gay money spends as well as any other kind, we know also that human beings are more than homo economicus, or what Dierdre McCloskey has named “Max U”, a kind of rationally self-interested calculating machine. In other words, culturally-inculcated prejudice is often more than enough to overcome economic self-interest. Anxious to exonerate markets and property, libertarians who make these arguments are also letting the racist culture of the South off the hook. (This is not to say that the North was not also racist in its own way.)

I’ve been reading Chris Matthew Sciabarra‘s “Dialectics and Liberty” trilogy. I just finished Marx, Hayek and Utopia, and am now a good ways into Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism. While I’m not fully convinced by Sciabarra’s arguments, I am finding that taking a dialectical view can often be illuminating, and Rand Paul’s gaffe is a case in point. Sciabarra sees “internal relations” as fundamental to dialectics. In social systems, all parts are related to each other in essential ways. Remove any part, and you effect the whole. In contrast, “external relations” view at least things as being independent of each other. The libertarian defenses I mentioned before view culture and government as being externally related, so that all things bad can be ascribed to government. Here’s the crux of these kind of debates: liberals and libertarians fundamentally agree on this externalist view of the state, only with opposite value-judgments about government intervention. Here’s an excerpt from the Maddow interview:

MADDOW: But it could be brought up at any moment. I mean, if there – – let’s say there’s a town right now and the owner of the town’s swimming club says we’re not going to allow black kids at our pool, and the owner of the bowling alley in town says, we’re not actually going to allow black patrons, and the owner of the skating rink in town says, we’re not going to allow black people to skate here.

And you may think that’s abhorrent and you may think that’s bad business. But unless it’s illegal, there’s nothing to stop that — there’s nothing under your world view to stop the country from re-segregating like we were before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 —

PAUL: Right.

Unacknowledged Legislators

Right? Let’s just repeat what Maddow is saying, and Paul is agreeing to: without federal legislation, there is “nothing.” Nothing. So, no boycotts, no marches, no protests? Since the legislators who passed the bill were not black, we can assume that blacks were really helpless. Either white oppressors or white saviors. Now you can see why blacks on the radical left in the 1960’s like Malcom X and the Black Panthers had nothing but contempt for white liberals.

The reality is that the impact of the Civil Rights act was positive, though not quite positive enough to counteract the evil done by Jim Crow. But it was itself the result of a social movement involving heroic actions taken by individuals acting in solidarity to raise consciousness and fight oppression. And the enforcement of Jim Crow was legal oppression, but it too was the result of social forces, enabled by the fact that a majority of southern whites viewed segregation as desirable.

Government is evil, but it is not the root of all evil, merely the apotheosis of evil, the codification of evil. And there is plenty in a worldview that rejects government to fight bigotry, as virtually the whole history of the civil rights movement demonstrates: boycotts, strikes, peaceful demonstration, acts of solidarity in the face of intimidation, and yes, even market forces.

The view that social change springs fully formed out of the head of government legislation, with lawmakers observing and adjusting from some Archimedean point outside society, is ahistorical, undialectical, and condescending to the groups it proposes to help. Furthermore, once this view gains hold, it has an insidiously self-fulfilling effect. Groups who before were able to spontaneously organize to fight for freedom and equality, and become ennobled by the struggle, (“I am somebody” as a young Jesse Jackson once told a crowd in Watts) are now encouraged to seek help only from government, settling into a mediated client-patron relationship which is something like an extremely attenuated form of a master-slave relationship (and dialectics enters the picture once more).

Too many libertarians seem to think that because we view the state as on balance evil, we can never admit that it does any good, as if that would be to admit it is the only way of doing good. That is of course statist nonsense on stilts.

Theory and History

Filed under: Economics,Philosophy — rmangum @ 6:03 pm
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For whatever they’re worth, here are two completely unrelated comments I’ve made  recently. The first is from Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History forum:

Amor Patriae

I agree with some of the other comments that Dan failed to define what he meant by “toughness.” Is it callousness? bravery? some combination of the two? I can see how it takes toughness to be a soldier on a battlefield, or to volunteer to be one. I can also see how it takes an amoral psychopath to do the same. But I cannot see how it takes toughness to follow orders and kill people (hundreds of thousands at a time in the case of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings Dan discusses), or to give such orders. On the contrary, in a culture which demands such things, it takes bravery to refuse. The deserter may be a coward, but he may braver in a way, no? Most people do not have the courage to go AWOL or burn their draft card.

And contra the notion that we have not the willingness to do what is necessary the way our “greatest generation” grandfathers did, I find no shortage of Americans who (rather flippantly) would love to bomb the whole middle east (minus Israel, of course) into oblivion.The question is, are they “tough” or psychotic? Or perhaps both? And can technological civilization afford such attitudes?

Finally, while I think Dan’s notion of “toughness” is confused, he discusses the concept in a laudably value-free manner.

Second, a comment on a recent EconTalk podcast about the lamentable state of current econometrics:

I’ve been listening to EconTalk for more than a year now, and I’ve heard you become increasingly skeptical about empirical work in economics, leading you to proclaim that “economics is not a science.” The implicit assumption is that only natural sciences like physics, which work by inducting general laws from empirical data. As far as I know this is a very modern, 20th-century view of science, where social sciences such as economics (formerly “political economy”) suffer from “physics envy.” The older view of science denoted any systematic investigation of phenomena.

Not the way to learn about humans.

Thanks for the great work, and I look forward to more fascinating shows in the future.


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