A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Welfare State

The Self-inflicted Wound Theory of state coddling of the poor, that they are robbed of their self-reliance by handouts, is not entirely incorrect, but only in very selected ways – which will be gotten to.  The more important issues have gone, as is often the case, largely unrecognized.  If poorer people and the rest of ordinary folk are to be self-reliant, take the bull by the horns and ‘make something of themselves,’ just what is it they are to make?  What ‘bull’ is it that they are to take by the horns? 

It is obvious that those who make the ‘state coddling’ argument are suggesting that the common person should take a mercantile position; they should look for those entrepreneurial opportunities offered in their communities and exploit them.  In this way they are supposed to pull themselves out of poverty or at least climb up a bit from the lower rungs of the ladder, create employment for their fellows and supply goods and services to their neighborhoods and beyond. 

There is, however, an important caveat: the entrepreneurial activities must be done by the rules and laws set down by ‘their betters’ and must, therefore, support the superstructure that depends in large part, for its power and wealth, on the common folk remaining powerless and poor.  Most business building requires attachment to the banking system, meeting official standards and acceptance by some government authorization process – very often controlled by those already in the relevant businesses. The poor should become self-sufficient, but without actually gaining in the real power to control their own destiny because that would, of necessity, interfere with the elite’s control of their destiny: the poor and the ordinary do the work and the elite do the calculating – in large measure, calculating how to collect to their own uses as much from the work of the poor and ordinary as possible.  The poor and ordinary may be encouraged to become entrepreneurial in work from which the elite also gain, but only rarely should they aspire to the calculating classes.

I am reminded of an article from Life Magazine, it must have been in the 1950s.  (By way of context, the House UnAmerican Activities Committee had turned America into Paranoid Nation.)  I remember being upset by the article, knowing that I was expected to see its protagonist as a hero, but was only able to see him as a man without feeling and a thief.  It was supposed to represent the best of Americanism, to wit:

A successful businessman went out to live on the bum.  Dressed appropriately, he moved into the hobo ‘towns’ and adopted the hobo life.  This was not a story of growing empathy for and comprehension of, primarily, men ‘down on their luck;’ it was the story of ‘hobo makes good’ by applying the principles of self-reliant (anti-communist, thus anti-commons) thinking and practice.  Our hero noticed that the hobos left messages, on the equivalent of bulletin boards in the hobo jungles, about where to get handouts and other services.  He began to catalogue these messages; he reproduced the messages and began to sell them to the other hobos.  I don’t remember the details anymore, but it is not unreasonable that he might have begun to pay small amounts to both collect the information and, subtly, inhibit its free posting. 

The upshot was that our hero became hobo-wealthy selling information that was once, admittedly, inconsistent but free.  He emerged from hobodom having proven the superiority of capitalism, that you just can’t keep a good capitalist down and that there was something degenerate about those ‘others’ who didn’t seize the opportunity to raise themselves out of their miserable circumstances.  I remember seeing only a heartless thief taking information from the commons, hoarding it and selling what was once free.  His claims of having improved the lives of the hobos by giving them a superior survival tool seemed nothing more than happy-talk drivel intended for the impressionable masses [1]. There was, at the time, a growing recognition among the elite that the people had to be moved away from the ‘common man’ spirit of the New Deal and WWII; and Life Magazine was doing its bit for the cause.

The great mass of people are not capitalists; they are not hoarders; they are unwilling to ‘buy low and sell high’ when it harms their fellows.  A capitalist is some one who has collected wealth sufficiently, most often from the work of others, to use that wealth to gather more wealth by controlling the work of those others. This may be what we have become, but it is not where we began: The human animal is a cooperative species, the distribution of information, goods and services has been an essential survival behavior for the millions of years that our genus as been on the earth.  This is our context, this is who we are.

But it can be said that, today, the great mass of people live in a capitalist system which means, referencing the above, that their world is controlled by capitalists.  It is also true that the barriers to wealth are or have been lowered in capitalist systems for those who are willing, like the capitalist hobo, to violate human principles of cooperative life.  And so, our underlying habits of interaction have been under great pressure for a long time.

It is becoming clear: the bull that is to be taken by the horns is our human collectivist nature, our cooperative spirit.  Self-reliance is to be self-promotion over, rather than in support of, others.  We are to make something new of ourselves; we are to make someone who sees other people’s work as a source from which to extract some gain; we are to see other people as consumers of information, goods or services that we have brought, using inventiveness, stealth, the laws or raw force, under our control.  We are to see other human beings as a resource to be used for our own advantage.

Michael Dawson, proprietor of The Consumer Trap web site has been documenting this transition from human being to capitalist. Rather than attempt to replicate his good works, go there for multiple examples of this process in action.  My concern is the process and its toll on both those people who are unable to fight off their species humanity and those who can.

The myriad forces that have moved us to our present madness include all the usual suspects: the various forms and distortions of competition created by the direct and indirect consequences of population increase; the qualities and quantities of power available to individuals and small groups allowed by technological developments; the special influence on the human peculiarity, consciousness order, by communication technology; the sheer magnitude of the abundance of which human collective action is capable, and the depths of deprivation we are willing to allow (or force) others to descend into.

The great mass of people feel these pressures as disconcerting currents and eddies as they ply their way in life traveling with the humanity that still remains in our communities and our cells. But the allure of abundance, the distortions of competition, the outsized powers of communication and direct force, all in a world of millions and billions of people, are taken up by a small percentage of people who are not as well formed as most, who give up the birthright of species humanity.  

In a sane world the antisocial rich would be ostracized if they could not be persuaded to rejoin common society.  The central value would be the wellbeing of community, not the accumulation of material goods for private and often damaging uses.  The entire sophistry built to justify and glorify self-interest, material accumulation and antisocial behavior is deeply dishonest and flies in the face of the several million years of the development of instinctual intuitions and social habits of our genus. 

The bright and shiny attract us to be sure, and the ease and the power to do just as we wish when we wish.  But most of us outgrow such infantile motivations and become more farsighted and community oriented.  The best and the brightest of us become good human beings just as one might expect. Jack Welch, Angela Braley, Hank Paulson, Herbert Fritch and some thousands of others like them are not the best and the brightest; their salient quality is the willingness to ignore their humanity and the value of life for immediate personal gain [2].  Such behaviors that we would not allow at table are glorified as exemplary – how crazy is that?   “Isn’t is wonderful that Johnny is stealing food from his little brother? He is so talented!”

And so, with this context we return to the “coddled” poor.  First and foremost, the accumulations of the rich are really the accumulations allowed by community order and infrastructure, created by the community as a whole from the community commons; the wealthy are the beneficiaries of prior human achievement and the willing and unwilling contributions of their contemporaries.  That they have contrived ways to exclude a great many from the sharing in the abundance generated from the multitudes is their only real achievement.  Payments to the poor are, in most cases, a government enforced sharing of what should have been theirs in the first place.  The real question is not ‘should it be done’, but how best to fix a broken system in ways that cause as little distortion of natural human economics as possible.

An obvious solution would be for the social standard, enforced by the righteous indignation of the masses, to be that no one have a wealth accumulation in excess of about 3 to 10 times (the figure needs to be researched for efficacy) the average wealth of the poorest 20%.  Such a political and economic condition would have to be come to by a variety of routes, political, social and revolutionary, and I am not suggesting that it would be easy or even possible.  This is not a solution to our present issues, though it remains in my mind as a most effective eventual state that would contribute positively to many of our difficulties.

Once it is fully realized that the wealthy, even those with social responsibility, have acquired their abundance by fraudulently taking from the efforts of a great many and, without proper compensation, from an environment which ‘belongs’ to all life, then the question is not whether to have a welfare state, but how to organize a state in which the contributions of all the citizens are appreciated and compensated. This will be the topic of the next essay.

[1] It should be noted that there is an “ecology” to the sources of help.  The distribution of information would adapt to the rates at which the help could be delivered.  Spreading the information widely and rapidly would shift the patterns of attempted use and thus availability.  While our hero may have ‘enriched’ himself, it was almost certainly done with some level of destruction to the informal delivery systems that helped out these men.  But, when the goal is to exploit an opportunity, the consequences of the exploitation only create more opportunities; how lives are affected is not an important issue and only given lip-service.

[2] Just a few of the ‘billion dollar’ CEOs and related types.  Google “highest paid CEOs” or some similar search to become really annoyed.


Michael Dawson said...

I'm really interested in how the arrival of ecological limits seems to be proving the validity of the old leftist claim that there is something wrong, at a primal level, with excessive socio-economic inequality. I am convinced, more than ever, that too much stratification not only contradicts the hard-won acknowledgment that all people are created equal, but also crucially blunts attention to the pertinent circumstantial/environmental realities.

I look forward to learning more from JK on this central topic.

James Keye said...

I hope the next coupe of essays are steps in the right direction.

James Keye said...

I hope the next couple of essays are steps in the right direction.