Tag Archives: Libertarians

The Individual and the Herd

How the rhetoric of freedom can lead us astray.

The question Governor Chris Christie was asked seemed simple enough:

There’s a debate going on right now in the United States, the measles outbreak that’s been caused in part by people not vaccinating their kids. Do you think Americans should vaccinate their kids? Is the measles vaccine safe?

He could have just said: “The measles vaccine is safe and parents should get their kids vaccinated.” That appears to be what he believes, and the question required nothing more. But instead he decided to expand the context and give a more complex answer:

All I can say is that we vaccinated ours. That’s the best expression I can give you of my opinion. It’s much more important, I think, what you think as a parent than what you think as a public official. And that’s what we do. But I also understand that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well so that’s the balance that the government has to decide.

In response to follow-up questions, he explained that vaccines for different diseases have different risks and benefits (which is true), so the government should be careful about which ones it mandates and which ones it leaves up to parents (which hardly anyone disputes). “I didn’t say I’m leaving people the option,” he protested. And when asked again whether vaccines were dangerous, he responded: “I didn’t say that.” But he also stopped short of saying: “The measles vaccine is safe.”

In short, if you parse Christie’s words very carefully and give him just a little benefit of the doubt, he didn’t say anything all that objectionable. But the question lingers: Why did he go there in the first place? Why not just give the simple answer, if that’s what he believes? After all, that’s the image Christie works so hard to project: a man who bluntly says what he thinks without a lot of political doubletalk. Why couldn’t “Is the measles vaccine safe?” get a “yes” answer, rather than a long-winded discussion followed by a denial that he was saying it was dangerous?

The obvious implication was that (as he progresses towards an as-yet-unannounced presidential campaign) Christie was trying not to offend some bloc of Republican voters. And many then jumped to the conclusion that the bloc in question is the anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists, who believe the scientifically groundless theory that vaccines cause autism.

The controversy Christie’s remarks started might have died out quickly, if rival presidential hopeful Senator Rand Paul hadn’t jumped in and said explicitly what Christie was accused of implying:

I’ve heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking, normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.

(He later backed off, claiming that after just means that vaccines and mental disorders are “temporally related”, not that one causes the other. So I’m sure he won’t mind if the media publishes a slew of stories of the form: So-and-so did something horrible after listening to Rand Paul. Or maybe a headline like “ISIS Beheads Hostage After Paul Speech”.)

But here’s the problem with the pandering-to-Republican-anti-vaxxers theory: First, there just aren’t that many anti-vaxxers. [See endnote 1]  And second, they aren’t all Republicans. There’s a liberal version of anti-vax that focuses the conspiracy theory on drug companies rather than government. [2]

So the theory that a Republican primary might be decided by anti-vaxxers casting a single-issue vote is a little sketchy. That’s why as soon as their position got labelled as pandering to anti-vaxxers, other potential candidates took the opposite side of the argument [3] and both Christie and Paul had to back down to a certain extent.

So who were they pandering to? The Libertarian/Theocrat side of my model in “The Four Flavors of Republican“.

Again Paul was the more explicit:

The state doesn’t own your children. Parents own their children. [4]

In other words, decisions about vaccinations shouldn’t be made by the American people as a whole through the democratic process, or by the medical experts that the people delegate those decisions to. Libertarians believe those issues should be decided by sovereign individuals, and Theocrats want them decided by the fathers that God made sovereign over their households.

When you look at the world through either one of those lenses, vaccinations aren’t the point, they just symbolize larger issues about authority. So sure, I’m going to vaccinate my kids, but the decision should be up to me. “It’s an issue of freedom,” Paul said, and when the CNBC interviewer pressed him, he got sarcastic. “I guess being for freedom would be really unusual.”

This ties vaccinations to other “freedom” issues, like your freedom to go without health insurance rather than accept ObamaCare, your freedom to let your kids grow up ignorant rather than send them to a government-approved school (or report their home-schooling progress to an education bureaucrat), or your freedom to take the low wages and poor working conditions an employer offers rather than negotiate through a union. Newly elected North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis defended the freedom of food-sellers to set their own hygiene standards rather than be bound by government regulations:

“I was having a discussion with someone, and we were at a Starbucks in my district, and we were talking about certain regulations where I felt like ‘maybe you should allow businesses to opt out,'” the senator said.

Tillis said his interlocutor was in disbelief, and asked whether he thought businesses should be allowed to “opt out” of requiring employees to wash their hands after using the restroom.

The senator said he’d be fine with it, so long as businesses made this clear in “advertising” and “employment literature.”

“I said: ‘I don’t have any problem with Starbucks if they choose to opt out of this policy as long as they post a sign that says “We don’t require our employees to wash their hands after leaving the restroom,” Tillis said.

“The market will take care of that,” he added, to laughter from the audience. [5]

So in Tillis’ ideal republic, you would have to study the diverse hygiene practices of all the places you eat, so that you can make an informed decision about whether it’s safe to eat there. Because freedom.

Taken to its logical extreme, the freedom agenda says that you should be free to drive on the left side of the interstate. You wouldn’t, of course, because it’s dangerous and you’re not stupid. At least, you wouldn’t most of the time. Most people wouldn’t, most of the time.

But it wouldn’t take many to screw everything up. What if, of all the drivers who would be traveling north during your next trip south down the interstate, you knew that only one would be using his freedom to drive on the left side and come straight at you? How would that change your driving experience?

Here’s what it boils down to: Human beings are simultaneously individuals and members of society, not fundamentally one or the other. Some issues (like free speech) are easier to understand from the individual point of view, while others (like traffic) require a  social point of view. [6]

Public health is fundamentally social. Germs pay no attention to your individuality; they just spread through the herd. You personally may do everything right, but whether or not you get sick also depends on social things like the quality of the sewage system, whether other infected individuals have access to health care or paid sick leave, how well your city controls rats and other vermin, whether restaurant workers wash their hands, and what percentage of people get vaccinated. In extreme cases, it depends on really draconian government interventions like quarantines and travel restrictions.

No matter what kind of intellectual contortions you do, you can’t square all that with a pure individual-freedom agenda. What if a free individual exposed to Ebola doesn’t want to be quarantined in a treatment facility? (Maybe he has his own theory about diseases and doesn’t believe all this germ-and-virus nonsense. Or maybe he was only probably exposed, and he’s willing to risk it.) If your ideology limits you to looking at everything from the individual-freedom viewpoint, your thinking about public health is going to be crippled.

So that’s who Christie and Paul were pandering to this week: people whose thinking about public health has been crippled by individualist ideology. If either becomes president, he may continue to pander to them.

[1] Anti-vaxxers only dangerous because it doesn’t take many to screw up herd immunity, which protects people who can’t use the vaccine. (In other words: Even if you can’t be vaccinated or haven’t been vaccinated yet, you’ll be safe because you are unlikely to come into contact with sick people.) According to the World Health Organization, as reproduced in Wikipedia, the herd immunity threshold for measles is 83-94% vaccinated, so as few as 6% in a local community might be enough to make that community vulnerable to an outbreak.

If you think of this in terms of the free-rider problem, the herd immunity threshold measures how many free riders the vaccination system can stand before it starts breaking down.

[2] Anti-vaccine liberals are sometimes used to prove that in their own way Democrats are just as much at war with science as Republicans who deny climate change or evolution. But here’s the clear difference: Anti-science liberals are on the fringe of the Democratic Party, and elected officials seldom pay much attention to them. Conversely, climate-change denial is a core position of the conservative base, so virtually every elected Republican has gotten in line.

[3] Marco Rubio demonstrated that a Republican presidential contender can give the simple, direct answer: “There is absolutely no medical science or data whatsoever that links those vaccinations to onset of autism or anything of that nature. And by the way, if enough people are not vaccinated, you put at risk infants that are three months of age or younger and have not been vaccinated and you put at risk immune-suppressed children that are not able to get those vaccinations. So absolutely, all children in American should be vaccinated.”

Also Ted Cruz: “On the question of whether kids should be vaccinated, the answer is obvious, and there’s widespread agreement: of course they should.”

But both avoided a direct endorsement of mandatory vaccinations, like Ben Carson’s.

[4] Rekha Basu of the Des Moines Register had the right response:

No, we don’t own our children. From slavery to child sexual abuse, the notion of owning another human has led to nothing good. Legally, we’re responsible for our kids and their care, feeding and safety until they’re old enough to take care of themselves. But they are autonomous human beings, which is why, unlike property, there are laws and standards governing what we can and can’t do to them.

[5] We’ve seen this two-step before. The same politicians who say that a well-informed public can sort things out without government help will also oppose any regulations that inform the public. Today, Tillis says he’d make Starbucks post that sign, but when the time came to vote on it he actually wouldn’t, for exactly the same reason: The market can sort out whether businesses should have to post their hygiene policies.

[6] It’s like the wave/particle thing with light, if that analogy makes sense to you. If not, forget I mentioned it.

Nobody Likes the New Capitalist Man

A number of insightful recent books and articles point out various pieces of the following picture:

  • People are fascinating bundles of benevolence and selfishness.
  • A well-designed market can channel people’s selfish tendencies into actions which, in the aggregate, achieve beneficial social ends.
  • Our economic theory models markets, not people, so only human selfishness is relevant. Homo economicus is entirely selfish.
  • Because the conditions that nurture benevolence are invisible to market theory, an “optimized” market system may inadvertently poison benevolence. In other words, market theory may create the perfectly selfish people it postulates.
  • For-profit corporations are artificial entities designed for the market. Consequently, they are defined to be the perfectly selfish, totally profit-driven players market theory postulates.
  • “Good management” means training each employee to internalize the values of the corporation.
  • Top managers are valued for their ability to “make the tough decisions”. In other words, they eliminate all human values other than profit from their decision process.
  • Increasingly, all the rewards of the corporate system flow to those at the top.

Put all that together, and you see that we have created a system that trains us to be bastards, and rewards us according to how well we have managed to stamp out our benevolence.

When you put it that way, it sounds kind of crazy, doesn’t it?

Let’s start with the upside of this vision: If our economic system is making us into worse people than we would otherwise be, then we could be better people and live in a nicer world if we just stopped making ourselves worse. This is not the utopian vision of the “new Soviet man“, a society-centered being who will spontaneously appear (for the first time in human history) after the revolution. It’s the far more modest observation that human beings have benevolent as well as selfish tendencies, and that creative system-builders could figure out ways to make use of human benevolence and nurture it.

That’s the uplifting message of The Penguin and the Leviathan by Yochai Benkler. Benkler says that through most of history, big cooperative projects only happened through “the Leviathan” — the state, exercising top-down power to make people play their parts. (Picture slaves dragging blocks to build the pyramids.) With capitalism comes the alternative of “the Invisible Hand” — the market, in which many individual decisions can add up to something big. (Think about how we wound up with lots of personal computers rather than the “big iron” IBM originally offered.)

Most of our political debate is about the Leviathan vs. the Invisible Hand: Will we get things done through government or by manipulating the incentives of the market?

(One hybrid observation doesn’t get enough attention: A corporation or cartel can dominate a market to the point that it essentially becomes a government, usually an unelected and unaccountable one.)

Anarchists have long claimed that another choice is possible: voluntary cooperation. But until recently, it was hard to find examples on scales larger than a barn-raising.

Then came the open-source movement, which Benkler identifies with the Penguin, the logo of the open-source Linux computer operating system. The Internet grew up together with a host of open-source projects created and maintained by volunteers: Linux, Apache, Mozilla, and eventually Wikipedia. Each in its own way defeated corporate-sponsored for-profit competitors. (Some, like Linux, eventually drew in corporate support, but on their own terms. IBM pays employees to contribute to Linux, but IBM still can’t own Linux.)

Benkler doesn’t claim that we could live in a complete open-source utopia; only that the principles that make open-source projects work have unexplored potential. Many people in our society are starved for opportunities to express their inventiveness, skill, and creativity in ways that do not pay them money, but win them the admiration of a peer group that shares their values. Similar motivations could complement monetary incentives more broadly.

He reviews much of the recent research into cooperation, reaching this conclusion:

In hundreds of studies, conducted in numerous disciplines across dozens of societies, a basic pattern emerges. In any given experiment, a large minority of people (about 30 percent) behave as though they really are selfish, as the mainstream commonly assumes. But here is the rub: Fully half of all people systematically, significantly and predictably behave cooperatively. … In practically no human society examined under controlled conditions have the majority of people consistently behaved selfishly.

The bulk of the book explores non-internet examples of how these principles play out in Japanese management, in community policing, in politics, and elsewhere. He concludes by offering principles for “growing a penguin” — designing a system that nurtures cooperation rather than incentivizing selfishness.

One of Benkler’s political examples — the get-out-the-vote strategy of the Obama campaign — is examined in more detail in The Victory Lab by Sasha Issenberg. It turns out that who people vote for may be determined by self-interest, but whether they vote isn’t. Nobody really believes their single vote will decide the election, so purely selfish people will stay home and pursue their other interests. The most effective method of motivating marginal voters, it turns out, is to appeal positively to their civic pride, while subtly reminding them that their non-voting will be a matter of public record. In laboratory experiments, this pride/guilt combination is more effective than paying people to vote.

Staying positive for a bit longer, Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken, which I have reviewed before, finds that online gamers hunger for the chance to be a respected member of a questing community. She reports that many gamers feel their online persona is a better person than they are in their offline jobs and relationships. Like Benkler, she examines ways that the design principles of games could be used to encourage cooperative and altruistic behavior in real life.

Now let’s look at the negative side, starting with a book that walks the line between seriousness and tongue-in-cheek humor: Assholes, a theory by Aaron James. A sociopath is someone who lacks any moral core, but uses other people’s moral scruples to gain an advantage over them. An asshole, according to James, is different: He has a moral sense, but his moral vision comes with an unassailable sense of entitlement. So, for example, he understands perfectly why other people should wait their turn in a line, and is honestly incensed when they don’t. But he also feels — not occasionally, but constantly — that his special situation or status entitles him to cut to the front.

Like Benkler, James recognizes that most people aren’t assholes. (If they were, there would be no lines. We’d all just shove our way to the front.) But late in the book he considers whether a society can reach a tipping point, where there are so many assholes that the rest of us are driven to behave like assholes just to avoid constant exploitation.

From there he considers how capitalism can devolve into asshole capitalism. Suppose some social change causes the system to send

a powerful entitlement message, for instance, that having ever more is one’s moral right, even when it comes at a cost to others. As asshole thinking and culture spread and take hold, the asshole-dampening systems that used to keep assholery in check become overwhelmed. Parents start preparing their kids for an asshole economy, the law is increasingly compromised, the political system is increasingly captured, and so on. As some switch sides while others withdraw, cooperative people find it more difficult to uphold the practices and institutions needed for capitalism to do right by its own values. … Society becomes awash with people who are defensively unwilling to accept the burdens of cooperative life, out of a righteous sense that they deserve ever more.

James applies this model to various countries and concludes: “Japan is fine, Italy already qualifies as an asshole capitalist system, and the United States is in trouble.” (One symptom of Italy’s trouble: Even Silvio Berlusconi’s supporters understood that he was an asshole. Nobody cared.)

And that brings us to Gus DiZerega’s blog post Capitalism vs. the Market. In some ways this belongs to the same genre as my own Why I Am Not a Libertarian — insights that begin with a critique of a simplistically appealing libertarian worldview. DiZerega views the fundamental libertarian error as upholding corporate capitalism because markets are good. DiZerega agrees that markets are good, but corporate capitalism is something else entirely.

Markets, he says, are ways that producers and consumers send each other signals about supply and demand. The market doesn’t tell you what you should do, just what it will cost you. For example, the slave market won’t tell you whether or not you should free your slave, just how much money you’ll be passing up if you do.

But in corporate capitalism the market usurps the decisions once made by humans.

To succeed in managing a capitalist institution a person must always try and buy for the lowest price and sell for the highest before any other value enters in.  Any corporate CEO allowing other values to trump this principle will see his or her decisions reflected in lower share prices.  If these prices are much affected the corporation risks the likelihood of being taken over in an unfriendly acquisition, its management ousted, and financial values once again elevated above all others. In other words, as a system of economic organization capitalism defends itself against richer human values by penalizing and expelling people who to some degree put them ahead of profit when making economic decisions.

In theory corporations are owned by people. But in practice you cannot remove your capital from a corporation. All you can do is sell your shares to someone else. By selling, you disassociate yourself from practices you may consider immoral, but you do nothing to end them. Think of slavery again: You can free your slave, even if it lowers your net worth. But if instead you own shares in Rent-a-Slave, Inc., all you can do is give or sell those shares to someone else. No slaves are freed when you do.

So if I don’t want to profit by addicting people to drugs that kill them, I can sell my shares in tobacco companies. But the tobacco companies themselves roll on. To the extent that they are profitable, the new owner of my shares will make money and gain power in society. Even individually, power accrues to people who have no values beyond profit.

The libertarian ideal is of people who are free to live by their own values, trading with each other without coercion.

Capitalism is different. It is the gradual overwhelming and destruction of all values that are not instrumental. … Once capitalism exists non-instrumental values are actively selected against, and receive little opportunity for expression.  Human beings become profit centers for corporations, and nothing more. … Capitalism cannot distinguish love from prostitution.

I wish DiZerega had said “corporate capitalism” rather than just capitalism, but otherwise I agree. As I put forward two years ago in Corporations Are Sociopaths, we have created entities that embody all of our worst traits. James and DiZerega are pointing out what then happens to us and our society when those created entities are allowed to dominate.

Ayn, Paul, and Me

A year ago, when I posted Why I’m Not a Libertarian, I thought I was done talking about my misspent Objectivist youth. Yes, I read Atlas Shrugged six times, and all of Ayn Rand’s other published works at least twice. Yes, I realize how much I could have learned by investing that effort more wisely. Let’s not dwell on it. What’s done is done.

So in April, when Paul Ryan’s love/hate relationship with the Catholic bishops led me to write Jesus Shrugged — Why Christianity and Ayn Rand Don’t Mix, I left my personal history out of it. Ryan’s policy proposals were the issue then, not his personality or character, so any insight I might gather from our common obsession was beside the point.

It’s not beside the point now. When you start talking about a person as a potential vice president — which necessarily makes him a potential president — character matters as much as policy, maybe more. Paul Ryan may end up leading our country through challenges and crises we cannot foresee. We need to know who he is.

It should go without saying that I can’t give you the final word on Ryan. I’ve never spoken to him. As far as I know, we’ve never been in the same room. But I can tell you what kind of young man is attracted to Rand’s philosophy, how it changes him, where you can see Rand’s influence on Ryan’s thinking today, and what it says that he carries those beliefs into middle age. Along the way, we may learn something about Rand’s influence on the conservative movement in general.

What Rand stood for: selfishness. In a nutshell, Rand’s philosophy is the anti-gospel. She’s explicit about this, as I have previously noted.

In the gospel worldview, people need to choose between selfishly piling up wealth for themselves and virtuously helping others. So Jesus says, “You cannot serve both God and money” and advises the rich young man to sell everything he owns and give the proceeds to the poor.

Rand flips that value system upside-down. To her, selfishness is virtue. All good things, even social goods, come from individuals acting selfishly: Thomas Edison wants to be rich and famous, so he invents the light bulb that benefits all of us.

It follows that capitalism is the only moral economic system, because it best expresses selfish virtue. (If you’re having trouble grasping this, combine the theories of trickle-down economics, the invisible hand of the market, and homo economicus — then multiply by a thousand.)

The relationships between Rand’s heroic characters demonstrate how friendship and even love can be re-interpreted as selfish. Some people make the love-is-selfish point cynically, but not Rand: In her mind she’s redeeming friendship and love by attaching them to the selfishness that she believes is the prime virtue.

Tellingly, there are no hero-parents in Rand’s novels, and Rand had no children herself. Also, the relationship-value of her heroes never crashes, so we don’t know how Dominique Francon would react if Howard Roark developed Alzheimer’s.

What Rand stood for: elitism. In Rand’s telling of history, all human progress comes from a tiny creative elite (think Edison’s light bulb again) and they alone deserve the fruits of that progress. In the speech that epitomizes Atlas Shrugged, John Galt says:

If you worked as a blacksmith in the mystics’ Middle Ages, the whole of your earning capacity would consist of an iron bar produced by your hands in days and days of effort. How many tons of rail do you produce per day if you work for Hank Rearden? Would you dare to claim that the size of your pay check was created solely by your physical labor and that those rails were the product of your muscles? The standard of living of that blacksmith is all that your muscles are worth; the rest is a gift from Hank Rearden.

Rearden the inventor/industrialist not only owns his innovations, he and his fellow capitalists are the sole heirs of humanity’s technological legacy. Workers inherit nothing from the geniuses of the past, except through their employers’ generosity. (I’ve written about that aspect of Rand’s philosophy here.)

The non-creative masses attach to the Reardens like leeches or barnacles. Christianity, socialism, and other philosophies that make selfishness a vice are tricks by which the “parasites” make the producers feel guilty about claiming what is rightfully theirs. The Fountainhead‘s hero Howard Roark voices the eternal victimhood of the creative elite:

Thousands of years ago, the first man discovered how to make fire. He was probably burned at the stake he had taught his brothers to light. … Centuries later, the first man invented the wheel. He was probably torn on the rack he had taught his brothers to build.

The plot of Atlas Shrugged stands the labor movement upside-down: The job-creators go on strike, vanishing with their wealth (even their inherited wealth) and leaving the parasites to suck each other’s blood. “If you desire ever again to live in an industrial society,” strike-leader John Galt says, “it will be on our moral terms.” Naturally, the economy collapses, and the novel ends with the newly-appreciated strikers preparing to return and reinvigorate the impoverished world with their productive genius.

Why this appeals. Like polio, Randism typically strikes in adolescence — for good reasons.

One of the most frustrating things about adolescence is the way grown-ups use your lack of experience to discount your opinions. So teens are particularly attracted to theories that turn experience inside-out: Adults aren’t experienced, they’re indoctrinated. Our corrupt culture looks at everything backwards, so the longer you have lived in it uncritically, the further you are from reality.

The most attractive teen philosophies are bit-flips: The wrongness of the culture can be summed up in one idea, where the culture says true instead of false or yes instead of no. Once you reverse that single bad decision everything becomes clear, so a college student who has flipped that bit is infinitely wiser than any uncorrected greybeard professor.

Second, in the same way that my-real-parents-are-royal is the characteristic fantasy of childhood, my-unique-potential-is-unappreciated is the characteristic fantasy of adolescence. Tell a teen-age boy that there is a hidden aristocracy of talent, and he will start designing his coat-of-arms. The much higher probability that he was born to be a drudge never registers.

Finally, Rand’s ideas are particularly seductive to boys. I’ve never been clear on the exact socio-biological mechanisms, but boys in general have a harder time learning empathy than girls do. It’s not that we don’t care about others, it’s that seeing their point-of-view is work. It doesn’t come naturally. The boy who happily gobbles down the last donut may be honestly distressed to look up and realize that other people wanted it.

To become mature, men need to discipline themselves to imagine how other people’s legitimate interests might conflict with their own. Until you learn that habit — OK, until I learned that habit — I was constantly running afoul of rules that seemed arbitrary and restrictions that I imagined had been contrived purely to frustrate me.

So my elders told me that selfishness was a vice, but Rand flipped that bit and made it the essence of virtue. What a relief to know that my basic wiring was right all along, and that the only point-of-view I ought consider was my own! All those authority figures lecturing about respect for others were just trying to enmesh me in the culture’s fundamental corruption.

In addition to being male, I was white and healthy, and (though not as well-to-do as Ryan) I grew up with all the opportunities middle-class kids used to take for granted. Liberals might try to call me to account for my privileges — how did I justify them? what social responsibilities did they place on me? — but Rand set all that aside. Instead, I could identify with a victimized upper class of Roark-like geniuses.

Why it fades. Eventually, teens get the life experience their elders faulted them for not having. You meet people of many types, see how they approach life, and how (over time) it works out for them. As I did that, here’s what I noticed:

  • Self-interest is a really crappy model for love and friendship. I force-fit it for a while, but eventually I noticed that the people whose relationships I envied didn’t live that way.
  • Greed is ugly. When I look back on things I did out of greed, I’m rarely proud of myself.
  • Life is complicated. No One Big Idea explains what’s right or wrong with the world.
  • There is no aristocracy of talent — most people are good at something — and while the correlation between wealth and talent or hard work is positive, it’s not that high.

Most of all, as I got into life and began to have my own modest successes, the need to think of myself as special or tortured (like Rand’s mythical discoverer of fire) lost its power. The world will little note nor long remember what I do, but I’ve enjoyed it. It’s been important to me, so I’m content to let other people’s lives be important to them. I don’t need to see others as an undeserving mass trying to usurp the glory that is rightfully mine.

Rand and Ryan. Like me and so many others, Ryan found Rand as a teen-ager. He told the Atlas Society in 2005:

I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are. It’s inspired me so much that it’s required reading in my office for all my interns and my staff.

He tries to play his Randism down when he would rather appear Catholic, but it never really goes away. In 2009 he said:

It doesn’t surprise me that sales of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead have surged lately with the Obama administration coming in. Because it’s that kind of thinking, that kind of writing, that is sorely needed right now. And I think a lot of people would observe that we are right now living in an Ayn Rand novel.

Ryan buys into Rand’s framing of the great fight between individualism and collectivism, and he admires her for laying out “the moral case for capitalism”. That moralism is what makes compromise impossible: Good cannot compromise with Evil. Any compromise between Purity and Corruption is a victory for Corruption.

Rand’s villains never have a legitimate point of view. Some are evil incarnate, while others refuse to understand the truth because of its inconvenience. But always, the truth is readily apparent to anyone who wants to know it.

I can see that mindset working in Ryan in more than just his pro-1% policies. In his Atlas Society talk, Ryan notes that unreformed government spending is projected to grow eventually to 26% of GDP and concludes “Autopilot will get them where they want to go.”

Them? The conspiring collectivists — Dick Gephardt, Nancy Pelosi, and Ted Kennedy. They’re not trying to solve any social problems, they’re just trying to make government bigger for its own sake. So if Medicare costs more, they win.

Similarly, in a 2010 anti-abortion article he says “we cannot go on forever feigning agnosticism” about the full human rights of fertilized eggs. Pro-choicers can’t really doubt the infinite moral value of zygotes or the government’s competence to make that judgment, we’re just “feigning”.

But most of all, Rand is the source of Ryan’s Makers vs. Takers worldview. Like many other Republicans, Ryan has connected two statistics: that about half the population doesn’t owe income tax and half live in a household getting some kind of government assistance to paint a false picture of two fixed and separate classes: those who work and those who mooch.

In reality, the two groups overlap and flow into each other: People who paid into Social Security while they had jobs are now retired and drawing out. The hard-working minimum-wage WalMart clerk needs food stamps to feed her children. In another household, one spouse works while the other collects unemployment, or both work while their college student gets a Pell grant or S-CHIP helps care for their sick toddler. Only in Randist mythology does society divide into Makers and Takers.

Why didn’t it fade for Ryan. This is where I can only speculate. But three explanations make sense to me.

First, even at age 42, Ryan hasn’t had much life experience. He went to Washington as a congressional intern at 21, and he has lived in the conservative echo chamber ever since. During that time, he hasn’t made a product or had a customer. Since 28, when he entered Congress, he hasn’t had a boss.

Second, the company he keeps. One of the most interesting chapters in The Audacity of Hope has senate-candidate Obama riding to a fund-raiser on a private jet. He contemplates how much time he spends raising money from the very wealthy. How much, he wonders, is this constant need to appeal to the rich changing the way he thinks?

I don’t believe Ryan has that level of introspective intelligence. As the Koch brothers’ favorite congressman, Ryan spends more time with richer people than Obama ever could have. Plutocrats love his high-school convictions, so why change?

And finally, in many ways Ryan is living his adolescent dream. He can put out a budget full of holes, with numbers that don’t add up, and read about how brave and brainy he is. He is the ideological leader of the Republican caucus, the true star of the 2012 convention. If he grew up wanting to be Howard Roark, lots of people are telling him he succeeded.

Ryan does remind me of some fictional characters, but not Roark or Galt. To me, Paul Ryan resembles David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel, the middle-aged rockers of Spinal Tap. Probably they were good boys once, but the rock-star life has robbed them of the experiences they needed to grow up. Proclaimed as geniuses at an early age, they enter their 40s believing that the puerile thoughts of their teens are still deep and weighty.

[This article completes my Ryan trilogy: I Read Everything About Paul Ryan So You Don’t Have To and Paul Ryan: Veteran of the War on Women are the other parts. I hope I can move on now.]

Monopoly’s Role in Inequality

For several years I’ve been dipping into the subject of rising inequality, usually in book reviews like this one of Hacker and Pierson’s Winner-Take-All Politics. But all along a mystery has been nagging at me, and I think I’m finally getting to the bottom of it.

Inequality. The basic story is simple: Inequality in the United States has risen dramatically since the mid-70s. And the effect gets more extreme the farther out you go. It isn’t just that the top 10% is pulling away from the bottom 90%. The top .01% is pulling away from the top .1% even faster. The multi-billionaires are pulling away from the mere billionaires. (If you want graphs and numbers, look here.)

Obviously you can’t account for all that with education or competition from China. Maybe those factors explain why unskilled workers are having such a tough time, but they say little about the millionaire/billionaire divergence. Ditto for tax rates. Sure, the rich pay a much lower tax rate than they used to, but the explosive growth in their net worth is much bigger than tax rates can account for, and the mega-rich don’t get a significantly better tax deal than the ordinary rich. (Plus, tax cuts start with Reagan in 1982, not the mid-70s.)

Clearly something has happened to the structure of the market, but I couldn’t figure out exactly what.

Monopoly. Barry Lynn’s book Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction looks like the puzzle piece I was missing. Lynn claims our economy is now full of monopolies and near-monopolies — businesses big enough to dictate terms to their customers and/or suppliers.

In the mid-20th-century industrial economy, you got mega-rich by imitating Henry Ford: You figured out how to make things people wanted for a price they wanted to pay. Now you get mega-rich by building choke-points between producers and consumers.

WalMart exemplifies the current paradigm. WalMart makes nothing, but it is big enough to dictate how its suppliers will make things and what prices they can charge. In many of its rural markets, WalMart also dictates what people can buy. If your product isn’t on WalMart’s shelves, it’s not for sale. (WalMart also drives consolidation elsewhere in the economy, which produces big fees for Wall Street. For example, Procter & Gamble bought Gillette largely to improve its negotiating position with WalMart. In slightly different ways, Amazon and Google are trying to duplicate the WalMart model in the online economy. If your book isn’t on Amazon, it’s not for sale.)

Many near-monopolies are less visible than WalMart or Amazon. Lynn begins his book with the story of a pet-food recall, which suddenly made it obvious that many “competing” brands of pet food were actually all packed in the same factory. And Ford lobbied for the government bailout of “competitors” GM and Chrysler because it feared their common suppliers would go bankrupt. Many markets, Lynn says, are hydras: The countless brands on the shelves are just heads that spring from a common body.

The ends against the middle. Reading Lynn, I’m getting a clearer vision of how markets work. The purest form of market is what you can see at any big farmer’s market: Lots of consumers dealing directly with lots of producers. It’s rare that anybody gets really rich from these interactions, but many small producers have a chance to make a living and become independent.

Obviously the global economy has to be more complicated than that. But markets are created by rules, and the rules can be structured to favor either the ends (producers and consumers) or the middle. Producers and consumers benefit from transparent markets, where the rules force middlemen to treat everyone more-or-less the same.

But markets can also be structured to give middlemen as much freedom as possible. The most profitable way to use that freedom is to create choke-points where a toll can be extracted or one producer can be played off against another. In an opaque market, the way to get rich is not to produce things, but to build middleman power that allows you to dictate terms up and down the supply chain. (I don’t have space to go into it here, but keeping the internet transparent is what net neutrality is about, and why Comcast doesn’t like it.)

In a nutshell, what has happened since the mid-70s is that deregulation of old markets and under-regulation of new markets has made our economy more opaque. The people in the best position to take advantage of this are the very rich. Meanwhile, workers and small businessmen — the middle-class people who actually make stuff and deliver services — lose out. In the short term consumers may win or lose, depending on whether the middlemen’s advantage is in raising or lowering prices. But in the long run consumers lose options, power, and quality.

The most interesting thing politically is how the rhetoric of freedom works. Freedom for the middleman leads to domination of producers and consumers. “Freedom” seldom works out to mean more options for everybody.

One worked-out example. If you’ve watched much cable or satellite TV lately, you probably saw Viacom’s ads against DirectTV, like this one.

If you’re a DirectTV subscriber, Comedy Central (and other Viacom channels) went dark for nine days before the two corporations resolved their dispute, so you had to do without The Daily Show or watch it online.

Here’s the point: Maybe you couldn’t watch Jon Stewart for a week, but the problem had nothing to do with either you or Jon Stewart. He wasn’t asking for a raise; you weren’t balking at the price of watching the Daily Show. But both you and Jon were irrelevant when two giant middlemen had a power struggle.

Each brought a lot of power to the struggle. In most of its markets, DirectTV is the only alternative to the local cable monopoly, while Viacom is one of a handful of megacorps that dominate TV content. (Disney, Time Warner, NBCUniversal, NewsCorp, and CBS are the others. National Amusements owns a big chunk of both Viacom and CBS. Comcast plays both sides of the street, being both a cable monopoly and a partner with GE in NBCUniversal.)

Viacom thought it had the upper hand, so it was demanding a bigger payout from DirectTV and insisting DirectTV carry its new Epix channel. I haven’t sorted out yet who won.

These middlemen outweigh both you and Jon Stewart. If Jon doesn’t work for one of the six big media companies, he can’t reach a major audience. If you don’t deal with either DirectTV or a cable monopoly, your TV choices shrink considerably.

Transparent markets. But it’s not hard to imagine a TV system that works differently: Cable or satellite systems could be common carriers, making a fixed amount whenever they connect a TV producer with a TV consumer. Cable and satellite would still compete, but only by changing that fixed amount or by offering more reliable service to the consumer.

With that kind of middleman transparency, small TV companies could spring up and get their shows seen, so Jon Stewart would have a lot more than six choices. You and Jon would have more power, Viacom and DirectTV less.

Even more interesting is what happens to the profit motive: The way to make money in this transparent system is to create shows people want to watch and deliver them reliably. Wheeling and dealing to amass middleman power wouldn’t accomplish much.

Government regulation would probably be necessary to bring this system about, but it would still be capitalism. The marketplace would just be structured differently, so that the benefits and opportunities of capitalism would accrue to producers and consumers rather than to financiers and empire-builders.

Probably this restructured marketplace would lead to more small companies and fewer megacorps, more millionaires and fewer billionaires.

Picture the same transparent-market principle spreading across the economy: More small businesses, more places to look for jobs, greater variety of products, and more opportunity to go into business for yourself. Less inequality.

Why I Am Not a Libertarian

Of all the political movements out there, the Libertarians have the coolest rhetoric. No matter what the issue is, they get to talk about Freedom vs. Tyranny and quote all that rousing stuff the Founders said about King George.

It’s also the perfect belief system for a young male (and maybe, by now, young females too). You don’t need knowledge or experience of any specific situations, you just need to understand the One Big Idea That Solves Everything: Other than a small and appropriately humbled military and judicial establishment, government is bad. Protect life, protect property, enforce contracts — and leave everything else to the market.

I should know. Thirty-five years ago, I was a 19-year-old libertarian, and I learned all the arguments. Now I’m a progressive — a liberal, whatever — and these days even I have to shake my head at how often I’m tempted to quote Marx.

What happened? Well, I suppose I could stroke my white beard and pontificate vaguely about the benefits of 35 years of experience. But I’m thinking that a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires me to be a little more specific.

When you escape a sweeping worldview like Libertarianism, you usually don’t find an equally sweeping critique right away. A broad reframing may come later, but the transformation starts with a few things that stick in your craw and refuse to let themselves be swallowed.

For example, when I was leaving fundamentalist Christianity, one of the first things that bothered me was the genealogy of Jesus. The Bible contains two irreconcilable ones (in Matthew and Luke); they can’t both be the “gospel Truth”. Now, decades later, that issue is nowhere near the top of my why-I’m-not-a-fundamentalist list.

So let me start with some specific, simple things before I launch into more abstract philosophy.

Plague. I recommend that anyone thinking about becoming a Libertarian read The Great Influenza by John Barry. It doesn’t say a word about political philosophy, but it does compare how various American cities handled the Spanish Flu of 1918, which globally killed more people than World War I. The cities that did best were the ones that aggressively quarantined, shut down public meeting places, imposed hygiene standards, and in general behaved like tyrants.

As you read, try to imagine a Libertarian approach to a serious plague. I don’t think there is one. Maybe most people would respond to sensible leadership, but public health is one of those areas where a few people with the freedom to pursue screwy ideas can mess up everybody.

Global warming. There’s a reason why small-government candidates deny global warming: Denial is the only answer they have. Global warming is a collective problem, and there is no individualistic solution to it. Even market-based approaches like cap-and-trade require a massive government intervention to create the market that attacks the problem.

Property. Now let’s get to that more serious reframing.

I had to live outside the Libertarian worldview for many years before I began to grasp the deeper problem with it: property. Every property system in history (and all the ones I’ve been able to imagine) are unjust. So a government that establishes a property system, defends it, and then stops is an agent of injustice.

Libertarians tend to take property as a given, as if it were natural or existed prior to any government. But defining what can be owned, what owning it means, and keeping track of who owns what — that’s a government intervention in the economy that dwarfs all other government interventions. You see, ownership is a social thing, not an individual thing. I can claim I own something, but what makes my ownership real is that the rest of you don’t own it. My ownership isn’t something I do, it’s something we do.

[Aside: This is why it’s completely false to say that government programs primarily benefit the poor. Property is a creation of government, so the primary beneficiaries of government are the people who own things — the rich.]

Property and Labor. It’s worthwhile to go back and read the justifications of property that were given in the early days of capitalism. The most famous and influential such justification was in John Locke’s 1690 classic The Second Treatise of Civil Government. Locke admits that both reason and Christian revelation say that God gave the world to all people in common.

But I shall endeavour to shew, how men might come to have a property in several parts of that which God gave to mankind in common, and that without any express compact of all the commoners.

Locke argues that we individually own our bodies, and so we own our labor. So when our labor gets mingled with physical objects, we develop a special claim on those objects. The person who gathers apples in a wild forest, Locke says, owns those apples.

The labour that was mine, removing them out of that common state they were in, hath fixed my property in them. … Though the water running in the fountain be every one’s, yet who can doubt, but that in the pitcher is his only who drew it out? His labour hath taken it out of the hands of nature, where it was common, and belonged equally to all her children, and hath thereby appropriated it to himself.

But Locke attaches a condition to this justification: It only works if your appropriation doesn’t prevent the next person from doing the same.

No body could think himself injured by the drinking of another man, though he took a good draught, who had a whole river of the same water left him to quench his thirst

And that’s where the whole thing breaks down. Today, a baby abandoned in a dumpster has as valid a moral claim to the Earth as anybody else. But as that child grows it will find that in fact everything of value has already been claimed. Locke’s metaphorical water is all in private pitchers now, and the common river is dry.

When that individual tries to mingle labor with physical objects, he or she will be rebuffed at every turn. Gather apples? The orchard belongs to someone else. Hunt or fish? The forest and the lake are private property.

The industrial economy is in the same condition. You can’t go down to the Ford plant and start working on your new car. You have to be hired first. You need an owner’s permission before your labor can start to create property for you. If no owner will give you that permission, then you could starve.

Access to the means of production. In Locke’s hunter-gatherer state of Nature, only laziness could keep an able-bodied person poor, because the means of production — Nature — was just sitting there waiting for human labor to turn it into property.

Today’s economic environment is very different, but our intuitions haven’t kept up. Our anxiety today isn’t that there won’t be enough goods in the world, and it isn’t fear that our own laziness will prevent us from working to produce those goods. Our fear is that the owners of the means of production won’t grant us access, so we will never have the opportunity to apply our labor.

I meet very few able-bodied adults whose first choice is to sit around demanding a handout. But I meet a lot who want a job and can’t find one. I also meet young people who would be happy to study whatever subject and train in whatever skill would get them a decent job. I am frustrated that I can’t tell them what subject or what skill that is.

Justice. A Libertarian government that simply maintained this property system would be enforcing a great injustice. Access to the means of production should be a human birthright. Everyone ought to have the chance to turn his or her labor into products that he or she could own.

What’s more, everyone should get the benefit of the increased productivity of society. No individual created that productivity single-handedly. No individual has a right to siphon it off.

But instead, our society has a class of owners, and everyone else participates in the bounty of the Earth and the wealth of human progress only by their permission. Increasingly, they maneuver into a position that allows them to drive a hard bargain for that permission. And so higher productivity means higher unemployment, and the average person’s standard of living decreases even as total wealth increases.

The role of government. I anticipate this objection: “You want to go back to being hunter-gatherers. We’ll all starve.”

Not at all. I want a modern economy. But a lassez-faire economy that takes the property system as given is unjust. It is the proper role of government to balance that injustice, to provide many paths of access to the means of production, and to compensate those who are still shut out.

To prevent government from doing so, in today’s world, is no way to champion freedom. Quite the opposite, it’s tyrannical.