Having been issued a sort of philosophical summons to render an account of my opposition to the political economy of the neoconservatives, and indeed, of the American consensus of the past several generations, I propose to provide an answer to the question, "Why such stridency against cooperation for mutual betterment, AS DETERMINED BY THE PARTICIPANTS"? Ultimately, this is a question that implicates what I take to be the fundamental questions of political thought, namely, what is justice? and how is justice to be sought and approximated in the ordering of our earthly affairs?
Sometimes, conservatives exasperated by such skepticism concerning freedom and markets will frame the question as one of hypocrisy: Why would an executive who has arrived at a decision to outsource his manufacturing in order to save x dollars per hour on wages and benefits be regarded as greedy, while the American employees who wish to retain those wages and benefits are not so regarded, and are often considered to be struggling to retain something to which they are entitled? And what has this to do with public policy? Any one of several different, though interrelated conservative answers to such a query could be articulated, though I only wish to focus on one for the present. For the purposes of political economy, the executive has a higher set of hurdles to clear.
Consider an hypothetical executive who has purposed to outsource his labour in order to reduce his costs, avail himself of certain efficiencies, and reap the benefit of an increase in profits. Supposing that we prescind from the question of whether a discourse of rights is actually optimal for the embodiment of what is most vital in a system of social relations, the pertinent question might concern whether he has a right - in the sense that this is an action that ought to be permitted, at a minimum, by law - to undertake such a course of action, given that it will throw a certain number of employees within the community into (hopefully temporary) unemployment. And it would seem that, in virtue of the rights of ownership and control, whether those of simple private property - in the case that our executive is a sole proprietor - or of corporate property - in the case that he holds a right of decision as the manager selected by shareholders to pursue their interests - he does possess that right: their company, their money, their authority, their rightful decision.
Upon reflection, however, I am not persuaded that the matter is ever so uncomplicated; and in consequence, I am not persuaded that an appeal to the rights of property and ownership, and the material productivity of the economic system itself, suffice to answer the question of whether the asserted right should be uncontroverted. For this answer remains wholly innocent of the weightier questions of the common good and order, and subtly elides them.
The answer given for our hypothetical scenario presupposes answers to other questions, answers which are problematic, and yet seldom explicitly addressed and justified. If the foregoing answer is to be taken as valid, and questions not simply begged along the way, the moral and legal status of persons and communites affected by such decisions must be resolved. For example, one possibility is that the executive in the hypothetical simply lacks any meaningful obligation to the affected employees, their families, and the community of which they are part; the nature of the relationship between the executive and these people is entirely specified in the terms of an economic contract, and contract which he retains the power to terminate or withdraw upon receipt of a superior offer. We could elaborate upon this for a while, but the essence of the situation would not thereby by altered in the slightest: on this assumption, the executive is under no obligation imposed by the propinquity of these people; that is to say, there exists no obligation to pursue the common good of those with whom one is bound up in community - no obligation, that is, that is not mediated by commerce.
Alternatively, such obligations might well exist, but might then be held to occupy a lower order of obligation than the obligations the executive has towards his shareholders and bottom line. That is to say that such obligations obtain, and we could spend time teasing out what this would entail, and how these obligations would relate to the economic ones, and in what circumstances, but that ultimately, they are defeasible by the economic considerations. Economic efficiency, or contractual, commercial community - the artificial, abstract community of investors and shareholders seeking higher returns simply - trumps actually existing community.
Alternatively, yet again, in accordance with certain of the arguments of classical political economy itself, it might be asseverated that the obligation of the executive is to profitability and efficiency per se, or perhaps to these insofar as this accords with his rational self-interest, and that by discharging his responsibilities with this object in mind, the Unseen Hand, which might be the fist that forces his community to be "free", will ensure that the unplanned concinnity of economic actions redounds to the greatest material advancement of the greatest number.
Undoubtedly, one might tease out yet another hypothetical explication of the relationship - or lack thereof - of our executive to his erstwhile employees and their community, but in all cases the fundamental presuppositions will remain identical: each argument on behalf of the executive presupposes that economic considerations are trumps. They are considered overriding; they are defeaters for community ties, non- or an- economic relationships within a community, family, personal ties, and all of the tacit obligations that most people intuit as attaching to such relationships and statuses. They presuppose, and that uniformly, that efficiency trumps community and custom, and therefore, somewhat ironically - and incoherently - that community is not really community, but that community is nothing more than the aggregate of individual commitments undertaken in the interstices of commercial relationships. Community is the sum of individualisms; and a certain form of utility is the dominant discourse of society - dominant because it serves as the architecture of society, and secures itself against the intrusions into its sacred space of other discourses. The corporation may constrain - or worse - the community in order to preserve itself; the converse does not hold.
Even were it is the case that the highly specific legal forms through which these ostensible rights of property and commerce are expressed existed in some timeless, Platonic realm, such that all that remained to us was the imperative of recognizing - in both the Platonic and modern senses - them, this would generate a type of inconsistency. However, this inconsistency is only intensified by the fact that these legal forms are, in their specificity, historically elaborated and evolved - which is to say, contingent - and thus dependent in still greater measure upon the security afforded by the political system and its laws. The ostensible rights are politically-secured and intrinsically contestable, as amply demonstrated by the fact that political controversy has attended virtually every phase of the evolution of the modern corporate system, inclusive of the current phase of globalization. The rights of economic activity in question, by the logic of rights-claims, must be things which state and society are obliged to recognize, each in its own sphere and in accordance with its own social capacities, and to defend, the former by law and the latter by acceptance and adaptation, ensuring that the possessors of the rights are secure in their exercise. And in the case of the specific claims I am considering, what follows is that there obtains an obligation on the part of government and society generally to secure the right of certain individuals and actors within society to - potentially, and often actually - uproot entire ways of life, undermine the stability of families and communities, and render more tenuous the positions of others within society - this, in the pursuit of efficiency.
My point, for the present, is the limited one that these aspects of the economic system simply cannot be defended as rights, for this generates the absurdity that society must defend, and acquiesce in, its periodic dispossession (creative destruction, baby!). To the contrary, these rights-claims are inherently contestable, and thus part of the political process; any argument to the contrary is really an attempt to evade historical realities. The market is neither the foundation of society, nor the foremost institution thereof, for this very reason; the foundational questions of political thought cannot be evaded by taking refuge in the Market.
Now, for the details:
What concerns me is the strident accusations you make against the natural consequences of human freedom, if property and contractural rights are protected -- cooperation for mutual betterment, AS DETERMINED BY THE PARTICIPANTS.
Participants in commercial transactions determine their subjective and largely material interests, not necessarily their objective interests in accordance with justice and the common good. It is to the latter sphere that republican self-governance should be oriented, for it is in the nature of governance and authority that it deliberate over, and ultimately instantiate some vision of order transcending the mere riot of individual preferences, of market subjectivities. Eric Voegelin referred to this as a cosmion of meaning, or something like that; but whatever we elect to call it, the point remains unchanged: those who elevate markets to a position of centrality are evading the central questions of political discourse. This accounts for some of the sterility of that discourse, as it survives.
Yet, upon examination, I am always led back to the view that the tension is a product not of the market, but of human nature and inclination that in the best case is disciplined to restaint by a higher call. The First Law of Economics, I teach my students, is "Everyone wants to be better off." Or as Michael Oakeshott said, "to replace what is with what ought to be." Ludwig von Mises simply called it "Human Action."
It is perfectly correct to observe that this tension is present within the very fabric of human nature, prior to its instantiation in any given social order. However, two points are apposite. First, our economic system, privileging as it does material advancement over other human goods, defines this "pursuit of betterment" largely materialistically, and both demonstrates and entrenches this materialist bias by declining to countenance much in the way of limitations upon the ability of the economic to poach on the turf of other human goods. Second, the fundamental question here is not vice, considered in itself, but the nature of the social order and the degree to which it either facilitates or hinders the social manifestation of vice. The dogma of modern political economy, namely, that our infinite wants are the foundation of material progress, is simply the dogma that our avarice is the foundation of social order and progress.
The free market is by its very nature a democracy..
Democracy, by its very nature, as has been recognized by political philosophers since antiquity, and as was presciently understood by our own Founders, tends towards the aggregation of power; that is, towards tyranny and concentration. Hence, the democratic element in any polity or social system must be checked and limited by other aspects of the system both in order to forestall the possibility of despotism, and to enable the democratic element itself to realize its own telos. Democracy tends toward aggregation on account of its homogenization or reduction of the masses under one aspect, be it the franchise or the market; it facilitates the emergence of a managerial elite in both politics and the economy, and this managerial elite is the essence of the attenuation of self-government.
Think about it: to make myself or my product valuable enough to you to “win your vote” (get hired, make the sale, etc.), I must necessarily figure out what it is you are looking for (even if you yourself are not entirely sure). This is the very essence of entrepreneurism, which is from the French word often used for explorers. I must “explore” the opportunities that exist to satisfy you (from the First Law of Economics). Sounds suspiciously like the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12 and Luke 6:31 – I must “do” unto you as I myself would desire to have done to me; that is, I want to be better off, and in order to be so, I must give you something that you value.
As the scholastics might have said, sic et non. Yes, in a well-balanced economic system, in order to secure my own means of sustenance - assuming that we are not speaking of a more agrarian order in which many of us will be raising our own food - I must provide my neighbour with something that serves his needs. However, it is morally imperative to distinguish between needs and thneeds, those artificial wants that we do not comprehend until The Market stimulates them and awakens them within us. I will be serving my neighbour if I actually, you know, serve his genuine needs; if I am doing nothing more than serving his thneeds, I am not truly serving him because I am actually degrading him by circumventing his rational nature and stroking his disordered passions.
When thought of from this perspective, we see quickly that the most successful entrepreneurs -- the Henry Fords, Sam Waltons and Bill Gates of the world – have figured out how to serve people extremely well in terms of giving them things they value highly; greater mobility, greater purchasing power or more time and information. And these great ORGANIZATIONS of "free cooperators" necessarily require skilled managers who concern themself with the "big picture" and move the parts around FOR THE BENEFIT OF ALL INVOLVED.
Tell that to Chinese slave labourers or American workers who may once have laboured for decent wages in domestic firms, or maintained small businesses now submerged by the Wal-Marts of the world. Aggregration benefits the aggregator, just as democracy benefits the demagogue. The benefits are not uniformly distributed, and that by the nature of the case, as a consequence of the logic of democracy, and of those inequalities of talent and endowment which pre-exist and condition the operations of markets, the rewards to which the present system grossly exaggerates.
What most seek to do is to restrain this system in some way, either for their personal benefit or the "greater good". Both are tyrannical at their roots. Rent-seeking, meaning attempt to create through coercion financial income which is not matched by corresponding labour or investment in the market sense, is precisely what Adam Smith criticised in The Wealth of Nations.
The concept of rent-seeking is most often a question-begging and underdetermined rhetorical device by which defenders of The Market seek to disparage the alleged motivations of thier critics while shielding their own from critique. There is rent-seeking, and there is "rent-seeking". Some of this is just rent-seeking; some of this is the inexorable outworking of the concentrating logic of the system; and some of this is merely an attempt to secure and defend non- or an- economic goods from the depredations of the system. In other words, the very concept of rent-seeking cannot be defined in purely economic terms, regardless of what the political economists have to say, for the very notion of a social rent cannot even be defined absent a broader conception of the social good that the very apparatus of politics is intended to secure for a society.
To a large degree, it seems to me, the question of what constitutes an excess of earthly goods must be seen within the context of one’s culture.
Again, sic et non. There does obtain a significant degree of relativity in the assessment of what constitutes wealth and poverty within any given society. On the other hand, to whom much is given, much is required.
Even if you could assemble a room-full of the very smartest and morally best people in the country (or the world, for that matter) as your planners, they simply do not have the brainpower or, most importantly, the "processing speed" (decision feedback) of millions upon millions of free actors (even dumb ones) making decisions and adjusting to outcomes.
This is all very well and good, and true for that matter - as a matter of purely economic thought. I have read The Road to Serfdom and Socialism. Nevertheless, there exists an abundance of reasons to deny that this fact, and the recognition thereof as a fact of economic activity considered in abstraction from other human goods, is sufficient as a basis of social order, or that it suffices as the primary determinant of social order. This decentralized processing of information must occur within a broader societal framework conditioned by ethics, religion, tradition, custom, and a sense of the imperatives of limits and balance; for this is the very essence of the specifically political: to pursue justice, to deliberate as to its nature and obligations, and to strive for its approximation. The market, considered in itself, is at best orthogonal to justice, inasmuch as justice is apprehended by reason, and elaborated by reason in tandem with tradition, while the deliverances of the market are mere transcriptions of desire; and desire is not merely other than reason, but is that which must, if the soul and the society are to attain to a right order, be itself limited and submitted to the tutelage of reason.