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Economic Karma

Patrick Deneen has posted an intriguing analysis of the walk-away culture emerging in the wreckage of the collapse of the mortgage debt pyramid. Referencing this article on the new business of 'walking away', which discusses the rising trend and summarizes the animating ethos thusly:

If banks can make "business decisions" to ignore risks, to lend money with no down payment, and fire people at at the first sign of trouble without any remorse, why shouldn't consumers be able to do the same?

Deneen explicates the broader sociological context of the phenomenon, namely, the negation of the preconditions of a societal sense of shame:

As the Greeks well knew, the vital ingredient for shame - and, correspondingly, honor - to function in society was immediacy and care for the people in one's polis, their views and opinions, the esteem they bestowed or withheld. Elites were honored in our society to the extent that they were themselves exemplars of the virtues that they both preached and expected of others in turn. The current widespread hostility to all these elites - Wall Street, lawyers, doctors, politicians - reflects the breakdown of a covenant of respect and honor. As our economy has become more abstract and distant, as our "communities" are compared to bedrooms (or perhaps, more aptly, hotel rooms), as our sense of continuity between past and future has been undermined by rampant mobility, impermanence and instability, there can be little wonder that "shamelessness" has spread like a contagion through our society. Such lack of shame and disregard of honor began at the top and now ripples downward through the feeding chain of class and status. (Snip) We live not in homes, a vital part of a neighborhood, a town, a community - but in cheap structures without inherent worth. Just as our economy has shown us no sense of obligation and concern, so too in return are ordinary people shucking off the social norms or covenants that bound us in communion and fidelity.

In other words, if the Gods of the Global Market can shuck off their obligations to actual persons and communities, offshoring production, insourcing labour, and maintaining a postmodern feudal economy of credit feifs, all in service to the utilitarian metrics of untrammeled neoliberalism, why cannot the proles shuck off their obligations to their fiduciary masters? After all, in a substantive sense - I might even say, and ontological sense - the natural obligations of an elite towards the people are prior to contingent contractual obligations; the latter presuppose the former, which are themselves necessary conditions of there existing a habitable, equitable society at all. If the GotGM can disregard their substantive obligations, even to the point of granting themselves remissions from certain contractual obligations - for example, in bankruptcy proceedings which enable pension obligations to be obviated - why cannot their subjects simply shrug their shoulders, saying, in effect, "If it's all yours anyway, come and take it at a loss"?

Deneen's analysis gets to the heart of what is tragically mistaken in this repugnant expression of callousness, according to which the elites possess no obligations whatsoever towards the "losers" of globalization:

Even if you’ve just lost your job, there’s something fundamentally churlish about blaming the very phenomenon that’s elevated you above the subsistence level since the day you were born.

Landsburg may affect the posture of an individualist, likening any consideration of the negative effects of trade to bullying, thus betraying an unargued presupposition of economic man, the utility-maximizer; but his above-quoted remarks do contain a theory of obligation, since obligation is inescapable. Obligation, implicit in his remarks on subsistence, is never particularized, made concrete in webs of relationships with real people in real places, but abstract, universal, and systemic: one is subject to an obligation, the obverse of the dogma of economic man, to maximize the aggregate efficiency of the system as a whole, and the remarks about elevating from subsistence those who would otherwise suffer privation betray the original religious tincture of political economy - that the Hand of Providence would coordinate millions of particular-obligation-negating actions to create a systemic whole in which a self-regulating-and-sustaining, autonomous market would result in peace and prosperity. But obligation is, on this conception, not merely abstract, but also voluntaristic: the subject may choose for himself those to whom he is obligated, and in the case of the GotGM, these would be groupings such as shareholders and investors. Those who actually perform the actions that generate the profits for these latter? Not so much.

There is another dimension to this exercise in applied selfishness, however, one pinpointed by Deneen; namely, the responsibility of an elite class within any society. And of this, it should suffice to remark that, on a Christian conception of leadership - which is a generic and much-abused term, but one that will have to do for the present - the role of an elite is not to "lord it over" the masses, exploiting every opportunity for private or group advantage, but precisely to renounce this power, to the end that the particular goods of particular persons, and the common good of particular places, may be realized - or at least approximated. Something of this truth is, I believe, preserved in the old pagan myths of the founders of nations: they were apotheosized, in part, because by their valorous deeds, the community achieved a self-conscious and distinct existence; and thus to create is to limit. Regardless, an elite worthy of admiration, respect, and deference will be an elite that renounces the pursuit of purely sectional advantages, advantages that accrue disproportionately to its membership, while the costs are borne by the lesser orders. We no longer possess such an elite, and their ethos now permeates the entire society; and while the shamelessness of the elite is scarcely an all-encompassing explanation for our present malaise, our elites, who shrug their shoulders at community, and pen apologetics for their indifference (and outright hostility), only reap what they have sown when the masses look back at them and reflect that indifference and disdain.

Comments (48)

While there is a small part of me that has an issue with the dishonesty of repaying a debt rightfully owed, there is another part of me that says popularizing walking away is the first step toward ridding us of institutionalized usury. If the mortgage debt were proper, the bank should only rightfully expect the property loaned as payment for principle rather than cash if it were business arrangement. If it were a purely personal arrangment, the bank is not entitled to interest. It would seem the former is closer to our present circumstance.

"why shouldn't consumers be able to do the same?"

On a slightly differrent note, but then again somewhat related, I've wondered why employee applicants shouldn't ask to see the references of potential employees. I shrugged it off, not wanting to be too democratic.

typo: potential employers.

Landsburg does not "liken any consideration of the negative effects of trade to bullying." No. He write that "bullying and protectionism have a lot in common," and he goes on to say exactly what he thinks they have in common: "they both use force (either directly or through the power of the law) to enrich someone else at your involuntary expense."

It is completely mysterious to me why you think that this comparison presupposes "economic man, the utility-maximizer."

It is equally mysterious to me why you think that it is "implicit" in anything he says that "obligation...is never particularized, made concrete in webs of relationships with real people in real places, but abstract, universal, and systemic" - in particular, that "one is subject to an obligation...to maximize the aggregate efficiency of the system as a whole." So far as I can tell, his point is entirely critical - i.e., he objects to the claim that we are obligated to protect people from certain ill effects of free trade. Now clearly, he thinks that free trade is morally permissible - and clearly he thinks that its tendency to maximize aggregate efficiency is a mark in its favor. But you simply cannot validly infer from this that he thinks we are under any obligation to maximize aggregate efficiency.

It is even more mysterious to me why you think that his "remarks about elevating from subsistence those who would otherwise suffer privation" somehow imply that "obligation is...not merely abstract, but also voluntaristic." Really? All obligation? So to argue against the reality of certain supposed "natural" obligations that you happen to feel strongly about is to argue that all obligation is voluntaristic? How does that follow? And how on earth do you square this with your previous claim that he also believes in some sort of utilitarian obligation to maximize aggregate efficiency - surely a paradigmatic case of a non-voluntaristic obligation?

But, setting aside these particular problems, I take it that the nub of your position here is that "the natural obligations of an elite towards the people are prior to contingent contractual obligations; the latter presuppose the former, which are themselves necessary conditions of there existing a habitable, equitable society at all."

The problem is that, both in your rhetoric and your argumentation, you consistently carry on as if there were no deep difference between the economic "elite" of modern America and the aristocratic elite of medieval Europe. Here as elsewhere, you seem to take a highly idealized notion of the natural obligations that premodern overlords are supposed to have recognized and practiced toward their peasants and try to transfer it, part and parcel, to the utterly different relationship between modern employers and their employees. I think this whole project is as philosophically ill-conceived as it is historically fantastic.

"All economists know that when American jobs are outsourced, Americans as a group are net winners. What we lose through lower wages is more than offset by what we gain through lower prices."

This tenured professor, safley ensconsed in his ivy-draped fever swamp, is a major beneficiary of the usury racket. Without middle-class kids taking on onerous debts in order to attend his "place of higher learning", he might have to venture into the work-force and do something meaningful. Instead, this carney barker gets to dress-up like Ayn Rand and taunt his victims and their parents.

Usury is an immoral practice that poisons all it touches. Purging it from our system will be painful, but necessary if we are to survive as anything other than the world's largest, disheveled strip-mall.

As a sheerly causal matter, it seems to me improbable that the practices of outsourcing or not giving pensions when a company goes into bankruptcy have much of an influence on the casualness with which private debtors try to get out of repaying. Most people aren't aware of the latter, and the sheerly ideological connection to the former is rather tenuous and hardly likely to occur to your average indebted individual, much less influence him or make him feel excused.

A more plausible connection can be drawn, it seems to me, between the ease of going into debt and the casualness with which one takes debt, with the latter in turn contributing to a lack of shame in defaulting. If banks and other creditors want people to take debt seriously--and they should--perhaps they shouldn't advertise debt as such a great thing, as "no biggie." There should be a certain amount of distaste about being in debt at all, especially when we are talking about something other than an ordinary, sensible, non-ballooning mortgage (and I don't mean a "home equity loan") to enable one to buy a house. The latter can at least be defended as economically responsible. Few other common debts can be.

I was shocked once in talking to a graduate student. The subject of school loans came up. I pointed out the possibility that she would not get a job allowing her to repay. She sniffed, "What are they going to do, repo my degree?"

Similarly, I have known graduate students with scarcely a penny to their names go into five-digit debt to buy a new car rather than buy a good used one from a recommended dealer for only about six thousand dollars. The debt just doesn't _bother_ people enough in the first place, and I do have to admit that creditors seem to encourage this attitude.

Landsburg also segues gradually from his mention of the positions of two GOP candidates to a discussion of the wonders of globalism generally, making a few ludicrous claims along the way - "Not a single person on earth who has not benefitted"? - and concludes by discussing protectionism, which "enriches you at someone else's involuntary expense". And if it is churlish to demand even that displaced workers be retrained, inasmuch as they have already benefitted from globalization, which bestows its rains upon all, then this must be related to the notion that such publicly subsidized retraining would enrich those otherwise displaced workers at the expense of others. That is what government spending does, is it not?

As regards the presupposition of economic man, Landsburg is presupposing a theory of voluntary exchange, which, as his concluding paragraph makes plain, holds that any interference with what market exchanges would yield in the absence of externalities such as nations (what else could be the point of bringing Mexican and American labour into the discussion?) is coercive. At best, therefore, such things as nations, peoples and cultures are secondary considerations; and it is unclear how he could bring them into consideration without somehow limiting the logic of exchange in a manner that "benefits some at the expense of others." This is, to be fair, not a forthright statement of the thesis of marginal utility as the wellspring of human action; it is not exactly Human Action, but the resemblance is more than passing.

Aggregate efficiency and obligation ought to be considered together, inasmuch as the former has always been advanced as the justification for the economic system and policies Landsburg intends to defend. The businessman who engages in some action which increases aggregate utility at the expense of the private utilities of some of his employees does have a theory of obligation; it's merely that it has to be teased out. That businessman who, for example, outsources production to Mexico (which example I choose only because Landsburg already has mentioned Mexico) is, on Landsburg's own conception, sidestepping measures that "enrich some at the expense of others", namely, his former employees at the expense of, well, himself, his shareholders, and the Mexicans. Those strictures were coercive, whether obtained through Congress, union bargaining, or what-have-you. Being coercive, it is fair to adjudge their avoidance a good; if it is a good, then it makes sense to regard it as obligatory, unless he is also willing to state that permitting coercive structures to continue is distinct from actively imposing them. Perhaps such a distinction could be made, but since advocates of globalization act as though the perpetuation of these limitations upon their craft are unjustly coercive, designating this an implicit theory of obligation seems rational: we are obligated to eliminate these restraints upon trade because they favour some at the involuntary expense of others; and, having done this, what is merely the obverse becomes true - that in our voluntary acts we contractually obligate ourselves to those who benefit us by augmenting the system that requires the removal of the old restraints. The first is general, while the second is specific, but highly qualified, obtaining not in virtue of actual relationships and social bonds, but in virtue of decisions taken by the subjects.

And no, I'm not presupposing that the norms of an aristocratic elite map over those of contemporary America, merely arguing that American elites possess obligations toward America and Americans, obligations that cannot be discharged by being mediated through the global economy in some generic or aggregate sense. The nexus of feudal relationships has been fully abolished; but I don't perceive that it follows from this that a shared national or regional identity confers no obligations. And if the patterns and structural logic of contemporary capitalism are inimical to such obligations of identity and propinquity, so much the worse for the former, as far as I'm concerned; citizens and residents of foreign nations ought not, for economic purposes, be treated as identical to one's countrymen.

"...it seems to me improbable that the practices of outsourcing or not giving pensions when a company goes into bankruptcy have much of an influence on the casualness with which private debtors try to get out of repaying."

Why? All stem from the same "screw 'em", all against all ethos that pollutes the very air we breathe and allowed some of the birghtest minds on Wall Street to conjure up and rationalize the biggest boondoggle in our nation's history.
Many of those walking away in Shaker Hgts, Ohio work in the fiancial industry.
They're just doing on a personal level what they've see occur firs hand on an institutional one.

I'm not proposing a causal relationship between globalization and defaults; for that matter, neither do I read Deneen to be proposing such a causal nexus. Rather, what we are suggesting is that the cultural ethos of disregard, of private gain as a trump for certain obligations, is widespread. Many borrowers, in effect, desire something for nothing, and many economic elites desire something for nothing, namely, great personal gain without the costs of the externalities created. These latter are disavowed as easily as some borrowers disavow their debts.

Landsburg HAS ventured into the workforce, and he does produce useful things. He has a an honorable career, and people pay him to produce what he produces. The fact that you do not value them does not mean his work is meaningless or that he's simply a carnival barker, as you insultingly assert. If he is a tenured professor, then he has had to compete against other qualified academics for that position, and he has had to convince students, colleagues, administrators and board members that he is worthy. His economic explanation is both true and worthy -- at least that part quoted above. What is unworthy is your excoriation of him.
Michael Bauman

I notice you called it his "economic explanation", likely because it could never pass as a moral one. I don't think the whole; "don't worry about your unemployed neighbor - the cost for your new widget just went down" makes sense as an economic one either. When he ventures outside of Pittsford, he must come upon the many ravaged upstate communities hollowed out by the cheap labor - cheap imported goods regimen. Has he tallied the social cost?

The one thing that smoothed life over for many was the housing bubble created by credit market manipulations. Does he think it pure coincidence that it occured as out-sourcing hit the white collar workforce, or was it driven motivated by a desire to alleviate the financial stress of the middle class?

His cautioning us against the pitfalls of propping up "losers" has forced an apology from me. Calling him a carney barker was an insult to those men who hawk outlandish wares to an audience in on the con. I apologize for the recklessly lumping them in with this shill.

Landsburg is the author of a book enitled "More Sex is Safer Sex; The Unconvential Wisdom of Economics", no doubt a libertarian classic for it's masterful rehabilitation of the long lost, pre-Christian virtues of lust and greed. The University of Rochester; from Lasch to Landsburg, a sad tale of a college's moral, spiritual and intellectual decline.


So how does your irrelevant, subsequent double-rant in any way justify your earlier baseless statement that Landsburg ought to venture out into the workforce, as if he has not, or your equally baseless assertion that his work is not meaningful, when those who (for years) pay him to work and those who (for years) purchase what he produces say precisely the opposite? Perhaps you don't agree with him. I'll happily take your word for it. But your disagreement is no justification for your mis-statements or for your insulting mis-characterizations concerning him -- falsehoods and insults far more in line with the moral decline you bewail than is his true explanation of the economic benefits of outsourcing. He is not a carnival barker, despite your false and wicked characterization. Perhaps you need to study economics more carefully so that you can more accurately assess the moral and economic benefits of outsourcing -- and the economic and immoral consequences of preventing it. Ignorance and slander, not Landsburg, are the enemy. Like it or not, you write on their behalf. Like it or not, you are bearing false witness against your neighbor.

Michael Bauman

Landsburg is the one lacking in empathy for his neighbors in upstate New York and it is he who needs to reassess his understanding of economics and it's apparent primacy in his calculations.

He says;
"If you’re forced to pay $20 an hour to an American for goods you could have bought from a Mexican for $5 an hour, you’re being extorted. When a free trade agreement allows you to buy from the Mexican after all, rejoice in your liberation."

Can he tell us what the spread is between $20 and $5 in terms of social costs; the impact on the family, community and increased state welfare expenditures as a result of this exercise in "comparative advantage"? If not, maybe it's because he doesn't have one, or worse doesn't care. Given the tone of his screed it's hard to tell.

There certainly are professors who shouldn't have the jobs that they do have (I could list some pseudo-disciplines to which this judgement would apply), and it certainly is true that the mystique of higher education has to some extent insulated people from the scrutiny and competition that they would face in a profession without that mystique. I can't say absolutely definitely that Landsburg _isn't_ one such, because I don't know enough about him, but on the face of it it seems to me a great overstatement to insist that because he's in a so-called "ivory tower" teaching academic material he is not in the workforce and not doing something useful. That, in fact, would be to heap scorn upon all the dispensers of good liberal arts education along with the pseudo-intellectuals.

Moreover, the fact that young people take student loans they probably shouldn't take and that this keeps higher education going at an economically inflated pitch--which is undoubtedly true--hardly puts all professors in the wrong, as though they should all quit their jobs and shut down all the universities as acts of protest against the too-easy dispensing and taking of student loans. One does as honorable a job one can, teaching things one thinks worthwhile, perhaps (one hopes and prays) doing great good to some minds and souls along the way. Not that I picture Landsburg as doing any praying, from the little I've picked up about him here! But that isn't the point. The point is, Kevin, that you sound like, because his salary is financed in part by student tuition which is paid in part by means of student loans, he has no right to speak on the matter of the economy, and as though he is to be despised on those grounds per se. That really doesn't make sense.

Okay, I read the op-ed. It's...odd. Right at the end there, I could have sworn that he started alking about people's having developed a particular set of skills and being out of a job and then made an analogy to someone's making a lot of money as a bully and being "put out of a job" by efforts to stop bullying, then analogized bullying to protectionism. Whoa! Originally, the "bully" was the analogue of the guy who works on an assembly line or something and is out of a job because of overseas outsourcing. But the thing is, that's a pretty bad analogy, because it's wrong to bully people out of their money on the playground and not wrong to work at a morally legitimate job for your money, so...So he changes the subject to protectionist public policy?

Mind you, I'm not by these comments endorsing either tax-funded job retraining nor protective tariffs. I'm just saying that this is a pretty shallow op-ed.

It is a shallow editorial, and I have the impression that it was written in a state of high dudgeon. I would imagine that Landsburg was as furious during its composition as I was while first reading it. You can make all of those odd transitions work, but it necessitates regarding, say, the assembly-line worker who once benefited from unionization and the pre-globalization economic order as a bully, because his advantages, such as they were, were arbitrary and unmerited. He doesn't deserve 20$ per hour when a Mexican might perform the same job for 5$ per hour. But that takes one into the thickets of the Tim Lee piece we discussed some months back. It also sounds ambiguously Rawlsian, which is a bad place to be.

Distributists, alas, do have a tendency toward some impatience of polemic. I admit that because I have it too. But really, the hauteur of the dogmatic postmodern Capitalist is something to behold at times.

When I learned about Capitalism -- which, as with many of us, came mostly after I got out of college -- I learned that its core principles were Private Property and Free Enterprise. I have never deviated from the belief that those are fine and true principles. But I have increasingly discovered that many who think themselves firm defenders of Capitalism find them rather passe.

Instead they have brought in with them, perhaps out of the sheer boredom and anomie, strange new concoctions, half-breed amalgams. Globalization is now defended as if it were the sine qua non of the system, though the world's most important commodity is state-controlled, and the world's rising economic star is a Communist State. Meanwhile, High Finance, the shifting around of Private Property in great bundles of electronic obscurantism, is where all the action is at.

What happened to those true principles? What happened to Property and Enterprise? I guess they are too small for these energumens. Just not big enough. What is private property but some poor schmuck's house, who can't tell a stock from a bond? What is Free Enterprise but a no-name family in Missouri adding labor to talent and skill? Maybe the enterprise is something totally boring like home schooling.

When Professor Landsburg explains that some concatenation of theoretic logic can make Capitalism mean the dissolution of my country in the pursuit of cheap labor, I do confess that I am inclined to tell Capitalism and its Professor to go to hell.

It aint the Capitalism I know.

"Kevin, that you sound like, because his salary is financed in part by student tuition which is paid in part by means of student loans, he has no right to speak on the matter of the economy, and as though he is to be despised on those grounds per se."

Lydia, he is exceptionally cavalier about the vagaries of a marketplace that he is largely sheltered from. In fact, he benefits from a market distortion that inflates his own salary. Did you hear him complain?

Landsburg represents a type that Burke warned against; "a sophist and calculator" whose narrow specialization is so constricted that he even flubs the area of his alleged expertise. The loss of our manufacturing base has destroyed entire communities and spawned countless and costly pathologies, our banks are being bought by foreign interests, we are running massive trade deficits and budget deficits financed by a debt that we can only repay by becoming the world's Hessians and the home equity prop sustaining our recent economic growth was a sham that has drained 70 billion (and counting)from our financial infrastructure and this guy tells us to celebrate the "liberation" that free trade has wrought.

He has a right to his opinion, yet I suspect if the law of of supply and demand were applied to his own case, the Adam Smith necktie around his neck would suddenly grow excessively tight.

...but it necessitates regarding, say, the assembly-line worker who once benefited from unionization and the pre-globalization economic order as a bully, because his advantages, such as they were, were arbitrary and unmerited. ... It also sounds ambiguously Rawlsian, which is a bad place to be.

This may be a thought worth exploring in greater depth. I think there might be something quite significant to it, but I am having a hard time putting it to words.

Sorry, but this whole discussion is going on at what strikes me as a complete useless level of generality.

I made several quite specific objections to the interpretation & reasoning in Maximos' post - and I have yet to see any serious attempt at a reply to those objections, by him, or by anybody else.

I'm not going to spend another hour and a half on this.

Oh, and by the way: I'd like to associate myself (not for the first time) with Michael Bauman's excellent remarks, above.

For myself, Steve, I have trouble envisioning how an objection like this could really be answered:

The problem is that, both in your rhetoric and your argumentation, you consistently carry on as if there were no deep difference between the economic "elite" of modern America and the aristocratic elite of medieval Europe. Here as elsewhere, you seem to take a highly idealized notion of the natural obligations that premodern overlords are supposed to have recognized and practiced toward their peasants and try to transfer it, part and parcel, to the utterly different relationship between modern employers and their employees. I think this whole project is as philosophically ill-conceived as it is historically fantastic.

Maximos our beloved mediaevalist!

Look, if we posit that, in Bob Dylan's words, the world is full "of steel-eyed death, and men who are fighting to be warm,” if we posit corruption and injustice by those in power, jealousy, cruelty and cupidity by many more, in any age -- why, then I think there are things which we may rightly admire in the Mediaeval Age. Even things we might desire to emulation if we can.

Not all monarchs were tyrants; not all crusaders were opportunists; not all priests were charlatans. Our world is far safer and more comfortable, but is it more just? The answer to that is not obvious to me. What is increasingly obvious to me is that our political philosophy and our culture is far inferior. I'll let Chesterton make the argument:

War had broken out between Assisi and Perugia. It is now fashionable to say in a satirical spirit that such wars did not so much break out as to go on idefinitely between the city states of medieval Italy. It will be enough to say here that if one of those medieval wars had really gone on without stopping for a century, it might possibly have come within a remote distance of killing as many people as we kill in a year, in one of our great modern scientific wars between our great modern industrial empires. But the citizens of the medieval republic were certainly under the limitation of only being asked to die for the things with which they had always lived, the house they inhabited, the shrines they venerated and the rulers and representatives they knew; and had not the larger vision calling for them to die for the latest rumours about remote colonies as reported in anonymous newspapers. And if we infer from our own experience that war paralyzed civilization, we must at least admit that these warring towns turned out a number of paralytics who go by the names of Dante and Michael Angelo, Ariosto and Titian, Leonardo and Columbus, not to mention Catherine of Siena and the subject of this story [St. Francis]. While we lament all this local patriotism as a hubbub of the Dark Ages, it must seem a rather curious fact that about three quarters of the greatest men who ever lived came out of these little towns and were often engaged in these little wars. It remains to be seen what will ultimately come out of our large towns; but there has been no sign of anything of this sort since they became large; and I have sometimes been haunted by a fancy of my youth, that these things will not come till there is a city wall around Clapham and the tocsin is rung at night to arm the citizens of Wimbledon.

There goes that distributist hyperbole again. But do our promoters of Capitalism always guard their hearts against this vice of exaggeration? Are we never subjected to over-enthusiastic paeans to our noble system of commerce?

Men like Landsburg want us to look at globalization and see a paradise of comfort and prosperity. Fine. Where is the paradise of Mediaevalism by which to imagine a comparison? Where is the paradise of community, of closeness and family, of organic human life?

The Shire, perhaps.

And let me associate myself (not for the first time) with the iron-welders, factory machinists, call center operators and radiologists who found their
jobs out-sourced, and now should they stumble across the NY Times or Slate, are dismissed by a New Class materialist as bullying losers, insufficently grateful to the "phenomenon" that lifted them above subsitience level.

That is not to say I don't have a certain sympathy for the incredibly witty professor who can write "If the government wants to provide meaningful assistance to first-time home buyers, it should probably consider capital punishment for late mortgage payments.", it's just that his work isn't likely to challenge Rerum Novarum any time soon.

I have to say here that I think a villein who was tied to the land and could be dragged back forcibly by his lord and have the tar beaten out of him (or worse) if he escaped and couldn't keep out of the way in a charter borough for a year and a day might find the nostalgia for the "connectedness and community" of the medieval period a bit misplaced. No, not all masters were bad. The same is true of slave masters in the Old South. Yes, I realize that villeinage was not the same as the slavery of the Old South, but a form of slavery it most assuredly was, and not an example of justice. Are there "things" we might admire in the medieval age? Yes, I'm just not at all sure they are all of the things the distributists admire. Are there things the medievals should admire--if they could have known of them--in our age? Yes. Emphatically yes.

Do we have evils unknown to the medievals? For sure. Planned Parenthood clinics, for example. Legal ones. But they had evils that we are blessed not to have. Villeinage being only one, as well as a certain amount of "plain old" slavery. Child marriage, often forced. Fierce religious persecution. Arbitrary rule by kings. And that is just to name a few political and social evils, and to leave out of account the many surd physical evils, like disease and early death. If I got into those, I suppose they would be dismissed as merely part of our greater "comfort"--though I cannot see freedom from bubonic plague as really so small and dismissable a thing, myself.

The truth is that too many of the social, moral, and political evils of the medieval period are connected to connectedness and authority. That is why I cannot join in the nostalgia for connectedness and authority of those periods.

I suppose the best approach of the pro-medievalists would be to say something to the effect that they are trying to get the best of both worlds--a highly, exceedingly modified version of connectedness and authority that would bear little actual resemblance to the manifestations of those concepts in the medieval period but would be inspired by them as, dare I say, slogans. This, however, doesn't sound really so very positive about the medieval period, and would also involve a fair-minded praising of the ways in which our age is *juster* than that one. In the same manner I say that I believe in traditional gender roles, but my idea of this does not include (as I'm afraid it often did in the past) a husband's right to beat his wife.

But then again, I would never be caught saying that I endorse the _medieval_ period _because of_ their better notion of traditional gender roles. I want my hierarchies a lot kinder and gentler than that, thanks very much.

These, of course, are just my opinions.

Lydia, if you want to talk sheer brutality, the plain fact is that we have exceeded the mediaevals by orders of magnitude. Our technical mastery has granted us the power to incinerate entire cities. Even the Mongols did not destroy with the totality of Dresden or Hiroshima.

We have tyrants whose rule of terror and bloodlust and inhumanity was far more extensive and complete than any petty mediaeval despot. The entire history of the Inquisition was a slow month for the great tyrants of late modernity.

Or how about the abominations that our bioethicists, in concert with our biotech firms, are preparing to visit upon the world?

And yes there was child marriage, and the great tangle of royal diplomacy-by-marriage, but is the state of our family life and sexual mores particularly admirable? Stable two-parent households-by-marriage are no longer the norm in much of the country. Modern concubinage could teach the mediaevals a thing or two about the mistreatment of women.

Or compare the great cities of mediaeval Europe to, say, the inner-ring suburbs of American metropolises, where much of the worst crime persists.

I cannot see freedom from bubonic plague as really so small and dismissable a thing, myself.

It seems to me that if anything is really be regarded as "small and dismissable" is the the achievements of the mediaevals: the philosophy, the poetry, the martial valor against the Jihad; the cathedrals, universities, parliaments, monasteries, guilds, charters. Science as we understand it was as much an achievement of the mediaevals as it was moderns. The Schoolmen knew the principles of free enterprise.

But let me also repeat my last point from the previous comment: Landsburg's vision points us to an ideal of Capitalism. Free Trade has brought forth a staggering bounty of prosperity; none has been neglected in the bestowal of its benefits. If only the remaining barriers to trade, those tiresome structures, could be removed, all would be well in the world.


Let Landsburg have his ideals. There is something worthwhile, I think, in his projections of the power of commerce to be all things to all people. But some of us have other ideals than the technical mastery and material prosperity of the human race. We understand why hobbits would fight for the Shire, warts and all; and we do wonder how long men will fight for postmodern Capitalism. Right now they hardly have enough fight in them to even reproduce.

"Let Landsburg have his ideals."

As consistently utilitarian as tehy are;

"Did crime fall because hundreds of thousands of prospective criminals had been aborted? Once again, the pattern by itself is not conclusive, but once again Mr. Levitt piles pattern on pattern until the evidence overwhelms you. The bottom line? Legalized abortion was the single biggest factor in bringing the crime wave of the 1980s to a screeching halt.

Mr. Levitt repeatedly reminds us that economics is about what is true, not what ought to be true. To this reviewer's considerable delight, he cheerfully violates this principle at the end of the abortion discussion by daring to address the question of whether abortion ought to be legal or, more precisely, whether the effect on crime rates is a sufficient reason to legalize abortion. He doesn't pretend to settle the matter, but in just a few pages he constructs exactly the right framework for thinking about it and then leaves the reader to draw his own conclusions."
Stephen Landsburg

My objection to Steve's criticisms of my reasoning is grounded in the fact that Landsburg does not, in point of fact, defend the proposition that free trade is morally permissible. What he does defend is an altogether different proposition, namely, that the winners in the regime of free trade owe nothing to the losers of that regime, which proposition he justifies by recourse to the systemic argument: free trade bestows its bounty upon everyone, for even the losers have been elevated above subsistence (never mind the historical risibility of this argument, inasmuch as early capitalism was emphatically mercantilistic and, after first forcing many below subsistence, only elevated them above it once the fruits of industrialism were widely disseminated, often through the instrumentality of government interventions). Frankly, I think reasoning of this sort fallacious, inasmuch as it endeavours to answer a highly specific question concerning what specific people owe to other specific people under what circumstances, not by casuistically parsing out the details of these relationships, but by ignoring them altogether; the specific questions are 'answered' by appealing to an abstraction, the Market, which transmutes the individual actions of billions of actors, even if the actions of the most powerful actors seem wicked and callous, into prosperity for all. Landsburg is merely recapitulating a classical trope of political economy: what individuals do, specifically, doesn't matter, so long as they are voluntarily pursuing their self-interest and avoiding interfering with others' doing so, because this redounds to everyone's benefit. The trope simply presupposes that the particular obligations don't exist; perhaps they don't exist because the economic system is so different from that which existed in the times of Aquinas, but that hasn't been argued, merely assumed. And, to make a methodological point, that is the case because the arguments of classical political economy, from which modern economics developed, did not constitute practice, but reflected it; social practices changed, and the arguments followed.

And that is all that the entire tradition has done: assume this point. As MacIntyre would say, these are just incommensurable discourses.

Landsburg begins his editorial by discussing the proposals of Romney and McCain that displaced workers be retrained, and follows this by making his systemic argument from the elevation above subsistence level. He then attempts to analogize the situation to more discrete situations, and actually argues that those who have benefited from the old rules, pre-globalization, are bullies who took advantage of those rules to enrich themselves beyond what they could achieve under globalization, which he illustrates with his example of the American and the Mexican. A whole legion of social, political, and economic practices and principles, most of which presupposed a distinction between Americans and foreigners, are here dismissed as bullying. Where I come from, bullying is a bad thing. For Landsburg, this bullying prevented people from engaging in those actions which cause globalization to benefit everyone, and apparently, even proposing that displaced workers receive assistance in reassembling their lives, after the tornadoes of destructive creation have ripped through their inconsequential little trailer park existences, constitutes such bullying. By proposing as much, after all, Romney and McCain don't want you to benefit from free trade.

When someone argues that we ought to do X, and that those who oppose doing X are bullies and meanies who want more than they deserve, well, where I come from, that's a backhanded way of saying that we're obligated to do X, because it would be wrong to give bullies, who are bad people, what they desire. In fact, libertarians reason this way all the time, as anyone who has ever read Tim Lee or Will Wilkinson knows. If I'm incorrect in this, Landsburg must be leaving open the option to decline further exercises in free trading - leaving open the option, that is, to let the bullies have at least some of what they want. This would reduce his editorial to a lot of heat, and little light, since it is pointless to spend time decrying what you might actually permit. Is he really arguing only that it is permissible to thwart the bullies, but that it isn't obligatory; that we are permitted to indulge them if we wish? The logic of calling them bullies in the first instance argues against this interpretation.

I'm going to continue meditating upon that remark that Zippy quotes, because I do think that there is something significant there, though I'm not fully prepared to identify it.

Rawls argued that all natural distinctions, along with the inequalities they reflect, instantiate, and engender, are arbitrary and unmerited; ergo, he continued, we should posit the Veil of Ignorance, behind which a bunch of people as deracinated as Rawls deliberate as to the contours of a just society. Contingent facts about us as persons are irrelevant, not merely to our moral statuses, but, in some way, to our obligations as well; everything, in the end, must be refracted through the veil, and, if it survives, gets to exist in the just society.

What the dogmatic libertarians and free-traders are arguing is that those same natural distinctions are arbitrary and unmerited; they are, as the were for Rawls, surd elements which might be allowed to exist, but must be justified by the system if they are to continue. Because things like national borders actually impede the efficiency of the economic system, they are suspect; hence, distinguishing between your neighbour, who sells a toothbrush for 5 bucks, and a Mexican, who sells it for 1 buck, is unjustified.

Both Rawls and the libertarians are principally concerned with the distribution and production of material stuff and benefits; these concerns, however, are governed by different intuitions in the respective cases. Rawlsianism is quite dead, so far as I'm aware; I'm not really cognizant of any lefties arguing that globalization ought to stop so as to preserve the nation-states that are capable of imposing such a social contract. If there are such lefties, they're losing the argumentative struggle. But Rawlsianism pretty clearly presupposed a delimited community within which such a social contract could be enacted; no pure Rawlsian state really exists, or could exist, but the nearest approximations would be in Scandinavia. In order to attain the maximal degree of feasible social equality, the Rawlsian has to accept the nation-state; no world-community of 6.5 billion will ever go for it, but one nation might move towards the ideal, incrementally.

So, for the Rawlsian, natural distinctions are arbitary and unmerited because they offend against equality.

For the libertarian free-trader, on the other hand, they are arbitary because they impede liberty of action, liberty in pursuit of privately-defined and given ends. "Immigration restrictions, borders, and tariffs interfere with my rights of free association", and all of that. The fundamental thing, the commonality, is the rejection of those natural distinctions and relationships as primary moral facts; we might say that the primary thing is simply the rejection of classical and mediaeval philosophy, in favour of more modern constructions of the individual and his relationships with, and within, society. The Rawlsian, or even the lefty, simply, refracts this rejection through an intuition concerning equality; the libertarian free-trader refracts it through an intuition concerning liberty. They both, in my estimation, have a fragment of the truth, but don't understand it aright, precisely because they reject the framework within which the fragments can be integrated to some extent.

I'm not, however, quite satisfied with this just yet.

Actually, I must correct myself: both camps are not principally concerned with material goods and their distribution. Both are concerned with what constitutes the milieu within which man fulfills himself as a free and equal member of the human race. They just disagree as to the means by which we become what we are.

"And yes there was child marriage, and the great tangle of royal diplomacy-by-marriage, but is the state of our family life and sexual mores particularly admirable?"

Paul, I'm terribly sorry to have to say this, but to my ear this sounds like moral equivalency and subject-shifting. Of course the state of our sexual morals is not particularly admirable. I'd be the last person to say so. But dynastic marriage and child marriage are bad things, and we are much better off for not having them. Moreover, such things had a dickens of a lot to do with those notions of "connectedness" that are so often being praised--specifically, the little girl had a duty to marry the baron who was, say, her father's enemy, because it would be best for their nations and would bring peace. The baron had a duty to marry the little girl because it would be best for his nation and because, even though he'd scarcely ever met the girl and could not possibly love her ("what's love got to do with it") he had a duty to his lineage and posterity. I'm sorry, but those notions of familial duty and patriotism are to my mind warped and confused, and I'm heartily glad to be rid of them.

We incinerated Nagasaki. That was a bad thing. You know I do not defend it. But we do not sentence people to be hung, drawn, and quartered, flayed alive, or to have their hands cut off. That's a good thing.

I would be the last person to dismiss the achievements of the medievals--philosophy, chivalry, cathedrals, etc.--though I think you may mis-evaluate the extent to which modern science is their creation. I have never spoken of them as small or dismissable. What I have said is that nostalgia for the "connectedness and community" of medieval Europe ignores evils that were the result of that very set of concepts that might be called "connectedness and community." And if you throw "authority" in there as one of the admirable things they upheld, we're really off to the races.

My reference to bubonic plague was an attempt to get us to pull up short when we lump the physical dangers and evils of those periods under the heading of "yes, we are more comfortable, but..." More comfortable? It goes a whole lot farther than that. I often think distributists and other critics of industrialism, etc., really do not appreciate the real _blessings_ of physical health, well-being, and longevity, the extent to which these are important positive human goods, the gratitude we owe to those who have brought them to us. I, for one, don't want to let that be forgotten or swept aside with, "Well, yes, we're more comfortable..."

Myself, I believe that Steve Burton was bringing up something fairly important with his reference to the medieval period, but I haven't time to say much about it now. The basic idea, though, is this: Connectedness is a two-way street. Most of us wouldn't want workers to be compelled by law to be loyal to their employers, to be able to be forced to work for them for a particular time or something of that sort. Yet too many want the employers to be forced by law in various ways to be loyal to their workers. It's worth considering that we may be much better off, as far as legal requirements are concerned, sticking to enforcing only contractual obligations on both sides even if this permits much disloyalty on both sides which is morally wrong. In short, the shift from customary to contractual employer-employee relations has done a lot to eliminate morally dubious force executed upon employees. We shouldn't yearn for a return to the days of yore so lightly.

It's worth considering that we may be much better off, as far as legal requirements are concerned, sticking to enforcing only contractual obligations on both sides even if this permits much disloyalty on both sides which is morally wrong.

Believe it or not, this gets close to the heart of my anti-modernism. The motivation for the increasing reliance upon contractual modes of relation, and, ultimately, for the elaboration of contractualist theories of politics, was to avoid certain evils. In other words, it was a labour of the negative: not-this. But the evils concomitant with a contractualist society were never really limned by its framers, not in any substantive fashion. Those who did contemplate the abyss were then, and are now, regarded as reactionaries.

But no one really needs me to write about de Maistre right now. My argument is simply that the permeation of our society with contractualist modes of thought did not stop with one or two spheres where the classical liberals among the conservatives would be content to permit them; they permeated the whole. And now, having done so, they have begun to rise, like yeast, and the nation-state itself is becoming compromised, at its very foundations, by a variety of means - ranging from the legal harmonization of globalization to the shredding of social contracts, tacit or otherwise. You see, individuals, real ones and fake ones (corporations) make contracts, and other entities really do not.

We, as conservatives, must either find a way to put that contractualist genie back into the bottle, and develop a compromise, a prudential balancing, of various competing goods, or we will lose the opportunity - permanently, for those of us now living. As I stated in the post on the trilemma of the global economy, once the nation-state goes, conservatism is as dead as the Dodo. Opposition to all of the undesirable aspects of mediaevalism, and to the excesses of Twentieth-Century ideological statism, will prove insufficient. We cannot continue saying "no" to connectedness and authority, and "no" to the state, not least because the contractual society requires a considerable enforcement/therapeutic apparatus - namely, the state.

Lydia, I 'spose there is an element of moral equivalence in my argument, to the extent that I am saying that a sexual ethos, in any society here below, will be a mixed bag.

Child marriage and the like was a bad thing, and I'm glad it's gone. But at the same time I have heard a rather remarkable number of women (mostly my wife's still-single friends) say something to the effect of: "Ya know, it wouldn't be so bad to let my parents just go out a pick a husband for me. After all, I trust them more than anyone else." Some of these poor women have been tossed around like flotsom on the waves of the sexual revolution, and your hearts aches for them, much as it would be a girl-child married off to some despot.

Moreover, much of what is healthy in our sexual ethos is a holdover from an earlier age. The sort of family life exemplified by, say, the early New Englanders, was more mediaeval than modern. If we Christians and Conservatives abandoned this field sexual ethics, and retreat to our little monasteries, as some commentators are now suggesting, it is little to be doubted that America would rapidly come to emulate Amsterdam.

Nor, of course, is it accurate to say that sexual license is a new thing under the sun. There is a rather vivid passage in Burke's Reflections where he lays out an indictment of the Jacobin reduction of marriage to "the vilest concubinage." And of course we all know how vital the ideal (and practice) of female chastity was to the conversion of the Roman Empire.

I often think distributists and other critics of industrialism, etc., really do not appreciate the real _blessings_ of physical health, well-being, and longevity, the extent to which these are important positive human goods, the gratitude we owe to those who have brought them to us.

That's a fair criticism. But again, under examination material progress is a mixed bag as well. I mentioned above the rising New Eugenics. We could discuss the corruption introduced by effective chemical birth control.

But to get back to my main point, it's not that we want to set up some silly formula of modern=bad and mediaeval=good. It's more that we are trying to poke holes in the blind assumption of the reverse. A fortiori if we are talking, as Landsburg seems to be, of the world of ideals.

I've always had a soft spot for a writer like George Gilder who, against the cheap Socialist trick of always comparing Socialism as an ideal to Capitalism in practice, answered with an ideal of Capitalism that all derived from human creativity and perseverance. The Capitalist in his writing becomes the idea man, the inventor, the genius who adds effort to inspiration. Great stuff.

Globalists have taken to pulling the same stunt. Globalization becomes Platonic ideal of Free Trade, and altogether forgotten is, say, the Saudi state oil industry and the Chinese Commies. Meanwhile, any system of protection or economic nationalism is painted in garish ugly colors, quite as if American Capitalism was not built upon the genius of a mercantilist like Hamilton, while the Free Traders in the early Republic were agrarians.

If they can make Globalization a glorious ideal, can't we now and then point to what was good and true and ideal in the mediaeval system? Can't we look for ways to recover those things, or adapt those things, without bringing along all the other baggage.

Finally, it is not as if this notion of community or "connectedness" is absent from the history of our very own republic. The attachment of Americans to their local communities and to their states has been one of the most vivid features of America. We don't have to look way back to the 13th century for guidance. We can look to Tocqueville. We can look to what we once had right here. It is thrilling to read, for instance, Solzhenitsyn's farewell speech to the little town in Vermont where he lived in exile all those years; to hear him point to that little town community, that little democracy of freemen, as one of the true glories of America in contrast to the uniform modernism of Communism.

Some of these poor women have been tossed around like flotsom on the waves of the sexual revolution, and your hearts aches for them, much as it would be a girl-child married off to some despot.

I would go much further than this and say that medieval arranged dynastic marriages were a positive good, because they were conformed to natural and divine law. Furthermore, they consolidated the bonds of society and promoted peace.

Post-sexual-revolution arrangements, on the other hand, flagrantly violate natural and divine law. And they promote to dissolution of society.

True, the former denied the girl freedom of choice, and the latter guarantees it. But how much is that worth really?

See. I have to say it, but George R. positively exemplifies the type of highly misplaced and exaggerated nostalgia I'm talking about. Yeah, what the heck. So you tell your 12-year-old or even 18-year-old, "You're going to marry this guy, or I'm going to lock you in your room on bread and water and not let you see the sun until you 'agree'." Or, if you're a little less gentle, knock her around a bit. Similar threats could even be applied to young men. But what is that worth, really? Maybe we shouldn't even try to stop forced marriage in the Muslim communities as it comes back to, for example, the UK. A black eye or two or a little mild starvation to get them cooperative might save those girls a lotta heartache down the line.

Even the Catholic Church considers forced marriages in which young people are denied freedom of choice null. Something for those medieval-lovers to ponder, when they are talking about conformation to natural law. And I'm not Catholic. But I think it's a point worth bringing up, if we are considering sexual ethics. How many of those marriages were non-marriages by that standard? And there, I must say, I have a lot of sympathy for the present-day authoritative Catholic view.

Okay, to try to cut to the chase: First, Paul, I think your Vermont in the recent past--say, circa 1950's--is a much better example. Nostalgia for that time and place is far better placed than nostalgia for Shropshire circa the 1250's! And that, partly, because many of the blessings of modernism were already enjoyed in that Vermont town. There was no more forced marriage, bubonic plague, or religious stake-burnings there then than there are now. So, good. In fact, if anything, one sense in which we have reason for a certain amount of nostalgia for the U.S. fifty years ago is that nowadays we're flirting with losing those blessings--e.g., re-importing forced marriage through our insane multicultural practice of unlimited Muslim immigration.

Now, suppose we admit that there are problems with some aspects of what Maximos calls "globalism," and that these problems ought even to be recognized by libertarians. For example, Steve Burton once gave an excellent example of a mini-system in which the rational citizens involved would be reasonable to vote _against_ laborer immigration that lowered the cost of goods while raising the cost of social services. Then, too, there are the problems created for American low-skill workers by the sheer scale of outsourcing. What should be done?

Well, as everyone knows who hangs around here, I think draconian enforcement of immigration law and greatly restricted legal immigration is a good place to start.

Next, I have previously floated the following idea: Offer a carrot instead of a stick to corporations. Offer various easements on salary-inflating regulations for those companies that show their loyalty to American production and American jobs. These might come at various levels. Some such easements would be exemptions--perhaps down to some lower level--on minimum wage and, perhaps even more important, loosened restrictions on the employer's ability to hire outside unions and to refuse to negotiate with unions. These could be offered more or less to companies that, e.g., could demonstrate that they employed only American citizens (_not_ immigrants, even legal ones, but citizens, whether naturalized or born), could demonstrate such-and-such a degree to which they obtained their materials and products from American manufacturing sources, and so forth.

I would like to see, if it were possible, incentives offered to companies like Google and Yahoo to refuse to cooperate with the governments of specific, named, totalitarian regimes in those regimes' crackdowns on political dissidents. We should suggest to those companies that they might want to act like "American companies" and thus uphold American values, particularly if the actual physical computers on which blogger accounts and so forth are located are on U.S. soil.

...the former denied the girl freedom of choice ...

It might be of interest to note that the Church was formally condemning arranged non-consensual marriages at least as early as the 800's AD (see e.g. the declarations of St. Nicholas I in Denzinger).

It might be of interest to note that the Church was formally condemning arranged non-consensual marriages at least as early as the 800's AD (see e.g. the declarations of St. Nicholas I in Denzinger).

Off hand, I would respond that there is a difference between consent and choice. But I'll check into it. Thanks.

Don't get me wrong -- I think a great deal more "help" from parents and other family in choosing a spouse than is common today is probably healthy. Today girls are thrown into a vast pool of commitment-free concubinage in service to narcissistic arrested-development males, where they get to spend years of their lives being used as sexual toilets, after which time they are supposed to emerge with career and financial independence in hand, knowing what they want in a man-unit-same-as-woman-in-all-things-except-genitalia (and indeed able to choose arbitrarily what genital-topology one prefers in a "mate"), fully able to make an "informed" choice.

I just wouldn't want the "arranged marriages then, consensual marriages now" thing to get overstated. A literally nonconsensual Christian marriage is and has ever been an oxymoron, and the Church did a not insignificant amount of interdicting/excommunicating on that basis during the middle ages, AFAIK.

Help is a great idea. Yes, there should be lots more of it, and dating should be taken much more seriously as (as my mother always told me "a preparation for marriage"). Literal parental pre-arrangement of marriage with a man little known to a girl and/or presented to her as a pre-chosen fait accompli, even if not actively resisted by her and even if happens to turn out okay, is not a great idea. I think the reactionary move (which there is among some fundamentalist Protestants, too) to advocate a return to literal arranged marriages as an antidote to secular licentiousness is a *bad idea*. Unwise, at a minimum, even when not literally forced.

But I don't want to draw attention away from my would-be brilliant economic compromise proposals by sticking my oar in again on the sub-thread. :-)

I think the reactionary move (which there is among some fundamentalist Protestants, too) to advocate a return to literal arranged marriages as an antidote to secular licentiousness is a *bad idea*. Unwise, at a minimum, even when not literally forced.

Agreed, on the specific point at least :-).

I like your proposals, Lydia: a certain degree of advantage for patriotic firms and corporations.

In the Second World War, of course, much of the talent and experience of America was used in the war effort. A similar idea, on a much smaller scale, should be applied to the war against the Jihad.

And Lydia, the fact that you are a hardliner on immigration, like me, means that you're really in opposition to globalization or globalism on a fundamental level.

I am not sure if this link is relevant to the discussion, but it gives an economic rationale for agrarian feudal societies. The first comment was insightful also, I thought.

Instead of attacking unions (thanks, Lydia), getting rid of a corporation's "rights" as persons would be a good start. This legally entitles them to 1st, 4th, and 14th amendment protections.

Sorry, Step2, I calls 'em like I sees 'em. And I think my ideas are good ones, whether you call them "attacking unions" or not. I could just as well speak of "attacking corporations."

Btw, next time someone suggests making limited liability corporations illegal as part of breaking down those Big Bad Corporations and making the economy more Crunchy or something, I'm going to balk, on the basis of a recent horror story that apparently illustrated the point of all that.

Lydia, the second of your proposals is perfectly fine by my lights, though I might - might - be willing to give such a measure teeth. The first proposal baffles me in a manner analogous to the manner in which distributism baffles you and Steve; it is reminiscent of a peculiar nostalgia - not that you necessarily share in this sentiment - that I have observed among many conservatives of classical liberal sympathies, who regard the Nineteenth Century as a sort of golden age, complete with its Edenic state and a Fall. The former endured as long as labour regulations were minimal or nonexistent, unions were suppressed, and labourers on the verge of starvation were said to have engaged in a free negotiation of contracts when they accepted employment from corporations that effectively exercised political powers. In reality, that golden age of liberalism was no triumph of justice and equity; it was an age in which the market rate for labour, in keeping with the law of rents, was often determined by the marginal productivity of the least productive (ie., wages near subsistence), there existed de facto monopoly sellers, company towns, de facto (and probably also de jure, in some instances) monopsony purchasers of certain types of labour, as well as a political climate in which any interrogation of the rectitude of this situation was regarded as subversive.

To continue the metaphor, the Fall transpired when, under the influence of a diversity of pernicious socialistic doctrines, unions were organized and accorded legal recognition, labour regulations of various types were imposed, wage scales were enacted, and so forth. And now we dwell east of Eden, in a barren and waste place where all manner of 'interventionist' follies preclude the calculation of a pure 'market' rate for labour; however, we can, unlike in the scriptural antecedent of the myth, return to Eden if only we conjure the fortitude to break the power of these 'interventionist' nostrums once and for all.

Now, I don't imagine that you subscribe to any form of this mythology; I'm merely articulating, with a bit of colour, a viewpoint often expressed by classical liberals and some business conservatives I have known. In other words, I find somewhat incomprehensible the antipathy that unions and labour regulations inspire; I understand the various libertarian arguments in favour of the free negotiation of contracts, but think them utopian, frankly - a negotiation between a businessman or factory owner who can take or leave any particular employee and a prospective employee with few options that wouldn't entail the radical disruption of his life isn't really free, at least not in a sense greater than the nominal one. I don't imagine that unions and other workplace regulations can ever eliminate all such disparities of power, nor do I even think this desirable; such disparities, however, can be reduced, as they were during the so-called Great Compression of American economic history (which ended, more or less, by the time the late '60s rolled around; no prizes for anyone who can determine the legislative change that initiated the unraveling), when the gains of economic expansion were more equitably distributed than at any time since.

All of which is to state that such remissions would have to be exceedingly deep, or even complete, inasmuch as any corporation which calculates that outsourcing of production will lower costs to beneath what they would be under the relaxed labour regulations will, sooner or later, undertake the outsourcing anyway. Thus, this seems self-defeating to me, inasmuch as the rationale (as I perceive it) for favouring American labourers is not merely to have them employed, simply, but to ensure that they receive better compensation than the foreigners, because they are our countrymen.

As regards the revocation of corporations' limited liability privileges, this is something that must be approached discerningly and prudently. A simple revocation of the set of legal privileges would likely entail that any individual shareholder or investor could, in theory and practice, end up on the hook for the total liability of the corporation in the event of legal misconduct; this would be analogous to the abusive asbestos settlement cases in which minor subcontractors, who may have done nothing more than install pipes in a facility operated by the offending corporation, can be held responsible for the total liability if the other parties either no longer exist, have declared bankruptcy, etc.

On the other hand, it seems manifest that liability law should be revisited; corporations and corporate officers who engage in egregious frauds such as the dubious investment and tax avoidance schemes of an Enron, to take one example, should be liable for the damages inflicted, even if this should entail the liquidation of assets both corporate and private. It is unconscionable that such assets should be sheltered from liability settlement when they are held by the responsible parties/entities, or may themselves be the proceeds of illicit conduct. Or, to consider another example, food processors responsible for outbreaks of pathogens, such as the company which, in the late '90s, simply turned off detection equipment for certain types of bacteria once they began registering the presence of high levels of the bugs, resulting in some 20-odd deaths due to the contamination, should be liable for more than just a handful of piddling FDA fines. The calculus in such cases, often enough, is that the costs of the fines and the occasional odd lawsuit will be negligible by comparison to the costs of halting production and sterilizing an entire facility; and this is a grotesque illustration of the socialization of the externalities of corporate misconduct.

So it would seem that liability law can be reformed without jettisoning every principle of limited liability tout court.

Finally, limited liability and corporate personhood are not identical. The (to my mind, risible) notion that fictional persons known as "corporations" retain all of the rights, privileges, and immunities of real persons under the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments (Ponder this latter exercise in living constitutionalism for a moment: an amendment enacted to secure the rights of emancipated slaves is held by numerous precedents to extend rights to objective non-persons. The logical and textual bases for extending the provisions of the amendment to the unborn are infinitely stronger than those for extending them to fake persons.) could be repudiated without necessarily resulting in a definitive settlement of the liability question. Corporate advertising would no longer be, necessarily, protected speech, and neither would corporate lobbying (farewell, K Street!); and it would be easier to reform liability legislation, though, again, the particular results would be underdetermined by the revocation of assumed personhood.

Maximos, I think as a sheerly practical matter that it would be worth a try. You may like unions or dislike them, but outsourcing (to use a phrase you sometimes use) didn't arise in a vacuum. To refuse to talk about some of the upward pressure on American wages in this context and to place the entire onus for simply keeping a stiff upper lip and not outsourcing on the employer is simply to pretend that certain aspects of the economic issue do not exist or else that we have some sort of ethical obligation to pretend that they don't exist. I absolutely reject the whole "it's all up to the corporation" punitive approach according to which all the privileges, health benefits, union-negotiated wages, and regulatory burdens must not be touched but employers must simply (if we can find a way to do it) be _forced_ not to hire anyone else or move abroad. To me it smacks of ideology to refuse even to consider offering some sort of carrot in the form of an easing of the regulatory and negotiatory (is that a word?) burden on the employer himself in return for his loyalty to his country and countrymen. It seems that there ought to be some sort of tipping point where we could offer enough of an incentive actually to retain some American jobs without somehow "dooming" American workers to live in poverty--which they would do anyway if unemployed. Yes, a job is better than no job. That's just a fact of life.

I'd not object to an easing of the regulatory and negotiatory (I like neologisms, so it works for me) burden in specific cases, if an analysis of the circumstances showed it to be warranted and advantageous. I should have made that clear. What I would find objectionable is the application of such a policy universally.

More fundamentally, I don't believe that a policy of carrots alone will suffice; there must also be sticks. Strategically imposed tariffs or other border-adjusted taxes, intended to elevate the costs of imported goods nearer those of reasonable comparable domestic goods, should also be considered where appropriate. However, it is a virtual certainty that most forms of such taxes would be ruled "restraints of trade" by the WTO (there's that entire diminution-of-sovereignty function of globalization, again), necessitating the approach of several European nations, namely, various internal VAT rebates - and that, given the complexity and onerousness of existing American tax structures, would require monumental reforms, reforms almost impossible of attainment given current configurations of interests. Which is to say that the difficulties of the situation are not lost on me.

More generally, there is a logic at work here which I am concerned to resist: a sort of corporate gunboat diplomacy, according to which corporations effectively impose a demand that they be permitted to lower 'factor shares to labour' domestically, else they'll lower those 'factor shares' anyway by going abroad. Not even simply a majority, but all of the burdens of globalization have been borne by labour, and all of the benefits reaped by capital; if we are one people, one culture, one society, sacrifices and rewards must be shared; to get something, each side must be prepared to give something. I'm not arguing that the responsibilities for keeping that stiff upper lip rest solely with business; what I'm arguing is that, hitherto, they have rested solely with labour, and that ain't right.

Well, perhaps one way to share that burden would be for American laborers to be willing to accept somewhat less in the way of wages and benefits than they would get if outsourcing were literally impossible--if all the other laborers in the world disappeared or something--and for American businesses to pay somewhat more for labor than they would if borders among countries suddenly disappeared (which, I agree, would be a very, very bad thing) and laborers abroad could be hired with no more trouble or logistical difficulty than laborers here in the U.S.

"All across America, bullies have built up skills so they can take advantage of that opportunity. If we toughen the rules to make bullying unprofitable, must we compensate the bullies?

Bullying and protectionism have a lot in common. They both use force (either directly or through the power of the law) to enrich someone else at your involuntary expense."

So true, Dr. Landesburg, if by this you meant the
brazen, gun to the head, extortionary tactics of Wall Street. So true.

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