28 December 2017

Big Ideas About Free Markets, Regulation, Unions, Moderation, and Ideology

Anyone who reads my blog or talks with me for any length of time probably already knows I'm very much a "big ideas" kind of person. I don't say that as a brag; it has as many pitfalls as it does pluses and certainly indicates no surplus of brain cells; it's a proclivity rather than an ability. The big ideas guy misses those all-important details and overgeneralizes; he tends to want to lump things together rather than split them apart (and any cognitive bias is unfortunate). He tends to be a bore in conversation because his topics of interest tend toward platitudes instead of anecdotes; when he does relate an anecdote he seems to think he can derive an axiom from it. Yet I'll admit I'm proud of being a big ideas guy. I think we get a rough scrape much of the time; for all the people peering down microscopes in their little niches, doesn't there need to be somebody looking at the bigger picture? Don't answer that, I've already decided it must be true.
Navel gazing aside, where does that leave a big ideas person in times like these, when anyone can tell there's some of a sea change going on in world history? There's a great debate that surrounds the policy and culture wars in the United States which is still afoot, something altogether more appropriate to the minds of the citizens of this republic than the gaffs and potshots of the demagogues who haunt our headlines:
How much of a free market do we want?

In broad strokes, I'm a moderate, so of course I don't want full socialism and I don't want anarcho-capitalism, either. Some regulation is good, some is bad. I think even most people left and right of me would agree by degrees. But as a big ideas guy, I've got to reach way back to feel like this position is justified, the same way deciding whether I should help my neighbor shovel his walk tends to end with me pondering the moral implications of the Big Bang. Talking about the failures of Communism or the great American success following Adam Smith's model won't do it for me - I want to go back to the beginning. Markets exist in all societies (see how simple and general I can get here?) - and before societies, markets are just food chains.

It's pretty clear that nature imposes no restrictions on itself; evolution is a no-holds barred struggle for survival fit to make Werner Herzog shudder with nihilistic delight every time he considers it. Food chains are as free as they come. Societies, however, can and do regulate their markets - therefore a crucial question is when did societies first start to regulate their markets? This is important to me because I think a lot of people enter into debate about how free or regulated markets should be based on improper assumptions about the causes and effects of regulations. They think that markets create the most wealth when they are freest as a rule - and they are right, to a point. Where I think people are misled is about just how free a market can become before it is guaranteed to lose its freedom in short order. I think a great paradox is missed, which is that the markets most free are those which are regulated to be free.

To explain why I think regulation paradoxically gives rise to the freest sustainable markets, let's go back to the origins of markets. If we accept that nature's food chains are free, it's not a great leap to suppose that the first markets were also quite free. Indeed, it is hard to imagine early hominids and later humans having much of an idea that they even might want to regulate markets, much less actually bother to do so. A market is natively free and only artificially constricted; that is my understanding of How Things Are. If that is true, then history shows us that these freest of markets very easily gave rise to some of the least free markets human societies have ever labored in - these early societies quickly devolved from whatever freedoms they might have originally enjoyed into despotisms of various flavors with command economies in most places for most of history, right on up through the insane mercantilism which Adam Smith railed against in the Age of Reason. Even later, after Smith and in the United States, free economies gave rise to monopolies and command economies so often that some, like Teddy Roosevelt, could make trust-busting their campaign platform. That is the root of the paradox - that an economy which is free enough will allow those who get to the top to install rules which make it decidedly unfree. Of course this only seems bad because those top-down economies engendered by this devolution are themselves awful.

Once we have got to the point where we must admit to ourselves that anarcho-capitalism and full on  socialism are equally awful, we know that those who tell us all regulation is evil and those who tell us that all regulation is good are not thinking about things rationally. The moderate viewpoint is correct - it only remains to determine how much regulation is really needed (something that anyone could have told you before this discussion as well as after). All this writing is not here so much to "discover" that conclusion as to serve as a reminder of its deep truth, rooted in the fundamental aspects of economics as part of the big picture we should not forget as we get into more nuanced arguments with each other about what makes the most sense for our economy. Liberals should consider whether regulation is overreaching in its particulars, and conservatives should remind themselves that not all regulation constitutes an unneeded and hateful restriction of market forces.

* * *

By way of getting more particular (even a Big Ideas Guy should admit that it's all armchair speculation unless it survives contact with at least a few real-life examples), how to we apply the kind of thinking on display above to an issue which has recently been in the forefront of local (Illinois) economic politics for me, the regulation of Unions? More specifically, does the line of reasoning put forth here have any bearing on the question most recently at hand, which is

Whether Unions have the right to require workers in their represented workforces to pay dues even if they do not want to be part of the Union?

Shortly but not so sweetly, I think this question is largely answerable if we adopt the long view, big picture position, take a step back, and look first at the origins of Unions in the United States. We don't need to go back further than this, I think (to Unions in Europe and Guilds before them), because the question is more specific; it asks whether Unions should have this right in a given state in the US, not universally.

This is only a digression; the point is that when we look at the origins of trade unions in the USA, we see that the legal apparatus of the country had no specific laws in place to protect Unions or encourage their formation (big surprise, since it's hard to imagine regulating something that doesn't exist yet!). Granting that Unions faced an extremely rough and uphill battle to gain traction and influence in the USA, and that some laws definitely needed to change to allow Unions to exist, the law in question here was proofed much later, in 1977. It is clear that it is possible for Unions to do real work for laborers without requiring non-members to pay dues.

The case in question, it seems, is not a question of the survival of Unions as it has been portrayed, but rather it is a question of how much regulatory privilege Unions deserve for the services they render; a much more limited question and one less likely to incite unreasonable hatred on either side of the aisle. It is a careful, limited consideration of the adjustments that might be made to our laws for the sake of maintaining a fairly-regulated economy, of which unions form an intrinsically important element. Those in favor of strengthening Unions ought to therefore more clearly recognize that such a moderate reduction of their power ought to reflect more on their own inability to elicit voluntary membership, while those in favor of weakening Unions ought to recognize that Unions are capable of offering services people want to pay for.

In the midst of this cogitation it's probably worth it to recognize weakness I know about my own position on these things, since everyone seems to be boosting themselves these days without any acknowledgement of where they don't have it all figured out. The thing is, a moderate like me can look smart while pointing out situations where some kind of middle ground is likely the nearest thing to a good idea you can get, but no one can deny it can be infuriating to ask a moderate what the basis of his or her opinions are. In other words:

How does a moderate work from an ideology when determining what the correct amount of economic regulation is?

To what end am I determining that it might be a good idea to have moderately regulated markets and maybe not allow Unions to enforce universal representation dues? What's my endgame? I subscribe to identities I associate with goals - Catholic, American... perhaps Father, now, as well. But I don't have the mixture of these figured out yet, and they can conflict and lead to hypocrisy. Still, I have to say that I'd take hypocrisy over blind partisanship any day of the week; I never much cared for details in the first place.

05 June 2017

Post-Structuralist Lessons in Urban Combat Tactics

Every once in a long while you run across something in your reading that really scrutinizes basic facts you had previously taken for granted and makes you question whether the author is an idiot or a genius simply by dint of the audacity in their claim.
90% of the time, you will later come to the conclusion that the author was indeed an idiot - especially if you've spent any serious time reading history, humanities, or philosophy. But 10% of the time, you realize that one or more of your basic assumptions about Things As They Are bears little resemblance to reality.
Tonight I read one of those all-too-familiar academics bloviating as they so often do on critical theory - the traditional enemy of my pragmatic, holistic approach to narrative, politics, science, etc that bore me so well through the pitfalls of traditional academic epistemological fractalization - and I was really surprised to see they got something right. This guy realized that academie's own endless search to subvert established structures (long a popular pastime in critical theory for those of you who have never been in a higher-level humanities course or read much of critical theory) could - shocker! - be used by imperialists - IMPERIALISTS, I SAY - against their opponents:
"Education in the humanities, often believed to be the best lasting weapon with which to combat imperialism, has here been adopted as imperialism’s own weapon."
Wow, it's almost like knowledge in and of itself has no moral value and can be used for good or evil!
And more than that, after I got over the hilarity of reading one of these types very deliberately and seriously come to that painful realization (and then make a groaner of an attempt to defend critical theory from this "threat:" "It is not my aim in this article to try and correct mistakes and exaggerations made in the use or interpretation of specific theories by such military thinkers.") I got to see how postmodernism and post-structuralism actually make more sense on the battlefield then they ever did as critiques of society in general.
Not to make a mountain out of a mouse-hole, but I think I really understand folks like the Situationists and Derrida better now that I've read about how their theories have been applied by the Israeli army in urban combat operations. And here had been I, thinking that all critical theory since structuralism had amounted to little else than obfuscatory fractalization and job security in the ivory tower...