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Posts Tagged ‘libertarian’

This is an interesting thing about the differences among libertarian views on corporate power.

I tend to find right-wing libertarianism very tedious, and often largely self-defeating, given how authoritarian can be the ultimate results of its basic tenets about capitalist property rights. I came to the libertarian socialism with which I now hesitantly identify through a fairly mainstream liberalism.

The line of thinking that got me there is typified by the kind of argument suggested by the above article, in response to the classical liberal claim that more government intervention is what’s needed to keep corporate power in check:

I agree with you that corporate power exists, and share your concern with its evil effects, but I believe you’re mistaken about its causes and remedy. The evil effects of corporate power result, not from government’s failure to restrain big business, but from government propping it up in the first place: this government support includes subsidies to the operating costs of big business, and protection of big business from market competition through market entry barriers, regulatory cartels, and special privileges like so-called “intellectual property.”

The fact that capitalist power can even be amassed in the first place, into such concentrations that it supposedly needs to be “reined in” by the government, relies on numerous such forms of tacit government support which don’t often get seriously questioned. Maybe taking some of that support away, instead of trying to add more safeguards for corporations to find ways around, will actually achieve at least some of what many liberals are really aiming for.

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And the libertarian right exploded.

So this is about a speech Barack Obama gave recently, in which he pointed out that people who succeed in life do so, in part, thanks to the benefits resulting from the hard work of other people.

Some people believe this is an unacceptable slur against America’s great businessmen. Businessmen like the late, great Steve Jobs, who made a fortune personally designing every aspect of Apple’s iPhone, smelting and forging every ounce of necessary material, wearing his fingers to the bone delicately hand-crafting millions of individual units, and personally delivering them to every customer around the world.

Other people may have noticed a thing called “reality” and decided it might be worth paying attention to.

Look, I’m entirely willing to stipulate that Steve Jobs was a genius who worked his ass off. But of the millions of man-hours that went towards Apple’s net income of $25billion last year, very little of that labour was performed by him. If the people running Apple now didn’t have thousands of people working full-time doing what they’re told, there would be no business.

The President dared to observe the necessity of cooperation, collaboration, and making use of the work done by others, in all significant endeavours. He observed that nobody exists in a vacuum and is personally responsible for every aspect of everything they use, make, or consume throughout their entire life. From the apoplectic response from much of the free market capitalism crowd, you’d have thought he’d said something actually socialist for a change.

Of course, they sort of know that they’re not arguing against the whole idea of humans cooperating with each other, and they’re not simply attacking a straw-man, either. Obama mentioned “government research” as an example of the help that anyone who owns a business relies on, as did Elizabeth Warren in a similar speech, and I can see why this might be an upsetting precedent for some people.

But the inability of some folks to conceive that anybody might ever do anything worthwhile, sensible, useful, constructive, or efficient, while being part of some dreaded thing called a “government”, is blinding them to every other aspect of the discussion. That last link raises important concerns about the wastefulness of a lot of government expenditure, but it doesn’t attempt to deny that roads and a national power grid are good things. There have been worthwhile achievements in which people banded together to work on something important and fruitful, even when there was no immediate financial reward available to the people who made the investment.

And neither of these crazed socialist villains is even necessarily talking about government. Obama’s emphasis is on the contributions of “somebody else”; Warren points out that “the rest of us helped”. Now, if you wanted to argue that what they’re really getting at when they say such things is about rich people paying more taxes… Well, it’s not like the Democratic Party has a strongly anti-statist history to throw that argument into doubt.

But even if that’s the case, taking their cunningly encrypted code-words literally tells a story that’s obviously true. The personal fortune of Bill Gates, founder and chairman of Microsoft, would not have been amassed without the use of many buildings constructed by other people, factories and equipment manufactured by specialists, and the corporation’s ninety thousand employees.

It seems like, in the context of business, if you mention luck or making use of help from others at all, someone will screech at you that you’re claiming hard work has no value. If you mention that working together for mutual benefit regardless of any immediate profit motive is sometimes a good way of getting things done, they’ll interrupt you to let you know how outrageous it is that you want to raise taxes on job-creators.

Is everyone’s imagination really so dull that working together for common goals with a spirit of communality can have no further meaning?

It’d be nice to see some genuine acknowledgment of the social value of labour once in a while, without the conversation being dominated by over-sensitive capitalists complaining about the indignities that the incredibly rich continue to suffer at the hands of those accursed “other people”. I live in hope.

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A columnist for the HuffPo has some opinions on the Ron Paul presidential campaign. He’s not a big fan.

He makes some good points about the right-libertarian idea of “liberty” in the US these days, and his description of the Ron Paul meme as a “shibboleth for nihilistic hipsters” is possibly a stroke of genius. And yet there seems to be a point being missed here.

The repeated refrain of “But, you know, ‘liberty!'” is used to point out the ludicrously oppressive inequalities which would in fact result from some of Paul’s proposed “libertarian” policies – widespread discrimination based on ethnicity and gender, deregulation of business allowing the richest to screw the rest of the country even more than they already have been, and so on.

But, you know, liberty is meant to be a good thing.

The right-libertarian ideal might not provide as much of it as it claims in theory, but don’t let’s start acting as though the cry for greater liberty and less authoritarian oppression were itself a sign of foolishness.

The writer of this article explains why Ron Paul’s supporters are deluded to think he has any hope of getting anywhere with this election:

The reality is that our political system has remained relatively intact for 224 years because most people, despite their gretzing, are actually comfortable with the continuity it provides. If voters were as militantly anti-system as they claim to be in anecdotal conversations, they would elect more incumbents and fringy third-party challengers.

I guess I agree with that, about people being generally more complacent and less enraged by the current system than it sometimes seems. Maybe the difference is that I don’t find that comforting.

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The thing about drugs ARGH SCARY is that it’s difficult for a lot of people to have a sensible conversation about them.

They can be a genuine nightmare, after all. Becoming physically and psychologically dependent on heroin DEATH DOOM DESTRUCTION is no doubt a horrifying experience, and can lead to every single aspect of a person’s life crumbling if they don’t get help. And that’s not even the most insidious drug CRYSTAL METH WILL RAPE YOUR BRAIN widely available today.

And yet, many people seem unwilling to even think about drugs FLEE IN TERROR any further than the knee-jerk reaction that they must all be wiped out and obliterated utterly. But making decisions based on nothing more than the immediate, gut reaction and scary ideas that flash into people’s minds whenever drugs SAVE THE CHILDREN are mentioned might not be the most helpful strategy. They’ve been around for centuries; they’re unlikely to seize any more of a stranglehold over the planet if we take five minutes to think about what might actually work.

As always, it pays to be wary of fundamentalism. If eliminating the presence of drugs completely is the only acceptable course of action, you have to wonder why people are so convinced that this is necessarily a good thing in itself. There’s nothing intrinsic to any particular chemical compound to render its very existence unacceptable. It’s about their capacity to do things that are bad.

The war on drugs – if it’s not just a blind ideology that’s completely lost track of the effect it has on real people – should really be a war on drugs’ capacity to fuck you up.

And so if a campaign against drugs isn’t going to just barrel on with a zealous, zero-tolerance approach which completely disregards its results, it needs to pay attention to what strategies tend to reduce drug use, and what tend to exacerbate it.

Which is why it’s a shame that nobody in the UK or the US seems to be serious about doing that.

Possessing any drugs for personal use was decriminalised in Portugal nine years ago. Before then, drug use had been going up. Since then, it’s gone down.

There really does exist a middle ground between incarcerating half a million people for drug offences and replacing the Presidential inauguration with a cocaine party. It’s just not true that if you let your mind contemplate loosening your drug policy even for a second, waves of swarthy opium dealers will be battering down your door to haggle for your 8-year-old son’s pocket money.

You can make some changes, find some new ways to offer treatment, and keep some laws in place – as Portugal has done with trafficking – and things can get better. Teenagers will be less likely to start taking drugs if you dare to deviate from the accepted orthodoxy that all drugs are always terrible.

If you care, that is. But as Johann Hari excellently points out, some just seem to be set on raving manically against anything that sounds like it should fall into the category they’ve chosen to label MOST DEPLORABLE EVIL EVAR. The mephedrone fiasco is a fine example of the standard route that the discourse seems to take.

And if people are simply dead set against more effective campaigns on principle, because the most vitally important thing to them is that they’re not seen as being “soft” on the problem of drugs, then I can only conclude that they don’t really care how many people are taking drugs and killing themselves. If either harm reduction or respect for personal liberty was as high a priority as the perceived adherence to accepted dogma, they’d consider other options based on what works.

(The title is a Brass Eye reference, incidentally, partially explained here.)

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So, this Robin Hood Tax thing.

A few people on Twitter have posted links to this and commented about the video, in which Bill Nighy is certainly rather excellent. And most of the chatter around it has been reassuringly measured, but there are still a few voices getting a little over-excited and reminding me of some of the less imaginative people I work with.

By which I mean, responding to just about anything to do with finance by a knee-jerk “Tax the bankers” reaction. It’s far too easy to just decide that those bastards took our money so let’s take their money. The Bad Science mantra applies here.

I’m not going to turn this into an economics lecture, largely because I’d have to do loads of revision before I actually knew anything. I’m a small-l liberal, and don’t flat-out object to some sort of tiered tax system where the extremely wealthy pay proportionally more (you can tell I haven’t revised or I’d know at least some of the relevant terminology). But I’m also a half-assed libertarian (as I think my Facebook ‘political’ status will testify), and something of a capitalist, and the idea of tax hikes for the rich being taken lightly, or talked about like it doesn’t really matter because they’re rich and they deserve it, really rubs me up the wrong way.

So for one thing, I think the name they’ve chosen for this proposition is rather unfortunate. He’s supposed to be the sort of hero that the common man can always get behind, because most people consider themselves amongst the poor for whose benefit he’d be robbing the rich. And maybe at the time he was doing good and providing a legitimate form of social welfare that wouldn’t be provided by the state. But I’m not convinced that Robin Hood’s own style of redistribution of wealth has any place in our society today.

There needs to be a much better argument in place for installing a tax like this than “Those rich fat cats will never miss it”, or “They screwed up our economy, why shouldn’t they pay for it?” And I’m sure its proponents have better arguments, which I plan to start making a genuine effort to explore, under-equipped though I may be to understand any of it.

Obviously I’m not against all taxes. I like that we have state-funded emergency services, and the NHS, among other things. I think that while some people do very well in life, and others have crappy luck and struggle to get by, there should be some kind of institutional system in place such that the former are obliged, to some extent, to help out the latter. Yes, it’s a pretty primitive grasp of economics I’m displaying here, but it feels worth going back to the fundamentals to consider why “Tax the rich” is an over-simplification that we shouldn’t quite be satisfied with.

Though having said all that… the bastards did take our money.

A couple of things occurred to me watching the explanatory video, about the practicalities of imposing a tax like this. I’ve no idea if these are among the many important and relevant questions that other better-informed people are probably asking, but this is what I’ve got.

The scheme could raise many, many billions of pounds a year. That’s quite a lot of money, even to a really big bank. And although talking about “raising” all that money might make it sound like it’s being created by some cleverly discovered productive force which generates revenue out of nowhere in particular, it’s just money that’s being taken away from the banks. It’s done by taking a tiny, tiny proportion from each of many transactions, which make only the tiniest dent at the time, sure… but if all those individual charges add up to, say, £10 billion at the end of a year, then surely the effect is the same as if you just ordered them to pay a massive one-off fine of £10 billion. (Obviously not *quite* the same, for reasons which no doubt elude me.)

Either way, however small an effect it sounds like a 0.05% tax should have, it sounds more significant when you consider that it’d have the same effect as taking away tens of billions of pounds from some people, because that’s exactly what it’s doing.

Though off the back of that, my second ponderance is how the banks are likely to respond. Not in the sense of whether they’ll loudly object to the proposed changes, but whether their business practises will change to try and avoid such heavy penalties.

The tax is described as “a charge on all bank transactions that don’t include members of the public – bonds, derivatives, currencies, speculative stuff”. I can’t pretend to know anything much about how this kind of trading works, but it seems like it wouldn’t be unexpected for a tax on all such trading to significantly shift financial pressures and incentivise banks to start doing things differently. I can’t possibly imagine how, I’m not even sure I’d understand it if you explained it to me, and maybe it’s not even an important issue to raise. But it’s something that’s going to be costing these guys billions. Historically, giving away billions of dollars is not how many people choose to operate whenever they have a say in the matter. Mightn’t this effect the overall financial system in some ways, good or bad?

I’ll be staying mostly out of the debate on this myself, I imagine. I’ll be interested to see what comes of it, and what clever people have to say. In particular, I’ll want to hear the objections of people who aren’t on board with it, and what concerns they have to raise. There could be a significant economic impact of such a move that it’s way beyond my abilities to foresee, but if it’s just a matter of my libertarian sensibilities being offended, then I’m inclined to think that my libertarian sensibilities might just have to deal with it.


Also, a last-minute bonus question: Can this work? I’ve been waiting to see something of its like for some time, but have no clue how it might be made practical. I’m definitely waiting for Cory Doctorow to tell me what to think this time.

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I do like getting wound up over a good alleged religious discrimination story once in a while. It’s been ages since that Christian registrar who didn’t want to conduct civil partnerships, so the recent story about Sikh children bringing daggers into school sounded very promising.

Unfortunately, not only am I going to have to steal the subject line from the New Humanist’s report on this (because it’s really the only obvious reference to make, that I can see), I’m also going to fail entirely to have an original opinion.

It is unlawful in this country, I understand, to be carrying a knife (of the potentially-offensive-weapon sort) in public, and this certainly includes what children are allowed to bring into schools. If you think the law should be changed, then try and get the law changed, but as it stands now this is just not something you’re allowed to do.

If anyone can get around this law by claiming that an unlawful act is religiously important to them, then the law might as well not be there. Either it becomes trivially easy for anyone to claim religious privilege on any action they like, or the legal system has to take on the role of judging the validity or sincerity of people’s religious beliefs. The latter even I find worrying and ridiculous, and I don’t have any religious beliefs.

Our society decides on a set of rules that everyone in it must live by, and the prohibition of offensive weapons in public is one of them. No skirting around it. No privilege to anyone who has a “belief” that’s important to them. You can have all the beliefs you like, but you can’t do the things that have been classified as unlawful. Them’s the rules.

But…

We don’t need to be dicks about it.

Something I mentioned when writing about that Christian registrar up there, back in my relatively early blogging days, was that I hoped that her employers would have made at least some effort to accommodate her, and see if they couldn’t find some way she could carry on doing her job usefully, without rigidly insisting that she go through with the part she was uncomfortable with. Maybe it wouldn’t be possible, because the limitations she placed on what she was willing to do just made her hopelessly ineffective at the job, but I hope they explored that option.

And I think Sikhs should be given a similar chance.

The fuss is over a certain type of ceremonial dagger, called a Kirpan, which some Sikhs consider it important to carry on their person. In particular, one boy was banned from wearing his Kirpan at school.

Now, the Kirpan is a dagger, and it’s against the law for people to bring daggers into school. The law applies to hoodies and headmasters, teens and teachers, swots and Sikhs. That’s the first important thing to remember.

And yet, it’s a ceremonial thing that means something to some people, and it merits us asking if there’s any way we can help them achieve their goals. Call it my libertarian streak, but whenever there’s a chance to inch nearer the “let people do whatever the hell they want” side of things, I think it’s worth exploring.

And, indeed, this was explored at the time. The school suggested that wearing “a smaller knife, welded into a metal sheath” would be perfectly acceptable, which seems like a helpful compromise – it should be able to fulfil the religious requirement, and it means the school are willing to acknowledge the difference between an actual offensive weapon and something that’s obviously more of a decorative trinket. But the kid’s parents refused to accept this.

So, it’s the religious end of things that’s making me go “eurgh” and wave my hands in dismissal at the whole business this time. Your religious beliefs are personal to you, and not something anyone else is obliged to give a toss about. If your personal set of priorities require you to carry a knife everywhere you go, then you may find your potential destinations becoming more limited – and if your priorities are that important to you, then that’s a sacrifice that you’re choosing to make and will have to learn to live with.

If my Holy Church of Cricket-Bat-To-Everyone’s-Groin ever changes its doctrine to enforce its one and only tenet more rigorously, I’m going to have a decision to make. Fortunately, you won’t be obliged to accommodate my religious beliefs.

Ooh, and I nearly forgot! On a totally different topic, this is fucking hilarious. Until you remember that millions of people wanted her to be Vice President of the United States. And then it’s so very sad.

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Rick Warren is an Evangelical Christian minister, author of a number of successful books on Christianity, and founder of the Saddleback megachurch in California. Yesterday this church hosted something called a Civil Forum on The Presidency, where Barack Obama and John McCain were both interviewed by Pastor Rick, before a ticketed audience who’d paid up to $1,000 a pop.

As ERV points out, it’s pretty depressing that none of the candidates wanted anything to do with Science Debate 2008, but they leap at the chance to share some platitudes, with a Christian minister, in a church, as part of their political campaigns.

Hemant has liveblogged the whole thing, and has a pretty comprehensive breakdown of the whole two hours. Obama seems to come off better, but to someone who was pretty well blown away by his speech on race a few months ago, in response to the whole Reverend Wright thing, this is a long way from being inspiring.

He plays up the Jesus talk, and moderates some of his views on abortion and gay rights, in front of a conservatively Christian crowd, because he can’t afford to alienate people by being brutally honest. I know, this is hardly a revelation – shock alliterative horror, politician panders to public opinion – but in the case of someone like Obama, who I think has some great ideas, and would be a good President, and who a part of me really wants to believe is as miraculously awesome as his hype, I resent how much of a cynic this presidential race is making me.

I really think that Obama is worth voting for, and I’d vote for him if I could, even though he does play the game, he can be disconcertingly slick, and some of the things he says and does make him sound like an empty populist – and even though I know part of my motivation for supporting him is that I think he’d be better for the job than John McCain. That’s an unavoidably cynical attitude. I guess I’m kind of a cynic.

Penn Jillette spoke recently about Bob Barr, the current Libertarian Party nominee for President, and the glorious joy and optimism that really infuses that campaign. They can talk about freedom and all the other things that are important to them as openly and optimistically as they like, whereas Obama “doesn’t have any hope; he’s got to do everything right.”

And Penn really kinda has a point. There is a degree of inspiration to the crazy libertarian position which Obama just can’t match. Because he’s mainstream, and needs to win this, and can’t put people off with the kind of honesty that the media will jump all over. He has to do everything right. That’s pretty depressing, and so is realising that I’m just cynical enough to go along with it.

Damn you, complex and diverse political arena.

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