Slavery By Any Other Name

by Shihang

Wolff checks in with an excellent piece on an column by Douthat.

Consider this excerpt by Douthat:

“This is the perverse logic of meritocracy. Once a system grows sufficiently complex, it doesn’t matter how badly our best and brightest foul things up. Every crisis increases their authority, because they seem to be the only ones who understand the system well enough to fix it.

But their fixes tend to make the system even more complex and centralized, and more vulnerable to the next national-security surprise, the next natural disaster, the next economic crisis. Which is why, despite all the populist backlash and all the promises from Washington, this isn’t the end of the “too big to fail” era. It’s the beginning.”

Am I the only one who is thinking of Plato and his philosopher kings? Remember how he argued that just as you wouldn’t argue with a doctor on medicine, you shouldn’t argue with a ruler on how to rule? The interesting question is what if this philosopher king screws up. What then?

Plato would argue right into Douthat’s hands. But what exactly is the problem here? As Douthat himself points out:

“If Robert Rubin’s mistakes helped create an out-of-control financial sector, then naturally you need Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers — Rubin’s protégés — to set things right. After all, who else are you going to trust with all that consolidated power? Ron Paul? Dennis Kucinich? Sarah Palin?”

However, Douthat’s argument suffers from one problem. If the problem in the financial crisis was the deregulation of finance, would even less regulation have made sense? In Douthat’s examples, all the problems were caused by a lack: the lack of financial regulation, a lack of airport security, a lack of European central management. Thus, the rational response is, of course, more of something.

Wolff gives this all a rather sophisticated spin, writing:

“It is exactly what Marx meant by the new system of social relations of production being born in the womb of the old. The reason those in charge do not react to their failures by going backwards to a less centralized time is that, by their conception of rationality, the rational thing to do is to take greater control of what seems to be out of control, which is to say to centralize. Oh, mere self-interest plays a role, but it would be a big mistake to suppose that is all that is at play. Why does Obama ratify the seizures of executive authority pioneered by George W. Bush? Because, confronted with terrorist incidents, it is the rational thing to do. Why does a progressive like Krugman call for greater regulatory oversight? Because that is the rational way to deal with an economic system that is “out of control.””

Wolff is no longer talking about simply filling vacuums; rather he is talking about chaos and our need to contain it. That is certainly the root of human society. There is also a relation between chaos and centralisation. Is that a mistake?

Libertarians would balk at the suggestion that chaos is best countered by centralisation (an idea which, if pushed, will lead to  world government). Socialists (John Lennon in particular) might be slightly more pleased by the prospect. But either way, the human spirit is surrendering control to one aspect. The conservatives and libertarians yield their control to the free market: chaos is controlled through the free market system. This is an important consideration for any claims about the merit of the free market system inadvertently compare it favourably to the bureaucracy of government. Bureaucracy and free markets both involve an individual surrender of control, and neither are inherently good nor bad. The real question is which system is more effective in dealing with human needs and wants.

Back in the 20th century, it was a decisive victory for free markets, but in the 21st century, government competency is leading a well-deserved comeback. Political caricature have created this ridiculous conventional wisdom that free markets are better because they are free. This is ridiculous if you would observe any early capitalistic laissez faire society before social safety nets were erected. Up till now, free markets were better because they were more suited to our needs.

My argument is that we should not judge anything by the illusionary criterion of freedom. The very existence of society is contradictory to the idea of perfect individual liberty. Whatever the system, and however it sneaks the label free into its title, it is always slavery by any other name.

P.S. This is Wolff’s essay, the Future of Socialism. I’ll read and comment on it some other time.