The limits of human nature – and books I have read: Part I

This is getting interesting. Lisek has posted again on my post – which is very welcome, as I genuinely do welcome debate and discussion.

It’s not quite as welcome to find an accusation in the title of the post to the effect that I haven’t read ‘A Conflict of Visions’ and yet deign to comment on it – but I’m a forgiving sort of person. (It’s also a bit sad that s/he gave up completing the response simply because, I guess, s/he thought I wasn’t really worth it.)

To be fair, it’s a deduction rather than an accusation. Lisek came to a ‘realisation’ that I hadn’t read the book because of my comments about Marx being a ‘Tragic Visionary’.

I’ll respond in two parts. First (in this post), I’ll respond to the ‘have I read the book?’ arguments and clarify what I was really trying to say (long-windedly, I’m afraid). Second, I’ll respond (in a second post) to some of the points in what Lisek posted before realising there was no point.

On to Sowell and Marx …

Lisek – helpfully – provides Sowell’s analysis of Marx as an insert. It describes Sowell’s view that Marx is a ‘hybrid’ in terms of visions.

Well, if Lisek has deduced that I haven’t read the book I suppose I should similarly deduce that he hasn’t read my post (fully). Here’s a parenthetical point in my first post that s/he may have skimmed over:

(Sowell uses Marx as an example of a ‘mixed’ vision probably because he couldn’t deny Marx’s anti-utopianism but had to explain why Marx ‘leaned’ left.)

Here’s Lisek’s moment of realisation:

In chapter 2 of A Conflict of Visions, Sowell talks about how Marxism is actually a hybrid vision. But if TPSA had read the book he would have known that!

Ahem, looks like I did know it and actually do have at least a passing acquaintance with what Sowell had to say about Marx.

I have read the book. It’s an enjoyable read. (More on that in my next post.)

Having said all of that, my original post was not a response to Sowell but was a response to Lisek’s posts on the two visions. If you look at my original post here you’ll notice that I make repeated bracketed references to features of the ‘tragic vision’. Those bracketed allusions were to Lisek’s own characterisation of the visions. If my posts seem to misinterpret Sowell it’s mainly because I was actually responding to Lisek’s articulation of Sowell’s visions, rather than to Sowell’s original account.

In particular, I was responding to Lisek’s claims about how each vision ‘underlies‘ the world-views of the political left and right. My point – in so many words – is that the constrained (‘tragic’) and unconstrained (‘utopian’) visions don’t ‘underly’ the political left and right but, instead, they are consistent with conservatism and liberalism, respectively.

As I’ve already pointed out, for me conservatism and liberalism do not define the boundary between ‘left’ and ‘right’ because those latter terms denote (for me and many others) preferences in economic policy not preferences concerning various other social issues.

It might sound odd to American ears but I insist that I am a left-wing conservative in those terms. As I’ll try to explain below, I support state intervention in the economy just because I believe that ‘rationality is distributed’, ‘human nature is flawed’, ‘long-lasting social institutions are to be trusted’, ‘life is about trade-offs not solutions’, etc..

Now, here’s how Lisek characterises the ‘tragic vision’ (emphasis added):

The Tragic Vision is the underlying world-view of the political right.  This vision sees mankind as having a human nature that is both unchanging and flawed.  The religious sometimes express this as “man’s fallen nature”.  In this vision humans are basically self-interested if not outright selfish.  Human reason is valuable but limited, which makes central planning naturally repugnant.  Limitations of human reason are why time-tested structures and processes are valued.  These time-tested structures are the product [of] accumulated evolved wisdom (traditions), and changing these structures is dangerous because of the limitations of human reason.  The decentralized processes of accumulated evolved wisdom (tradition) and the free-market are trusted because of the limitations of human reason.  Social decisions typically do not lead to solutions but rather to trade offs.

My view is that I can accept all the bolded comments other than the first one and replace the first one by either inserting “The Tragic Vision is the underlying world-view of the political left” or, better, “The Tragic Vision can be the underlying world-view of the political right or political left depending upon your social group’s experiences in your culture”.

I suppose I should confess that I expected my commentary to provoke those who think that the alignment between the Tragic Vision and ‘the political right’ is a given. What I didn’t expect was that it could be so far ‘outside the frame’ for them that they would just be befuddled. Obviously I was myself guilty of assuming that most readers would understand the ‘game’ I was playing in trying to disturb the assumption of that alignment.

Having ‘forgiven’ Lisek (or corrected his deduction), I can now shed some light on my own perspective.

I probably don’t like nation states any more than Lisek appears to. They are centralised concentrations of power: I don’t like centralised concentrations of power. Historically, governments have been fairly brute expressions of the interests of power and wealth. That is – as Sowell acknowledges many times, usually by referencing the many points at which Adam Smith derides businessmen, capitalists and the ‘rulers of the world’ (has Lisek read those bits?) – wealth/business and government are most often two sides of the same ‘coin’.

Now, think about it for a bit. The supposed ‘free market’ – in its real manifestation – has actually been engineered through a top-down process; it has been imposed (very often with considerable coercive force) by the ‘expert’ few on the many. It’s rules and peculiarities have been ‘lobbied for’ by the wealthy and powerful and have routinely changed capriciously to serve the interests of the few. It is a new invention/innovation and is not a “time-tested institution”.

By contrast, most actual -empirically existent – markets have been socially embedded within relations between people that have been far more than relations of exchange (I’m thinking here of the literal produce markets that Adam Smith would have been familiar with in the towns and villages of England and Scotland. Indeed, there’s a (re-)growth of these locally and socially embedded markets in many countries at the moment.)

Such markets have typically been ‘free’ of the wealthy elite messing with them because they were/are pretty small scale and not where real (i.e., large amounts of) capital gets produced. But they are not ‘free’ of the social system – and neither should they be.

Typically, local villagers knew the ‘marketers’ beyond their status as a stall-holder. My father, for example, ran a stall for a while back in the North of England, selling clothes at a market of local stallholders and just about everyone who stood and chatted with him, passed the time of day and, occasionally, bought something from him knew him and his family well.

In just this way, I think Adam Smith’s famous hypothetical bakers, brewers, etc. did operate on ‘self-interest’ but it was not just the self-interest of making a profit from exchange. They always had to think of the social sanctions that awaited them if they tried to rip someone off (their customers were also their neighbours, friends, acquaintances and even family). They had to preserve their reputation (and that of their families) both inside and outside the ‘market’. That is because their ‘market’ (in the modern, abstract sense of the term) were the people they lived amongst. Modern capitalism has severed that connection.

Their behaviour had not only the ‘checks and balances’ inherent in a competitive ‘free’ market but also the checks and balances of the social world. At a guess, it would have been the latter that was more efficacious at transforming self-interest into the general good. Social influence, in the end, is the glue that ensures self-interest works to the common good – not competition.

My problem with ‘free market fundamentalism’ is that those socially embedded obligations and sanctions get dispensed with on the assumption that the ‘sanctions’ inherent in a competitive market are sufficient.

Now, if you truly had a ‘tragic vision’ why on earth would you support a ‘utopian’, top-down, centrally engineered, Johnny come lately, economic system manufactured – and loaded – primarily for the interests of a few and advocated by an intellectual elite who think the rest of us are too dumb to understand its advantages? It doesn’t make sense. More to the point, it’s entirely inconsistent with the constrained vision.

It’s no coincidence that the early implementations of ‘free market’ principles were not, as one might suspect, typified by efforts to reduce the power of wealthy aristocrats and industrialists by removing their privileged status (gained through price regulations and subsidies) in the market but, oddly, (1) to enclose the commons – in England – partly to ensure that peasants could not enjoy the meagre perks of non-market self-sufficiency opportunities; and, (2) overseas in the colonies, to appropriate land on the North American continent and elsewhere – both done under the pretext of the need to make land productive ‘for the common good’.

It was, and I’d argue still is, ‘free markets’ for the powerless and rigged markets for the powerful. Look at any trade talks today and it’s the same pattern – ‘YOU have to have a free market (and I don’t).’ You can’t stop that happening no matter how you try to regulate that behaviour. It’s human nature – as I’ll elaborate below.

The real difference between Lisek and me, it turns out, is not about Sowell’s visions. It’s actually about advocacy for abstract, socially disembedded, ‘free’ markets. He’s ok with them and I’m not.

Let me be arrogant for a moment. Adam Smith didn’t let the tragic vision dominate his thinking anywhere near enough. His market system is a utopian dream. Human nature means that it will never work. And you can’t change human nature. It’s an attempt to finesse the tragic/constrained vision into a utopian/unconstrained vision (of incremental but unending progress) – and I’m not buying it. This is the left-wing variant of the ‘tragic vision’ I’m trying to get across: You can tick all the constrained vision boxes and still conclude that you can’t trust what gets sold to us as a ‘free market’.

Why won’t a ‘free market economy’ work? Because it generates highly concentrated private wealth which – because of ‘human nature’ – will then inevitably get used (by those with it) to ‘skew’ the market. It’s an ‘unintended consequence’ of espousing and pushing for ‘free markets’ – you won’t get them by virtue of the effort to establish them.

To put it in terms of Sowell’s ‘visions, the history of the establishment of modern ‘free’ markets involves repeatedly ‘changing the rules’ to suit the interests of the powerful and already wealthy. That’s an affront to the ‘Tragic Vision’ (or should be seen as such). Similarly, these ‘free’ markets have been established by undermining (often using force) already existing traditions, norms and ‘time-tested’ institutions.

This is the case both in the original ‘birthplaces’ of capitalism, like England and Holland and, more obviously, around the globe during the heyday of (trading then military forms of) colonialism and imperialism. Indigenous peoples’ institutions and ways of life were deliberately and forcefully undermined as a matter of course and – guess what – the Tragic Vision would probably have been exemplified in many of those traditional cultures. It was those with the ‘progressive’ economic vision of these new-fangled, rationally coherent, ‘free’ markets (e.g., John Locke) who provided the rhetorical cover for this destruction of traditional ways of life.

That’s why the invisible hand never gets a look in – because all too visible hands will always intervene to skim the cream (and often a lot more). Adam Smith’s mistake was to assume that it would be possible to construct a system that would translate the theoretical possibility that economic, self-interested ‘bad intentions’ could work for the common good into a real world modern economy. You can’t.

What the ‘free market’ ideology has done is get rid of the traditional, socially-embedded markets that conservatives like me think are the ones we should have stuck with and – if possible – regain. They were the ones that worked for millenia, not Smith’s pipe dreams (I’m being too harsh – I like Adam Smith’s analysis and perceptiveness). They were the ones that had a very long history of sustaining families and communities around the globe.

It’s tragic, but that’s what I’ve concluded. And that’s why I support left wing economic policies.

While I’m suspicious of governments, they represent a window of opportunity because of the democratic rhetoric they now have to spout (largely because of the efforts of ordinary people over the centuries). They can provide some ‘counter-vailing power’ (to use one of Galbraith’s notions – I know, he’s one of Sowell’s unconstrained vision nominees) against the self-interested ambitions of those whom Adam Smith so rightly derided. Our communities, neighbourhoods and families aren’t in good enough shape to fight back so, as a last resort, I reluctantly will try to use the state to hold the line, to give some breathing space to those other social institutions to regroup. I would prefer not to have to but the world isn’t perfect and you have to work with what you’ve got (again, ‘tragic’ isn’t it?).

In terms of the constrained vision, using what countervailing power our nominally democratic governments provide (even if only at the margins) can make the processes (not the results – yet more of Sowell’s distinction between the visions) more just, more equal and freer. It’s a bit like the ‘checks and balances’ approach that those unconstrained theorists were so disdainful of in the US constitution (see page 33, in my edition of ‘A Conflict of Visions’). The nominally democratic form of government can, by voicing to some extent the distributed and diffused – but possibly not articulated – knowledge of individuals, counter the concentrated (i.e., ‘centralised’) power of the wealthy.

In Sowell’s concluding comments (pages 223-224 in my edition) he notes:

The very reason visions are useful to those with a special interest to promote is that it helps recruit political allies who do not share that special interest, but who may be won over by the principles or rhetoric generated by a social vision. In short, the resort to visions as a means of recruiting political allies is evidence of the limited appeal of special interests, as such, and the independent power of visions.

My vision, you could say, is so ‘tragic/constrained’ that I believe that the movers and shakers in right wing political parties (e.g., in the US, the Republican Party – and probably the Democratic Party too, which I classify as clearly right wing economically) and movements (e.g., in the US, the Tea Party movement) have about as much interest in ‘free markets’ as Stalin had in the “withering away of the state”. They are ‘special interests’ using the ‘Tragic Vision’ – and how it resonates – to recruit people who do not share those interests in order to support their political interests.

Further, having a constrained vision does not prevent you from wanting to change prevailing social structures; in fact, it can be a stimulus for it. Why else would constrained visionaries like Adam Smith want to change the economic system they saw around them, where corruption and collusion and special interest pandering abounded? Why else would Thomas Sowell note (on page 43 of my edition) that:

The constrained vision was not synonymous with (or camouflage for) acceptance of the status quo.

I want to see changes to the economic system too and for much the same reasons. I want people to be in a system that ‘sets the incentives’ naturally, so that their ‘self-interested’ actions will result in the common good. The difference, however, is that I don’t want the nation state to set that system up. I don’t want – if you like – the central planners (mostly economists in right wing think tanks and university economics departments in places like Chicago) imposing their ideas on the world in much the same way that they did in Chile with Pinochet or in New Zealand through Roger Douglas and his ‘blitz-kreig’ strategy of policy implementation.

I don’t want these people – self-annointed (to use another of Sowell’s phrases) experts – imposing economic systems, rules and regulations in undemocratic ways. Democracy has a long history (probably 50,000 – 100,000 years old if what we know of hunter-gatherer societies is generally correct) so we shouldn’t dispense with it simply to impose the new-fangled ‘free market’ system on people – you know, ‘just because it’s good for them if only they would see sense’.

If you haven’t guessed it by now, at heart I long for true conservatism: The long lost non-hierarchical and egalitarian human social condition in which we evolved and in which our flawed nature operates best because the material ‘incentives’ and ‘trade-offs’ (not the ‘solutions’ – another Sowell dichotomy) were optimal (but still imperfect – natural selection is always a work in progress), where ‘power’ was always given by the people to be exercised in the people’s interests and would immediately be taken away should it be abused. A set of circumstances in which voluntary action in one’s own interests actually did coincide with the common good – not just in theory but in practice.

To return to my initial comment about Sowell’s untested assumption: My desire to change social structures is not moved by some ‘gut instinct’ (i.e., vision) that human nature can be changed. Quite the reverse. If I thought human nature could be changed then I might accept the ‘free’ market system we have and hope that, one day, human nature will change so that people will actually thrive within it rather than psychologically, socially and emotionally wither (as the empirical evidence suggests is happening).

I should add that I’m not hopeful of recreating what has been lost, at least on a widespread scale – not without global disarray and disaster, at any rate. So, for the duration I’ll settle for muddling through with a bit of draconian state intervention (e.g., progressive tax scales, environmental regulations, etc.) and as much localised economic activity and independence as possible (e.g., state legislative support for local cooperatives) – a difficult trade-off and balancing act, but it’s my sense of how – as Sowell cites Adam Smith (again) – to “establish the best that people can bear” (page 33).

You see, after all that, I’m just another one of those believers in ‘the Fall’. How tragic is that?

[If anyone’s interested, I’ve also read Sowell’s book ‘Marxism’ and have now been moved to get out of the library his latest(?), ‘Economic Facts and Fallacies’.

You see, I read a lot.]

To be continued …

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