Capitalism is Not Meritocracy

Friedrich HayekI was just listening to a lecture by Slavoj Žižek where he quoted (of all people) Friedrich Hayek. In it, Hayek says that capitalism necessarily rewards some unworthy people and that this is good. If it were only the meritorious who made it to the top in capitalism, people on the bottom couldn’t deal with it. As it is, poor people can look at the rich and rightly think, “Idiots!” And thus they can live with the fact that life is unfair.

This remark is unheard of from most free marketeers. They want to pretend that the capitalist system is a meritocracy—that only the good, hardworking, and clever make it to the top. Modern free market philosophy is based more on Hayek than anyone. And in case you don’t know, Hayek (like most free marketeers) was not a good guy; Corey Robin has a series of article about When Hayek Met Pinochet.

Here is Žižek’s lecture, queue up at the Hayek quote:

All The People Who Died

Maybe I’m just a crude little man. After 9/11, when people talked about the tragedy to the families of victims, I always thought, “I’m sure glad my mother wasn’t killed by a drunk driver on that day.” Death is death, right? If 3000 people die unnecessarily, that is more tragic than one person similarly dying. But no one of those 3000 deaths are more tragic than one single unnecessary death.

So I feel bad that I look at the shooting in Aurora in a purely analytical way. It is a tragedy that 12 people were killed and 59 wounded in a senseless act of violence. It raises important questions for our society about things like mental health and gun availability. But thus far, I don’t see any discussion. I just see people wringing their hands about an event that is, in every way that matters, the same thing we see all the time. Later there will be liberals, afraid to call for gun control, asking if we mightn’t be able to stop the gun show loophole. (Is there still a gun show loophole?) And conservatives will counter, “Tyranny!”

Tonight, one 16 or 17 year old will die in a car crash. Today, two people will die from an accidental gunshot. People die all the time. For stupid reasons. For evil reasons. By saying this I am not suggesting that young men gunning down large numbers of people in public places is not a problem. But I am suggesting that the public hand wringing only serves to justify inaction. I am suggesting that noting that the world would be better off if humans were nicer doesn’t help. I am suggesting issues such as these need constant attention, not intermittent hysterical cries of outrage.

It would be great to do something about all these problems. But as far as I can tell, we can’t do anything about gun violence[1] because gun manufacturers would block it. We can’t do anything about teenage driving fatalities, because car and oil companies want to get the kiddies driving as young as possible. We can’t do anything about global warming because, well, you know.

As long as we live in a corporatocracy, there will be few improvements. What ails us economically is the same thing that ails us culturally. We cannot have economic stimulus for the same reason we must watch our children die in movie theaters and on roadways. Conservatives believe that freedom is the lack of restraints. But when another’s freedom leads to my slavery, something has gone wrong. When one billionaire can spend as much money as he wants on political “speech” (Just like me!), we do not live in a democracy. Freedom is not an absolute; it is a compromise. Ditto for justice. As long as we allow conservatives to continue to claim that what is good for GM is good for me, we are lost.

As for the 71 in Aurora, I’m sorry. Now let’s get to work.

At least vote!

Update (20 July 2012 7:02 pm)

Darcy Burner has an article over at Crooks & Liars called Adult Conversation About Guns. She provides the following list of recent mass shootings, which gets to the heart of my point far more directly:

On January 17, 1989, a gunman in Stockton, California walked onto a playground and opened fire, killing 5 children and injuring 30 more.

On July 1, 1993, a gunman in San Francisco walked into a law office and opened fire, killing 8 and injuring 6.

On April 20, 1999, two gunmen in Columbine, Colorado walked into their high school and opened fire, killing 13 people and injuring 21 others.

On January 16, 2002, a gunman in Virginia walked into a law school and opened fire, killing 3 and injuring 3.

On July 8, 2003, a gunman in Mississippi walked into a factory and opened fire, killing 6 and injuring 8.

On March 21, 2005, a gunman in Minnesota walked into a high school and opened fire, killing 7 and injuring 5.

On November 20, 2005, a gunman in Tacoma walked into the mall and opened fire, injuring 6.

On March 25, 2006, a gunman in Seattle walked into a party and opened fire, killing 6 and injuring 2.

On February 12, 2007, a gunman in Utah walked into a mall and opened fire, killing 5 and injuring 4.

On April 16, 2007, a gunman in Virginia walked onto the Virginia Tech campus and opened fire, killing 32 people and wounding 17 others.

On December 5, 2007, a gunman in Nebraska walked into a mall and opened fire, killing 8 and injuring 4.

On December 9, 2007, a gunman in Colorado Springs walked onto a church parking lot and opened fire, killing 2 and wounding 3.

On February 7, 2008, a gunman in Missouri walked into a city council meeting and opened fire, killing 5 and wounding 2.

On February 14, 2008, a gunman in Illinois walked onto a college campus and opened fire, killing 5 and injuring 17.

On June 25, 2008, a gunman in Kentucky walked into a factory and opened fire, killing 5 and injuring 1.

On January 24, 2009, a gunman in Portland walked up to a nightclub and opened fire, killing 2 and injuring 7.

On March 29, 2009, a gunman in North Carolina walked into a retirement home and opened fire, killing 8 and injuring 2.

On August 4, 2009, a gunman in a suburb of Pittsburgh walked into a fitness club and opened fire, killing 3 and injuring 9.

On November 5, 2009, a gunman at Fort Hood in Texas walked into a medical center and opened fire, killing 13 and injuring 29.

On November 29, 2009, a gunman in Lakewood, Washington walked into a coffee shop and killed 4 police officers.

On January 7, 2010, a gunman in St Louis walked into a power plant and opened fire, killing 3 and injuring 6.

On January 12, 2010, a gunman in Georgia walked into a truck rental place and opened fire, killing 3 and injuring 2.

On February 12, 2010, a gunwoman in Alabama stood up in a college faculty meeting and opened fire, killing 3 and injuring 3.

On August 3, 2010, a gunman in Connecticut walked into a warehouse and opened fire, killing 8 and injuring 2.

On August 7, 2011, a gunman in Ohio broke into his girlfriend’s house and opened fire, killing 7 and injuring 1.

On September 6, 2011, a gunman in Nevada walked into a pancake restaurant and opened fire, killing 4 and injuring 7.

On October 5, 2011, a gunman in Cupertino, California walked into a quarry where people were working and opened fire, killing 3 and injuring 7.

Sadly, I could go on…

Update (20 July 2012 9:13 pm)

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence is saying what ought to be said. However, I think the issue is bigger than just guns. But it is the main issue. Did I mention that Obama got a rating of F from the Brady Campaign?

Update (21 July 2012 11:04 am)

People saying a lot of smart and important things on Up with Chris Hayes this morning:


[1] There are three times as many murders committed with handguns than all other guns. There are four times as many murders committed with guns than with knives. Note: knives are far more common than guns.

First as Tragedy, Then as Farce—Why Tea Party and OWS Can’t Just Get Along

First as Tragedy, Then as FarceA reader suggested that I check out Slavoj Žižek. So I grabbed a copy of First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, his attack on modern liberalism from a leftist persepctive. These are my kinds of books. Part of it is just that I’m an iconoclast. I’ve already researched libertarian theory about as far as one can. As regular readers know, I find it intellectually interesting but a practical disaster—the kind of thing that eggheads love because it has a kind of deductive perfection but with all kinds of hidden (and ridiculous) assumptions.

So even though I consider myself something like a social democrat, I find hard left critiques very useful. Plus they are welcome relief from a country with such a narrow, extreme right-shifted Overton Window that classical liberalism is considered “far left.”

Žižek is worth checking out. The book is very interesting. But right now, I want to discuss something he writes early on:

[Republican Senator Jim] Bunning was the first to publicly outline the contours of the reasoning behind the Republican Party revolt against the [2008 TARP] bail-out plan, which climaxed in the rejection of the Fed’s proposal on September 29. The argument deserves a closer look. Note how Republican resistance to the bail-out project was formulated in “class warfare” terms: Wall Street versus Main Street. Why should we help those on “Wall Street” responsible for the crisis, while asking ordinary mortgageholders on “Main Street” to pay the price? Is this not a clear case of what economic theory calls “moral hazard,” defined as “the risk that somebody will behave immorally because insurance, the law, or some other agency with protect them against any loss that his or her behavior might cause”—if I am insured against fire, say, I will take fewer fire precautions (or, in extremes, even set fire to my fully insured but loss-generating premises)? The same goes for the big banks: are they not protected against big losses and able to keep their profits? No wonder that Michael Moore wrote a letter to the public decrying the bail-out plan as the robbery of the century.

What I want to discuss does not relate directly to Žižek’s book. Instead, it is this issue of the overlap between (for lack of better terms) the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street.

If you listen to what people in the two groups say, they are often shockingly similar. The way they talk about the issues is different, but the core issues are the same: justice. The TP people, being older, often show off their ossification: the whole “You kids get off my lawn!” thing, with the repulsive (but understandable) acceptance of welfare that I get and rejection of welfare that “they” get. And the OWS people, being younger, tend to be more idealistic and sometimes say silly things. But on the whole, there is a lot of agreement, so why don’t the movements agree on anything?

In particular, I wonder why it is that the TP people did such a good job of organizing for the 2010 elections only to vote entirely against their own interests. Who did they elect? A bunch of people determined to destroy government except when it comes to abortion rights. Did any of the people they elected stand up against corporate welfare? Not that I’ve seen. They elected people who talk populist but govern corporate.

I think the main problem is with their leadership. First, they wedded themselves to the Republican Party whose ideology over the last 40 years has been whittled down to: power for power’s sake. Second, the leaders inside the Tea Party itself seem to be the same old social conservatives that took over the local Republican Party offices over this same time period. Thus, when it came time to get people elected, the most important thing was that the candidates be radically anti-choice. For example, Sharron Angle’s advice to a 13-year-old girl who is pregnant because her father raped her:

I think that two wrongs don’t make a right. And I have been in the situation of counseling young girls, not 13 but 15, who have had very at risk, difficult pregnancies. And my counsel was to look for some alternatives, which they did. And they found that they had made what was really a lemon situation into lemonade.

Lemons: daddy rape. Lemonade: unwanted deformed children! Get rid of corporate welfare? Just as soon as you stop abortion everywhere—especially all those depriving us of such delicious lemonade!

What I’ve seen is that populism on the right always leads fanaticism on the part of its adherents. And this always leads to plutocracy and autocracy. The same thing has happened on the left, but I think the history of communism tends to keep the modern left on a pragmatic footing. Certainly fascism should do the same for the right, but it doesn’t. For whatever reason, most people today think the fascists were bad because of their antisemitism alone. Thus, any form of fascism that isn’t antisemitic is okay, as long as you don’t call it fascism.

Where the two movements stand today is telling. The OWS movement is buzzing with activity. They have presented a lot of really thoughtful policy critiques and proposals. The TP movement, on the other hand, has been reduced to nothing but slogans because in the end, all they stood for was the Republican Party platform—but more so!

There is the potential for the movements to interact. The problem, I think, is the ossification of the old. I listened to a Richard Carrier lecture recently and he explained that humans take long-held opinions that have not been challenged as evidence that those opinions are right. Given the media landscape in the United States and the ability to get all of one’s “news” from Fox, it will be hard to get the TP members to even admit that they don’t necessarily have all the answers. (Except in theory, because everyone will admit this in theory.)

Our only hope is with the young. And they are as likely to get things wrong as right. Remember, one of Hitler’s earliest coalitions were the university students. But OWS seems to be headed in the right direction.


Fitzgerald on Rich Boys

F. Scott FitzgeraldIn Paul Krugman’s column today, he quotes from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novella The Rich Boy—twice! That’s one of the reasons that I like Krugman: he’s not only an astute political observer, he’s also an interesting and knowledgeable guy. Anyone who quotes Fitzgerald (other than about second acts in American lives) is at least somewhat interesting.

One great thing about Fitzgerald is that he grew up around rich people without being rich. (Actually, today I would say Fitzgerald’s family was rich given that they were well in the top 20% of earners, but not part of the beau monde.) As a result, he was able to see the rich clearly. And the picture he rendered was not pretty. The Buchanans in The Great Gatsby sum up his views pretty well.

Krugman quotes what I consider some uninspiring lines from the novella, although they are some of the most harsh. I am most taken by the first paragraph of The Rich Boy:

Begin with an individual, and before you know it you find that you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created–nothing. That is because we are all queer fish, queerer behind our faces and voices than we want any one to know or than we know ourselves. When I hear a man proclaiming himself an “average, honest, open fellow,” I feel pretty sure that he has some definite and perhaps terrible abnormality which he has agreed to conceal–and his protestation of being average and honest and open is his way of reminding himself of his misprision.

Someone famous and smart said something about how all fiction is a meditation on the writing process. That is perhaps more true of Fitzgerald with his intense first person narration. But in this paragraph, he sets the rules for his story; he is planning to walk a tightrope: an honest depiction of a young man, a symbol of a type but not himself a type. As a result, he provides better advice more beautifully packaged than all the creative writing courses in the world.

If I weren’t determined to push all my nonfiction aside and read Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum this weekend, I would read The Great Gatsby. But you could. Or The Rich Boy if you only have an hour.