Thursday, March 04, 2010

Why I am NOT a Leftist.

I ought to be on the political Left. But I’m not. I am passionate about freedom of speech—a stanch opponent of censorship. I am a bleeding-heart type who cares about what happens to people. I want people to have prosperity. I want people to have all the health care possible. I want equality of rights before the law. I am sick unto death of prejudice and bigotry—whether against blacks, women, Jews, gays, immigrants, legal or illegal, etc. I despise war. I tend not to support the police, feeling they are out-of-control thugs far too often. I want to end the war on drugs— yesterday. I tend to dislike big business more than I like it (think Amazon as an example).

As for the enemies of the Left: the political Right, I tend to loathe them. I’m no fan of religion, in any format. I favor secular government and think reason is superior in every sense to any concept of faith or divine revelation. I don’t think there is a magic man in the sky answering prayers or laying down moral edicts. I’m probably more in tune with the Sexual Revolution of the 60s than I am a fan of Calvin’s morality. Everything about me, especially in regards to the issues that I’m most passionate about screams LEFT. So why am I NOT a Leftist?

I do use these labels in their modern sense. I actually do think my positions are the original Left in politics and that Progressives are an unfortunate middle-of-the-road compromise with conservatism; that is that the modern Left wants the goals of the original Left (classical liberals) but wishes to achieve them through the use of conservative means—state power. When it comes to the modern Left we part company on some very important issues. Here are some of them:

1. The use of state power. The biggest difference between myself and modern Progressives is that they believe we can achieve liberal ends through the use of state power. I think that is a dangerous delusion, which is inimical to the very goals that are being sought. State power does not benefit the poor and powerless over the long-term. It is always used by the rich and the powerful.

This seems true no matter the issue. Attempts to regulate Big Business are counter-productive in that these powers are soon wielded by Big Business itself to stifle competition and redistribute wealth, from the less-wealthy to themselves. The concentration of state power always and everywhere benefits only two classes: those who hold the power directly (the political class of bureaucrats and politicians) and the wealthy, powerful individuals who bid for the favors of the political class.

Even the most mundane attempts to help those in need, or do good in some way, are means by which the political class and their wealthy masters use the force of law to redistribute rights and wealth from those on the bottom to those on the top. Programs meant to “save the planet,” such as ethanol, end up sending billions in subsidies to the business elite and their political puppets. Those programs that don’t directly benefit the powerful classes that manipulate politics do tend to increase the power of the political class of bureaucrats and politicians. The expansion of power for the political class, in the end, will benefit the rich and the powerful.

2. The political Left tends to believe that rational, central planning is possible. It isn’t. Hayek clearly demonstrated that the type of knowledge necessary to centrally plan a society is diffused in nature. It can not be collected centrally and thus all attempts to plan are done without sufficient knowledge. This results in mistakes and unintended consequences, some of which can be catastrophic.

Even if the knowledge necessary to make such planning decisions could be accumulated in a timely enough manner to matter, the process by which decisions are made is too easily corrupted because of the points I made in my first point.

3. If the Left were able to abolish the tendency of power to be used for those who already possess it, and if the Left were somehow able to hurdle the barriers presented by the diffusion of knowledge, there is another problem: power does not remain in the same hands. Imagine a Left-wing elite, who are truly compassionate and caring, who are totally untempted by the temptations of power and can not be bought off by the rich and powerful who buzz around politics the way flies buzz around shit. If such an unlikely miracle were to happen, how long would it last?

Consider a program with very laudable goals, in my opinion, sex education. I think our culture doesn’t teach the necessary information about sexual decisions. The Left, when they run sex education, tends to teach plumbing. The Right, when they run sex education, tends to teach abstinence and religion. While the plumbing issues need discussion, they can be covered in a relatively short amount of time. It isn’t that complicated. What the kids don’t get is how to make sexual decisions, how to decide, for themselves, whether they are ready to traverse the sexual minefield or not.

The Left instituted sex education in the schools, and remember I’m on their side here. But it wasn’t long before those programs were being run by Christian fundamentalists who used the entire bureaucratic structure to preach fundamentalist morality about abstinence.

Afrikaner whites in South Africa set up a system of racial classification which allowed privileges and rights to be doled out unequally based on that classification. Through rather ruthless means they managed to hold the levers of power for a few decades. Now they don’t and the same racial classifications that they instituted are used to dole out rights and privileges unequally but with them getting the short end of the stick. I should note the plight of the mixed-race “coloureds” who lament: “Before we were too black, now we are too white.”

4. If a Progressive political class managed to solve the knowledge problem; managed to avoid the temptations that power itself offers; avoided giving out special favors to the rich and powerful it would still face the problem outlined in point #3. It is not possible to avoid individuals, not so well-intentioned, from gaining political power?

The only means by which they can prevent handing over political power to their enemies—to those not so well-intentioned or beneficent—is to stifle, or destroy the democratic process. Power would have to be seized and held. But once that is done another system of incentives kicks into effect attracting those individuals drawn to power, who rarely are so well-intentioned. The police exemplify this problem. Some police officers clearly are attracted to the job because they wish to help people. But equally clear is that a very high percentage of officers are attracted to the power. It isn’t that love the law so much, much more it is the “enforcement” that appeals to them. The Left tends to have low opinions of police officers. Yet, the system necessary to prevent the bad guys from taking over a nation, attracts the very sort of mentality that corrupts the police. Power does corrupt.

5. Another area where I disagree with the contemporary Left is that they are too enamoured with the wrong kind of equality. Other than those who openly espouse authoritarianism, everyone believes in equality of one kind or another. But there are many equalities, and the Left is often vague about what sort they are referring to when they use the term. For instance, there is equality of ability. That seems to be a fiction. People are not all equally capable, either physically, mentally, or morally. There is equality of condition, in which everyone has the same set of assets. There is equality of rights before the law.

Equality of rights before the law is the only kind of equality that makes sense to me. Equality of condition, or wealth, is not possible because there is no equality of capability—either physical, mental or moral. People of unequal ability will end up with unequal shares of what we call wealth. The only possible way to prevent this is to create a system of unequal rights—that is the capable must be restrained in some way from being too capable, or the fruits of their labor must be confiscated and redistributed.

And that gets back to the first problems I outlined about using political power. In order to redistribute wealth you have to create a class of individuals—the political class—who have unequal powers. They have the ability to use force against peaceful individuals merely for the sin of being too productive and thus accumulating too much wealth. Equal outcomes not only require unequal rights before the law but mandate the creation of a class of people with unequal power over others. But the centralization of power is precisely the thing that ultimately destroys a liberal society. The centralization of power is necessary to create an equality of wealth, but the centralization of power attracts those who are rich and powerful and who will use that power for their own benefits, not for the purposes that were in mind when the dreamers established the system.

6. Another area where I think the Left is wrong is that they are too obsessed with intentions and not obsessed enough with outcome. That is, they think the intentions of a program or plan are what matters. If you want to nationalize health care, because you want everyone to have care, that is all that matters. The plan is preferable to the unplanned provision of services because the planners have the best of intentions.

Intentions simply don’t matter. I may intend to fly but jumping off a cliff, regardless of my intentions, is likely to end badly—and not just for me, but for anyone unlucky enough to be hiking down below when I try. From the right height, it’s possible to take out a whole troop of Girl Scouts.

Entrepreneurs intend to get rich. To get rich in a free society, one where they do not have access to political privilege or manipulation, they must produce a good or service that others need, or want. To serve their own end, they are required to serve the ends of others. But, and this is important, this is ONLY true when they are unable to manipulate the political process to skew the playing field. For instance, the multinational corporations getting rich off ethanol subsidies are only making a profit because they have used the political process to FORCE consumers to buy their product.

If the business classes, through their allies in the political class, are able to draw up a system of regulations or taxes, they can use those regulations to reduce competition for themselves, thus artificially increasing their profits. They can ban foreign competition for a plethora of reason: “the competition is harming the planet,” “they don’t treat their workers fairly,” “they don’t pay the sort of taxes we pay,” etc.

Consider the example of Nike. Nike has been a strong supporter of legislation to regulate carbon emissions—and if the alarmists are right, that is a laudable goal. The legislation Nike supported applies to production in the United States, not overseas where Nike produces most of their shoes. On the other hand, their main competitor, New Balance, produces most their shoes in the United States. Their costs of production would have increased substantially while Nike’s wouldn’t have changed. The result would be a competitive advantage to Nike and possibly the redistribution of jobs from the US to overseas.

Consider an article from the San Francisco Chronicle, written by a very naïve reporter. The reporter noted that Obama promised $15 billion per year to fund so-called alternative energy projects. The reporter noted that a coalition of Big Oil companies endorsed the project “even though many of its members—such as oil giants BP and ConocoPhillips—emit large amounts of greenhouse gases.” The reporter made it sound as if these companies were selfless advocates of saving the planet. He ignored the fact that both of them own companies which produce these so-called alternative energies and both would profit by having politicians hand them subsidies.

Take BP as an example. They were supposed to build a wind farm in the United Kingdom. But they dropped that plan completely and decided to build in the United States instead. The left-wing Guardian newspaper noted this was because US “government incentives for clean energy projects can provide a convenient tax shelter for oil and gas revenue.” If the Guardian is correct, then the subsidies in the US didn’t create more alternative energy, it just redistributed it from the UK to the US and it did so by making it more profitable to sell oil and gas by sheltering those profits. The Wall Street Journal noted that BP and other major oil companies “could be well-positioned to advantage of subsidies, which take the form of tax breaks on U.S. income.”

Once political power enters the marketplace, profits are found, not by satisfying the needs of consumers, but by catering to the political class and using them to skew markets in favor of the people the political class needs the most: the fat cats with money and influence.

The intentions of the people who wrote this legislation, and the naïve environmentalists who lobbied for it, was not to make Big Energy even wealthier. But that was the outcome, for the very reasons I’ve mentioned already.

7. One final area where we part company is that the Left tends not to understand the role of incentives in creating favourable conditions to solve problems. They seem to think that there is a collective wisdom that exists, that can be quantified and measured, and then imposed from the top-down. The market-based, free, open society is one that diffuses problems solving to multiple levels. It incentives finding solutions by rewarding, disproportionately, the individual, or group of individuals, who discover new paths, or methods to solve old problems.

The market-based system is one where rebels are rewarded. The bureaucratic system of state control requires the satisfaction of bureaucrats, the individuals that Ludwig Mises called, the “old men.” State power is inherently conservative because everyone succeeds by satisfying those above them.

Markets are inherently unstable in that there is a process of “creative destruction,” as Schumpeter put it. Old ways are abandoned by brash, young entrepreneurs who have “no hope” of succeeding, but do. Soon the rest of society is rushing to catch-up with the new methods. This is one reason that markets are not conservative, but liberal. They foster change by rewarding those entrepreneurs who challenge conventional wisdom with new methods, products or ideas.

Markets are change-prone, bureaucracies are change-adverse. There is a reason that the private recognition of gay relationship far exceeds the political recognition.

Labels: , , ,