Beyond Conservative

There is much to admire in the philosophy of the conservative:

I’m independent; I’ll take responsibility for my own life. I’m not looking for a free ride. The market is wise and efficient, and it will pay me fairly; I can have a decent life if I work hard.

And, given that philosophy, it is easy to understand why conservatives would be angry at liberals or progressives:

It’s a shame that some people want to mess up this system, by taking away part of the hard-earned pay of an honest working man and giving it to some lazy loafer.

But conservatives (in both major parties) are mistaken. The world is not like that now, if it ever was. The conservative worldview has caused great and unnecessary suffering, and it is about to kill us all. I’ll explain.

First of all, any “independence” is an illusion. We are all interdependent, whether we realize it or not, whether we wish it so or not.

  • Every infant is utterly helpless, and dependent on parents or other caregivers. (We become helpless again in old age, though we may feel we have “earned” the care we receive.)
  • Our interdependence continues throughout our lives. Our economic system is based on specialized labor, each of us doing things that other people need. Even the capitalist who calls himself “self-made” is dependent on his employees, the people who sell him raw materials, the people who buy his finished products, the people who make the roads on which those materials and products are delivered, and so on.
  • CrusoeThe hermit, who (like Robinson Crusoe) builds his own house and grows his own food and sews his own clothes, is still dependent on tools and knowledge he has acquired from others.
  • Among creative people, every idea is a reaction to earlier ideas; no idea is wholly new. Isaac Newton said about his great discoveries in physics, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
  • Psychologically, we need other people. Solitary confinement is a form of torture. And even the hermit, who has made peace with his solitude, lives with the memory of his mother.
  • A danger to one may be a danger to all. This has become obvious for pandemic, mass shootings, climate change, and the threat of nuclear war. Those last two dangers have grown in recent years, so that the human race is now on the verge of extinction.

nuclear blastIncidentally, a nuclear war could start accidentally. We’ve already had close calls many times; the movie “Dr Strangelove” is actually somewhat realistic. We’ll only become safe if we end the arms race and we disarm. Obviously that will only happen if we all become friends. To achieve that, we need cooperation, not competition. And the dog-eat-dog competition for survival is driving people crazy; that’s the main reason for all the mass shootings.

So “no man is an island,” as John Donne wrote in 1624. No one can ever be truly independent. The closest you can hope for is to achieve harmony in your relationship with other people – and not just with other people, but with the rest of the ecosystem, the rest of the planet, the rest of the universe.

And second, is it true that the market is fair and will afford a decent life to all hard workers? No, not really, though it certainly looks that way.

The board game “Monopoly” always ends with all the players but one totally impoverished. That’s a terrible design for an economic system. But at least the game is fair in this one respect: All the players begin the game with an equal chance of becoming the winner. Our real-world economic system doesn’t even have that redeeming quality. Let’s look at our system in more detail.

Our economic system could be described as many, many voluntary trades. In a trade (simplifying a bit), some asset is exchanged for money. There are two traders: the seller and the buyer. Examples of assets are a pound of bananas, an hour of labor, a month’s use of an apartment, a congressman’s vote on a bill.

profits from tradeThe voluntary trade will occur if the asset’s value to the buyer is higher than the asset’s value to the seller. Then the two traders will negotiate a purchase price somewhere between those two values. Both traders will profit: Each trader’s profit is the difference between the purchase price and the asset’s value to him. At first glance, this appears to be a win-win arrangement, justifying our culture’s great praise for markets.

But generally the profits are not equal, because the traders are not in equally strong bargaining positions. One trader may be thinking, “I need some money right away, I’ll take any deal I can get, even one that brings me very little profit, just barely enough profit to get me through another day, and this trading partner is the only one available right now.” The other trader may be thinking, “I’ve got money in the bank, I’m in no hurry, I can wait for a better deal if I think one may come along soon.” And so the greater profit goes to the trader in the stronger bargaining position, making him stronger still.

And so the market economy increases inequality. That is inherent in not sharing, no matter how we reform our system of not sharing. Wealth becomes concentrated in a few people. Money is influence, so those few people become our rulers, either directly or indirectly. We will only end rule by the wealthy class when we no longer have a wealthy class; that will require a different economic system. In the meantime, power corrupts, and our rulers do terrible things. For instance, all the wars and all the subsidies for fossil fuels are based on lies to make a few rich men richer.

Advocates of the market claim that workers are paid according to how hard they work or how much they produce, but that is not true. People are paid according to how much they control. Your boss is paid a hundred times as much as you, not because he is a hundred times smarter or harder working – that’s just silly – but because he is standing between you and the money. And even if we were paid according to how much we produce, that would be hard-hearted: We all have different abilities to produce and we all have different needs, and our abilities are not proportional to our needs. Would you make your children compete against each other for their meals?

Does the market allocate resources wisely and efficiently? Well, productivity has been rising steadily for many centuries – that’s the amount of goods and services produced per hour of labor – but only the rich have seen their wealth increase. Most of us are struggling to get by. Our wages are not increasing, but the price of housing has increased rapidly. There are now many homeless people in the USA, and yet there are many vacant homes in the USA – far more than the number of homeless! That’s because the owners of the vacant homes are hoping to sell or rent them at a big profit; they would not profit by giving them to the homeless. The market is efficient at making the rich richer, but it causes great suffering for the poor. That does not seem like wisdom to me.

And every market transaction has externalized costs – that is, costs that are borne not by seller or buyer, but by some third party who did not get to participate in negotiating the purchase. Generally these externalized costs are harmful. For instance, the air pollution from fossil fuels and cattle is heating up the planet, and is about to kill us all. To prevent that, we need to wake from the mythology that surrounds us.

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2022 July 24, version 2.01.







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