Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Freedom: A Love Story

I'm not trying to make a lengthy post here but I just wanted to throw out a few words regarding something I saw recently:

I watched an interview with Michael Moore conducted by Wolf Blitzer last night and I honestly wasn't sure whether to be upset or laugh. Most of Moore's past works were pretty laughable as serious documentaries, but his upcoming film on "capitalism" is going to be something special. And for those who wonder, I place "capitalism" in quotes because it's not evident from the trailers that he is actually criticizing capitalism as opposed to mercantilism. It seems like he wants to beat capitalism over the head with the weight of the bailouts that were provided at the tax-payers' expense...which is clearly NOT a feature of capitalism at all...but we'll have to wait and see the film to critique his stance in its full glory.

The first thing Blitzer brought up seemed to be a point of personal contention. As such, let me say, as I always have for ad-hominem commentary, it does nothing to deface the views of Moore but rather Moore himself. That being said, Blitzer questioned how Moore can be against capitalism (which he described as "legalized greed"...I chuckled) when he has clearly become rich embracing the capitalist paradigm by selling his movies. And in a moment that was almost too embarrassing to watch, Moore tried to deflect the question by responding with something like, "Yes...I know it's rare that someone who actually has money is fighting for the poor, but I was taught that we are our brothers' keepers." Excuse me? Did Moore just try to turn Blitzer's accusations into a badge of nobility? Wolf re-adjusted the question just to make sure Moore did not misunderstand it. But he gave a similar retort the second time...I think it's pretty clear he understood the question.

This is a point of personal contention that I have with many neo-liberals (they aren't really worthy of the title of "liberal" anymore). Let me preface my comments by saying that this does not apply to all neo-libs but it does apply to the vast majority of them. There ARE some who actually live their beliefs to the hilt. And even though I may disagree with their ideology (and even despise it to some degree) I can certainly respect them for their integrity. My problem, however, is that most (neo)liberals draw their lines of altruism in front of themselves. That is to say, they insist that people in general must sacrifice for the good of others, but they never seem to be willing to sacrifice primarily of themselves before they look to others to do so. It's hard for me to sit there and listen to someone proselytize about how it's not only morally acceptable but actually preferable to steal from others to provide for the needy when the person preaching to me reclines in their air-conditioned house on Saturdays, fiddling with their new iPhone, and watching the game on their plasma wide screen. You're richer than Herod could have ever imagined and suddenly you think you're excluded from the responsibility of your own views? Why? Has an incredibly high standard of living and a woefully inept appreciation for history led you to believe you're actually one of those "poor" people? You're not. If you're going to demand that others be forced to sacrifice at gunpoint, you better be damn sure to walk the talk first. Did you sell your TV, computer, cell phone, or extra furniture to help the needy? Do you volunteer your extra time to charity? Did you pick up that extra job to help someone in need? How can you expect me to take your views seriously when you can't even claim the moral high ground within your own altruistic paradigm? Instead it seems you just expect the rest of us to pay, literally, for your personal lack of moral integrity and consistency. What a novel approach to ethics.

Later in the interview, Blitzer asked, "If you dislike capitalism, what system would you favor? Socialism?" Moore first exclaimed, simply, "Democracy!" He then prefaced his forthcoming explanation by saying something like, "You know, capitalism was invented in the 16th century. Socialism was invented in the 19th century. This is the 21st century...we need something new!" Without taking up additional time by dismantling his innocuously childlike Whig view of history, let me first respond by clearing up a couple of historical errors here. Capitalism was certainly not "invented" in the 16th century. Here, Moore is confusing the historical return to private property in the wake of feudalism to an "invented" system of some type. Unlike other socio-economic systems (communism, socialism, fascism, etc.) capitalism arises naturally out of a system in which property rights are present. What Moore is actually describing is the rebirth of private property and voluntary exchange in the 16th century. It wasn't until the 17th and 18th centuries that we even began to understand market phenomena. Up until the time of classical economists like Smith and Ricardo, markets were like a lonely tree in the forest, waiting for botanists and biologists to study it and explain why it naturally does what it does. In fact, there was no term called "capitalism" until the 19th century. "Capitalism" was a term invented by Karl Marx in an attempt to actually smear what occurs in a system of free exchange and private property. Despite his disparaging views of free markets and his propensity to embrace a few big mistakes that classical economists before him had made (the labor theory of value comes to mind), Marx was, ironically, correct regarding the emphasis that is naturally placed on investments in a system of free exchange. In the end, purveyors of voluntary exchange and property rights actually came to embrace the label.

Moore went on deflecting the charge of socialism by explaining that Americans have traditionally loved democracy, so why wouldn't we embrace economic democracy? Now this is pretty interesting. He previously rejects the idea of socialism and claims that it's outdated. But in this explanation, it seems as if he's not only embracing socialism but specifically Marxism! I want to first argue that socialism, in some form or another, has actually been around for quite a while. In fact, I would consider feudalism itself to be a direct predecessor to modern socialism. But the term socialism, as well as the fundamental theory behind it, was developed by...you guessed it...Karl Marx. Marx used the word "socialism" to provide contrast between his economic system and the free-market system, which he dubbed "capitalism"; Capitalism favors a narrow band of capitalists whereas his system, socialism, was social and favored everyone. This is, of course, an over-simplification, but it is actually where these two terms came from. The irony is that although Moore is trying to deflect the "socialist" mantle, he's not only (wittingly or unwittingly) supporting it, but making the EXACT same arguments Marx made. Marx argued that socialized democracy was the next natural evolution in economics. Democracy is a great system that politically empowers the masses, so why wouldn't we adopt such measures in the economic realm? Moore, while emphatically denying it, not only asks the same question but proposes the same solution.

One of two things is happening here. Either Mr. Moore is extremely ignorant regarding economic history, which I'm inclined to doubt, or he's simply trying to mask his own socialist beliefs for public relations purposes. Now, if you really believe in socialism, capitalism, pink bunnies, or any idea under the sun, you shouldn't have to hide those beliefs and be deceitful about it. If you really believe in what you're saying, you shouldn't be afraid of it. That being said, I think the claim that democracy is good in many, if not all, contexts is ridiculous.

Although it does seem like that from an early age we are led to believe that democracy is as American as apple pie, history tells us otherwise. To the extent that our founding fathers found application for federal government, it was implemented primarily as a republic. And while many of them extolled the virtue of the democratic process in state and local governments, they were certainly weary of it in terms of centralized power. I can't think of a better illustration of this (outside of the text of the constitution itself) than the fact that we (still) do not hold direct national elections. That distrust is not only reflected in the national fragmentation of power but in the actual scope of government power. We don't accept "democracy" in every facet of our lives because our nation was primarily founded on the Lockean concepts of Natural Law and personal sovereignty. Imperfect as it may have been at it's inception, the basis for our entire system were these classically liberal ideas of natural rights and private property. The reason we don't let democracy dictate our economy is the same reason why we don't let democracy dictate what church you go to or what shoes you put on this morning. The economy, left in a free state, is a reflection of voluntary exchanges of ideas, goods, and labor. And by extension, any violation of our rights to do as we wish with ourselves and our belongings is primarily a refutation of private property and self-ownership itself. People tend to forget that the free market is not some separate entity unto itself. Rather it is merely the manifestation of personal liberty in the realm of trade...nothing more and nothing less. We understand that it wouldn't seem right to let the government quash our freedom of speech simply because a majority of the people may support it. Yet we seem to be eager to part ways with arguably our greatest freedoms in the name of democracy. Of which name does tyranny and the abolition of personal sovereignty become an acceptable practice to you? Is the act of ten people assailing you somehow more righteous than a single person doing so?

Liberty, Mr. Moore...this is capitalism.

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