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Sender: Rickrad
Subject: The objective vs the subjective
Date: Thu, Aug 14, 2014
Msg: 101068

One of the complaints about capitalism is that it encourages people to focus on the material side of life instead of the spiritual or the communal side of live. In other words, capitalism encourages people to treat each other like means to an end -- like objects; that capitalism encourages greed by rewarding greed; that capitalism objectifies what should be subjective.

Those who defend capitalism often point to how the most successful capitalist societies are often the ones that are most generous, most at peace and most harmonious thanks to the prosperity and abundance that capitalism provides. In other words, those who defend capitalism say it may not be perfect, but what is better?

In this short essay, I would like to propose something better than capitalism.

Now there are at least three ways to make something better. (1) you can try to replace it with something better; (2) you can try to improve it (e.g. improving capitalism through regulation and mandates) and (3) you can try to add something else into the mix -- something that in this case would work along side capitalism.

Let's explore all three options.

First, I believe we can agree that no attempt to replace capitalism at the scale of a nation (e.g. communism) has ever met with even a bit of success. All I'll say about communism is that if you concentrate that much power in one place, you should not be surprised that the most evil people in the world are drawn to that power. In other words, communism fails not because its heart is in the wrong place but because it ignores a rather simple and objective truth about the world -- that concentrating power is dangerous. Where progressivism has had the most success, it seems to me, is with approach #2 -- improving capitalism -- by using the power of democracy to regulate capitalism in ways that mandate more "generous" behavior on the part of capitalists. I put "generous" in quotes because it's not really generosity, of course, if it's forced.

This approach works because the capitalist desire for more stuff -- more objects -- is so strong that they will continue the pursuit of more stuff in spite of most any burden placed on them. In this way, capitalists are very much like a river and progressive reforms (progressive taxes, progressive regulation, progressive mandates and progressive spending) are like a water-wheel (or the turbines in a dam), leveraging the power of the river to create electricity. Only in this case, we're not creating electricity, we're seeking social justice.

However, in a democracy, there is a limit to how big a burden we can place on capitalism for several reasons. (1) competition between nations dictates that at some point capitalists move overseas (outsourcing jobs and whole industries); (2) eventually the burden will become so great that the people will be forced to split into two political camps -- one that wants to reduce the burden on capitalism and one that thinks capitalists are greedy and should contribute more; and (3) if you stress a system too much, the next recession (or depression) can turn into a true collapse -- e.g. Greece in 2008; and (4) as discussed above, the more power the government has, the more evil people are attracted to that power.

So yes we probably can burden capitalism more in the name of social justice, but if we're serious about the pursuit of social justice, should we? Probably not. So the problem with approach #2 is simply that there's a limit to how much good it can do, and we're probably near that limit.

And if we can't tax, regulate, mandate or spend more, then maybe the the answer is to tax, regulate, mandate and spend BETTER.

That's where approach #3 -- the approach where we create something in parallel to capitalism -- comes in. And it turns out that approach #2 has created the larval form of this new thing: big government. Now as just argued, if government can't get any bigger (as a percentage of our economy) then it's time to focus on making government better. And how do you spend a capped budget better? There is only one way: prioritize.

Thus we arrive again at the "cap-and-prioritize" proposal, where the transparency of prioritized budgets force those in power to put the people who need help most on top of the priority list, along with the programs that help them the most. The theory is simple: as spending ideas compete in this priority marketplace, the greediest and most foolish spending will be forced off the "cliff", thus forcing government spending to become ever more wise and benevolent. Cap-and-prioritize is, I argue, the efficient, effective aggressive pursuit of the subjective ideal -- social justice.

Now let's stop here for a moment and return to the original issue of the objective vs the subjective by considering an objection that Lawry Chickering raised to me on another thread. To paraphrase Lawry, he thought the idea of structuring the pursuit of social justice in this way -- i.e. talking about the pursuit of social justice as the "economizing of our collective resources" -- flies in the face of the subjective mindset. And he predicted complete failure for the cap-and-prioritize movement unless it finds a way to show how cap-and-prioritize honors the spiritual, subjective, communal core that powers the progressive mindset.

And Lawry has a point. The progressive mindset is, after all, all about coming together for the greater good -- in the spirit of community.

So... where is the community in "cap-and-prioritize"?

The answer is three fold: First, cap-and-prioritize harnesses the community's spirit the same way capitalism harnesses an individual's greed. The importance of this cannot be overstated. The right calls this "political correctness" and the left calls it "common decency" but whatever you call it, it's an objective fact that transparency makes politicians behave better and it's an objective fact that there's one kind of transparency that is missing from government -- priority transparency. To put it simply, "priority transparency" is to progressives what money is to capitalists. Priority transparency is the structural tool (the institution) that reveals the value of things -- only this time we are capturing the community's sense of what is most important. If you doubt this claim, let me ask you this: How the heck can you get a sense of what the community values if the community doesn't prioritize its use of resources?

And that's leads to the second point. Cap-and-prioritize is, therefore, the essential institution for establishing the dialog and deliberation within a community (a nation) about it's community values. A lot of people on this list are from the dialog and deliberation camp. Well, this is your holy grail! Imagine a nation-wide dialog and deliberation every election year about national priorities in the pursuit of social justice.

And third, even if we evaluate cap-and-prioritize only on the question of how well it helps or hinders truly community-based projects -- like the school reform ideas Chickering proposes -- then cap-and-prioritize succeeds brilliantly because let me ask you: Under which style of government will such community-based solutions be most likely to be helped rather than hindered? (A) under the current system of corrupt incentives and heavy-handed federal regulation? Or in a capped-and-prioritized government where pilot programs that work have a chance to defend themselves in a transparent priority marketplace? I think the answer is clear.

And you know what? Even if you do not buy these three points and even if you find no community in "cap-and-prioritize", one objective fact stands out: no nation can afford to ignore objective realities forever and survive. And the objective reality here is that we can't tax/regulate/mandate/spend much more so it's time to tax/regulate/mandate and spend much better; and the only way to spend much better is to stop arguing about priorities and start actually prioritizing. In other words, without cap-and-prioritize, we run the risk of collapse and then there is no community! Cap-and-prioritize, therefore, is essential to community, even if only indirectly.

Logical arguments, however, don't tend to persuade people. So let me close by making the emotional/social side of this argument more clear.

I believe that the achievement of social justice is the heart of the "second enlightenment". And I believe that cap-and-prioritize is the heart (the essential institution) of social justice. If so, some pretty simple math reveals a rather scary and rather emotional social truth: Namely that every hour that the second enlightenment (institutional social justice) is delayed adds 7,990 centuries of additional human suffering to the people on this planet -- simply because there are that many people..

There are a lot of people with big opportunity costs... but nobody in the world has an opportunity cost of 7,990 centuries of human suffering per hour.

I call on everyone on this listserv, therefore, to think deeply about the issues presented in this essay. Don't tell me about the one word where my definition doesn't match yours precisely. Think instead about the big forces at work. The big argument.

And I think the big argument is this: Can progressivism squeeze significantly more progress out of the current structure of government? If not, then pardon me -- pardon me -- but with all do respect, I think you need to re-think your approach to progressivism! ?

- Rick Raddatz,


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