Factory exploitation and mutual advantage

In 1970, The Individualist ran an article called The Factory Exploitation Myth by Rod Marris. This article not only sought to correct some widespread misconceptions about the conditions of factory workers in 19th century England but also mentions the role the declining English aristocracy played in disseminating incomplete information about working conditions in the factories and about the standard of living:

A review of the political struggles of the times offers an important insight into why the aristocracy was eagerly spreading the myth of factory oppression. At the time the factory-owning middle class was vigorously opposing the Corn Laws which worked to the advantage of the land-owning aristocracy.

He also mentions the rise of the Romantic movement as a contributing factor.

Critics of unfettered free markets may acknowledge some of Marris’s points but could still claim that factory workers were exploited in 19th century England because the workers were in an “unfair” bargaining position. In essence, such a claim boils down to the opinion that mutual advantage is neither a necessary, nor a sufficient condition for justice.

In his book Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom , the economist Paul H. Rubin writes:

there is no reason to expect that an innate module to measure gains from trade has evolved. Rather, we are each selected to try to be sure that we gain from trade; gains to our trading partners are irrelevant. Moreover, mental mechanisms work against this recognition of mutual benefit.  Even in mutually beneficial trades, an aspect of competition is found.  Both sides want to engross for themselves as much as is possible of the gains…These modules focus on the zero-sum aspect of trade – that aspect dealing with the terms of the bargain, rather than with the gains.

As a consequence, the topic of “distributive justice” gets excessive attention in political philosophy. To many contemporary political philosophers, justice does not refer to conventions that incorporate mutual advantage but a set of principles that can be discovered by (impartial) reason and enforced by the State to alter the terms of agreements and to redistribute income. An excellent collection of articles about the widespread habit of treating justice as “something else” (fairness, equality, or moral intuition) is Anthony de Jasay’s Justice And Its Surroundings.

The slow cultural suicide of Europe

The Dutch ex-politician and intellectual Frits Bolkestein, no stranger to defying political taboos, published a remarkable article in the Wall Street Journal called “How Europe Lost Faith in Its Own Civilization.” He is not the first person to wonder how Europe lost confidence in its own civilization (“the noble Western traditions of self-assessment and self-criticism have often degraded into sentimental self-flagellation”) but then he draws attention to the possibility that one of the sources of this phenomenon may be found in Christianity itself:

“Whether we like it or not, our civilization remains deeply marked by Christianity. Consider the Gospel of Saint Matthew, which states that “whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted” (23:12). Friedrich Nietzsche characterized this as “slave morality.” But one does not have to go that far to realize that this saying, along with instructions to “turn the other cheek” and “go the extra mile,” do not exactly prod people to stick up for their own.

Instead of suggesting that Europeans can prevent their “slow cultural suicide” by finding inspiration in Christianity, he advocates to “take pride in our classical values.” It is not every day that one can reject both multiculturalism and Christianity, quote Friedrich Nietzsche, and get published in one of America’s biggest newspapers.

What is not sufficiently made clear in Bolkestein’s article is that “our current masochism” is something that only really resonates with politicians, progressive intellectuals and conformist hipsters. It is not something that has caught on with the majority of the European people. As a matter of fact, multiculturalism needs continuous reinforcement and support by the State to sustain itself.

The philosopher Michael Levin has suggested that multiculturalism is not popular despite the fact that it contradicts common sense and empirical observation but because of it:

The theme uniting the tenets of conventional liberal wisdom is that they all run exactly counter to experience; I think they are arrived at from experience, via the assumption that experience always misleads.

Levin thinks that the common observation in science that things are often not what they appear is responsible for the tendency of progressives to embrace ideas that are the opposite what common sense would dictate.

Another explanation is that progressives prefer “unconstrained” visions of society. Thomas Sowell identifies the unconstrained vision as one that does not accept any limits to human malleability or the ability of experts to improve on “chaotic” decentralized processes such as free markets. Progressives are therefore quite hostile to claims that human nature or economic incentives are guaranteed to defeat their objectives.  Despite all the logical and empirical arguments against it, the progressive vision of man is one of a human being endowed with “free will” unconstrained by evolutionary traits.

The quest for a European political union and a single currency can be seen as the culmination of this view of society exacerbated by profound guilt over Nazism. As Simon Kuper wrote in a recent article in the Financial Times:

…there was never much economic logic behind the euro – certainly not a euro that includes everyone from Germany to Greece. Economics wasn’t what the currency was about. Rather, the euro is a war baby. It was created because Europe was struggling to get over the second world war…The general thinking was that a common currency would “bind in” a new Germany and somehow prevent Hitlerism…much of European life then was built on memories of war. Hardly any Europeans would vote for anti-immigrant parties, because look what Hitler had done…The European Central Bank, too, was a war baby. It inherited the Bundesbank’s obsession with inflation, traceable to the trauma of German hyperinflation of the 1920s that had helped create Nazism.

The advocates of an “integrated” Europe were not just content with abolishing nationalism and expressions of ethnic identity in their member countries, but also aimed to eliminate the recurrence of such ethnic politics by celebrating the changing ethnic composition of these nations. The ideology of multiculturalism was supposed to reconcile citizens with these events by presenting the demise of a dominant culture as a benefit.

One of the reasons why modern Western governments have become increasingly authoritarian again (suppression of free speech and free association) is because this project goes so firmly against what we understand about human nature and history that only coercion can secure its implementation – and even that may be temporary. Ironically, the consequences now seem to undermine the welfare state consensus in Europe (including Scandinavia) and trigger a renaissance of identity politics.

In hindsight it is striking how the objective of denazification was conceived as a defense of the welfare state and increased centralization; the socialism of the National Socialists was never identified as a great concern, nor the micro-management of people’s thinking, feeling, and behavior which has remained a constant elements of modern politics.

Strict contractarianism or anarchist conventionalism

The June 2011 issue of Economic Affairs features my review of Anthony de Jasay’s most recent collection of articles, Political Philosophy, Clearly: Essays on Freedom and Fairness, Property and Equalities.

As in all his works, in this book Anthony de Jasay uses a non-cognitivist knife to cut through all the incoherent, but influential, arguments about “fairness,” “rights,” and “the public good” that have been offered as a rationale for government.

As I note in my review, in this collection Jasay also offers his analysis of the State’s monopoly on the use of “legitimate force”, the taboo on “taking the law into one’s own hands” and its effects on crime. His analysis has similarities to what the conservative writer Samuel Francis has called “anarcho-tyranny”, a situation in which rules against violence, theft and vandalism are poorly enforced (or even deliberately ignored) but the coercive power of the state is used to engineer an egalitarian society and suppress freedom of speech.  Before Francis, these tendencies in modern liberalism were identified in James Burnham’s ‘Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism.

Until recently, I had a difficult time understanding Anthony de Jasay’s arguments against moral contractarianism. It seemed to me that Jasay could only conceive of contractarian arguments as arguments in favor of collective choice, ignoring thinkers such as the individualist anarchist Benjamin Tucker and, more recently, Jan Narveson, who use a contractarian framework to argue against the state. But upon more closely inspecting Jasay’s (increasingly) Humean ideas on justice I think I have a better understanding of what his fundamental objections against the contractarian approach are.

An important key to his objections can be found in the following quote from his book The State:

People who live in states have as a rule never experienced the state of nature and vice-versa, and have no practical possibility of moving from the one to the other … On what grounds, then, do people form hypotheses about the relative merits of state and state of nature? …

Anthony de Jasay’s starting point in social philosophy are the spontaneously evolved rules that facilitate mutual benefit. These rules were not “established” through a one-time agreement but through an incremental process of mutual adjustment by individuals. A danger of all forms of moral contractarianism is that it shifts the locus from such spontaneously evolved rules to subjective and arbitrary debates about what the terms of hypothetical contracts should be. For example, if we cannot agree to the terms of a social contract because some participants want a more interventionist state, should the social contract exercise be considered a failure or can the parties that want the least government interference just proceed and consider that person “outside” of the social contract? It is hard to imagine how such a question can be answered in a satisfactory manner from within the contractarian framework without introducing some kind of meta-contractarian framework, which in turn… and so forth.

The philosopher David Gauthier has argued that agreements that do not satisfy certain conditions (his revised Lockean Proviso) might be unstable because some people will have a strong incentive to ignore or re-negotiate them. It is quite conceivable that social contracts that do not reflect mutual advantage are inherently unstable and will be pulled towards less government, but ultimately such questions about stability can only be answered empirically.

In light of Jasay’s preference for actual contracts, as opposed to hypothetical contracts, I have often been tempted to call Jasay’s position “strict contractarianism” or “strong contractarianism.” Obviously, strict contractarianism is inherently anarchist because there is no way that any government can be considered to be “agreed to” by all the parties (and their descendants) who are presumed to be obliged to it, either explicitly or tacitly. Is the difference between strict contractarianism and conventionalism just semantics then? There is an important element in Jasay’s thinking that cannot be incorporated by any kind of contractarian thinking, and that is his refusal to place himself outside of society (or in the “state of nature”) in an effort to determine what the ideal terms of social interaction should be. It might seem strange to present this as a virtue but it would not surprise me that it is exactly this attitude that gives rise to what we would call a free society.