Saturday 3 September 2016

Liberal Democracies' Debates.


If you are a discontent with capitalism, globalization, and/or free trade chances are you’ve found the exact phrase “lifted millions of people out of poverty” as a predicate in a sentence with capitalism, globalization, and/or free trade as subject.

Chris Dillow has (“Bad Arguments Against Marxism”, May 23). He deals with the variant “capitalism has lifted millions of people out of poverty”. Let’s call that the optimistic twist: history allegedly shows that capitalism has been a success story, therefore it shall always be so.

Dillow invokes the induction fallacy against that: just because something has always been so, is no guarantee it will remain so. As Bertrand Russell put it:
“The man who has fed the chicken every day throughout its life at last wrings its neck instead, showing that more refined views as to the uniformity of nature would have been useful to the chicken.”
Just replace “man” with “capitalist/capitalism” and “chicken” with “us”.

Dillow’s argument is good. But Simon Wren-Lewis improves on it:
“So if Bertrand Russell’s chicken had been an economist, they would not simply have observed that every morning the farmer brought them food, and therefore concluded that this must happen forever. Instead they would have asked a crucial additional question: why is the farmer doing this? What is in it for him? If I was the farmer, why would I do this? And of course trying to answer that question might have led them to the unfortunate truth.”
An astute observation. One needs answers to many relevant questions before accepting a real empirical regularity as a “law” (and capitalism's goodness is far from being indisputable). The chicken example explicitly points to a second party (the farmer): why does he feed them at all?

But, who are the parties in the optimistic twist?


Did Dillow’s argument convince his readers? The proof of the pudding is in the tasting. Let his comment thread answer that:
“I would strongly rephrase this as - you are ignoring the fact that there are still billions of people who remain to be lifted out of poverty. Denying them the same tools that benefitted [sic] us seems like a cruel experiment, in honesty.”
For all his professed honesty, the commenter carefully avoids Dillow’s argument: even if it were indisputable we all gained from capitalism, there is no guarantee that will be the case in the future. That never crosses his mind, quite to the contrary: his answer is literally to reiterate, with a strong rephrase.

In what concerns that commenter, Dillow said nothing at all.

Prof. Wren-Lewis’ observation still applies: who are the parties?  What is in it for them? Who is  “us”? Again, the commenter is oblivious to that.

In this rendition, the Pollyanna twist gains an element: a sentimental appeal to morality. The commenter is the self-appointed champion of those voiceless billions and speaks philanthropically on their behalf. Among “us”, however, capitalism’s discontents (them) are gratuitously cruel and insensitive and have nothing to say.


Readers may object that I’m reading too much into a touchy-feely, obtuse comment by some ignorant anti-Marxist right-winger.


Still, in the comment thread of a blog frequented by highly educated, self-described progressive commenters (Americans?) debating on the subject of the overall goodness of the TPP and free trade I found the following (out of courtesy I will not post a link):
“Nor should we ignore the benefits these agreements have brought to the poor in other countries. They have been enormous. Balancing the interests of US workers, US consumers, and foreign workers is not an easy task, but I don’t think that a blind 'America First' approach is necessarily the right way to go.”
The sentence “free trade/globalization has lifted millions out of poverty” is noticeably missing in that discussion, but its echoes are there.

As Dillow’s objector, the progressive commenter eagerly adopts a difficult task: to pick winners and losers. And he does that philosophically. While the slushy cheesiness of Dillow’s right-winger is all but gone (the progressive commenter is clearly more educated), the moralising is still there.

He shows his education in another way. His dramatis personae includes more characters: US and foreign workers, consumers. But in neither list one finds reference to capitalists and what is in it for them.

Like Dillow’s commenter, this new commenter also speaks for the poor in other countries” and “foreign workers”. Unlike the former, he implicitly acknowledges that US workers have been short-changed. However, he does not speak for them: they are the designated losers. In that farm, after all, there are no farmers; what some chickens win must come from what others lose: a zero-sum situation. Paid by others, telescopic philanthropy is there, too.

In that particular discussion there’s no explicit reference to the cruel insensitivity of those among “us” discontent with free trade, although their inadequacies are barely hidden from view. And their objections deserve no answer: they are not welcome to the proceedings (does it ring a bell, Sandwichman? Incidentally: check the update below). Chickens are not members of the “we” set. (By the way, I've written about this before)


My point is not that you should embrace Marxism or oppose the TPP. That’s up to you. In particular, whatever talking-heads might say, the TPP is probably a foregone conclusion, so one’s opinion is essentially irrelevant: elites -- including highly educated progressives -- don’t see you as their peer, so you have no say in their deliberations.

Whatever their protestations, that applies as much to US as to foreign workers or those billions waiting in the lobby for the lift: philanthropy won’t outweigh capitalists’ interests. Eventually the lift will go down with foreign workers inside, as surely as it currently does with us.

My point, instead, is triple.
  1. If you are a lefty worker: call me sectarian if you wish, but don’t let those people bullshit you, or you, like Russell’s chicken, might have a nasty surprise.
  2. If you are a misguided but otherwise decent Trumpetist, Ukipper or Hansonite worker: maybe, just maybe, US/developed countries and foreign workers should make common cause. We’re all being played for fools.
  3. And if you are a learned progressive commenter: perhaps it is us who should write you off.
Now, that’s an idea.

Image Credits:
[A]  "Hens in a battery farm". Author: Maqi. Source: Wikimedia. File licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. My usage of the file doesn't imply the authors' endorsement.

29-09-2016. Browsing RWER website, I found David Ruccio's "Does Capitalism Cause Poverty? Let me Count the Ways" (August 29, 2015) replying to Ricardo Hausmann, from Harvard. Note the date: a year and a month before I wrote this update and almost a year to the day before I originally published this post.

Ruccio's argument is essentially the same one I developed here. To be sure, Hausmann never mentioned the “lifted millions of people out of poverty” cliché (he, too, is an educated man, you understand); neither did Ruccio mention the fallacy of induction or Russell and his chicken (instead he goes into more details why capitalism's record is not as good as capitalism's apologists like to claim).

There are two sides to this update:
  1. The bad news? People like conservative economist Hausmann, the buffoonish anti-Marxist commentator at Dillow's blog, or the unnamed learned progressive commentator never learn; their shibboleths never change (only their wordings, at best).
  2. The good news? Capitalism's discontents willing to reply to them don't need to invent the wheel: just check what other discontents haven written before.

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