Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Beautiful Dream Part II

Welcome friends!

Last time out I suggested the determination of American economic conservative to portray a rather overly simplistic and idealized mental construct they call “The Free Market” as a panacea for all of society’s ills may be related more to the world of dreams and fantasy than ethical or empirical theory.  In other words, I suggested those who would argue against this false and anti-social ideology on the basis of ethics, logic, or historical evidence may be barking up the wrong tree.  In some cases people live for their dreams and whether their dreams have any basis in reality or cohere in any rational or logical sense is really beside the point.  The narcotic effect of these sorts of life sustaining dreams has of course been noted before but more typically in the context of religious or spiritual beliefs as in Karl Marx’s famous description of religion as the opium of the masses.  However, I think a case can be made for essentially the same phenomenon playing out in terms of secular beliefs relating to economic issues.  I suggested it was likely not coincidental that here in the USA social conservatives attracted to religious modes of thinking tend to also be or at least make common cause with economic conservatives attracted to conservative economic ideology.  However, I didn’t really draw out what I consider the interesting ethical implications of this train of thought last week so I thought I do that now before I forget the whole thing entirely.

The ethical issue I wanted to take up this week is basically if one sees some junkies on the street corner and one is concerned for their welfare should one buy them some stuff or drag them struggling and screaming to rehab?  More to the point if one sees some people clinging to religion like drowning people clinging to a life raft should one bother explaining the rather obvious intellectual deficiencies and moral pitfalls of religious modes of thought or should one just light a bit of incense and sing a little song with them?  Even more to the point if one sees some poor economically struggling people working feverishly to shrink and minimize the influence of democratic government, outlaw unions, eliminate health and safety regulations, and do away with social safety net programs under the belief that doing so will usher in a golden age in which all their economic problems will be solved should one bother trying to  explain why that is most likely not what will happen or should one just buy them a six pack and a funny cap and help them on their way?

It seems to me now the answer is not as obvious as I previously supposed.  Well, OK, I suppose the answer is still pretty obvious under some conditions.  If one is suffering oneself and unfortunately also educated enough to be immune to the mind numbing power of the conservatives’ pipe dream then of course I suppose one should speak up for oneself and try to talk sense to those in a similar situation.  Similarly if one isn’t really suffering oneself but notices signs of uncertainty or mental distress in the minds of those who are suffering then one might feel some urgency in helping them come quickly to their senses.  But I’m thinking about the case, all too common here in the USA because of the close relationship between liberalism, intelligence, and higher education, in which one is relatively well to do oneself but motivated in no small degree by one’s concern for economically struggling people who appear to be in the deep trance of conservative ideology.  That’s a tougher one right?  

One’s natural inclination may be to recoil at the sight of people essentially emasculating themselves (or whatever the equivalent would be for women) by endorsing the conservative mantra of shrinking and weakening the role of democratic government thus negating their own relatively equal voting power, of endorsing the fanciful conservative fairy stories that portray wealth as largely a function of individual merit and moral rectitude and poverty conversely as mostly a personal failing befalling only the morally compromised, and of supporting the elimination of government programs designed to address the inequities and imbalances and essentially instabilities of real market systems.  One may want to avert one’s eyes at the spectacle of these unfortunate people putting their own livelihoods and modest homes at risk and allowing their children to succumb to the social pathologies that inevitably accompany poverty and neglect.  

But I think to be realistic one must balance these sentiments with the knowledge that in many cases these people are benumbed and ensnared in the beautiful dream of conservatives.  They feel no pain nor register material hardship of any sort.  Indeed they live on a dream that if only we give The Free Market full rein we will attain a care free society in which all good people do well, activist government will become unnecessary and fall away (that is, any government beyond simply endorsing property rights and possibly a few other functions), and we will need never again think about the difficult and contentious issues associated with economic distributions.  How happy life will be when we get to that promised land that never seems to quite arrive but is always just around the next bend.  Would one want to take this life sustaining dream from these people and replace it with the cold reality of empirical fact, the real variety of shifting market structures, the pros and cons of real market systems, the difficult trade-offs and complicated discussions that would really be required to reconcile conflicting notions of distributional fairness and ethically optimal results?  Many of these people simply don’t have the intellectual capacity or educational background to entertain such issues or deal with such a world.  Without their beautiful dream they may very well sink into the dark blue depths of reality never to emerge again.

Justice and fairness for the economically weak is always something worthwhile to fight for but I think we all need to keep things in perspective.  Fight the good fight of course but have a bit of a laugh and a song in one’s heart along the way.  Think of the wealthy conservative elite not simply as unscrupulous villains intent on preying on the intellectually and economically weak to further engorge themselves but more charitably as possibly more akin to greedy pushers selling their overpriced poison to desperate strung out junkies on the street corner.  Heroes to some, villains to others, but in a better world unnecessary to all.