Thursday, February 11, 2016

Socialist Delusions, Capitalist Illusions, IX: Capitalism’s False Front

Probably few people today know what a “false front” is — or, more accurately, was.  They do not have the questionable advantage of having been addicted to B Westerns and television cowboy shows.  Otherwise they’d know that as the camera swoops in on the lone hero doing the Trampas walk down the main drag at high noon, one of the things catching the viewer’s eye is the sight of buildings with big fronts and small behinds.

False Front Commercial Buildings
What is/was a false front?  It was a way to make a building seem other than it was by making it look as if it had more than one story as the result of having the side of the building facing the street be two or three stories high, while the rest of the building was only a single story.  In other words, a false front is a way of making something seem bigger or better than it really is.
Yes, there is a real building there, but it’s not quite as advertised.  There’s something missing when a building that looks three stories high when viewed from the front is actually one story, and you’d break your neck trying to get up to the third floor room you imagined you saw from the street.
National Socialism is "real" socialism.
Capitalism reminds us of a building with a false front.  All the parts of a just free market economy are there.  They’re just exaggerated and some of them are in the wrong place or being put to the wrong use.  This ensures that, regardless how well-intentioned a capitalist is, the market isn’t truly free, and he or she is going to be only marginally more effective than a well-intentioned socialist.
The problem is that well-intentioned capitalists tend to do the same thing as other capitalists (and socialists) who have less than good intentions, and use the worst examples of socialism to make their case.  They ignore the fact that, at heart, the one thing that is totally wrong with socialism is the one thing that is almost completely wrong with capitalism: concentrated ownership of capital.
Marxist communism is "real" socialism.
The well-intentioned capitalist thereby sets up up a straw man that the well-intentioned socialist has no trouble at all knocking down.  The well-intentioned socialist, outraged, then huffs and puffs even more than the well-intentioned capitalist.  He or she points out that his or her brand of socialism won’t kill off 6 million Jews, 20 million Slavs, or 2.5 million intellectuals or other enemies of the State (or at least that isn’t the plan . . . for now), so everything the capitalist says is a lie, lie, lie; “real” socialism isn’t like that at all.
And what is socialism?  As Karl Marx reminded us (as did George Bernard Shaw and a cast of thousands), socialism can be summed up as the abolition of private ownership of capital as an inherent right.
Khmer Rouge was "real" socialism.
The one thing to keep in mind is that by “ownership” we mean “control.”  As Louis Kelso reminded us in “Karl Marx: the Almost Capitalist,” his pivotal 1957 article in the Journal of the American Bar Association,
[I]t may be helpful to take note of what the concept “property” means in law and economics. It is an aggregate of the rights, powers and privileges, recognized by the laws of the nation, which an individual may possess with respect to various objects. Property is not the object owned, but the sum total of the “rights” which an individual may “own” in such an object. These in general include the rights of (1) possessing, (2) excluding others, (3) disposing or transferring, (4) using, (5) enjoying the fruits, profits, product or increase, and (6) of destroying or injuring, if the owner so desires. In a civilized society, these rights are only as effective as the laws which provide for their enforcement. The English common law, adopted into the fabric of American law, recognizes that the rights of property are subject to the limitations that
"Property in everyday life, is the right of control."
 (1) things owned may not be so used as to injure others or the property of others, and
 (2) that they may not be used in ways contrary to the general welfare of the people as a whole. From this definition of private property, a purely functional and practical understanding of the nature of property becomes clear.
 Property in everyday life, is the right of control.
So why, according to Kelso, was Marx an almost capitalist?
Because in socialism, nobody has private property in capital, while in capitalism, almost nobody has private property in capital. . . .
Thus, it is quite proper to say that Marx was almost a capitalist, while today’s plutocrats are almost socialists.  It’s all how you look at it, a matter of degree, not of kind.
That is because where socialism negates property for everybody, capitalism negates property for almost everybody.  As G.K. Chesterton pointed out in What’s Wrong With the World (1910), a collection of essays that pretty much tells us what we already know: “It is the negation of property that the Duke of Sutherland should have all the farms in one estate; just as it would be the negation of marriage if he had all our wives in one harem.” (“The Enemies of Property.”)
Does that mean Chesterton thought that capitalism is worse than socialism could ever be?  Hardly.  Or does that mean that socialism can never be justified?  Again, hardly.
"Darn. Chesterton got away."
Not to keep repeating ourselves, it’s all in how you look at it.  Sticking with Chesterton (when you borrow, borrow from the best . . . as long as you get it right, that is, and don’t try to turn the poor fellow into a closet Fabian socialist or a theosophist or something),
My main contention is that, whether necessary or not, both Industrialism and Collectivism have been accepted as necessities — not as naked ideals or desires. Nobody liked the Manchester School; it was endured as the only way of producing wealth. Nobody likes the Marxian school; it is endured as the only way of preventing poverty. Nobody's real heart is in the idea of preventing a free man from owning his own farm, or an old woman from cultivating her own garden, any more than anybody's real heart was in the heartless battle of the machines. The purpose of this chapter is sufficiently served in indicating that this proposal also is a pis aller, a desperate second best — like teetotalism. I do not propose to prove here that Socialism is a poison; it is enough if I maintain that it is a medicine and not a wine.
The idea of private property universal but private, the idea of families free but still families, of domesticity democratic but still domestic, of one man one house — this remains the real vision and magnet of mankind. The world may accept something more official and general, less human and intimate. But the world will be like a broken-hearted woman who makes a humdrum marriage because she may not make a happy one; Socialism may be the world's deliverance, but it is not the world's desire.
In other words, socialism is an allowed expedient in an emergency, not a solution to anything — especially not capitalism.  All socialism does is take capitalism to its reductio ad absurdum and concentrate all power in a public sector élite rather than almost all power in a private sector élite; all socialists are almost capitalists, just as all capitalists are almost socialists.
So is there no hope?  Sure — if you can figure out a way to achieve a broad distribution of capital ownership without changing what things like property and ownership mean.
State or absentee landlord ownership: eviction at will.
Unfortunately, Chesterton — being locked into the slavery of savings — did not come up with a practical plan for achieving a just means of making every person an owner of capital.  The best he could do (in terms that suggest he might have been familiar with William Thornton’s A Plea for Peasant Proprietorship) was to, er, plead for peasant proprietorship, without getting into the “how” part:
I have not dealt with any details touching distributed ownership, or its possibility in England, for the reason stated in the text. This book deals with what is wrong, wrong in our root of argument and effort. This wrong is, I say, that we will go forward because we dare not go back. Thus the Socialist says that property is already concentrated into Trusts and Stores: the only hope is to concentrate it further in the State. I say the only hope is to unconcentrate it; that is, to repent and return; the only step forward is the step backward.
George Wyndham (1863-1913), 1903 Irish Land Act.
But in connection with this distribution I have laid myself open to another potential mistake. In speaking of a sweeping redistribution, I speak of decision in the aim, not necessarily of abruptness in the means. It is not at all too late to restore an approximately rational state of English possessions without any mere confiscation. A policy of buying out landlordism, steadily adopted in England as it has already been adopted in Ireland (notably in Mr. Wyndham's wise and fruitful Act), would in a very short time release the lower end of the see-saw and make the whole plank swing more level. The objection to this course is not at all that it would not do, only that it will not be done. If we leave things as they are, there will almost certainly be a crash of confiscation. If we hesitate, we shall soon have to hurry. But if we start doing it quickly we have still time to do it slowly.
This point, however, is not essential to my book. All I have to urge between these two boards is that I dislike the big Whiteley shop, and that I dislike Socialism because it will (according to Socialists) be so like that shop. It is its fulfilment, not its reversal. I do not object to Socialism because it will revolutionize our commerce, but because it will leave it so horribly the same.
In other words (according to Chesterton), socialism is worse than capitalism because it takes what is wrong with capitalism and makes it worse.  So how do we get rid of both capitalism and socialism, and without turning one into the other or succumbing to the Servile State?
That is what we’ll look at on Monday.


No comments: