Stephen Kahn

A positive meme

In Good news on April 22, 2011 at 7:49 pm

I suggested recently that we work on trying to help save civilization by coming up with a positive meme. I’m not smart enough to come up with anything really catchy, but I do have something worth considering, which I am stealing from someone else.

All my life I have been bombarded with propaganda from the “left” and the “right,” also known as liberals and conservatives, in regard to politics and economics. It is fairly obvious (at least to me, but perhaps not to the large number of people who spread bombast about these ideologies), that neither of these two systems of thought work very well.

Especially in terms of economics, neither capitalism and libertarianism of the hard-core Ayn Rand sort is very wholesome or practical. On the other hand, the failures and crimes of people such as Stalin, Mao, and their buddies needs to be taken seriously by the liberal “peace and love” crowd, such as the people I am now hanging out with at Transition Whidbey.

Is there any other approach to economics worth considering?

I am currently reading the following interesting book:

The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics

Information about the book and author at

I hope she does not have skeletons in her closet like the three cups of tea guy.

  1. Interesting blog you have! I scare my World Politics class by going over economics, energy, the environment and talk about how unsustainable the current situation is. In the fall I did a first year seminar “The Future of America” that dealt with similar issues. I started with Anne Marie Slaughter’s book “The Idea that is America.” She went through a set of core American values and used our history to demonstrate what they mean, how its an ongoing struggle to reach them, and how they also are the key to our future. It’s an interesting book. I’ve heard of the book you mention but I haven’t read it yet — I’ll put that on my list. I think the problem is that systemic change requires a new way of thinking — it usually brings collapse and conflict because people try to project obsolete ways of understanding the world into the future.

  2. Scott, thanks for dropping by my blog and commenting. Yes, it is a difficult task to separate ourselves from the usual human way of proceeding (which might be described as “vicious, short-sided, self-destructive cunning” and moving into what might be called “constructive, self-enhancing, survival-promoting wisdom.”

    Well, I am about to out to the garden to throw the chickens a few worms and look at the seedlings coming up in the garden.

  3. The difference between extreme socialism and libertarianism is that the first has been tried and the second on has not. We now know that the first one is unsustainable and often leads to terrible oppression.

    Most of the so-called free world operates under a system of moderate socialism. It works fairly well; however, I wonder if an even more laissez-faire system would work even better. If one looks at economic systems as a spectrum from control to freedom, the only end of the spectrum that we have never experienced is the freedom end. Maybe, just maybe, it would work very well.

    Even if it doesn’t work, it is likely to make people happier–at least people with the motivation to make it work for them.

    Speaking of people who make the system work for them, it seems to me that our politicians and their friends are the ones who make the current system work for themselves.

  4. Renaissance Man,

    Thank you for visiting my blog and for posting your comment. From childhood on, I have been fascinated by the two varieties of anarchist thought: socialist anarchy (which does not work outside of very “primitive” hunter-gatherer societies) and right-wing libertarian anarchy. As you note, it has not been tried on any serious basis in a modern nation-state.

    I suspect the problems would be much greater than you think. Libertarian theory tends to argue that the state should be limited to defense and law. In practice, this would be like being a “little bit pregnant” as the cliche runs. Once you have enough of a military to provide serious defense, you have the problem of generals who want more control. Or you may have generals who dabble in business (as is the case in Egypt, I believe).

    A large problem with free enterprise is what are called “externalities.” This leads us to what is known as the “tragedy of the commons.” If a capitalist produces a product, but a side effect of the production is pollution or decimating a scarce resource, the businessman is likely to shrug his shoulders and say, “Not my problem.” For example, the world’s fisheries are a finite resource. If each fishing industry uses huge trawlers (the most efficient “business” approach), they may quickly exhaust the fishing stocks below the level they can reproduce themselves. If a capitalist says, “I will produce power by building coal plants,” he may not worry about the emissions that produce acid rain in another state or country.

    At one time, my wife and I operated a small “pre-print” business that mostly served other businesses. The majority of business people we dealt with were honest people of considerable integrity. Some, however, were schemers, cheats, liars, and scoundrels. Unless you have a fairly extensive white collar law enforcement apparatus, the Bernie Madoffs of the world will run amok. If you do have enforcement to block pollution, destruction of scarce resources, and fraud and swindling, you once more run into the “little bit pregnant” problem of libertarianism, though by now you are a little bit pregnant with at least triplets.

    When I participated in evangelical web site worldmagblog, many of the conservative evangelical Christians refused to confront a significant paradox in their world view. On the one hand, they valued free enterprise (which involves the energetic pursuit of wealth). On the other hand, as Christians they claimed to hold other values as more important then money. Many Christians are not greedy and do not pursue wealth too energetically, but the culture is forever being corrupted by pursuit of money.

    For example, most Christians put a high value on sexual morality. However, human beings are very horny, highly sexualized creatures, so there is always a high demand for pornography and prostitution. The market place libertarian ethos makes it very likely that business people will meet this demand. This is quite obvious in how the Internet has developed–pornography and Craig’s list prostitution are two of the most notable features. If you try to stop it, you either are not very libertarian or edging into an Iran-style theocracy.

  5. Economically the libertarian period in Great Britain is about as close to libertarian capitalism as has been tried. It featured child labor, 80 hour work weeks, workers living in squalor and horrific exploitation. So its been tried close enough for me to not want to go there under any circumstances! Also, Social Democracy works pretty well in Scandinavia. The libertarian era also gave rise to the ‘new liberalism’ (an argument that the state had to intervene to assure equal opportunity, allowing children to get education, for example) and socialism, a movement inspired by the horrid conditions workers suffered through.

    Karl Marx’s favorite economist was Adam Smith, who described how the system should work (Marx thought communism was needed to get the system to work as Smith would have it). Marx saw communism as pure human liberation, based on an objective view of reality that could be validated by reason and rational thought. He thought the state would cease to become necessary and his view of communism was very much like the view anarcho-capitalists have of how reality should operate.

    Two big mistakes: 1) thinking you could come up with an objective theory of how the world should work — an enlightenment dream — turned out to be misguided. Reason cannot lead to one ‘correct’ system; and 2) over-determination, too much emphasis on the economy, not enough on culture and politics.

  6. I’d start with personal responsibility. Pretty tough to enforce though. It has to come from each person, and too many people are clearly not interested in it. It sure would make most of the above mentioned problems go away, though.
    My .02

  7. Pete, as usual, you have a pertinent comment. We have a trailer (which we borrowed from our neighbor Craig) to haul some “hog fuel” (which I just discovered has nothing to do with pigs) and is still half full and sitting in our driveway.

    1. We hooked it up to our truck and drove the trailer to the supply lot without taking out half the cars on our road or the trailer unhooking itself into a ditch.

    2. I will stop typing and blogging and go out and empty the rest of the hog fuel so we can return the trailer and so I can go to the Red Cross meeting tomorrow where I will learn to be (very slightly) more helpful if the big earthquake hits Whidbey Island.

    It’s pretty feeble on the personal responsibility scale, but it’s a millimeter up from zero.

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