Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Gen Eds P9: Social and Political Philosophy

Social, political, and economic philosophy are all ethics written large. The last post tried to cover the gamut of perspectives on individual ethics. This post addresses the more complex question of how the individual might relate to the many.

This is the eighth philosophy post in a series called, "General Education in a Nutshell." Philosophy is the first of ten subjects to overview in this series. These are the subjects a person normally takes in college (or high school) as part of a general education (most of them also make up what is sometimes called the "liberal arts").

The first eight philosophy posts were:
1. There have been philosophers who have believed that living in society tends to make us happier and potentially better as humans. Then there are others who see society and social structure as an inevitably corrupting force. They suggest we should try our best to remove ourselves from society or, if necessary, live in as small a society as we can. [1]

So Aristotle (384-22BC) said that humanity is a "political animal," destined to live together in an orderly society. Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) believed that society was a corrupting force and idealized the "noble savage," the Tarzan like individual uncorrupted by society. Karl Marx (1818-83) believed that society on its own would eventually arrive at a classless society, a position interestingly similar to anarcho-capitalists who believe an optimal economic situation will result if we just remove all restraint on economic systems altogether.

Sociologically, we can suggest that homo sapiens is essentially a herd animal. Western culture is somewhat unique in its individualism. Most cultures throughout history in most places and times have been collectivist or group cultures. We should not be surprised at political phenomena like nativism (hostility toward immigrants), states rights movements, Brexit, political party loyalties, and nationalism. We are built to gang up, especially in smaller "tribes."

The further you go in human history, however, the larger and larger the collections of empire and nation become. No doubt most historians would conclude that the United States would not have become nearly so strong nor its people have prospered so much if the earlier confederacy model had prevailed. So there tend to be twin forces at play in human history, the one of which pulls toward smaller human groupings according to clan and "tribe," and the other of which pushes toward empire and nation.

Some philosophers have taught that you can only be happy in a just society (e.g., Plato, Aristotle). Others have taught that you can be at peace in any society (e.g., Stoics, Paul, Victor Frankl). The Stoics taught that you should "love your fate" (amor fati). Paul told the Philippians that he had learned how to be content with any circumstance. Frankl said that "a man can live with any 'how' if he has a 'why.'"

2. Philosophers have endorsed different forms of government over the years, often in keeping with whatever governmental form was most in play at the time they lived. Plato suggested that a well-structured society would mirror a well-balanced person. Just as we have a head, a chest, and an abdomen whose virtues respectively are wisdom, courage, and self-control, so society is best governed by philosopher kings, who rule with wisdom a soldier class and a worker class.

Aristotle ranked the best and worse forms of the state depending on the quality of the ruler. Writing at the tail end of the age of the city-state, he suggested a benevolent monarchy had the most potential for goodness, while an evil dictatorship would be the worst. A rule by a few good men (a genuine aristocracy) would be second best, and by a few evil men the worst. A city-sized democracy, such as had just ended at Athens when he was there, the third best, a mob-rule the third worst.

Note that I have said men. Unlike Plato, who believed women had the same access to the ideal realm that men did, Aristotle did not believe that women were normally fit to be in charge. He set down household codes whose structure we find in the household codes of the New Testament. The household structures of Ephesians and Colossians are thus cultural in nature rather than distinctively Christian.

3. As the age of kings reached a climax in the 1600s just before it began to wane, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) gave a defense of monarchy as the best form of government. He described society as a social contract between a king and his people. The people surrendered their rights to a king and, in return, the king protected and nurtured them. Hobbes did not believe, however, that the people could take back that reign if the king failed to keep his end of the bargain.

But even as Hobbes' life reached its end, we had the English revolution and the ever increasing power of Parliament. Representational government was on the rise and would reach a crucial turning point with the political experiment we now call the United States of America. As Hobbes' life was entering its twilight, John Locke (1634-1704) was taking the idea of a social contract in a different direction.

For Locke, society is also a kind of social contract between its various members. We bind ourselves to each other to our mutual benefit. Each person has certain inalienable rights such as "life, liberty, and property." (Thomas Jefferson was thus drawing on Locke as he penned the Declaration of Independence.) Once we choose to remain in a society, we give "tacit consent" to agree by its contract.

Montesquieu (1689-1755) wisely suggested that the ideal government would have a "balance of powers" so that no one branch could have complete sway over the others. As Lord Acton (1834-1902) would later say, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." But if the branches of government have a system of "checks and balances" against each other, it will help protect the state from one part taking over.

Montesquieu proposed three branches--an executive branch that served as the administrative lead, a legislative branch based upon representation from the populace, and a judicial branch that held the others accountable to the laws of the land. Obviously his thinking was of tremendous impact on the structure of the American government and of representational democracies ever since.

4. Modern governments build upon the strengths of the various ethical philosophies we looked at in the previous post. They are broadly utilitarian in many respects--the good of the many is meant to take priority over the good of the few. Yet in keeping with duty-based ethics, certain basic rights are considered inviolate. The rights of an individual cannot be superseded by the will of the majority. The majority doesn't just get what it wants if what it wants violates the rights of an individual or minority group within the society. This principle stands near the heart of the social contract.

Within this general framework, the individual is free to do whatever he or she wants. The tendency toward liberty allows a default space for the egoist who is looking out only for him or herself. The main challenge is virtue. You can create a system of this sort that does it's best to keep the selfishness and reckless ambition of individuals in check, but without an educated and virtuous populace, without just laws, the benefits of such a society are always in danger. Public, universal education is a key systematic way to push back against the default human tendency to unravel the balance.

5. Parallel to the rise of representational democracies is the rise of the capitalistic system and industrial societies. Without question, the rise of capitalism and industrialism has introduced an exponential growth in the total wealth of the world. It of course has not done so evenly. The wealthy class of the world is richer than it has ever been, and at times wealth has grown at the expense of those who serve as its machinery.

Adam Smith (1723-1790) is often called the father of capitalism. His intent was to create a free enterprise system where the laws of supply and demand would create an ideal balance where those selling goods would get as much as they could while those buying would pay as little as they could. [2] With both parties acting in their self-interest, a mid-point would be reached. Each would get the maximum advantage.

His intention was to improve the condition of the common person. His intention was to empower the "nobody" in society to be able to start a business and excel. He assumed the basic self-interest of human beings and saw competition as the key to maximizing human thriving.

He could not have anticipated the scale on which capitalism would be implemented in society, nor the ways in which its abuse could actually enslave the very people he hoped this economic system would empower. Sweat shops, monopolies that stomped out competition, power that at times almost rose to the level of government itself--these were not the directions he thought the "unseen hand" of market forces would lead.

At a key moment of capitalism's history, Karl Marx (1818-83) thought he saw the writing on the wall. Capitalism would eventually lead to bloody revolutions when the workers (the proletariat) overthrew the bourgeoisie industries that oppressed them. Then a classless society would evolve. [3]

There were some revolutions to be sure. 1848 was a year of German economic revolution. Looking back, Marx considered the French Revolution of 1789 part of the process. 1917 saw the communist revolution in Russia and the mid-twentieth century saw similar revolutions in Cuba and South America.

However, places like England and the United States enacted reforms that staved off their societies reaching such boiling points. Marx himself conceded at least that his communist end point might be reached in more peaceful ways in some societies.

6. Of course history has not been kind to Marx's ultimate destination. True, capitalist societies where various protections have not been put in place have often ended in violent situations. These sorts of protections include anti-trust laws that ensure that competition can take place and that no one business control an entire market. Protections for workers who blow the whistle are key, as are protections for workers in relation to striking, health, etc. [4]

Here we have to step back again and remember the function of a social contract. It is for individuals to come together to bring about a greater good. Any capitalistic system that only maximizes the benefit for a few at the hands of the many is contradictory, in fact irrational. The benefit of the many supersedes the benefit of the few. In that sense, profit is not the ultimate goal. It is a means to a bigger end.

As far as communism is concerned, Marx's vision has proved to be a complete failure. Anywhere that communism has tried to go, it has failed to create anything but impoverishment. The Soviet Union failed and capitalistic reforms were implemented. Communist China is currently implementing measured capitalistic reforms. Just comparing pictures of East Berlin with West Berlin immediately reveals the failure of Marx's vision. North Korea is one of the most unhappy places to live on the globe, so much so that its people find unbelievable the idea that a store could be completely stocked at some time.

In fact, Marx's communism--a utopian, classless society where everything more or less runs on its own--has never been realized. Communist experiments have always resulted in autocratic, oppressive regimes and dictatorships that are socialist rather than truly communist. Socialism is when the state controls all the economic systems. The people work, as it were, for the state, which provides for the people.

There are, of course, socialist systems that are not oppressive. There is a spectrum of economic services provided or regulated by the state. Some European countries have far higher taxes but provide many more services to their people. The United States has much lower taxes and provides fewer services. It is a spectrum of more or less socialist, more or less capitalist. To implement one area of economic control does not make a country or a politician socialist, although it has sometimes been a useful rhetorical move in elections. :-)

7. In the early twenty-first century, we can wonder if the global economic system has entered a new phase of scale. The economic recession of 2008 suggests that the bundling of debt, betting against the market, the electronic buying and selling of stocks--these sorts of innovations require attention to ensure that the economic structure of society remains beneficial to the majority of the society. The rise of technology is finally eliminating the middle tier of employment, resulting in the polarization of society into a few who have fantastical amounts of wealth and an economic bottom that can hardly survive.

In this context, simply playing out debates between Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) and Friedrick Hayek (1899-1992) probably won't do. [5] The greatest economic and philosophical minds need to envision how to adjust our economic systems so that they continue to do what they are meant to do, namely, to maximize human thriving and to economically empower every member of society.

Next week: Philosophy 10: Philosophy of History

Classic Reading
  • Plato's Republic 
  • Aristotle's Politics
  • Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
  • John Locke, Two Treatises of Government 
  • Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract
  • Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws
  • Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations
  • John Stuart Mill, The Principals of Political Economy
  • Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto
[1] I've often thought that you could probably correlate the respective personalities of each perspective with philosophers who were extroverts and those who were introverts.

[2] Other terms associated with "free enterprise" are "laissez faire" economics ("to allow to do") and classical liberalism, where "liberalism" here means "free" enterprise. "Liberalism" in economics around the year 1800 amounts to economic conservatism in the US today.

[3] Marx formulated his philosophy in his version of G. W. F. Hegel's dialectical philosophy of history. More on it in the next post.

[4] John Stuart Mill (1806-73) pushed back on the bare bones capitalism and utilitarianism of Smith, One of his most quoted statements of political philosophy is that, "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others" (On Liberty).

[5] Hayek argued for an extreme form of deregulation of economic systems. Keynes for a more regulatory approach that controlled prices and such to make sure the market didn't get out of whack.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

"Fair and Balanced"