Monday, August 08, 2011

Now that the S&P has downgraded American bonds, perhaps it would be a good time to look at the idea of 'economic rights'

As opposed to political and civil rights. In my opinion, one of the biggest weaknesses of Enlightenment liberalism was its naive belief that by just allowing people to engage in whatever economic activity they want without restriction society is aiding in the fulfillment of individual liberty. This belief, vouched for by some of the Philosophes, is embodied well in Benjamin Franklin's autobiography.
In Franklin's biography, which is not all bad by the way, it's just assumed that there's no real division between owners and workers, that every worker out there is either like an apprentices or a journeymen, and that will be able to become masters themselves and hive off, starting new business or businesses of their own. Franklin's world is a world where simple initiative and smarts translate out into harmonious businesses destined to productively serve the community. The reality of life under unregulated capitalism has been less spectacular.

Franklin's small scale capitalism, tempered by good Puritan virtue, quickly turned into a way for self centered economic interests to enter into and then to take over society. By abolishing the idea that restrictions on economic activity were justifiable policies , society took away every tool it had for countering economic greed and exploitation. Small scale capitalism then gave way to greedy fucks who didn't understand or care about the core civil and human rights of the Enlightenment , only seeing there pocketbooks. This gave way to an industrial capitalism that deepend and solidified the division of labor between owners and workers, and started to physically rewrite the landscape of society, a process accelerated with the advent of technologically advanced industrial capitalism. Both forms changed our world in ways that privileged exploitation to the satisfaction of human needs. Society began to be run for the benefit of the economy, with politicians being the puppets of capitalism, rather than the economy being run for society itself. The notion of a social economy went out the window.

Life, Liberty, the pursuit of happiness, the right to free speech, to free assembly, freedom of religion....of these only "the pursuit of happiness" in any way refers to economic rights. The original series of terms produced by Locke was "Life, Liberty, and Property", but Jefferson decided to broaden the definition of economic self determination beyond simply accumulating property. Even so, the right to pursue your own livelihood, to compete against other people for jobs based on talent and ability, and perhaps to start your own small business, all of these rights are minor in scope compared to the broad rights contemporary free market economic ideology asserts for itself. The idea behind accumulation of property and business being unreservedly good was that there was a kind of natural economy at work, a natural system of checks and balances derived from nature and from natural law that allow free people in concert with nature to self regulate, when started from an equal condition, eliminating distortions in how much or how little people got. But we don't live in an environment dictated by a natural law, one where all people naturally obey good morals and always look for the social utility of their actions, we live in a world where people determine their lives based on any number of kinds of principles, such as egotism and self interest. Combining these with incentives to enrich yourself at all costs turns the free market economy into a mockery of Enlightenment principles. The goal of self determination in any meaningful sense has been relegated to rhetoric. Instead, in life today you're supposed to both work hard as well as accept the unequal system that you find yourself in, that is unless you throw your lot in with those who benefit from the inequality.

If we want to honor the original spirit of the Enlightenment, we should privilege the ability of individuals to determine their lives in a meaningful way instead of formalistically approving whatever state of affairs the unregulated economy presents to us. If we want individuals to be able to truly determine their own destiny, then a class bound society based on access and alliance to capital cannot exist. If we want individuals to be rewarded for their abilities and not for who they know or what they grow up having, the power of money and capital to divide society into folks who are closed out of society because of where they come from and those who have all the advantages and options in the world based on their origin has to be eliminated. If the point of a free economy in the sense originally intended is individual benefit and not that of capital, not the businesses themselves but the people who work in the businesses, then surely regulating those businesses very heavily or socializing them altogether in order to make them serve the people as a whole, composed of individuals as well, should not be overly objectionable. In fact, it's one of the only options left for the principles of free speech, free assembly, and that of democracy itself to be able to continue to exist.

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