Tension

Adam alerted me to Vulgar Morality’s piece “Freedom and Community” last night.

My thoughts:

The Vulgar Moralist points out the theory of clubs, which is really just an extension of contractarian political philosophy. In order to get into a club I have to give up some liberties. I must pay dues, or demonstrate some credible commitment to the group. Perhaps I have to go through some rite of passage. Perhaps I have to be baptized, or get circumcised, or post a bond.

But community that exists for positive purposes must first protect itself against the collectivist’s problem of free riders, and the methodological individualist’s problem of collective decision making. Those problems are symmetric. Methodological individualism is mathematically tractable, so economists prefer that approach.

Collectivism works particularly well at destroying things, as VM points out through various examples. Apart from the formation of a club, groups are better at breaking than building.

James C. Scott illustrates this well in “Two Cheers For Anarchism.” Scott shows that wildcat strikes and unorganized protests are the most threatening to incumbent powers. Organized movements have particular decision makers whose self interest can be bought. Politics is exchange. A collectivist movement with no decision makers is not doing politics. It is destroying the existing order.

The Freiburg Circle in Germany during WWII, out of which the Ordoliberals emerged, consisted of individuals who had made a credible commitment. If discovered, each of them faced certain punishment, possibly death. They were working to circumvent an absolute surrender that would cripple Germany sufficiently to motivate a WWIII in the next generation. They were trying to build a shadow government to replace the Naziis when the time came. They succeeded in part.

That positive collective was sustained by an externally enforced credible commitment. One could say that the early Christians, who faced persecution at the hands of the state, also “enjoyed” that sort of external enforcement. But the identities of those committed were well known, or easy to monitor. Circumcision is easily detected. Baptism was designed as a public act.

The problem with collectivist movements that can only destroy is that they are anonymous. There is a desire for a changed world that begins by looking outward with blame. One absolves oneself by virtue of becoming part of such a commitment – free collective. The problem most certainly, says the collectivist, is the system.

So long as the movement remains unorganized, perhaps it can achieve some welfare – enhancing results, at least in the Kaldor / Hicks sense. Destructive movements can produce the equivalent of omnibus repeals of rent -seeker friendly programs, overcoming transitional gains traps. But unless those programs all bequeath the rents on the same concentrated set of interests, a mass destructive movement will be difficult to sustain. Witness the inability of the occupy movement to come to real agreement about positive action.

An organized movement will almost certainly compromise its most cherished ideologies. Witness political parties. The politics of exchange is relatively peaceful and constructive, compared to the mob. But it cannot bring itself to omnibus repeals. It privileges the status quo.

Gordon Tullock showed us that most rebellions result in the same middle management of the state, under a new executive. VM corroborates with the example of the Egyptian rebellion. The institutions that made America relatively successful were in place long before 1776, or 1789. Those institutions largely survived the American Revolution, with many of the same individuals in the decision-maker’s positions.

I’m an utter pessimist with respect to reform. I don’t like the destructive results of the riot. I’m not a fan of omnibus repeal. Many of those who receive benefits of existing programs are fully capitalized into those programs, and I don’t like the idea of not compensating them.

So I fall back into a position of sacrificial altruism as the only legitimate route for reform. If a group wants to reform a program, let them compensate the capitalized interests. Morality, misapplied, takes the mob’s attitude. Burn it with fire. It is outward facing with its blame and absolved of all responsibility. Anonymity is unaccountable. It cannot peacefully overcome the status quo, so it moves outside the exchange of politics, and demands something for nothing.

Morality, correctly applied, subverts politics. It uses exchange to take responsibility, even where it bears no guilt, and pays from its own resources, honestly earned, to effect reform. It is like the good Samaritan. It is like the Muslims protecting Christians from violence during the rebellions. It is like the volunteer visiting the elementary school to read with the kids who are behind.

It is quaint. It is mundane. It is constructive. It is what sustains us.

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