Friday, November 19, 2010

On MacIntyre on Capitalism

This essay is a sort of sibling to my previous one, Caution: Intellectual's At Work.

Philosophy in Plato's Apology certainly seems to be very political and indeed it is. There are ideas behind all actions and Socrates' teaching certainly had broad effects. (To make an enormous understatement.) Thus how we act and interact part of political philosophy.  Yet where is the line between political and personal? At what point does someone trying to live a good life become a busybody trying to reorient other people?

I was pondering those questions, and others, after I read this essay on Alasdair MacIntyre in Prospect. It was a curious read for me because I in many was have an Aristotelian outlook on life. So MacIntyre seems to also, and yet we were not as nearly in accord as I would have expected. Let me share some of my concerns.

"MacIntyre yearns for a single, shared view of the good life as opposed to modern pluralism’s assumption that there can be many competing views of how to live well." Is that not a little. . . unnerving to hear? In the other of this pair of essays I mentioned that the intellectual ought to be humbled by the philosophical endeavor and a little reluctant to start reordering society.The administration of justice, to Aristotle, was the principal order of society, not a consensus on how one ought to live.

Such is a problem with intellectuals, that they are so intelligent they don't see the bounds of what they can and ought to do. Likewise, they seek perfectly logical systems of belief, at the expense of whether something is likely to work and often in contrast to observation. Hence the extraordinarily immoderate ideas of many highly intelligent people. Such would not be so problematic if they did not lend their stamp of authority on highly dangerous figures and movements. Such is not to say consistency is not laudable, but that it may have a price. The author reports one of MacIntyre's ideas in a very Aristotelian phrase, "The telos for human beings is to generate a communal life with others." Of course living with others is natural, but it is too easy to misread this phrase as, "because one lives (and must live) with others that one lives only to live with others" which is rather off base. (This may be an awkward paraphrasing of MacIntyre, I suspect.)

Too, today the word modernity is invoked as a buzzword to summon up images of industrialization, pop music, and kids who don't read listening to iPods.  This sort of association is not unlike the association between the word "factory" and images of sooty stone buildings with Mr. Moneybags taking advantage of child labor. (Modern medicine, modern online libraries, and the like don't get much praise.) This cliché is wearing tenuously thin. If one has a particular idea to critique, do so.

Wearing thin with me also is the tendency of people to use the word capitalism without defining it. The word is usually used to mean something tantamount to "something bad involving money." It is used nine times in this essay and we have no remote, let alone satisfactory, definition of it. 

The economics he describes, or at least how it is presented, is also particularly confused.

Take the following example:
For workers are also consumers and capitalism requires consumers with the purchasing power to buy its products. So there is tension between the need to keep wages low and the need to keep consumption high. Capitalism has solved this dilemma, MacIntyre says, by bringing future consumption into the present by dramatic extensions of credit.
Not quite and not having defined capitalism, understanding this paragraph is problematic. How does capitalism require anything? You don't have to buy anything. If there is demand for something, someone might create the product to meet the demand. If not, the productive capacity will go to produce something else. I suppose in theory if you couldn't produce anything that anyone wanted, you could just support yourself farming. What MacIntyre is in fact against is mainstream Keynesian economics. This economics, now offered up as our saving grace by certain economic big wigs, relies on buying for the sake of buying just to get demand up. (An absurd notion since people don't buy just anything, they don't by globs of GDP by products they need.) The asset bubbles created by the government were created, in part, under the assumption that you could continuously engineer growth and have an everlasting rise in values. The government, not only "people behaving badly," created the easy credit which made taking risks (which at any other time would have been regulated and rendered impossible by a market) possible.

He continues,
This expansion of credit, he goes on, has been accompanied by a distribution of risk that exposed to ruin millions of people who were unaware of their exposure. So when capitalism once again overextended itself, massive credit was transformed into even more massive debt. . .
What imperative exactly is he implying here? First, that you have a responsibility to disclose something of the risk to the borrower. This sounds very nice, but how do you actually ensure someone understands something? They sign the paperwork, they nod. You could explain it perfectly clearly and still not be sure they knew what they were getting into. Second, he is implying that the borrower does not have the responsibility to figure this out for himself.

Moving on,

Not only does capitalism impose the costs of growth or lack of it on those least able to bear them, but much of that debt is unjust. And the “engineers of this debt,” who had already benefited disproportionately, “have been allowed to exempt themselves from the consequences of their delinquent actions.”
Indeed, but that only happens if you force people to pay back the debt of others. If the only people affected are the lender and the borrower, no one else is implicated. This is an issue of the "debt engineers" having corrupted the members of the government, i.e. the people with the monopoly on the law, and "persuaded" them to force citizens to pay back the debt.

Oddly, he proposes regulation but according to this article does not consider his proposals "regulation." Yet when he writes that, "since regulations merely 'have as their aim the prevention of further large-scale crises' he is in a sense correct because the regulations, like his own non-regulation regulations, seek to put managing the economy in to the hands of elites instead of allowing individuals to manage their own affairs and assess risk for themselves.

The question again, as we have discussed before, is where does discipline and order come from? MacIntyre properly faults the "capitalism" of the government-run sort, but would replace it with his non-regulation regulations. The distributist model discussed in the article is likewise statist by nature.  

Overall, the economic thinking in this essay is lamentably muddled. (As presented, the association between "money-trading" (another vague term) and inequality is so thin I can't even critique it.) In a way this is unsurprising, since as Jesus Huerta de Soto demonstrated in his essay, "Economic Thought in Ancient Greece" [1] philosophers seem unable or unwilling to consider economics as a separate discipline. They're also, though often admittedly, not concerned with liberty. What is not admitted is that in a free economy, one not managed by the government, you wouldn't have to fear the debasement of your money and you wouldn't have to engage in any kid of activity you don't want to.

Virtue in Aristotle is in fact a most complicated notion and discussing it also requires familiarity with his logical books. Discussing the political aspects requires familiarity with nearly of Aristotle. In Aristotle virtue is a complex of innate desire and conscious action, inducement and freedom, nature and cultivation. It is impossible to speak about it glibly and do it any justice.

Perhaps MacIntyre does not provide a legitimate critique of capitalism, but rather of capitalism as most people think of it, i.e. as an economy managed by the government. If so, his criticism may be well-placed.  It is laudable that MacIntyre attempts to acknowledge both the good and bad of, say, globalization, but I think his thinking would benefit from some more precise definitions. Of course it is possible MacIntyre is badly represented in this article, a potentiality I duly acknowledge. As presented in this article though, his cases are rather muddled.

[1] and my response:

See also:

1 comment:

  1. A more stridently Christian essay in this area: