Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Myth of Consumer Sovereignty

And here is an essay by John Kenneth Galbraith that I completely disagree with. He argues, in the essay The Myth of Consumer Sovereignty, which is, in turn, from his book The Affluent Society, Galbraith argues that in an affluent society, the marginal utility of production becomes zero, since we are filling needs that are created only because the producers have something they want to sell to us; or that our desires for an item to not exist until advertisers tell us that we need them, or our neighbor gets the item.

On its face, this kind of makes sense. If there don't exist jetpacks, I don't want one, and the object has no affect on my happiness, but once someone invents one, there is the possibility of it making me happier by getting one; Galbraith argues that we're just as well off if the jetpacks had never been invented.

I think that Galbraith has this all wrong though; in my mind, we do not desire specific items, we want items that are of a specified use to us. Every thing belongs to a family of goods/services that we desire regardless of specific items within that family that exists. We have a desire for transportation, entertainment, education, leisure, human interaction, etc. Advances in technology, and indeed, affluence, provide us with better, more efficient ways of satisfying these desires. If I want to see the world, and it happens to be 1750, then, unless I happen to be born into extreme wealth I will have trouble fulfilling that desire; I might be able to work my whole life for a trip to Paris, and if I live in a small town even a trip to the nearest large city will be an extreme cost in time and money. Affluence allows us to explore these dreams at a much lower cost than ever before. While I would have never yearned for a car before one was invented, I am nevertheless better off after I get one than I was before.

I think back to Alasdair MacIntyre, who claims that the goal of a human life should be to build a positive narrative; it seems to me that affluence allows us to build a richer, deeper narrative, and gives more people the opportunity to explore things they never before would have been able to do. Sometimes people don't use their wealth to build their own narrative, but that is not the fault of wealth.

Conventional Wisdom

The conventional wisdom is not the property of any political group.  On a great many modern social issues, as we shall see in the course of this essay, the consensus is exceedingly broad.  Nothing much divides those who are liberals by common political designation from those who are conservatives.  The test of what is acceptable is much the same for both.  On some questions, however, ideas must be accommodated to the political preferences of the particular audience.  The tendency to make this adjustment, either deliberately or more often unconsciously, is not greatly different for different political groups.  The conservative is led by disposition, not unmixed with pecuniary self interest, two adhere too the familiar and the established.  These underlie his test of acceptability.  But the liberal brings moral fervor and passion, even a sense of righteousness, to the ideas with which he is most familiar.  While the ideas he cherishes are different from those of the conservative, he will be no less emphatic in making familiarity a test of acceptability.  Deviation in the form of originality is condemned as the faithlessness or backsliding.  A “good” liberal or a “tried and true” liberal or a “true blue” liberal is one who is adequately predictable.  This means that he forswears any serious striving towards originality.  In both the United States and Britain, in recent times, American liberals and their British counterparts on the left have proclaimed themselves in search of new ideas.  To proclaim the need for new ideas has served, in some measure, as a substitute for them.  The politician who unwisely takes this proclaimed need seriously encourages something new will often find himself in serious trouble.
-John Kenneth Galbraith, The Concept of the Conventional Wisdom

I have taken to reading some Galbraith now. For me, he's very hit and miss, he makes some really astounding points, and I vehemently disagree with him on others. But I really like this point he makes, and it really echoes what I have been feeling in recent times. Liberals will often trumpet the need for an open mind and condemn their opponents as closed minded, while in reality they are just prescribing to a different sort of doctrine, and are just as closed minded as their opponents. Both of them carry with them an air of moral superiority, which is really what pisses me off; though at least the religious fundies on the right are open about it. The sense of "if you disagree with me, you're closed minded" is probably one of the most innane thoughts ever thought. 

For years I carried with me the belief that liberals were generally, truely open minded, questioning individuals, whereas conservatives refused to critically think over their ideas and ideals. College broke me of that, not only by exposing me to many terribly unthinking liberals, but also introducing me to some intellegent, questioning conservatives. Honest people with different premises can indeed have legitimate differences, it would seem. Before college, I don't know if I would have admitted that.

Of course, the hope is that I am actually striving for new ideas; hopefully I have not become myself indoctrinated within a separate ideology. 

Sunday, October 12, 2008

I just want to say...

I don't get how Alan Greenspan (I'm reading his memoir, The Age of Turbulence) can go on and on about how terrible central planning was, and then not get the irony when he says something along the lines of: "After returning from Russia, which had been ravished by central planning, my buddies and I got together at the fed to plan what the US economy would do."

I mean, I like Greenspan and all, but come on.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Modern Politics, again.

I am convinced that, within ten years, we will not have a Republican Party. And if we do, it will be significantly different than the one we have now. The $700 billion bailout bill exposed the sharp difference between the Limited Government Republicans and the Big Business Republicans. Throw in the fact that America is growing more socially liberal, and you find the end of the Republican Party. 

I could see it playing out somewhat like this:
There could be a legitimate third party that challenges the two major parties, mostly at the expense of the Republicans. The way I see it, the Republicans are broken up into several subgroups: 
Religious Isolationists, who believe in limited government so that people can stick with their own. Tend to be pro-School Vouchers and homeschooling, and are much more social conservatives, but don't feel the government should interfere too much. Generally pro-immigration, especially Catholics.
Religious Interventionists, who support things like the Drug War, and are more vocally anti-gay marriage, etc. Generally, both of the above are anti-abortion. These people tend to be more Populists, Mike Huckabee types, and are also more anti-immigration.
Big Business / Big Agriculture - They like regulations written in their favor, subsidies, etc. 
Free Marketeers - People who believe in the free market, and have decided that the RP is the best they can do. Pro-immigration.

Right now, the Republican Party is the Hawk party, but that seems to change with whoever is in power. They were against the wars in the Balkins, and had a relatively strong anti-Vietnam segment. I can't see either party keeping the title permanently.

Of course, if the RP were to fall apart, it would affect the Democratic party quite a bit. I would predict that the Dems would shift much more to the Center on Social issues, while absorbing the people I termed 'Religious Interventionists'. I see this as possible only with the decline of social conservatism. I see the Democrats reclaiming the South, with the southern democrats much more conservative, but still populist. The Democrats would move to be more anti-immigration, and would retain their economic interventionism. 

During the transition, there would be a period of time when the Democrats were in complete control. I have a feeling that they would attract the lobbyists of Big Business, who would fit perfectly into their system.

This leaves two groups stranded: social liberals, and free marketers. Clearly, my hope is the social liberals and the free marketers band together, and the Libertarian Party wins out, or the Republican Party becomes more like them.