M Friedman, “Introduction”

In the Introduction to his Capitalism and Freedom, Milton Friedman writes that

Two broad principles embodied in our Constitution give an answer that has preserved our freedom so far, though they have been violated repeatedly in practice while proclaimed as precept. First, the scope of government must be limited. . . . The second broad principle is that government power must be dispersed.

While we might agree with Mr. Friedman that some British constitutional theorists and legal scholars favored this anti-Federalist view and even that some at the Constitutional Convention favored this view, it would be extremely difficult to find these two principles stated outright in the Constitution itself. (Indeed, I challenge students to find them stated there in this way.)

However, aside from the fact that these principles are not expressed in the Constitution, there are two additional complications. Upon reading the serialized version of the so-called “Federalist Papers,” which conveyed the sense of the conventioneers and their document to the public before its official publication, the anti-Federalists were so incensed by the document that they composed their own broadsides, excoriating the very document that Mr. Friedman her claims to defend. They excoriated it precisely because they found that it provided far to much scope to the Federal government and that it failed to sufficiently disperse governmental power.

But that is not all. Not a century after this Federalist Constitution was ratified, anti-Federalist sentiment in the southern United States ran so hot—particularly, but not exclusively, over the issue of whether the Federal government could pass laws depriving individuals of their private property (in this case, slaves and arms)—that, rather than submit to Federal tyranny, they opted for separation and civil war.

This does not make Mr. Friedman’s defense of capitalism untenable, only that part of his defense for which he seeks Constitutional succor.

However, it does call attention to some very curious features within Mr. Friedman’s argument. Did the framers of the Constitution really understand the “separation of powers” as a separation of the political from the economic? I had always supposed that they meant the separation of the judiciary, the legislative, and the executive branches of government. And, even admitting that it was this group (and not their irate detractors outside Constitution Hall) that feared the concentration of power, did they really conceptualize this fear in terms of Federal government as a whole rather than the concentration of this power in a single sovereign?

Interestingly enough, it is Mr. Friedman himself who seems unable to think about the dispersal of political power, asking:

But can there be more than one really outstanding leader, one person on whom the energies and enthusiasms of his countrymen are centered (p. 16)?

Well, yes, there can be. And we hope there is. But, Mr. Friedman’s point is that we would rather have power dispersed over as many individuals as possible. And that can only happen through the market.

And, so, in the end, by attempting to politically rather than economically “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” Mr. Friedman apparently feels that the framers of the Constitution were pursuing the wrong course. More on that, though, in the next installment.

Aristotle in Hyde Park; FH Knight’s Guardians

The direct effects of " preaching" about economic relations and obligations are in general bad; and the kind of legislation which results from the clamour of idealistic preachers-and from the public attitude which such preaching at once expresses and tends to generate or aggravate-is especially bad. All this is the natural consequence of exhortation without knowledge and understanding-of well-meaning people attempting to meddle with the workings of extremely complicated and sensitive machinery which. they do not. understand (418).

The problem to which Professor Knight calls our attention here is not unlike the problem we identified earlier and to which we will return repeatedly throughout the course. When Pericles broadens the franchise to include most Athenians, he does so not in order to empower them, but to empower himself through their ignorance. He is a demagogue. Aristotle’s solution to this problem is to isolate the political elite from the realm of necessity—an ideal, incidentally, that the framers of the US Constitution took quite seriously (Elliot’s Debates, 1787-1789).

Theorists and policy makers who embrace Aristotle’s solution have, however, been of two minds; call them minimalists and maximalists. The minimalists (such as Knight) argue that not all can be experts and therefore that policy-making should be reserved to a small elite. Maximalists argue that, while not all should be empowered with decision-making, economic and educational policy should endeavor to make all who are citizens competent and able to intelligently debate over policy decisions.

The danger that Knight sees in “preaching” is that it appeals to individuals who, while deeply affected by economic policy and economic forces, have neither the competence to understand what is happening to them nor the expertise to appreciate what can and cannot be done. But the “solution” is not to work towards extending this competence or expertise to them. The solution is for preachers to cease and desist their rabble-rousing.

FH Knight and the “Economic Interpretation”

It is at least closely related to the doctrine of the " economic interpretation ", the falsity of which has received brief consideration previously.

The “economic interpretation” here is short-hand not only for Marxist, but for materialist interpretations more generally, which, according to FH Knight, hold not only that all social, cultural, and political relations should be interpreted through the lens of economics, but that they also have an economic solution. What interests us in Mr. Knight’s foregrounding of the “economic interpretation” is the specific weight he places on it. Human societies inevitably and invariably are accompanied by sometimes violent conflict. Removing economic occasions for conflict, according to Knight, does not remove conflict. It follows that eo ipso economic reform will not lead to an end of conflict. Conflict comes to an end, rather, by the imposition of law (see FH Knight, “Ethics and Economic Reform. I. The Ethics of Liberalism,” Economica, New Series, Vol. 6, No. 21 (Feb., 1939), pp. 1-29).

T Veblen’s Rights of Man

The vulgar element, held cheap, kept under, but massive, in the medieval
order of society, comes gradually into the foreground
and into the controlling position in economic life;
so that the aristocratic or chivalric standards and ideals
are gradually supplanted or displaced by the vulgar apprehension
of what is right and best in the conduct of life.

You got to love Veblen. He tells it like it is. The origins of the modern—he is writing in 1910, a mere 135 years after the American Revolution—sense of liberte, egalite, fraternite are actually, says Veblen, to be sought in the displacement of aristocratic and chivalric standards by the vulgar standards entertained by the rest of us . . . or not.

T Veblen’s Islam

There is, in point of practical morality, not much to
choose, e. g., between the upper-class medieval Christianity
and the contemporary Mohammedan morality.

Although it might be difficult for contemporary readers to comprehend, in 1910, when T Veblen composed this article, “Christian Morality and the Competitive System,” Islam lay fairly soundly defeated as a comprehensive political-social-cultural form. It is therefore all the more remarkable that Veblen recognized a kinship between attitudes entertained by upper-class medieval Christians and early twentieth century Muslims with regard to the principle of non-resistance. It was, or so Veblen theorized, the subjected classes that embraced the Christian principle of non-resistance. In a kind of back-handed way, therefore, Veblen is crediting early twentieth century Muslims with the forward-looking, advanced, perspective of the master, who refuses to be mastered and refuses to embrace non-resistance.

T Veblen’s Anthropology

Summum crede nefas animam praeferre pudori
et propter vitam vivendi perdere causas.

Count it the greatest sin to prefer life to honor, and for the sake of living to lose what makes life worth living (VIII, 83).

Although it is not entirely impossible that Veblen, like Juvenal (Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis), here intends to satirize those who sacrifice their lives for honor, I find it doubtful since the sentiment is so pervasive among those who fall (or will fall) within Veblen’s orbit.

Later this semester Alexander Kojeve and then Francis Fukuyama will take this preference for death and honor over life and dishonor as a leading quality of the master race (an interpretation that Fukuyama ascribes, not unjustly, to GFW Hegel’s master class). And Hannah Arendt, another Chicago luminary, will come to fault the working class for failing, when granted leisure time, to know quite what to do with it, since they had long ago sacrificed their human dignity in the pursuit of industry.

PE 160 will take up this topic more fully on Monday.

T Veblen’s Anthropology

I love this piece, which enjoys just enough verisimilitude to what contemporary anthropologists actually believe about semi-nomadic and nomadic communities that, in addition social subjective validity of T Veblen’s categories, it also seems to enjoy scientific validity as well. I can find little fault with Veblen’s characterization of the earliest hominid communities—peaceable, collective, non-acquisitive, non-competitive—for all of the reasons that M Sahlins and N Bird-David have identified in their research.

I might even entertain T Veblen’s admittedly fanciful reconstruction of original acquisition and his grounding of this acquisition in the drive to engage in exploits in order to be able to make invidious comparisons with others in one’s own favor.

Behind and underneath Veblen’s account, however, is a secreted Hegelian spirit that lends his account its directional dynamic. For the stages that he adduces appear to unfold naturally and inevitably on their own as if drawn or propelled forward by a secret telos—their end or goal. This implicit teleology, from which Veblen adduces the anticipated taxonomy of primitive/advanced, early/recent/late, etc., makes the earlier, primitive way of life appear less fully human and less rationally advanced than the later stages in which invidious acquisition have been fully elaborated.

Once stripped of this implicit teleology, T Veblen’s account invites the following question: is it our ingrained aptitude for invidious acquisition that gives rise to the contemporary pecuniary practices or is it rather contemporary pecuniary practices that lead us to believe that all humans (as soon as they become truly human) discover the aptitude for invidious acquisition in their breasts? Identifying this causal—as opposed to imposed teleological—relationship would help us to better understand the socio-historical foundations of contemporary social subjectivity and social practice.

The larger question might be: why does T Veblen feel that inferring this teleology is preferable to securely establishing a socio-historical causal basis?

Why Egypt 2011 is not Iran 1979 | Informed Comment


Why Egypt 2011 is not Iran 1979 | Informed Comment

I like this blog, forwarded to me by one of my students. Obviously, among post-secularists, the specter of religious governance structures is of considerable interest, not only in Egypt or Saudi Arabia, but in the US as well. However, at least in the US, where there is reasonable transparency and religious freedom (ask the Coptics in Egypt about religious freedom), the rise of the religious right has been a well-known, publicized, public, and, for all of this, fairly terrifying process. In Egypt, where Muslims with extreme views have been subject to brutal state action, and whose voices have been deliberately silenced in the press and at the polls, there is good reason to wonder how accurate polling data can be in the first place, but also whether, once granted the kinds of freedoms they deserve, Muslims holding more extreme views might not view the Disneyland overlay tourists have placed on pyramids and other pre-, non-, or anti-Islamic theme parks is not worth the revenues they it generates. Faithfulness, I am led to believe, might not in all instances be inclined to bow to the great dollar.

This said, we might want to engage in a well-informed, eyes-open, discussion of the range of possible futures for Egypt and the Middle East and ask ourselves whether the indeterminacy generated by revolution—because we really do not know where revolution leads—means that we should act to suppress all revolutions (siding always with the devil we know), or whether even the possibility of greater emancipation is worth the price paid.

As of this hour, the US appears to be siding with the devil it knows. So, if this is not 1979, is it 1848 in Egypt? Or 1917? Or  . . .

Concept of the Political

In his Concept of the Political, C Schmitt wants us to draw a line between individuals or groups who are political merely by convention or law and those individuals or groups who are political because they are able to successfully create the friend-enemy distinction. Setting aside consideration of whether or not this definition is adequate, we can still look at C Schmitt’s review of the 18th and 19th centuries, when, according to Schmitt, the political became increasingly confused with and submerged under the social and the economic. Rather than defining or creating the friend-enemy distinction, the political found itself in a seemingly endless series of compromises, with individuals and groups who were, in effect, competing with the sovereign. Under the best of conditions, such competition is inconsequential, since the state is sufficiently strong and independent to withstand this low-level “civil war” without, in fact, jeopardizing its sovereignty. Yet, even under these best of conditions, Schmitt points out, the state survives because it is dependent not on political decisions, but on impersonal processes (economic, legal, even political) governed by their own internal logics.

It is then only under extreme circumstances—economic, political, social upheaval—that these impersonal processes display their political impotence. Under such circumstances, only the political can provide the definition and direction necessary to restore sovereignty/agency to the state and so avoid a complete collapse of the political. Moreover, under such circumstances, all pleas on behalf of due process actually serve to delay the restoration of state sovereignty and so further undermine the political.

Under these circumstances, the political is de facto the agent who steps in and restores sovereignty by identifying the enemies who are preventing or delaying this restoration.

What I would like students to notice in C Schmitt’s presentation is the long list of enemies that he accumulates along the way—political opponents—whose opposition is constituted by their opposition to “the political.” This includes, for example, those who mistake republican ideals or democratic process for “the political,” or those who wish to cover over the friend-enemy distinction by appealing to Jesus’ command to love your enemies, or those who wish to submerge the friend-enemy distinction in socio-economic, class distinctions. His opponents even include the pacifist who refuses to harm the enemy, but instead insists on turning the other cheek. Eventually, this pacifist will either be killed and removed from the political stage, or they will fight on behalf of their principle (and so deny it).

We might call this way of defining the political pragmatic, since it is based almost solely on practice: the individual or group able, practically, to define the friend-enemy distinction—that individual or group is the sovereign.

To this, let us call it the “Roman” legal foundation of sovereignty, we can contrast the ideal or principled legal foundation of sovereignty, grounded, however distantly, on the Lockean notion of popular sovereignty, which, substantively, is (or so Schmitt feels) vacuous, since it is based on process and not on de facto, pragmatic, successful seizure and maintenance of power.

One can well appreciate, I think, why such a pragmatic conception of the political might obtain when—as was arguably the case in Germany in 1932—a society is in a state of civil war.

Which brings me to my rather leading question. Since the 1970s in the US, and increasingly so since then, this “Roman” model of sovereignty has gained increasing currency within law schools and jurisdictions across the US. Cases are decided less and less on principle and process and more and more by reference to their individual, discrete pragmata.

Here there are a number of critical test cases that come to mind. In Gore v. the US, a Court that previously had sided almost exclusively on behalf of states rights, in this case decided that, for the welfare of the nation, it would not permit Florida’s recount to proceed, even in the face of substantial evidence that the count would fall in Plaintiff’s favor.

More ominously, when John Yoo famously advised President Bush that he was well within the law to permit the torture of prisoners, his advice was based on the legal principle that, absent a successful legal contest, which could be mounted solely through an independent counsel and ultimately impeachment, presidential acts were by definition legal, irrespective of their content. In other words, if the President can successfully establish the friend-enemy distinction, then his very success constitutes the legal precedent necessary to justify his action.

Does the fact that the rule of principle and precedent have given way to the political—does this fact provide sufficient grounds to argue that we are at civil war?