Monday, July 11, 2011

Alex Tabarrok Doesn't Get It: Why Civil Society is a Victim of Capitalism and Statism

Why don't Americans think that they use government services?

In citing Yglesias, Bartlett and Rampell, Alex Tabarrok attempts a moralization about coercion - without seeing that his attack on the government is no different than an attack on capitalism. See the following:
"What Rampell et al. implicitly imagine is that the natural state is slavery and any departure from that state a government benefit. Thus, if the government taxes your saving for a college education less than your other savings, you should be grateful for how government has benefited you and your children.
And if the government doesn’t jail you today, you should be grateful for how government has granted you the benefit of liberty.
This is the attitude of a serf not an American."
Some of these are forgivable - I enjoy the Home Mortgage Interest Deduction, for instance, but I don't think of it as a social program, or rather, I wouldn't have thought to include that if I were asked the question. But by the time you get to Social Security, Unemployment and Medicare, it is shocking that people don't consider them government programs. At face value, one can only speculate that the preeminent narrative - that Tabarrok reinforces here - is successful in claiming that the market can solve problems where the state has been the only actor - since its usually unprofitable to provide services to those who cannot pay out of pocket for them. Implicitly, Tabarrok is creating a distinction between government and market forces - the latter as civil society - in an attempt to make the ignorance of government-mediation (and I use this term purely for his own benefit) of economic functions a "virtue" of our "lack of deference" to the government. But capitalism is just as prevalent in these structures, perhaps just as misrepresented, and certainly worse for civil society in creating disproportionate power relations.

There is nothing about capitalism that might make one respond that these are capitalist structures - and yet they are still key to maintaining the profits of many capitalist corporations. There is nothing in his analysis that couldn’t apply to capitalism by switching “the state” with “capitalism.” Indeed, precisely the same argument has been used to defend capitalism – the whole “you benefit even if you don’t know it.”

Despite Tabarrok's claim, market forces do not represent civil society. The contrary is the case, since disproportionate power, not civil-social relations, are represented in capitalist and state structures alike. A critical analysis of free markets, the state and civil society should account for the different effects that
-civil society
-state intervention and
each have on these structures. I think its clear that civil society should be where power comes from – right now, it is the ownership of capital and state regulatory function which are the most important in the US.

The US has a weak civil society. As noble as the individualist model of social relations is, we don;t have a paradigm that reflects that – rather, we have one that respects disproportionate power over capital and state function. But a well-functioning individualist society needs a very involved, empowered civil society. This is classical socialism – not of the Chinese, Cuban or Soviet examples, but of the old Karl Marx, Thomas Paine and Parisian traditions. Believe me, enshrining disproportionate power relationships will not help civil society (despite Hegel’s absurd notion of corporate civil society). It is only in combating disproportionate power that individuals, and civil society will flourish.

What Tabarrok is correct about is that the state is not necessary for a well-functioning civil society. But he's wrong to imply that the free market and capitalism are necessary. The disproportionate balance of power is far more intense in the capitalist structure versus the state structure. And as useful as American individualism can be, it is not opposed to socialization - it works insofar as civil society is empowered. And civil society is weak here - that's why the oligarchy is increasingly powerful, and why privatization will only allow more intense exploitation and attacks on civil-social structures.

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