“Liberal Fascist Economics”

On November 18, 2009, in Culture, Economics, Politics, by marc

One of the best – and creepiest – books I’ve read in the last year and a half was Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism. I recall being very unnerved, perhaps surprisingly, by the chapter on economics.  A taste:

In Nazi Germany, businesses proved their loyalty to the state by being good “corporate citizens,” just as they do today.  the means of demonstrating this loyalty differed significantly, and the moral content of the different agendas was categorical.  Indeed, for the sake of argument, let us concede that what the Nazi regime expected of “good German businesses” and what America expects of its corporate leaders differed enormously.  That doesn’t change some important fundamental similarities.

Liberal Fascism by Jonah Goldberg

Liberal Fascism by Jonah Goldberg

Consider, for example, the largely bipartisan and entirely well-intentioned Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, celebrated everywhere as a triumph of “nice” government.  The law mandated that businesses take a number of measures, large and small, to accommodate customers and employees with various handicaps.  Offices had to be retrofitted to be wheelchair compliant.  Various public signs had to be written in Braille.  Devices to aid the hearing impaired had to be made available.  And so on.

Now imagine you are the CEO of Coca-Cola.  Your chief objection to this law is that it will cost you a lot of money, right?  Well, not really.  If you know that the CEO of Pepsi is going to have to make the same adjustments, there’s really no problem for you.  All you have to do is add a penny – or really a fraction of a penny – to the cost of a can of Coke.  Your customers will carry the freight, just as Pepsi’s customers will.  The increase won’t cost you market share, because your price compared with your competitor’s has stayed pretty much the same.  Your customers probably won’t even notice the price hike.

Now imagine that you own a small, regional soft drink company.  You’ve worked tirelessly toward your dream of one day going eyeball-to-eyeball with Coke or Pepsi.  Proportionally speaking, making your factories and offices handicapped-friendly will cost you vastly more money, not just in terms of infrastructure, but in terms of the bureaucratic legal compliance costs (Coke and Pepsi have enormous legal departments; you don’t).  Plans to expand or innovate will have to be delayed because there’s no way you can pass on the costs to your customers.  Or imagine you’re the owner of an even smaller firm hoping to make a play at your regional competitors.  But you have 499 employees, and for the sake of argument, the ADA fully kicks in at 500 employees.  If you hire just one more, you will fall under the ADA.  In other words, hiring just one thirty-thousand-dollar-a-year employee will cost you millions.

The ADA surely has admirable intent and legitimate merits.  But the very nature of such do-gooding legislation empowers large firms, entwines them with political elites, and serves as a barrier to entry for smaller firms.  Indeed, the penalties and bureaucracy involved in even trying to fire someone can amount to guaranteed lifetime employment.  Smaller firms can’t take the risk of being forced to provide a salary in perpetuity, while big companies understand that they’ve in effect become “too big to fail” because they are de facto arms of the state itself.

Remember, this was all written well before stimulus- and bailout-mania, or the effective nationalization of GM and Chrysler.  There are certainly lessons in this passage for those on the right and the left – Republicans have a nasty habit of using the state to advance their interests, too.  But examining the current political philosophies popular across the spectrum, one has to note that when those on the right try to utilize the government to advance their agenda, they are usually acting hypocritically, because at least in theory, they believe in limited government and checks and balances.  In contrast, when leftists use the power of the state to push their agenda, they are actually following their principles. And that’s really what we’re seeing right now – the left has control of the levers of power in Washington DC, and is using the mechanisms of government to entrench and empower themselves, often at the expense of our individual liberty and well-being (as in the health care debate).

Lord Acton reminded us that power tends to corrupt; as responsible citizens, we need to remember that axiom when we vote, and must guard against the tendency to leave things we could – or should – do ourselves to people in Washington, or the state capitol, or anywhere else.

This reminds me – I need to dig back into Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and pull some quotes from him about the dangers of economic planning…

Lord Acton on Liberty

On November 13, 2009, in Culture, History, by marc

From his essay “The History of Freedom in Antiquity,” taken from Essays in the History of Liberty: Selected Writings of Lord Acton Vol. I, edited by J. Rufus Fears:

Liberty, next to religion, has been the motive of good deeds and the common pretext of crime, from the sowing of the seed at Athens, two thousand four hundred and sixty years ago, until the ripened harvest was gathered by men of our race.  It is the delicate fruit of a mature civilization; and scarcely a century has passed since nations, that knew the meaning of the term, resolved to be free.  In every age its progress has been beset by its natural enemies, by ignorance and superstition, by lust of conquest and by love of ease, by the strong man’s craving for power, and the poor man’s craving for food.

John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton (1834-1902)

John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton (1834-1902)

During long intervals it has been utterly arrested, when nations were being rescued from barbarism and from the grasp of strangers, and when the perpetual struggle for existence, depriving men of all interest and understanding in politics, has made them eager to sell their birthright for a pottage, and ignorant of the treasure they resigned.  At all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare, and its triumphs have been due to minorities, that have prevailed by associating themselves with auxiliaries whose objects often differed from their own; and this association, which is always dangerous, has been sometimes disastrous, by giving to opponents just grounds of opposition, and by kindling dispute over the spoils in the hour of success.  No obstacle has been so constant, or so difficult to overcome, as uncertainty and confusion touching the nature of true liberty.  If hostile interests have wrought much injury, false ideas have wrought still more; and its advance is recorded in the increase of knowledge, as much as in the improvement of laws.  The history of institutions is often a history of deceptions and illusions; for their virtue depends on the ideas that produce and on the spirit that preserves them, and the form may remain unaltered when the substance has passed away.

Dangers to Liberty

On October 26, 2009, in Culture, History, by marc

From Roland Hill’s Lord Acton:

Virtually alone among the liberals of his age, Acton saw where its obsessions with class, race, and nationality would lead in the twentieth century and what would happen to humanity when it lost sight “of the concept of man as created in the image of God and sharing in the salvation offered it by Christ.” As an historian he found the racial idea a convenient tool, while rejecting the racialist philosophy that was developed then by contemporaries like Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855-1927) and Comte Arthur Gobineau (1816-1882). Their racialist theories, which ultimately inspired Hitler, were, to Acton, “one of the many schemes to deny free will, responsibility, and guilt, and to supplant moral by physical forces.

Lord Acton by Roland Hill

Lord Acton by Roland Hill

But the theory of nationality is a retrograde step in history. Making the state and the nation commensurate with each other in theory practically reduces to a subject condition all other nationalities within the frontiers. “It is in general a necessary condition of free institutions, that the boundaries of governments should coincide in the main with those of nationalities,” Acton quoted John Stuart Mill. This very idea was realized fifty-seven years later in Woodrow Wilson’s peace settlement of 1919, with the disastrous results remembered by the generation that witnessed Hitler’s occupation of Austria and the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. German reunification, the collapse of the Soviet empire, and war in the former Yugoslavia in the 1980s and 1990s only underlined the significance and accuracy of Acton’s insight. “What he said was always interesting, but sometimes strange,” wrote G. M. Trevelyan. “I remember, for instance, his saying to me that States based on the unity of a single race, like modern Italy and Germany, would prove a danger to liberty; I did not see what he meant at the time, but I do now!”

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Hi all, and welcome to yet another blog.  Not that I really need another new blog, or that I even have anything particularly interesting to say.  As with all of my blogging and tweeting endeavours, this is more for my benefit than anyone elses.

For lack of a better explanation, Ex Libris is going to be my attempt to glean something from my reading.  Over the last year or so, I’ve been digging into a lot of books, often many at once.  And while I’ve enjoyed the process of doing so, I’ve developed a tendency to bite off a bit more than I can chew – in that I have multiple books going at once.  I’m almost positive that I have at least 20 books started, many of which cycle in and out of my range of interest over a period of many months.  The result of this, of course, is that my concentration is divided and I tend to forget where I was when I pick up the book again next time.

I generally catch on pretty quickly once I get back into the flow of a book that I’ve put aside for a while, but I have to admit that reading multiple books at once doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a careful and deep treatment of each text.  So part of what I hope to accomplish here is to note, for myself, passages that catch my interest and perhaps peel back the layers a bit and explore why they grab my imagination.

We’ll see how this goes.  There’s a lot of books covering a pretty wide range of subjects.  For instance, tonight I read a chapter from Roland Hill’s biography of Lord Acton, and then picked up Human Acton by Ludwig von Mises and plowed through a portion.  I’ve also been moving through Lester DeKoster’s Liberation Theology: The Church’s Future Shock and (of course) U2 by U2, among others.  Like I said, a pretty wide range of subjects.  It remains to be seen exactly how well I’ll do at reflecting and writing about all of the books I’m reading, or if I’ll do it at all.  But I suppose it might just be worth the effort.  Again, we’ll see.

So – here goes.  Wish me luck.

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