Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Years ago, I read the book, Is Reality Optional?, by Thomas Sowell. Yesterday, President Bush, who must own stock in the companies that sell merchandise that counts down the time remaining in his term, reminded me of it by saying one of the most nonsensical things I have ever heard a man utter:
I've abandoned free-market principles to save the free-market system to make sure the economy doesn't collapse.To someone who understands the nature of principles, and hence their practical value, the only context in which this can make any sense is the explanatory.
What do I mean? As human beings, we are distinct from other animals in possessing the faculty of reason. This faculty allows us to make superior use of sensory data than other animals because it allows us to conceptualize this material, and able to use it effectively henceforth, including seeing complex relationships between existents to form higher-level concepts.
For example, where a dog or cat will be able to respond to and use illumination from a flashlight, the sun, or a fire, only man is able to understand, in part through the concept of "light" what each of these has in common. Knowing about, "light", man can both try to find alternate sources, and form higher-level, related concepts, such as "day", and "time", as he does when he considers the fact that the sun, a major light source rises and sets with regularity. Without reference to the concept of "light", one would be unable to guide an effort to obtain more of it when needed, much less explain what all his knocking about was for.
Principles are simply the highest level of abstraction, as Ayn Rand once explained in her essay, "The Anatomy of Compromise":
A principle is "a fundamental, primary, or general truth, on which other truths depend." Thus a principle is an abstraction which subsumes a great number of concretes. It is only by means of principles that one can set one's long-range goals and evaluate the concrete alternatives of any given moment. It is only principles that enable a man to plan his future and to achieve it. [bold added]What, then would "free market principles" be? On the one hand, they would be a conceptual understanding of what, exactly, a free market is in both the positive sense of knowing what it is (and thus seeing that it requires the protection of the individual's right to form and act upon his best judgment in the course of his daily life), as well as in the negative sense of knowing what it isn't (e.g., socialism, fascism, slavery, or feudalism) and thus what would endanger or destroy it.
To take a lower-level example, if I own a dog, and know the principles of animal care, I will avoid letting Fido slurp up antifreeze, no matter how thirsty he is, because I know that antifreeze is poison, even though Fido, having only instinct and a perceptual awareness of reality, does not. Even apparent violations of such principles, such as letting a stranger wound Fido with a knife, are seen not to be such when we consider that the stranger is a veterinarian and he is conducting surgery. We are still, in that case, applying the principles of proper animal care, even though "don't cut Fido with a knife" would ordinarily apply.
Now, let's consider what Bush said. First of all, we do not live under capitalism, but in an economy that mixes free market elements with elements of state control. There is no "free market" to save. One can only move our (inherently unstable) economy towards having more or less freedom, whether one be actively doing so or attempting to muddle through the latest crisis caused by the statist elements of the economy. So Bush has just admitted that he does not even know what a "free market" even is. (Hint: If it is a "system" at all, it is self-organizing beyond the government apparatus necessary to protect individual rights.)
Bush does, apparently, realize on some level that he has been acting as a statist, for he finds himself having to excuse his administration's behavior over the past few months. (Actually, he should apologize for his whole term.) Although he does not really know what a "free market system" is, even he knows that what he has been doing entails government intrusion into the economy.
He knows that, but apparently does not realize that such government intrusions as such make the market less free and, therefore, less able to recover, because the individuals who make up the free economy are constrained by government regulation or rendered less effective because government distortions in the economy are making them badly-informed actors. In short, Bush is compounding the government's violation of individual rights for the expressed purpose of "saving" capitalism, and the implied purpose of protecting our individual rights!
This is different than, say, a pro-capitalist President who inherited the mess we now have, finding some temporary or one-time form of government intervention necessary to avert a financial disaster, and explaining that he does so only reluctantly, and that he will, in the meantime, continue to work to increase our freedom in any other way he can.
But then, a pro-capitalist would know what capitalism is, what it requires (full government protection of individual rights), and why statism and anarchy are inferior, and dangerous to the survival of the people he is sworn to protect. He would know these things because he would rely upon free market principles when thinking about the economy. And he would know that if he doesn't rely on such principles -- if he "abandons" -- them, he will have no way to decide what action is best for the discharge of his office.
But Bush is no pro-capitalist. He admitted as much yesterday, and furthermore, has confessed in word and deed that he just has some mild emotional attachment to some nearly meaningless conception of "free markets", which he regards as optional and, ultimately, unimportant. After all, if statism is so powerful (which it isn't) that it can "save" capitalism, why save it? Worse, he has also admitted that he sees no connection between principles and reality. To Bush, a principle is just something you pay lip service to when you want to look good to yourself or others.
This is not a concerned pet owner taking his beloved pet to the vet. This is a kid grabbing the nearest jug of antifreeze because he wants to feel good about "helping" the dog he should have watered first thing in the morning.