Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Surviving the Economy and Avoiding the Servile State

It seems like everyone is talking about the economy and what ails it. Some blame big government and socialist thinking and policies. Others blame capitalism, republicans, and big business. They are both right. They are also both wrong.

Neither big government nor big business have the needs of human beings as their central concern.  Big business is too busy with its profits,  big government is too busy holding onto its power, and very often they are both too busy cooperating with each other to reach their respective goals to have any time left to take human dignity into account.  When Hilaire Belloc published The Servile State, he was concerned that trends at the time would lead to "the establishment of compulsory labour legally enforceable upon those who do not own the means of production for the advantage of those who do". Were he alive today, I think he would still be worried.

At the time, Belloc was more alarmed about big business running amok, but he also pointed out that an out of control government would ultimately lead to the same end: a society in which a few have total legal and economic power over the many (see the illustration below for a visual representation of this concept).  Considering the size of the government at present, as well as the current state of big business, we may have even more reason for concern than did Belloc and his contemporaries.

Belloc argued that the best way to halt our advancement toward the "servile state" was to encourage policies that favor keeping both government and business small, and ownership of the means of production (i.e. land, tools, equipment, skills, etc.) as widespread as possible.   The ideal economy, he believed, would be one consisting primarily of small, independent, family owned businesses. He reasoned that this would lead to a more human (and humane) workplace as well as a more just society. This economic ideal, which is neither capitalist nor socialist, is commonly called Distributism.

Over at The Huffington Post, Thom Hartmann is trying to make sense of the present economy.  He is right that, historically speaking, "There's Nothing "Normal" About A Middle Class".  His observation that social upheaval precedes two historical surges in the middle class population is also worth considering. But there are two flaws in his approach as he tries to figure out why a middle class is able to sustain itself in certain periods of history and not in others.

The first problem is that he fails to take into account the existence of widespread ownership of the means of production during the historical periods he cites. Without this, the middle class could not have grown as it did.

Hartmann points to the depopulation of the European continent during the plague, and the colonization of the Americas as points in history that allowed a middle class to form. These instances of social upheaval lead to movement away from a servile society to a more democratic one. Hartmann attributes this movement to the changed ratio of people to resources, but there is more to it than that.  This social upheaval led to the absence of landowning nobility, allowing the common man to take ownership of the resources around him.

Whether plague survivors or colonists, people in both periods of history Hartmann cites would have found themselves in a position much more favorable to ownership and self-sufficiency because they would have been able to control the land on which they lived and worked.  Stake out a plot of land, plant a few crops, teach your kids how to farm, and you have a family business. Or, at least, you have the means to feed yourself even if you can't make money selling what you grow.

Like commoners living in a feudal society, corporate and government employees of today spend their labors working with resources that are not their own.  What does this mean for employees? I offer the following dialogue from "Office Space" as an answer to that:

Peter Gibbons: The thing is, Bob, it's not that I'm lazy, it's that I just don't care.
Bob Porter: Don't... don't care?
Peter Gibbons: It's a problem of motivation, all right? Now if I work my a** off and Initech ships a few extra units, I don't see another dime, so where's the motivation? And here's something else, Bob: I have eight different bosses right now.
Bob Slydell: I beg your pardon?
Peter Gibbons: Eight bosses.
Bob Slydell: Eight?
Peter Gibbons: Eight, Bob. So that means that when I make a mistake, I have eight different people coming by to tell me about it. That's my only real motivation is not to be hassled, that and the fear of losing my job. But you know, Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.

In other words, employment is not the problem for the middle class. Nor is unemployment.  The problem is dependence, either on government or employers.

This leads to Hartmann's second problem: he ignores what the "middle class" was, and does not think carefully enough about what it is now.

In the past, the middle classes were those who were able to make a living for themselves without being born into the wealthy upper classes. Socially, they were commoners. Economically they were not, because they owned the fruits of their labors. That left them somewhere in between the two.

In present political discourse we are generally inclined to define the middle class as those who have an income that is--well--in the middle.  We do not often consider how many of those people do not depend on either government or corporate employment for their "middle class" status. Hartmann compares the merchant classes of the middle ages to present-day middle class citizens. Many merchants of that period (such as the father of St. Francis of Assisi) certainly made a tidy income. But they did so as owners of their own small businesses.  Small farmers would have been able to feed themselves without depending on corporate food distributors to provide groceries. They would have earned money selling their goods to the local community without having to contract with a large corporation in order to survive.  Farmers and merchants in pre-industrialized society were not at the mercy of an indifferent bureaucracy to "create jobs". They created their own.

G.K. Chesterton wrote "Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few." The social gap that ought to concern us today is not merely between rich and poor. It is between employers and employees. There are far too few of the former.

Unfortunately, we have a long way to go before we can change the structure of our economy.  Our culture and our education system still train us and our children to become employees rather than entrepreneurs or independent thinkers. Our political system thrives on the votes our politicians buy from us using our own tax dollars.
The solution to our present economic problem is not "investment in infrastructure" through another "New Deal".  This merely makes the government another big employer.  Nor is the solution to  give existing big employers more latitude to do whatever they want regardless of the human cost.   Common sense and a renewal of an independent human spirit is the answer.

I only hope that it won't take another bubonic plague to make us regain ours. 

Further Reading:

Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum
Hilaire Belloc, The Servile State
G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World

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