A Logic Without Limits
Quite a while back, I posted this trailer for The Corporation in a comments thread here:
Thanks to a comments thread over at Balloon Juice, I went looking for it again, and discovered that you can now watch the entire film online at hulu.
It presents a pretty dim view, but the central point is an important one: shouldn’t we, as citizens of a democracy, have at least some control over the dominant institutions that control our lives, rather than the other way around?
In turn, that question leads us to the central conflict between the modern right and the center-left in this country. Sure, there are corporate clients pulling strings on both sides. But there is a critical difference: the ideology and almost religious faith expressed in the power of “the free market” which enthralls today’s conservatives is based in the idea that there are no limits – to growth, to profit, or to the accumulation of wealth - which is quite frankly an insane assumption. There are limits to everything – there is a limit to the drops of water in the ocean, to the grains of sand on the beach, to the oxygen molecules in the atmosphere. We do not live in a world without limits – but this is the only environment in which the ideology underpinning their every economic policy prescription could be sustained. Further, in their embrace of the omniscient power of free markets to sort things out, there is a touch of sociopathy. They pretty freely admit that markets aren’t all that concerned with fairness, or morality, or sustainability, or any of a host of other issues that make up the big picture of the truly giant central role these decisions made by “the markets” play in all of our lives. They just accept that dollars know best, and will as a matter of course flow more freely to those most deserving – regardless of what they had to do to get the current flowing. (See also the parallel “prosperity gospel” dominant in many modern mega-churches.) I of course vehemently disagree with that proposition, but that aside, understanding this underlying notion that there are no limits is crucial to understanding why the economic policies advanced by today’s conservatives not only fail to perform as advertised, but also invariably and inevitably lead to disaster.
The disasters occur because of what happens to all systems as you approach inviolable limits. You never really reach them, because the system melts down when it gets thrown too out-of-kilter. Those of you who went to public school back in the old days when they still had funds for stuff like science equipment will remember the fruit fly experiment – as the flies multiplied and reached the limits of their artifically-circumscribed environment, they ALL died. The same holds true for business – there’s nothing you can produce with 100% profit, because labor, even your own, isn’t free. There’s always going to be some portion of the gross that covers the costs of doing business. If you attempt to attain that 100% limit, then at some point approaching it your business is going to crash and burn, because no one is going to work for free or give you free materials. The same with wealth concentration – if one guy owns everything, and no one else owns anything, there is no economy. But at some point along that path to the limit it all falls apart anyway, because there’s no way one guy can hold off 7.5 billion others who want – and need - some of the 100% of all stuff that he owns.
The lunacy of the policy prescriptions that flow from conservative fantasies of “no limits” should be apparent by now – it’s that they actually encourage racing to the limits. We’ve seen this fantasy expressed in everything from their solutions to energy problems to environmental problems to economic problems to tax policy. The idea that if we just keep doing what we’ve been doing, and pray harder or clap louder, all the problems will go away, banished by the magic Invisible Hand.
What’s worst of all is when they apply the fantasy to government. Government is the one institution where we collectively can define boundaries designed to keep things within the limits – for the benefit of ALL of us. Since we’ve already established that there ARE limits to everything, whether you want to believe in them or not, it pretty naturally leads to “ok then, what things would help keep us from going over the cliff?” and government and its functions are pretty much the only solution we humans have devised to address that issue. We need it because we need guardrails so we don’t go off the cliff. That’s not the only reason for having it in a modern nation-state, but it’s the original reason, and it’s still the primary one.
That’s pretty much the opposite of conservatives’ understanding of the purpose of government. To hear King of the Douches Stephen Moore and the like tell it, the purpose of government is to remove any and all impediments to the rich and powerful doing whatever they want or need to do in their quest to Own It All.
Modern conservativism, then, can more succinctly be described as an ideology that opposes the government guardrails on the cliff as an impediment to the market in driving us over it.
And really, isn’t there a basic insanity underlying this idea that the meaning of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” equals “making it easier for a few guys to Own It All”? Isn’t it at least kind of an odd notion that the ultimate purpose of government in a democracy – set up, in theory, to serve the interests of all of us - isn’t it odd to describe as the ultimate goal, the highest calling of that government, a focus on making it easier for a few people to own everything? Shouldn’t it instead be focused on looking out for ALL of us, making sure we get a fair shake?
The thing conservatives would most like to distract people from noticing is this: there’s only so much pie, and government more or less is the only institution that can mediate the way it’s divided up. We’ve not yet reached the ultimate limit to the size of that pie, but it does exist. Their philosophy and policy prescriptions are all aimed at giving most of the pie, regardless of how large it is, to a very few people; the rest of us can get by on the crumbs – which are more than we deserve.
And this, I suspect, is the reason they’ve embraced an impossible ideology premised on a lack of limits. Because otherwise people can easily figure out that they’re never going to get any pie, no matter how big it is – just more of the same old shit that, like always, flows downhill.