The Idiocracy and Its Discontents

Economic inequality in the country is rapidly increasing. But our libertarians are right that inequality, by itself, hardly undermines the case for liberty.

A free country is a place where everyone is getting better off, although some, because of their hard work and natural gifts, more than others. Libertarians always point to the progress of technology as benefitting us all. Everyone is living longer, or at least everyone responsible enough to attend to what we can all know about avoiding the risk factors that imperil our health. In our march toward indefinite longevity and even the Singularity—the moment in time when machines are smarter than humans— it might be reasonable to hope that few will be left behind. And almost everyone benefits from the constant improvement and plummeting cost of the “screen”—from the smart phone to the tablet and laptop to the huge flat-screened TV.

Generally speaking, it’s quite amazing how democratic techno-breakthroughs are: expensive and for the privileged few at first, but widely available and very affordable soon enough. If, as the film Her predicts, Americans will soon prefer the virtual love and encouragement of an Operating System to a real girlfriend, it’s reassuring that most of us will have the wherewithal to have one. A trend we already see with videogames and even Internet porn we can count on accelerating indefinitely.

Although wages for most people might continue to stagnate or even decrease, Tyler Cowen reminds us of the many ways technology has made “cheap fun” and “cheap education” available to us all. For those with the brains and personal discipline to enjoy the benefit, an education worthy of the greatest minds is available for nearly free on line. They won’t need much to live quite well; contemplation, as Aristotle says, is the worthy human activity least dependent on material resources.

Something similar can be said about home schooling and other such alternative methods of self-improvement. For those who can’t or won’t take advantage of that educational benefit and find all the satisfaction they need by being endlessly diverted by the sports, videogames, and porn freely available on screens, we have to be unpuritanical enough not to deny them their freedom to choose. The idiocracy of irresponsible young men that we can already see emerging in certain parts of our country will be amused enough—especially if you add legalized marijuana—not to think of themselves as having been reduced to nothing by forces beyond their control.

iStock_000018099868SmallIt still might not be any clearer to most Americans, however, that the progress of economic liberty has democratic effects. Productivity, thanks to techno-development and the global competitive marketplace, has increased, but wages have stagnated. One reason is that, since the 1960s, women have flooded the marketplace, making competition for the scarce resource of lucrative jobs newly tough. It takes two incomes, typically, to sustain a middle-class family these days, and that is, on balance, not an improvement in the quality of family life. Middle-class Americans are dismayed at plans by corporate leaders to flood our country today with immigrant guest workers to perpetuate the trend of adding to productivity without raising wages. They can distinguish between such schemes, of course, and those designed to make the immigrants now here citizens, because they can distinguish between schemes that treat all Americans as equally dignified citizens and those that reduce us all to mere workers.

Guest workers are more efficient for many reasons than permanent new residents and eventually citizens, given that the need for them will decrease over time, as their reliably mechanical behavior is displaced by robots. Care for the elderly, for example—a burgeoning burden on our aging society—might well be gradually transferred from our immigrants to robots that look like us and have been programmed to be cleverly sensitive and responsive to human material and emotional needs. They’re already using such friendly robots big-time in that nursing home we call Japan.

As I said, the movie Her reminds us why most of us might prefer genius Operating Systems to real girlfriends to open up to and with “whom” to have intimate sexual lives. When I made fun of the relationships displayed in that film on the Big Think blog, more than one techno-nerd responded that I was dissing genuine love. That might be one piece of evidence that members of our cognitive elite are less free and creative—less deeply personal—than they think they are.

Middle-class Americans can also see that the “safety nets” on which we’ve come to rely to cushion the effects of economic competition on our lives seem to be withering away. They include, of course, employer and employee loyalty, pensions, unions, and government entitlements. I’m perfectly willing to admit that unions don’t and shouldn’t have much of a future. They constrain employee liberty and cut into employer profits. I have to add, however, that unions were responsible for raising many skilled laborers into the middle class with secure jobs that had “family wages” and excellent benefits.

Who wouldn’t be, to some extent, nostalgic for a time when American businesses, lacking much effective competition from the rest of the world, could partner with labor to create such a decently middle-class way of life in our country? That nostalgia isn’t “progressive” but “reactionary,” but we conservatives always wish that libertarians could take a moment to learn something from it.

Conservatives and libertarians really do have a different “perspective” here: Our libertarians or at least libertarian economists focus almost exclusively on the injustice and counterproductivity of constraints on the freedom of entrepreneurs, “job creators,” and such. Conservatives tend to think about the complex interplay between political and economic liberty and the relational life of creatures and citizens. It’s not that the libertarians are wrong and the conservatives are right. There’s a lot of truth in both camps.

The real reason that “right-to-work” laws, funded lavishly by extremely rich Americans, make headway in the states is that workers sadly perceive that unions can no longer deliver what they once could. That perception was behind the recent vote against unionization at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga. It’s simply true that the global competitive marketplace has made unionization unsustainable, but that’s not good news for the conditions of and compensation for work. It means it will be harder for people working in plants—even doing very skilled labor—to be comfortably middle class. Libertarians say, quite rightly, that the demands of unions have cost America jobs, but that doesn’t mean that the jobs are actually going to come back now. There is, after all, a loose correlation between the decline and fall of the union and the rise of the jobless recovery, just as there’s a loose correlation between the jobless recovery and the rise of the robot.

All honest futurists acknowledge that robotization will result in the loss of more and more jobs, meaning that fewer people will really be productive at all. People, according to Freud, find human life—with all its miseries—bearable through personal love and worthwhile work. It’s virtually impossible for most people to see that worthwhile work need not be productive, and even personal love rarely endures unsupported by work lucrative enough to sustain families. One could doubt that there’s going to be a new birth of aristocratic leisure or even of the flourishing of whimsical bohemianism that Marx unrealistically described as “the end of history.” The new leisure is obviously about lives far less noble than, say, the gentleman scholar – but also far less noble than those found in the American middle class of the 20th century.

Libertarians these days are spending more time than usual lecturing ordinary Americans about being too envious. In a free society, anyone who is industrious and rational–no matter what or where he or she came from–can rise to wealth and power based on real merit. That means that both justice and self-interest demand that I stop being envious and start working hard, and if I come up short, I have no one to blame but myself. The democratic remedies for envy are shared citizenship and shared opportunity, and there are reasons why the experiences of citizenship and opportunity are getting less common.

The noblest remedy for envy, of course, is being satisfied with what you have, which is hard if you don’t have or are losing what it takes to live a dignified relational life. The libertarians are surely right that envy is the least enjoyable and less productive of the vices. It’s for the good of us all to work for the kind of free society in which it makes even less sense than it does now.

Peter Augustine Lawler

Peter Lawler is Dana Professor of Government and former chair of the department of Government and International Studies at Berry College. Lawler served on President Bush's Council on Bioethics from 2004-09. He writes at National Review Online's Postmodern Conservative blog.

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  1. nobody.really says

    From time to time I opine on the disparity between Homo Economus and human beings. Building models of society based on the premise that humans are atomistic creatures with discrete interests, rather than social creatures with interrelated and collective interests, results in some gaps between the theory and the reality.

    My most common theme is on the nature of compassion. Rightly or not, evidence suggests that many of us identify with our neighbors. As a result, pretty much everything my neighbor does has externalities for me, and vice versa. Thus I want policies to shield my neighbor from certain bad consequences, even if the consequences flow from my neighbor’s own free choices. For example, I want social safety nets, product and workplace safety laws, anti-usury laws, etc. – not merely to protect myself directly, but to protect me from observing the pitiful state of my neighbor. As a fallback position, I want policies that shield me from observing my neighbor’s suffering. Thus, I want zoning laws, vagrancy and panhandling restrictions, immigration restrictions – to keep me separated from people of lower socioeconomic classes.

    A secondary theme is on envy. Rightly or not, evidence suggests that many of us care about how well we perform relative to our neighbors.

    Consider the Ultimatum Game. Imagine I offer you $10, no strings attached, with the following story: Someone has just received a windfall of $100 on the condition that he shares a portion with some random stranger. He agreed to offer you $10 out of the $100. You have two choices: Accept – and you both get your shares of the money – or reject – and you both get nothing. Experience shows that people turn down money if the shares are considered too uneven. Thus, while Homo Economus would never turn down free money, real human beings do all the time — apparently to vindicate a sense of equity.

    My local Habitat for Humanity receives a lot of very nice donations from builders: bay window components, Jacuzzi tubs, fireplaces, fancy countertops, large mirrors, etc. Yet Habitat management restricts the number of these things we can put into a home. Helping a poor family get a home is lauded – provided that the home is not too nice; that would threaten the social order.

    Similarly, the idea that we tax someone earning $20,000 differently than someone earning $2 million doesn’t threaten the social order. But the idea that we impose different taxes on people, even when they all earn $20,000 – or that we impose different taxes on people, even when they all earn $2 million – may threaten the social order. Libertarians might favor policies that permit people to evade burdensome regulations, even if only a minority of people can benefit. But evidence suggests that such “loopholes” undermine social cohesion.

    Such “dog in the manger” objections may be frustrating – but they’re very human. Does it make sense to devise social policy for people as we might idealize them to be, or for people as they are?

    • perrywhite.dailyplanet says

      Great Caesars Ghost!!!!

      That is perhaps the clearest and most concise exposition of the Democrat Party’s strategy and practice over the last century that I have ever read.

  2. R Richard Schweitzer says

    “It’s for the good of us all to work for the kind of free society in which** it** [envy?] makes even less sense than it does now.”

    That somewhat sermon-like concluding sentence infers a collectivist concept of liberty, and collectivist reasons for seeking and maintaining liberty, rather than the concept of individual liberty which inspired the founder of Liberty Fund. . Perhaps being a non-congregant (of collectivism in this case) may make it difficult to parse a particular sermon. But let us examine some highlights:

    “A free country is a place where everyone is getting better off,”

    No, it is not. Everyone may be “getting better off” in a particular country where there is **not** freedom to, or freedom from. A country may provide freedom from, and freedom to, **without** everyone “getting better off.” Take notice of the use of the universal – “everyone.” Presumably, since the concluding sentence refers to society, the use of “country” incorporates its included society.

    “The idiocracy of irresponsible young men that we can already see emerging in certain parts of our country will be amused enough—especially if you add legalized marijuana—not to think of themselves as having been reduced to nothing by forces beyond their control.”

    This seems to infer (“by forces beyond their control”) a view of determinism as an active ingredient in a collective concept of our social order and its continuing development. It is unclear whether this is taken to be a conservative viewpoint. It is certainly not a libertarian viewpoint.

    “The democratic remedies for envy are shared citizenship and shared opportunity, and there are reasons why the experiences of citizenship and opportunity are getting less common.”

    That is a superb example of conjoining disparate posits that require separate parsing.

    Taking them separately:
    Reversing order, “shared citizenship and shared opportunity are democratic remedies for envy.” No, totalitarian regimes have provided shared citizenship and shared opportunity in which the sharing has been the subject of centralized control. Envy continues. There is nothing in a Democratic process (it is a process) for the determination of “sharing” of either citizenship or opportunities that provides a remedy for envy. If we assign to that process a particular objective, the process ceases to be democratic. We have ample examples in our own uses of our democratic process.
    Next: “. . . there are reasons why the experiences of citizenship and opportunity are getting less common.”
    The inference here is that there should be a “commonality of experiences” rather than individuality of experiences. There certainly has been no dearth of efforts, academically and politically, to engender commonality of experiences (part of the new totalitarianism). Consideration should be given to how distinct those efforts are from the uses sought elsewhere in the sentence for the Democratic process.

    “That nostalgia [nostalgi(a)c for a time when American businesses, lacking much effective competition from the rest of the world, could partner with labor to create such a decently middle-class way of life in our country] isn’t “progressive” but “reactionary,” but we conservatives always wish that libertarians could take a moment to learn something from it.”

    Libertarian literature is replete with descriptions of the lessons to be learned from those past errors, including the making of promises that cannot be kept, the costs of rent seeking through protectionist legislation, and the intrusions of politically determined the objectives into the operations of business enterprises. These are actually shared concerns of libertarians and conservatives, not distinctions.

    “Our libertarians or at least libertarian economists focus almost exclusively on the injustice and counterproductivity of constraints on the freedom of entrepreneurs, ‘job creators,’ and such. Conservatives tend to think about the complex interplay between political and economic liberty and the relational life of creatures and citizens.”

    Libertarians “tend to think about – what to do about – the complex interplay between political and economic liberty.” They tend to think about it in terms of the impacts on individual liberty of the political determinations which use the coercive powers of the mechanisms of government for the benefit of particular interests. They tend to think about the impacts on innovation and entrepreneurship (which brings together innovation and the means for its implementation) both of which are dependent upon individuality and upon the limitations of constraints upon the exercise of that individuality.

    We cannot conclude that the conservative view is a collectivist view; nor can we conclude that the libertarian views disregard social consequences.

  3. says

    One of the liberties that libertarians cherish is the liberty to have different opinions, interests and values than other libertarians. There seems to be not a few contributors to this site that feel the need proclaim what libertarians do or should believe. Those proclamations are routinely dismissed.

  4. Kevin R. Hardwick says

    I find the original post to be written at such a level of abstraction–and with a sufficiently large number of unwarranted claims–that I am not entirely sure I understand what is being argued.

    That said, one glaring assumption seems to be that people succeed or fail based on their just deserts. What evidence do we have for this claim, however?

    Consider just one example, based on the kind of experience that all of us who are academics will find familiar. There are several make-or-break moments in a typical academic career. One of them is getting hired into a tenure track line. Because the stakes are very high, most universities that I know put a great deal of energy into making these decisions–the review process is as rigorous as we know how to make it, and the vetting process is lengthy and careful. And yet, in my experience, its pretty much a crap shoot. I’d say that it is only a minority of cases that the best candidate wins the job–and I am completely comfortable saying that, because of the law of averages, at least some of the most deserving and qualified applicants not only do not get the job at my university, they never get a job offer at all. So here is at least one case in which merit does not match opportunity.

    This is pretty impressionistic–but I can also safely assert that what is true in the academy is true elsewhere too. There are “gateway” moments in most careers in which decisions that directly effect the life chances of people are made in haphazard, indeed almost random, fashion.

    If this is really the case, then the distribution of rewards in society–not just money, but status and quality of life as well–is not fully or even largely based on merit.

    If luck has a significant role to play in all of this, what are the implications for libertarian thought? I don’t mind rewarding people who earn their rewards and who merit them. But why should I respect a distribution of rewards based to any significant degree on more arbitrary factors?

    • R Richard Schweitzer says

      “. . . what are the implications for libertarian thought?”

      There is probably no “libertarian thought.”

      Some thinkers, who have views regarded as “libertarian,” might imply that those issues cited simply prove the invalidity of Political Positivism; that a social organization can not be designed or constructed that can determine the results from all the variables in human interactions.

    • Kevin R. Hardwick says

      My opening sentence here was badly framed–my apologies for its churlishness.

      I do think it is in part adequately descriptive, however–I really am not at all certain I follow the development of Dr. Lawler’s thought in the post. Having read the essay several times now, I find the development from paragraph to paragraph to be hard to follow. I mean that, however, I hope anyway, in a constructive fashion–it strikes me as the kind of thing I want to know, when I write. And too, I may well be completely idiosyncratic–so take please with a grain of salt.

      Richard’s post above demonstrates that I am just as guilty of writing in too compressed or too “short-hand” a fashion. There are of course many species of libertarianism, some of which are sufficiently well developed to merit terming “thought.” The free-market variety, moreever, does depend for its ethical claims on the notion that markets distribute results in an equitable fashion, according to merit.

      I don’t think my argument can be dismissed quite so simply as you (Richard) suggest, however. The issue I am raising becomes problematic only if the degree to which results are distributed has a great deal of luck to it. And my point is not to argue that it does–rather, it is to suggest that this is assumed, and that to my knowledge we simply do not know one way or the other to what degree luck (or other arbitrary factors) plays a role.

      I think the sounder rejoinder to the point I am making is to suggest that even if there is a lot of luck involved, it may well be the case that markets distribute rewards to merit better than do other ways of organizing an economy. This strikes me as plausible. Still, if outcomes (rewards, etc.) are highly random and not correlated to merit or ability, then that does strike me as an argument for the kinds of compromises for which progressives argue.

      All best wishes,

      • R Richard Schweitzer says

        Not to be “flip,” but to buttress your points (which are totally valid), “Luck” seems to begin with the selection of one’s parents and their location.

        Still, on “markets:” Aren’t they really just means for the exchanges made necessary by the “divisions of labor?” The nature and results of the “exchanges” are determined by the participants (which often include 3d parties such as governments and other interceding “interests’). If libertarians (or others) maintain that markets function otherwise, as “distributors,” based on merit (or relative values), it should be kept in mind that merit and value are determined by the human participants (including those who are not making the actual exchanges). Of course, the full nature of a market is also affected by the subject matters of the exchanges. Particular terms of employment are certainly such a subject matter.

        As an aside, but complementary, to capture the benefits of divisions of labor, “markets” seem to provide the most natural (and historic) form of exchanges, and, to the extent the intrusions by 3d parties are limited, they are more “efficient” than dirigisme alternatives whose objectives may not conform to objectives or interests of the actual exchanging parties.

  5. Peter Augustine Lawlerpeter lawler says

    Thanks for these thoughtful comments. But maybe the beginning of wisdom for conservatives these days is thinking sowewhat outside the individualism vs. collectivism box.

  6. R Richard Schweitzer says

    Barring some unusual meaning for the term, it would be difficult to consider failure of constant awareness of the impacts of collectivism on individual liberty, on its effects of the social order, and on human intercourse, as – wisdom.

  7. gabe says

    Markets are value free – yet, value driven. It is in this way that they achieve efficiency. Markets do not have as a primary aim the distribution or re-distribtuion of anything. This is incidental to its operation. It is as Richard says a historically effective means of exchange. Yet, the exchange is an exchange of value – my value (in concrete form of $$) for your value (Blanton’s Bourbon, perhaps). This is in its own way a highly moral transaction and one which rewards merit – that is to say Mr Blanton receives my value because of the superiority of his product. Thus, merit is rewarded.
    It is only through the intervention of an externality, government, seeking to impose a different value on to the exchange that the merit of the transaction is diluted. That externality may impose excessive taxes to reduce consumption such that i may not afford my preferred choice, or to limit the size of the container (Bloomberg and Big Gulps come to mind) to protect my health, that the more “meritous” exchange is handicapped. Consequently, less efficient, less savvy readers of the consumers values are propped up by the state. Thus both value and merit are obscured and diminished in the market.

    I see no wisdom in this. It follows then that any intervention intended to provide the modern day equivalent of “roman circuses” to the less well adapted or knowledgeable will also not be wise and would serve only to increase vastly the scale of “rent seekers” (in a literal sense) to the poor, ill educated while simultaneously enhancing the power of the “knowledge elire.”
    Gee, sounds like the administrative state on steroids with its vast army of experts.
    Well then again, since i do enjoy good bourbon – I suppose I (and others, possibly millions of other you’s?) probably deserve it!!

    take care

    • says

      The Affordable Care Act is an interesting case study in the redistribution follies. There are 4 basic classes of people subject to the Act: 1.) young and wealthy, 2.) young and not wealthy, 3.) not young and wealthy and 4.) not young and not wealthy. The definition of young and wealthy need not be rigorous; as long as they comply with general understanding, the basic concept holds.

      The young tend to be over-represented among healthy and the not young tend to be over-represented among the wealthy (because of longer work experience, savings, home equity, etc.) The mandate for coverage under the Affordable Care Act is explicitly to get healthier (younger and less wealthy) people to participate in risk pools to the effect of subsidizing less healthy (older and statistically wealthier people). The net result is that less wealthy people end up subsidizing wealthier ones. The “fix” of subsidizing premiums for less wealthy enrollees does not negate this oddity, since the young still must make a net contribution to cover the older, sicker and ultimately wealthier enrollees. Shell game economics does not even begin to remedy this.


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