Sunday, November 28, 2004

The History and Philosophy of the Ownership Society

Those who do not read and understand history are doomed to repeat it. 
-- Harry Truman

I have read history, and I understand it, but I seem to be doomed anyway.
-- j7uy5
Ownership Society: noun,(nr-shp s-s-t) 1. A society in which, if you do not own anything, you are not a part of the society; 2. A form of social organization patterned after the popular board game, Monopoly ®, as promoted by members of the faith-based community.  See also: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Aristotle got off to a good start; he was the first empiricist.  A number of wars and other unfortunate events could have been prevented, if only his ideas had flourished.  Unfortunately, the Roman Empire fell, the Dark Ages ensued, and Theocracy became ascendant throughout Europe.  I don't mean to be Eurocentric, exclusively, but as most of the good weapons were in Europe, that is where the power was: the power that exerted the greatest influence on the form of the modern geopolitical leviathan. 

Then we had the Renaissance.  This brought Copernicus, Galileo, and Francis Bacon.  Like a dicotyledonous seed, the influences of logic and observation began to sprout.  In the Enlightenment, that seed was empowered, as sunlight empowers the photosynthetic apparatus.  The empiricists of the Enlightenment gave rise to John Locke's notion of "government with the consent of the governed."  This, in fact, was the foundation of the American political system.  At about the same time that Locke was dreaming up the ideas that would form the foundation for the Constitution of the United States of America, Christiaan Huygens invented the pendulum clock, based upon Galileo's ideas.  The ability to measure time, with both accuracy and precision,  was a prerequisite for the Industrial Revolution. 

It was fortunate that the idea of government with the consent of the governed came about prior to the Industrial Revolution.  Industry allows great power to be concentrated int he hands of a few persons, to an extent greater than had been imagined previously.  Without some kind of control, via democracy, that power could be very bad.  It is only because of the great thinkers of the Enlightenment, that the Industrial Revolution has not yet destroyed the planet. 

Not yet.

The key to averting this destruction is to keep power decentralized.  Any form of government that has too much power, is dangerous.  That seems pretty obvious.  What may be less obvious is the fact that this depends upon a resolute separation between church and state.  It also depends upon a system for the distribution of wealth. 

From time to time, the leaders of the United States of America seem to forget the principles of its foundation.  Allowing Religion to govern politics carries with it a grave danger.  Note that I make a distinction here between Religion, on the one hand, and religious principles, on the other.  There is nothing wrong with borrowing religious principles to enrich one's political views.  But to allow organized Religion to influence politics is to promote too great of a concentration of power.  The same idea applies to economics.  Having a strong middle class, an accountable upper class, and an upwardly-mobile lower class is necessary for the prevention of an unfettered concentration of power. 

Now, we have an Administration that embraces the influence of Religion, effectively escape accountability, and seeks to widen further the gap between rich and poor.  They also carry a suitcase with a big red button inside.  Underneath the button is this label:

Push This Button To Destroy All Life on Earth. 

One means of increasing the wealth gap, and thus increasing the concentration of power, is to have what some have called the Ownership Society (O.S.S). 
"Another priority for a new term is to build an ownership society, because ownership brings security and dignity and independence."
--George W. Bush, November 3, 2004
Yes, ownership can bring those benefits, but is the Ownership Society the way to do it, and does it do it without unacceptable risks?  I've stated before that politicians should not be allowed to make claims that they cannot prove.  This is a good example.  The Ownership Society is an idea whose time has come -- and gone, back in the sixteenth century. 

I'm not going to detail all the problems with the O.S.S.; see James Surowiecki's bit in the New Yorker, or, for a less diplomatically worded piece, see Jeffrey Feldman's work on Daily Kos.  A choice excerpt:

The phrase "Ownership Society" is an umbrella phrase, the big picture concept behind all social program reforms to be proposed by the Bush administration.  The basic premise of an ownership society is that individuals--not "big government"--are responsible for themselves.  According to this flawed conservative vision, if the country dismantles all  social programs and "returns" both tax money and social responsibility to individuals, the net result will be an general increase in "liberty" and a brighter future for all. 

This logic is flawed.

President Bush and the Conservative movement do not want to increase liberty and create a brighter future for all. The goal of the Bush administration is to dismantle the social welfare state because they believe that social programs unfairly burden the wealthy and privilege the poor (viewed as weak by the conservative movement).  The real motivation behind the push for an "ownership society" is to eliminate all barriers to unregulated free markets, allowing unlimited concentration of wealth, and the emergence of an American aristocratic permanent ruling class.

The phrase "Ownership Society" is a very powerful metaphor, because it invokes a noble vision of an America where everyone owns their own home.  When we imagine ourselves as home owners, we imagine ourselves happy, warm and secure.

The "Ownership Society" concept is a broad strategic initiative designed to convince Americans that government programs to help the poor, the indigent, and the disadvantaged are the real problems preventing them from realize the dream of home ownership and a secure future. [...]
The arguments that favor an O.S.S. are great, except for one thing.  They ignore reality.  An empiricist would ask for evidence.  Although economics is a difficult science, and trying to create a mathematical model for the economy of the planet is a prodigious task, we all have some experience with a simpler model: Monopoly ®.

Remember this guy?  He's the guy who promotes a completely free market.  Anyone who's played the game knows how it goes.  Whoever is lucky enough to get a small advantage, early on, is able to use that advantage to get a bigger advantage.  The disparity in wealth grows until there is one winner and everyone else is a looser.  Experience shows that this result is inevitable.  An empiricist would favor that over any other kind of argument. 

As a game, Monopoly is great.  As a political system, it is a grand deception.  It throws out the great advances of political thought, and returns us to what is essentially a feudal system.  Everyone is on their own, unless they can curry favor with those in power. 

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