Thursday, 16 April 2015

On Bottom Up and Top Down Thinking - Part 18

18. The economic means and the political means

Next, I’ll look at the economic effects, which flow from bottom up and top down approaches. Why are these so important? Because almost everyone – even those with no interest in politics – feels, very directly, the effects of problems in the economy.

I’ll begin with a longish quote from the book The State (first published 1908, English edition 1922) by the German philosopher Franz Oppenheimer:

“There are two fundamentally opposed means whereby man, requiring sustenance, is impelled to obtain the necessary means for satisfying his desires. These are work and robbery, one’s own labor and the forcible appropriation of the labor of others...

I propose in the following discussion to call one’s own labor and the equivalent exchange of one’s own labor for the labor of others, the ‘economic means’ for the satisfaction of needs, while the unrequited appropriation of the labor of others will be called the ‘political means.’”

What Oppenheimer is telling us is that using the economic means is very different from using the political means. For, think what happens when we buy shoddy goods or services in a free market. If we don’t like what we get, we can look for, and at need switch to, another supplier next time. Better, even if we don’t ourselves go so far as changing supplier, other people switching will give our supplier a strong incentive to clean up its act.

But when the state provides shoddy tax funded services – like justice or education – then often it’s impossible to switch. And even when the state doesn’t actually prohibit competitors from providing a similar service, it’s still hard to change to non-state suppliers. For example, those who can’t afford private schools for their children, and don’t have the time or resources to homeschool, are in effect locked into the state indoctrination system.

And when the state uses tax money to do truly criminal acts – like favouring its cronies, making aggressive wars, promoting “CO2 causes catastrophic climate change” lies, or intercepting our e-mails – we have no come-back at all. We have no way to say “No!” or “bugger off.” (The commonly touted idea that we can fix such problems by voting differently at the next election is, to use an understatement, laughable.)

To put all this another way. Users of the economic means have to do a decent job. For if they don’t, they will lose customers. So, the economic means is a bottom up approach. You have to give something in order to get something back. It’s a self-correcting approach, too: for the discipline of market competition will eventually weed out the lazy and the dishonest. And thus, the bottom up approach encourages economic progress and increasing prosperity.

But for users of the political means, there is no such discipline. Nothing beyond social pressure – and even this is frequently lacking – obliges them to be diligent or honest. Having reduced or eliminated competition, they can get away with delivering services wastefully, at low quality and often in a dishonest, politicized way. Theirs is a top down approach. The customers have no come-back, so they’ll just have to be happy with what they get.

I think this explains why so many politicians and state functionaries show such a visceral hatred for the idea of competition. And why they show such a loathing for the honest, productive people, who earn success through their own efforts.

But I don’t believe that all state employees, and those whose jobs are funded by taxes, are necessarily bad people. Nor, indeed, are they all top down thinkers. There do exist fine individuals – such as honest, non-politicized judges – who have no other potential employer than government. And in many other professions, like doctors, teachers and academics, opportunities to work in a free market are often limited through no fault of the individuals concerned.

Nor, it must be said, do all those in “private” jobs honestly earn their keep. Indeed, in recent decades there has been a huge rise in “crony capitalism.” That is, the use of political contacts, lobbying and the like to seek favours for companies. There has also been a huge rise in its mirror image, “corporatism,” the use of financial power in attempts to gain political power. And in gambling with other people’s money, in the expectation that the gamblers will receive a bail-out from the state if things go wrong.

All this notwithstanding, bottom up thinkers tend to be attracted more to free market jobs, and top down thinkers more to tax funded ones. Thus, bottom up thinkers tend to become users of the economic means. And top down thinkers tend to become users of the political means.

One more important point. We are incessantly told, from politically correct quarters, that we mustn’t be “selfish,” and that we must “do our bit for others.” But using the economic means is quite the opposite of selfish. Indeed, by putting their energies into being productive and trading honestly, users of the economic means have already done their bit for others.

No; in reality, the boot fits the other foot. It’s the users of the political means that are selfish. They’re the ones that do nothing but take, take, take. And they’re the ones that must reform themselves, cure their selfishness, earn an honest living, and start doing their bit for others.

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