Socialism, Capitalism, and the Liberal Republic

It is true that people — not only ignorant self-described “conservatives” but also many ignorant self-described “Socialists” — often throw the word “Socialism” around without seeming to understand what it means.  But,it is also true (OK, it is at least my not-so-humble opinion) that the many articles published recently trying to explain why various brands of “liberalism” are not actually the same as “Socialism” have been overly narrow and parochial in their view of what Socialism is and entails, limiting their argument to the simplistic (and flawed) formulation that it can’t really be Socialism if the government doesn’t “own” the means of production.

But, if that isn’t the defining nature of “Socialism”, then what is? For that matter, what is the defining nature of “Capitalism”? And how do either interact, for better or worse, with the moral premises and practical structures of our Liberal Republic?

In five parts:

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An Open Letter to the Republican Party

For as long as I can remember — and my memory goes back to Lyndon Johnson – the electoral message of the Democratic party has included, fairly prominently, the following proposition:

Vote for me! I’ll give you something and make somebody else pay for it!

In recent elections that proposition has not only been featured prominently, it has been the highlight. Remember the 1%? Remember how “the rich” are not paying their “fair share”? Remember Thomas Frank’s lament, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” What was his argument?

Hey, we promised to give you something and make someone else pay for it! You must not have been listening!

Yes, the Republican Party has been featuring its grumpy old men and its “back in the day…” cultural attitudes, and it has paid for that. Yes, it needs to have a serious internal conversation about what really are the core Republican principles, to differentiate them from the cultural and emotional fetishes that seem to absorb its “activists”.

But, in the end, even if they could get past all that, the question remains: how do you convince people to refuse a free lunch? How do you counter the allure of getting something for nothing?

You have to explain why that can’t work!

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Security, Liberty, and one of my “Triggers”

That is why America is more risk tolerant than other countries and societies in the world: because to guarantee security you must always sacrifice some amount of liberty; and, in assessing that sacrifice, Americans have traditionally factored liberty higher in the equation than have most other peoples.

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Your Tribe or Mine?

I am a (late) middle-aged white man and so, I admit, my experiences of race are almost certainly far removed from yours. But, notwithstanding that, it would seem to me that you and I, with our somewhat similar education levels, economic status, and (in all likelihood) cultural tastes and attitudes, are likely “tribe-mates” in ways far more fundamental than a mere matter of skin color or genetic heritage. And I don’t consider people who beat up others out of some misguided sense of grievance, or who spew ignorance and hate, to be part of my “tribe”. The fact that they may have white skin or may come from the same geographical area as I really has nothing to do with that determination.

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A Trifle: Does the “right wing” really control EVERYTHING?

I don’t like the current administration and its boosters any more than you do, but really? In what country are you living where they control “nearly every element of our government and society?”

It seems to me — and much to their obvious chagrin — that there are vast swaths of society — and even significant portions of government — over which they exercise very little control at all…

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Solar Power, Revisited

Ten years ago, I wrote a post about the cost-ineffectiveness of solar power. Things have changed.

Today, we have a solar power array on our house that has, over the two years of its operation, supplied about 86% of our overall power needs and saved us about 6% on our electricity bill after accounting for the cost of the array, itself.

That glowing summary, however, reflects not actual day-to-day array performance but only an annualized average, made possible by a “net metering” policy that allows us to use the local electric grid as a “battery” and that provides some fairly generous — if hidden – subsidies to help defray the cost of the system.

That glowing summary also hides some fairly strict logistical limits that put an upper bound on how much solar power the grid can support without the net metering policy falling apart.

This is my report on my two years of experience with solar power, along with some musings on its benefits and constraints.

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Stand Your Ground

There is, and has been for centuries, a genuine and earnest debate in this country about the requirements and limits of deference to the State when it comes to matters of personal well-being. People who value their right to protect themselves from the burdens of parenthood by having an abortion assert the same principle of personal autonomy as those who value their right to protect themselves from being the victims of predators by bearing weapons; and both assertions come from the same moral and spiritual sources.

There is a primal disagreement about whether, and to what extent, individuals do or do not retain a sacred right to protect themselves when they also claim protection from the State. One view, typically associated with the American political right, asserts that individuals do retain such a right, that the government’s duty to protect augments, but does not replace, that individual prerogative. The other view, typically associated more with the American political left, asserts that the individual prerogative to protect oneself is, and must be, significantly diminished — if not fully subjugated– in order for government to maintain the civil order required for its protections to be meaningful and effective.

To be clear, the legal imperative that you must retreat, rather than defend yourself, in the face of a threat is an explicit mandate that you must affirmatively participate in your own victimization. It reflects a political philosophy that assigns responsibility for and authority over personal well-being strictly to the State and it requires that everyone depend solely on the State for that function — it requires that, if the State can’t act in the moment to protect you against such victimization, then your responsibility as a citizen is to avoid fighting back, to accept being a victim now in the hope that you can attain some form of redress later. In effect, it transforms the role of individuals within such a polity from that of sovereign citizen to that of ward and supplicant, from autonomous and self-directed moral agent to just another drone playing his or her assigned role in the human hive.

Hyperbole? Of course. But these arguments go beyond philosophy to the moral and emotional core of what it means to exist as a human individual embedded within a larger society and, so, they invite a correspondingly moral and emotional response.

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Trump’s “Treason” in Helsinki?

Donald Trump betrayed us before a global audience — he dishonored us, as head of state rather than as head of government — by exhibiting a disdain for our democratic values, by demeaning the integrity of and trust in our institutions, by undermining our cultural and moral influence, and quite frankly, by playing, in our name and to our shame, the role of fool and sycophant to a petty tyrant.

If, as head of government negotiating and implementing executive policies, he were actually to act as an agent of Russian interest and against ours, then his behavior could legitimately be described as “treasonous”. But in the absence of evidence for that — and under the much more likely scenario that his abysmal performance represents merely a self-willed and negligent act of narcissistic defensiveness — the proper and appropriate term for his behavior is “perfidious.”

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