Since I have often been one of those people who, as Mark Twain so cleverly put it, wants to have read classics much more that I want to actually read them, I decided it was time to take a break from my normal fare and read Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle". The topic of corruption in post-Industrial Revolution American capitalism has always been one that has interested me, particularly since I believe we are entering an entirely new phase of it, exacerbated by the hand-in-hand exponential growth of technology and bureaucracy, as well as the general complexity of life.
I'm only part way through the book, and while it clear to me that Sinclair's style of writing is absolutely tremendous, his story is gripping, and in places horrifying, I am trying to reconcile his documentation of the excesses and evils of early 20th century capitalism with his strong support for socialism. You see, to me, totalitarianism and capitalism are two sides of the same coin. The overarching principle of the world is "Power Corrupts", so any concentration of power, whether by a dictator of a nation or a Chief Executive Officer of a corporation, is bound to lead to evil. Basically we are talking about two extremes of a socio-economic spectrum with capitalism on one end and communism on the other.
The problem with pure communism, which is also the problem with pure capitalism, is that immoral people will inevitably wreck the system and enslave the less powerful in order to engage in tyranny. In fact, any system of government or economics that does not have a very meticulous system of checks and balances, as well as limited and decentralized power will suffer the same consequences. If the powers of regulation and commerce are not pitted against each other, or are at least not controlled by the same people, individuals will suffer. This is why I have a problem with the reaction to "The Jungle" being a call for socialism. If you take a corrupt system, in this book's case the unchecked "Meat Trust", and give control over it to the government, you are handing massive power to an organization that is already powerful. How can you expect the result to be less corrupt? The good will of men? How does that square with my "overarching principle of the world"?
I believe the correct response was the one that was actually taken: Unions, which were limited collectivism to acquire bargaining power, and government regulation, which was limited socialism, not to exert power, but to protect the weak. Of course, in the intervening decades, unions have become too powerful and are often as corrupt as the companies they were created to defend against, and government regulation has become so overly complex and burdensome that it has a direct, deleterious affect on our national economy and quality of life.
If you read the Acts of the Apostles, you will see the early Christian communities lived in what is pretty much a text-book communal (or communist) society among themselves, as did medieval monasteries and other religious communities through the ages. With a small group of people who are like-minded and zealous about their beliefs (as any new adherent to a religion, particularly if he is being persecuted for it, would be), this can work. But of course it didn't last too long, and once the Church became large and successful its wealth and power were often subverted for less-than-Christian ideals, which is one reason today why it specifically eschews political power and uses the vast majority of the wealth it collects and maintains for good works.
Similarly, it's relatively easy to have a startup company with, say 8 people, where everyone is top-notch, hard-working and delivers good results. It's practically impossible to have a company with 1000 people where everyone is of that same caliber. Similarly, communism doesn't scale. It can't scale. You can have a large company that is successful, but communism can't work at all unless everyone is equally invested and committed to it. Socialism bypasses the corruption stage and goes straight to tyranny. Capitalism can be subverted for evil, and will be if there is nothing to stop it. No system is perfect as long as we flawed humans are a part of it.
That said however, I still find the conservative principles to be qualitatively more sound than the alternatives.
Here's my take on "conservative" principles. Some of these are no doubt compatible with "liberal" principles or are at odds with "conservative" principles as espoused by some "conservative" politicians. Many of these are probably more accurately called "libertarian" principles, because at this point in the game, the entire body politic of the United States is hopelessly mired in big government, grotesque complexity, and obsession with tweaking details on issues when the overall strategy is hopelessly flawed, and any concrete steps towards solving problems is a step away from government interference.
I think that is a good thing that my ideas don't fit into the rigid molds our public discourse has created. Political philosophies in the U.S. have become too issue-dependent, and are often, even usually, not philosophies at all but merely a laundry list of grievances against specific practices or perceived and real problems, regardless of their causes and effects, and irrespective of the best way to address them.
My principles are:
- Equalize opportunities, because you cannot equalize results.
- People can generally take care of themselves, and they should be expected to, until they prove otherwise.
- Help people when they truly need it, but if aid to someone doesn't also come with a cost, it will be abused and ineffectual.
- The rights of the individual take precedence by default. Anything that compromises individual rights and opportunities will compromise their chances for success.
- Any aspect of government should be as local as possible. There are very few things that truly require implementation at the national level, or can be effective at a national level. This is especially true in a country as large and diverse as the United States.
- Real education is the best tool for any person, and the best way to prevent any problem. Investments in education will always pay off (but remember #3). Moral education is the most important kind.
- Humans are the best and most important natural resource on the planet. Human life, therefore, should be held in the highest regard, and its protection should be the highest priority.
- We are stewards of the Earth, we neither own it or are owned by it. We have a right to use it and to change it to suit our needs, but we have a duty to protect and preserve its value.
- There will always be evil. Be prepared to neutralize it, or you will be defeated by it.
- Liberty is not license. Freedom necessitates responsibility and duty.
- Sovereignty is a right for both individuals and groups. People have a right to associate with whom they please.
- You have no right not to be offended by others.
- Life isn't fair. You can't make it fair. Get over it.
#3 was the hardest to word succinctly. Here's what else I wanted to say:
Any social safety-net or entitlement will be gamed as much as possible and is guaranteed to be inefficient. Compassion is the most easily subverted intention, the easiest to take advantage of. People should not be allowed to starve or live without shelter, but without a real chance to fail, many people will simply let the system take care of them. Even more are trapped in a cycle of dependency because there are no concrete options that allow them to escape it. (See #1 and #6).
#10 is particularly important and is particularly misunderstood in this day and age. Liberty can only exist in a people whose individuals are willing and able to be self-governing. And yes, that implies moral absolutes. Liberty without morality is another name for anarchy. Since we rapidly losing (and disposing of) our morality, we will have to lose our liberty to maintain order. I think very few people understand this, and as a result, our government is having to become more and more controlling as we, as a society, are ceding more and more responsibility to control ourselves or our children. And as I said in princple #5, the best government is the most local. Nothing is more local than governing yourself, and anything else is by definition, less efficient.
In terms of the United States, #11 means individual states should have the right to secede. We are united because in unity there is strength, but if it is forced, there is no true unity. As much as I am opposed to the idea of slavery, I think it was wrong to go to war to preserve the Union. And slavery wasn't the real reason the southern states seceded. In fact, they seceded for many of the same reasons the 13 colonies revolted from England in the first place. Ironically, the American Revolution was caused by an order of magnitude less government interference than we now deal with on a daily basis. The way things are going now, I believe it is likely this country will face this same issue in the 21st century.
#12 and #13 are specifically addressed to so-called liberals.