The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 24, 2019

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The Empire of Addiction, Part II
James Matthew Wilson - 05/27/09
roadsign to bankruptcy

The expressway to bankruptcy for Chrysler announced a few weeks ago faced a temporary road-block thanks to an objection some of the car maker’s largest debt-holders filed in court on May 4. The objection states that the government-approved bankruptcy is really just a restructuring, in which Chrysler’s sale to a conglomerate composed of Fiat, the United Auto Workers Retirement Fund, and the United States’ and Canadian governments was one designed “to put social goals ahead of bankruptcy law.”

One seldom hears of “social goals” being put ahead of any kind of financial law, even in these days when that is precisely what the Obama administration’s “restructuring” of the American economy pretends to us it is doing. We look back and realize that the failed McCain campaign’s vaguely conceived strategy and crudely expressed scare tactic to paint Obama as a “socialist” warned us “social goals” would be put ahead of private wealth accumulation. And we observe that the weakness of those claims lay, first, in the fact that it was not entirely clear how such purported “socialism” was anything distinct from, or more malevolent than, the predictable raising of taxes. McCain could not mount a compelling case, because he and his campaign had an at-best-confused economic vision that promised to continue decades of state-driven, global-imperializing, corporate-welfare profiteering; they were, in other words, “socialist” in a way of their own. While one could discern policy differences between, say, McCain’s healthcare plan and Obama’s, and between many of their other proposed economic and social planks, both seemed equally committed to the continuous expansion of governmental roles, budgets, and scopes to finance a soft empire of military projection that might secure sources of energy, cheap manufactures, and foreign credit.

So, back in innocent October, calling Obama a “socialist” sounded much like hyperbole intended to create the appearance of distinctions between two candidates where there were none. And, indeed, I am sure that is all it was: a flailing tactic rather than insightful truth—so myopic was the McCain campaign in particular regarding Obama’s true ambitions, and so complicit in its general state-capitalist precepts was it and the rest of the Republican party, in any case. These six months later, the persistent absence of substantive distinctions between the two parties has really brought us closer to some form of socialism, so that the apparent distinctions between the government and economy of the United States, those of the European Union, and of China seem less and less marked. We find ourselves looking upon an economic landscape where the partial takeover of an automaker seems less surprising than that there are stakeholders left who dare—who can afford—still to resist it.

How did we come to such a pass? We could answer this unfortunate question historically, tracing back the series of decisions and choices made in recent decades that, among other things, so restricted the role of manufacturing in our economy until only three automakers remained, only one of which is fully solvent. But I would like to face the question on a plain of higher abstraction, where we might learn that the unclear and ineffective complaints against Obama voiced during the campaign season have a more profound source: the incoherence of the dominant principles of our society. Chrysler has been the beneficiary of that incoherence in the past, and remains so even as her assets are commandeered by—astonishingly—two North American governments who have decided to enter the car business.

We often are confronted by theories of free-market capitalism and command socialism as if they were antithetical; the political party that advocates one seems—in principle—in substantive conflict with the party that leans toward the other, and the choice between the two is the choice between two very different kinds and qualities of society. What apparently distinguishes these two programs, their advocates say, is not their moral intention; both claim to provide the economic form that will best secure the prosperity of a society. Rather, they present themselves as distinct means that lead us ultimately to two distinct forms of prosperity. This much is familiar. The scions of the free-market contend material prosperity is best secured though the liberation of private ambition; the rational self-interest and profit-maximizing nature of men will lead them to develop independently and without guidance an economy that is itself rationally organized and of general benefit to all.

In fact, of course, experience of the free market—to the extent we have any, and that is not very much—suggests that unlimited freedom of wealth accumulation has as its direct end only the free activity of the market, and that this end can be merged with the end of general prosperity only through the superstitious conjuring of a secular faith. The free-market as means may produce a free-market as its end, but it is a clever spell of Scottish ideology that would persuade us these two ends are anything like fingers on the same invisible hand. What a free-market leads to ultimately is the concentration of wealth in the hands of some few most-competitive firms; this may be efficient, it may indeed be the result of a procedural species of freedom, but any way one looks at it, it ends in oligarchy.

What one admires about the more candid socialists is that they confess from the start that the end of their program is oligarchy—an oligarchy of bureaucrats and technocrats organizing the prosperity of the multitude. The beauty of a managed society complete with command economy and carefully quantified control of “outcomes”—whether those outcomes come in the form of college acceptances, occupations, housing, or household income—is that it really does have as its end something that can be described as “general prosperity.” However, one soon sees that such prosperity is not worth very much and usually entails the experience of routine expropriation, in which what one thought should belong to oneself has been dragged into the commonweal or, at least, the hands of some bureaucracy’s eminent domain.

I shall not press on with these descriptions, because they are familiar ones; we hear in them, as we hear in everything sprung from the spinning-jenny rib of liberal society, the asinine tensions between freedom and equality. Prima facie, these political-economic forms seem to exclude each other; the free-market would judge general prosperity by the absolute presence of freedom in economic activities, and such prosperity would therefore be attained even if all but a few oligarchs are wretched, so long as the oligarchs “earned” their position in the open market. The socialist technocrat, conversely, weighs prosperity in terms of a weakly conceived sense of “social justice,” which means the selective equality of outcome for everyone—except in those aspects of life the technocrat decides are private (meaning, he cannot yet figure out how to control them) or rational (meaning, whatever kind of inequality he thinks advantageous not to the prosperity but, rather, the administration of society).

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