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Demystifying Democracy: A Critical Look at Democracy and Ideology

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Throughout history the many have always been ruled by the elite few. David Hume, in The First Principles of Government, highlights this fact as one of the great philosophical mysteries since “Force is always on the side of the governed,” and finds that it is “on opinion only that government is founded, and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and popular.” (Hume, 19) The opinion that Hume refers to relies on ideology and it certainly applies to today’s most popular form of governance, democracy. Democracy has become the means for the elite to maintain power over the masses after the individualistic and natural rights philosophies delegitimized other previously common forms of governance such as monarchy; further, democracy has transcended its original role as a possible means to individual liberty and has become an ideological end and has been made sacred to the point that it is beyond debate in the minds of many. However, democracy must be objectively judged against the goals of promoting and securing individual liberty in order to make the most informed decisions in regards to foreign policy, such as the benefit of “spreading democracy,” as well as domestic policy where individual rights are most affected.

A clear definition of ideology, as it is used here, must be established in order to effectively communicate the nature of its relationship to democracy and power in general. The common usage of the term, a system of beliefs and values, is too vague and simple to fit this purpose. Robert Higgs, in Crisis and Leviathan, defines ideology this way: “ideology…[is] a somewhat coherent, rather comprehensive belief system about social relations…it is somewhat coherent…though not necessarily in a way that would satisfy a logician…it is rather comprehensive [since] it subsumes a wide variety of social categories and their interrelations…[However,] it tends to revolve about only a few central values—for instance, individual freedom, social equality, or national glory.” (Higgs, 37) This definition does describe ideology but is lacking a component necessary to explain why its variants, such as ideological (which usually implies fanaticism), usually carry a negative connotation or to fully explain why “ideologies are the crucial lever at the disposal of elites for obtaining political mobilization and for maximizing the possibilities of mass manipulation,” (Higgs, 47) that Higgs alludes to later in his book. In order to complete Higgs definition it is necessary to require individuals to subordinate themselves to their chosen ideology. This subordination of the individual is what can lead to fanaticism, which is why fanatics do not appear to be acting in their “own best interests,” and it complements Hume’s answer as to how the elite few rule the masses: the masses have subordinated their own interests to an ideology that legitimizes the current form of power held by the elite. In Western Political Though: From Socrates to the Age of Ideology, Brian Nelson writes, “ Ideologies…tend to replace the idea of personal autonomy with a higher principle of moral progress beyond the individual, a principle to which the individual is to subordinate him- or herself…ideologies tend to subordinate the individual’s moral agency rather than actualize it. (Nelson, 360) In sum, ideology is a coherent, comprehensive belief system that subordinates personal moral autonomy to some higher principle(s) that the belief system revolves around. Another implication of this definition of ideology is that the source of the belief system is external to the individual adherents and the evolution of ideologies ensures that only a limited number that attracts large numbers of adherents tend to survive or have influence. Higgs explained that “opinion leaders are the producers and distributors of (a limited number of) ideologies; the masses are mainly consumers.” (Higgs, 45) The potential for mass manipulation by the opinion leaders should be apparent and if those opinion leaders are also the ruling class with a monopoly over coercive force then their potential threat to individual liberty is exponentially greater.

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Filed under Philosophy, Politics
Oct 7, 2012

Self Survey Fall 2011 Part 1

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Click on a topic to expand a summary of my stance on it.

  • When approaching philosophical problems I prefer the method employed by the Austrian School of Economics, which is to start with “simple and evident axioms” and “deduce step by step” the various logical implications of those axioms. (Murray Rothbard, Man, Economy, and State) This approach is in opposition to empiricism, or applying the methodology of the natural sciences to the understanding of human action. This is primarily due to the fact that the factors determining human action are too complex or are simply not able to be isolated and true control/variable groups can not be created as they are in laboratories. (For further information check out the Introduction to the 5th edition of “Americas’ Great Depression by Murray Rothbard.) I will attempt to clarify what I believe to be axioms, or self-evident truths, throughout this survey.

    The second part of my philosophical approach is the recognition of the limits of human reason. The limited nature of man’s ability to reason, the fallibility of man’s senses and his inability to fully observe and experience the world around him, or his obvious shortcomings in processing and retaining an infinite volume of information that is available should be acknowledged and humble our observations on the nature of man, in general, or even ourselves. By acknowledging this limitation I accept that it is possible, even probable, that I will fall prey to logical fallacies, make theoretical leaps without due justification, give in to bias or prejudice, improperly categorize experiences or phenomenon within my logical framework, or to put it simply….make mistakes. However, this also further justifies beginning philosophical inquiry with “simple and evident” truths to best avoid mistakes in the infancy of our thoughts. Also, it gives weight to “common sense,” traditions, and culture even when they are not fully understood by individual actors. I will explain this more in a later section.

  • The foundation of my philosophy is the belief that all things must be considered at an individual level. This contradicts theorists who rely on “general will” or the idea that amorphous entities such as “society” and “the state” can be analyzed separate from the individuals that compose them. Also, individualism is built on the axioms of free will, the inseparability of the will from the individual, and self-ownership and all of the logical implications that follow.

    • The level of debate over the concept of free will baffles me. The alternative to humans having free will is that we are equal to robots, programmed to perform certain actions based on the inputs provided to us. Every choice we make every day confirms that we have free will unless we make a deliberate effort to deny it. I am constantly aware of my consciousness, and thus my free will and being, so long as I am awake. Denying this seems like an exercise of philosophical futility and is pursued primarily by those who were able to see the “Emperor’s new clothes” or in more malicious cases by those peddling sheer intellectual dishonesty in order to advance their cause (the scoundrels who sold the Emperor the new clothes.)

    • This is concept is the key to libertarian ethics and natural law theory and simply states that each individual has 100 percent self-ownership over his own person, to include body, mind, and spirit. This may seem less than self-evident since there is a history of slavery, indentured service, and many examples of people acting “against their will.” However, if we stick to the simple and evident truths of self-ownership then these can be explained as submitting to the will of another due to coercion, but the individual’s person never leaves their ownership unless they are dead as body, mind, and spirit are inalienable from each other otherwise. Murray Rothbard demonstrates the fallacies of the alternatives to 100 percent self-ownership in “Ethics of Liberty,” as either “the ‘communist’ one of Universal and Equal Other-ownership, or Partial Ownership of One Group by Another—a system of rule by one class over another.” (Ethics of Liberty, Interpersonal Relations: Ownership and Aggression.)

    • (Just trying to impress myself with big words) The opposite of an individualistic approach to philosophical or sociological problems is to attribute human characteristics to entities that are composed of groups of individuals abstractly. For example, attributing goals, actions, and beliefs to society, the state, or the general will as opposed to the individuals who actually took the actions or hold those beliefs. I refer to these entities as amorphous, a term used mostly in science to mean: “having no definite form;” “shapeless;” “being without definite character or nature,” because everyone discussing any of these entities will define them their own way to match their ideas or philosophy and this is possible because they have no definitive nature of their own. This makes them dangerous in philosophical reasoning because they can be “formed,” as a potters clay, to justify or match almost any conclusion or agenda. Ludwig von Mises said the following: “All rational action is in the first place individual action. Only the individual thinks. Only the individual reasons. Only the individual acts.”

  • My journey into politics and philosophy actually began with economics. I came across an article on school vouchers that made an interesting argument that I had never considered (I had not considered much of anything at this point) and it cited Milton Friedman as on of the pioneers in the voucher movement. I was intrigued by the idea and decided to study it further so I picked up both “Capitalism and Freedom” and “Free to Choose” by Milton Friedman, both had sections on education to include advocacy of vouchers. However, I was introduced to a whole plethora of new ideas in those books, most questioning the efficiency of government and making convincing “empirical” arguments as to why those inefficiencies exist and sometime offering convincing solutions to those problems. Most importantly it put capitalism and free markets in a positive light and I wanted to know more. Next I discovered a documentary called Commanding Heights that also seemed to put a positive spin on capitalism, mostly from Milton Friedman, but it introduced a school of thought that claimed even Milton Friedman and the Chicago School were not free market enough…the Austrian School headed by Ludwig von Mises and claimed by F.A. Hayek. Hayek’s name came up again as a source of counsel to Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher who both recognized the flaws of Keynesian economics and wanted to take their respective countries on new paths. This led me to Hayek’s “Constitution of Liberty” which acted as a nice bridge between the Chicago School and the Austrian School due to the fact that it was more friendly towards the idea of the need for a state, which I was not ready to let go of yet. “Constitution of Liberty” opened new doors in mind and allowed me a whole new world view and made me a real pupil of the Austrian School. As a pupil of this lesser known school of economics I felt compelled to study Ludwig von Mise’s “Human Action” which demonstrated a very logical method of approaching philosophical and economic problems and introduced me to “praxeology,” the study of human action, of which he deemed economics part of. After “Human Action” I began reading material provided by the Ludwig von Mises Institute on their website (mises.org) and came to learn that Murray Rothbard wrote a book meant to be used as a college text book to teach the ideas of Mises in a more accessible way so I began to study “Man, Economy, and State,” which ended up being an economic treatise in and of itself. I found Rothbard much easier to follow and tended to agree with his analysis in the few areas where he differed from his mentor, von Mises. I have continued to study the Austrian School and the writings of the many scholars linked to it. Following are some of the key ideas that I have taken away but I encourage anyone who is interested to check out “Man, Economy, and State” for the fullest understanding.

    • “Human action is defined simply as purposeful behavior…The purpose of a man’s act is his end; the desire to achieve this end is the man’s motive for instituting the action…All human beings act by virtue of their existence and their nature as human beings. We could not conceive of human beings who do not act purposefully, who have no ends in view that they desire and attempt to attain.” (Man, Economy, and State, The Concept of Action) “The first truth to be discovered about human action is that it can be undertaken only by individual ‘actors.’” (Man, Economy, and State, First Implications of the Concept)

    • “With reference to any given act, the environment external to the individual may be divided into two parts: those elements which he believes he cannot control and must leave unchanged, and those which he can alter (or rather, thinks he can alter) to arrive at his ends. The former may be termed the general conditions of action; the latter, the means used…[A]ll means are scarce, i.e., limited with respect to the ends that they could possibly serve,” so “the necessity for a choice among ends arises” and “action takes place by choosing which ends shall be satisfied by the employment of means.” (Man, Economy, and State, First implications of the Concept) Further as it applies to time: “All human life must take place in time” and “a man’s time is always scarce.” (Man, Economy, and State, First implications of the Concept) In other words, you can only achieve so many ends in a certain amount of time and time always marches forwards so that every second that passes is irretrievable making them scarce.

    • “A fundamental and constant truth about human action is that man prefers his end to be achieved in the shortest possible time…This is the universal fact of time preference…Time enters into human action not only in relation to the waiting time in production, but also in the length of time in which the consumer’s good will satisfy the wants of the consumer,” this is known as the “duration of serviceableness.” (Man, Economy, and State, Further Implications: Time) In short, man wants his in the shortest time and wants them to last the longest time.

    • Often in economics or in common usage value is used almost interchangeably with price or refers specifically to monetary value. However, value in its most basic form refers simply to the perceived gain (psychic gain) that an individual expects. “In order for any measurement to be possible, there must be an eternally fixed and objectively given unit with which other units may be compared. There is no such objective unit in the field of human valuation. The individual must determine subjectively for himself whether he is better or worse off as a result of any change.” (Man, Economy, and State, Further Implications: Ends and Values) Price on the other hand is a market mechanism that helps match the psychic value of the consumer to the [monetary] value of the producer or laborer.

      • “All action is an attempt to exchange a less satisfactory state of affairs for a more satisfactory one…The psychic gain (or profit) and loss cannot be measured in terms of units, but the actor always knows whether he has experienced psychic profit or psychic loss as a result of an action-exchange.” Of important note, “leisure is a consumer’s good,” or an end that is valued in and of itself. (Man, Economy, and State, Factors of Production: Labor versus Leisure) Consequently, “people work only when they value the return of labor higher than the decrease in satisfaction brought about by the curtailment of leisure.” (Ludwig von Mises, Human Action)

      • “Human actors value means strictly in accordance with their valuation of the ends they believe the means can serve.” (Man, Economy, and State, Further Implications: Ends and Values) “Each physical unit of a means (direct or indirect) that enters into human action is valued separately. Thus, the actor is interested in evaluating only those units of means that enter, or that he considers will enter, into his concrete action. Actors choose between, and evaluate, not ‘coal’ or ‘butter’ in general, but specific units of coal or butter. For example, “if one pound of butter was considered by the actor as of better quality than another pound of butter” then, “in that case, the two “butters” are really different goods from the point of view of the actor and will be evaluated differently.” (Man, Economy, and State, The Law of Marginal Utility)

      • The “process of valuation according to the specific units involved provides the solution for the famous ‘value paradox’ which puzzled writers for centuries. The question was: How can men value bread less than platinum, when ‘bread’ is obviously more useful than ‘platinum?’ The answer is that acting man does not evaluate the goods open to him by abstract classes, but in terms of the specific units available. He does not wonder whether ‘bread-in-general’ is more or less valuable to him than ‘platinum-in-general,’ but whether, given the present available stock of bread and platinum, a ‘loaf [unit] of bread’ is more or less valuable to him than ‘an ounce [unit] of platinum.’ That, in most cases, men prefer the latter is no longer surprising…Thus, for all human actions, as the quantity of the supply (stock) of a good increases, the utility (value) of each additional unit decreases…[This] is the law of marginal utility, sometimes known as the law of diminishing marginal utility.” (Man, Economy, and State, The Law of Marginal Utility)

    • If self-ownership is the foundation of libertarian ethics and natural law then property rights are the corner stone. They are the most direct logical step from self-ownership. Again, I turn to Murray Rothbard in “Man, Economy, and State” to offer the best explanation of property rights, which has a firm basis in Lockean principles:

      On the free, unhampered market, a man can acquire property in scarce goods as follows: (1) In the first place, each man has ownership over his own self, over his will and actions, and the manner in which he will exert his own labor. (2) He acquires scarce nature-given factors either by appropriating hitherto un­used factors for his own use or by receiving them as a gift from someone else, who in the last analysis must have appropriated them as hitherto unused factors. (3) He acquires capital goods or consumers’ goods either by mixing his own labor with nature­-given factors to produce them or by receiving them as a gift from someone else. As in the previous case, gifts must eventually re­solve themselves into some actor’s production of the goods by the use of his own labor. Clearly, it will be nature-given factors, cap­ital goods, and durable consumers’ goods that are likely to be handed down through gifts, since nondurable consumers’ goods will probably be quickly consumed. (4) He may exchange any type of factor (labor service, nature-given factor, capital good, consumers’ good) for any type of factor. It is clear that gifts and exchanges as a source of property must eventually be resolved into: self-ownership, appropriation of unused nature-given fac­tors, and production of capital and consumers’ goods, as the ulti­mate sources of acquiring property in a free economic system. In order for the giving or exchanging of goods to take place, they must first be obtained by individual actors in one of these ways. The logical sequence of events is therefore: A man owns himself; he appropriates unused nature-given factors for his own­ership; he uses these factors to produce capital goods and con­sumers’ goods which become his own; he uses up the consumers’ goods and/or gives them and the capital goods away to others; he exchanges some of these goods for other goods that had come to be owned in the same way by others. These are the meth­ods of acquiring goods that obtain on the free market, and they include all but the method of violent or other invasive expropri­ation of the property of others. (Man, Economy, and State, Types of Interpersonal Action: Voluntary Exchange and the Contractual Society)

Filed under Self Survey
Sep 6, 2011

On Bureaucracy: Mises Versus Weber

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When people think of government, specifically democratic government, they think of politicians or elected officials. They imagine representatives whose power is temporary and can be influenced by possibility of losing popular support and elections. However, “bureaucracy is the largest part of any government if measured by the number of people engaged or by fund expended” and is defined as “the totality of government offices or bureaus that constitute the permanent government of a state.” (Oszlak, 2005, 488-489) Elected officials and policy makers, for the most part, legislate or dictate goals, that ideally reflect the goals of the people they represent, but bureaucracy is the means through which those goals are pursued. The regulations, actions, and compulsion necessary to achieve the tasks and goals of policy makers emanate from bureaucracy. In other words, policy makers create an outline of action and bureaucracy is the source of the content and substance that is the state. Since bureaucracy is, by nature, “more permanent…than politician” it “makes the politician…more subject to bureaucracy” instead of the more common assumption of the bureaucracy being subject to the politician. (Anderson, 2004, 8-9) While the literature and theory on bureaucracy is disproportionately less, relative to its size and influence, compared to other components of the state, two major theorists have provided needed insight into this monumental, but intellectually neglected, institution: Max Weber, in “Economy and Society”, and Ludwig von Mises, in “Bureaucracy.”

Weber and Mises each approach bureaucracy from very different angles which, not coincidentally, leads them to starkly different observations and conclusions regarding the nature of bureaucracy and its impact on society. For Weber, his theories on bureaucracies are part of a “purely formal and typological discussion.” (Weber, 991) He describes the traits of the “ideal type” of bureaucracy as “arranged in a clearly defined hierarchy of offices;…compelled by the impersonal duties of their office; units and positions are arranged in a chain of command; …functions are clearly specified in writing, so there is specialization of task and a specified sphere of competence; and the bureaucrats behavior is subject to systematic control.” (Oszlak, 2005, 489) However, Weber focused much less on the cause of bureaucracies or the reasons they deviated from his ideal type, nor did he explain the axiomatic principles from which his ideal type was derived from. Instead he relies on historical relativism and a general institutional perspective that is biased towards “collective phenomena” as opposed to individual action in determining causal factors to describe bureaucracy, which he already accepts as both “inevitable” and “indestructible”, in abstractions of reality, whose generic nature and basis in flawed perception make the discovery of core “truths” impossible (Anderson, 2004, 6-9). Instead the observations are simply used as a means for predicting outcomes and do not attempt to answer “Why?”

Mises, on the other hand, relies on axiomatic principles to explain his theory of bureaucracy. The first principle is the “axiom of human action,” which can be described “simply as purposeful behavior” and is inherent to human beings “by virtue of their existence and their nature;” further human action “can be undertaken only by individual actors.” (Rothbard, 2004, 1-2) The second principle applicable here is the “Law of Marginal Utility,” which states that “things are valued as means in accordance with their ability to attain ends valued as more or less urgent.” (Rothbard, 2004, 21) For Mises, both bureaucratic action and non-bureaucratic action are undertaken by individuals with purpose toward some end, the difference, then, is that bureaucracy seeks ends without consideration for profit and non-bureaucratic institutions actions are profit driven. This concrete definition would apply to many if not all of the same institutions described by Weber and others as being a bureaucracy, but it also has the added advantage specificity and clearly separated categories to prevent overlap or contradictions in the conclusions that can be drawn from it. This definition applies to government, business, charity or any institution that takes actions without consideration for profit or to the degree in which their decisions are not made based on profit. In other words, the less an institution considers profit the more bureaucratic it becomes and vice versa.

In modern society not seeking “profit” is often viewed as altruistic or positive but this usually stems from a misunderstanding of “value” and the only way to translate “values” to “actors” providing goods or services to the public. As stated in the “Law of Marginal Utility” earlier, goods and services do not have inherent value but are only worth as much as the ends they to be used in attaining for according to the urgency of each individual. The only way for individuals, who all value things differently, to communicate these values to the producers of goods and services, so that capital resources are used efficiently to produce the most aggregate value, is monetarily or terms of exchange. This causes a problem for bureaucracies, as they do not consider profits, since they are not able to form computations of the value of the goods and services they provide and therefore, have to rely on the “guesses” of bureaucrats in the use of their resources, which will inevitably lead misallocation.

Both Weber and Mises viewed bureaucracy as destructive to society, Mises more definitively so. They both also foresaw the continued expansion of bureaucracy. Mises believed this expansion was due to the “interventionist”nature of State bureaucracy that forces institutions that were once profit seeking to adapt in order to “guard itself from destruction” by “incur[ring] all sorts of expenditures for matters not related to business” and act according to regulations imposed by government bureaucracy that force “production and consumption to develop along lines different from those prescribed by an unhampered market.” (Anderson, 2004, 12-14) The continued expansion of bureaucracy and regulations will reduce innovation and creativity, they will be replaced with compliance and obedience, and destroy the lines of communication between consumer and producer; as well as lead to massive waste through misallocation of resources.

Anderson, William P. (2004) Mises Versus Weber on Bureaucracy and Sociological Method. Journal of Libertarian Studies 18 (1) 1-29

Oszlak, Oscar. (2005). Regimes and Contention. In T.A. Janoski, A.M. Hicks, & M.A. Schwartz (Eds.), Handbook of Political Sociology: States, Civil Societies, and Globalization (482-505). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Rothbard, Murray N. (2004) Man, Economy, and State with Power and Market. (Scholar’s ed.) Auburn, Alabama: Ludwig von Mises Institute

Filed under Philosophy, Politics
Apr 13, 2011