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State of grace

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 19 years ago, in 2005, on the World Wide Web.

The outstanding problem of the Progressive-dominated American Left is that they do not believe that the State exists. I don’t mean that they think it is a nullity; rather, they do not think that it exists in the same concrete plane of reality as the rest of us, or operates with the constraints in knowledge, wisdom, and virtue that the rest of us have. One Leftist who did see things clearly was Randolph Bourne; as he put it in The State (a bitter reaction to the eager embrace of World War I by most of his former colleagues in the American liberal press):

Government … is synonymous with neither State nor Nation. It is the machinery by which the nation, organized as a State, carries out its State functions. Government is a framework of the administration of laws, and the carrying out of the public force. Government is the idea of the State put into practical operation in the hands of definite, concrete, fallible men. It is the visible sign of the invisible grace. It is the word made flesh. And it has necessarily the limitations inherent in all practicality. Government is the only form in which we can envisage the State, but it is by no means identical with it. That the State is a mystical conception is something that must never be forgotten. Its glamor and its significance linger behind the framework of Government and direct its activities.

— Randolph Bourne (1918): The State § 1 ¶ 9

I mention this because I know so many people who are otherwise perfectly sane, who understand human limitation and the dangers of concentrated power, who suddenly blank out as soon as the humans in question have government business cards and the power in question is the most systematic and reliable form of power available — access to enforcement powers of the State. Here’s an example that I noticed just today, which I picked out precisely because it’s so mundane: it turns out that there’s been something of a scuffle between Level 3 Communications and Cogent over networking contracts; hardball business dealing has led to a disconnection that left people unable to communicate with web hosts and other Internet services on the wrong side of the break. Well, that sucks, to be sure, but what’s the first thing that consumer groups shoot for on hearing about it?

However, as the Net has evolved from an academic and research curiosity into a vital part of the world’s commercial and communications infrastructure, some have called for a basic set of rules that would keep traffic flowing.

Mark Cooper, director of research for the Consumer Federation of America, compares the state of today’s Internet to the development of roads, or the creation of national telephone networks 100 years ago. Government acted in both cases to ensure the free flow of economically important traffic, he said.

There comes a point where some of these functionalities, such as the seamless interoperation of the Internet, are too important to leave to the private interest of businesses, Cooper said. We like to think that people won’t do antisocial things, but when push comes to shove they will defend their economic interests even at the expense of the public.

My problem is not with the negative things that Cooper says about busineses; many libertarians might dig in and object at that point, but I think he’s right to point out how businesses often do things that are foolish or destructive in pursuit of narrowly private gain. My problem is with the inference he draws from this: he goes from businesses sometimes make bad decisions about how to use this resource, to government ought to make the decisions about how to use this resource. But the premises only support the conclusion if you have shown that government control would not make things worse. And that brings us to important questions that Cooper has left unanswered, because — not believing in the mundane existence of the State — he left them unasked. We have to ask, If these things are too important to leave to the private interests of business, then why the hell aren’t they too important to leave to the political interests of the government? And if the typical run of people have enough of a capacity for antisocial behavior that they’ll defend their economic interests even at the expense of the public, why the hell don’t you think that, when push comes to shove, they’ll defend their political interests even at the expense of the public? No answer is forthcoming, because government is being thought of as an anonymous and benign force to be harnessed, rather than the real actions of real people blundering their way through.

If there’s anything of real value in Leftist economic analysis, it’s the way that the Left insistently points out that businesses are not large automata; that they are run by people, that people are limited in knowledge and are also easily corrupted when they have a great deal of power to gain at the expense of others. As a result, large corporations with critical resources often act in ways that are foolish, selfish, exploitative or destructive. If you’re trying to understand the economic world while ignoring the fact that it is made of people you will always go seriously astray. But if there’s one thing that’s been going wrong with the Left’s economic analysis during the past several decades (basically, since the 1930s, when Marxism and Progressivism each rose to the top of the heap in the radical and reformist wings of the Left), it’s the way in which they have refused to apply exactly the same analysis to the agents of the State. If it’s vital to remember that people run businesses, it is even more vital to remember that people run the government. And that is exactly what is being forgotten, because it is covered over by the shimmering mystical glow of the State. If Leftists are willing to call out cheerleaders for business when they fetishize the anonymous, undirected forces of the market and their supposedly reliable and benign march towards equilibrium, then they had better stop being cheerleaders for the State, and stop fetishizing the anonymous, undirected rules of the government and their supposedly reliable and benign pursuit of the public interest. That ain’t how it works now (just pick up any newspaper) and — this is the important part — it ain’t how it would work under any government. Bureaucracies are run by fallible human beings blundering their way through no matter what the party in power is; in the government they face the same knowledge problems and incentive problems that corporate bureaucrats face. In fact, they face even more severe knowledge problems and incentive problems — beacause, as agents of the government they hold a monopoly on whatever resources they control, and that monopoly is backed with handcuffs, guns, and bombs.

If critical resources are too important to leave in the hands of private businesses, then yes, they are damn well too important to put under the monopolistic control of government bureaucrats.

Now, pro-State Leftists might object at this point that I’m being unfair; the position is not that government is run by people any more perfect than business is, but rather that people in a democratic society, the people in government have restraints put on them that tends to direct them towards the public interest, whereas the environment in which business decisions are made is one that rewards the irresponsible pursuit of private advantage. But this, again, relies on a mystical conception of the State; here the mysticism comes in not with the conception of government intervention, but rather with the conception of control by the people. The idea that government officials — and appointed government bureaucrats especially, who are after all the people who run all the regulatory bodies — are responsive to what people like you and me want under most circumstances is so obviously refuted by a quick look at the daily operations of government that I must conclude that people who make these kind of arguments are being stopped from looking, because democratic mysticism is used as a substitute for observation.

If, to put it another way, the pro-State Left’s is making their argument for government control over some resource or another by claiming that you can always vote the jerks out of office if you don’t like how they are running things … well, then, how’s that been working out for y’all lately?

4 replies to State of grace Use a feed to Follow replies to this article

  1. Sergio Méndez

    Hi Charles:

    Interesting post, and I think the real question is the one you pose at the end of it: “how’s that been working out for y’all lately?”. What is very interesting of this quetsion, is that it seems to produce very different answers from people who live in different states under different forms of goverment by different people. If you ask me here in Colombia, the answer is obvious: people in government are corrupt and not efficient at all. If you ask some guy in Sweeden, he’ll probably tell a very different story.: government serves them in a far more efficient way and there is far more real accountability of elected officials to the public. That may lead us to the obvious question “why”. In other words, I agree with you as a matter of principle concerning the point you expose in this blog entry, but I think even, the study of reality a posteriori shows the issue is far more complex than it seems in a first instance…

— 2008 —

  1. Black Bloke

    And if the typical run of people have enough of a capacity for antisocial behavior that they’ll defend their economic interests even at the expense of the public, why the hell don’t you think that, when push comes to shove, they’ll defend their political interests even at the expense of the public?

    Isn’t the answer that’s forthcoming that the political interests are by definition the public interests? As one can’t have the political without the public, whereas economic interests can be distinguished from public interests?

  2. Rad Geek

    Black Bloke,

    Well, if the argument rests on a claim that politicians have no personal political ambitions that might conflict with the interests of the public, then I’d say that the argument rests on a claim that is obviously delusional. I think that what tends to happen, instead, is that the real lives and choices and ambitions of politicians are simply blanked out of the picture entirely, leaving nothing but a mythical anonymous mechanism that somehow automatically translates the public interest into policy, and policy into socioeconomic outcomes.

  3. Black Bloke

    Excellent answer RG. Now how do I get that concept through to people who insist otherwise?

    And sorry for resurrecting a 3 year old thread. I got caught up in links.

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