Ideologies at War

Discourse:  Formal and orderly
 and usually extended expression of thought on a subject.

Merriam-Webster

I finally figured out why there’s no discourse in economics. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

I started researching and writing about economics and the workplace three years ago. Right away, I noticed the topic was as polarized as everything else these days. I confess, I was surprised — I was a newbie, idealistic about my new course of study. I figured everybody would want to talk about it. But the pros? No. They talked past each other, nobody convincing anybody of anything they didn’t already believe.

And now I know why.

At first, I thought the divisions — right vs. left, capitalism vs. socialism, conservative vs. progressive, free market vs. Keynesian intervention, etc.  — were the result of opinions logically and studiously debated. Three years later, I can see it’s not so — those opposing positions are rationalizations after the fact, justifying prior beliefs grounded in ideology. When a topic — any topic — is dominated by competing ideologies, a fundamentalist dynamic takes over. Fundamentalism has no place for “formal and orderly and usually extended expression of thought.” Instead, it stifles discussion, damns doubt, brutalizes dissent. If you’re not with us, you’re against us — so choose sides, and the other side can talk to the hand.

We’ve seen, for example, how the Mont Pelerin Society and the Chicago School of Economics pursued their capitalist free market beliefs with fundamentalist zeal, and how the Democratic Socialists of America party has responded in kind. This, and other similar ideological standoffs have banished discourse from the field of economics.

The Berlin Wall fell because Soviet communism failed as a fundamentalist belief, leaving American capitalism the winner of the Cold War. Since then, political leadership in the U.S. and the U.K. has supercharged capitalism into its current hyper- competitive, hyper-privatized form, to the point that free market ideology has become not just economic policy but a cultural norm, and supporting it has become a patriotic duty.

Now in its fourth decade, the post-Cold War model of capitalism has failed in the same way Soviet communism failed before it:  it has neglected and alienated the “Public” — the res publica, the things that belong to the people, the things that assure citizens the basics of life and health, satisfying work, opportunity for educational, social, and economic betterment, and the sense of meaning, purpose, and well-being those things engender.

Fundamentalist ideologies wage war, and win at all costs. When free market economics became a fundamentalist ideology, it went to war. One of my daughters recently gave me a book published in 2007, at the height (depth?) of the Great Recession. The copyright date made me inclined to dismiss it as outdated. Now, as I read it, I wonder, how it is that we never knew these things, and most of us still don’t? This is from the book blurb:

“In this groundbreaking alternative history of the most dominant ideology of our time, Milton Friedman’s free-market economic revolution, Naomi Klein challenges the popular myth of this movement’s peaceful global victory. From Chile in 1973 to Iraq today, Klein shows how Friedman and his followers have repeatedly harnessed terrible shocks and violence to implement their radical policies.”

The Shock Doctrine:  The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein (2007)

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Chris Hedges wrote about the cultural dynamics of war in War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (2014). As you read the following, substitute your ideology of choice — political, economic, religious, etc. — in place of war as armed conflict:

“War, in times of malaise and desperation, is a potent distraction.

“The cultivation of victimhood is essential fodder for any conflict. It is studiously crafted by the state. All cultural life is directed to broadcast the injustices carried out against us.

“The goal of such nationalistic rhetoric is to invoke pity for one’s own. The goal is to show the community that what they hold sacred is under threat. The enemy, we are told, seeks to destroy religious and cultural life, the very identity of the group or state.

“Patriotism, often a thinly veiled form of collective self-worship, celebrates our goodness, our ideals, our mercy and bemoans the perfidiousness of those who hate us.

“War makes the world understandable, a black and white tableau of them and us. It suspends thought, especially self-critical thought.

“Most of us willingly accept war as long as we can fold it into a belief system that paints the ensuring suffering as necessary for a higher good, for human beings seeks not only happiness but also meaning. And tragically war is sometimes the most powerful way in human society to achieve meaning.

“Before conflicts begin, the first people silenced — often with violence — are [those who] question the state’s lust and need for war. These dissidents are the most dangerous. Such voices are rarely heeded.

“Once we sign on for war’s crusade, once we see ourselves on the side of the angels, once we embrace a theological or ideological belief system that defines itself as the embodiment of goodness and light, it is only a matter of how we will carry out murder.”

Thus the Public has been “murdered” by economic policy as carried out under the current model of capitalism.

When the Public dies, so does public discourse.

It takes moral strength to dissent. The Business Roundtable recently took a step in that direction. According to its website, “Business Roundtable is an association of chief executive officers of America’s leading companies working to promote a thriving U.S. economy and expanded opportunity for all Americans through sound public policy.”

We’ll look at what the CEOs have to say next time.

Belief in the Free Market

Mammon

1909 painting The Worship of Mammon by Evelyn De Morgan.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mammon

We saw last time that Milton Friedman and his colleagues at the Chicago School of Economics promoted the free market with fundamentalist zeal — an approach to economics that Joseph Stiglitz said was based on “religious belief.” Turns out that using religious-sounding language to talk about believing in capitalism isn’t as farfetched as it sounds on first hearing.

In the history of ideas, the “Disenchantment” refers to the idea that the Enlightenment ushered in an era when scientific knowledge would displace religious and philosophical belief. Reason, rationality, and objectivity would make the world less magical, spiritual, and subjective, and therefore “disenchanted.” You don’t need to know much history to know the Disenchantment never really played out — at least, certainly not in America.

“Each of us is on a spectrum somewhere between the poles of rational and irrational. We all have hunches we can’t prove and superstitions that make no sense. What’s problematic is going overboard—letting the subjective entirely override the objective; thinking and acting as if opinions and feelings are just as true as facts. The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, whereby every individual is welcome to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. In America nowadays, those more exciting parts of the Enlightenment idea have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts. Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the past half century, we Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation—small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become.

“Why are we like this?

“The short answer is because we’re Americans—because being American means we can believe anything we want; that our beliefs are equal or superior to anyone else’s, experts be damned.

“America was created by true believers and passionate dreamers, and by hucksters and their suckers, which made America successful—but also by a people uniquely susceptible to fantasy, as epitomized by everything from Salem’s hunting witches to Joseph Smith’s creating Mormonism, from P. T. Barnum to speaking in tongues, from Hollywood to Scientology to conspiracy theories, from Walt Disney to Billy Graham to Ronald Reagan to Oprah Winfrey to Trump. In other words: Mix epic individualism with extreme religion; mix show business with everything else; let all that ferment for a few centuries; then run it through the anything-goes ’60s and the internet age. The result is the America we inhabit today, with reality and fantasy weirdly and dangerously blurred and commingled.”

Fantasyland:  How American Went Haywire, a 500-Year History, Kurt Andersen (2017)[1]

Villanova professor Eugene McCarraher makes the case that capitalism stepped up to fill the belief void created by Disenchantment enthusiasts, and became the new world religion.

Mammon book“Perhaps the grandest tale of capitalist modernity is entitled ‘The Disenchantment of the World’. Crystallised in the work of Max Weber but eloquently anticipated by Karl Marx, the story goes something like this: before the advent of capitalism, people believed that the world was enchanted, pervaded by mysterious, incalculable forces that ruled and animated the cosmos. Gods, spirits and other supernatural beings infused the material world, anchoring the most sublime and ultimate values in the ontological architecture of the Universe.

“In premodern Europe, Catholic Christianity epitomised enchantment in its sacramental cosmology and rituals, in which matter could serve as a conduit or mediator of God’s immeasurable grace. But as Calvinism, science and especially capitalism eroded this sacramental worldview, matter became nothing more than dumb, inert and manipulable stuff, disenchanted raw material open to the discovery of scientists, the mastery of technicians, and the exploitation of merchants and industrialists.

“Discredited in the course of enlightenment, the enchanted cosmos either withered into historical oblivion or went into the exile of private belief in liberal democracies…. With slight variations, ‘The Disenchantment of the World’ is the orthodox account of the birth and denouement of modernity, certified not only by secular intellectuals but by the religious intelligentsia as well.”

Mammon:  Far from representing rationality and logic, capitalism is modernity’s most beguiling and dangerous form of enchantment, Aeon Magazine (Oct. 22, 2019)

Prof. McCarraher develops his ideas further in his book The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity (2019). This is from the Amazon book blurb:

“If socialists and Wall Street bankers can agree on anything, it is the extreme rationalism of capital. At least since Max Weber, capitalism has been understood as part of the “disenchantment” of the world, stripping material objects and social relations of their mystery and sacredness. Ignoring the motive force of the spirit, capitalism rejects the awe-inspiring divine for the economics of supply and demand.

“Eugene McCarraher challenges this conventional view. Capitalism, he argues, is full of sacrament, whether or not it is acknowledged. Capitalist enchantment first flowered in the fields and factories of England and was brought to America by Puritans and evangelicals whose doctrine made ample room for industry and profit. Later, the corporation was mystically animated with human personhood, to preside over the Fordist endeavor to build a heavenly city of mechanized production and communion. By the twenty-first century, capitalism has become thoroughly enchanted by the neoliberal deification of ‘the market.’”

Economic theories — capitalism, Marxism, socialism — are ideologies:  they’re based on ideas that can’t be proven scientifically; they require belief. The reason thinkers like Kurt Andersen and Eugene McCarraher both use the term “dangerous” in connection with economic belief is because of the fundamentalist dynamics that invariably accompany ideological belief, secular or otherwise. We’ll look at that next time.

[1] The book is another case of American history as we never learned it. For the shorter version, see this Atlantic article.

Economic Fundamentalism

We saw last time that the goal of Chicago School free market economics was to promote “noncontaminated capitalism,” which in turn would generate societal economic utopia:

“The market, left to its own devices, would create just the right number of products at precisely the right prices, produced by workers at just the right wages to buy those products — an Eden of plentiful employment, boundless creativity and zero inflation.”

The Shock Doctrine:  The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein (2017)

To the School’s free market advocates, these ideas were pure science:

“The starting premise is that the free market is a perfect scientific system, one in which individuals, acting on their own self-interested desires, create the maximum benefits for all. If follows ineluctably that if something is wrong with a free-market economy — high inflation or soaring unemployment — it has to be because the market is not truly free.”

The Shock Doctrine

Scientific method requires that theories be falsifiable:  you have to be able to objectively prove them wrong.

“The philosopher Karl Popper argued that what distinguishes a scientific theory from pseudoscience and pure metaphysics is the possibility that it might be falsified on exposure to empirical data. In other words, a theory is scientific if it has the potential to be proved wrong.”

But Is It Science? Aeon Magazine, Oct. 7, 2019.

But how do you prove an economic theory based on “uncontaminated capitalism” in an economically contaminated world?

“The challenge for Friedman and his colleagues was not to prove that a real work market could live up to their rapturous imaginings…. Friedman could not point to any living economy that proved if all ‘distortions’ were stripped away, what would be left would be a society in perfect health and bounteous, since no country in the world met the criteria for perfect laissez-faire. Unable to test their theories in central banks and ministries of trade, Friedman and his colleagues had to settle for elaborate and ingenious mathematical equations and computer models.”

The Shock Doctrine

Mathematical equations and computer models aren’t the same as empirical data collected in the real (“contaminated”) world. If falsifiability is what separates scientific knowledge from belief-based ideology, then Friedman’s free market theory is the latter. Some scientists are worried that this spin on scientific theorizing has become too prevalent nowadays:

 “In our post-truth age of casual lies, fake news and alternative facts, society is under extraordinary pressure from those pushing potentially dangerous antiscientific propaganda – ranging from climate-change denial to the anti-vaxxer movement to homeopathic medicines. I, for one, prefer a science that is rational and based on evidence, a science that is concerned with theories and empirical facts, a science that promotes the search for truth, no matter how transient or contingent. I prefer a science that does not readily admit theories so vague and slippery that empirical tests are either impossible or they mean absolutely nothing at all…. For me at least, there has to be a difference between science and pseudoscience; between science and pure metaphysics, or just plain ordinary bullshit.”

But Is It Science?

The Chicago School believed so ardently in the free market theory that its instructional approach took on the dynamics of belief-based indoctrination:

“Frank Knight, one of the founders of Chicago School economics, thought professors should ‘inculcate’ in their students the belief that economic belief is ‘a sacred feature of the system,’ not a debatable hypothesis.’”

The Shock Doctrine

This dynamic applies to every ideology that can’t be falsified — verified empirically. The ideology then becomes a fundamentalist belief system:

“Like all fundamentalist faiths, Chicago School economics is, for its true believers a closed loop. The Chicago solution is always the same:  a stricter and more complete application of the fundamentals.:

The Shock Doctrine

Journalist Chris Hedges describes the dynamics of “secular fundamentalism” in I Don’t Believe in Atheists. (The book’s title is too clever for its own good — a later version adds the subtitle “The Dangerous Rise of the Secular Fundamentalist.”)

“Fundamentalism is a mind-set. The iconography and language it employs can be either religious or secular or both, but because it dismisses all alternative viewpoints as inferior and unworthy of consideration it is anti-thought. This is part of its attraction. It fills a human desire for self-importance, for hope and the dream of finally attaining paradise. It creates a binary world of absolutes, of good and evil. It provides a comforting emotional certitude. It is used to elevate our cultural, social, and economic systems above others…. The core belief systems of these secular and religious antagonists are identical.”

Thus we have Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Friedman famously saying, “Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself” — a statement entirely in keeping with the Mont Pelerin  Society’s idealistic Statement of Aims, which we looked at last time.

And thus we also have Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz countering with his thoughts about economics in a contaminated (“pathological”) world:

“The advocates of free markets in all their versions say that crises are rare events, though they have been happening with increasing frequency as we change the rules to reflect beliefs in perfect markets. I would argue that economists, like doctors, have much to learn from pathology. We see more clearly in these unusual events how the economy really functions. In the aftermath of the Great Depression, a peculiar doctrine came to be accepted, the so-called ‘neoclassical synthesis.’ It argued that once markets were restored to full employment, neoclassical principles would apply. The economy would be efficient. We should be clear: this was not a theorem but a religious belief.”

As we also saw last time, historical socialism and communism join free market capitalism in their fundamentalist zeal. In fact, some think that economics in general has become today’s dominant cultural form of belief-based thinking. More on that next time.

The Free Market and the New Socialism

Mont Perlerin

The historic Mont Pelerin castle/hotel.

In 1947, economists  Friedrich HayekFrank KnightKarl PopperLudwig von MisesGeorge Stigler and Milton Friedman convened the Mont Pelerin Society in a castle/hotel overlooking Lake Geneva, with the express intent of displacing the Keynesian economic model that prescribed government intervention and spending to pull America out of the Great Depression and install the New Deal. The Society’s founding Statement of Aims is forcefully idealistic:

“The central values of civilization are in danger.  Over large stretches of the Earth’s surface the essential conditions of human dignity and freedom have already disappeared.  In others they are under constant menace from the development of current tendencies of policy.  The position of the individual and the voluntary group are progressively undermined by extensions of arbitrary power.  Even that most precious possession of Western Man, freedom of thought and expression, is threatened by the spread of creeds which, claiming the privilege of tolerance when in the position of a minority, seek only to establish a position of power in which they can suppress and obliterate all views but their own.”

The Statement goes on to carefully position the Society’s purpose as fostering intellectual inquiry, not the advancement of a new economic “orthodoxy.” In time, however, Milton Friedman did precisely that, championing capitalist free market economics through the Chicago School of Economics.

“The core of [the school’s teaching on the free market] was that the economic forces of supply, demand, inflation and unemployment were like the forces of nature, fixed and unchanging. In the truly free market imagined in Chicago classes and texts, these forces existed in perfect equilibrium, supply communicating with demand the way the moon pulls the tides

“Just as ecosystems self-regulate, keeping themselves in balance, the market, left to its own devices, would create just the right number of products at precisely the right prices, produced by workers at just the right wages to buy those products — an Eden of plentiful employment, boundless creativity and zero inflation.

“For this reason, Chicagoans did not see Marxism as their true enemy. The real source of the trouble was to be found in the ideas of Keynesians in the United States, the social democrats in Europe, and developmentalists in what was then called the Third World. These were believers not in a utopia but in a mixed economy, to Chicago eyes an ugly hodgepodge of capitalism for the manufacture and distribution of consumer products, socialism in education, state ownership for essentials like water service, and all kinds of law designed to temper the extremes of capitalism.

“The Chicagoans declared war  of those mix-and-match economists. What they wanted was not a revolutions exactly but a capitalists Reformation:  a return to uncontaminated capitalism.”

The Shock Doctrine:  The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein (2017)

Compare that vision to that of the Democratic Socialists of America we met last time, whose Constitution unreservedly advances their own counter-orthodoxy:

“We are socialists because we reject an economic order based on private profit, alienated labor, gross inequalities of wealth and power, discrimination based on race, sex, sexual orientation, gender expression, disability status, age, religion, and national origin, and brutality and violence in defense of the status quo. We are socialists because we share a vision of a humane social order based on popular control of resources and production, economic planning, equitable distribution, feminism, racial equality and non-oppressive relationships. We are socialists because we are developing a concrete strategy for achieving that vision, for building a majority movement that will make democratic socialism a reality in America. “

Thus the free market and socialism champions have planted their flags at the poles of the economic ideological spectrum. In between, however, are those whose perspective and goals are more immediate and  pragmatic, such as greater economic equality, improved public access to healthcare (see endnote below[1]) and education unencumbered with government-financed debt.

“Socialism historically has been associated with the concept of public or collective ownership of property and natural resources and has long been associated with Marxism and communism. In 1949, with the Chinese Communists just having taken control of China, and with the Communist Soviet Union creating fear of an aggressive effort to spread their ideology around the globe, Americans’ view of the term embraced the classic elements bound up in these types of movements.

“Now, almost 70 years later, Americans’ views of socialism have broadened. While many still view socialism as government control of the economy, as modified communism and as embodying restrictions on freedoms in several ways, an increased percentage see it as representing equality and government provision of benefits.”

The Meaning of “Socialism” to Americans Today, Gallup Polling Matters (Oct. 4, 2018)

Meanwhile, Millennials’ interest in this more temperate version of socialism is increasingly putting their free market elders in an awkward position:

“Perhaps the most significant thing about the rise of millennial socialism in the US is that it is forcing conservatives to articulate what exactly is so bad about a more equal system – often with results that are beyond parody.

“A writer for the ultra-conservative website the Daily Caller, for example, recently attended an Ocasio-Cortez rally and reported, completely straight-faced: “I saw something truly terrifying. I saw just how easy it would be … as a parent, to accept the idea that my children deserve healthcare and education.

“Kids deserving healthcare, imagine that! It’s a slippery slope, it really is.”

Socialism Is No Longer A Dirty Word In The US – And That’s Scary For Some, The Guardian (July 29, 2018)

What is going on, that a parent would say something like that? Digging deeper reveals a dynamic at work that is more powerful than a generation gap, polarized ideologies, or campaign issues such as healthcare. We’ll look into that next time.

[1] For those leaning toward socialism’s new version, the leading issue is healthcare. See also these Gallup survey results announced November 12, 2019:  “More than 13% of American adults — or about 34 million people — report knowing of at least one friend or family member in the past five years who died after not receiving needed medical treatment because they were unable to pay for it… Dovetailing with these results is a rising percentage of adults who report not having had enough money in the past 12 months to ‘pay for needed medicine or drugs that a doctor prescribed’ to them. This percentage has increased significantly, from 18.9% in January 2019 to 22.9% in September. In all, the 22.9% represents about 58 million adults.”

Homo Economicus [4]: Enlightened Self-Interest

homo economicus

The concept of “homo economicus” captures the belief that the rigorous pursuit of self-interest in a free market improves things for everyone. This belief powered Milton Friedman’s famous dictum that “the social responsibility of business is to increase profits,” and finds a philosophical ally in Ayn Rand’s “objectivism”:

“The core of Rand’s philosophy… is that unfettered self-interest is good and altruism is destructive. [The pursuit of self-interest], she believed, is the ultimate expression of human nature, the guiding principle by which one ought to live one’s life. In “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal,” Rand put it this way:

‘Collectivism is the tribal premise of primordial savages who, unable to conceive of individual rights, believed that the tribe is a supreme, omnipotent ruler, that it owns the lives of its members and may sacrifice them whenever it pleases.’

“By this logic, religious and political controls that hinder individuals from pursuing self-interest should be removed.”

What Happens When You Believe in Ayn Rand and Modern Economic Theory, Evonomics (Feb. 17, 2016)

Thus Ayn Rand became the patron saint of American capitalism in its current iteration. This is from a 2017 Atlantic article:

“’I grew up reading Ayn Rand,’ … Paul Ryan has said, ‘and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are.’ It was that fiction that allowed him and so many other higher-IQ Americans to see modern America as a dystopia in which selfishness is righteous and they are the last heroes. ‘I think a lot of people,’ Ryan said in 2009, ‘would observe that we are right now living in an Ayn Rand novel.’”

Critics point out that there is no such thing as a free market or objectively rational self-interest, arguing instead that the market is inescapably skewed toward policy-makers’  beliefs and values — i.e., their particular interpretations of what “self-interested” behavior looks like.[1] As a result, economic policy always comes laden with ethical and moral beliefs about “good” vs. “bad” outcomes, which the not-so-free market then dutifully delivers:

“Milton Friedman argued that competition between big businesses suffices to safeguard the public interest, but in practice it is almost always insufficient, especially where there is collusion among the players to safeguard their market dominance – and their political influence.

“Free-market economists have an unwarranted faith in the capacity of price adjustments to produce technological changes in production and patterns of consumer demand. Their theories imply that the price system has infinite capacity to shape sustainable outcomes.

“But if the self-interested market behaviours continue to seek an unchanged goal – more personal incomes with which to purchase more material goods – ultimately they cannot be fulfilled.

 “Ultimately, the short-term self-interested economic arrangements are not sustainable anyway. As the US economist Kenneth Boulding once said: “Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist”.

“Economic inequalities also predictably widen where self-interested market behaviours dominate. Capital makes capital, while those without capital often remain consigned to poverty. Certainly, the very rich have become notably much wealthier during the last three decades while neoliberal ideologies and policies have been dominant. In the absence of strong unions and governments committed to some degree of egalitarian redistribution, the unequalising tendency is inexorable. The result is predictably unhappier societies that experience a higher incidence of social problems, as empirical research complied by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett clearly demonstrates.

“Something has to give. An economic system that rewards amoral self-interest creates economic instability, fractures economic insecurity, fosters concentrations of economic power, exacerbates economic inequality and violates ecological sustainability. So much for the self-regulating market economy!

“There is currently much talk of ‘social responsibility’ in business and of ‘triple bottom line accounting’ that emphasises the use of social and environmental criteria, as well as a financial criterion, in assessing business performance… Indeed, businesses developing reputations for responsible behaviours may reap benefits in the form of worker and customer loyalty. But unless and until ethical behaviours become integral to how markets function – by directly affecting ‘shareholder value’, for example – it is hard to see the overall effect as much more than window dressing for ‘business as usual’.”

Oh, The Morality: Why Ethics Matters In Economics, The Conversation (in partnership with the University of Sydney) (March 22, 2012)

More on ethics and economics next time.

[1] For more on whether the market is truly “free,” see this article and this one. Or if you prefer, here’s a short video and here’s a TEDX talk.

There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch — True or False?

free lunch - mIlton friedman

free lunch - steven hawking

We can assume that the pros and cons of a universal basic income (UBI) have been thoroughly researched and reasonably analyzed, and that each side holds its position with utmost conviction.

We can also assume that none of that reasonableness and conviction will convert anyone from one side to the other, or win over the uncommitted. Reason doesn’t move us:  we use it to justify what we already decided, based on what we believe. SeeWhy Facts Don’t Change Our Minds,” The New Yorker (February 2017) and “This Article Won’t Change Your Mind,” The Atlantic (March 2017).

History doesn’t guide us either — see Why We Refuse to Learn From History, from Big Think and Why Don’t We Learn From History, from military historian Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart. The latter is full of conventional wisdom:

“The most instructive, indeed the only method of learning to bear with dignity the vicissitude of fortune, is to recall the catastrophes of others.

“History is the best help, being a record of how things usually go wrong.

“There are two roads to the reformation for mankind— one through misfortunes of their own, the other through the misfortunes of others; the former is the most unmistakable, the latter the less painful.

“I would add that the only hope for humanity, now, is that my particular field of study, warfare, will become purely a subject of antiquarian interest. For with the advent of atomic weapons we have come either to the last page of war, at any rate on the major international scale we have known in the past, or to the last page of history.

Good advice maybe, but we’ve heard it before and besides, most of us would rather make our own mistakes.

If reasoned analysis and historical perspective don’t inform our responses to radically new ideas like UBI, then what does? Many things, but cultural belief is high on the list. Policy is rooted in culture, culture is rooted in shared beliefs, and beliefs are rooted in history. Cultural beliefs shape individual bias, and the whole belief system becomes sacred in the culture’s mythology. Try to subvert cultural beliefs, and the response is outrage and entrenchment.

All of which means that each of us probably had a quick true or false answer to the question in this week’s blog post title, and were ready to defend it with something that sounded reasonable. Our answer likely signals our knee jerk response to the idea of UBI. The “free lunch”– or, more accurately, “free money” — issue appears to be the UBI Great Divide:  get to that point, and you’re either pro or con, and there’s no neutral option. (See this for more about where the “no free lunch” phrase came from.[1])

The Great Divide is what tanked President Nixon’s UBI legislation. The plan, which would have paid a family of four $1,600/year (equivalent to $10,428 today) was set to launch in the midst of an outpouring of political self-congratulation and media endorsement, only to be scuttled by a memo from a White House staffer that described the failure of a British UBI experiment 150 years earlier. UBI apparently was in fact a free lunch, with no redeeming social purpose; thus its fate was sealed.

As it turns out, whether the experiment  failed or not was lost in a 19th Century fog of cultural belief which enabled opponents of the experiment to pounce on a bogus report about its impact to justify passing the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 — which is what they wanted to do anyway. The new Poor Law was that era’s version of workfare, and was generated by the worst kind of scarcity mentality applied to the worst kind of scarcity. Besides creating the backdrop to Charles Dickens’ writing, the new Poor Law’s philosophical roots still support today’s welfare system:

“The new Poor Law introduced perhaps the most heinous form of ‘public assistance’ that the world has ever witnessed. Believing the workhouses to be the only effective remedy against sloth and depravity, the Royal Commission forced the poor into senseless slave labor, from breaking stones to walking on treadmills….”

From “The Bizarre Tale Of President Nixon’s Basic Income Plan.”

If UBI is a free lunch, then it’s an affront to a culture that values self-sufficiency. If it isn’t, then it requires a vastly different cultural value system to support it. The former believes that doing something — “making a living” at a job — is how you earn your daily bread. The latter believes you’re entitled do sustenance if you are something:  i.e., a citizen or member of the nation, state, city, or other institution or community providing the UBI. The former is about activity, the latter is about identity. This Wired article captures the distinction:

“The idea [of UBI] is not exactly new—Thomas Paine proposed a form of basic income back in 1797—but in this country, aside from Social Security and Medicare, most government payouts are based on individual need rather than simply citizenship.”

UBI is about “simply citizenship.” It requires a cultural belief that everybody in the group shares its prosperity.  Cultural identity alone ensures basic sustenance — it’s a right, and that right makes Poor Laws and workfare obsolete.

The notion of cultural identity invites comparison between UBI and the “casino money” some Native American tribes pay their members. How’s that working? We’ll look at that next time.

[1] Yes, Milton Friedman did in fact say it, although he wasn’t the only one. And in a surprising twist, he has been criticized for advocating his own version of UBI.