When the World Went Bankrupt

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To understand the machinations of a complex world, one must become sensitive to how apparently separate phenomena interconnect to produce unexpected consequences. Otherwise intelligent men and women struggle to make sense of the destructive turbulence that is fast becoming the norm in modern society. Wars that fail to satisfy even the most meager of excuses for their prosecution; rapidly-expanding police states rationalized as necessary for the ferreting out of "terrorist" bogeymen; state-sponsored torture conducted for no more apparent purpose than an end in itself; the wholesale looting engaged in — with bipartisan support — for the purpose of creating trillions of dollars of booty to subsidize the corporate owners of American society for losses sustained through incompetent management; these are the major examples of the failure to see interrelated causes of social disorder.

Throughout all of this, we see exhibited by those who presume the powers of omniscience and rational planning, a thorough ignorance not only of the causal factors that continue to produce our horribly disrupted world, but of the propriety of statist actions that respond to such dislocations with the same mindset that produced the turmoil. One sees symptoms of this disconnectedness in such absurdities as Al Gore’s receipt of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, or the 2008 Nobel Prize in Economics to Paul Krugman. It is as though the Nobel Prize judges wanted to go out of their collective way to refute Einstein’s proposition that one cannot solve a problem with the same kind of thinking that produced it!

Another example of ultra-myopic thinking is to be found in a recent editorial from the erstwhile free-market publication, The Economist. Focusing on the travails that beset economies throughout the world, the magazine advises: "This is a time to put dogma and politics to one side and concentrate on pragmatic answers. That means more government intervention and co-operation in the short term than taxpayers, politicians or indeed free-market newspapers would normally like."

Whenever I hear or read such arrant nonsense, I am reminded of my law school Jurisprudence professor, Karl Llewellyn’s interchange with a classmate of mine who had challenged a statement of Llewellyn’s by saying: "that may be good in theory, but it isn’t practical." Llewellyn responded: "if it’s not practical, it’s not good theory."

Much of the explanation for this disconnected mindset can be found in the "specialized" ways in which we learn and work. Economists, lawyers, historians, scientists, et al., are to learn and to practice a presumed "expertise" in their chosen field. Each is to stick to his territory, and to defend the collective interests of his colleagues by attacking those who presume to speak or write in subject areas for which they do not hold graduate degrees. This is the ultimate form of reductionist thinking, a travesty which, fortunately, is openly confronted by the holistic premises of chaos theory. The world is simply too complex; subject to a myriad of interconnected influences that are both unidentifiable and not confined to the tenets of any academic discipline.

So many of our current difficulties are underlain by the kind of unfocused, fragmented thinking expressed in The Economist editorial. "Pragmatism" has no meaning in the absence of ends to be served; objectives that necessarily incorporate explicit or implicit values of the actor. One who seeks "pragmatic answers" to problems — without addressing the principles by which "answers" are to be evaluated — is engaged in the smuggling of hidden premises into the discussion. If people act to be better off afterwards than they were before, what criteria and purposes will motivate their actions?

In our commercially-dominant culture, it is too often assumed that material values pre-empt all others, an assumption that seems to direct almost all of the proposals offered in response to the economic turbulence now besetting both America and the rest of the world. As one who regards the industrial revolution as the most humanizing period in history, I unequivocally acknowledge that material values are important to pursue. While such ends are necessary for living well, they are not sufficient. Let any who doubt this inform me of the value of a baby, or the costs associated with Nazi concentration camps or Soviet gulags!

Materialistic thinking that is separated from other values dominates proposals for dealing with the current economic collapse. Politicians and media voices speak in terms of numbers, but not much else. Congress’ giving of trillions of dollars to banks is defended on the grounds that "it will strengthen their balance sheets." Of course it will, just as a mugger will have more money in his pockets after a night of robbery. But at whose cost? "Will this work?" is another commonly-asked question, reflecting the same kind of morally bankrupt questioning with which most address the continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the propriety of torture.

If, as seems to be the case, Western civilization is in a state of collapse, we might have occasion to consider the causes so that we might rethink our assumptions — and behavior — for whatever is to follow. The well-being of any system depends upon more than just its material characteristics. A vibrant business organization, for instance, requires more than abundant investment capital. Whether the firm’s decision-making is centralized in an individual who issues directives to underlings, or is decentralized among those who perform the work of the organization, will have much to do with determining how much creativity and job satisfaction will be fostered. Likewise, the well-being of a family depends on more than the principal wage-earner bringing money home for the purchase of goods and services.

In the same way, the prosperity of a society — or a civilization — requires much more than the generation of material wealth. All dynamic systems depend upon the integration of life-sustaining influences. For the same reason, the disintegration of such qualities helps to bring about the demise of systems. This is what is meant by living with integrity: interacting with others, holistically, from within a non-contradictory center on the basis of values and principles that sustain one’s well-being.

Our ancestors seem to have had an intuitive awareness of the importance of living the integrated life. The search of an etymological dictionary reveals that the words "peace," "freedom," "love," and "friend," share some common origins. Perhaps they implicitly understood what we, in our overly-politicized world, can no longer grasp, namely, that "friends" express "love" for one another by respecting one another’s "freedom," and that a world so constituted enjoys "peace." How impractical, we tell ourselves, as we play out the violent, conflict-ridden premises in which our thinking has been carefully structured. What masses of contradiction have we become when we condemn young men who kill their classmates at school, while cheering those who kill strangers in foreign lands; when we are unable to see that "our representatives" in Washington, D.C. are treating us no differently than is the mugger we encounter in a dark alley?

It has become fashionable to speak of the impending bankruptcy of the American economic system. To so focus our attention, however, is to overlook the fragmented nature of what we have allowed ourselves to become. Economic bankruptcy does not arise independently of related factors. The seeds of such bankruptcy were planted long ago, and have been carefully tended to by subsequent generations. There is a more generalized bankruptcy whose disintegrative influences have combined to produce our impending collapse.

The first of such causal forces can be referred to as moral bankruptcy, a phrase intended to cut much deeper than the kinds of personal habits and lifestyle concerns that get conservatives agitated. I refer, instead, to the willingness of so many of us to rationalize the taking of the unearned from owners and bestowing it upon others, provided the process is stamped with the imprimatur of the state. This shortcoming also finds expression amongst those who sanction the conduct of wars, or who have no problem devoting their energies to designing or operating military weapons and other systems for monitoring or controlling the actions of people.

A most troubling expression of moral bankruptcy is reflected in the aforementioned editorial from The Economist: the failure to live an integrated, centered life has pragmatic consequences. Moral and philosophic principles have the most practical implications for the very existence of our lives. Stated another way, the refusal to integrate moral and philosophic principles in one’s life is the reflection of a principle, albeit one that is deftly smuggled into a discussion in service to unstated ends. Upon close examination, however, one discovers that the disguised principle is one that fragments rather than integrates one’s life, producing destructive conflict rather than wholeness.

Intellectual bankruptcy has been another major contributor to our socially disordered world. The failure to understand the nature of economics, and the principles of causation and conservation of both mass and energy; the failure to respect the inviolability of property rights and contracts; as well as an ignorance of history, have been additional catalysts for our present disarray. Politicians who ought to have learned from recent history about the destructive effects of inflation and the stultifying nature of state socialism, responded to an immediate crisis by generating more than $1,000,000,000,000 of additional inflation and partially socializing banks! In so doing, Congress was unable to rise above the habit at which it has proven itself adept, namely, to print more debased currency and bestow it upon its corporate friends. As in the aftermath to 9/11, its reaction was one of reflexive desperation rather than considered analysis; like blind men throwing darts at a dart-board. As our entropic decline continues, the politicos generate no more intelligent purpose than to preach the need for "economic stabilization" (i.e., to maintain the status quo).

The intellectual insolvency of our culture has been demonstrated in the response of many politicians and news media people to the McCain/Palin charge that Obama is a "socialist." No doubt such allegations are correct — so, too, of course, does the accusation apply to McCain — but notice the response thereto. Were "socialism" to become an issue in this campaign, news reporters, commentators, and political hacks, would have to be prepared to analyze its philosophic, historic, and economic implications. One would have to have a mind versed in intellectual concepts, and such are not part of the curricula of journalism departments. The "debate" must thus be shifted to a safe topic about which no challenges to the mind can arise: Sarah Palin’s wardrobe! One anti-conceptual group went so far as to try to equate criticism of "socialism" as an expression of racism!

The confusion about socialistic thinking and government regulation has been aided by the collapse of respect for the principle of privately-owned property. This, in turn, has been abetted by what Joseph Schumpeter identified as the movement from owner-controlled to manager-controlled business firms. This transformation has produced a shift in perspective from longer-term to shorter-term decision-making. I encountered this tendency when, in law practice, I witnessed owners of businesses considering the impact their actions might have on their children and grandchildren who might one day own their enterprises, while managers — whom Schumpeter correctly characterized as having the mindset of employees — tended to focus the scope of their actions only upon immediate concerns. Politicians and bureaucrats typify such thinking, looking only to the next election or their retirement to define their time-frames.

We need to move beyond the kind of thinking that drives political systems. Governmental policies are like so much of traditional medicine that only covers up symptoms without treating the underlying disease. If Americans have any hope of restoring a vibrant, productive economy, we need all the destabilization we can muster. President Bush babbled such incoherencies as how state socialism will preserve a free market — words that recall the Vietnam War illogic about "destroying a village in order to save it." With such thinking directing economic policies in Washington, you can be assured that institutionalized foolishness is what will end up being stabilized.

It is the spiritual bankruptcy of our culture that is most in need of recovery; a "bailout" that can be accomplished only by mobilizing the inner resources of individuals. This is a topic I more thoroughly discussed elsewhere. The regeneration of the human spirit can arise only from a person’s believing in his or her existential worthiness; to regard the individual, in Kant’s words, "always as an end and never as a means only." It is only in the power of individuals to transcend their experiences and formal learning that a society can be rejuvenated. As we rediscover our individuality and withdraw our energies from the collective abstractions to which we have attached ourselves, our personal and social integrity will no longer be in destructive contradiction.

As institutional interests struggle to overcome their terminal fate, there is a wonderful opportunity for each of us to reinvest in ourselves and, in so doing, help our world to become human-centered. The corporate, political, academic, and media voices will continue to condemn our "selfishness" even as they insist upon satisfying their appetites for greed and power. But the creative and orderly forces of chaos will prevail — they always have. When Alan Greenspan testified, a few days ago, that he didn’t see the economic crisis coming, he was unwittingly admitting to anyone’s incapacities to make predictions in the face of complexity. "Neither all the king’s horses nor all the kings men" — with all of the violence, paper money, or prisons available to them — can achieve by indirection, political magic, or other quickie solutions to long-term problems, what you and I, alone, can accomplish by introspection.

Ralph Waldo Emerson expressed our present situation quite well: "This time, like all other times, is a very good one, if only we know what to do with it."

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of the newly-released In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918—1938 and of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival.

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