Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Democracy and business interests

One of the reasons it's so hard to take George Bush, the buisness-class lackey extraordinaire, at all seriously when he champions the march of democracy in the Middle East and the old Soviet republics is the tradition emnity of business for democratic ways. Business prefers a despot (cf, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan), who can overrule popular but not especially profitable notions like higher standards of living for wider swaths of the population and environmental protections that democratic bodies have a tendency to pass. (America has a workaround in the form of demogoguery -- cf Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas?) Business prefers stability to all other things as well, which a despot (or Alan Greenspan) can provide in spades.

In The Passions and the Interests, Hirschman cites two striking insights made early on in capitalism's history regarding the compatibility of private business interests and despotic, antidemocratic governments. The first comes from Adam Smith's Scottish contemporary, Adam Ferguson: "Liberty is never in greater danger than it is when we measure national felicity . . . by the mere tranquillity which may attend on equitable administration." The point is that keeping the waters calm for business is no sign that liberty is spreading, any more than more diverse and abundant consumer markets are. These things may actually be preoccupations distracting us from the curtailment of freedom, the dismantling of social safety nets. Married to our material interests, we are likely to agree to whatever depotic measure is pitched to us to stave off some supposed economic crisis just around the corner. Think of the current social security demogogery coming from the president: a perfect example of a phony crisis being trumped up to preserve the interests of the wealthy and their heirs and the expense of the liberties of the rest of society. The other comes from Toqueville, who is more customarily quoted in support of the proposition that commerce only thrives in free societies. His views weren't so simple: "People think they follow the doctrine of interest, but they only have a crude idea of what it is, and, to watch the better over what they call their business, they neglect the principal part of it, which is to remain their own masters." When people have their attentions fixated on profit, and see it as a proxy for freedom, actual liberty in the form of rights is readily shelved, espcially in imperialist scenarios where the rights-exporpriation is exported to third-world countries far from the stockholders who benefit by it.

The point is that isolated individuals watching out for their own financial interests don't automatically aggregate into a free society that preserves everyone's rights. The fight for profit is often a zero-sum game. And often individuals are so divorced from collective politcal power, that they are led to believe they must mortgage their rights in order to secure profits. They allow themselves to become so preoccupied with their personal gain that they let society become progressively worse (the NIMBY phenomenon). And as society worsens the political landscape ripens for demogogues like the current charlatan in the White House. A vicious cycle, indeed.

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