Three Measures to unblind capitalism (2)
Continued from here.
The right to die after a life of laziness profiting from other people’s sweat:
You can have hundreds of measures to counteract all the immoral outcomes of capitalism. None will succeed if they don’t touch the heart of the matter: putting matter before mind. The three most important achievements in keeping morality as primary are threatened by the constant erosion from capitalism’s constant competition. Whether it is social security, access to education or human rights, there’s no Western election that can’t be won by people challenging it all as politically correct and endangering economic productivity.
Fragmenting human rights by expanding them into minute details is not the right way to go. It just makes for a pathetic left wing defensiveness that appeals only to the converted while alienating those bearing the brunt of capitalism. I propose three measures that – in my view – will guarantee that the issues are dealt with at the root. On this basis, it won’t be necessary to overly stipulate specific policies as they’ll evolve automatically as a matter of public discourse. I realize that it’s not possible to realize them as a big bang and that incremental development towards them will be required. I’ll come back to that later. For now the problem is not how to achieve this but whether, if achieved, it will suffice to capitalize on capitalism without bleeding out from its blindness.
Measure 1: universal and unqualified right to die
It is not odd to start with a basic personal right given what has been said above. I realize that this measure is the most contentious one, precisely because this ultimate individual self-determination is directly at odds with the delusion of original sin (and hence original responsibility). It shows that we don’t live to redeem ourselves or to repay some original debt. If we feel we don’t derive any value from our existence, it is our right to terminate it. Full stop. Sure, there are qualifications but these are of process, not of right.
I say universal and unqualified in the sense of a procedure that allows the decision to be made in a conscious and individual way excluding impulsiveness and alienation by others. Maybe we can establish our own Socratic myth here. He made a conscious and individual decision to opt out of life after entering into debate with his peers. He did not challenge their decision but – as he could not live with it – took the option democratically given to opt out. It is the honorable option that needs to be available to all of us. It’s in a way the ultimate security that we can’t be forced to live in a way we do not want to live. It is a vote which is not a veto, the ultimate emancipation of the right of the individual. The myth has three important aspects: the decision is made after debate, it recognizes that there’s an impact of the individual decision on the loved ones and it is executed in a humane – and hence – controlled and societally recognized way. All these elements should be part of the procedure to be established. Existing euthanasia law is the embryonic version of what needs to be; this is how ethical progress is always made: step-wise by progressive insight.
I firmly believe the consequences of this measure will be positive in myriad ways. The reason I’m proposing it has nothing to do with consequences though. Religious people may appreciate this best because they will resist this proposal regardless of consequences; because life is not ours but for God to give and to take away. I propose this in line with the above analysis to once and for all establish that life is ours full stop. Only when “life’s ours full stop” can we counteract capitalism’s claim on our original duty to productivity and its coercion towards what it calls merit. Only when we are secure in not having to become a ‘deserving’ member of society will we have the freedom to change society. It is easy to see why pre-capitalist and communist societies cannot allow such radical freedom and it is, again, the virtue of liberal capitalism that such a proposal can at least be entertained.
It’s the consequential bit where we’ll lose most liberal capitalists, even the most ethically progressive. They will say: si tous les dégoûtés s’en vont, il n’en reste que les dégoûtants. They will lament the loss of creative and innovative potential. They will be right to some extent. People will opt out like Socrates did. That’s fine because this is the way it will be: if all the disgusted people leave, the only thing left is to make society less disgusting. People will come out for all sorts of things knowing they don’t have to fight a lifetime to probably never get it. It will make other people think and this will make a time come more rapidly where people don’t have to fight for what’s right. The right to die is – also, not primarily – a civilized version of the normal dynamic of fighting for ethical progress (as it always was).
This is the civilized version because there is no merit – or only a capitalist, a communist or a religious merit – in the answer that people just have to “fight for what’s right“. The problem precisely lies in there being already too much fighting for both right and wrong. Accepting the duty to fight to get your point across is capitulating to the capitalist society; a society that reduces all individual merit to a talent for fighting. No, people do not have to do anything at all. They most certainly do not have to be fighters when they are not; not anymore than they have to be straight if they are just gay. That, my dear friends, is self-determination.
Measure 2: basic and unconditional income for everyone
Our minds may be made of words, they’re still connected to bodies. We have no personal rights if we can’t sustain our bodies. Basic income needs to go much further than the mere sustenance of bodies though. A body without a mind – without words – is just a slave. Over the ages slavery has precisely been justified by masters denying their slaves a mind and a proper use of words. All discriminations boil down to this residue: denying some set of people a full mind and the possession of complete language. This is true up to democratic elections that do not result in the preferred outcome of the elite (selectorate). Obviously, any kind of discrimination is just a (sometimes sophisticated) snake-like lack of language; of charity, of co-operation, of trust, of sympathy and of love.
A basic income therefore has to allow everybody growing their mind with words. Forget about unemployment traps and bare minima: the “basic” in basic income refers to living handsomely and learning our lifetime long. We should not worry about the economy but respect people’s right to be lazy. We should trust the human instinct to create something worthwhile co-operating freely. Financial independence has always been the precondition not only for happiness but for producing anything novel and of use to our actual (and not merely only our economic) progress. Whether it’s art, science or entertainment; the actual enjoyable benefits are the product of passive or active free time and personal enthusiasm, in a word: of leisure.
Liberal capitalists believe work is a human duty. It’s not. Academics think work is a human right. I agree, but not if work is seen as economically productive activity. The right refers to a social environment wherein people can co-operate with others – if necessary to create things that get scrapped over and over again. The goal of work is not just to produce stuff. It is to get better people by making people feel better. Basic income should be such that there is the right to a type of work which is nothing else than the right to life long learning. Still people need to remain free to find their own occupation: whether solitary or not, whether cooperatively or not. If non-cooperation weren’t an option, I would not have been able to read Proust and consequently not to write this. As a cultural optimist we don’t do it for the consequences. We do it because it’s right and precisely because it’s right the consequences will come out the right way. Work is not there to pay for leisure activity. Leisure activity is work and therefore should be covered by our basic income. The economy has a duty to pay for the development of our minds, not the other way around. This is also why the basic income should be unconditional i.e. not requiring any level of contribution – as if in our imperfection we’d be able to prejudge what a relevant contribution would be!
None of this is meant in any way against productive work and against paying more for more productive work. I’m not challenging capitalism here, just the aspect of capitalism exploiting people through forced cheap labour. Capital will have to convince people to do productive work by paying a premium over this basic income, not the other way around as it is today. There are people who like to do productive work and like to get paid more. I am not one of them any longer but it’s super fantastic that these people continue to exist. We need them for now; paying them more is just a matter of gratitude. Capitalism is such that it will take this productive labour to make more and more labour superfluous, mainly via technological innovation, if exploitation via cheap labour is effectively barred by the basic income. That’s perfect as people can then gradually do more interesting stuff. Interesting to them, I mean. Capitalism does this already and does it effectively, with a basic income it will not just do it at expense of many but to the benefit of all.
Measure 3: universal progressive tax on capital
We shouldn’t penalize capitalists by denying them their monetary incentives. They can even keep their incantations of mythical money-making as well. There should be a limit to accumulation though – a principled limit to the difference between their wealth and the basic income as Rawls proposed. The duty for individuals to contribute by productive work – a burden on personal freedom – needs to be replaced by the inescapable duty of capital to contribute to our human autonomy. Whatever accumulation still takes place should take place only if it helps to increase the basic income. Capitalists will only become wealthier if, first, they make all of us more independent. A wealth tax as proposed by Thomas Piketty is the ideal vehicle for this as it targets accumulation at its heart. The idea lacks something morally universal though which needs to be explored for it to be complete.
Fiscal fishing is the real issue coming from globalized capitalism, not social dumping. There’s no intrinsic negative in people moving to countries with a higher life standard to increase their own outlook. Fishing for the best fiscal regime by the wealthy by moving capital around is however an intrinsic threat to any social advance. It not only erodes the fiscal base with which to alleviate any issues citizens may have but, as capital moves at the speed of light quite unlike human beings, it is the basic mechanism powering the race to the bottom. It is essential for capitalism in allowing unrestricted accumulation. As such it gets promoted by liberals who continuously claim further erosion of social achievements is needed for ‘our (state’s) competitive position’. This is directly connected to nationalist and anti-globalist populism. The double bind is about blind faith in making State X Great Again and feeding a xenophobic frenzy about any foreign influence. It is quite the opposite of universality as Kant and the Enlightenment had it, no matter what these liberals claim, high as they are on their Enlightenment overdose restricted to the happy few.
Piketty’s opponents are right in saying that his tax is unworkable. This is true as long as it can be challenged by the freedom of movement of capital exploiting the fiscal competition between capitalist states. It’s not the freedom of movement of workers that is the issue but the freedom of movement of capital. There’s only one way to restrict free movement of capital: by curtailing the freedom of movement of its owners. If they do not pay the tax on their global wealth, they relinquish their rights as citizens. Paying the tax is a civic duty. Not paying it means they are, effectively, banned. They are then free to move out to any place where they can have their capital and avoid other people can eat from it too.
I mean this in a very strict way. It should not be possible to move physically a part of the time and keep for instance your children as citizens of the country you refuse to respect your civic duties towards. People evading the wealth tax of a state having it, shouldn’t be allowed any entry into it. They cannot come here to exercise their right to die. They cannot put up their kids in an education system they don’t pay for according to the rules of the state organizing that system. If they want to give part of their wealth to their kids to study here, that’s perfectly fine if and when the wealth tax is paid by these kids. Forgiveness is elementary. Accepting the wealth tax should not be the only civic duty for all those who opt for the path of accumulating capital. They should accept the strictest of rules avoiding the buying of influence in politics or access to education. Again, banishment should be an option as it’s the only one that doesn’t deny them individual freedom but denies arbitrary transfer of that freedom to their capital, something which cannot but end in the current race to the bottom.
This is harsh, and stories of individual freedom curtailed will soon emerge. They won’t be close to the misery and lack of freedom that is the consequence of free movement of capital. I’m sure that the majority will put their money where they want their bodies to be. Nation states can so recover, one by one, the ability to determine the fiscal treatment of wealth regardless of external capitalist pressures and without leaving the capitalist consensus. These states will be able to dedicate this new income on realizing a better society that also the wealthy people want to physically move in. There will – I am a cultural optimist – again be a race to the top (whatever that top turns out to be, my opinion on it counts as much or as little as that of the next woman) and over time other states will come to the new consensus (certainly if people start to refuse to go to those countries unless they apply it – we will have to be harsh on this to be mild on other things). Such a dynamic can only be started in the West and only in accepting the duty of a state with a wealth tax to redistribute it to less fortunate states (conditions should not be too stringent here, in line with the thoughts that Rawls expresses in its Law of Peoples). This is the time for the West to export something else than misery and import something else than luxuries.
I have presented three specific measures and the reasons why I believe they allow us to spiral out of the capitalist bind we’re in. They establish a moral – non-consequentialist – primacy over economics including the unavoidable limit of the invisible hand: capitalism. I argued that the latter is needed to realize man’s moral autonomy in the free spirit of the Enlightenment thought, a spirit that is being trapped in a false sense of Western tradition.
They are presented much in the way Rawls presents his two principles, without specifics and with no treatment of how they will concretely come about. In the final paragraph I’ll explain why a contractarian perspective is the right one contrary to the increasingly popular activist view argued for by Amartya Sen. In the spirit of building on established thought I first quickly position my measures in the Rawlsian framework.
The first measure clearly is an extension of Rawls’ first principle on basic individual rights. It is the crucial missing link for real individual autonomy. Without it people are bound to citizenship even if they do not want it. This would inevitably entail that people have an original duty. This can’t be the case for free people. It does not matter that they can strive for a better society, move to better states or try to found autonomous communities. All of these options can be good ones at an individual level but also can’t be imposed universally without eroding individual liberties.
My third measure extends Rawls’ difference principle by requiring – in line with Piketty’s findings – that the accumulation of capital needs to be acted on directly via the wealth tax. This tax can only succeed by stipulating that movement of capital can’t be free if people are to be free. The reason why individual liberties are threatened is precisely because capital is absolutely free in the current neoliberal consensus. Restricting full freedom of capital requires us to be harsh for a few in order to be mild for the many. It requires us to banish people if they refuse to pay what they are due to their fellow citizens. They remain free to move with their capital to societies where citizens didn’t pass such a wealth tax but they’ll need to accept that the price for freedom of their capital is the restriction of their individual freedom of movement to societies that did pass a wealth tax. Such banishment is not without precedent and was, as recently as 2012, promoted as a bill in the US Senate (where it died in lobby after receiving initial bipartisan support).
The second measure is a mixed bag as it ties this difference principle to a basic income as one of the essential conditions of personal liberties. In fact we probably should rather look for a notion of basic wealth where everybody is born into some kind of a state inheritance, and redistribution of wealth is done in the most direct (and traditional) way. The spending of that basic wealth can then be a matter of personal decision taking into account the right to die.
I believe the Rawlsian framework needs these extensions, because it suffers from a gap related to the reality of competition between capitalist states. It is the resulting fiscal race to the bottom that make his ideas look Utopian. Liberals have always selectively quoted his first principle and neglected his second, difference principle; the result in the West is that even the first principle is under threat. Acknowledging the reality of individuals and capital moving from one citizenship to another provides the completion of his ideas. It allows for a moral race to the top – to full individual moral autonomy – that’s desirable as well as realistic without being coercive.
This is indeed not an Utopian vision. It sets the compass allowing to achieve the vision practically, without revolution, step by step in proper public discourse. The measures are not too prescriptive either in what should be their exact content or in how they exactly should come about. Legislative activity has been started on all three measures in various Western states. The merit of this paper is to bring them together in a structured whole and argue for the need of the whole in order to get to a positive alternative to the woes of the current capitalism, so deeply unpopular in the West for all the right reasons. I believe that, once explained, the public discourse will accept these measures gradually and that cultural optimism will win the future day in seeing them spread like wildfire in much the same way liberal capitalism has spread over the last century.
We should not try to predict what a good society would decide but should limit ourselves to these essential contours of a society that can make good decisions. This is a contractarian position and activist thinkers like Sen stress, against it, the practical benefits of a so called developmental and incremental approach. The fact of the matter is that this approach – as well intentioned as it is – just isn’t compatible with individual freedom. On the one hand it tends to prescribe the right solution in this or that specific subject and organize civil strife rather than public discourse to achieve it. Crucially however it also presupposes a personal duty to be active in promoting some cause; it is essentially religious. I firmly believe there cannot be real freedom and such duty at the same time. If people are happy the way things are, we should be perfectly happy with them as long as they perform their minimal civic duties (voting, paying taxes, not undertaking criminal activities). Activism presupposes there’s a ‘right solution’ to fight for. I don’t believe fighting is the way to make progress at this stage of Western development. But I do agree that if the current erosion of rights continues there’s a risk to the need for fighting once again. Let’s not let it come that far!
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