Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Michael and You: Deconstructing Michael Moore and the Modern Left

Michael Moore is out with yet another populist documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story, decrying the evils of what he apparently defines as "capitalism". According to this Huffington Post review
[The movie] is not really a chronicle of the financial crisis or a dummies guide to economics and high finance. Instead, it's a populist analysis of the role of money—Wall Street money, in particular—in politics and government and the unequal distribution of wealth in the U.S., personified by a new group of robber barons.
Michael Moore himself says the film is "dedicated to 'good people ... who've had their lives ruined' by the quest for profit." He adds:
I am personally affected by good people who struggle, who work hard and who've had their lives ruined by decisions that are made by people who do not have their best interest at heart, but who have the best interest of the bottom line, of the company, at heart.
Not surprisingly, the film has garnered positive reviews with Time calling it the filmmaker's "magnum opus" and Variety dubbing it one of Moore's "best films."

Moore was recently interviewed on CNBC, where he was asked to summarize the essence of the movie. He said:
This movie is about the legalization of greed, and we call it capitalism these days. It's a system that encourages people to make as much money as they can any way they can and never ask some basic questions...is this good for the people, is this good for the country...the moral issue of this never gets talked about because, of course, capitalism isn't supposed to have any morals attached to it, its just supposed to be about making money - and we're at a point now where the working people of this country have suffered enough - there is a boiling anger out there in the country...
A host then asked, "If capitalism is not the answer, what is the alternative? Moore replied:

I am so bored with the capitalism versus socialism debate - we're taking a 16th century economic idea and debating it with a 19th century economic idea. We are in the 21st century. We have got to be smart enough to develop our own economic order and that's what we are lacking right now - the problem here is we have lost our compass - we don't have democratic values attached to our economy ,i.e, the people have little to say as to what's going on and our Judeao-Christian ethics that we claim to have in this country, simply don't seem to exist any more when it comes to the decisions on Wall Street

he added
what i'm celebrating is Christianity, all the great religions say the same thing...that we're going to be judged how we treat the least among us. How often is that question asked on Wall Street every day?
Moore's position is important because, as this NYT article shows, it mirrors the philosophy of the modern left, that is, the philosophy that is destroying the world. For instance, Moore's desire to develop a new "economic order" that is neither capitalism nor socialism mirrors the thinking of pragmatist socialists in Europe.
Enrico Letta, 43, is one of the hopes of Italy’s left, currently in disarray in the face of Silvio Berlusconi’s nationalist populism. “We have to understand that Socialism is an answer of the last century,” Mr. Letta said. “We need to build a center-left that is pragmatic, that provides an attractive alternative, and not just an opposition.”
Mr. Letta argues that Socialist policies will have to be transmuted into a more fluid form to allow an alliance with center, liberal and green parties that won’t be called “Socialist.”
Apparently, "transmuted to a more fluid form" means that they will pursue the same policies but call it something other than socialism.

First, note that Moore, like all modern intellectuals, does not ever bother to define capitalism? I highlighted this issue in a previous post, To Know Capitalism is to Love Capitalism, saying:
the meaning of capitalism has become completely blurred by modern academics who do not think in principles or essentials. For example, I would say that most intellectuals implicitly define capitalism as "anything America does or has done". So, for example, if the United States had slavery, then that is an example of "capitalism". If the United States authorizes a Federal Reserve Bank to print money endlessly causing credit expansion, malinvestment predicated on the illusion of profits, and a boom-bust economic cycle then that is an example of "capitalism." If the federal government encourages employer sponsored health insurance through its manipulation of the tax code and then offers health care entitlements to a third of the of the population thus exploding health care costs it is an example of "capitalism".
Moore's equivocation on the meaning of capitalism is precisely of this form. To him, "capitalism" is simply anything that America does. This is not just an issue of semantics. As I stated previously:
the concept of capitalism is implicitly being defined in terms of non-essentials. Such definitions blur the essential distinguishing characteristics of capitalism and have the effect of packaging the concept of capitalism together with concepts that represent its antithesis. In these cases, because capitalism is defined improperly, it is literally regarded as its opposite and held accountable for the deleterious effects of its opposite. Therefore, before arguing over capitalism versus socialism one should understand and clarify what exactly capitalism is.
And so, what is capitalism? Ayn Rand defined capitalism as follows:

Capitalism is a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned.

Why is this a definition by essentials? In reality, either you own property or you do not. If the state can control and dispose of your property through taxation, regulations, mandates, etc. then you do not actually own the property. If the state controls the use and disposal of the means of production (private property) the economic system can not be described as capitalism. Such a system is socialism. (The difference between fascism and socialism is only the difference of whether the state's control is de facto or de jure and is inconsequential from a practical perspective.)

Defining capitalism by essentials enables us to grasp the following crucial principle as stated by Ayn Rand:

The recognition of individual rights entails the banishment of physical force from human relationships: basically, rights can be violated only by means of force. In a capitalist society, no man or group may initiate the use of physical force against others. The only function of the government, in such a society, is the task of protecting man’s rights, i.e., the task of protecting him from physical force; the government acts as the agent of man’s right of self-defense, and may use force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use; thus the government is the means of placing the retaliatory use of force under objective control.

From the above, it can be seen that America today is not a capitalist society. We live in a mixed economy, i.e., a system of freedom and controls. Sorting out the economic and financial consequences of free markets amidst state intervention in the economy can be complicated. For example, real innovation and prosperity follow from the entrepreneur's "quest for profits" while government intervention in the monetary system dramatically distorts the flow of capital, leading to malinvestment, extreme leverage, and a devastating boom-bust cycle that does ruin peoples lives.

Moore's implicit definition of capitalism by non-essentials
package deals actual capitalism (private property and free trade) with socialism (government control) and therefore lays all of the deleterious effects of the federal government's socialistic policies at capitalism's doorstep. Ironically, the very government control's which Moore supports are, in fact, responsible for the economic devastation that Moore properly abhors.

Although it is crucial to define capitalism properly, I do not believe this is the essential issue, and, I will give Moore credit for defining the essential issue. In fact, he rightly observes that the "moral" issue is rarely discussed in economics and finance. Unfortunately, Moore tells us explicitly that he is "celebrating Christianity" and "Judeao-Christian ethics" which he accepts unquestioningly by default. In other words, Moore endorses the ethics of altruism. What is the essence of Judeao-Christian ethics? Quoting Ayn Rand:
What is the moral code of altruism? The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value.

Do not confuse altruism with kindness, good will or respect for the rights of others. These are not primaries, but consequences, which, in fact, altruism makes impossible. The irreducible primary of altruism, the basic absolute, is self-sacrifice—which means; self-immolation, self-abnegation, self-denial, self-destruction—which means: the self as a standard of evil, the selfless as a standard of the good.

Such an ethical view is responsible for all of Moore's other premises. He decries the "quest for profit" saying "we will be judged by how we treat the least among us." He implicitly denies the possibility that the pursuit of one's values could be moral when he states that capitalism is not about "morals" but merely about "making money." This leads Moore to a crude form of collectivism when he admonishes businessmen for not taking into account the "good of the people" or the "good of the country" when making decisions.

Of course, if Moore were truly concerned with the welfare of others, he would look around him while driving in a limousine, flying in a private jet, or editing film in a digitial movie studio and grasp that capitalism is responsible for the greatest advances in the history of the human race and has led to untold prosperity and quality of life for billions of people. He would observe the suffocating poverty, privation and misery that accompanies socialism in fully Marxist countries or simply observe the monuments to America's socialist experiments such as government housing projects. He would also study history noting that the concentration camps of National Socialism, the gulags of Soviet Russia, the forced prison camps of Mao's China, or the Killing Fields of Cambodia are necessitated by altruism and collectivism.

Of course, all of this is available to Moore but it does not matter to him or to socialists. They regard the "quest for profit" as inherently evil and therefore seek to use the coercive power of the state to throttle businessmen. As I stated in a previous post, to the socialist, since the businessman has "evil intentions" (he seeks profit) he must be regulated and controlled whereas the state has "good intentions" (they seek egalitarianism) so the ends justifies the means.

Moore is correct in identifying a crucial moral issue. Capitalism is incompatible with altruism. What he fails to grasp, however, is that the pursuit of one's own interests, values, and happiness is not evil but the height of morality. If one wishes to survive and be happy, he must pursue his own rational self-interest. Moore's view of selfishness is a common one. When he says that the capitalism encourages people to "make money any way they can", he equates "selfishness" with brutality and a wanton disregard for other's rights. In fact, rational selfishness requires the opposite of this approach. In order to properly pursue one's own life, one must respect the rights of others to do the same. Anyone who rationally defines his own long term self-interest grasps that other people are great values both spiritually and economically. In fact, as I argued in a previous post, individualism and freedom lead to a culture of benevolence. Quoting Harry Binswanger:

Contrary to Marxism, one does not benefit from the poverty or incompetence of others. It is in your interest that other men -- in every country -- be smart, ambitious, and productive, not stupid, lazy, or incompetent. Would you be better off if Thomas Edison had been dim-witted?

Moore's view of selfishness is the underlying premise behind an incredible irony. Socialists hysterically condemn and vilify the businessman, distrusting and fearing the power of the corporation that on a free market has no power other than to contract for labor or offer a product for sale. Meanwhile, they will grant the state, which enjoys a monopoly on the use of armed force, unlimited power to control every aspect of an individual's life. Only, the ethics of altruism could explain such a bizarre and deadly premise.

At some level, socialists like Moore and the Europeans quoted earlier recognize that practicing altruism is a contradiction and an economic dead end. They recognize at some level that "capitalism" works. Their inability to reconcile the contradiction of an anti-human ethical code like altruism with a system that results in phenomenal human progress and happiness leads them to uphold a ridiculous contradiction. Moore rejects capitalism, but he also rejects socialism! Instead, he wishes for some other way - a "new economic order" he calls it. And, what exactly is that? "We got to be smart enough to come up with it", he says. In other words, "somehow."

This last claim represents the essence of the socialist mindset and the mindset of the central planner. Somehow, they will find a way to have their cake and eat it too. Somehow, they will make reality something it is not.

8 comments:

mtnrunner2 said...

I look forward to reading your full post later today (gotta split for work now), but I just had to comment on his quote:

"I am personally affected by good people who struggle, who work hard and who've had their lives ruined by decisions that are made by people who do not have their best interest at heart"

I'm sorry, but is he speaking about bureaucrats imposing government regulations on business? ;)

Anonymous said...

Great post, although I feel I must defend my faith a little here. I am still sorting this all out--and don't claim infallibility--so please excuse the following stream of consciousness.

I think your description of Moore's socialist inclination to reject rational self interest is spot on, but feel that you inaccurately describe the essence of Christianity. Or rather, I think you misrepresent the essence of true Christianity.

Unfortunately, thanks to post-modernism (which you have done a thorough job of chronicling on this blog), true doctrine has been compromised. The central tenet of my faith (I am a confessional Lutheran) is that “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—“ (Ephesians 2:8).

Many people—Moore included—who call themselves Christians reject this Christocentric teaching (what Christ has done for us) in favor of an anthropocentric doctrine. The latter is all about what we do to earn our salvation: works-righteousness.

Many Christians—along with the majority of followers of other world religions—believe that their salvation is contingent upon the good works they commit in this life (ie. “as long as I am a good person I will go to heaven”). That is why they are so easily hoodwinked by the socialist conception of egalitarianism. Marxism (as Marx himself would readily admit) is inconsistent with Christianity. Christianity (as Luther would readily admit) is inconsistent with Marxism. I believe that the political left (just as the political right has done in the past) is attempting to co-opt Christianity to serve its own interests.

This has the double effect of not only watering down Christianity, but also ruining our country through its destruction of the incentives to produce and save.

Does Christianity promote altruism? Absolutely; on the other hand it also promotes and respects individual rights and property rights.

Here are the 5th, 7th, 9th, and 10th commandments as well as Luther’s interpretation of what they mean:

Thou shalt not kill. What does this mean? We should fear and love God that we may not hurt nor harm our neighbor in his body, but help and befriend him in every bodily need [in every need and danger of life and body].

Thou shalt not steal. What does this mean? We should fear and love God that we may not take our neighbor's money or property, nor get them by false ware or dealing, but help him to improve and protect his property and business [that his means are preserved and his condition is improved].

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house. What does this mean? We should fear and love God that we may not craftily seek to get our neighbor's inheritance or house, and obtain it by a show of [justice and] right, etc., but help and be of service to him in keeping it.

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his cattle, nor anything that is his. What does this mean? We should fear and love God that we may not estrange, force, or entice away our neighbor's wife, servants, or cattle, but urge them to stay and [diligently] do their duty.

In the same way, confessional Lutherans do not try to project their faith into the matters of government and public policy. Luther taught a clear delineation between the two-kingdoms (for starters see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctrine_of_the_two_kingdoms ) and wanted to keep religion out of politics.

Ps. Apologies for this long post. I understand if you choose not to publish it. My goal is not to proselytize but to demonstrate that some Christians, even if we are in the minority, can reconcile individual rights with our faith. I believe that God wants us all to work hard and then to voluntarily use our blessings to help others. This does not mean however, that we should advocate for a welfare state or other socialist policies which promote laziness (2 Thes. 3:10 “For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.”)
-TM

Doug Reich said...

mtnrunner2,

EXACTLY!

Later in the post, I discuss this in terms of the idea that socialists villify and fear businessmen who offer voluntary trades, yet, they are willing to grant unlimited power to bureaucrats who have police power to control every aspect of our lives.

Only the belief that self-interest is evil could explain this. In other words, they regard any self-interested act as suspicious if not downright evil but if the intention is altruistic then the ends justifies the means and one can not object no matter who heinous the practical consequence.

Ironically, only in a true free market, can someone at the bottom actually benefit from someone at the top in terms of taking advantage of the division of labor. In other words, someone who is not very smart or talented or even hard working, might be able to buy a life saving drug that a genious invented for the equivalent of a few hours of work. When rights are respected, other people are viewed as a great value to anyone who rationally looks out for their long term self interest.

Conversely, it is socialism and government controls that turns everyone into everyone else's slave. Under socialism, those defined as "needy" take from those that produce. When the products of your labor are not your own, you become a slave be definition. You become a serf under the yoke of the central planner who has no stake in your personal interest.

Moore seems to be discussing the practial consequences of socalism and central planning which, in effect, he is since most of the economic devasation facing us today has been caused by government intervention in the economy.

Truly ironic.

madmax said...

Doug,

I was going to comment that there are many Christians that will argue that Christianity does not imply socialism but anonymous has given you the perfect example. These types of Christians will say that the Left has co-opted Christianity and distorted it by making it focus on the individual sinner and not on Christ. There are some Catholics that argue that Protestantism is itself a distortion of Christianity because it is too individualistic and moves away from the community nature of the religion that only the Church can provide.

I think all of these arguments are garbage but there are many Christians that will make them. I would be interested in the type of response you would give to these "distortion of Christianity" arguments.

Doug Reich said...

Anon, (response part 1)

Thanks for taking the time to comment. I do appreciate it.

I have several points regarding your argument that I am misrepresenting "true Christianity" and that Christian doctrine does not necessarily imply socialism as people like Moore seem to indicate.

First and foremost, religious arguments are arguments from authority meaning that proponents claim something is true because God decreed it or some authority commanded them to believe it. This is not a rational argument because it does not and can not be reduced to the facts of reality. By definition, such claims require "faith" or belief in the absence of evidence. Therefore, I can not accept any religious claim as valid.

As a philosophy, is it fair to characterize the general claims of Christianity one way or the other? Of course, given the nature of these types of arguments – revelations from ancient scripture – they can be interpreted many different ways – as many ways as there are religions and denominations within religions and then some. Scriptures are notoriously ambiguous and even contradictory and some choose to emphasize one aspect over others, etc. To say that one interpretation is “true” and another is not is impossible even if you suspend the wider context – that the validity of the claims are arbitrary assertions. Of course, the fact that the major religions have been warring for two thousand years is proof of this.

(cont.)

Doug Reich said...

Part II (cont.)

With all that said, is there a general theme to Christianity, i.e., is there a common denominator underlying virtually all Christian doctrine? I would say that there definitely are common themes and I will cite two major ones – the first is epistemological and the second is ethical.

First, early Christian doctrine evolved out of Platonism (e.g., see Freeman’s “Closing of the Western Mind”). Plato separated the world into an actual world and an ideal world that could only be accessed by specially qualified philosopher kings. Of course, this idea that the real world is imperfect and flawed (or sinful) as compared to a more ideal world is the essence of organized religion which urges its adherents to suspend reason (have faith) and aspire to an idealized world as revealed to them by some authority.

Second, I think there is no doubt that the essence of Christian ethics is some brand of altruism. The ultimate symbol of Christian perfection is Christ’s sacrifice on the cross! Saintly self-denial, self-abnegation in service to God, the meek shall inherit the earth, you are your brother’s keeper etc. are hallmarks of religious virtue. It may be that somewhere in the Bible God says that if you don’t work you don’t eat but so what? That could be interpreted to means that if you are able you should do your share. I’m sure every commune operator would agree. The Bible also says that slaves should serve their masters.

"Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ." (Ephesians 6:5 NLT)

"Christians who are slaves should give their masters full respect so that the name of God and his teaching will not be shamed. If your master is a Christian, that is no excuse for being disrespectful. You should work all the harder because you are helping another believer by your efforts. Teach these truths, Timothy, and encourage everyone to obey them." (1 Timothy 6:1-2 NLT)

Or, consider the following quote and consider Marx’s slogan “from each according to ability, to each according to need”

"The servant will be severely punished, for though he knew his duty, he refused to do it. "But people who are not aware that they are doing wrong will be punished only lightly. Much is required from those to whom much is given, and much more is required from those to whom much more is given." (Luke 12:47-48 NLT)

I know there are many conservatives that try and reconcile religious altruism with capitalism and the pursuit of profit and happiness but they are incompatible. Arguing for capitalism on religious grounds undercuts the case for freedom by implying that the only justification for individual rights are appeals to faith. Moore is essentially right that religious ethics are consistent with socialism and incompatible with a capitalism. I believe this trend I have documented toward a Religious Left is a trend in that direction. Faith, mysticism, altruism, collectivism are all philosophical corollaries and they belong in the same philosophical camp. The defense of individual rights, capitalism, and the pursuit of human happiness can and should rely on facts, logic, and reason.

mtnrunner2 said...

Doug,

As you point out, the socialist view point is full of contradictions; some of the foremost being the idea that they are helping people, and constantly working against the only force that can help them: free thought and action.

I think you're noticing different facet of Moore that I wrote about after watching Sicko: his viewpoint is incredibly myopic. He's like an animal in a cage with a sheet over it; all he can tell is if someone is tossing him food or not, and he has no idea where it comes from or what are the principles to follow in order to keep it coming. Consequently, his "principles" take the only path remaining to him: that of forcing others to toss their food into his cage.

Moore is adept at stirring emotion, and comes up with the most egregious examples to support his thesis, but he does no serious causal analysis so there's no way he can ever identify what would truly solve the problems he points out.

Doug Reich said...

mtn,

"He's like an animal in a cage with a sheet over it; all he can tell is if someone is tossing him food or not, and he has no idea where it comes from or what are the principles to follow in order to keep it coming."

That is a wonderful analogy and a great observation.

Their myopia is induced by their rejection of reason and principled thinking. Of course, rejecting objectivity reduces man to the state of an animal as you point out. It represents a complete denial of causality.

In this case, Moore is explicit. He simply accepts religious altruism on faith as if no further discussion could be possible. He then identifies who has stuff and who doesn't and the guys who have stuff must give it to those who don't. Toss the food in that guys cage. Case closed.

As I have said before, the left used to pose as the intellectuals who had scientifically figured out how to create a utopia on earth and the capitalists were cast as folksy dimwits who stood in the way of "progress" based on religion and tradition. What a role reversal. The left is now explicitly religious and we are the scientists demonstrating objectively why we are right.

If we have enough time, we will win.