Friday, June 26, 2009

Why Obama is not a Socialist, and why what he is is much more dangerous.

First of all, let me be very clear here. When I speak of Socialists, I mean Marxists. Karl Marx of course was the progenitor of Socialism as a school of philosophy. The modern political movement that likes to call itself Socialism (or sometimes Communism) is a discrete entity from real Socialism. The Russian Revolution came during Marx's twilight years, and he thought they were idiots.

And so:

It is common to call President Obama a Socialist. He is not.

Why is Obama not a Socialist? To put it simply: Socialism is the takeover of the government by the workers. What Obama is doing with our country is a takeover of the workers by the government. Far from being the apple of Karl Marx's eye, he's doing exactly what Marx accused Captialism of doing--he is using the power of the state to take advantage of the proletariat.

Karl Marx's ultimate vision was one of a simple, direct democracy. Communism would be an outgrowth of Socialism. A true Socialist uprising could not and would not take place until Capitalism had run its course, creating enough wealth. Marx realized that Socialism would never be a revenue-generator like Capitalism. It was not intended to be. Socialism would be where the workers turned their efforts toward leveling the playing field for others of their own class. (My opinion that this philosophy shows a basic lack of understanding of human nature has not changed with gaining a greater understanding of Marx and his teachings.)

Surely you have heard "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." That's Marxist Socialism there. It's a damn good way to live life, not that far from what Jesus preached (thus the common, erroneous, liberal claim that Jesus was surely a Socialist). What those trying to force a bastardized version of Socialism upon this country fail to realize is that, in both Marx's view and in Jesus's view, this arrangement must be entered into voluntarily in order for it to work. Indeed, we can see that on a small scale it can sometimes work. There are a very few communes in existence today wherein people live out the Socialist ideal. Again, though, they are doing it voluntarily and are freely committed to the ideal. Socialism can never work as something that is thrust upon people. Thus the ultimate downfall of the USSR.

I do realize that Obama has Socialst connections. I do not think these people have a good understanding of Marxist Socialism, even if they proclaim themselves Marxists. That said, you can see Marx's poor view of religion being brought to light in Obama's pragmatic use of God. He is definitely using it as a tool for his own ends, much as Marx considered religion to be merely a way to reinforce social roles. Again, however, this isn't really Marxism but rather a propagation of what, in Marx's view, was one of the worst aspects of Capitalism. Perhaps this whole administration is Obama's way of attempting to pave the way for a true workers' revolt and overthrow of Capitalism.

Frankly, I don't think he's that smart.

So, if Obama is not a Socialist, what is he? He is a Utilitarian.

Utilitarianism is a political philosophy (which has, unfortunately, infected the medical field as well) explained most simply as advocating "the greatest good for the largest number of people."

Dr Cox, my philosophy professor, said people tend to like Utilitarianism because of this stated goal. It sure does sound warm and fuzzy, doesn't it?

Being that most of my readers are, as I myself am, conservative/libertarian, you will all undoubtedly see the obvious problem. The greatest good for the largest number of people has inherent an expectation of stomping the hell out of the rights of minority groups. All together now boys and girls: What's the smallest minority? That's right, the individual.

Utilitarianism is a sort of collectivism. What's sauce for the goose must be sauce for the gander. And the duck and the drake and the pullet and the rooster and the squirrel, rabbit, deer, etc etc.

Like Marxism, it had at its heart the elevation of the quality of life for the lower classes. Unlike Marxism, at its heart it is an hedonistic philosophy. What is right? What is good. It is a consequentialist philosophy (the ends justify the means).

Now, I could explain this in my own words, but I'm going to be momentarily lazy and quote from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Bentham's view was surprising to many at the time at least in part because he viewed the moral quality of an action to be determined instrumentally. It isn't so much that there is a particular kind of action that is intrinsically wrong; actions that are wrong are wrong simply in virtue of their effects, thus, instrumentally wrong. This cut against the view that there are some actions that by their very nature are just wrong, regardless of their effects. Some may be wrong because they are ‘unnatural’ — and, again, Bentham would dismiss this as a legitimate criterion. Some may be wrong because they violate liberty, or autonomy. Again, Bentham would view liberty and autonomy as good — but good instrumentally, not intrinsically. Thus, any action deemed wrong due to a violation of autonomy is derivatively wrong on instrumental grounds as well. This is interesting in moral philosophy — as it is far removed from the Kantian approach to moral evaluation as well as from natural law approaches. It is also interesting in terms of political philosophy and social policy. On Bentham's view the law is not monolithic and immutable. Since effects of a given policy may change, the moral quality of the policy may change as well. Nancy Rosenblum noted that for Bentham one doesn't simply decide on good laws and leave it at that: “Lawmaking must be recognized as a continual process in response to diverse and changing desires that require adjustment.” (Rosenblum, 9). A law that is good at one point in time may be a bad law at some other point in time. Thus, lawmakers have to be sensitive to changing social circumstances. To be fair to Bentham's critics, of course, they are free to agree with him that this is the case in many situations, just not all — and that there is still a subset of laws that reflect the fact that some actions just are intrinsically wrong regardless of consequences. Bentham is in the much more difficult position of arguing that effects are all there are to moral evaluation of action and policy.
(From The History of Utilitarianism, an all-around good read.)

Jeremy Bentham, by the by, is the father of Utilitarianism as a political philosophy.

If you pay close attention, you will see that much of modern Progressivism/Liberalism is in fact Utilitarianism. Thus the concept of the Constitution as a "living document" that must needs change with time. Note Bentham's belief that liberty and autonomy aren't inherent virtues. Basically, they are good but only to the extent that they produce good outcomes.

Sound familiar? I thought so.

Moving beyond Bentham, we come to John Stuart Mill. He was a student of Bentham's and a fan of the philosophy of Utilitarianism, but sought to make it more, well, utilitarian (in the "able to be utilized" sense of the word). He also felt Bentham was too egalitarian in his appreciation of pleasure. Mill, in other words, sought to rank pleasures according to their worth. Of course, we all tend to do this. I consider the pleasure of a good book to rank ahead of just anything. Of course, in Mill's view of Utilitarianism, I don't get to make that choice. None of us do. No, there must be others, who have experienced a wide variety of pleasures, to rank them for us and tell us what pleasure is more worthwhile than what other pleasure.

Again, sound familiar?

Moreover, Mill had a similar view of rights as did Bentham and as do most modern liberals (quoting from the same article as before):

Like Bentham, Mill sought to use utilitarianism to inform law and social policy. The aim of increasing happiness underlies his arguments for women's suffrage and free speech. We can be said to have certain rights, then — but those rights are underwritten by utility. If one can show that a purported right or duty is harmful, then one has shown that it is not genuine.
In truth, I will admit that there is some good to be had of this philosophy. The same paragraph from which I have just quoted goes on to discuss Mill's support of women's suffrage and belief in the education of women, certainly an unusual stance in his time.

However, the problems with Utilitarianism as a political philosophy are manifest. I will go into this another time. My biggest issue with Utilitarianism can be illustrated with what Dr Cox called the lifeboat problem: you are in a lifeboat that is at capacity. You see a person in the water. Do you rescue him, thus running the risk of endangering those already in the lifeboat, or do you ignore his pleas for help on the justification that it is of more benefit to those in the lifeboat, and he might well die anyway?

Or, from a more topical standpoint: is it right to deny healthcare to an elderly person because for the same amount you could provide X number of vaccinations to younger people? (Some day soon, I promise you I will do an entry on the ethical implications of public healthcare. It won't be pretty.)

So you see that, far from being a Socialist wishing to give power to the people, as it were, Obama is rather a Utilitarian. This is evident in his assertion during the campaign that although he recognized that lower tax rates on the "upper class" actually increase overall tax revenue, he would nevertheless seek to reform the system in the opposite direction in order to increase its fairness. Fairness is a concept beloved of Utilitarians, Liberals, and three-year-olds.

However, it is not his Utilitarian leanings that give me the most concern. Though I do not believe it is his necessarily his overarching philosophy, Obama puts me strongly in mind of Thomas Hobbes. I tend to call Hobbes a Statist, though I am not confident that's the most correct term I could use. However, allow me to explain:

In Hobbes's view, the natural state of human beings is no different than that of animals. On our own we are completely amoral (notice I do not say immoral) and will conduct war against one another. We would rape and pillage and take advantage of those weaker than we, making any sort of civilization impossible. In order to prevent this, we must voluntarily subject ourselves to government. The only government which does not run the risk of dissolution in civil war is one with absolute power. (Again, history has proven this to be false, but reality never gets in the way of a good philosophy.) Make no mistake, Hobbes sees personal liberty as a bad thing, and even as a possible assailant to civilization itself.

Again, I'll get lazy for a moment and quote the SEP:
When people mutually covenant each to the others to obey a common authority, they have established what Hobbes calls “sovereignty by institution”. When, threatened by a conqueror, they covenant for protection by promising obedience, they have established “sovereignty by acquisition”. These are equally legitimate ways of establishing sovereignty, according to Hobbes, and their underlying motivation is the same—namely fear—whether of one's fellows or of a conqueror. The social covenant involves both the renunciation or transfer of right and the authorization of the sovereign power. Political legitimacy depends not on how a government came to power, but only on whether it can effectively protect those who have consented to obey it; political obligation ends when protection ceases.

It must be said that Hobbes' view that a regime's legitimacy depends only upon its ability to impart stability to the people under it is hardly unheard of these days. (I'm thinking of my Pysch prof in my first semester who said that we should have left Saddam Hussein alone, because sure he was horrible to his people, but at least it was peaceful horror.) Indeed, much of the "Why should I care about Iran?" crowd undoubtedly is a fan of this theory!

Moreover, in Hobbes's mind, there should be no limits to the power of the government to govern its people. (Really, you should read the article on Hobbes. It's scary shit. And familiar.) This is necessary to prevent a descent into anarchy, where every man will look out for himself. You get the feeling he and Ayn Rand would not get along, eh? Basically, Hobbes advocates totalitarianism. To wit: "Similarly, to impose limitation on the authority of the government is to invite irresoluble disputes over whether it has overstepped those limits."

The scariest part of this all is that, according to Hobbes, the government reserves the right to define a word. That is the apex of its power. Insisting that a certain functional definition be applied to words is another beloved pet of the Left. Remember how, during the primaries, some fussed over whether Obama was "black enough"? And of course Clarence Thomas isn't truly black. Feminism is also defined very stringently by some. Hope and change are words co-opted by the current administration. Racism now equals being against Obama. (To be perfectly fair, the attempt to define words strictly in order to suit oneself is pretty near universal amongst politicians.)

Mind you, I am not a philosophical egoist. I don't fetishize Ayn Rand (or even consider her a philosopher, frankly). I am quite firmly Kantian in my beliefs. A desire to protect the rights of the individual is, I believe, inherent in Kant's philosophy, as it demands we never treat others merely as the means to an end. (Which, frankly, Utilitarianism does pretty much constantly.)

Obama does not, from what I have seen of his actions and heard of his speeches, have any concern for the individual. He will of course claim to be for the little guy...but anyone with one eye and half a brain can see the fallacy of that.

1 comment:

Unix-Jedi said...

but anyone with one eye and half a brain can see the fallacy of that.

Sadly, not true, based upon the election totals last year...

Beautiful piece, just beautiful.

(and apparently's Blogger's OpenID login is down again...)