Saturday, January 23, 2010

Fragments and Approximations - 2

[from the Forums of the Libertarian Left]

Actually, there is no problem determining costs without prices -- assuming that you don't insist on having your costs represented as prices. Now, it is not clear that one can compare kinds of costliness against one another in a non-market economy with the same apparent ease as we do in a market economy -- but, again, there are good reasons to suspect that those cost comparisons are far from bulletproof.

Imagine a biocentric society, which emphasized interconnectedness over individuality, as well as interconnectedness with "the environment" -- an ecological communitarianism. It has its own notions of property, which are heavy on recognition of collective property rising from the associated labor or specific collectives, and acknowledge overlapping property claims. It sets the bar for resource appropriation very high, outside of a well-developed ethic of seeing to one another's basic needs. But it also prizes singularity, which provides at once an alternate support for individual freedom and a rough and ready yardstick for measuring the cost of the loss of a species, or ecosystem, or view, etc. Based on these values, the practical economic details might work out in a variety of ways, but let's make our ecological communitarians broadly mutualist in their political economy. Coming to different conclusions about individual property than most societies, they still opt for equitable commerce between singular individuals, for reasons that are consequentialist or dependent on an antinomic principle. And they believe firmly that the exercise of individuality should be at the individuals' own costs. There's nothing here that couldn't be teased out of the writings of Proudhon, Leroux, Warren and Ingalls, with the addition of some more contemporary science. And there's nothing that couldn't be derived from a different reading of the same data treated by the natural rights tradition. The values are even values that we give more than a bit of lip service to.

If you start with this society, which significantly does not start with a notion that all costs can be compared to one another on a dollars-and-sense scale, a couple of things seem likely. Ecological awareness is likely to give the "ongoing projects" of nature some virtual standing in human decision-making -- particularly because we are just as unable to calculate the impact of natural-resource appropriation/ecosystem disruption as we are to make other sorts of large scale calculations -- and because a strong sense of the various kinds of interconnectedness makes those appropriations/disruptions much more likely to be understood as invasions (of a variety of sorts.) At some point, even if the individuals involved had experience of the process of reducing all values to exchange-values for comparison, other considerations are likely to lead them to consider many cost-comparisons impossible because the kinds of costliness are simply incommensurable. Strip mine (and its resulting ecosystemic alterations) vs. mountaintop (and its role in the current ecosystemic systems) -- between the complexities and the very kinds of costliness involved, it's hard to see how reducing things to a comparison of "prices" (prices for what, offered by who to whom, with what attendant cost, etc., etc., etc.?) is likely to be anything but a travesty. The material complexities alone suggest this, and when the subjective elements are included (subjective values and subjective costs) the notion that some market-clearing price (and the ability to raise it, outside of any inclusive deliberation between the interested parties) could "decide" the issues just seems silly. Certain kinds of things wouldn't get built in this society, but other things would be logical outcomes of the different set of property rules, notions of profit, etc. My guess is that the society in question would be more socialistic in general assumptions, but better avoid the kinds of to-the-highest-bidder evasions of self-management and self-government that markets are presently so good at.

Fragments and Approximations - 1

[from the Forums of the Libertarian Left]

From my perspective, the mutualist norm of reciprocity is more like a tool than a law. Even in the form of a "law of love," it's at most a conventional law -- and conventions are just approximations, levers that may get the next work done. "Justice" is nothing more than a level, separate indeed from good consequences, but for different reasons, maybe, than Roderick suggests. By 1858, Proudhon had pretty clearly laid out a world in which we had the justice-level, and pretty much everything else was a hammer -- and the ethical choices all come down to whether or not individuals were going to hammer each other down to the same level, build the general level of human existence up, or drop the level entirely and just hammer away at each other without any other guide than the "right" of the strong. I think that the more thoroughly we attempt to understand nature, including human nature, in its evolutions, the more efficient we can be at the job of just surviving, and the more energy we can devote to experimentation (for good and ill). Potentially, at least, we also learn to deal with the deepening antinomy involved in our phenomenologically separate but physically united existence. Progress (what Proudhon and others were happy to call "The Revolution") is driven by the recognition of new relations and new forces (new tools, and new uses, so that we start to have more than hammers, or stop using everything like a hammer), and new ethical subjects.

"The multiplication of free forces is the true contr'un..." : That's still just a working hypothesis, it seems to me, or more accurately a statement of experimental method.