Diagnosing Ownership, or Why Would You Believe Them?

Glock and Cookies

This piece by Michael Lind in Salon, “Why do Republicans nominate blue bloods,” asks why Republicans pose as the party of the “Self-Made Man” when they are nearly wholly (in the upper register) “rentiers” or “people who make money in their sleep.”

The mystery deepens even further.  In the 19th century, the Republican Party was founded by Abraham Lincoln and others, devoted to the Henry Clay’s idea of the “self-made man.”  But in spite of conservative rhetoric about small business, today’s Republican economic orthodoxy does not promote the interests of entrepreneurs or industrial capitalism.  Instead, it promotes the economic interests of rentiers — families with inherited wealth and Wall Street investors — the kind of people who make money in their sleep, in the words of the 19th-century classical liberal economist J.S. Mill, who despised them.

Here is Mill in the Principles of Political Economy with some of their Applications to Social Philosophy, 1848:

The ordinary progress of a society which increases in wealth, is at all times tending to augment the incomes of landlords; to give them both a greater amount and a greater proportion of the wealth of the community, independently of any trouble or outlay incurred by themselves. They grow richer, as it were in their sleep, without working, risking, or economizing. What claim have they, on the general principle of social justice, to this accession of riches? In what would they have been wronged if society had, from the beginning, reserved the right of taxing the spontaneous increase of rent, to the highest amount required by financial exigencies?

I think Tom Paine says somewhere that the only thing one might be said to own of land is its “improvements” and for that the landlord should pay rent to the ones who work the land.  One might want to say, “they do; wages,” but this means, wages alone or rent alone–not both.  The landlord may pay rent on improvements because it can be said that he will profit on the sale of the improved plot having done nothing at all in the way of improving it.  If this were the arrangement one might say the laborers take a “risk” by improving land that might be sold out from under their conception of what that land was useful for, namely providing a living.  In other words, landowners ARE the risk–they don’t take any risk.

At any rate, I always think it’s fairly clear that there are two conceptions of government’s purpose and they are simple and simply understood as one that serves the haves and one that serves the have-nots.  Or one that serves the Owners (Capitalists) and one that serves the Renters (Laborers).

This is a battle for “regulation.”  Here’s the definition for “regulate.

1. to control or direct by a rule, principle, method, etc.: to regulate household expenses.
2. to adjust to some standard or requirement, as amount, degree, etc.: to regulate the temperature.
3. to adjust so as to ensure accuracy of operation: to regulate a watch

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4. to put in good order: to regulate the digestion.

Note that this requires a “regulator” or “regulating principle”–Mill’s work sought to achieve that principle with Utilitarianism–achieving the greatest happiness (good?) for the greatest number.  This in itself I find specious–because we still have to agree on valuation and that leaves us right where we started and we are often coerced into agreeing that “our way” is the right way, using that argument for any number of aggressive tactics to achieve domination by spreading “utility.”  (Note, aggressive humanitarian intervention or spreading democracy.)

But as we live together in complex arrangements we might believe regulation is necessary–we can’t always do what we want all the time.  We agree that certain basic principles should apply–we can call these rules or laws–but commandment-like, these are primarily directives AGAINST harm and are not “positive” in the sense that the require us to act FOR something particular.

After we agree to this, we can come together as we please and make a wonderful life together!  Or, at any rate, a regular life.
Maybe, in a different world, a different multiverse, but not truly in this one.  Here we are already stuck with a little thing called property–or what your 3-year-old emphatically defines as MINE!

So, here is the primary pivot of governing ideology: regulation of the “MINE” principle.  That’s it.  Honest.  Pretty simple really.  You remember that massively popular book “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” by Robert Fulghum?  Well, sure much of what is said in that is overly cute and presumes a particular worldview, but to me there are a few things worth bringing into this.  The top three on the list really encompass the rest:  Share, Play Fair, and Don’t Hit.  I’d put “don’t hit” first, personally, but that’s me.  I also like “Take a Nap.”  Sue me.  (oh, wait…)

What may not ever be explicit is that we extend social relations in kindergarten out from home, and possibly church for many of us, to the wider world of community.  And it’s that space that we might imagine trying to transfer the idea of family concern to the larger community, to help us see we are all integral to this human endeavor.  Perhaps, ideally, this might offer an opportunity for “social leveling”–we might some this up in those two pithy phrases, one royal and one common (or rather both common and directed at royalty)–the king on the throne is still sitting on his ass, and everyone’s shit stinks.  (I am reminded here of that glorious Simpsons episode, “Painting Mr. Burns,” where Marge becomes a portrait painter renown for finding “inner beauty” and after seeing Monty Burns, Owner of the Nuclear Power Plant and primary evil-doer, nude, paints him in all his hideousness and in so doing reveals his frail humanity.  One gallery-goer, the kindergarten teacher–interesting–sums it up after seeing the shocking portrait revealed in public, “He’s bad, but he’ll die; and that’s good.”)

Don’t hit, share, we’re all in this and better off if in it together, and we all share the same end.  Class ought to be dismissed.

Anyway, I contend that the worst among us are those who find in this early socialization stew that, in general, people and systems can be manipulated for private ends.  In essence, the world in all its appearances is only a resource fulfilling their personal, private, individual ends.  MINE!

Any philosophy and/or science or ideology that serves to bolster this is bent and crooked towards this primary motivation.  I do not say and do not hold with the contention via Hobbes or via the willful corkscrewing of Darwin that this is “natural” or inherent in our psychology.  Rather, it seems that our historical record shows this “will to power” OVER others evident in rather narrow bands and held in rather narrow hands.

How does this square with Lind’s assertion above that the modern GOP consistently fronts government with the Fauntleroys while proclaiming a bond with the commoners?  MINE is universal, man.  The blue blood is not self-made, and his/her bootstrap philosophy is, to use their terminology, unearned.  But MINE is always a powerful confusion and the lie that we carried forward from the violence of Western expansion is that strong and willful men can TAKE and HAVE even if they once were common, and meek, like you.  You, wannabe Haves, can be in the club.  Of course, this is a profound deception.

So, finally, to government.  Is this then consonant with the teacher’s role in the kindergarten class?  “Miss Hoover, Ralph took my paste!”  “Ralph…please give back the paste.”  (If we really want to get in deep here we’d start to analyze the way teacher responses might begin to mold a worldview as well…for another day.)

“Haves” want their paste, and yours too, if they can get it.  And likely they’ll promise you some return on your paste investment or will promise that you too will publicly profit from their private use of your paste.  They want the teacher to be out of class or turn a blind eye or condone their “public/private” project to advance social improvements.

“Have-nots” just want their paste.  And they want the teacher to help them keep their paste by not allowing the “Have” to take it and by not allowing the “Have” to make up a social improvement philosophy to justify its theft.

So, Rentiers (Owners/Landlords/Capitalists/Monarchs, etc.) are Haves and they promise what they do is good for all of us.

Renters (Laborers, Workers) are Have-nots who have no recourse but to violent rebellion or to hire a bully to protect them.

Enter the State.  And we’re off to the races called political economy/philosophy.

However, when the most powerful and violent state in the world (the biggest MINE)  is comprised of this type of politics (Gingrich at GOP “debate”), there is likely no will to share milk and cookies.

Too bad we can’t begin with a kind of world-wide reset wherein we all go back and try to lean the basics of kindergarten philosophy all over again.

And I suppose we’ll save for another day which type of person insists on the moral privilege of regulating vice.

PhotoCredit: Mr. Bill

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  1. S.S. January 19, 2012 at 3:42 pm

    You forgot to mention not to run with scissors.

  2. Douglas Storm January 19, 2012 at 3:46 pm

    you’d think that’d be a given, but we used to run with spears.


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