Radical Positivism

 

Open to all,

its definitive credo is:

Universal human progress by private and voluntary means.


Reclaiming Inevitability

By John G Lankford

Belief that some outcome is inevitable is a strong influence on the forming of convictions and the making of decisions.

Throughout history, various principles have attracted that belief: the invincibility of a conqueror, the ultimate triumph of a religious doctrine, the superiority of order and continuity over general liberty, the natural superiority of some people over others, general liberty and political equality, and, most recently, material equality.

Despite many temporary wrong turns, history demonstrates the path of inevitability is in fact toward prudent and productive liberty, as radical positivists maintain.

Such liberty, not material equality, continuity, order, religious orthodoxy, or even the most benign tyrrany, is humankind's primary goal and destination and its highest earthly good.

Here is why:

One of the strongest human concepts is that of inevitability: the conviction that no matter what is said or done, at last things are going to turn out in some particular way. That strength is widely recognized. Frequent use of the expressions "ultimately", "after all", and "no matter what" testifies the point is well understood. Such expressions connote claims to the attribute of inevitability.

Whoever establishes inevitability places any opponent in a position of futility and obstructive stubbornness. In warfare, a general who can convince his opponent further resistance would be useless at the same time convinces him it would be a wicked conceit: causing more killing and maiming to no purpose whatsoever. Humane decency adds the moral to the practical obligation to surrender.

A great deal of religious debate adopts this principle. Doctrinaires declare with conviction they alone speak for divinity, which can and eventually will make their pronouncements manifest in irresistible fact. Those who persist in opposing them will be dealt with after they are dead and helpless. In a mortal species, possession of the postmortal territory of eternity is the ultimate encirclement.

In political maneuvering, any group that can convince the electorate it represents the irresistable course of history, the inescapable way of the future, also convinces them its adversaries are either misinformed or enemies of inevitable, therefore natural, therefore righteous, resolutions. That is, they are either ignorant, or enemies of the people who cynically obstruct the path of progress for selfish reasons.

In any debate, contestants snatch at advantages whether they deserve them or not. However vile or disagreeable a political doctrine may be, its advocates always insist peace and tranquility cannot exist until it prevails, because nature, or history, will abide no other outcome. The sooner everyone consents, the argument goes, the sooner strife can end and sustainable progress under the righteous new order commence. Claims to represent the inevitable have been so widely asserted that the point has become depreciated. An appeal to the future, while not capable of being proven valid, is neither capable of being proven false.

A good standard for judging doctrine is a dispassionate analysis as to what sort of arrangements seem most consistent with the nature of life and the directions it is most inclined to take. The past is no perfect indicator of the future, but if a doctrine is forced to resort to assertions that world conditions will change, drastically, in its favor, its persuasiveness is greatly diminished. In the nineteenth century, some social scientists resolved to make unbiased studies of what people actually do and where they appear to be going, rather than debate competing notions of what they should be doing and where they should be going or referee competing interpretations of history or theology. That movement was called positivism. It was an outgrowth of attitudes that emerged during the preceding two hundred years.

 

From Order and Continuity to Freedom and Opportunity

During the eighteenth century, the period generally called the Enlightenment, western thought was struggling free of the strictures previously imposed by church and state. In preceding centuries, those institutions had persuaded most people the world was a hierarchy, with clergy and royalty at the top, entitled to rule and be served, and everyone else situated in a scale of descending rank, obliged to render obedience upwards and receive it from below. If divine will alone was not sufficient reason for maintenance of the hierarchy, it was seen to maintain some order and coherence in a chaotic world, and provide stability and continuity as well. With such exceptions as church and state might ordain, birth determined position in the hierarchy, according to divine will. One was born into a position and one's duty was to fill it without ambition to rise or such neglect or mischief as would cause a fall.

The Renaissance broadened the European perspective. It became known other people had lived under different arrangements in other times and still did so in other places, some of them doing quite well. Those observations coincided with the rise of a middle class, people not of aristocratic birth nor of religious vocation who nevertheless prospered by newly lucrative industry and commerce. Those people craved some rationale that might relieve the repressions they endured as commoners, indeed increase their prerogatives. The Church, previously accorded the status of being, somewhere within its Byzantine structures, virtually omniscient, was confronted by geographical discoveries it had clearly not anticipated, and was revealed as unprepared to reconcile scientific revelations with orthodox faith. Its hierarchy had committed or condoned actions antithetical to those it prescribed for the laity, and even its authority in religious matters began to be questioned. Religious factionalism burgeoned, and the authority of all clergymen weakened. European intellectuals by the eighteenth century were turning their thoughts away from traditional orthodoxies and beginning to consider the human condition without regard to rank or piety.

People, they soon asserted, should consider human circumstances the standard for moral evaluation. They pondered those circumstances and found most people in misery and distress. The primary cause, they agreed, was grinding poverty. They were no longer willing to concede such suffering to be the will of divinity. Whatever would relieve that poverty and provide sufficiency for the greatest number of people, they concluded, would be the highest good, superseding all other considerations. They began to favor what would serve, regardless of whether it was deemed holy.

It seems obvious to us that humans, or members of any species, follow a natural, healthy, and sensible course when they promote their own species' interests and those of its individual specimens. During the Enlightenment, the prevailing opinion on how to do that changed in two fundamental ways. The first was a growing rejection of the idea that mortal life had no purpose other than to qualify a person for eternal life, and its replacement with the tenet that innate desire for earthly fulfillment and contentment are proper and compatible with divine will and ambitions for a next life as well. The second was that people were not born for the convenience of people born into higher social and political stations, but rather for their own sakes. Humanitarian service was owed not only to those above, but also those beside and those below a person's own position. The truly radical conclusion of the Enlightenment was that, though different in situation and circumstance, all people were essentially equal in worth. Merit and respect were owed not to fortuitous birth or circumstance, but rather to contribution to improvement of human conditions.

The Enlightenment philosophers did not deny that a hierarchy of rank is expedient, perhaps even optimal, for getting things done. They did question and then indeed deny that rank should be, or was by divine will intended to be, determined by the circumstance of birth. No system of hereditary privilege and subordination, observed for very long, will retain support except among those it happens to favor. Only a belief that divinity in its mysterious wisdom intended people to be ill-governed by imbeciles now and again would support such a doctrine, and that belief, royalty, nobility, and even clergy to the contrary notwithstanding, the philosophers would no longer concede.

The argument was, of course, somewhat circular. If the purpose of social organization was service of the fortunately-born by the others in obedience to divine will, then the philosophers could not be right. Inspired by the Renaissance, however, a reordering of emphases of Christian doctrines took place. It came to be considered more important that humankind as a whole rather than particular members of the species be accommodated during this life. For that purpose, it was clearly more expedient that the most able people, of whatever station of birth, assume positions of leadership.

The French philosophers were primarily interested in rearrangements of power and rank, and of course paid heed to the writings of Plato. There it is stressed again and again that the most apt should be groomed for leadership by the ablest existing mentors, regardless of circumstances of birth. The tools of leadership, or, indeed, any activity, were appropriately to be assigned to those who could use them best, they concluded.

Agreeing in principle, British thinkers gave greater attention to evaluations of people and functions than to problems of assignment. The value of a person or a thing, they held, was to be judged according to the enhancement of general human happiness, (or the alleviation of human misery), the person or thing delivered. That was the Utilitarian doctrine. It moved a step beyond the Enlightenment by emphasizing the queston, once political equality is established, what should be done with it?

 

From Political Equality to Material Improvement

The greatest dilemma of the human condition was clearly want and distress, as it always had been. Utilitarians defined the greatest good as alleviation of want and provision of sufficiency, even plenty. Whereas the earlier British Puritan ethic called for toil and self-discipline as worthwhile and holy in themselves if devoted to divinity, the Utilitarian principle, which became the Protestant ethic, valued the results achieved more highly than the efforts exerted to achieve them. It held divine favor was indicated by success in producing and delivering material bounty for the greatest number of people, a success often indicated by amassing great fortunes. Wealth productively earned, that ethic held, corresponded rather than conflicted with degree of divine favor. It was a visible divine endorsement, perfectly suited to inspire emulation.

That completed establishment of a system of incentives equal to the one that previously benefitted royalty, aristocracy, and clergy. In the past, a person might serve the upper classes inadvertently, simply due to enjoying what he or she was doing. If not inadvertent, service might be motivated by devotion to divinity or divine will, or to the beneficiary in particular. It might also be motivated by a hope of praise, or esteem, or a material reward. The Protestant ethic completed the system of incentives to render service, not to higher-ups, but to humankind in general and divinity in principle. Liberty and opportunity embarked on production of material sufficiency for all. The proper course of human affairs had been discovered, and the path of inevitability defined.

And almost immediately, the erstwhile fellow travelers liberty and equality began to contend against one another. For equality would soon be claimed the right of pre-eminence and the mantle of inevitability as well.

Even under the old church-state regime, some commoners, notably townspeople or bourgeoisie not bound in serfdom or habituated to peasantry, had done quite well. To the thinkers of the Enlightenment, it seemed that the removal of hereditary privilege would result in everyone's ascent to the agreeable condition of the bourgeoisie. Nothing but the old system of privilege seemed to stand between any commoner and prosperity.

The concept of liberty envisioned individuals bound to no one except each other under laws of their own making and applicable to all. The otherwise-unrestrained pursuit of happiness, material and otherwise, was the rightful purpose of society and each individual, and the individual and social interests coincided. In the nineteenth century, the ideal of liberty was extended to a point none of the societies from which the Renaissance had drawn inspiration and example had ever done, tried, or dreamed might be feasible: to extend liberty and equality to slaves, and eliminate their bondage altogether. Once made free and relieved of oppressive subordination, surely people would interact in ways that would reward merit and elevate living conditions for all.

Nevertheless, the prescription of political equality, even as it was being made, inspired thoughts about economic, or material, equality. Thomas Jefferson, fearless and sometimes surprisingly radical in much of his thought and comment, agonized over the inequality of opportunity to pursue happiness, roughly equated with prosperity, that seemed bound to persist despite establishment of a climate of liberty. Even without advantages of rank and title, some people would be so fortunate as to have no need to pursue material prosperity at all: they would inherit it from industrious and successful parents. If they nevertheless chose to be productive, they would have the advantages of superior education and time to absorb it, whereas others would have to begin to labor for daily bread as soon as they were physically able. Some would have investment capital ready to hand, others would have none and little hope of accumulating any.

The happily situated could hire the others to serve them. It would be too much to expect that the employers would pay employees more than they had to, and never connive to maintain and increase their advantage by driving as hard a bargain as possible. It was also to be expected people happily situated would combine and conspire to preserve, indeed increase, their economic privileges. Public service, and therefore active participation in the lawmaking process, would naturally be an activity for those who could afford the time to pursue it, and the laws would predictably favor just such people. A new aristocracy, instituted and preserved by law, could arise from the relatively level plain of political equality and once again retard ascent by merit. Political equality might not prove secure, nor be as complete a remedy as originally believed.

So far, several principles had coincided and reinforced one another. When people had liberty, access to land, and equal political standing, the French believed, society could simply laissez-faire, let human nature take its course. Material want was the greatest evil and material improvement accordingly equated with happiness, but people at liberty would find their way. The Utilitarians had added a guide, the principle that the value of a thing or person was to be measured by the amount of (material) happiness produced. The Protestant Ethic added the blessing of divinity for socially beneficial enterprise, and the profit that flowed from it, too. It seemed political simplicity had been achieved and inevitability properly assigned, but it was at this point the division between liberty and equality began.

.

From Material Improvement to Material Equality

As with happiness in the Enlightenment, equality came to be assumed to be an essentially material subject. Indeed, when the French had translated their intellectual movement into action, fraternity, a condition of common descent from a single family with a connotation of equal claims to parental beneficence, had been one word of that revolution's slogan. Another French revolutionary motto had been Life, Liberty, and Property. The third word had a connotation different in eighteenth-century France from what it means to us now. In the aristocratic era, commoners were not traditionally permitted to own real estate. Indeed, the distinction between sovereignty and ownership was not much developed. The king ruled and owned all, and only those of the king's ilk, the aristocracy, were alone fit to hold land, or royal (real) estate. As the king's special deputies, they partook of the king's sovereignty as well as of proprietorship. In that sense, assertion of a universal property right only connoted that any citizen would be eligible to hold title, the sovereign's grant and license, to land.

In the atmosphere of the times, however, inference of a right to own land followed the assertion of the right to hold title to such land as a person might just happen to acquire. That extension was not as gratuitous as it might appear to us. A voice in government had, under the feudal system, always coincided with title to land. What was to be governed was national assets, or wealth, and wealth was equated to land, its primary and almost exclusive source.. In the eighteenth century it would have seemed bizarre for people without land to have a voice in public administration. To them political equality implied the right to vote, and that was associated with title to property as it always had been. A new order that abolished titles and relieved people of repression and subordination, and so freed them, but did not deliver them the franchise by making them property owners would have seemed to many to have stopped inappropriately short of achieving social justice. A call for distribution of property was therefore not so much a call for something for nothing as one for citizenship of as full measure as those who could buy land enjoyed.

In addition, as in every revolution, people were inspired not only by the prospect of improving the future by establishing better social techniques, but also of redressing past injustices. A great deal of their misery, they were told, resulted from the fact that nobles owned land, the source of wealth, and they themselves did not. In that sense, even as occurred later and continues today, the notion of reparation by redistribution joined that of access to opportunity by the same means.

England had no internal revolution that resulted in abolition of royalty and aristocracy. Instead, the powers of the non-nobility were increased within the traditional framework, the prerogatives of aristocracy being correspondingly eroded, or widely divided, in a gradual process. A part of that development was that land could be granted in sale to commoners by nobles, after which deed the commoners would hold valid title the king's courts would protect. With a comparatively larger, more influential middle class, the English bourgeoisie had comparatively less need to recruit, appeal to, and accommodate the working classes than did the French. The prospect of any such thing was dreaded, one reason being that the English crown had been the target of the first such revolt, that of its American colonies.

In the United States of America, unlike France and England, acquisition of title to land required no confiscation and redistribution or any wait for present owners to see fit to sell. When European and other settlers had arrived there, the indigenes had had no concept of private ownership of land. By private acts and treaties, and often due to blatant, sometimes genocidal expulsion, they ceded the newcomers rights that seemed to exist only in the newcomers' very strange minds, and then were astounded to find the newcomers inclined immediately to exclude them from the subject terrain, every square foot of it, as it would never have occurred to them to exclude one another. As a result, there was a constantly expanding supply of purchaseable land in America. Each newcomer could acquire the lofty status of freeholder, with full franchise, very readily. A number of them even dreamed of carving out empires of their own.

Due to lack of necessity and a certain prudent caution, the North American revolutionaries, mostly Englishmen by habit of thought, crafted the slogan of their uprising not with the words fraternity nor property, or even equality, but rather pursuit of happiness. If happiness meant property, it could be earned by diligence, it was available enough, but it was not owed anyone by society as a whole. If it meant the difference between simple liberty and full civil stature, that, too, was to be pursued, not bestowed. Equality in possessions and social standing was also not to be bestowed, but earned, and there would be nothing to restrain the topmost from climbing still higher as those beneath ascended. Cautious even in daring, for all their radical polemic, American revolutionaries feared mobs no less than kings.

The balance, however, was extremely delicate. Notions of economic equality and equality of opportunity to acquire property, eventually unconditionally equal rights to possess property, steadily pressed on the concept of liberty. That concept itself was often confused with prerogative. Rich and poor were not equally free, that is, able, to dine on expensive delicacies, take pricey trips abroad, contemplate such abstractions as these in abundant leisure, nor increase their holdings of property. Rather rapidly, liberty came to be considered not only freedom from social and political impasses, but also freedom to advance and prosper with no more effort than necessary for anyone else.

As had happened in bygone times with the principles of order and continuity, that of equality began to absorb emphasis from that of liberty. If people could do as they pleased, eventually some would be financially able to do more of what they pleased than others, and liberty and equality would quickly be found at odds. That was, with slavery, one of the intractable problems that confounded Thomas Jefferson, and by no means him alone. Despite the writing of libraries on the subject, the dilemma has never been solved, and probably cannot be solved. If all were guaranteed birth into equal patrimony, the distributions of genius, aptitude, energy, and parental and community inspiration would nevertheless favor some over others in the striving for material prosperity.

Here it is appropriate to recall that liberty, equality, and property were never the ultimate objects of the social philosophers' quest. At all times, happiness was. That fact, as will be seen later, is not as glib, obvious, and marginal as it appears. It lies at the heart of the dilemma in which the most materially advanced societies of the world find themselves today, and failure to consider it lies at the root of the seeming contradiction between constant increase in prosperity and simultaneous decrease in general good cheer, contentment, and fulfillment in those societies. In the course of eager progress along what was believed the natural path, a mistake in emphasis occurred, an aberration happened, and something was dropped. That something was one indispensable element of human happiness.

 

An Aberration in the Quest

As happened for a very long time with the positions of property holder and voter, the momentum of past circumstances caused the progress of humankind to continue in directions most recently taken. We have a sensible tendency to do more and more of whatever has been working, and that tendency, while generally reliable, can misguide us when we overdo it. It is no substitute for a keen and constant watch on how we are doing and where we are going.

There have been appealing reasons to transfer emphasis from liberty to equality, particularly material equality. The previously-mentioned ease with which people who have acquired more can increase their superiority in wealth and possibly reach back to retard the progress of others has already been noted. A second reason is that the paths of liberty, equality, and material sufficency at first coincided. When most of humankind was artifically restrained, removal of the restraints served all three purposes. It also unleashed tremendous productive forces. The incentive of private ownership and freedom to build wealth inspired productivity equal to and surpassing the most optimistic hopes of the Enlightenment theorists. Productivity, increasingly efficient, became an obsession seeming to feed on itself without end. Plenty was produced, and plenty was widely distributed by free market machinery, gift, inheritance, even predation, parasitism, opportunism, and luck. With more, much more, to share, almost all shared in significant, if not equal, measure, and the prospects this growth in general prosperity can continue and spread have never before been as bright as they are right now.

The gradual British-American approach became especially important. It afforded time for people to form habits of thought and behavior consistent with new opportunities without inflicting chaotic tumult. The American Revolution, a breach in the form of a family fight healed within forty years, never shocked itself or the world with a paroxysm of violence and cruelty. It developed underpinnings of incentive and retained religious faith. The British-American coalition eventually found itself at the summit of world power and prestige, lending esteem to its method of development. But its approach of raising up the formerly oppressed majority rather than leveling by tearing down royalty and aristocracy established a momentum and a prevailing opinion the process would continue beyond equality of economic opportunity to realization of its idealistic goal, material equality for all.

The habit of equalization and sentiment in favor of it persisted. Any who would not follow came to be branded as reactionary and hidebound as the most intractable aristocrat. Marxism in the vanguard, many socialist doctrines alongside, it came to be assumed that economic egalitarianism was the path of progress, the way of nature, the course of history, and the direction of inevitability. That point was almost tacitly conceded, and only the speed and violence with which economic leveling should be accomplished was generally regarded a subject of legitimate debate.

The viewpoint was not without rationale. History and constant observation of human behavior both show resentment and discord accompany inequality of wealth. In the savage state, as Montaigne, Rousseau, Marx, and many others pointed out, there is little envy because there is practically no disparity of circumstance. All share equally in a common fund of practically nothing. Only when material prosperity begins to occur, and, inevitably, occur unevenly, does social unrest and division according to circumstance appear. More modern technologies and techniques multiply the productivity of those who adopt them, and leave behind those who do not. Marx insisted all inequality was wickedly generated, the work of bullies and deceivers. Perhaps deliberately, expediently, he neglected to acknowledge it can also arise as a result of differences in ingenuity, energy, entrepreneurial daring, and thrift. He intended to denounce the means by which disparities of wealth came about as a prelude to abolishing all economic inequality, and so found it convenient to ignore the virtues of blameless, even praiseworthy, processes that result in disparity of material circumstance and claim that all such inequality arises from evil. Even if all labored and were paid equally, it could arise from greater prudence, thrift, and self-discipline on the part of one person than another. But such obervations were not to Marx's purposes. Whoever had more, no matter how commendable the reason, would receive less in the next distribution, and, to establish that arrangement, it was necessary to vilify everyone who had more than others.

Envy is but a species of greed, by no means limited to cases of avarice among the better-off. Even if it comes about by the most innocent or even socially beneficial means such as greater productivity, any circumstance of greater wealth than another possesses inspires resentment. Even among people as equally situated as people can be, each has a tendency to ascribe possession of excess to each of the others and demand amends be made. Others in equivalent circumstances situations always appear better off, and it rankles. The sentiment appears with sense of personal identity that develops in the third year, and remains innate in every human for life. Most, growing up, subordinate it to the necessity of getting along, even being generous and unselfish, but few if any ever shed it entirely.

That is all the more reason to confess it is there, a part of the human makeup that can be moderated, but cannot be eradicated or scolded away. Where there is material inequality, there will be a degree of dissension.The more immature and less rational and responsible the people, the greater the dissension will be.

 

The Aberration Corrected

The next question is whether the fact envy is always with us decides the question whether and to what degree material equality ought to be considered a greater good than productive liberty. Some people tolerate and some enjoy free economic endeavor and its inegalitarian results, and some dislike the chores that produce material prosperity and resent disparate levels of prosperity, or want, they generate. Moralizing does not seem to have gotten us anywhere: the question of what makes for happiness, or what life should be all about, turns out to be a futile debate between personal tastes and inclinations. But in every community, some ethic prevails at any given time, and having it do so consciously, deliberately, and with some coherent rationale is no doubt an improvement over accepting whatever chance offers. As a social question, should innate resentments control arrangements, or do constructive enthusiasm and prudent personal conservation deserve prevalence? Societies have decided both ways, and in varying degrees of combination.

There seem to be three categories of motivation that cause people to do productive work, two positive and one negative. One is vocational zeal. People fascinated and delighted in their work commonly say they would do it for nothing, or mere subsistence, considering the chance to do it renumeration enough. That is primary reward, flowing from the fact of doing work rather than any sort of proceeds from it. The second is acquisitive ambition. Acquisitive people choose their careers based on their relative promises of consequential rather than primary reward, that is, prospects their efforts will make them wealthy, powerful, or highly esteemed. A third and negative motivator is, of course, some form of compulsion, the motivation associated with lives of quiet desperation lest the money run out with material cravings yet unassuaged.. Receiving neither fulfillment nor any extraordinary increase in wealth, people so motivated carry on to avoid psychological, emotional, or, in cases of involuntary servitude, physical penalties for slowing or stopping.

When there is no slavery, emotion and psychological compulsions such as fear of failure to support families or of loss of their esteem or that of society or of falling short of the standards that support personal self-respect are responsible for a great deal of the work that gets done. It is stereotypical for grizzled drudges to mock newcomers who show the enthusiasms coinciding with positive motivations, marvel if any such do not soon join the prevailing galley-slave mentality, and then shake their heads and render grudging respect if such persons persist and come to advance above them by superior merit. Some of the drones reflexively find fault with such achievers and carry tales against them, as a way of excusing themselves for settling into surly despair. Even a great number of seemingly cheerful stalwarts of labor can hardly wait to find a patient listener, safely away from workmates, who will listen to their litany of complaints: drones with ambition who have learned to mimic enthusiasts in the interest of advancement.

Motivations obviously intermingle, and proportions vary over time, even within given individuals. Most people do, however, find activities they enjoy, hobbies or recreations, things they do or would do without pay. Some discover labors of love are supporting them, others deliberately arrange to make it so, and, rightly, consider themselves very lucky. Others accept any lucrative occupations they can perform, while still others make thrift a fetish, becoming misers and thoroughly enjoying the dribble of savings slowly increasing their hoards. Whatever the positive motivation, those enjoying their achievements or processes of accumulation, however unappealing those activities may seem to others, are the most fortunate people.

They are also the rarest. Throughout history, earning options have been limited or restricted, and they remain so in most of the world now. In a primitive savage clan, there might be four or five primary occupations that would support life: hunting and trapping, fishing, foraging and gathering, and crafts engaged in by people not physically able to do primary work. As compared to other species, people are generalists, each having a wide range of skills or at least rudimentary competences, but in primitive societies only the few primary occupations furnished a living. The others were peripheral embellishments when they existed at all.

Similarly, living strategies such as agriculture, herding, and mining tended to be local specialties. A person grew up surrounded by the lore of those ways of living, absorbed it by osmosis, and probably accepted it as a career, like it or not. Changing occupations usually meant succeeding at the difficult task of winning acceptance in a different community, and then learning entirely new skills and techniques while accepting ridicule for seeming too stupid or ignorant to possess what the new community deemed common knowledge.

Even the rise of towns and cities did not automatically offer wide vocational options. As more specialties became capable of yielding a living, in many cases their techniques were protected by craft associations or guilds, membership in which was often practically, if not formally, hereditary. For an outsider, acceptance was no less difficult to gain than for a newcomer to a clan or village in previous eras, a matter of being both present and acceptable when extra hands were needed. Certain occupations were reserved by birth, law, or caste. Only aristocracy could participate in government, for example, or advance to the status of full-fledged warriors. The clergy might accept candidates from all levels and conditions, but advancement required an exceptional show of vocational dedication. The custom of requiring an aspirant to prove worthiness and desire beyond what might be considered necessary persists even now.

Only rarely, and, for the most part, recently, has it been practical for a great number of people to seek employment in occupations they really enjoy, or to choose among a number of acceptable well-paid careers. That has come about due to developments Marx and the socialists could not and did not envision, and have in latter days proven remarkably slow to comprehend. It resulted from plenty, or surplus, or the conditions of what economist John Kenneth Galbraith termed The Affluent Society. Those conditions were brought about by advances, eventually the explosion, in technology, the replacement of human labor and then considerable human thinking by mechanical, electrical, and electronic processes.

 

Inevitability's place rediscovered and restored

The fundamental premise of classical economics is scarcity. But there emerged a societies described with some awe by Adam Smith, more an economical commentator

and reporter than what we would now call an economist: societies of plenty, of options, of bounteous quantities of so many different goods and services the bounty could hardly be comprehended. Added to that was an amount of disposable income, money available for spending on options and choices after necessities had been bought, that gave the average person access to a gratifying variety of those goods and services.

A thing beyond the dreams of classical economics happened. What had once been the summit of human ambition, access to adequate food, clothing, shelter, and basic comforts for most of the people, was surpassed. And the surpassing was hardly even noticed. Humans simply did not choose to reach a certain standard of living, stop and maintain it, and consign all surplus to those not yet arrived. People who had once dreamed of sleep undisturbed by hunger did not achieve that and say, it is good, and let those who have not yet come here have what I receive and do not need.

Instead, people at every level of prosperity found more to earn, learn, and accomplish, and found they craved what was within reach more than they treasured what had been secured. Indeed, many put luxuries ahead of necessities. But overall living standards continued to increase, each new level becoming not the minimally acceptable one, but the not-quite acceptable one. Economists and commentators spoke of "inflation of expectations", meaning, the more people got the more they wanted. In others, it looked like greed, but in ourselves, it seemed only to be a reasonable desire to acquire just a little, and attainable, and sensible, bit more.

Few people ever reached that point at which they were content to have the next increment of earnings diverted for deposit into some common fund. At each level, most people sincerely felt truly excessive wealth began some number of levels upwards. In that atmosphere, people are capable of being cajoled or abideably coerced into paying taxes for redistribution to those at lower levels, but most resent it, feeling they are not making quite enough money as it is. Such redistribution of wealth as takes places is fraught with millions of tiny resentments and revenges, as well as overtly expressed ones. Without the mental restructuring envisioned by Marx, Pavlov, and B.F. Skinner, people did not find their way to contentment in any sort of collectivistic arrangement. The innate impulse of those with less to resent those with more was not so simply solved. Instead, the resentment was made reciprocal.

Nevertheless, a solution has appeared, though its validity is not credited by classicists and collectivists. Enormous redistribution of surplus takes place in affluent societies, but it does not do so by means of charity and taxation. Rather, it occurs by means compatible with, not inimical to, inflation of expectations and the almost universal craving for just a reasonable bit more.

The primary mechanisms of redistribution have turned out to be investment of wealth and dispersion of opportunity. As mentioned before, wealth is no longer hoarded, but rather banked and invested, thus made available for broad usage rather than held immobile and sterile in cold vaults.

Personal surplus, or discretionary income, largely goes to support trade in dazzling variety. The desire for more and better and often unusual or unique things and services, and the willingness and ability to pay for them, creates lucrative productive opportunities in incalculable number. Niche markets and specialty items support invention and manufacture of novelties and oddities beyond calculation. The prevailing distribution of surplus, as it has turned out, reaches beneficiaries in the form of opportunity, not commodities or cash in hand. And the investment, rather than cold storage, of wealth offers access to capital with which to exploit the opportunities.

In other words, the prevailing human condition remains one in which enterprise and ingenuity are most amply rewarded, just as it was in the jungle. This turns out to be fortunate for a couple of reasons.

First, contests between societies emphasizing liberty and societies emphasizing material equality have, consistently and unanimously, been won by the former sort. Those who emphasize equality for moralistic reasons have been forced to chant, like fans of perennially losing sports teams, "Wait 'til next year." They have been relegated to the necessity of the ancient and fallacious assertion that it is better to suffer want in orthodox virtue than to prosper in heresy. They have been constrained to blame the stubbornness of opponents and the cantankerousness of the species in general for the failure of their vision. All the while, societies emphasizing freedom continue to produce more, and better, and cheaper desirables that naturally come to be distributed more widely than ever before. Luckily, what feels better to humans, and correlates with human impulses, works better for humans and best gratifies those ambitions.

Those who object on moral grounds would do well to acknowledge that actual, not relative, poverty is still the greatest human problem; that poverty is not alleviated until things are produced; and that the system that does the better job of production and even of distribution, though not in keeping with their orthodoxy, holds the moral high ground at least until that condition is alleviated. In fact, even when material sufficiency becomes the norm, liberty will retain moral preferability, due to the reasons in the next paragraphs.

Second, the emphasis on liberty takes advantage of human attributes the emphasis on material equality ignores. As mentioned before, people are inspired to activity by more than one motivation. Possession is not everything. The thrill of endeavor and the satisfaction of accomplishment are also human emotions. Even a slave cannot be deprived of the good feeling of muscles strained to a task, or that of a look back at a job well done, feelings of adequacy, competence, and self-esteem.

People supported by the indulgence of others never get to experience such emotions. They may have sufficient food, clothing, shelter, and care, and they may have freedom, but their grudging sponsors have more, and the freedom is that of insignificant outcasts. There is even an academically-recognized name for oppressing people by subsidizing while marginalizing them: permissive repression. Rather than being physically confined, its victims are handed money and told to get lost. Further, they are "dumbed down", to use an ineloquent but perfectly appropriate current expression, so as to dull their imaginations and diminish their ability to conceive and consider alternative arrangements, that is, become too dull-witted to contradict collectivist authoritarians' claim to have established not only the best but even the only possible regime. That is a particularly heinous usurpation of the attribute of inevitability.

Many modern people, though materially satiated, feel not only lost, but also abandoned, insignificant, and resentful. Those feelings cannot be alleviated by any amount of payoffs. The antisocial acts of such so-called beneficiaries of compassion are in large part bids for significance, demands for inclusion not only in material affluence and hope for more, but in the community of achievement and esteem.

Finally, the equality emphasis is futile. It is impossible to perform, because its performance is unavoidably incomplete. Possessions can be confiscated from people who earned them and then redistributed to those who did not, but leisure enjoyed by the latter while the former produce cannot be confiscated and redistributed to them in return. At last, emphasis on equality results in those with one lifestyle preference reaping the benefits of both, and those with the other receiving the benefits of neither. It is not equality after all.

History is the report on the results of experiment. The report is in, and the evidence is overwhelming. When liberty is emphasized, all advance, and each person can, or can reasonably hope to, achieve material equality with anyone else. When equality is emphasized, liberty is diminished, and indeed some are frustrated at exclusion from achievement and esteem, and others at having some of the benefits of their lifestyles confiscated without receiving a corresponding distribution of benefits in return. The surliness evident in modern first-world societies, collectivistically oriented, is predictable, and surprisingly easy to understand. People need to feel valued, and can only do so by feeling, and being, valuable.

When liberty is emphasized, humans who respond to its invitations are stimulated, productive, and fulfilled. When equality is emphasized, first the thrill of human living and eventually, as the productive relax and decide to share more leisure if they cannot retain the fruits of their labors, even the general standard of living declines. The proper emphasis, the natural prevalence, and the path of inevitability belong, after all, with liberty. Their assignment to liberty's companion equality was, like their previous assignment to order and continuity, an error.

Just like the thinking of the Enlightenment, this recognition operates at the roots of conventional human assumptions. We have questioned whether material sufficiency is everything, and found it to be secondary when it is not desperately absent. We have questioned whether people ought to be eager to surrender surplus so that others may have sufficiency, and found such simple formulas unfair, inequitable, and counterproductive. We have questioned whether we are slightly wicked for not being overly eager to share, and found out that reluctance is natural and also guides us to the greatest outcome of all: an acceptable equality, call it equivalence, of opportunity, and the greater productivity associated with that arrangement. Our proposition is therefore, literally, radical.

One more radical observation is appropriate, and it is a stern one, seemingly as cruel as the law of the jungle. If all of the world's wealth were equally divided among all of the world's people this moment, we would have equality in impotent poverty for all. Even were that not so, the result would be immediate productive stagnation. We cannot produce sufficiency for all with existing productive capacity. We cannot do so simply by multiplying existing facilities. The world, we are credibly told, will not support even the present levels of productive inefficiencies, which are dramatically more efficient than those of just a few years ago. We are investing, and have to continue heavily to invest, in technological research and development to make the necessary improvements. Harsh as it sounds, that requires that some have wealth they need not spend, indeed wealth they can risk in expensive, low-profit-probability research, in order eventually to improve the condition of all, even if that means, and it does, that many of this generation continue to suffer, even to starve.

To reiterate: were we to divide up all of the world's wealth equally now, everyone would be starving slowly. If there were significantly more wealth to divide, everyone would be spending every coin and currency piece maintaining a barely decent living. Improvement would cease. Technological advance would stagnate. But even that latter condition does not obtain. Many objects we associate with wealth, such as, for example, private airplanes, would not be liquidated for cash in a redistribution: who could buy them? They would be abandoned. On a liquidation-redistribution basis of evaluation, the classical cost-basis mode of accounting, we are not nearly as rich as we look, even though some enjoy belongings that are luxuries in this situation. They would be worthless if the ideal of egalitarianism were abruptly imposed. In any case, everyone would starve, and not as slowly as might be imagined. The existence of surplus, even at the cost of deprivation of good and innocent people, is a harsh necessity and our only route to material sufficiency for all. That fact is the most politically incorrect, and economically indisputable, conceivable. It is also a grim milestone on the valid path toward improvement, the way we are beckoned by realistic human hope..

Again like the thinking of the Enlightenment, radical positivism is more concerned with imagining, hypothesizing, and exploring the promise of the way proven better by manifest evidence than critically belaboring the obvious flaws of the erroneous path recently taken. It is therefore positivist, both in attitude and in dispassionate analysis of the evidence.

Among other tasks before us, radical positivists now reclaim liberty's due, the attribute of inevitability.


Radical Positivists of the world unite, and make it a better place for all!


Home Page