An excellent TED talk about the major shifts in international politics the world is going through.
In his guest post, Mattan Mamane argued that any form of central planning of the economy should be avoided, and only turned to when necessary. I have to say, I tend to agree with this approach. But first of all, I think there’s a case to be made for placing severe limitations on freedom when it comes to economics, because such limitations are already – actually, always – necessary. And second of all, there is planning and there is planning – not all planning is the same.
Now, I feel I lack some of the historical background knowledge that Mattan brings along. I can be ignorant sometimes, as I form my opinion in discussions more often than in deep reading. But if I’m not mistaken, the important insight of socialism is that there are certain dynamics in an unrestricted market which severely, systemically, and systematically limit the freedom of vast swathes of the population.
The idea of basing the economy on central planning is not a good one, that’s for sure. It depends on the planners being very smart, very well-informed, very quick, and very moral. With any of those missing, people will suffer. But obviously there are many economies, most economies really, which are based on many individuals making individual decisions without central planning, but within a set of rules and systems designed to protect societies from some of the ills of unlimited capitalism. I said “most economies” but it’s really all modern states, as modern states have laws and modern governments manipulate the economy in all kinds of ways. It’s really a question of how.
Mattan brought up a good example: privatization. Privatization of public institutions can be good, but the calls in the #J14 movement to end privatization in Israel are justified: the kind of privatization pushed there by Netanyahu and others is not the right kind; calls for tenders are tailored towards single corporations or individuals with large sums of money. As a result, privatization is used to drive more economic centralization and harms the competition needed for a free market; instead of a single government carrier for public services, we get a single private carrier, without the checks and balances of public oversight nor those of multiple private shareholders.
So it’s not privatization itself that is good/bad, it’s how you privatize that can be a great thing or a really bad thing. In the same way, combatting economic centralization or poverty can be done in good ways and in bad ways, and I think Mattan’s suggestion of focussing on freedom is a very good one.
However, I would caution Mattan and others from believing the oft-repeated claim that everyone is better off in a USA-style capitalistic society. Perhaps they are when compared to economies based on central planning, but the modern state is a very new thing as far as history is concerned, and we probably have all kinds of economies to try out. I think it is key to recognize systemic problems with existing systems, and try to figure out how these can be overcome.
One systemic problem of capitalistic societies is poverty. Here I mean relative poverty: being poor compared to the people in your society – not some absolute idea of poverty compared to the whole planet. We are all encouraged implicitly or explicitly to be innovative, take charge of our future, and be the very best we can be. Poverty, as I understand it, is a feature of the system of modern society: the existence of a category of person who, from birth, is not so likely to achieve those things which we should all aspire to. Perhaps some people are poor because they somehow have less potential, by nature, but this is not what I mean.There are many brilliant people born into poverty, who simply have the odds stacked starkly against them from the start. ((I believe that people’s ability is affected very much by their schooling and upbringing; specifically, I think that a traumatic childhood – such as that experience by most of us in unjust factory-like child-correction institutions mockingly called “schools” – is key to limiting people’s ability in most areas. But that’s a topic to be tackled separately.))
The measures taken against poverty are many and varied, and some are better than others. Welfare, at least as I know it in Germany, is not a very good one, in my opinion. Under this system, people have access to a living stipend if they meet certain criteria, the main type of welfare being available to people who are unemployed. Even assuming the stipend is enough to keep them from being poor, this system still limits their freedom: they have to go through embarrassing, even humiliating bureaucratic procedures on a regular basis and are forced to take a job, any job, even one they would hate. Such a system makes poverty slightly less awful without making it go away, and diminishes people’s freedom in the process.
Does this mean that welfare as a whole is a bad idea? I don’t think so. The German system just isn’t a good way of doing it. Perhaps all welfare systems ever tried aren’t good, but that doesn’t mean a good one can’t be created.
What I beg you to realize is that systemic problems in an economic system are never “somebody else’s problem”. They belong to everyone in that system, whether you happen to mainly benefit from it or mainly suffer. Like me, you probably have that image in your mind of a self-made man insisting that he made every single cent by his own hard work and wits, insisting that nobody ever helped him, outright raging that he doesn’t owe anybody anything. I’m sure many wealthy and successful people feel this way; if they didn’t personally make the fortune but rather inherited, they might feel this way on behalf of whatever ancestor did. But those who feel this way are deluding themselves. We live within complex social systems which can empower us to do great things or condemn us to lives of hardship. Sure, some measure of luck and some measure of ability are involved – but they do not exist in a vacuum. If you benefit from a system and that same system makes others suffer, their suffering is your problem, and you are benefitting from it whether you like it or not. I don’t mean to say the wealthy or successful are evil or something – just that no matter what they think, they bear a responsibility for the poor and the failures.
I think we have to take responsibility over the systems we live in and be brutally honest with ourselves about what they do right and what they do wrong. And when we recognize a wrong, we have to be creative and find a way to fix it while doing as little wrong as possible. It’s not easy, but it seems to me like an interesting challenge, and I believe it is the right thing to do.
I have one or two more guest posts lined up to continue this discussion. In the meantime, comments are open. What do you think about all of this? Are there good ways to improve capitalism? If so, what are they?
As part of my trying to figure out the whole economics thing, I’ll be asking some friends (of different ideological persuasions) to guest-post on the subject, and I’ll try to follow up with some kind of thoughtful response that doesn’t reveal quite how little I know about these things. First up is Mattan Mamane (who has a new blog in Hebrew), whom some may call a libertarian. Your thoughtful responses are most welcome, of course.
While writing this guest post, I tried to summarize for myself what stood behind my political ideology, what holds it all together. It wasn’t hard to come to the conclusion that the single foundation for almost everything I believe in is my freedom. Living through my own resolve and conviction is the thing I hold dearest and is actually the only thing I care about in the political field. As long as I don’t cause harm to others, no one should care who I have sex with or how, no one should be able to control what I think or read – as no one makes better choices for me than myself. This is the liberal creed, and I believe most people today agree with it, most political beliefs just claim different ways to achieve this. We all realize, though, that freedom can fail; one’s freedom may conflict with another, and most of us agree that some safeguards are needed for everyone to receive the most freedom. Some of us think freedom fails at more places (for example, some will argue that saying certain words hurts people or causes people to hurt other people, depriving them of their freedom) and as a result support more control over people and actions (like taking away someone’s freedom of speech). Others are more permissive and agree to give freedom more of the benefit of the doubt: they first see where freedom fails, and only then see where we should limit it. Today, most people associate the right with the former, as they’re more skeptical towards where freedom works and think a more organized society is better suited to give everyone the most of their freedom, while the left is associated with the latter.
Socialism is seen by many on the left today to be inspiring as a way to achieve better personal freedom and liberty. Socialist ideas first began appearing around the 18th century in reaction to “liberal” thinkers of the French Revolution. Early socialist thinkers such as Henri de Saint-Simon argued for a controlled society to combat the destructive ideas of the revolutionary “Liberals”, but instead of an aristocratically ruled society he argued for a meritocratic rule. Before the Second World War, Socialism was adopted by the liberal-minded in countries such as England and Germany, who contended that a more organized economy will result in more liberty, with parties such as Labour suggesting reformist adaptation of Socialism, in contrast to the revolutionist adaptation that occurred in Russia.
There is something alluring about a Socialist economy: with so many people acting against each other as they please for no clear goal, how much must go to waste! How much more efficient and productive could we be if we organized the economy under one central plan for the benefit of all of us?
But I would like to refute the claim that Socialism leads to more personal liberty. Actually, I would even go further to suggest that Socialism in its very essence must lead to an authoritarian society.
An economy is always changing; it depends on many factors. It’s the combined preferences, needs and wants of millions of people and their ways of interaction. A planned economy must always look all around in order to receive these inputs and output appropriate measures. The problem is that there is no “right” plan to direct the economy; each field will probably see its own plan as the best – I’m sure the scientists would love to see the bulk of the money going toward scientific achievement, but how much should be given to the farmers, who argue that the bulk of the money should go to them, as they produce the food? Each member of the society has his own plan that is based on his own skills, needs and wants.
It’s clear no democratic institution could establish such a plan by voting, it would take years and by the time any choice is made the economy would crumble through lack of action – so they must outsource the economy to “committees” and “experts”. Like a military operation, leading an economy requires efficiency, quick action and quick decisions – privileges only available to someone who is not under the restrictions of democracy. Each person must have his plan overridden by the central planner. This is the reason every Communist and Socialist regime fell into authoritarian rule: a centrally planned economy is the enemy of liberty and freedom, and history has proven this again and again.
Of course I realize that today most people, even the ones on the further reaches of the left, do not want a Socialist republic or a Communist rule; all talk of economics today stays within the realms of a liberal economy. We are all capitalists: we all agree that where the market works, it should remain, because we realize that free enterprise is a necessity for our freedom and that the free market, where it works, is the only moral way for people to interact in their skills, abilities, time, needs and wants.
But some people are more skeptical of economic freedom, and thus are usually more easily persuaded into giving up this freedom to the controlled alternative: such features of planned economies like welfare, nationalization of companies or assets, etc. I find it curious that they seem to see fighting against privatization and the free market, and for welfare and regulations as the means in themselves. Shouldn’t we let freedom work? We should see how permissive we can get, how much we can let people run their own life – and then see where and if it fails and how can we fix it in the least disruptive way.
Regulations, welfare, nationalization and such are tools to be used where freedom fails, they are used when we must control people for what we assume is the benefit of all of us. This should be the very last resort, the extreme alternative – like taking someone’s freedom of speech.
I think we should always look for the option that involves more freedom and more liberty, and I always try to give freedom the benefit of the doubt as much as I can. Whenever I’m dealing with a problem – like Israel’s housing prices, so high that they resulted in mass demonstration across the country – I try and look for the way to fix it that involves the most freedom, only when I can’t find it I consider the alternatives.
I will leave with a plea: Please, try and give freedom the benefit of the doubt.
Democracy can be excruciating. It takes a lot of time, and it takes a lot of discussion. A lot of repetitive discussion, as you have to convince a majority of your point of view. But democracy can deliver.
A strong reminder came at EUDEC’s Assembly meetings, three weeks ago, right before and during the IDEC@EUDEC conference. The difficult, divisive issue was, as always, membership: who’s in, and who’s out. This particular story starts a year earlier, at the previous meeting of Assembly, in Roskilde, Denmark.
In Roskilde, Assembly decided, based on my proposal, that in order for a school to become a full member of EUDEC, it would have to declare that it is a democratic school (under EUDEC’s definition) and intends to stay one. This decision was made at the very end of the very last plenary, when everyone was exhausted and very few people were really paying attention. Many people were confused and angry about the decision afterwards. But the decision also established a committee to discuss membership issues and work towards a comprehensive solution.
The committee was less active than I had hoped, but eventually the discussions started there brought me to make a new proposal. For this year, I proposed to get rid of the Roskilde restriction, and even open up school membership more, while adding tools for (self-)evaluation and transparency regarding how each member school works.
I thought the proposal would be an easy sell – boy, was I wrong! Membership discussions bring out a lot of emotions, and they very quickly come down to discussions about the core vision of the organization; as a democratic organization, EUDEC’s nature and course of action depend quite directly on the makeup of its membership.
By the second day of discussions, there appeared to be two separate camps, for and against our proposal. Each side talked amongst itself more than with the other side. When the sides met, the debate was heated and people came away feeling sick. At some point there was an (Extended) Council meeting in which we talked about it, and some of us were in tears, others close to it. A few of us who had been involved since founding EUDEC – myself included – had a sense of doom; it seemed our organization was about to splinter, sputter and die. The difficulties seemed truly insurmountable.
But then, maybe an hour or two after that meeting, everything changed. Some of us had talked with “the other side” in the café and came out feeling our differences were minor, both in principal and in practice. It was as if we were standing on a cliff, about to fall, only to be suddenly yanked back onto solid ground. That feeling opened us up – all of us, on both sides, I think – to what other people were saying. And then my friend Or Levi came by and took advantage of my openness to tell me that we’re all being idiots (loudly, but in Hebrew). As has become typical in our friendship, he came at me with criticism that at first seemed ignorant, insensitive, and arrogant, but quickly turned out to be useful in that it questioned things I took for granted.
New ideas came up that evening, ideas that it was too late at that point to introduce into the debate. But that evening calmed everyone down and left us with the knowledge that we’re in this together and everyone is determined to resolve the differences and find the right way to go. It also taught us (or me, at least) that given enough time, new solutions may come up that weren’t even on anybody’s mind. Many were now content with finding a compromise we can live with for a while and continuing to look for the best solution.
The truly amazing thing happened during the next session of Assembly. By the time we got to finally voting on the membership proposals, there were some six or seven different proposals on the table, some divided into 3, 4, 5 sub-proposals. We voted, and voted, and voted, and voted, well into lunch-time. Due to the system we use, members of the Assembly were instructed to vote on each sub-proposal independently of all others; that is, the question was only if that part is something you’re in favor of, regardless of whether or not other parts you want together with it should pass.
As the voting went on, an odd pattern emerged – Assembly passed no more than one sub-proposal of any proposal. We ended up with six different bits and pieces, not all of which were intended to work together, few of which were intended to work alone. Council took the day to check if there was any contradiction between them, but when we left the meeting, everyone – both sides – seemed okay. Nobody left in anger or tears. Nobody said they’d leave the organization (as some had threatened to do). And when Council went over the decisions, it found no contradiction whatsoever. The full package of decisions had to be ratified in the next plenary, and it was carried unanimously.
Give democracy time and attention, and it will deliver.
Photo by Monika Wernz.
One more thing: Or is working on spiffing up EUDEC’s semi-official YouTube channel, EUDECmovies. Subscribe now, there’s going to be a lot of material from the conference over there pretty soon!
It’s not so surprising that Israeli democracy is going down the drain so quickly. Israel has never taken democracy, equality, or the rule of law as seriously as it takes security.
It sounds like the right attitude for a state in Israel’s situation — until you think about it a little more. The point is supposed to be keeping the people of Israel safe. So supposedly, the state should use any means, including violence, and by whatever process, even one that bypasses the safeguards of democracy, in order to get in the way of attempts to harm the state or its citizens.
The thing is the point of democracy is keeping people safe, too. Continue reading Democracy with a catch
2011 started with some difficult days for Israeli democracy. Starting Saturday morning, the IDF has been scrambling to explain away the death of Jawahar Abu-Rahmah of Bil’in, who in all likelihood died as a result of IDF tear gas (and probably not hyper-rapid leukemia or the common cold.) On Monday, Ma’ariv gave us reason to believe that Netanyahu’s call for direct talks with the Palestinians on the core issues is less than honest; their sources indicate quite simply that this government is captive to its most extreme elements and unable to serve the majority. In its 2010 annual summary, the GSS (Shabak) describes the demonstrations in Sheikh Jarrah, Ni’lin, Bil’in, and Nabi Saleh, as “clashing against the security forces.” And speaking of the GSS, the High Court of Justice denied, Tuesday, a petition requesting information on how many detainees the GSS has kept from seeing an attorney (on the grounds that this would “potentially harm state security.”)
It’s been one damned thing after another. And yesterday, the Knesset managed to top it all. I spent the evening trying not to think about it, but today I can think of nothing else. Continue reading The Delegitimizers
I handwrote the following post on the train to Dresden on December 24th. I had to edit it less than I thought I would. I apologize for the very sparse sources. If any particular fact seems dubious to you, please leave me a comment and I’ll try to track down some links.
Many people have pointed out how society is addicted to the concept of security — in the US, in Israel, in the UK, really everywhere in the developed world. This can lead to some paradoxical situations. For example, as Roi Maor points out, the wave of xenophobia in Israel is far more dangerous to the African refugees than they are to the Israeli public. The primal fear of the Other plays a central role here, as does the government’s utter failure to address the needs of the poor neighborhoods and of the foreigners that gravitate towards them.1
I think another factor is the Israeli addiction to insecurity — the inseparable flipside of our addiction to security, as well as a bit of residue from Diaspora. You could call it chronic societal paranoia. Continue reading Addicted to insecurity
Israel’s democracy has been showing worrying signs of decay for a while now. Ha-Hem’s “Slippery Slope” blog (Hebrew) has been documenting this decay step by step for a few months now. I’ve been following with horrified fascination.
I brought up the Holocaust in my post on Sunday. The Third Reich, or at least what I know about it, is often on my mind — and growing up in Israel doesn’t help, nor does living in Germany. For many Israelis the Holocaust is the formative national myth. For years now, I’ve been more interested in what came before it — the process of a formally democratic state collapsing into vile jingoistic totalitarianism. The lesson is not “look what those bastards did to our families” but rather “look at what a society considered the height of civilization can turn into, and how”. And this is a lesson applicable to any society. Naturally, I apply it to the society I grew up in.
And there are two very worrying things quite possibly about to be done to Israel by its current right-leaning government and parliament. Exhibit A: a loyalty oath to Israel as a “Jewish, democratic state” may be introduced as a requirement for non-Jews receiving citizenship (summary of details and call to action, by the NIF); Exhibit B: a new “Terror Law” would give the Minister of Defense the authority to announce any organization as a terrorist organization, as well as the authority to strip individuals of their rights (see analysis by Gurvitz).
This may be selfish, but the Terror Bill terrifies me more than the Loyalty Oath. Don’t get me wrong, this Loyalty Oath would connect citizenship with accepting the dominant ideology (and associated religion), making it basically impossible to even call Israel a democracy anymore. But the Terror Bill makes me wonder whether it’s worth the risk of even setting foot in my homeland again. I love visiting, I miss my family and friends, but if this law passes, a visit could potentially turn permanent if some politician’s whim decides I have too many rights. Not to mention I’m worried for my family in Jerusalem — my parents and siblings routinely take part in protests and political activity which may make them “terror suspects” under the new law.
I remember conversations with my mother, years ago, about how being in a country slipping into fascism must be like a frog in a pot full of water. The water is cold at first, gets warm, and the frog must be wondering whether (and when) it’s going to get so hot it has to jump out. For many Jews in Germany before WWII, this was what it was like. Once it was clear they had to jump out, they weren’t allowed to anymore (my paternal grandmother was one of a tiny handful that managed to get out after it was too late; most of her siblings were not so fortunate).
I think as soon as the Knesset gives the Minister of Defense the power to strip you of your right to leave, that’s exactly when it’s time to jump out. Wait any longer, and maybe you won’t be able to anymore.
Comments are open, and I’d love someone to convince me all of this isn’t really all that bad.
- Telegraph: “Israel’s ‘loyalty oath’ sets a vile precedent”
- Ha’aretz: “ANALYSIS / Lieberman’s loyalty oath isn’t unconstitutional, it’s unwise”
(There’s very little coverage of the Terror Bill to be found.)
I must have gotten this link over Facebook or Twitter, but I can’t recall to whom credit is due. At any rate, I found it interesting, especially because it looks at an aspect of the conflict that is not often discussed but might be one of the most critical in the long run: the experience of Palestinian children.
I grew up aware of the conflict in a very different way from my contemporaries on the Palestinian side. The Mondoweiss post discusses, with many excerpts, a new report criticizing aid organizations’ failure to prevent injustice towards children and to protest Israel’s violations of international law regarding children and their well-being.
Israel routinely treats children as enemies. I think Israel should actually make it part of its security policy to make sure Palestinian children are treated well and protected, because they will grow up to be Palestinians adults who we have a strong interest in not being intensely despised by. I happen to believe that Israel has done genuine grievance to the Palestinians and much of their hate (which is often of the non-compromising raging racist variety) is due to legitimate gripes with what our government (and some of its citizens) have done in the past 63 years. But it seems many in Israel think the Palestinians just hate us for no good reason, and cannot be appeased. Either way, we should be doing our best to show them that we are human and humane, like we keep telling ourselves and the rest of the world. Instead we make their lives a living hell and increasingly allow ourselves to only be represented towards them by our army.
Even if we think that Eden Abergil and her ilk are a marginal phenomenon (Google her if you missed the controversy)– and it can’t be entirely marginal, as Breaking the Silence and others subsequently released more pictures of soldier’s celebrating prisoners and dead opponents — we have an interest in doing our best to minimize animosity towards us. And I find it very difficult to accept that my government is systematically splitting up families, arresting children, interrogating them until they confess, and making it practically impossible for them to lead a normal, healthy childhood. I won’t even mention the number of children Israel apparently killed in “Operation Cast Lead”. Many in Israel may blame the Palestinians’ leaders for it coming to this, but that’s besides the point, as those children will certainly grow up to blame Israel, and that should be prevented, even at great cost and effort.
Like most Israelis, I grew up hearing about the horrors experienced by children in the Holocaust. I can’t help but feel the same despair when I think about how every day, Palestinian children experience things that remind one, even if just a little, of what my paternal grandmother and her contemporaries in Europe went through. And this feeling of despair is compounded by the fact that the perpetrators, this time, are supposed to be representing me and my family — and the families of so many whose childhoods were obliterated by monstrous state violence not so long ago.
The place of children in this conflict is one of the most horrifying aspects of it — on both sides, but especially in those areas where children regularly experience violence and great injustice (which is mostly where the civilians are Palestinians). Peace, and, even more, normalization, will not be possible with generations who have a ruined childhood to hate us for. It’s the kind of thing a person can hardly ever get over, even if they try. I hope Israel’s governments will soon realize this and stop making it impossible to ever end this conflict.
Many people my age are uninterested in politics. They don’t vote, they don’t take part in social and political movements, they just don’t care. I wouldn’t call it selfishness; sometimes it’s jadedness. And the reasons are probably not simple. But I think one reason is the way we relate to authority.
Like any social structure in which a small group holds all authority, traditional state schools create a dynamic by which students learn to see authority figures as distant, unreasonable, and often malignant. As a result, students disengage. The individuals involved are not to blame, it’s the system that is broken. But that broken system teaches the students the wrong lessons, and twists the way they see authority. I think this might have far-reaching consequences for society and for democracy. Continue reading Problems with authority