Capitalism and the veil of ignorance

This piece was originally published on Patreon.

“It is easier for us today to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism — “ Fredric Jameson.


So, I assumed, perhaps wrongly, that the purpose of my research into the myths of money and history was fairly self-explanatory. But after what has to be one of the only civil disagreements on the internet with my dear friend and cousin, Lance, I realise that may not have been the case.

With this in mind, I thought I’d spend some time this week underlining the point of what my work is trying to achieve.

In many ways, the economics of my work should serve only to highlight the extent to which we have been lying to ourselves in order to justify human suffering.

So our taxes don’t pay for spending, so what? So the government can’t run out of money. Big deal. Does that change anything?

‘We can’t afford it’ has been the proverbial comforter of opponents of the welfare state harking back to the Clinton / Blair days. Perhaps even earlier. And while it might make you feel good to believe that, it is simply untrue. This argument has been used as an emotional crutch for people who don’t want to admit that they’re comfortable with homelessness and unemployment if it keeps export prices low. Or the currency competitive. Or their bottom line stable.

Ultimately, this comes down to what government is for, and what role markets should play in our lives. People are divided on this. And that is ok. Civil disagreements are a hallmark of a civilised society.

Economies and markets are complex beasts, that perform differently in different environments, under different conditions. Arguably across the duration of time, a range of potential solutions could apply at any given scenario. And the best solution is to pick and choose from a range of different economic schools of thought, and use them in combination.

Unfortunately, across the world, the economists and historians that are seeking to gain greater clarity of how to do just that, by understanding the true function of economies and markets are being pushed out of universities and barred from institutions and organisations that would allow their research to come to fruition. This is not a mark of a civilised society, but corporate fascism that is actively suppressing research that threatens the dominance of late-stage capitalism.

It could happen to you.

If you feel comfortable convincing yourself that unemployment and homelessness is acceptable, if you think the fact that wages have not only stagnated but are in many countries actually going backwards somehow doesn’t affect you, that what most people earn in a lifetime will be insufficient to cover a modestly comfortable retirement should not concern you, that addressing any one of these things would be a detriment not only to your bottom line but to the economy itself, if you can justify that position without relying on arguments over deficits and balanced budgets, well, more power to you, I guess.

But we should be honest about our disagreements. And our opinions should be informed by an as accurate understanding of how wealth is created as possible. For many people, whether or not government can afford to address unemployment and social spending isn’t the issue, the question is whether it should.

The argument over budgets, debt ceilings and deficits have been used as a national pacifier that would have us believe that the health of the economy and our ability to earn a living relies on a degree of human suffering. We have been convinced that the balancing of federal budgets somehow relates to our ability to put food on the table, when in fact the opposite is true. These lies have made us paranoid and competitive, where the well-being of everyone else is a direct threat to our own. It’s a pretty genius strategy, really.

But the work of economists like Dr Steven Hail, Professor Steven Keen, Professor Stephanie Kelton, Professor Pavlina Tcherneva, Professor Warren Mosler, Professor Bill Black, Professor Michael Hudson and Professor Fadhel Kaboub, we no longer have these platitudes to rely on.

We must therefore confront our own humanity and ask: what degree of human suffering are we comfortable living with? And why do we feel it is necessary in the first place? Is there really no kind of modelling we can imagine where everyone works to support themselves in jobs that cover the basic costs of living without the economy suffering? Without our bottom lines suffering? And what kind of system would we want to live in if we were to lose everything in an instant?

Do we really want to live in a world where we have no right to negotiate, or the ability to withdraw our labour? Where most people will be lucky to earn minimum wage, or wait for months to get paid. If at all. A world where we are not entitled either to a job, or an education, or affordable health care or a social safety net?

This basically harks back to the philosophy of John Rawls, whose work can be used to determine the morality, efficiency and economics of political issues. I won’t dwell too much on this but basically, imagine you’re a character in Lost. Your plane has crashed on an abandoned island, and you’ve lost your memory, along with everyone else who survived. You have no money, no ID. You know nothing of yourself, not even your sex, race, or nationality, you’ve even forgotten your individual tastes and preferences.

With no knowledge of your natural abilities, or your position in society: What kind of system would you and your other survivors design to live in? This is what Rawls refers to as ‘the veil of ignorance’.

When making decisions about distribution of rights, positions, and resources, this veil of ignorance prevents all participants from knowing who the greatest beneficiaries of this system will be, let alone who will receive distribution rights, and what positions people will be appointed to.

(From Wikipedia: “For example, for a proposed society in which 50% of the population is kept in slavery, it follows that on entering the new society there is a 50% likelihood that the participant would be a slave”).

Without the ability to make choices based on one’s own class interests, the thought experiment is designed to render irrelevant the personal considerations of justice, social co-operation or allocation, to design a system that benefits the greatest number of people, with the least amount of effort.

So ok, it’s not a perfect metaphor, but Rawls’ ‘veil of ignorance’ should help inform the kind of system we want to live in.

I believe in the right to work. And a minimum wage that covers the cost of living, and a strong social safety net that should only ever be accessed as a last resort. Those who are opposed to social welfare should therefore be committed to full employment.

Those who are opposed to social welfare should therefore be committed to full employment.

Caveating this by saying creating something for people to do should never be the end-goal of full employment. To the contrary, the priority should be to ensure that economies, cities and towns have the stuff they need to survive and a population with the skills capable of providing it, along with ensuring access to basic services and amenities. You know, the essentials that were once considered the hallmarks of modernity. We’re not even near that point. We’re nowhere close. And it’s 2018.

Besides which, the idea that the health of the economy has no correlation to an employed, well educated, healthy, highly skilled population is dubious and politically & economically short-sighted. Why wouldn’t you want your population to be able to fare better in times of crisis or market fluctuation? (The answer is: because it might cost the private sector more money). Which again forces us to confront why we are comfortable creating a permanent pool of unemployed people to satisfy its bottom line. And, if that is the case, surely those who cannot work for various reasons, be it the lack of available jobs, or a disability, they should be entitled to a social welfare system that ensure they don’t starve or sleep rough.

If that isn’t the case, then we need to confront what level of human misery is allowable to satisfy the needs of the market. If people can justify that position, good for them. I can’t.

(Quick tangent: As an example, given the huge strain heart disease puts on national health systems, and given the connection between it and poor dental hygiene, there is an argument to be made that providing free dental care for every American, Australian, Brit etc would not only save hospitals and medical systems billions of dollars a year, it would be a boon for insurance companies. There are plenty of situations like this where spending money would literally save money and assist the private sector to make more money. = Profit).

“The doomsday clock has moved two minutes closer to midnight, the end is nigh” is a phrase that has come to dominate conversations in response to the present political crisis, as though throwing out the baby with the bathwater — en masse — is the only alternative. And one that is preferable to trying to properly understand how it is we got here and changing course to avoid disaster. It seems for many, that option is too difficult or simply impossible.

That people would rather die than change their way of thinking, that apocalypse seems a more realistic and optimistic outcome than political and economic reform, should demonstrate the extent to which capitalism has come to dominate every aspect of our lives and fibre of our beings.

Some of us might have to agree to disagree on certain points and thresholds for unemployment. And disagreement is ok. But it is pointless unless that disagreement is based in fact.

That is all.

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