Sunday, November 23, 2008

And yet another Implication of Man Making Man

In Existentialism Is a Humanism, Jean-Paul Sartre lays out the basic premises and principles of existentialism. The first, and what I think is probably the most important, is that man's existence precedes his essence. It is because of this that, as Sartre says, "[man] will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself" (22). But what does this really entail for humanity, this idea taht we are what we make of ourselves (and not just what we eat)?

One answer, and one that I find particularly and paradoxically inspiring and depressing (but mostly depressing) is Absurdism. Absurdism, as most of you know, is a branch of existential philosophy. Its main tenet is that it is humanly impossible, or "absurd", to find meaning in a world where we are constantly creating and recreating meaning for ourselves. Albert Camus' The Stranger is the work Absurdist fiction, and I find it to be one the best pieces of fiction I've ever read. So, what I mainly want to do is shed some light on the scarier implications of the first principle of Existentialsim that Sartre shies away from.

The story of The Stranger follows a man named Meursaulf, whose mother has just died. He is conspicuously not grieving but goes through all the motions–goes to the old folk's home, goes to the funeral, everything. But where is his emotion, where is the pain he should feel for the loss of his Maman? This absence of emotion, I feel, hints at one of the first scary implications I referred to above: namely, that, in a world where we create our meaning almost ad infinitum, our emotions are queasily close to meaningless. This can be summed up beautifully in an exchange between Meursault and his mistress, Marie:

"She was wearing a pair of my pajamas with the sleeves rolled up. When she laughed I wanted her again. A minute later she asked me if I loved her. I told her it didn't mean anything but that I didn't think so. She looked sad. But as we were fixing lunch, and for no apparent reason, she laughed in such a way that I kissed her."

Or another instance when he is asked by his attorney if he ever truly loved his Maman:

"I answered that I had pretty much lost the habit of analyzing myself and that it was hard for me to tell him what he wanted to know. I probably did love Maman, but that didn't mean anything. ... I explained to him, however, that my nature was such that my physical needs often got in the way of my feelings."

So in these moments set-up for a confession of emotion, we merely get Meursault acting on impulse and sloughing off any claims to emotion. He has no rational or even emotional basis for anything he does. This can also be seen in the reason's for Meursault's shooting an Arab. He cannot come up with anything other than a description of the burning sun on the beach.

So it is apparent in the Absurdist school of Existentialism that emotions mean a-whole-lot of nothing. But what does that mean for our actions? Does it mean that any emotional bases I have for being friends with someone are in bad faith? Does it mean that any meaning I derive from my emotional exchanges with the people I love are, in the end, mere buffoonery? Camus, I assume, would nod and reply with a terse, "oui". I, on the other hand, am left screaming it can't be so. This is a reason I have a love-hate relationship with Existentialism. On the one side, it leaves me free to just be. But on the other, it leaves me with no way to get meaning out of my relationships with other people.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Moderation, please.

I was going to make this a comment, but it got to long, so for ease of reading, I making it a whole new post. I have problem with almost every point made in the previous post. This surprises me because when I saw that Richard was going to discredit Marxism I expected to agree. I expected to read what I consider the most persuasive argument for why Marxism doesn’t work which is that it asks a person to identify with someone they don’t know. The only way I see communism working is on the very small scale. Think of family (and heck, even there is doesn’t always work out). There are so many reasons why Marxism doesn’t work, but have a lot of problems with Richard’s argument.

First, Richard discredits revolution because you “can’t really think of a revolution that actually improved government” besides the American Revolution. While I am sure he didn’t mean to be ethnocentric, this statement left a sour taste in my mouth. I agree that revolution is often pointless, my favorite example is the French Revolution, where after decades of fighting the monarch was brought back. However to say that revolution hasn’t improved government except for the United States is to discredit every other former colonial holding that rebelled against imperialism. What about Nelson Mandela? What about Emiliano Zapata?

Second, I don’t know how Richard can say that “ALL human rights stem from property rights”? Are you honestly saying that unless you own property you deserve human rights? So what about us lowly students who own no land? Not to mention refugees forced from their land? I think almost everything we’ve read for this class would refute what Richard claims. Most importantly, Hobbes and Locke say that our rights derive from the fact that we are sovereign entities in a state of nature. What if Kant’s categorical imperative were based on what you suggest? He doesn’t say that the categorical imperative only applies to those who own property. Doesn’t Sartre calls humans “freedoms”?

Third, Richard uses the example of heath care in the United States as an example where pure capitalism is not being allowed to work its magic. Richard has a point that getting a drug is expensive and takes a long time. I don’t disagree that reform is needed. I will, however, recount a story from my Political Science 151 class as a sort of counter example. So, I am on a vacation with my family. I go to the supermarket to buy a pack of hotdogs and my kid ends up get violently sick because those hot dogs were not regulated by the FDA. So, I take my kids to the nearest a doctor and my kid ends up dying, because it turns out that the doctor is not really a doctor. The sign in front of the building says he is a doctor, but without any regulation no one can stop him calling himself a doctor. This story rules out the idea that if everyone just did enough research we could make perfectly informed decisions. I don’t know about you, but this to me is scary. Now, I know you would said that capitalism would fix this because this quack doctor would go out of business, but what about the poor people who suffer until then?

Moral of this story: pure capitalism is scary. Maybe I am not brave enough to embrace my “freedom” according to Sartre, but I recognize that I can’t be an expert on everything so I put a little trust in the government and I live my life in less fear because of it. I would also say pure capitalism is just as unlikely to come to pass Marxism. And there is a reason, both expect WAY too much out of people. Pure Marxism expects people to give up what they work hard for. Pure capitalism expects everyone to be smart enough to know what to do in every situation. In pure capitalism if you make a mistake you pay for it . . . which sounds like what is fair, but I offer another example. Let us look at the housing market. It was very unregulated and loans were made to people who could never pay them back. The consequences are so wide spread that if the government were just to say “not my problem” would be disastrous not only for the people but more importantly the entire economy. What happens with deregulation is that companies mess up . . . Franny and Freddy . . . and the government ends up having to bail them out because they are so important to the economy. We would’ve been better to just regulate from the beginning.

My final problem is with “wealth redistribution is morally wrong.” Not all wealth distribution is done Robin Hood style. Taxes are a form of wealth redistribution. I agree with Claire that the rich should pay more taxes to help out the people who need help.

In conclusion, I would ask everyone to meditate on the word moderation. Let us avoid these extremes of capitalism and Marxism. Let us moderate.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Marx v Smith

Believe it or not I’ve still been thinking about Marx and socialism and I can’t help but conclude that it’s just not functional, especially after our discussion in class. My most superficial problem with it is that its beginning is a violent and bloody revolution. With the exception of the American Revolution I can’t really think of a revolution that actually improved government. And all of the socialist revolutions that I can think of gave rise to monstrous tyrants like Mao, Lenin, and Hitler.

This brings me to my second problem with Marx. A socialist society requires surrendering all of your property rights, giving all the products of your labor to a totalitarian ruler and trusting him to distribute them appropriately. Milton Friedman argues, and I think rightly so, that ALL human rights stem from property rights. So giving up your property rights will inevitably mean giving up all of your rights. There’s no way that a people without rights could form a functional human society. Nature gives us pictures of societies like these, namely ants and bees. The individual in a bee hive has no rights and no property. And even though hives as a whole tend to be very prosperous, we would hardly call them better than a free human society.

In class we talked about the problems with capitalism that Marxism could possibly remedy. Namely, wealth disparity and the lack of care society provides for the individual. But to say that capitalism can’t remedy those problems itself is to jump the gun I think. At this point I’d like to say I’m really only talking about America given that it’s the best example we have of capitalism. Sure, if you look at wealth disparity over the past 10 years it might not have changed much, it might even have grown. However, if you look at the whole period of capitalism (which one could argue began with the end of the feudal system) wealth disparity has decreased dramatically and the standard of living has improved immeasurably. Maybe it’s happened more slowly than we would like, but the fact that it’s happening is undeniable.

Pure capitalism can also provide care for the individual and usually generate more wealth in the process, but the reason we don’t see the happening is precisely because the government has gotten involved. I think one of the best examples of this is healthcare. I could write a book on the problems I see with government run healthcare but I’ll list a few here to try to strengthen my argument. The reason drugs are so expensive is because the FDA has so regulated pharmaceutical companies that it costs billions of dollars to bring a drug to market. And the number of drugs that make it to alpha or even beta testing (which costs millions of dollars itself) and then go on to be rejected by the FDA is staggering. I read an article in either Time or Business Week (I honestly can’t remember which) that listed 8 cancer treatment drugs that cured the cancer of their test patients but still failed to be approved by the FDA for various, and often petty, reasons. This simply means that the next drug the company does get to market will have to cover the cost of producing that drug, and every drug that failed before it, making them exponentially more expensive for the consumer. I’m actually going to just stick with this example for now because if I list more this blog will be excessive. But the point is that the lack of care our society provides for its individuals can in many cases be traced back to government involvement.

My last problem with socialism is simply that wealth redistribution is morally wrong. Robin Hood was a criminal, we may think he’s badass for sticking it to the corrupt nobles but the fact is he was stealing. The government taking more from the rich simply because they are rich and giving it to the poor is no different. In fact, it is in some way worse. At least the nobles in Robin Hood were clearly corrupt. The vast majority of top income earners in America are rags to riches stories. We just hear about the Enron executives on TV and assume all wealthy CEO’s are like that.

So, to summarize, I simply don’t see how Marxism will solve the problems of capitalism and better than capitalism. And in some cases, Marxism creates problems worse than that of capitalism.