August 19, 2009
What’s So Confusing About This?

An Australian reader of TPM is confused…

I cannot understand why a bunch of people feel so outraged about having universal health care policy. How is that socialism? My country along with a bunch of Europeans have had similar systems for years and although they’re not perfect, they allow for the poor, middle and upper classes to seek treatment at no cost.

I’m confused about why this is confusing.

What do you think being rich means? It’s not about having enough; positive psychology tells us that. It’s about being ahead; and how do you know if you’re ahead if you can’t turn around and see most people behind you? If your health insurance sucks, everyone else needs even worse. If your life sucks, everyone else’s should suck more.

Socialism, according to this view, is the idea that we should all have more or less the same of whatever it is we’re talking about. As a libertarian socialist, I’m not completely comfortable with that definition, but it’s not as far off as many others that are bandied about (such as the idea that socialism involves centralized decision-making). And it certainly seems to fit how Americans think of socialism.

Which is why we find it so repulsive. Here I am doing all this crappy stuff, disgusting in many ways, scrambling to get past people, leaving friends in my wake, and feeling terrible about it but denying those feelings. And you’re telling me the whole enterprise is screwed? Them’s fightin’ words.

Ramsey Clark put it simply: there’s only been one kind of government in history, though it takes many forms, and that is plutocracy. This could theoretically change; but it won’t until the psychology of the masses improves to the point that the vast majority give up trying to be rich, trying to be ahead, trying to win. As long as we glorify gain and ridicule empathy, we’ll continue on the path that Thorstein Veblen depicted in his Theory of the Leisure Class.


Veblen is to sociology what Darwin is to biology: his theory makes sense of a bunch of apparently disparate data. (In this excerpt from the Wikipedia entry I’ve omitted the links because Wikipedia entries link to every defined term and phrase.)

Veblen developed a 20th century evolutionary economics based upon Darwinian principles and new ideas emerging from anthropology, sociology, and psychology. Unlike the neoclassical economics that was emerging at the same time, Veblen described economic behavior as both socially and individually determined and saw economic organization as a process of ongoing evolution. This evolution was driven by the human instincts of emulation, predation, workmanship, parental bent, and idle curiosity. Veblen wanted economists to grasp the effects of social and cultural change on economic changes. In The Theory of the Leisure Class, which is probably his best-known work, because of its satiric look at American society, the instincts of emulation and predation play a major role. People, rich and poor alike, attempt to impress others and seek to gain advantage through what Veblen coined “conspicuous consumption” and the ability to engage in “conspicuous leisure”. In this work Veblen argued that consumption is used as a way to gain and signal status. Through “conspicuous consumption” often came “conspicuous waste,” which Veblen detested. Much of modern advertising is built upon a Veblenian notion of consumption.

As Chomsky says, if economics were a real discipline, it would study these issues. But since it’s funded by those whose status is assured by their position at the top of the economic heap, the question of whether getting ahead is a good thing never comes up. Thus it’s left to psychology and religion, which get no funding because they produce no product. But, you say, economics produces nothing either? Not true; it produces justifications for exploitation.


Posted by Chuck Dupree at August 19, 2009 07:10 PM
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The only way out is up, so let's elevate.

Posted by: Mike Goldman on August 20, 2009 12:49 AM

Sadly, you're so right. Most people only realise it when they need empathy and there isn't any around. A lot of them get angry, but not angry enough, and most of the ones who do direct their anger at the wrong people, because they just lack the brains to understand what's happening.

Posted by: Peter on August 20, 2009 9:21 AM
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