Thursday, October 6, 2011

Challenging the Tribal Premise

One of Ayn Rand's most important non-fiction essays is the one that kicks off her book, Capitalism, the Unknown Ideal. In "What is Capitalism", Rand identified one of the core misunderstandings that is undermining and destroying capitalism, the tribal premise:

The tribal premise underlies today’s political economy. That premise is shared by the enemies and the champions of capitalism alike; it provides the former with a certain inner consistency, and disarms the latter by a subtle, yet devastating aura of moral hypocrisy—as witness, their attempts to justify capitalism on the ground of “the common good” or “service to the consumer” or “the best allocation of resources.” (Whose resources?)

If capitalism is to be understood, it is this tribal premise that has to be checked—and challenged.

I got an opportunity to challenge the tribal premise in a recent article that clearly demonstrates what Rand is talking about.

In How a flush country could be in debt trouble, Zachary A. Goldfarb attempts to explain why the US government's debt problems are not that big a deal. Here are a few selected quotes:

While the U.S. government’s $14.3 trillion debt is an eye-popping figure, the country has plenty of resources. It’s just that over many years Americans and their leaders have chosen not to tap them to pay the government’s growing bills.

The United States is a lot like a rich businessman who owns two homes, a yacht and millions of dollars in stock but is in debt because he took out a big loan to buy a private plane.

This fellow could always have used some of his wealth, for instance his stock, to pay cash for the plane. But he didn’t want to. Now, with the weak economy, he’s finding it hard to pay off the plane simply out of his salary. By putting most of his wealth beyond reach, he has boxed himself in.

Likewise, U.S. politicians have made a value judgment that they shouldn’t tap much of the country’s wealth to pay for government programs. That judgment, in turn, reflects the preference that many Americans themselves have expressed over the years for leaving private resources in mostly private hands.

"the country has plenty of resources", "chosen not to tap them", "the preference ... for leaving private resources in mostly private hands" are all examples of the tribal premise. Considering the prevalence of such views, is it any wonder that our free markets and individual rights - especially property rights - have long been under withering assault, and losing?

I posted the following comments on 7/31/11

The analogy of the businessman could not be more off base. The businessman is managing (or mismanaging) his own money. Comparing the United States Government to that businessman is to assume the premise that the nation’s wealth belongs to society, as represented by the government, rather than the citizens who produced it. This collectivist view ignores the source of wealth, the minds and labor of individuals. It ignores the moral principle of property rights, which are derived from the source of wealth. It assumes that the people are rightless creatures that exist at the pleasure of the imperial state. It holds that the nation may dispose of the lives of its productive citizens without any more concern than ancient rulers gave to their pyramid-building slaves.

The tribal view of America’s wealth implied by Goldfarb’s is more suited to an ant colony, to communism, or to a primitive tribe of ignorant savages. It is not suited to a modern, enlightened industrial country Founded on the principle of the sovereignty and sanctity of the individual and of the individual’s right to his own life.

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