Progressive Superstition

by Don Boudreaux on November 23, 2007

in Everyday Life, History, Myths and Fallacies, Standard of Living

Here’s a letter that I sent today to the Gray Lady:

Opposed to globalization, Jeff Milchen asserts that “The only truly sustainable path for business in the 21st century is localization” (Letters, November 23).  Mr. Milchen should learn some history.  He can begin with Fernand Braudel’s 1981 book The Structures of Everyday Life, which details the living standards of ordinary Europeans during the late middle ages.  This era was emphatically one of localization: people consumed only locally grown foods and locally made clothing.  All building materials were local.   There were no highways, railways, or CO2-emitting engines to pollute the local atmosphere with greenhouse gases or with foreign goods and foreign ideas.

But paradise had its price.  Starvation was common, as was death by plague.  Giving birth was more dangerous for women than a game of Russian Roulette. People lived in tiny one room dirt-floor huts without indoor plumbing.  During the winter, some of the farm animals (all local!) shared these accommodations.

What little “business” there was during the long era of localization – subsistence farming – might have been sustainable, but human dignity and human life certainly were not.

Sincerely,
Donald J. Boudreaux

I googled “Jeff Milchen” and, not surprisingly, found that he frequently is identified with so-called “Progressives.”  Ironic, isn’t it, that “Progressives” advocate a return to the economic arrangements of the dark- and middle-ages?

Be Sociable, Share!

Comments

comments

44 comments    Share Share    Print    Email

{ 22 comments }

somebody November 23, 2007 at 2:42 pm

But, see, progressives wouldn't agree with that logic. In their world, only intentions matter.

kebko November 23, 2007 at 3:09 pm

Mr. Milchen's organization appears to be mainly concerned with outlawing or castrating corporate organizational ownership. A big part of the strategy is to argue that civil rights should not apply to corporations. It always saddens me when "progressives" – the very people who would claim to pride themselves on defense of personal liberties – happily fight against those liberties when they apply to supposed enemies (in this case, corporations). It's really just old-fashioned bigotry, in a way.

It's too bad, because there really is a juicy conversation to be had on the topic of corporate ownership & the positive & negative consequences of it. But, activists like him are so biased against the idea, and are so clouded by mountains of inaccurate ideas about corporations & what they do for us (or to us), that it's like trying to discuss the pros & cons of evolutionary psychology at the local Southern Baptist bible study. You'd have to deconstruct an entire religious world-view just to get to the actual conversation.

Ben Darrington November 23, 2007 at 3:37 pm

Your argument makes no more sense than the arguments made by liberty's opponents that we had lower taxes and smaller government in the 19th century and look–everybody was a lot poorer than they are today.

kebko November 23, 2007 at 6:12 pm

Ben, are you suggesting that higher taxes & larger government are the primary sources of gains in wealth since the 19th century?

Gil November 23, 2007 at 9:49 pm

Should it be reminded a great deal in raising the standard was technology? I'm sure there were some relatively free people with the right to make money with relatively little interference. Yet those rich people in the Middle Ages would still have a mediocre standard of living by today's standard. I'm more interested in wondering why technology took off within the hundred or so years despite other civilisations could done so with their basic technologies but didn't.

Python November 23, 2007 at 11:04 pm

Hey Gil, which countries are most to credit for those new technologies that are responsible for "raising the standard" as you say? Since 1700, I'd list the top 5 as US, UK, Germany, France, Japan. Each of these is/was democratic with market economies. Other than the Soviets during the Space Race it's hard to think of any new technologies invented by non-democratic or control economies.

I've long said that democracy, free markets, and free trade lead to efficient economies AND new technologies, which in turn has a feedback loop to even better economic efficiencies and more technologies. It's not a surprise where this phenomena takes place.

And, I have no idea what your last sentence is saying. Can you repost it with different wording?

muirgeo November 24, 2007 at 12:10 am

A big part of the strategy is to argue that civil rights should not apply to corporations. It always saddens me when "progressives" – the very people who would claim to pride themselves on defense of personal liberties – happily fight against those liberties when they apply to supposed enemies (in this case, corporations). It's really just old-fashioned bigotry, in a way.

Posted by: kebko

kebko,

Corporations aren't people. They have no rights except those we chose to grant them as a society…..It saddens you that some would deny "them" "their" personal liberties???? The fact that you are saddened by such saddens me.

Wes Johnson November 24, 2007 at 12:30 am

Ah, a discussion that allows me to lend my meager expertise.

Muirego,
when you write:

"Corporations aren't people. They have no rights except those we chose to grant them as a society,"

I think you are suffering under a very common misconception, whihc you ought to reflect on.

Consider that corporations are groups of individuals who have decided to act in concert.

How then can you restrict the rights of corporations without restricting the rights of those individuals?

Wouldn't you agree that the New York Times, a corporation, has free speech rights?

Colin Keesee November 24, 2007 at 1:04 am

Gil,

Even without many technological changes, the ability to specialize and trade can and indeed did improve people's standards of living.

Even with pre industrial technology, there is a lot that can be gained through specialization and trade. The empirical evidence would be the experience of a peasant living in a Roman province and one living in that same region during the Early Middle Ages.

The former could take advantage of land and water routes that were relatively safe and reliable. As a result, a farmer could grow one or two crops on his farm and sell them for cash and then purchase crops that were easily imported from other parts of the empire.

A peasant living in that same area (let's suppose Gaul/France) in circa AD 600, would have to produce everything he consumed and the amount of what he could get for the same amount of effort was less than what his provincial roman forefather could have obtained. Trade was virtually non existent and being forced to generalize was in

A similar situation existed in China. In the 9th century the Sung Dynasty unified a large part of China and canals were built and trade flowed from north to south very well. The south specialized in rice growing on large plantations and the surplus was able to feed the north which was able to specialize in iron and ceramic production. The cost of iron, in real terms, was the lowest ever up until the 9th century in Britain. Conversely, when they did not political order and working canals this specialization was not possible.

Technology was crucial for affording regular people the luxuries that kings of yesteryear could only of. However, trade can make even pre industrial societies far better of then generalizing can.

Gil November 24, 2007 at 1:11 am

What I was saying is why other people such the ancient Chinese, Greeks, Romans, etc., didn't have an 'Industrial Revolution' even though they had the preliminary inventions that would kick off such technological progress?

Alternatively, one could also argue why did the standard of living for the average schmoe increase during the 20th century? The standard of living didn't particularly improve during the Industrial Revolution.

Gil November 24, 2007 at 2:13 am

Also should it be mentioned that if folks return to family farms, they aren't going to dismiss 500 years of scientific understanding of the natural world? Somehow I doubt the grim statistics of the Middle Ages is the same for Amish people nowadays. Similarly, do people who are for local ideals are advocating doing away with modern technology or using modern technology for a high standard of localized living? Hell, I heard that had the people of the Middle Ages actually heeded the sanitation rules of the Bible the plague wouldn't have been nearly as deadly.

The Dirty Mac November 24, 2007 at 7:08 am

"Also should it be mentioned that if folks return to family farms, they aren't going to dismiss 500 years of scientific understanding of the natural world?"

That's true, but having the ability to take advantage of that scientific understanding may be a different story.

If my home state were to enjoy the benefits of a closed economy, here are some of the probable results:

(1) Massive amounts of labor and capital would be diverted from various industries to produce food and other basic products and services.

(2) Despite (1) above, the variety and quality of food would decline greatly. Although substantially more labor would be expended on food production there would almost definitely be periodic shortages as there is not that much arable land (clear cutting of forests could alleviate this somewhat but not completely).

(3) Goods and services that require scale economies to be affordable (i.e. cars, energy, certain medications) would become extremely expensive.

(4) Companies in the new industries that would develop (primarily food and textile related) would face limited competition and thus have limited incentive to increase efficiency. Monopoly power would increase.

This is a partial list. These observations involve a relatively affluent northern state with a highly educated workforce (if I lived in the Southwest, I would have added mass emigration due to inadequate water supply to the list). While it is true that we would not dismiss 500 years of scientific understanding of the natural world, closing of the economy would result in many of the conditions characteristic of the pre-industrial era.

PaulD November 24, 2007 at 7:09 am

One of the premises behind the "buy local" movement is that it is more energy efficient. I am finding more and more studies that suggest this isn't so. Shipping locally grown produce in the back of a pick up truck to a market 100 miles a way is in fact a very inefficient use of gasoline.

SaulOhio November 24, 2007 at 7:16 am

Gil: You don't think the standard of living of the average worker didn't improve during the Industrial Revolution (IR)???? People went from living in mud huts with dirt floors and thatched roofs to actual houses with floors! Before the IR, they had to avoid washing their clothes too often to prevent them from wearing out, because one set of clothes had to last years. One of the biggest advances in the IR was the application of the steam engine to textile manufacture. Europe used to have famines every few years, but the IR put an end to that. I could go on and on.

It is economic freedom and trade that makes the technology we have possible. Technology requires a very broad division of labor, which requires trade over large distances. Try to build an air conditioner using only materials mined locally.

Or make a suit. Here is someone's attempt to make a "100 mile suit":
http://tinyurl.com/2qyyca

Gil November 24, 2007 at 7:45 am

No not really. It seems the improvement in standards of living for the average schmoe seemed to be around the late 1800s. I think your referring to the new rich and middle class who displaced the old aristocracy. Unless you mean some children who would have starved in the Middle Ages got to work in the drudgery of the coal mines. But then it's all relative I guess.

Reid November 24, 2007 at 6:54 pm

This is the same Jeff Milchen who 10 years ago was trying to outlaw non-local businesses from expanding into Boulder, CO. He was the head activist of the Boulder Independent Business Alliance (BIBA). Below is my letter to the editor attacking BIBA printed in the Daily Camera, the Boulder paper of record in 1999:

The Boulder Independent Business Alliance (BIBA) has just announced their initiative to get the city to enact protectionist legislation against national chain retailers. If enacted, such legislation will adversely affect the economic well being of Boulder's consumers and taxpayers.

There are many independent businesses who have no trouble competing with national retail chains. For instance, there are many fine restaurants in Boulder that charge much higher prices than the chain restaurants. Despite the high prices consumers perceive value in the superior food and dining experience and gladly pay the premuim. Astute consumers know there is a large price premium for shopping at BIBA stores versus national retailers. BIBA will not be able to convince me that I should spend considerably more for the same exact branded product just because the owner of the business is a local.

If protectionist legislation against national retailers is enacted BIBA retailers will raise their already high prices due to lack of competition. Consumers will drive to nearby communities to shop at the stores that are banned in Boulder. This will cause sales tax revenues to decline. Either the sales tax rate or property taxes will rise to make up the deficit.

Protectionism always hurts the consumer. It essentially transfers wealth from consumers and taxpayers to politically preferred business owners.

BIBA's initiative is a textbook case of corporate welfare. It is coercive, intolerant, elitist, reactionary, anti-competitive, and anti-choice. Until BIBA stops trying to restrict our freedom of choice I will be boycotting their retail businesses.
Reid ***/Boulder

vidyohs November 25, 2007 at 8:16 pm

Ignorant ignorant muirduck.

"Corporations aren't people. They have no rights except those we chose to grant them as a society…..It saddens you that some would deny "them" "their" personal liberties???? The fact that you are saddened by such saddens me.
Posted by: muirgeo | Nov 24, 2007 12:10:14 AM"

As usual muirduck doesn't have a freaking clue as to what he/she/it is talking about.

Black's Law dictionary 7th Edition
PERSON:
1. A human being. 2 An entity (such as a corporation) that is recognized by law as having the rights and duties of a human being.

The law, his/her/its socialist law, defines all corporations as "persons", and persons have the same rights and duties be they human or entitiy.

Ignorant ignorant muirduck.

SaulOhio November 26, 2007 at 6:04 am

vidyohs: I don't care what the law says, a corporation is a voluntary association of people, and it is their rights that should be protected. People don't lose their rights just because they organize into groups. (They don't gain any new ones, either.)

Tom November 26, 2007 at 9:08 am

"Unless you mean some children who would have starved in the Middle Ages got to work in the drudgery of the coal mines. But then it's all relative I guess."

Drudgery = death. Now we know why progressives fear work so much.

Scott November 26, 2007 at 9:28 am

Ironic, isn't it, that "Progressives" advocate a return to the economic arrangements of the dark- and middle-ages?

That's *exactly* the point I've made to my wife on a number of occasions. I've noticed that almost without fail, "progressives" advocate maintaining the status quo or actually want to roll back true progress by halting any sort of development or advancement. They're against progressing toward developing new oil refineries, they're against progressing toward developing new nuclear power plants, they're against progressing toward new housing subdivisions, they're against progressing toward larger, safer SUVs.

Yup, they can call themselves "progressives", but all I see is attempted regression.

Gil November 26, 2007 at 10:55 am

Golly.

Interestingly, Tom, your reply reminds me of my contention that strictly speaking – there's no such thing as slavery. Rather different people having different productive abilities and bargaining powers. And if you happen to have crummy productive abilities and next-to-no bargaining power then life's going to pretty crumby, but then it's better doing crappy work than starving, I guess. Similarly, another argument could be made for poverty being extremely rare and low. Most people are quite well off and are big crybabies and others are merely doing it tough but aren't poor either. True poverty is extremely rare and is near absent in the West.

On the other hand Scott, how do you know simpler, gentler living in the past is the preserve of lefties? Two idyllic TV versions of the past that come to mind are Bonanza and Daniel Boone. Sure lefties might look at the happy forest environment and how Ben Cartwright and Daniel Boone might well have seen Passenger Pigeons in the flesh.

But how many righties/libbers could just as easily get misty-rosy-eyed too? Both would have used either gold/silver coins or gold-standard money. The men carry guns in a matter-of-factly way. The people are depicted as self-sufficient and no signs of taxes and government. Hunting is portrayed as a manly pursuit. After all, how many righties like to look in the past before them dang lefties arrived on the scene with their dang guvmint and social concerns? By the way, why can't some lefties look beyond the oil and nuclear standards and imagine new and better technologies displacing current ones? What? If you don't barrack for oil, nuclear energy and SUVs you're probably a gay homosexual poofter?

vidyohs November 26, 2007 at 5:41 pm

"vidyohs: I don't care what the law says, a corporation is a voluntary association of people, and it is their rights that should be protected. People don't lose their rights just because they organize into groups. (They don't gain any new ones, either.)

Posted by: SaulOhio | Nov 26, 2007 6:04:47 AM"

Sheeesh, my friend, I thought we were having a rational (exclusing all input from muirduck of course) discussion. Since a corporation is a creature created by law, of course it matters what the law says.

If you choose to put another meaning to it, please be my guest. Just don't be surprised to find out that when the rubber meets the road your definition becomes meaningless in any court of law.

However, there are advantages to the corporation being a "person" in law. That advantage is that should you have bonafide reason to sue the corporation you only have to sue the "person" and not all those people you say are joined together in a group. Nice and tidy, eh? One "person" one suit, one responsible, one accountable, though there are indeed a bunch of people in the corporation.

If I stepped on your toes I apologize, but it is what it is, corporations are persons, just like you and me.

Previous post:

Next post: