Intrinsic worth, consent, and coercion in economic contexts.
I think that perhaps the most fundamental concept in liberalism (or progressivism) is that human life has intrinsic worth beyond whatever economic goods or public goods an individual contributes to the world.
A natural corollary of this is that since human life has intrinsic value, those things which sustain human life are rights, not privileges. These rights exist in cultural and local contexts, but they can be broken down pretty easily into those things in the bottom rung or two of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Humans, in this conception, have the right to breathable air, food, drinkable water, the ability to bathe and void bladder and bowel in a sanitary manner, access to preventative, maintenance, and emergency health care, and a right to housing and body coverings that protect them from the elements.
Further, humans have a right to live unmolested by violent and chaotic environments, and to be educated to the standards of their societies. Finally humans have the right to engage in alliances with other humans for mutual benefit , mate and have offspring or choose not to.
Note that, unlike the libertarian concept of rights, most of these are positive rights. Also note that most human societies throughout time, including modern times, grant these rights without question to children, elders, and (to varying degrees) many disabled persons.
These rights were implied, but not stated, in the US constitution’s preamble, under the cover of “promoting the general welfare”. Even earlier, in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson called it “the pursuit of happiness”.
Maslow’s work was not known then, but it has long been a common conception that in order for a human to pursue or obtain happiness, those needs essential to the continuation of life need to be fulfilled.
It is only when dealing with able bodied adults (sometimes culturally limited to men) that these rights are not generally assumed. The libertarian stance is that at this point (at least) there is no responsibility of society (in the form of government, even self-selected governments) to ensure these rights, as employment contracts stand on their own to support these rights, and anyone who is not willing (or able) to work forfeits these rights so long as “unable” doesn’t include a definition of long term disability.
Furthermore, the libertarian stance is that there is no responsibility of an employer to guarantee wages and/or benefits sufficient for the employee to be able to obtain these positive rights in the unfettered market, even when the employee works “full time” or even more than full time.
This stance clearly supports a libertarian idea that humans do not have intrinsic worth, but only economic and/or public worth— that if the market is such that some people are unable to meet the basic needs of humanity while working, it is incumbent upon the individual alone to make some change to himself or his immediate environment (i.e. obtaining more education, doubling up in inexpensive apartments, switching from healthier foods to less expensive but less healthy foods, etc.) in order to meet those basic needs.
In fact, the concepts of “worthy” versus “unworthy” poor have a long political and social history. Interestingly, those who have committed crimes and are sentenced to incarceration are granted, in this sense, more rights than those who cannot obtain a job that pays sufficiently well to meet basic human needs.
The libertarian idea of rights is that the employer’s right to make profits supersedes the employee’s right to be able to survive on the wages offered.
A common libertarian defense to this view is that the employee “consents” to the employment contract, and therefore the employer has no further obligation. What is left out of this equation, however, are the coercive effects of the possibilities of starvation, homelessness, and loss of health care access.
The cumulative effects of these coercions in the employment market in fact make the employer/employee contract extremely coercive, particularly in cases where geography, incomplete information, or monopolistic or oligarchic situations limit employment choices.
Unions to some extent, when powerful, can mitigate this coercion and create a much more just power structure between employer and employee. It is partially for this reason that corporatists have consistently and continually reviled unions and similar (older) concepts such as guilds, and worked to undermine their power through both legal and extra-legal measures.
Corporate “personhood” where the individual liability for illegal decisions made by people in corporations is diffused and weakened, exacerbates the power imbalance, as does the differing ability for corporations and their financiers to contribute to political dialogue as compared to those who work for salaries or hourly wages.
Modern economics likes to treat most humans as replaceable cogs in the free market machine, granting only entrepreneurs, financiers, and corporate leaders actual personhood and “free choice”. The rest of us poor slobs are told that we have free choice while one choice after another is taken away by corporate decisions and corporate-driven governmental decisions beyond our control.
We are manipulated by corporate driven media, mislead by corporate owned politicians, and mis-used by the corporations themselves, whose loyalty to their stockholders greatly exceeds their loyalty to those who make those stock options possible.
Some poor slobs even believe the propaganda, and see themselves as actual or soon to be elites in this new world order. This is, of course, a belief that is encouraged by the elite, if only for their own amusement.
With the concept of “rights”, inalienable from it, is the concept of “responsibility”. It is of course the responsibility of every able-bodied (and minded) human of “working age” (a very fluid concept depending on region and culture) to attempt to find either a paid employment or personal contractual arrangement (such as marriage and subsequent homemaker status) that meets basic human needs, but it is also the responsibility of a representative government, as agent for human beings, to ensure that these needs can be met even by those whose natural abilities and current life situations do not permit them to achieve the goal of self-sufficiency.
Toward that responsibility, humans in societies pay taxes, preferably on progressive schemes, but all too often on regressive schemes, to set up governmental and private programs that ensure that all humans in that society are able to live as humans.
Again, this is contextually sensitive and to some extent dependent on market forces. For example, a country with few natural resources and a largely uneducated populace may have a far less comprehensive scheme for ensuring the acknowledgment of intrinsic human worth than a wealthy, largely educated country.
A country where the dominant social paradigm is large extended families within one neighborhood may not need very many publicly supported day care centers, whereas a country where the dominant paradigm is nuclear and/or broken families combined with an ethic of both parents working outside the home might need an extensive public daycare program.
Also serving the responsibility of a representative government to ensure intrinsic worth, businesses (including corporations, partnerships, and sole proprietorships) are subject to regulations which seek to address those intrinsic human rights.
These regulations can take many forms, including attempts to minimize safety hazards intrinsic to a particular job, ensuring that employer power does not extend to such things as requiring sick people to work or risk unemployment, prevent businesses from making hiring and firing decisions based on issues other than ability and work performance (such as various discriminations, nepotism, quid pro quo sexual harassment, etc.) and the assurance that those who “follow the rules” and lead productive lives are able to make enough money to meet their basic needs.
Most modern European countries have in the last thirty years or so managed a finely balanced mix of market and government controlled entities that secure the basic rights of humans while enabling significant and meaningful wealth to accumulate for those who have the ability to accumulate it.
The US, by contrast, has shown an ever widening gap between wealthy and poor, a lower and lower standard of living for most citizens, reduced access to safe housing and preventative and maintenance medicine, and safety and job security for average workers. This can be traced in a direct lineage to conservative and libertarian attempts to concentrate power in the hands of corporations while reducing the power of individuals within a market system to impact the system.
The US produces far less goods, of far lower quality, than it did thirty years ago, in part because of corporate decisions to access cheap labor and materials in developing country and eliminate largely union based jobs in the US.
A majority of US federal debt is held by foreign governments, most significantly Asian governments, and the governmental spending that has necessitated spending this amount of money, far from improving the lot of average Americans, has gone toward de-stabilization and economic, political and military takeovers of foreign governments for the good of a small cabal of people who have both economic and governmental power.
The creation of the “War on Drugs”, far from being the dismal failure that most of us at first glance see it to be, has actually met its goals very nicely. The US has installed “friendly” governments in many drug supply nations, and has destabilized populations in many others, and with the help of unjust and biased sentencing laws and money seizure schemes such as the Rico Act have managed to incarcerate a larger portion of its population than any other country in the world, often for “crimes” such as simple possession of a controlled substance, or “aiding and abetting” a drug criminal (such as a grandmother who allows her addicted granddaughter to live with her).
The US government has kept the US in a constant state of low to mid level fear for decades, feeding such racist and classist stereotypes as the “welfare queen”, the “crackhead”, and the “meth addict”, so that they can continue to gain control over an increasingly docile population.
All this time, far from advancing real solutions to addictions, such as effective prevention programs (here is not the place, but DARE programs are neither efficient or effective) and accessible drug and alcohol treatment centers with enough room and enough funding to make an actual difference.
The corporate/political cabal who now rules (not runs, but rules) this country is certainly not representative, but they have done a terrific job of propaganda in creating “us and them” mentalities in many areas.
Working class white men have been whipped up into a frenzy of anger over presumed entitlements (such as wealth and power) not emerging, and have been successfully diverted to blaming their situations on working class people of color and women rather than realizing that the wealthy (mostly) white (mostly) men (mostly) running our country don’t have them in mind when talking about a new Golden Era.
The resurgence of magical thinking in the guise of religious fundamentalism, where millions of people throughout the country are encouraged to equate faith and reason as equal routes to knowledge further serves the interest of the rulers.
Add to this the blatant corporate pandering of the main stream media, devoid of real analysis, treating political discussions as horse races rather than as decisions which will seriously impact living conditions for all humans in America, and you have a mass of US citizens becoming an uninformed, sheep-like mob conditioned to accept gradual and even sudden erosion of their rights as “normal”.
And all this stems, in part, from the basic and false libertarian idea that there is no significant coercion in an employer-employee relation so long as the employer’s rights are protected. From this simple denigration of humans from beings of intrinsic worth to beings of value only in an economic or public-good sense follows the idea that humans “consent” to live as subjects rather than citizens in this so-called representative democracy of the United States.
The time is now to say that this has gone too far, to turn back the creeping claw of corporate-political power, and demand that the US government work for its people. All of its people— and not against them. A government that is an agent of its people is a public good. A government that is an agent of corporate interests is not. It is time to return our government to its purpose. You know what to do.
- A few things the filthy rich and the poorest, most destitute humans have in common. (ptsdawayout.com)
- You’ll never have to leave home again (connected-uk.com)
- Abraham Maslow would have been a horrible venture capitalist (venturebeat.com)
- A nursery for corruption? (thehindu.com)