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Thursday, May 06, 2010

Pareto and the libertarian myth of the just Other

In his General Sociology – I’m using the French version – Pareto writes of two categories of “new” man in the ranks of the governors. The one consists of those who spend nearly as much as they gain, and the other is “constituted by those who take away from their gains not only the amount needed for supporting their great expenditures, but still more, what they have constituted for their patrimony.” And he observes how the modern economy works in Italy: “in Italy, one can observe that almost all the great, recently constituted patrimonies come from government concessions, the construction of railroads, enterprises subvented by the state, tariff protections, and that in this way a number of people have elevated themselves to the ranks of first honor in the state.” (1471)

Although Pareto is the idol of the classical liberal school a la Hayek, his observation rings much truer than Hayek’s fantasy that there existed a golden liberal period in which the great fortunes were constituted by some pure operation of grace in the private sphere, ‘without Government interference.”

Of course, Pareto believed these new men were violating his optimization principle – which is why he could call down upon them the wrath of the economist, rather than the moralist, scorned. But from the political point of view, Pareto starts a unique and little followed critique of democracy by pointing out that democracies don’t, in fact, interrupt the process by which the governing class operates to aggrandize its position. Here, I think, our experience makes us think that Pareto must be right. As – to use the terms of Donzelot – capital lost its place as the distributor of all the world’s evils in the 1970s, and was succeeded by the “state”, an international democratizing movement sprang up, flowered, and, in the 2000s, experienced its decadence: for it was in the 00s that we discovered that bringing democracy to others had to be done, regrettably, by strangling it at home. And thus was completed the second moment of a-politicization of state functions: first, in the 90s, the state suddenly had no business ‘interfering’ in business; and second, in the 2000s, the citizens had no business in ‘interfering’ with the executives right to make and continue war. The disempowerment of the people was accompanied by a politics of scandal that intensified the feeling around meaningless symbols and incidents, crimes with no real scope, the chance remark captured by the open mike, etc.

Pareto’s idea of what might be called the position creep of the governing class is expressed like this:

“We see that, in sum, whatever be the form of the regime, the men who govern have on average a certain tendency to use their power in order to maintain themselves in place, and to abuse it in order to obtain advantages and particular gains, that sometimes they do not distinguish from the gains and advantages of party, and that they almost always confond with the advantages and gains of the nation. It follows from this: 1, that, from this point of view, there will not be a great deal of difference between different forms of regime. The differences reside in the background, that is to say in the sentiments of the population: there where the latter are more or less honest; 2 that the uses and abuses will be all the more abundant as the intromission of the government in private affairs is the greater; in the degree to which the matter to be exploited is augmented, what one can take away is augmented too; in the U.S., where one wants to impose morality for the law, one sees enormous abuses, errors which emerge where this constraint does not exist, or exists in the lesser proportions; 3 that the governing class tries to appropriate the goods of others not only for his own usage, but also for sharing them with the governed class which the governing class defends, and which assures the power to do so, be it by arms or ruse, with the support that the client gives to the patron; 4 that most often, neither the patrons nor the clients are fully aware of their transgressions of the rules of morality existing in their society, and that, even if they perceive it, they easily excuse it, be it that in the end, others do the same, or under the commodious excuse that the ends justify the means.” (1474-1475)

Pareto’s mixture of logic and history here is surely peculiar, as – if we concede that he is correct – it would seem to put into question just what are the ‘goods” of “others”. They would seem, in the end, to result from previous generations of government in which the same logical force applied. And so they are sanctified as private goods after a decent interval has dulled our sense of them as public thefts.

Around this corner, of course, we come to the idea of how those private goods are earned synchronically – and to Marx, with the idea of surplus labor value.

Of course, once one concedes that these 4 moments occur under every regime, throughout the existence of human society, we are less inclined to find the moral argument for not appropriating the goods of ‘others’ to the governed class – that mass of clients. And given that the making of wealth so often is the result of government concession – Pareto’s examples can be multiplied a thousandfold in today’s world of inflated and bogus IP – the virtuous others become such a shrinking part of the total that they are like the legendary hidden dozen just men that keep God from punishing the world – an invisible mass in the world’s visible masses.

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