Tuesday, September 30, 2008

John Dewey: Liberty and Social Control

John Dewey is one of my favorite thinkers. I ever approached to his articles mostly about his philosophy and educational ideas. Today when I read his thoughts on liberty, it’s still as impressive as his other works. According to him, liberty is not that idealistic idea, but closely in related to actual social powers. No wonder he’s one of the founders of the school of pragmatism.

He discovered the relation between liberty and power because of the contrast, that “the demands for liberty and efforts to achieve it have come from those who wanted to alter the institutional set-up.” The best example must be the French Revolution, which the society ended up in huge terror in the name of pursuing liberty. However, in America, “every effort at planned control of economic forces is resisted and attacked, by a certain group, in the name of liberty.” I guess it also explains why government inaction here is conservative, as they hold the actual power.

Three ways to understand real conditions of liberty is very clear in Dewey’s article. At first, “liberty is not just an idea, an abstract principle. It is power, effective power to do specific things.” The real life has no space for liberty, which becomes an excuse for power, so “demand for liberty is a demand for power, either for possession of powers of action not already possessed or for retention and expansion of powers already possessed.” Both sides could claim for liberty for their own interests. Second, “the possession of effective power is always a matter of the distribution of power that exists at the time.” One’s power is interactive with others, so as liberty. It reminds me of Mill’s harm principle, which liberty is related to others as well. Dewey also said that “liberty is always a social question, not an individual one.” Third, “there is no such thing as absolute liberty … wherever there is liberty at one place there is restraint at some other place.” Liberty could only be a relevant idea, and its opposite has to exist at the same time, or they would disappear together.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

William Graham Sumner: That it is not Wicked to be Rich

Sumner’s view of government inaction in economics is acceptable for me only to certain extent. From the perspective of individual, “they are paid in proportion to the supply and demand of them.” In other words, everyone could become rich as long as they work hard, which is a typical American dream. From the side of government, Sumner argued that limiting one’s wealth is impractical, because “there is a wide margin between their ideas of how rich they would allow their fellow-citizens to become, and of the point at which they would step in to rob a man of his earnings.” But it’s an issue for government to balance between suitable intervention and over intervention, not completely inaction. Sumner’s main conclusion is “there is no reason to desire to limit the property which any man may acquire.” But the reality is, not any man may acquire property no matter how hard they work, which Sumner also agreed that “all aggregated capital will fall more and more under personal control.” That might be a reason why anti-monopoly law occurred later.

It’s interesting to see, both in history and today, Americans debate over whether government should intervene into economics, while Chinese government more and more tries to free its market from a highly controlled economics before. It seems these two opposite ideas need to find a compromise in between, just as what I was taught and still believe that economics works better when an invisible hand, the unconditional principle of free market itself, cooperates with a visible hand, namely, the government intervention. From my point, free market and government intervention should be interactive. Let the principle of economics alone, it naturally has ups and downs, so the government has responsibility to alleviate the unstable economical impact on society to minimum. On the other hand, the government shouldn’t control all aspects of economics or make plans for everything, which is against the nature of economics and proved problematic in a long term.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Adam Smith: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations

I never doubt the huge effects of division of labor. Smith claimed it as “the greatest improvement in the productive powers of labour.” Since Smith, modern economists tend to rank efficiency and quantity on top of everything, and division of labor successfully achieves that goal. Simultaneously, it changed the role of a modern person. Those encyclopedic kinds of people like Leonardo da Vinci become more and more impossible, because “each individual becomes more expert in his own peculiar branch, more work is done upon the whole, and the quantity of science is considerably increased by it.”

It seems perfect, but as Marx pointed out, division of labor is also the cause of human alienation. Everyone becomes a part of the process, no longer in charge of the whole thing. Such as in an assembly line, each worker is assigned to do a certain job without knowing what others do before and after him. It reminds me of Charlie Chaplin’s movie “Modern Times,” in which nonstop screwing nuts made him mental breakdown. Everyone seems to be more independent than ever before, as she just needs to care her own work, but at the same time, everyone is also forced to be more dependent on each other, because each part needs to cooperate together to make the machine work.

As for the reason why there occurred the division of labor, Smith provided some insights. “It is not from the benevolence… but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love.” Thus the relationship between each person looks mean and cold, but true in reality: “Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want.”

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Frederick Douglass "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July"

On National Day, it seems EVERYONE should share the happiness of the country, as a reconfirm of one’s national identity. However, it’s not always the case. Many people might be ignored, or unequally treated under the same sky. At the time of Douglass, he focused on American slavery in this speech. He was very sensitively aware of the difference, as he stressed, “It is the birthday of your National Independence, and of your political freedom,” and “this Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” He even questioned “what have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence?”

Along with the development of history, slavery was doomed as predicted. More and more attention and rights were given to Black and other minority groups, resulting in an American “melting pot.” However, after coming to America, I was kind of shocked by the fact that racism is still the most severe social problem within this society. When volunteering at the American’s biggest homeless shelter at Washington DC, which is just a couple of blocks away from those government buildings, and which dwells mostly by black people, I was deeply touched. The problem of racial inequality has never been really solved, and there’s still a long way to go.

But I believe hope is also on the way. Douglass truly expressed what I want to say, “Your nation is so young.” It’s a fortune or blessing for a young nation, as it has enough time to try though the human experiment. In comparison to America, China is too old to get out of its own historical cycle, which was already repeated for thousands of years. Just as what Douglass said, “Were the nation older, the patriot’s heart might be sadder, and the reformer’s brow heavier.”

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Thomas Hobbes "The Leviathan"

Hobbes’s theories are very dubious to me. His observation of human nature was mainly from the evil side, or he believed the mankind is inherently bad, such as “three principal causes of quarrel, competition, diffidence, glory.” He even imagined “the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war.” Therefore, his felt “dominion over men being necessary to a man’s conservation.” But is that really the case? First, I don’t agree that man is naturally evil. Second, both in history and in reality, it’s proved that a common power could not keep people away from war. As far as what I learned from my logic class, Hobbes’s logic may be valid, but his statement may not be true.

The Commonwealth Hobbes supposed to construct is also “dangerous” from my view. The idea of Commonwealth is not bad, but the question is how to construct such a Commonwealth. According to Hobbes, “the multitude so united in one person is called a Commonwealth.” It’s pretty authoritarian thought, no matter how great the person is. Hobbes should have known that Chinese dynasties exactly followed his so-called commonwealth, which resulted in the destiny of a dynasty totally depend on the personal capability of the emperor.

John Locke "Second Treatise"

Locke criticized Hobbes to a great deal, as he put “absolute monarchy, which by some men is counted the only government in the world, is indeed inconsistent with civil society,” and he’s asking “what fence against the violence and oppression of this absolute ruler?” As a saying goes, “to live by one man’s will, became the cause of all men’s misery.”

Locke’s political idea is to set up a civil society, in which people “are united into one body, and have a common established law and judicature to appeal to, with authority to decide controversies between them, and punish offenders.” It sounds like another commonwealth, but completely different from Hobbes, because “no man in civil society can be exempted from the laws of it.” I appreciate this idea very much, as it exemplified the ideal that all humans are born equal.

Locke was trying to drag everyone out of the state of nature, so as to get into the civil society. It’s like you want everyone to join you, and no exception. Using today’s term, everyone is forced to be modernized, to be involved in society. Maybe I read too much from Rousseau, who’s the very first to find modernization problematic, and to encourage people to get back to the state of nature, hence Locke’s ideas lost his attraction to me.

John Stuart Mill "On Liberty"

Mill’s idea of individual liberty was mostly based on the relationship between one another. As he said, “the only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.” His standard of freedom was not high above, but simply not to harm others. According to this logic, “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” In other words, the power should exist for and only for providing freedom to its member.

Through his article, I feel Mill put a heavy weight on individualism. Such as “among the works of man, the first in importance surely is man himself,” and “in things which do not primarily concern others, individuality should assert itself.” Though he never forgot “others,” the individual was always the first thing. I guess the American society is a great example of his belief. Sometimes it works very well, when everyone tries to achieve the best as she can, thus resulting in a better society. But many other times I doubt, when everyone just works for her own interests or for her own good, where the common good comes from? Don’t we need to care for others, or take more social responsibility? I haven’t figured out the answer yet.