Tuesday, March 29, 2011

To Deny the Rights of Man

Most of us are well aware of, if not accepting of the basic Marxist critique of capitalism: that an unequal distribution of economic capital results in an unequal distribution of social leverage, inevitably leading to exploitation as inequitable power structures become entrenched, and human rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are violated.  Yet a common rebuttal to this critique is that as long as the structural imbalances can be overcome, that there are systems in place to allow for those who desire to overcome them, then neither exploitation nor violation of rights is occurring.

This would be true, as far as it goes.  However, in reality, structural imbalances prove quite difficult to overcome.   The reason for this is goes to a fundamental error in understanding the extent to which structural imbalances exist.  In the classic economic model of structural inequality, a property owner is at an advantage over a renter because of his ability to leverage his relative wealth.  To overcome this inequality, the rebuttal goes, all the renter has to do is find some way of creating his own wealth, and leveraging it himself.  As long as there are no structural impediments to his doing so, such as discrimination or lack of opportunity, he cannot be said to be exploited or denied his rights.

Yet this naively assumes a simplicity to structural imbalance, viewing it only in institutional or economic terms.  What is left out are the other, more powerful forms of capital.  Capital, it ought to be said, is anything that contributes to an individual's agency.  Economic capital (EC) is the financial wealth one owns and is able to do things like invest, trade, or purchase; it is his financial freedom.  Social capital (SC) is the environmental resources available to one, beginning literally at birth, that help him and support his growth and development in life.  It is anything from the type of parents or neighbors he has, to the proximity of  local businesses, to the structure of government under which he lives.  Human capital (HC) refers to the resources within himself that allow him to process external stimuli in the environment and make relevant choices.  This would be everything from the genes he was born with, to the amount of vocabulary he learned before beginning school, to his ability to socialize with others, to his ability to form thoughts and critically analyze information, to his knowledge of computer software or simply control his anger.

Each of these forms of capital are dynamic.  The degree to which they exist at any given time determines the amount of leverage, or agency,  at one's disposal.  So, for instance, an individual poor in EC and SC, yet rich in HC, has a much higher chance of leveraging his HC to establish more SC, and ultimately more EC.  He might be an excellent communicator - a "people person" - which allows him to foster relationships and network, in turn leading to better paying jobs and social support.  Like wise, an individual rich in EC, yet poor in SC or HC, has a higher chance of losing his EC because of poor decisions.  He may make rash business decisions, and without an ability to relate well to others, find himself without support in difficult times.  At root, these forms of capital  make us who we are and allow us the freedom to be successful citizens.

In general, Marxist critique claims that relative inequality in EC is what drives the larger social systems, culture and institutions of man.  He writes:
My inquiry led me to the conclusion that neither legal relations nor political forms could be comprehended whether by themselves or on the basis of a so-called general development of the human mind....
In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure, and to which correspond definite forms of consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political, and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.
I have chosen to emphasize this last line because it makes a fascinating statement about cause and effect.  Marx is here claiming that the individual's EC and SC determines their HC, not the other way around.  Yet to the modern mind, this seems false.  Could not an individual, rich in human capital, thus be in a position to alter their lack of economic and social capital?

Marx wrote those words in 1859, a very different time.  He likely could not have conceived of the modern mixed-economy state, with its social safety nets, public schooling for all, libraries, mass transit, workers' rights, middle classes, public universities, and the like.  It seems that to the degree that we have these things - all of which were fought for almost precisely because of the critiques he outlined in his work - his argument diminishes.  Likewise, to the degree to which we do not have these things, his argument gains strength.  What we have essentially done with the modern state is a soft version of what he would have had us do with communism, that is to drive up HC by providing a baseline FC and SC to all.

Yet, assuming now that some degree of opportunity exists for those with a high enough level of HC, what to do about those who would have that same access yet lack sufficient HC to take advantage of it?  When I work with young (largely delinquent) low-HC teenagers, I face this exact dilemma.  My task is to increase their HC as much as possible, in the hope that this will allow them more leverage to attain EC and SC in later life.  As an employee of the state, offering public education services, I represent a level of SC they would otherwise not have, and thus am in a position to raise their HC.
Student Success, c. Flippen group

Study after study has shown that individuals in poor communities - by definition with less EC and SC - have less HC.  Not only do are those with less HC more prone to lose what EC and SC they do have, but they have likely been born into a world in which those responsible for their development have lower levels of such capital as well, resulting in their.  Because of the realities of real estate property values, individuals with low EC and SC are in effect shunted into geographic locations in which they are surrounded with peers who are similarly disadvantaged, which has the effect of lowering an already diminished level of SC even further.  This means that in the schools, jobs and peer groups of these neighborhoods,are of substantially diminished value.  This is, of course, reflected in the property values to begin with.  It is a self-reinforcing process.

To ignore or to discount the fundamental role of human and social capital in social justice and liberty is to deny nothing less than the rights of man.  To the extent that one benefits from his higher level of HC and SC relative to another, the relationship is exploitative.  We perceive this on a gut level when we purchase the services of someone from a lower class than ourselves.  We know instinctively that a maid, busboy, gardener, or convenience store clerk is fulfilling a role that has been determined by their relative lack of HC and SC.  For were they to have higher levels of either, they would no doubt not have to suffer menial labor.  To the degree that we find ourselves in a higher class position, it is no doubt due to higher levels of HC and SC.  Our relative incomes, or FC, traditionally used as a shorthand for class, are actually quite secondary to the leverage that HC and SC afford an individual.

The area where this chasm between capital classes is most striking, is between the criminal and the conformist classes.  Our deepest systems of morality and justice are written around - or in spite of - the disparities between capital classes.  When a man steals a car, abuses drugs, or beats his wife, we perform what amounts to philosophical hand-waving, as we assume that he has performed an act that we would not have, were we in his position.  Yet his "position" is assumed to merely a place in space and time, and not the psyche of an actual human being with a lifetime of experiences that has lead him to that exact instance in which he took the action he did.  For if we were indeed in his "position", we would have to accept his relative level of human capital - his knowledge, his critical thinking ability, his ability to understand and control his emotions, etc.  If we were indeed in his position, there is little doubt we would have chose differently at all.

So when the criminal stands accused before the court, his deeds those we have decided as a society to label as crimes, we are leveraging our relative richness in HC against his relative lack.  To the degree that our conviction is retributive, and not for utilitarian purposes, we are purposefully ignoring his diminished HC so as to absolve ourselves of any part in the crime.  For if we were to include the role his HC played in his crime - admittedly, an almost impossible task - we would be forced to consider the inequity in distribution of HC in our (society's) relationship with him that allowed him to commit the original offense.  Our damnation of him would in turn need to be directed back at ourselves.  This would be like taking a failing bridge to court for crumbling into the river below.  To the extent that we acknowledge the bridge's disrepair as relative to our own structural integrity, it would be illogical for us to hold the bridge accountable for failings attributable to integrity that we take for granted in ourselves.

In our desire for a veneer of social harmony, we ignore the complex relationship between human development and human action.  Those with lower levels of HC and SC are functionally incapacitated, and therefore easily exploited and victimized by those with higher levels of capital who wish for cheaper services or the satisfaction of retributive justice.  By denying that these forms of capital are intrinsic to human liberty, we deny not only our responsibility to create a just society, but ultimately the very rights of man.

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