Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Against Ha Joon Chang - Part 1

Prefacing Remarks

Nearly two weeks ago now (January 14th), in a letter to the Taipei Times criticizing the views of Bruno Walther (later published on the 17th) I mentioned Isaiah Berlin's famous distinction between "positive" and "negative" conceptions of liberty. I'd previously tried to bring this distinction to the attention of Ben Goren in a comments thread at his place (January 8th), and on Monday this week (January 24th) I criticized J.Michael Cole's use of the adjective "free" to modify the nouns "market" and "trade agreement" in his editorial piece. I want to make a further and clearer enunciation of Berlin's distinction between these two concepts of liberty and the import this distinction (or rather its elision) has to the use of language in common political and economic contexts and thereby to a naive reader's (in)ability to identify and differentiate those crucial ethical assumptions which go on to colour whichever analysis or opinion is offered to the reader.

I first came across Isaiah Berlin's articulation of the distinction between positive and negative liberty in one of his books in the City Library when I was a student in Edinburgh. Since I didn't buy my own copy at the time, and since I can't possibly be expected to quote Berlin from memory (this was 2002 or 2003), I refer now to the entry for "positive and negative liberty" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
"On the one hand, one can think of liberty as the absence of obstacles external to the agent. You are free if no one is stopping you from doing whatever you might want to do... On the other hand, one can think of liberty as the presence of control on the part of the agent. To be free, you must be self-determined..."
To explicate this for further clarity, negative liberty is not only the absence of "obstacles" but particularly, in a political context, the absence of coercion, i.e. of the State forcibly preventing you from acting in certain ways (1), for example, from criticizing a President of the State, or from criticizing his policies. By contrast, positive liberty not only refers to the presence of self control or of power over your situation, but, by direct implication, of the availability of those choices of action necessary to the exercise of such power. If you are too poor to buy bread, or if you are the victim of a famine for example, then the power you can exercise over your own life is severely curtailed. Similarly however, if no medium of communication is available by which you may voice your criticisms of certain policies of the State, then your power to ameliorate the particularly injurious conditions of your life resulting from precisely those State policies, may also be severely curtailed. These two contrasting conceptions of liberty - negative and positive - are often intimately connected, for in curtailing your negative liberty with legal restrictions on, for example, playing music in your own bar or restaurant after a certain time, then your positive liberty - your power to make the most of your bar or restaurant - is also further curtailed and restricted. A carefully observant reader will have taken note of my use of the term "power" as a partial synonym for positive liberty - this is no accident, as Berlin himself had written on the dangerous tendency among some earlier philosophers, such as Jean Jacques Rousseau, toward gradually coalescing an initially strict concept of positive liberty into the broader concept of power (and not merely the power an individual may exercise over himself, but that which he may exercise over others; ultimately, political power).

Earlier today I was sent a link in email from a student at Tainan's Cheng Kung University to a paper published back in 2001 by the United Nations' "Research Institute for Social Development" by Ha-Joon Chang entitled "Breaking the Mould: An Institutionalist Political Economy Alternative to the Neoliberal Theory of the Market and the State". I have read the paper; I believe Chang is wrong in both his analysis of what he (and the academics in general) calls "neoliberalism", and in his proposed prescriptions for thinking about problems of political economy. In attempting to show why Chang is wrong, I have another opportunity to demonstrate, among other things, the crucial import of this distinction between positive and negative liberty. Chang's paper also allows me an opportunity to demonstrate once again the insidious (or perhaps unconscious), rather than crystal clear, application of collectivist ethical premises to political economy. On this point interested readers may also find related arguments in my post on Martin Luther King's "Letter From Birmingham Jail".

Chang's paper has five sections, but it is his third and fourth sections of the paper (analysis and prescription respectively) to which I attend in this series of posts. However, there are many points with which I should like to deal at some length, and so I intend to make this post the first of a series of postings against Chang's paper. In this post, I shall respond to his remarks in section 3.1 of his paper. I affix section references and page numbers to my quotations from Chang for ease of reader reference.

Response To Chang's Analysis Of "Neo-Liberalism" (Section 3.1)

Chang begins the third section of his paper thus:
"The neoliberal discourse on the role of the state, and indeed the welfare economics discourse that it dethroned, is about whether state intervention can improve upon the workings of the free market... However, I argue that the mode of neoliberal discourse itself is problematic, as defining the free market, and therefore defining what counts as state intervention, is a highly complicated exercise. As it will become clearer below, the same state action can be, and has been, considered an intervention in one society but not in another (which could be the same society at different points of time)." (3.1 p4)
Not so, for defining what counts as a "free market" and what counts as "state intervention" is a function of the analytical application of ethical concepts and principles. The reason Chang states that this task of definition is "highly complicated" is because he does not apply the necessary conceptual referents and ethical principles to this task of definition. The use of the adjective "free" to modify the noun "market" presupposes a conceptual referent for "free" - either this referent is the negative conception of liberty, in which market actors (both sellers and buyers) are free from acts of coercion, or it is the positive conception of liberty, in which market actors are said to have greater or lesser "power" or "control" over their situation. The former referent, that of negative liberty, may be applied unambiguously in calling a spade a spade so to speak, i.e. that all State interventions are interventions since any action of the State presupposes, at some point in its genesis, coercion since coercion is integral to the identity of the State. The latter referent, that of positive liberty, cannot be used to clearly and unambiguously distinguish "free" market action from State intervention, since the intended purpose of State intervention is always to increase the degree of power some market actors have over their situation, whether it be the recipients of social welfare or the recipients of corporate welfare or some other group or individual (2). If the positive liberty of some market actors may be enhanced by State intervention, then clearly, the use of this positive conception of liberty to describe a market as "free" necessarily leads to a conceptual conflation of market and State. Chang's regard for this task of defining the free market in contradistinction to the interventions of the State as "highly complicated" springs directly from his unexamined dependence upon the positive conception of liberty.

Observe that, in his examples, Chang points to the necessity of categorizing particular actions of the State as "interventions", not as a logical consequence of applied principle, but merely on whether such actions are popularly regarded as "just" or "unjust", i.e. of whether or not there exists popular approval for the State to try to increase some people's power over their circumstances:
"First, let us take the case of child labour. Few people in the advanced countries at present would consider the ban on child labour as a state intervention artificially restricting entry into the labour market, whereas many Third World capitalists regard it as just that (and indeed the capitalists in the now-advanced countries did, too, up until the early twentieth century). This is because in the advanced countries, the right of children not to toil is more or less universally regarded as having precedence over the right of producers to employ whomever they find most profitable. As a result, in these countries, the ban on child labour is not even a legitimate subject of policy debate any more. In contrast, in the developing countries (of today and yesterday), this right of children is not so totally accepted, and therefore the state ban on child labour is considered an intervention, whose impact on economic efficiency is still a legitimate subject of policy debate." (3.1 p4)
Let me state clearly that I regard child labour laws as an intervention - to me this is a simple factual statement in which a conceptual category (infringements on negative liberty) is deductively applied to a particular instance of State action (legal prohibition on the employment of children below a certain age). Unlike Chang, I find no conceptual difficulty here whatsoever. However, that is not the same thing as saying that I approve of all instances of child labour, or of the harm done to children by their being employed for manual labour; I do not so approve. Yet nor is my ease of deduction here the same thing as admitting that I disapprove of child labour laws (although I do disapprove of them - see below) simply because they are interventions of the State. None of this prevents me in the slightest from solving the simple analytical task of calling a State intervention an intervention; reality is what it is, irrespective of whether I like it or not.

A carefully observant reader may also notice that, in the paragraph just cited, Chang seems to allude to another submerged and unexamined assumption of his thought: the premise of ethical collectivism (i.e. of the right of a majority to violate the rights of the smallest minority there can be - the individual - in the name of any particular social outcome), which I have discussed recently here and here. The apparent allusion to this premise occurs with these words:
"...the right of children not to toil is more or less universally regarded as having precedence over the right of producers to employ whomever they find most profitable. As a result, in these countries, the ban on child labour is not even a legitimate subject of policy debate any more."
What Chang crucially fails to consider in respect of either of these "rights" he mentions (3) is whether or not coercion is involved. For if a child is not coerced into labour by threats of violence, but voluntarily accepts such labour (think for example of a thirteen year old boy doing a paper round every morning), then there can be no question of him having had his freedom violated (although there is an important qualification to this - see below [4]). Chang's failure to consider this prior question of coercion is consequent to his unexamined assumption and application of the positive conception of liberty. On this assumption, it is obvious that children are "coerced" into labour by their economic circumstances, i.e. that the primary reason why children in developing countries are found doing labour is because they have few, if any, other opportunities for acting for their own survival and that this lack of opportunity is therefore an infringement of their "freedom". Presumably therefore, from Chang's point of view, the question of whether children are coerced by threats of violence or not is of secondary importance since the fact of their "coercion" by circumstance is already taken for granted. Thus the justice of the collective, acting through the State as their instrument, in choosing to infringe upon the negative liberty of potential employers by outlawing child labour is an ethical conclusion which seems to come naturally to Chang.

(How could any decent person oppose such a law? Wouldn't it effectively be the same as admitting that one is in favour of forced child labour? The answer to that question is, of course, no - certainly not. For one thing, acts of aggression by adults against children are not something to be taken lightly or dismissed on the grounds that such children are already being coerced by circumstances anyway. For another thing, the lack of opportunity available to such children, though this may not be a violation of their freedom per se, is nonetheless still a serious social problem of not inconsiderable consequence for other people in society. Moreover, the necessity for voluntary cooperation among adults to try to help improve the material conditions of such children's lives is not somehow magically removed by the mere passing of child labour laws - such infringements of potential employer's freedom to hire will do precisely nothing to solve the underlying problem of child poverty [they may in fact worsen the problem, by substituting a social-psychological dependency for labour]).

Chang goes on to cite a second example in the same paragraph:
"The same argument can be applied to the case of slavery. In societies where the right to self-ownership is not universally accepted (say, the nineteenth century United States), an attempt by the state to ban slavery can be disputed as an efficiency-reducing intervention, but once the right to self-ownership is accepted as a fundamental right of all members of society, the ban will no longer be considered an intervention." (3.1 p4)
Aside from the fact that Chang again finds himself in the position of arguing that an intervention is not an intervention because it is, he believes, an ethically justified intervention (see my criticism above that this contortion occurs because of his unexamined reliance on the positive conception of liberty), my chief objection to this passage is the hidden presumption that market relations are inherently predatory, and that therefore the State must safeguard the moral worth of all individuals against the amoral, or even immoral, vicissitudes of the market. My instantiation of this objection here is twofold. First, the very principle of private property on which any notion of profit and consequent economic "efficiency" depends is itself derived from the premise of self-ownership, proclaimed (hypocritically it must be admitted) as Universal in the Declaration of Independence, so although it is true that racists did object to the outlawing of slavery, they did so because they were racists - their objection was not, as Chang appears to insinuate, "purely economic", for any understanding of economics as divorced from ethical premises is conceptually incoherent. Second, it was not the State's "intervention" in merely outlawing slavery that led to the liberation of so many Americans, but the tireless efforts of men like Martin Luther King, his supporters in the civil rights movement and their predecessors to challenge the cultural and institutional instantiation of racism on explicitly ethical grounds. For Chang to elide over this point to allow the insinuation that it was the State who liberated so many Americans from slavery and exploitation is outrageous.

Chang's third example:
"Another example is provided by the many environmental regulations that were widely criticized as unwarranted intrusions on business and personal freedom (e.g., factory pollution standards, automobile emission standards) when they were first introduced in the advanced countries not so long ago. However, in these countries such regulations are these days rarely regarded as interventions, as their citizens now regard the right to clean environment as having priority over the right to choose (sometimes harmful) technologies of production and consumption (e.g., production technology, type of automobile). Therefore, there are few people in these countries who would say that their country's automobile market is not a free market simply because of these regulations. In contrast, some developing country exporters who do not accept the hierarchy of rights underlying such regulations as legitimate may consider them as ìinvisible trade barriers that distort the workings of the free market." (3.1 p4-5)
Again, Chang contorts himself into the Orwellian position of claiming that an intervention by the State is not actually an intervention if it is an intervention with which enough people agree, and again, this is due to his unexamined reliance on the positive conception of liberty; moreover, it is also symptomatic of the collectivist ethical premise which I have described and argued strongly against elsewhere. Environmental regulations are interventions by the State, regardless of public opinion, and this is so as an incontestably clear and simple matter of deductive reasoning. The "right" to a clean environment is an instance of positive liberty, of people being able to satisfy their need or demand for a "clean" environment at the expense of other people who have their negative liberties curtailed by State regulation. Yet that is not to say I am in favour of rampant pollution - of course not. I believe that pollution, like other externality issues, would be best dealt with, not through government regulation, but primarily by strengthening the integrity of the overall legal architecture to the principles of individualist ethics, such as private property; in particular such a reform program would most certainly require repeal of a substantial number of laws, regulations and abolishing of regulatory agencies.

Chang comes toward the end of section 3.1 thus:
"The examples can go on, but the point is that, depending on which rights and obligations are regarded as legitimate and what kind of hierarchy between these rights and obligations is (explicitly and implicitly) accepted by the members of the society, the same state action could be considered an intervention in one society and not in another. And once a state action stops being considered an intervention in a particular society at a given time (e.g., ban on child labour or on slavery in the advanced countries of today), debating their efficiency becomes politically unacceptable although there is no God-given reason why this should be the case." (3.1 p5)
So there are two general points to surmise here: First, the legitimacy of "rights" is according to Chang, to be decided only on the implicitly collectivist ethical premise in which morality is decided by a majority, the ethical is equated to the legal and right is equated with might. Second, the vicissitudes of such "legitimacy", the saliency of which is consequent to his unexamined reliance upon the positive conception of liberty, are the only basis upon which to decide questions of definition over what constitutes a "free" market and what constitutes "State intervention", and that therefore these concepts are effectively meaningless. In fact Chang himself confirms this latter point:
"I would even go as far as saying that defining a free market is at the deepest level a pointless exercise, because no market is in the end free, as all markets have some state regulations on who can participate in which markets and on what terms..." (3.1 p6)
Of course no market today is "free" - as I have made a habit of pointing out (for example in my criticism of J.Michael Cole's editorial on Monday) and like Chang, I too stipulate to the analytical premise that, in any particular market, we are dealing with a "mixed economy" rather than "capitalism" or "socialism" (in contradistinction to that clown Skidelsky). However, I differ significantly from Chang in that I reject the method of analysis by which he comes to the conclusion of a mixed economy. Conceptual clarity and principles matter - analysing market relations with fine resolution definition is not a "pointless exercise". My final quote from Chang for this post:
"Unless we recognize the ultimately political determination of the structure of rights and obligations that underlies market relationships, our discussion on the role of the state will be conducted with the pretence that our own opinions are based on objective analyses while those of our opponents are not, and are thus largely politically motivated." (3.1 p6)
My objection to Chang there is that he has substituted the adjective "political" to modify the noun "determination" when what would perhaps be a more accurate reflection of his position would be the term "arbitrary" in the sense of the absence of ethical principles.

To take seriously the question of who, if anyone at all, has the better method of analysing political economy, is not pretentious. On the contrary - it is pretentious for Chang to assert that a "politically motivated" opponent cannot aspire to objectivity just because Chang himself may find difficulty accommodating the largesse of his political values to the strict virtues of truthfulness.

(1) Of course the manifestation of this "force" is usually implicit in your awareness that the State can use such force against you should you disobey its edicts.
(2) I am of course aware of the dependency critiques of either form of welfare, which may be held against the claim that State interventions actually help improve the power of some groups and individuals, but my point here concerns the putative intentions behind such State interventions.
(3) Employers most certainly do not have the right to employ people against their will - no matter how profitable this may be.
(4) Instantiated legal inequalities in what sorts of contracts the courts will recognize along with legal interference with the composition of those contracts themselves (to benefit one group or individual at the expense of another) constitute a serious structural inequality and violation of the freedom of the individual.

1 comment:

  1. Adam Curtis, Berlin, Positive/Negative Liberty, effects.



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