August 07, 2008

Although this all too brief commentary cannot do full justice to the three works that recently arrived in my mail, it should provide useful information about each of them. The first that came to my hand Wandlungen des Neoliberalismus (Stuttgart: Lucius, 2008), by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung-economic editor, Philip Plickert, was submitted in an earlier form as a doctoral study at the University of Tübingen. It is a spacious, elegantly framed study of the Mont Pelerin Society, a group of free-market professors, journalists, and political officials who came together on a Swiss mountain in 1947, to found an international organization that would combat socialism and fight for deregulated economies and international free trade. Plickert offers detailed accounts of the comings and goings of its members and of the interest in this star-studded organization shown by Ludwig Erhard, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and some of the chief economic advisors to the Thatcher-administration. Plickert’s intensive research can be seen in the detail offered about the disputes and addresses that went on at yearly meetings in different locations across the world. He even cites an address I myself delivered at a Mont Pelerin meeting in St. Andrews, Scotland in 1976, a speech that I subsequently forgot that I had given.

What Plickert demonstrates, much to his own regret, is that the ideals that the Society intended to promote are even less implemented today than they were in the post-World War Two-era. Bureaucratic centralization, government involvement in the market and in the workplace and in Europe, the construction of a massive public sector have all come to shape the “€œdemocratic”€ political landscape. Plickert views the 1980s as a point in recent history, one in which the Thatcher administration was around in England,  German chancellor Helmut Kohl was talking about a market economy, and Reagan was praising free enterprise, when something might have been done “€œto change the signals (die Weichen zu stellen).”€ Unfortunately no significant structural reduction of the welfare state took place in that decade, even if Thatcher stood up to Communist-infiltrated trade unions, institutions that would soon become dinosaurs on the way to extinction in a postindustrial economy.

An ideal Plickert holds up, “€œneoliberalism,”€ might not have the same connotation to Americans as it does to Europeans. It is like the term “€œneoconservative,”€ which Jürgen Habermas ascribes disparagingly to the German nationalist Right, but which signifies a different, more leftist movement in our country. “€œNeoliberal”€ refers in the European context to those who favor reducing the modern welfare state and the present popular dependence on that drug. The term would also embrace those monetarists who, like the late Milton Friedman, called for a strictly controlled monetary supply in order to allow capitalism to function with a sound currency. Finally, “€œneoliberal”€ in the German context almost always refers to dedicated Atlanticists, who fatefully look to the U.S. for political and moral leadership.

This “€œAmerica-centeredness may be an endemic weakness of German neoliberalism. Its already dated ideology hearkens back to the era and sensibility of the Cold War, while pointedly ignoring the force of German nationalist feeling. It is also a hard doctrine to sustain, when those who have advocated (or at least seem to) a free-market economy in the Anglosphere, like Thatcher and the American neoconservatives, detest the Germans, whom they are still dumping on for the First World War and even for Bismarck’s unification of the Second Empire. Moreover, if the US moves toward a European socialist economy and more extensive welfare state, which seems likely to happen after the next presidential election, continental European neoliberals will have less and less of an American capitalist example to celebrate. Unless it can be given a more specifically German identity, neoliberalism in Plickert’s homeland will likely continue to be the value-preference of Atlanticist elites.

The Old Life is Dead: L”€™ancienne vie est morte is a bilingual work of poetry by Xenia Bakran Sunic, a multilingual Croatian poetess who holds a degree in English from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Since the English and French poems are both decorated with long blurbs of mine and since I have know Xenia and her husband Tomislav for more than twenty years, I cannot claim to have received this slim volume entirely by surprise. Almost all of the poetry reminds me of the French symbolists in its building of intertwined associations. It is also marked by a pervasive melancholy that is skillfully rendered in verse but is never entirely escaped. The poetess lost a daughter in a set of circumstances that I find it too painful to go into. From the first poem “€œTo Livia”€ through some of the later verse like “€œYou and I”€ (the entire work seems to have been completed in about a year), the shadow of a maternal tragedy seems to be spread heavily over some of the poetry. Nonetheless, Xenia also offers exultant poems, about falling in love, the Greek demigod Pan, and the pleasure of reading English poetry. Her book abounds in a rich variety of nature scenes, which vary according to season and place. It also includes the translations of an obviously gifted French stylist of Croatian descent, Antoine Pinterovic, who resides in Brussels and became a close friend of the Sunics, when Tom was working for the Croatian embassy in the Belgian capital in the 1990s. An undoubted advantage of these bilingual poems is that one can read here two different poets, both of whom are gifted but writing in different languages.

The final work I should mention is the biography of the nineteenth-century economist Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850) Lire Bastiat (Paris, 2008) by the University of Ottawa sociologist Robert Leroux. A concisely constructed work, this study is the first Bastiat-biography that I have encountered. In view of his influence on such post-World War Two American advocates of free enterprise as Murray Rothbard, Ralph Raico, and Leonard Liggio, and in view of the frequent complimentary references to Bastiat in the Journal of Libertarian Studies, I thought I should learn more about this maître à penser for post-War libertarians. LeRoux’s biography has amply filled my educational gap but failed to attract me to his subject. But let me clarify this judgment. I can certainly understand the merits of Bastiat’s polemics against the socialists on his left. He also performed a useful pedagogic function by emphasizing the possibility of a harmoniously operating free enterprise system, a point that Adam Smith had already developed to some degree in his observations about social economy.

Moreover, Bastiat went beyond English free market economists like Malthus and Ricardo, by moving away from the questions of excess population or scarce natural resources to focus on the exchange of services. He attached value not to products and the cost of manufacturing but to what individuals could provide each other in an economy based on the division of labor. Therefore he could imagine the expanding economy that was then developing rather than assume the unchanging nature of particular conflicts of interest that English economists and later Marx were then highlighting, e.g. between producers and resource-holders or among suppliers of labor with a fixed number of jobs.

Alas, however, Bastiat also suffered from the defects of other nineteenth-century left-liberals. Like his contemporaries John Bright and Richard Cobban, he believed almost superstitiously in inevitable human Progress, a process that would supposedly lead to individualism, world republicanism, and the reign of Science. Like other left liberals of the period, Bastiat seemed to think that universal suffrage and the abolition of monarchy would bring free enterprise and enshrine private property. Although socialism was certainly a well-established idea in France by 1848, Bastiat could not bring himself to believe that the masses would be swayed by anything so meretricious, given the appeal of a market economy and the possibility of a night-watchman government.

One of his most frequent polemical targets was classical education, a subject that Bastiat explored in one of his last articles “€œBaccalauréat et socialisme.”€ By studying too closely the Greeks and Romans, Bastiat argued, young Frenchman would be blinded to the needs of the present hour, and particularly to science, individualism, and democratic values. They might even come to believe that servile labor was acceptable, because the Greek and Roman leisure classes depended heavily on this reactionary institution. 

Karl Marx hit the ceiling when he encountered Bastiat’s temper tantrum against classical learning. Marx, who each year would recite with his daughters in Greek scenes from Aeschylus’s Eumenides, was properly appalled by Bastiat’s philistine attack on humanistic education, a practice that I still regularly hear at my “€œhands-on learning”€ college. But Marx’s anger was directed not only against Bastiat’s limited notion of value-education. In Capital he also vents his spleen on the “€œdwarf Bastiat”€ who while celebrating “€œsalaried labor”€ in the modern period “€œcould not imagine why the philosopher Aristotle would have been so mistaken in his evaluation of slave labor.”€

Marx points out perceptively that servile labor was not, contrary to Bastiat’s words, merely the “€œresult of rapine”€ and upper-class Greco-Roman idleness. It was the only possible productive form in the materially primitive conditions that gave rise to slave labor. But Marx also noticed, beside the prevalence of opus servile in the ancient world, the radiant splendor of classical civilization, a development he himself could not adequately explain by applying his historical materialism. While Marx operated with at least some of the same blind spots as the French economist, and particularly in his materialist interpretation of history, his redeeming side was his excellent humanistic education. Unlike Bastiat, Marx would not have welcomed a world in which college studies were cleansed of their classical taint and reduced to voctech.              


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