Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Purpose of Government--2

In the post of March 5, 2008, I took a look at a definition of the purpose of government attributed to the economist John Maynard Keynes. I focused on this definition because the work of Keynes has been the backbone and rationale for many of the programs and policies of the ‘Liberal’ intellectual in the latter half of the twentieth century, spilling over into the twenty-first century. His biographer, Robert Skidelsky presented the definition in this way: “The purpose of government is to secure the contentment of the people as constrained by the principle of equity.” (John Maynard Keynes, Volume 2, The Economist as Savior, 1920-1837 published by Viking Adult in 1994, page 62.) Skidelsky goes on to explain that by ‘contentment’ Keynes meant ‘physical calm’ and ‘material comfort.’ He also states that ‘equity’ can be defined as “the absence in law or policy of ‘artificial’ discrimination in regards to individuals or to classes.”

Last week I wrote about the first part of this statement of purpose, the securing of “the contentment of the people” as an objective of government. I argued that this concerned itself with outcomes and not processes. I further stated that the Hamiltonian approach to government focuses more on processes rather than outcomes because in a world of incomplete information one does not always succeed in obtaining the outcomes one wants. By focusing upon processes, the government helps to create the systems of a society (the rules and regulations of the society) and also helps the members of the society to obtain the skills and knowledge necessary to operate successfully within such these systems.

This week, I would like to discuss the second part of the definition, the part that deals with “the principle of equity.” Keynes was particularly concerned with this element because of his connection with the Bloomsbury group of artists and intellectuals who were, socially and culturally, on the fringe of English society at the beginning of the twentieth century. This group included individuals like Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, E. M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, as well as Keynes, himself. It is apparent in Skidelsky’s biography of Keynes that Keynes was very concerned with protecting this group because of their ‘advanced’ ideas on such things as feminism, pacifism, and sexuality.

Historically, in the nineteenth century, as well as in the twentieth century, Europe and Great Britain were experiencing movements in society that resulted in the formation of more and more ‘little societies’ like the Bloomsbury group. Historians have linked these individuals and groups together within the framework of what is called “Modernism”, a movement they contend succeeded the Enlightenment and which served as the forerunner of “Post-Modernism.” To me, the Enlightenment and Modernism were a part of one whole and just represented an extension of how human beings, once they took on an attitude of skepticism towards authority and once they started exploring things inductively, began to extend knowledge and behavior in many different directions.

This development, I believe, can be related to the spread of information which really began in earnest following the evolution of printing that occurred in the fifteenth century. And, this spread of information continues today at an ever accelerating pace, leading to almost continuous change within the world as well as almost continuous resistance in some areas, the middle east for example. New information is threatening and causes change. Some individuals that receive new information, in whatever form, end up, sooner or later, comparing this new information with the old information generated by the models and schema currently used to solve problems and make decisions. If the new information conflicts with the old information, the seemingly natural thing for a person to do is to try and find out why the difference exists and then modify their models or schema so as to be able to make better predictions in order to solve more difficult problems or make better decisions.

New information is threatening in the sense that the modified models and schema may not be consistent with the assumptions behind the existing models and schema. These conflicts can be observed in religion, politics, culture, and other areas of society that have established belief systems. These existing systems maintain themselves through indoctrination, training, repression, power, and other forms of control and reductionism. Every society, organization, or group exerts such efforts in order to maintain the coherence and stability of their society, organization, or group. Some, however, have processes by which change can be accommodated from within, such as by means of a democratic process. Others require revolution to achieve change, but there are all grades of means between these two extremes.

Earlier in history, societies tended to be more homogeneous in their makeup. Thus, they did not face the threat of alternative world views as much as we do in the modern world. If alternative world views did arise, the individuals involved were either disposed of or, if innocuous, were ignored. However, as information began to spread more rapidly and the number of alternative world views grew, societies began to experience the presence of a real threat. This movement really accelerated during the period referred to as the Reformation and became even more prevalent during the Enlightenment. In the Reformation we saw many religious sects develop and this resulted in a massive, violent at times, change in society. In the Enlightenment, more and more was challenged and, of especial importance, Copernicus, Galileo, Francis Bacon and others developed the methodology and process of science.

Modernism, it seems to me, is just an extension of the inductive method applied to other areas of human interest, like those we would call the humanities, areas like art, literature, music, and architecture. What differentiates these areas from the areas discussed earlier? It is not the methodology of approach or the process of investigation. To me it is that the subject matter under review is much more complex and is much less capable of being isolated through experiment or reductive study. Whereas in science, the models or schema used can be the result of a reductive exercise that isolates the process being studied, allows it to be studied through tightly controlled experiment, and then presented in a formal, many times a mathematical, way. The models and schema used in art, literature, and so forth, often come in the form of stories and narratives, fables, proverbs, folk lore, and so forth. This is because of the complexity of the situations being studied, that is the process being studied cannot be reduced to just a few important variables, and because the models and schema cannot be tested by means of tightly controlled experiments which result in a rejection or confirmation of the proposition being examined. Dealing with human issues is a more difficult thing to do and is subject to much more questioning and debate.

Peter Gay, in his most recent work “Modernism: The Lure of Heresy” writes that “The creative individual was little regarded until the age of the Enlightenment.” But, the emphasis on the work of the individual grew and “The claim of being first and alone in the field became a central feature in the competitive modernist enterprise, which conjured up the figure of the inventive spirit who neither wants nor needs ancestors or company…” (pages 42-43) The Bloomsbury group evolved out of this new, modern attitude.

But, Keynes feared for his friends. Bloomsbury was different and it was not only threatening to the existing social structure, it directly challenged it. Keynes was concerned that Bloomsbury, and other similar movements, would be subject to ‘artificial discrimination’ because of their beliefs and living arrangements. Thus, he argued that a government should not create laws or policies that would be harmful to such groups. Of course, these groups should not harm the ‘physical calm’ or ‘material comfort’ of others, but he would argue strenuously that those, like the Bloomsbury group, would do no such thing.

The Hamiltonian approach to government, I believe, should be a strong advocate of this constraint on government. The spread of information is going to take place on an even larger scale in the future. Likewise, new groups and sects are going to evolve out of this spread in a similar way. A society that places a high premium on innovation and change in science and technology is going to have to accept the pressure for innovation and change in other areas of the society. These other individuals and groups should not be subject to ‘artificial discrimination.’ They are all responding to the same incentives.

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