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Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Location: Northwest Arkansas, United States

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The Security Society vs. the Skeptical Society

Adem Kupi has a great post up at A Pox on All Their Houses. There's a lot of stuff in here related to the increasing stabilization costs of centralism and large size, but it's difficult to summarize. Just read it.

The current growing ratio of noise to signal is putting pressure on the world to become more skeptical, which will put pressure on societies to shift away from guaranteeing security. They just won't be able to do it effectively. The idea of managing anything larger than a local area will become preposterous. Our current states will collapse, or kill us all in the process of trying to hold themselves together. When it becomes clear that the rulers will only be ruling a pile of rubble if they continue, they will be forced to retreat.

I was just reading Leopold Kohr's The Overdeveloped Nations, and he compared large organizations to large buildings. The larger the skyskraper, the more of its floor space is occupied by elevators, and the smaller the portion of the building's total area is left over for the functions for which it was designed. Eventually, if a building were made tall enough, the whole thing would be taken up by elevators and air conditioning.

He analyzed the growth of the American GNP over the previous few decades, and found that almost all of that new output was taken up by a geometrical increase in the amount of electrical power, etc., necessary to keep things running. And in the process, the threshold of subsistence was rising so that the average person had to work ever-longer hours just to maintain what was socially defined as a barely acceptable standard of living.

As Paul Goodman put it forty years ago, decent and comfortable poverty is being rendered impossible. The state's subsidies to centralized and "professionalized" ways of doing things crowd out decentralized alternatives, and render us less able to translate our own labor into use-value outside the corporate economy. Subsidies to suburban sprawl make feet and bicycles less usable, so that we have to own a car. And the cartelized auto industry, by incorporating more and more computer technology and other expensive bells and whistles into new cars, has made it impossible to rely on shade-tree mechanics. The drug patent system and the licensing cartels crowd out cheap forms of medicine with the most expensive new stuff, so the only way to get what society defines as adequate healthcare is to find a liege-lord (er, employer) who will pay for it. Building codes render almost impossible the kinds of self-built housing that were in common use as late as 1940.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Wild Pegasus said...

[Kohr] analyzed the growth of the American GNP over the previous few decades, and found that almost all of that new output was taken up by a geometrical increase in the amount of electrical power, etc., necessary to keep things running.

Which is only a problem if energy cannot be supplied. Since the Earth still has hundreds of years of oil reserves, as well as the still-untapped power of the sun, energy usage increases are little problem.

And in the process, the threshold of subsistence was rising so that the average person had to work ever-longer hours just to maintain what was socially defined as a barely acceptable standard of living.

Indeed, but this makes sense. The more that we have on average, the more that a normal standard of living includes. As I have said before, one could drop hundreds of dollars of spending every month if he were willing to cut his entertainment budget and eat less expensive, less processed food. But few people make that choice.

Subsidies to suburban sprawl make feet and bicycles less usable, so that we have to own a car.

Cars can be purchased cheaply if one doesn't care about style. Moreover, in cities and small towns, biking is still a reasonable means of transport. It's true that they're not much use in suburbs, but the suburbs aren't where people are eeking out a living.

And the cartelized auto industry, by incorporating more and more computer technology and other expensive bells and whistles into new cars, has made it impossible to rely on shade-tree mechanics.

By incorporating more and more computer technology into new cars, the auto industry has reduced the amount of work cars need. A new Honda can run 50,000 miles (about 4 years of average driving) with no more work than changing the oil and pumping gas. Nothing 25 years ago ran like that.

You seem to be against progress that is making the average person better because that improvement is happening in an economy you don't favour. That seems perverse.

- Josh

July 20, 2005 2:53 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

No, Pegasus, the point was that most of the increase in nominal GDP was eaten up by geometrically increasing input costs, so there was little net increase in the individual standard of living. Go back to the illustration of skyscrapers: what good are more floors if the increased number of elevator shafts results in less total usable floor space?

As for transportation, I think a majority of people live far enough away from work and shopping to make bicycling a realistic alternative. Much of the reason for that is subsidies to sprawl and transportation, which increase the distances between things.

And you're begging the question of how much "progress" actually results in a concrete increase in the standard of living. Subsidies to higher tech ways of doing things can often just make appliances a lot more expensive and complicated, and increase the number of bells and whistles to break down, without much improvement in the way they perform their central function. Ever see "Brazil"?

July 20, 2005 4:45 PM  
Anonymous P.M.Lawrence said...

The way cars keep getting more bells and whistles, instead of more functionality and/or lower prices, isn't simply from cartelisation. I've done some work that shows it probably mostly flows from the industry being vertically rather than horizontally integrated, and from a games theory effect called a "money auction". I hate the way your blog doesn't let me post enough to give full detail, so I'll just leave that hanging there.

July 20, 2005 10:10 PM  
Anonymous Wild Pegasus said...

No, Pegasus, the point was that most of the increase in nominal GDP was eaten up by geometrically increasing input costs, so there was little net increase in the individual standard of living.

...which is obviously untrue. It costs little to run a computer and little more to access the Internet. The Internet contains a serious portion of the entire sum of human knowledge for free at near instantaneous speed. Almost anything can be learned from the Internet.

Take food. The price of most food has been falling or holding steady for decades. Not only that, but the variety and choice of food has vastly increased. When I was a boy 20 years ago, you couldn't buy fresh herbs or exotic fruits in the supermarket. Now they are available all over the place. If the input costs are skyrocketing, why is the price of food remaining steady or falling even as variety increases?

Or take television. It takes little more electricity to run cable television than to run network television. For all the bagging that people do on television, there is enough on cable to suit every taste, including a wealth of cultural programmes. Cable access is pretty cheap.

In my first post, I mentioned cars, which are safer, more reliable, and more energy-efficient than ever before.

I simply don't buy the idea that the standard of living isn't improving. It's just not true.

As for transportation, I think a majority of people live far enough away from work and shopping to make bicycling a realistic alternative. Much of the reason for that is subsidies to sprawl and transportation, which increase the distances between things.

Yes and no. Subsidies make choices more attractive, but they don't force the choice. People who live in the 'burbs choose to live there and commute to work. In the majority of cases, though, they could choose to live much closer and bike if they so desired. In small towns and in cities, biking and walking is still an option. People could make the choice to bike if they wanted, but they simply don't want to.

- Josh

July 21, 2005 3:09 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Industry by industry cases are misleading, because so many input costs are shifted or concealed. I was talking about systemic effects--the percentage of an GDP increase that went to infrastructure and other non-consumption costs, rather than to directly increasing standard of living.

July 22, 2005 4:08 AM  

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