Mises Daily Articles
Breaking Barriers or Dividing Society?
A McCain victory would have been perceived at home and abroad as a ratification of the past eight years, and it is hard to imagine a worse course of events than that. The Obama victory symbolizes a well-deserved repudiation of this ghastly experience.
Of course, the Obama victory elicits its own spin, which is also highly dangerous. The main message concerns race. All the headlines blared that a racial barrier had been broken. The subtext here is impossible to miss: heretofore America has been a hopelessly racist country that put up barriers to the advance of people of color.
But why should politics be the standard for what constitutes a barrier or a barrier broken? The ability of individuals in a group to navigate the murky and treacherous waters of electoral politics has no necessary connection to the status of the group as a whole.
A much better indicator concerning the status of any group – racial, religious, sexual, or otherwise – is commerce, which is the real engine that makes society work. And here we see that there are no such barriers in existence. We need only look at the status of black-owned businesses to see that there are more than one million in the United States, generating revenue of some $89 billion per year, which is more than the GDP of 140 countries around the world, and growing (according to most recent data) at a faster pace than all businesses.
Tragically, Obama does not seem to see that expanding this trend is a pathway forward. For him, the answer is the failed politics of redistribution, a pathway that can only exacerbate racial tension. Far from being a healing force in American life, his success at taking from one group to give to another will only increase conflict.
Conflict is the critical word here, for the conflict view of society is what is really behind the hysterical claims that Obama's real contribution is to have broken through barriers. To understand this view, we must examine the implicit social philosophy held by those who write the headlines and put the political spin on all important events.
Lacking any kind of serious training in economics or liberal political philosophy, these people assume a soft-Marxist approach to social observation, believing that all important steps forward grow out of great clashes between intrinsically antagonistic groups.
Step back in history and try to understand how the Marxists came to understand the Industrial Revolution and all subsequent steps forward in economic development. There were ever more people benefiting from economic exchange and investment, and the standards of living of the working class were rising year after year, while the population was living longer and better. But the Marxists refused to see this or understand its meaning. All they could see came from their fixed frame of mind that posited a conflict between capital and labor. All the gains of one came at the expense of the other. If there were rich capitalists living luxuriously it could only be due to their having robbed surplus value from labor. The only way forward was to turn the tables: to expropriate the expropriators.
Now, this old-fashioned mindset is not much on display today, but other versions of the conflict view of society are all around us. There is the view that the relationship between men and women is inherently antagonistic, and the only way to overturn this and push history forward is to unseat the economically dominant group and exalt via state intervention the economically weaker group. (In case you are wondering which is which, the convention asserts that women are the exploited group.)
So it is with religion. The conflict view asserts that only one strain of doctrine can assume the commanding heights, and so all the progress of groups lower on the faith chain depends on unseating others from power. Secular groups can hold this view, believing that religion must be vanquished from the earth, and so too with religious groups that believe secularism must be destroyed.
You can go through the list here: age, ability, education level, class, region – really there is an infinite number of directions you can take this conflict view of society. One of them is race, and this one has been around a very long time and has its roots in America in genuine exploitation as represented by actual physical slavery. And yet under the conflict view, a form of slavery persists in all relations between black and white. They see only exploitation and antagonism while ignoring all contrary evidence. The path to advancement for blacks, in this view, comes only through taking power and wealth from whites, and the surest way to do that is to empower the state.
These are the underlying assumptions behind much of the media celebration of the Obama victory. It stems from the belief that the "tables must turn" – the strong must be made weak and the weak made strong – in order for history to move forward on its path toward some imagined social ideal. Again, evidence of progress that conflicts with this agenda is routinely ignored, which is why you don't often hear about peaceful, productive, commercial associations among blacks and whites at all levels of society.
This is why we hear about "breaking barriers" rather than encouraging opportunity, about policies rather than freedom, about power rather than entrepreneurship. For the media writing about all this, it is the only intellectual model they have in mind. The conflict view of society was taught to them in college and is reinforced daily in the press. Also, unless you have some clear filter in mind, it seems like the conflict view is supported by plenty of evidence, given that the rise of the state has actually generated social antagonism where none should exist.
The workplace is a good example. The legal minefield that has replaced free contract has increased tension. So too with a discriminatory welfare state. It creates the impression that some people are looting others and benefiting from it.
What is the alternative to the conflict view? It is the old liberal view of how the social order works. There is a harmony of interests in society in which people cooperate and exchange without the aid of an outside, all-controlling, leviathan state. Society contains within itself the capacity for self-management. Another way to put this view is that the free society works. Sadly, this view is not held by either the right or the left in our political culture.
To the extent that there is truth in the conflict view of society, it concerns the real issue: that the state always and everywhere exists in an antagonistic relationship to the rest of society. For this reason, the true liberal could find himself loathing the Obama administration as much as he did the Bush administration. As I've said many times, the real problem is not the person; it is the institution.