Anyone who has had off-campus work is probably aware of a pretty widespread sentiment – college kids are annoying know-it-alls. Doe-eyed and idealistic, students get a taste of factual knowledge and think they have in their hands the prescription to all of society’s ills. At the very least, they know exactly what the problems are. From the perspective of a hardworking laborer or business owner with untold responsibilities and pressures, these solutions come fast and easy from a student with little to no responsibility. This person, embedded in the community, with privileges and responsibilities, knows all too well the tremendous challenges of the implementation of change where no easy route is obvious.
The reason that idealistic prescriptions can be annoying as ideas, and dangerous in practice, is that they assume a “view from above,” an overarching view of the scene that can take in every aspect, pinpointing and correcting problem areas while maintaining all of the good aspects at the same time. It is much more realistic to conceptualize a society as an ad-hoc network of sorts, whereby the needs, desires and outputs of each person is linked to those around them, radiating outwards with staggering complexity. There is no intelligence that can possibly take all of this information in. Even if there was, the very next instant the entire picture would change, as drives and relationships are continually in flux.
The great failure of communistic governments, both moral and economical, has been to presume just such a “view from above” that could understand and direct society. By attempting to direct the ends of individuals, governments take away the intelligence that each person, as an economic and moral actor, embodies in their daily lives. Rather than a formless chaos, society is a powerful processor of information; intelligence is distributed and mediated throughout the complex network of interpersonal connections. It takes the genius of classic liberalism to understand that the regulated and protected exchange between free actors possesses a computational complexity that a single intelligence can never possess.
It is for this very reason that vague rants against the current political system, or against the rich, are so singularly disturbing. There is a crucial but subtle distinction, often overlooked, that needs to be made between the Rule of Law and the Rule of Ideology. The Rule of Law, as Friedrich Hayek put it, is the idea that “the government in all its actions is bound by rules fixed and announced beforehand.” The Rule of Ideology, on the other hand, puts forth an ideological belief, for example, “the rich are leeches on society and should be punished.” The moral and legal are then defined, not by tradition, but by whatever can carry out the assertion. The key word in this statement is “beforehand.” Known by all and consistently enforced, laws become the syntax of the ad-hoc interactions. People can plan for the laws’ inconvenience and are free within the bounds of law; more importantly, the law ensures a fair and even playing field. Ideology declares whole classes of people corrupt by nature regardless of their individual actions, spawning a vague hatred without regard to specifics on the ground.
The ”Occupy Wall Street” protests make this distinction increasingly important in order to move forward constructively as a nation. I was initially skeptical about the protests, especially since they were sparked off by Adbusters, a magazine that specializes in anti-capitalist ambiguity. The articulation of growing numbers of protesters has completely changed my view. Instead of incendiary slogans like “Eat the Rich,” I hear pleas such as “Hold the rich accountable to the same laws as everyone else.” Not only is this sentiment constructive and politically sustainable, it is the exact opposite of that tortured term, “class warfare.”
It is one of the great and recurring tragedies of history that critics of societal ills in capitalist systems reject the mechanism wholesale, losing the greatest tool for implementing the changes that they seek in a lasting way. Just consider for a moment the lasting impact of labor laws in this country. The 40 hour work-week and workplace safety laws are still as strong as ever, protecting workers without removing competition. By using economic incentives, like the bottle deposit, environmentalists and global warming activists can make it in people’s financial interests to avert ecological disaster. The financial incentive harnesses the exponential intelligence of economic actors, spawning countless unforeseen efforts towards sustainability.
It’s not often thought of in this way, but one of the most wonderful aspects of our political order is its stationary inertia, its resistance to sudden and untested change imposed through the government. It is a hard-won truth that only changes through the Rule of Law, trusting intelligences instead of a single intelligence to make sustainable improvement, preserve economic and political liberty for everyone in the eternal search for a better society.
Gavin Beeker is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.