Theodore Dalrymple writes of Belgium, in a way that sounds very familiar:
As I write, Belgium has not had a central government for more than 500 days. While I must admit, as an occasional visitor to that country, that the difference between Belgium with and Belgium without a central government is not apparent on casual inspection, this interregnum may take the theory of limited government too far. 
The reason that Belgium has lacked a government for so long is that the country is divided into two populations (actually three, but the third is too small to count) with incompatible politics: French-speaking Wallonia and Dutch-speaking Flanders. Belgium is officially bilingual, yet you see not a word of Dutch in Wallonia and not a word of French in Flanders. The division could not be starker if barbed wire separated the two provinces. Only in the capital, Brussels, does one find any concession to bilingualism. 
Historical and economic factors deepen the division between the two regions. Wallonia, though it contained a minority of Belgium’s population, long dominated its culture and economy. Even the Flemish upper class spoke French at home, while Dutch was the language of the peasantry; until recently, Belgian schools forbade children from speaking Dutch in class. With the decline of Wallonia’s coal and steel industries and the economic rise of Flanders, however, the pattern of dominance changed. Flanders went from being the poor relation to being the rich one, albeit with something of an inferiority complex. In the process, it started to make large transfer payments to Wallonia, which suffered from comparatively high unemployment. Such payments rarely promote goodwill between groups. Resentment is common among both the donors, who harbor suspicions that the recipients are exploiting them, and the recipients, who indulge in mental contortions to explain their dependency away. 
It is no surprise, therefore, that the largest political parties in Flanders are either nationalist or free-market; both philosophies lead to reducing or stopping the transfer payments. It is equally unsurprising that the largest political party in Wallonia is socialist and wants the payments to continue or increase. The Wallonian socialist party’s patronage powers in its territory are almost feudal in nature and extent; the last thing that the party of social change wants is actual change. 
If not quite deterministic, Dalrymple's description is reductionist:  the difference between free-marketeers and socialists boils down mostly to which side of transfer payments they find themselves.  The principles follow the economics as nicely, on this example, as they ever did in Marx's theory.

I take us all to be a bunch of free-marketeers and nationalists; I assume that most of us are also not receiving any transfer payments from the government.  Are we in the same boat as the people of Flanders -- thinking ourselves principled, but really driven by rice-bowl issues?  Are our opponents in the same boat as the people of Wallonia, having concocted an idea of "fairness" and "justice" that is really limited to a desire to be paid out of someone else's wallet?

Both sides have elaborate arguments to the contrary.  Dalrymple's suggestion is that these arguments are not rational, but rationalizations.  What do you think?


E Hines said...

A nit:

I assume that most of us are also not receiving any transfer payments from the government.

While I agree with your characterization of us as fundamentally free-marketers and nationalists, I suggest you check your state and local tax forms. Every subsidy, deduction, and tax credit, is in some sense at least a partial transfer payment, to the extent that the things for which our base tax payments allegedly paid now have to be paid by someone else due to all those mechanisms for reducing our tax payments.

As to your question, it strikes me that, at bottom, the good folks on both sides of the question are behaving quite rationally, at least in an economic sense. One group says "this money is mine," and takes steps to attempt retain their property. The other group says "there's (relatively) free money here," and takes steps to try to get some of it.

Perhaps their justifications for their behaviors are rationalizations--which to me seems counterproductive. I don't need to "justify" my rational behavior; although it might help to explain it to others, rather than leave them misunderstanding, and so maybe a bit irritated with me.

It seems to me, then, that the actual behaviors are quite rational, at least in their goals, if not in their efficiency, while their arguments for engaging in those behaviors can seem like rationalization.

Eric Hines

Texan99 said...

Can't we be principled as well as driven by rice-bowl issues? If I'm a store owner defending my premises from looters, I'm acting on principle as well as self-interest.

It's not that I can't imagine myself needing charity. It's that I have no use for a system that confiscates other people's wealth in order for the looters to pretend they're engaged in charity. That system is as bad for the recipients as it is for the donors. I spit it out.

Grim said...

Well, that's really the question, T99. We have the experience of feeling that we're driven by principles. Marx's claim -- oddly echoed here -- is that this is not the case: that in fact, our principles will always line up with our economic interests.

Now, it seems to be true that at least for us, our principles do line up with our economic interests. That also seems to be true for our opponents, who either wish to receive transfer payments, or wish to be paid to manage/oversee/support such a system as its New Class overlords. They also, though, believe they have firm moral principles guiding them.

So -- how confident are we that our principles are our real reasons?

Texan99 said...

Why shouldn't my principles line up with my economic interests? It's no accident. I believe people's material transactions with each other should be voluntary. I'm not to steal, so what I own I believe I obtained fairly. Others are not to steal, so if I don't give it away, I'm to keep it. People in a wealthy nation like the U.S. who find themselves with insufficient material goods, if they're not dreadfully afflicted with illness or shocking bad luck on the tsunami scale, probably ought to be focusing more on what they can do to make themselves useful to others, rather than how to get more stuff by force. That's the free market, in contrast to socialism.

So my economic interests generally follow my principles, by design. It's not as though I thought it was some kind of wild coincidence that I support free-market capitalism, which happens to have permitted me to support my household all my life. I believe free-market capitalism works out best for everyone, on average, and that anyone who falls through the cracks is an appropriate subject for voluntary charity, not forced wealth redistribution.

I guess if I thought there were some kind of system available that would allocate wealth in a way that was better from a practical or moral point of view, I'd say "great." Who wants starving babies? But there is no such system that I'm aware of. The alternatives that are touted as more humane are anything but.

Grim said...

Good. Now turn it around, and give me the same case from the other side. 'Why shouldn't my principles line up with my economic interests? I've always believed that society should be structured to ensure fair treatment for everyone, and I'm proud to be part of it.'

I think you can run that all the way out in great detail. Of course interests and principles line up... but which has priority?

Texan99 said...

I guess it depends what I'm calling my "interests." For some people, it seems to mean "whatever puts money in my pocket," but that's not how I use the word. The principle that I must not steal, for me, comes first even though it conflicts with a wish to have more material goods or financial security. (In "steal" I include lie and cheat.)

If my "interest" means "my legitimate desire to engage only in voluntary financial transactions in which I have concluded that I'd rather have my end of the two-person bargain," then there's no room for a conflict between the principle and the interest. There's only room for idly wishing that the things I want or need were either in greater supply or less demand. I overlay my charitable obligations on this system when I decide what, out of the stuff I have, I should and will give to others.

All this describes only my interactions with non-intimates, of course. With intimates, it's more flexible; I look more to the need than to the trade price. Trust and generosity are such a natural part of the system that they may obscure or displace any accounting. But I decide who are my intimates.

I am proud to be part of the free market system. I believe it's a fine system for people who respect each other, as well as the hands-down proven winner when it comes to eliminating the most want for society in general. It frustrates the heck out of me that so many politicians apologize for what they mistakenly imagine to be its flaws, particularly when it comes to management/worker conflicts (as if capital's purpose were to preserve jobs in amber). My ideal candidate would think like Thomas Sowell but come with executive and leadership talent and experience.