Before We Spout
I just presented an introduction to a course on human rights that the governor and mayor of the region in which I teach (Caldas, Colombia) requested for people involved in community peaceful-dispute-resolution positions. During that presentation I provided a highly summarized contextualization of the nature of human rights, historically and philosophically, and it came to me that most United States citizens don’t realize that the post-World War II human rights treaties the US itself imposed on the world (with backing from other countries, it’s true, but with huge impetus from the US) unequivocally delineate state guaranteed economic, social and cultural rights (see, e.g., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economic,_social_and_cultural_rights) that include the rights to health care, education, adequate housing, etc.
During that presentation my mind wandered for an instant and focused on the fact that so called “Obamacare” is but an initial response to what has been a US treaty obligation for many, many decades. But that as in so much that has to do with the rule of law we in the US have just ignored it while breezing along believing that we live in the best of all economic, political and legal systems (it is almost treasonous to say or even think otherwise).
In Colombia where I have taught since the fall of 2007, a country until recently considered an almost failed state, these obligations are both recognized and taken seriously; not that they’re complied with to the extent legally called for, but they are not ignored or treated as illegitimate. And in this, Colombia is not unique. It’s the US position that has become unique in a world that may be starting to leave us behind, not because we lack wealth or talent or morals, but because we have permitted ourselves to be manipulated by those who are fleecing us in the name of a fictitious definition of a capitalism that doesn’t exist; because we have been fooled as to what capitalism is.
The honest elements in the Tea Party and in the Libertarian Party and in most other political parties have been tricked into equating the French Physiocratic doctrine of Laissez Faire (keep government out of the economy) with capitalism (government support of financiers), two doctrines as diametrically opposed as liberty (the rights of the individual) and democracy (the rights of the majority). Consequently, many of us feel that in supporting “capitalism” we are supporting small government. The facts bear out that nothing could be further from the truth. Laissez Faire, as far as we know, has never existed, so we don’t know empirically whether or not it would work. The same is true for communism and numerous other theories too many of us know nothing about except the distortions and lies that opponents and supporters alike use to manipulate us.
What we ought to know is that whatever the operative system is, it is not working. The unrestricted economic forces cited by Adam Smith and David Ricardo have not produced the equitably functioning and efficient economic model they predicted because capitalism is not about their theories, it is about protecting the ability of those who control capital to maximize returns despite the exigencies of the supply – demand equations (which apply to pricing but not to how profits are allocated among suppliers of raw materials and facilities, labor and capital). And in that latter case, the monopolistic power of government in licensing opportunity (e.g., the right to participate as a professional in finance, banking, law, medicine, etc.) and enforcing draconian intellectual property rights used to ensure maximization of capitalist profits is the obverse of Laissez Faire theory. Is it any wonder then that the Marxian criticisms of capitalism are proving true (Marx was an outstanding critique but not a great designer of alternative social and economic models)?
I recall, as a young man teaching history, responding to frustrated students who couldn’t understand why they needed the course if they had no intention of becoming historians or social scientists. My answer did not have to do with the dangers of repeating the history we did not learn; it was more pragmatic and personal. I recall answering that, because their votes were worth as much as mine, I’d be forced to live with their decisions, and I didn’t want to live in a world where the majority did not understand the issues they voted on. I obviously did not succeed.
Perhaps it’s time we took learning our facts a bit more seriously, both before we spout and before we vote!
 © Guillermo Calvo Mahé; Manizales, 2011; all rights reserved