Amidst the many troubles in America today, the beginning of the year is a perfect time to remember that there is much to be grateful for even in such politically and economically troubled times as these. Americans still enjoy, on average, a higher quality of life than nearly any other nation in the world. We enjoy products and services that, even ten years ago, sounded more like science fiction– perhaps a generation away from realization. The first time I heard mention of tablet computing, it was presented as a distant hypothetical, a “someday”, a “wouldn’t it be amazing…” That was seven years ago, and today much of the business of this publication is conducted on just such a device. The technological and industrial advances that improve our lives daily are made possible by a certain type of individual, unique to the modern era and unique to the free world: the businessman. In capitalism, the businessman provides a unique conduit, a link between the theories and designs of innovators in the special sciences and the pleasures of our daily lives—between Edison’s laboratory and the light suspended above you, between black muck once deemed a nuisance by settlers of the American West and the Arabian Peninsula and the fuel that makes possible our daily commutes, between raw materials and finished goods, between vision and reality.
In a sad twist of irony, the men who perform this incomparable task in modern society are under moral, intellectual, and political assault in the United States and have been for almost one hundred and thirty years (I am referring, by that date, to the rise of punitive policies against businessmen in the US, though the trend in western civilization is impossible to trace, going back to the vilification of moneylenders in ancient times). Between the boisterous (and illogical) characterizations of the last recession as having resulted from the workings of an “unregulated free market” to the current class-warfare tax policies which President Obama has tried desperately to put over on the American people, to the antitrust case against Apple by Obama’s Justice Department that emerged last spring, animosity toward businessmen is alive and well in America and shows no signs of slowing down. From desperate statist and morally inconsistent politicians eager to mask their own culpability in our country’s ailments, one could expect no less.
There is another class of professional, however, from whom Americans have been cultured to expect more, the purported guardian of freedom in permanent vigil against political injustice: the American journalist. Sadly, the American news media has, in general, never been a friend to business and it has consistently failed in presenting anything resembling an objective analysis of the struggles between government and private industry in recent years, allowing political allegiances and preferences to affect both its choice of what stories to cover and the rhetoric that it uses to report them. The (rightful) repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, the increasing miscegenation of the journalistic and political professional realms, and the highly polarized political climate of modern America have produced a highly competitive environment in the news industry. Sadly, many journalists have responded to the increased competition with a dereliction of journalistic integrity and a resultant loss of admiration in the eyes of the American people. Though exceptions do exist—often immaculate ones—the negative characterization is sometimes difficult to refute, as is the added disdain attached to it by many Americans who take failures and distortions in journalism more seriously and more personally than they would those in other professions. America is not a culture of people who like to think that they toil daily, morning until night, in an uphill economy only to wake and find their rights challenged in the morning newspaper. Sadly, the majority of Americans reserve this intolerance and resentment for attacks on their right to their personal property and incomes or, in some cases, what they perceive as affronts to small businesses. When the ire of politicians and their supporters in the press turns toward the fatted calf of America’s major enterprises, however, some—mainly liberals—redirect their indignation to the targeted business, taking up a pitchfork and joining the mob, while others—the conservatives—sit in quiet reservation, cursed by a revulsion towards the attacks they read, but, relying upon the same fundamental ethics of the assailants (altruism), are unable to articulate an objection and, resigned to the conflict, they turn the page.
The assault on the most successful enterprises and businessmen in our society exists not merely in the half-cocked moralizing of a nihilist president who, before he ever entered office, admitted to a desire to punitively tax the wealthy even if it were to the detriment of the economy as a whole. It goes beyond the bureaucratic abuses of Steven Chu and Ken Salazar or the dogmatic statist editorializing of Paul Krugman and the commentators of MSNBC. It exists in a pervasive undercurrent of rhetoric and interpretations in articles portrayed not as opinion, but as news. In an NBC News article published December 11, 2012, under the title, “’Apple’ Tax: America’s Costly Obsession”, a Reuters journalist, Chris Taylor, makes the case for a new understanding of Americans’ rising consumption of Apple products and the costs they pay in the process: that of a tax. Though passive-aggressive attacks on tech giants like Apple and Google have become perennial and largely inane, this one is particularly revealing of certain underlying premises and convictions:
“[W]hen it comes to immediate impact on their wallets, maybe they should be thinking about something else entirely: the Apple tax.
Americans are shelling out big bucks annually to outfit the entire household with Apple products. And they are spending hundreds — if not thousands of dollars — more each year for the unexpected Apple ‘taxes’ — add-ons that lock them into the Apple system: iTunes downloads for music, movies and games, along with subscriptions and accessories.
Then there are the replacement costs for lost or broken equipment. For a family with multiple children, each with their own technological needs, the total annual bill can get downright ugly — like going over a familial ‘fiscal cliff.’” [Emphases mine.]
To be clear: I do not know the partisan affiliation of Chris Taylor (if he has one) or how he politically describes himself, and the answers to such questions are insignificant to the matter at hand. Though many would perceive his characterization of Apple as indicative of the anti-business sentiments at work on the Left today (and rightly so), the tragedy is that the fallacies at work in his writing are patently bipartisan in their fundamental premises. What’s more, they are precisely the sorts of errors that keep the American Right hopelessly chained to a sinking middle ground and unable to distinguish itself from an increasingly anti-intellectual Left. Politically, that error is the confusion of economic and political power. Its prerequisite in metaphysics: determinism.
The fallacious equation of economic and political power is an error underpinning much of today’s statist policy. It is, as Ayn Rand once described it, “a disastrous intellectual package deal put over on us by the theoreticians of statism.”[i] To the form of perceptually-bound consciousness at work in today’s political and intellectual cultures, it gives the appearance of justification—even of necessity—to the initiation of physical force in economics, from antitrust legislation and jurisprudence to the tangled web of immorality and inefficiency that is the modern American regulatory environment. What, then, is economic power and how does it differ from political power? Addressing the subject, Ayn Rand once wrote,
“What is the basic, the essential, the crucial principle that differentiates freedom from slavery? It is the principle of voluntary action versus physical coercion or compulsion. The difference between political power and any other kind of social power, between a government and any private organization, is the fact that a government holds a monopoly on the use of physical force… The nature of political power is the power to force obedience under threat of physical injury, the power of property expropriation, imprisonment or death… What is economic power? It is the power to produce and to trade what one has produced. In a free economy, where no man or group of men can use physical coercion against anyone, economic power can be achieved only by voluntary means, by the voluntary choice and agreement of all those who participate in a process of production and trade. In a free market, all prices, wages, and profits are determined not by the arbitrary whim of the rich or of the poor, not by anyone’s greed or by anyone’s need, but by the law of supply and demand… ”[ii]
Put simply, economic power is the power to produce and offer values in trade. It can be considered a positive power, the power to fulfill one’s own will. It is akin to a number of other positive powers: cognitive power, which makes possible intellectual values and permits the discovery of knowledge; spiritual power, which makes possible moral values and permits one to live a life of virtue as well as motivate others toward the good (or, potentially, the evil); etc. By contrast, political power is the power to use force as a means of achieving a desired end contrary to the will of those against whom that force is employed. It is fundamentally a negative power, the power to prohibit another from fulfilling his will.
What is a tax? A tax is a mandatory payment by private citizens to a government under threat of initiated force—imprisonment, expropriation of property, or, under some of history’s more tyrannical regimes, death. In every case, it is the monopoly on the use of force, unique to government, which allows these taxes to be exacted. A private party, no matter how economically powerful it may be, does not achieve its ends through the use of force. To succeed, it must offer men positive values in trade—values that each, by their own uncoerced reasoning, consider to be greater than the value to them of the money with which they purchase it. It is incomparable to government’s forcible extraction of resources by tax.
What, then, is to be made of Mr. Taylor’s accusation that Apple “lock[s]” its customers into dealing with it, his description of a customer who “sees no way out of the Apple tax”, his later reference to one family’s “indentured servitude” to Apple—continued each year as they willingly purchase goods and services that add immense value to their daily lives—or his observation that a “sizable chunk” of some Americans’ incomes is being “diverted” to Apple each year? By what logic does he suggest that Apple commands this unyielding power over its customers? “Remember,” Taylor counsels, “this is not something that consumers are being forced to pay.” In what initially appears a concession to the concept of human volition, he admits, “They are dipping willingly into their own pockets,” before spurning such objections with the conclusion “because they’re essentially slaves to the devices.” Slaves how? By what means does inanimate technology or the company that creates it enslave consumers? Explicitly, Mr. Taylor is silent on this point. He is not a philosopher, merely the last link in the chain by which philosophical ideas reach the mainstream culture.
The most immediate implication of Taylor’s conflation of economic and political power is the equation of positive value and physical force. In the terminology of behavioralist psychologist B.F. Skinner, who similarly upheld this equation, both the offering of value and the wielding of force amount to controls, external factors that dictate man’s actions without interference from anything internal to man such as consciousness or volition. Fundamental to this belief, however—and, incidentally, further in keeping with Skinner’s behavioralism—is a metaphysical premise, that of determinism. The Oxford English Dictionary defines determinism as “the doctrine that all events, including human action, are ultimately determined by causes regarded as external to the will.” Within determinism are two subtypes: hereditary and environmental. Hereditary determinism, to use Leonard Peikoff’s description, “treats emotions as a product of innate (genetic) structures. Everything essential to a man, it holds, including the character and feelings he will eventually develop, is a product of factors built into his body at birth.” Environmental determinism, by contrast, advocates the view that “society molds the individual through his experiences… after years of such bombardment by perceptual data, he builds up certain habitual reactions, character traits, emotional patterns.”[iii] Despite their apparent difference, the two theories are fundamentally the same in rejecting human volition and accepting a vision of man as a helpless plaything of existence. Both are equally deplorable. It is environmental determinism, however, upon which the economic/political conflation rests, and thus on which this writing will focus.
Few exponents of this fallacious conflation attempt to make the case that private companies such as Apple are threatening or implementing physical force in the marketing and sale of their goods and services. As Mr. Taylor reminds us, “this is not something consumers are being forced to pay.” Still, by some undefined reasoning they maintain the conviction that something coercive has transpired when a company offers such exorbitant value that customers return time and again to a producer, choosing its products above those of all competitors until its preeminence in a marketplace is undeniable. If producers are not using force against consumers, yet consumer’s actions are definitively brought about by compulsion, from whence does this compulsion originate? To those who share Mr. Taylor’s philosophy, the answer is: from their environment. To those who decry “consumerism” and “our culture of consumption” (meaningless, anti-conceptual bromides all), who hypocritically disdain the pursuit of material comfort and enjoyment in favor of some undefined return to a “simpler” (ascetic) and “more traditional” (remedial) way of life, the only allowable explanation for men’s desire for the comfort and progress of modern technology is a subliminal manipulation at work since the time of their birth, culturing them to desire such comforts. Consider the implications of this idea: in the absence of external cultural influences (which are to be vilified) molding and inducing man on an instinctual, pre-conceptual level, he would have no desire for products which improve his life by making it easier, more productive, and more enriched with information, aesthetic value, and entertainment. The environmental determinists who denounce consumption perceive these desires as external to man, who, left to his true nature, they suggest, would be content to spurn all progress and advancement, living out the menial, toiling existence of a medieval farmer—a farmer without the luxury of a plow or hoe, that is, as such labor-saving devices would inevitably enslave him by the value and efficiency they offered.
This is their approximation of man. From any mind that has ever engaged in the application of reason to the obstacles of life, that has ever sought something more than what was given by chance and history, from any man of rationality, productiveness, and pride, one response should come naturally when faced with such ideas: “Speak for yourself!”
Man is a being of volitional consciousness who, lacking the instinct of animals, survives by the application of reason to the material world. He expends his productive efforts producing values for the enrichment of his own life or, through the efficiency of trade afforded to the modern world by capitalism, for profitable exchange with others. To survive, he must produce; the more productive a society he lives in, the better life he is able to lead. It is innovation and technology, empowered by capitalism, that have lifted man from the pre-industrial, hand-to-mouth state of existence in which he lived since the dawn of civilization. Though our society has risen well above the level at which life itself is threatened by a bad harvest or a harsh winter, any rational morality that accepts life as man’s proper standard of value cannot accept the concept of “enough” with regard to productive values. At no point is a man’s life productive enough, efficient enough, comfortable enough, or enriched enough as to make further development and innovation excessive or superfluous. Where life is the standard, its improvement is infinitely the moral good, and producers such as Apple who, year after year, unleash new and better technologies that improve the lives of those who purchase them must be regarded with the highest esteem.
[i] “America’s Persecuted Minority: Big Business”, where this fallacy and its consequences are masterfully detailed.
[iii] Peikoff, Leonard. Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. New York: Meridian Press. 1991. pg. 203