Saturday, May 30, 2009

Dangerous Crowds of Activists Gather to Excite Each Other

Sarah Kuck reports on “Using Human Rights Law to Address Climate Change” (29May) in 'World Changing change your thinking’ HERE: in which Victoria Hykes Steere, author of an essay titled “An Iñupiaq Reflection on ‘Ice,’” from Global Warming Reader, by William H. Rodgers, Jr., Jeni Barcelos, Anna Moritz, and Michael Robinson-Dorn, (in press, Carolina Academic Press, Durham). She is also a former law student of William H. Rodgers, Jr., at the University of Washington School of Law, speaks on “What are the legal and human rights implications of climate change?”:

"Our market-based economy owes its existence to Adam Smith and his tract, "The Wealth of Nations." We now must rethink our consumer-based economy. We must learn to share this planet with one another and all animals. The challenge to use climate change to create the opportunity to remake the way we interact with the earth's systems is inspiring. The chance to totally reshape our relationships with the earth, each other and to ensure future generations rarely comes. We must all reach out of our comfort zones and make the message simple. The lives of our children, the oceans, and animals flicker in front of us. Simple is best. Not fear, not anger or guilt but some thing simple and beautiful that we all dream together with the political will to make the dream reality.”

Victoria begins with an absurdity: ‘Our market-based economy owes its existence to Adam Smith and his tract, "The Wealth of Nations."’ It doesn’t get much better.

The commercial society, of which she refers, was formed long before Adam Smith and 1776. It was active in Britain in the centuries before the 18th century from which emigrants from Britain took with them to North America. It is safe to say that if Adam Smith had never lived, let alone had never written Wealth Of Nations (some ‘tract’ at nearly 1000 pages!), commercial society in what became the United States of America would have continued to flourish, just as it did in Britain and Europe. It does not ‘owe is existence’ to Adam Smith!

If Victoria wants to ‘rethink’ her ‘consumer-based society’, and to urge others to do so, she is free to do so – largely because Britain in Europe had evolved the instruments of liberty (rule of law, independent justice, separation of powers between King and parliament, Habeas Corpus, and private property).

She wants to ‘totally re-shape our relationships with the earth, and each other’, an ambition that is no mean challenge, especially as it requires that ‘we all dream together with the political will to make the dream reality’. I fear that Victoria’s dream hosts the roots of the age of totalitarianism like the world has never seen – and lets face it, the earth has hosted some pretty accomplished totalitarians who were not shy of soaking their dreams in considerable rivers of blood and angst.

And who is to blame for the US predicament? Why a mild, 18th-century moral philosopher, Adam Smith, who never sought to enforce his observations of how the world worked (badly, as it happens) upon anybody. Who sought by his writings in both of his Books, ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments’ [1759] and ‘An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations’ [1776], to influence legislators and those who influenced them – he never had a vote under the existing electoral franchise (never forget, liberty is more important than democracy) – to address some important problems that he considered worthy of the early attentions of governments.

He did, however, leave some important messages applicable to Victoria, and all of her ilk at present adding determination to their sense of urgency and pending doom (always a toxic mix for activists).

Smith writes of political activism in Moral Sentiments in two parts. The first is for those whose ‘public spirit’ is ‘prompted altogether by humanity and benevolence’:

The man whose public spirit is prompted altogether by humanity and benevolence, will respect the established powers and privileges even of individuals, and still more those of the great orders and societies, into which the state is divided. Though he should consider some of them as in some measure abusive, he will content himself with moderating, what he often cannot annihilate without great violence. When he cannot conquer the rooted prejudices of the people by reason and persuasion, he will not attempt to subdue them by force; but will religiously observe what, by Cicero, is justly called the divine maxim of Plato, never to use violence to his country no more than to his parents. He will accommodate, as well as he can, his public arrangements to the confirmed habits and prejudices of the people; and will remedy as well as he can, the inconveniencies which may flow from the want of those regulations which the people are averse to submit to. When he cannot establish the right, he will not disdain to ameliorate the wrong; but like Solon, when he cannot establish the best system of laws, he will endeavour to establish the best that the people can bear.”

The second is for ‘the man of system’ who is ‘apt to be very wise in his own conceit’:

The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.”
[Both from The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Book VI.ii.2:116-17]

If Victoria and her ilk were ever to read Adam Smith’s books, they would learn a lot about the manifest gaps in their education.

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