What Kind of World Will it Be? A Discussion of Values and Politics

Living is the act of actively attempting to convert one’s values of ideology into actual values of the world. We perform actions with idealized, valuable goals in mind. The actions are designed to produce the valuable goal. This simple fact has much to say about political difference.

A personal story: For years I have collected old baseball cards. When I was nine I purchased a beat-up 1956 Roy Campanella card that captivated me like a hypnotist’s watch. I remember driving home with butterflies in my stomach, staring at my new trophy. And, much like a hypnotized subject, I became hooked and somewhat obsessed with acquiring vintage baseball cards. Over the years I amassed quite a collection that was displayed proudly in my room. I was also a voracious reader of Beckett Baseball Card Monthly, the monthly industry price guide that constantly kept me apprised of the value of my collection. Sometimes, I would sit down with a calculator and a Beckett and add up my collection, producing a dollar amount that rattled intoxicatingly in my head. I would then run to my father and elatedly tell him that my card collection was worth $X because the magical Beckett Price Guide had told me so. My father, always a bastion of level thinking, would calmly ask, “is there anyone who would pay you that much for it?” I would unhesitatingly admit that, no, I most likely could find no one who would pay the price in my head – realizing that if I ever took the cards to an actual dealer I would probably not even receive half of the Beckett price. I was, however, not discouraged by this “problem.” I would honestly tell myself, “who cares if no one will pay me $X for my collection, it is still worth $X.”

My attitude was derived from a number of causes. One, of course, was my nine-year-old neophyte status. Another, and most importantly, was an unfortunate dichotomy I poignantly felt between the values of the world and the values in my head. In my head, the cards were of extraordinary value. They represented actual pieces of history from a sport I adored. They had survived the years, against the odds of spring-cleaning mothers or bicycle spokes. Not only were they worth $X to me, they were worth more than $X. However, I had received one of my first lessons in a universal human truth – a dissonance between the values of my head and the values of the world.

When the things we cherish dearly are not equally cherished by others some confusion, if not revulsion, is inevitable. For terrorists to crash planes into the World Trade Center was to perform an act of value contradiction against the predominant values of the United States. Their actions poignantly and powerfully showed that they do not believe in US values and are prepared to act on those beliefs. The subsequent melancholy of the people of the United States was partially derived from this awareness of a value contradiction. Fellow humans had stood up and told us that we have false values. Statements such as these are the catalysts of bar fights, tribal wars, political struggle, and countless other human conflict.

In Kant’s discussion of beauty, he argues that, for one to think something is beautiful, one must demand agreement from all others. Not to do so is to not believe something is beautiful. Although a debate about beauty is still warranted this theory seems true for general beliefs about ultimate value. When we think something is ultimately valuable we will make no concessions to anyone about that belief.

Baseball cards and other trinkets are just little players in this game. The interplay of human values, and, consequentially, the dissonance between the values of ideology and the values of the world is primarily a struggle of ultimate, or categorical values. These values carry large-sounding, grandiose names such as: liberty, equality, piety, freedom, happiness, and Allah. In our heads they are unassailable and, simply put, priceless.

To say something is “priceless” is to say that it is categorically better than any object that does have a price. All mitigating circumstances, such as diminishing marginal utility (too much of a good thing), scarcity, and possibility, are thrown to the wayside. A categorical assertion of value is to claim that X is better than Y in every circumstance in which X and Y exist or could exist.

But most objects have a price. Furthermore, it seems absurd to claim that there is a “price” of liberty since liberty is an abstract and extremely vague concept. Liberty, as it exists in the actual world, is a piecemeal construction. It is produced by the free actions of countless individuals who have the ability to act (or possibly act) without artificial constraint or coercion. Because of this, an abstract, priceless concept such as “liberty” consists of prices – my freedom to sell a good or service for a market price or my freedom to buy such a good. Likewise, “equality” consists of countless individuals being treated equally by other individuals and institutions.

There are, however, costs of liberty. In economic terms a “cost” is what is sacrificed in order to gain something else – what could have possibly existed if something had not been brought into existence. Using wood to build chairs has a cost, the fact that the wood wasn’t used to build beds, houses, or anything else that could have been created. In the strictest sense, coercion, force and control are “costs” of liberty because they are mutually exclusive actions. However, “cost” also connotates the loss of a valuable thing – a status that is dubious to confer upon “coercion, force, and control.”

If someone is willing to pay for something then it has value. Many outside observers may be left scratching their heads pondering why anyone would pay for “that.” However, if you claim that, in fact, an object purchased has no value whatsoever then you must be claiming knowledge of a different realm in which “real values” exist. Whether that realm is in your head, in a platonic “otherscape,” or in the mind of God, you are clearly making a value assertion that has nothing to do with the actual world.

Most people do not collect old baseball cards. My collaborator Aaron has said on numerous occasions that he finds the practice confusing and strange. The prices that simple shards of cardboard command are certainly staggering. The prices are, however, paid. Therefore, within the real world, the cards have value – regardless of Aaron’s claims to the contrary; claims that depend upon access to a value scheme other than that played out in the free market economy. Aaron, however, chooses not to pay the price and is left largely unaffected – although perplexed.

In the actual world, when someone pays for a good or service they demonstrate its value. Furthermore, aside from claiming something has no value (I do not believe there is any price that Aaron would pay for a Mickey Mantle card if he could not sell it again), to claim something is “over-valued” or “under-valued” (apart from claims about a lagging market) is to also claim access to a different realm of value than the one that is played out in the real world.

In the real world economies consist of numerous people, with disparate values who all compete for limited resources. Therefore, in a free market system in which prices are allowed to function freely, what someone will pay for something in the company of others who also wish to pay for the thing produces a price. This price IS the value of that object as is dictated by the market, consisting of millions of people who must compete for limited goods. However, it may not be the value of the object in someone’s head who sees the good or service as “over-priced” and therefore does not buy it. A price serves as the informer of a perspective buyer of the possible costs that could be imposed upon them if they choose to purchase. Because a price exists across various goods and services it is able to inform a buyer what he or she may be giving up in a variety of other goods and services if they complete the purchase. Hopefully the simple truism is now clearer: Prices convey costs.

It is one thing to believe that an object is “over-priced” and not to buy it – or “under-priced” and buy it. This action is produced by an interaction of the value system in one’s head and the prices of the objects. The prices serve to convey information about the economic costs of the object (or service) if one was to purchase it. Here a decision is made and, presumably, the person continues their day with the consequences of the purchase, or non-purchase, carried with them. Every time Aaron decides not to buy a Mickey Mantle card for $300 he is moving towards actualizing his ideological goals in the real world. The $300 he still has can be used to purchase things that he decides are worth their respective prices – therefore more in line with his personal value system. Aaron may decide to put that money towards a first edition of Chandler’s The Big Sleep– a good that I find nearly as perplexing as he does baseball cards. Again the difference in ideological values is demonstrated.

However, it is entirely different action to use force and coercion to wrestle the prices of goods and services into agreement with one’s personal value system. Doing so requires the overriding of preferences, desires and beliefs of countless other individuals and supplicating their value systems to your own in order to bring about your vision about how an entire mass of individuals should value. If Aaron was sufficiently indignant about the high price of a Mickey Mantle card he may wish to move towards such goals – forcing the price into agreement with his ideological values and therefore overriding the value systems of countless individuals who would freely sell at the price because others would pay the price.

These two ways of reacting to the dichotomy between the values of ideology and the values of the actual world stand diametrically opposed to one another. The former is the attitude of governments utilizing liberty and free choice. The latter is the fodder of despotic totalitarians.

Any planned economy that attempts to override the market price of something – be it labor, good, service etc. – is presumably attempting to create a more “just” price that more reliably reflects the “real value” or something. To claim that, “doctors make too much, teachers don’t make enough, lawyers make too much, and secretaries don’t make enough,” or something of the sort, is to make a claim relying on a different realm of values other than the actual world. Just like claiming an object is “over-valued,” claiming people are “over-valued” serves only to describe a dichotomy between one’s ideological values and the values of the actual world. However, behaving in such a way to use force, control and coercion in order to alter the entire economy to produce one’s vision – and therefore stomping on countless desires and preferences – is simple elitism.

One of the most ironic aspects of socialism is the championship of equality as the central value, and supposedly the central effect. However, when socialism is seen for what it really is – the systemic imposition of a small group’s (or a single person’s) ideological values upon (usually) millions of supplicants – the stark inequality of value systems is demonstrated. Clearly, the proponents of socialism must believe that their ideological value systems must be more equal than the majority of people’s value systems – which are overridden in the name of progress.

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