No no I never was a sinner, tell me what else can I do. Second best is what you get ’til you learn to bend the rules. And time respects no person, and what you lift up must fall. They’re waiting outside to claim my tumblin’ walls. Saw my picture in the paper, read the news around my face, and now some people don’t want to treat me the same. When the walls come tumblin’ down. When the walls come crumblin’, crumbling.’ When the walls come tumblin’, tumblin’ down. These lyrics come from a 1983 song written by John Mellencamp and George Green, was released on Mellencamp’s album Uh-huh and reached number 9 on the Billboard charts.
Just last week, a building on the beach in Surfside, Florida, collapsed. As I write this article 9 people have been confirmed dead in the collapse, and it is certain that the number will rise. Looking at the remnants of the Champlain Towers South reminds me way too much of what I saw when the World Trade Center collapsed. This is truly a tragedy, and my heart goes out to the families of the victims of this disaster.
Last month we wrote about the disaster that is the current state of the American infrastructure and logistics system. We focused on what would traditionally be called infrastructure, that is roads, railroads, airports, schools and internet systems. In other words, infrastructure generally provided by government and natural monopolies. Generally, these infrastructure networks are either government owned and funded, or developed by corporations that are heavily regulated by government bodies.
But as President Biden has been insisting, there is a huge amount of private infrastructure in the country as well. This includes pipelines, housing stock, research, colleges, office buildings, and public lands like national parks. While this is not what is traditionally called infrastructure, in many ways it is – most however, is not public infrastructure, and not subject to natural monopolies.
The Champlain Towers disaster shows that, just as with public infrastructure there has been a lack of investment in private infrastructure. Just as with the failure to invest in roads and bridges, failure to invest in private infrastructure leads to problems. Failure to pave roads makes travel slower and more dangerous, and failure to invest in houses – for example, leads to squalor, and unfortunately can also lead to the loss of life. So the President is correct in suggesting that investing in private infrastructure and human capital is beneficial to the economy, but the real question is not if investing is good, but rather who should do the investing?
The answer to this question is important because it defines the relationship between people and the state, and the nature of this relationship determines much about the way that people in a society live.
There are many different social/economic relationship structures under which a community can operate. These include anarchic, familial, hierarchical, feudal, fascist, socialist, capitalist and communist. Each of these structures represent a different relationship between the people and each other and the people and the state. Each also represent a very different way of life.
The most basic social structure is anarchic. This type of society can best be described as every man for himself or to the strongest go the spoils. In an anarchic society there is no basis of cooperation between individuals, there are no rights to property, theft and murder are acceptable means for gathering individual wants and needs, and alliances between individuals are temporary and unreliable. A social structure of this type is not generally sustainable over the long term. A good recent example would be the society that existed in the so-called Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) in Seattle which was both temporary and violent.
A more stable social structure is the familial, or tribal structure. These societies rest on the personal relationships between individuals in the society, where children respect parents, and the eldest members are the de facto leaders of the clan. While these can be stable structures where there is joint ownership of property, and ties are based on genetics, large tribal societies are difficult to maintain as relationships between individual members become more and more distant. Stable tribal societies still exist around the world but generally in isolated places like the Amazon rainforest and the Andaman Islands.
As societies become larger, they tend toward a version of the tribal structure known as a hierarchical society or a pyramid structure. Think of Egypt under the Pharaohs, a term which literally means high house. Likewise, the word king came from terms meaning son of, which relates back to societies based on kinship or familial structures.
Hierarchical societies are pyramidal structures where individuals are ranked according to their positions of authority, often associated with a chain of command and control. The king or pharaoh would stand at the top, followed by larger and larger layers of nobles, priests, bureaucrats, craftsmen, farmers and at the bottom, slaves. As history shows, hierarchical societies are extremely stable, and have often lasted for thousands of years, breaking down only when conquered either by another hierarchical society, disease or natural calamity.
A social structure similar in nature to the hierarchy is the feudal society. Under the feudal system, different hierarchies exist in an overall hierarchical structure, and there is competition between kings for land, labor and clergy. The economic structure includes those who fight, those who pray and those who work, but there is a sense of personal ownership of land, labor and capital. Farmers would pay rent to the church or to the lord who held sway over the land, and the landowner had specific obligations to the farmer. This feudal system created the first concept of ownership, something that is the foundation of the more modern social structures of capitalism, fascism and socialism.
These three isms are similar in that they are all based on different ownership structures. Gone are the familial relationships that undergird more traditional societies. Relationships are defined by differing systems of ownership. Under a capitalist structure, land, labor and capital are owned by free individuals, who contract with the state to perform certain services. This can be a large amount of services in the case of France, or a very few number of services in the case of a society such as Switzerland.
Both fascist and socialist societies tend to be dictatorial with the state holding great control over the lives of individuals. Under fascism, private property, private enterprise, and private choice in the market, have no rights as ends in themselves. They have different measures of social usefulness subject to state control. This is how a fascist government can justify the killing of large numbers of people, since they are simply disposing of unneeded or unwanted tools.
Socialism differs in that in socialism eliminates the free market entirely. Under fascism, an individual can determine if they wish to eat chicken or steak and are subject to the price constraints of the market to determine which they will consume. While all stores are controlled by the state, individuals are granted the right to operate them.
Socialism, on the other hand, controls all markets. The choice to eat chicken or steak is eliminated, and labor is fed what the state decides they will eat. In other words, a socialist society completely expropriates all of the means of production. Under socialism, the same horrors committed under fascism would be justified in that as owners of the labor force the state can do as they please with them, no different that the owner of a slave can do as they please with their property. Its not just a matter of degree – it’s a matter of the social structure itself.
So what does this have to do with the Biden infrastructure plan? Just as with the isms the infrastructure plan makes certain assumptions about ownership and control of property. In a capitalist system, where a building owner can make decisions about how to paint a structure and how to invest in maintenance. The owner can make huge mistakes (as in the case of Champlain Towers) but it is their decision and the results are their responsibility. The Biden plan turns this on its head.
Under the President’s assumptions, responsibility for assets that are currently held by private individuals is given to the state. If individuals are allowed to continue to operate their assets (of course subject to control of the Administration), then the social system has moved toward fascism. If, on the other hand, the state decides who should live in what building (as New York City Mayor DeBlasio has suggested should be the case) then the country tilts toward socialism.
Of course, if a society wishes to do either, then the members of the community will bear both the benefits and costs of the decision; however, in either case, society will become very different than it is today. While the Champlin Towers disaster is horrific, what will happen if they’re waiting outside to claim my tumblin’ walls.