Fernando Rodríguez Genovés discusses his new book La riqueza de la libertad (The wealth of liberty; 2016)
Special interview with the Spanish philosopher Fernando Rodríguez Genovés (FRG) concerning his latest book La riqueza de la libertad (The wealth of liberty). ISBN e-book 978-84-608-6112-6. 2016. Given in April 2016 to Jo Pires-O’Brien (JPO), editor of the digital magazine PortVitoria, dedicated to the Iberian Culture and its diaspora around the world (www.portvitoria.com).
Fernando Rodríguez Genovés (Valencia, 1955) is a writer, essayist, literary critic and movie analyst. Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Valencia (Spain) . Awarded with the Juan Gil-Albert Essay Prize in 1999. He is the author of many articles in specialised journals and magazines such as Libertad Digital, ABC Cultural, Claves de Razón Práctica, Debats, Revista de Occidente and El Catoblepas. He has published thirteen non-fiction books, among those Marco Aurelio: Una vida contenida (2012), La ilusión de la empatía (2013), Dos veces bueno: Breviario de aforismos y apuntamientos (2014), El alma de las ciudades: Relatos de viajes y estancias (2015). He maintains three blogs: Los viajes de Genovés, Cinema Genovés y Librepensamientos.
JPO: Fernando, from a starting point of the main thesis of the French philosopher and economist Bertrand de Jouvenel (1903-1987), in your latest book La riqueza de la libertad (2016; The wealth of liberty), you insist that wealth is not a vice, but on the contrary, is desired value universally. In the same way, you press on the notion that wealth and liberty are inseparable objectives. Why do many people tend to associate wealth with greed?
FRG: Firstly, it would be advisable to clarify the term ‘greed’, in order to avoid confusing it with ‘ambition’, ‘aspiration’ or the ‘self-improvement mentality’, thus taking away the stigma that haunts it; the interest associated with moneylending, is it ‘greed’ or usury?, if so, should it be condemned? Secondly, in such a comparison one needs to clarify what is a posture and what is an attitude, or what is a sincere preoccupation and what is a deceptive affectation. There is a lot of cynicism (in addition to envy) in the general and public condemnation of wealth, especially when dealing with other people’s wealth. Although wealth is currently aspired to, few admit having such an aspiration. At the same time, no less generalized is the deep and ancestral resentment against the rich and powerful, something that conceals the proven beneficial consequences (I am not referring to ‘benefactors’), both in the economical and the civilizational sphere, to the community making such an assumption about the accumulation of wealth. In any case, who, other than the interested party, would be qualified to determine when one is overly rich and what would be the limits, if any, of private property or any particular profit ?
JPO: In societies based on an economy of ‘state capitalism’, the private sector is small in comparison with the public sector, and wealth opportunities are much dependant on governments. Such societies are usually under two kinds of pressure: the greatest aspiration of university students is to find a job in government, while the people with few or no qualifications expect more government benefits. As a result, elections are usually won by the candidates or parties that promise more government jobs and benefits. How can citizens be persuaded that increasing the size of the State furthers its distance from the model of a liberal society, the only one that has real opportunities of gaining wealth and liberty?
FRG: Liberalism (in the continental sense of the term ‘liberal’, rather than in the Anglo-Saxon sense) encompasses a conception of the world and the ‘human action’ (Ludwig von Mises) that is closest to the ordinary sense of the nature of things. In fact, when people are left free they tend to automatically follow norms of a liberal disposition: individualism and the search of wellness; exchange and cooperation; initiative and development of personal abilities; self-respect and fulfilment of one’s own interest; respect to contracts, the law and the rules of the game, etc. In short, it is what has been referred to as ‘invisible liberalism’, in reference to that well-known image of the ‘invisible hand’ associated to the work of Adam Smith.
However, why is the model of liberal life not universally recognised, but on the contrary, attract so much suspicion in so many people? This could be attributable to the coercion that liberty bears, in multiple ways and in all places and times, although more so in some than in others. In addition to that, because of the anti-liberal propaganda that dominates most educational institutions as well as the media and the entertaining industries (publications, movies, television, etc.), not to mention the anti-liberal propaganda which is permanently disseminated by the government machine. These things do not facilitate the process whereby the invisible becomes visible.
By failing to make a habit of liberty and responsibility, people are born and raised in a context of social dependency and factual under-age submission, without hardly any resistance to the ruling of the state . Therefore, people end up adapting themselves to the routine and the convenience, displaying the attitudes perceived as signs of security and protection.
JPO: Many of the ancient philosophers often dealt with the idea of the ‘common good’. Is this idea still relevant? What sort of things would characterize the common good in the XXI century?
FRG: Since the ancient philosophers lived in a society that today we would call ‘communitarian’, in general terms they did not distinguish clearly between common good and individual good, with the latter presumed in the former (the notion of ‘individual’ does not became conceptualized in its strict sense until modern times). From the perspective of the present, it would be more relevant to turn the attention to the fact that they defended openly the ideal of the ‘good life’, a concept that seems to me to be close to that of ‘contentment’. However, note that the ancient society was close and admitted slavery, where wealth was associated with (and practically circumscribed to) the ownership of land, animals and persons, frequently, without distinguishing between these. Therefore, in economical terms, a discussion of the ‘common good’ in antiquity is even more vague and confused than in the present, where it is considered equivalent to the so-called ‘welfare state ‘, a deflection that conceals the enlargement of governments in detriment to personal prosperity.
In the present, the scientific and technological developments suffice to end hunger and misery. In fact, the established indices of poverty — those which have a minimal amount of trustworthiness and are not ideologically biased — indicate that they are gradually diminishing in the greatest part of the world. The self-proclaimed policies of ‘common good’ are precisely those which by means of Government intervention, state protectionism and the limitation of free markets, among other things, cause large areas of the planet to remain stagnant in poverty; the case of Africa is paradigmatic of this. As a result, the restriction of the free movement of goods and products lead to impulsive and desperate movements of persons (migrations).
JPO: When you argue that people should seek wealth and liberty, without a guilt complex, do you mean seeking money, a state of mind or both things?
FRG: I have already covered the subject of the good life and moral contentment in previous essays, and I will probably return to it, for, after all, my professional speciality is moral and political philosophy. In La riqueza de la libertad (2016), I examine particularly those themes belonging to economics, more concretely, finance. Thus, it targets pecuniary subjects , even though the intellectual purpose of the essay is in the field of ethics. In the book I try to demonstrate that quality of life means to live the best way possible, that wealth humanizes while poverty bestializes man, therefore, that which is truly immoral is not wealth but poverty.
JPO: In the latest election results in many countries in Europe and Latin America, voters shunned the parties that defended austerity and voted for those that supported public spending. Why is it so difficult for the electorate to grasp the notion of responsible budgeting in government?
FRG: People fear liberty and responsibility, and the growth in fear is directly proportional to the shortage or absence of these. In such situations, unbridled reflex mechanisms of help and protection emerge, causing people to choose (social) security instead of (individual) liberty. In the way things are, individuals occupy themselves more with others than with themselves, which frequently leads to the development of cynical postures, as expressed by the following maxim: ‘why should I do things myself when I already do a lot telling others what is to be done’. Because of a senseless and illusory quid pro quo, people expect (or even demand) that others look after them. Demagogic and populist politicians excite such feeling of helplessness while preconizing a maddening and ghostly growth of ‘rights’ and social protection nets. All of this is preconized under the watchword ‘totally free’, a social fantasy that conceals the unsustainable growth of public spending, public deficit and public debt. They call this barbarism ‘redistribution of wealth’, although I prefer to call it ‘socialization of poverty and generalization of laziness’.
JPO: Contemporary philosophy has dismissed the utilitarian ethics of ‘good for the greatest number’ on various grounds, namely that it considers the ends but not the means. Is there anything in utilitarianism that is still worth keeping today? In fact, you identified a kind of utilitarianism in the philosophy of Benedict (Baruch) de Spinoza. What is the relation between Spinoza’s utilitarianism and that of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill?
FRG: I understand that the philosophical currents or doctrines cannot (nor should they) be held and followed in their totality. This also affects utilitarianism. There are certain thinkers and particular aspects of their work that could possibly be of interest to us in the present, apart from the academic and investigative approximations. I am not so inclined today to return to the overall work of Jeremy Bentham, but I am drawn to his writings that are more liberal than doctrinal; e.g. his 1787 book Defence of Usury. In addition, there are also some texts by John Stuart Mill which to me deserve attention, especially On Liberty and Autobiography.
Baruch Spinoza is a special case because I consider his philosophy to be the most ‘perfect’ that exists and could be conceived. The value of his thought goes beyond utilitarianism, a term which, in whichever way I use it, in Spinoza it has a broader sense rather than a strict one. Strictly speaking, I do not consider Spinoza a utilitarian, not even in the sense of a precursor or an avant la lettre. However, the political theory he preconized has a pragmatic importance, being funded in the common understanding of social utility, which I find quite valuable; an example of this is his reflexion about democracy as the best form of government , or, to avoid loosing track of the book which is at the centre of our conversation, his characterization of money as compendium omnibus rerum, the compendium of all things.
JPO: Anyone who raises the issue of curbing public spending is instantly accused of hating the poor. You call ‘povertism’ (pobrismo) this unrelenting mindset of defending poverty. Where does this ‘povertism’ come from?
FRG: Undoubtedly, in reality the opposite happens: unbridled public spending and profligacy in public administration impoverish society. Policies that claim to defend the poor are the reason why there are poor. Actually , they act as the sponsors of poverty. The truth is that behind this obsessive wardship of the poor is concealed a deep hatred for the poor: they will never forgive the poor for the fact that their first and foremost yearning is to be rich.
The term ‘povertism’ is precisely the postulate that synthesizes this stand: to promote and praise poverty at the expense of wealth (and thus, the people). It is a doctrine with ramifications in religion and theology, and in political ideology and philosophy, areas with obvious interconnections between one another, with which ‘povertism’ shares a large tradition. The attitude of the current pope Francisco, as head of the Vatican, is a sample of this synthesis. In any case, it would be unfair to level the existing manifestations of ‘povertism’, for there are great ethical and aesthetic differences among them — although more so in practice than in theory — between a catholic missionary and a hermit, an anti-system extremist in a developed society or a Hollywood celebrity denouncing capitalism and a cynic who follows Diogenes of Sinope (if one such specimen exists today) by living inside a barrel.
JPO: In ancient Greece, Plato suggested that philosophers should govern, for they are the most capable persons for this activity, although no ancient or modern democracy has ever taken up that suggestion. The exact opposite seems to be occurring in Latin America, where there is a trend for parties to select lesser educated candidates that appear to come from the poorer segments of society, in order to attract the vote of ‘the people’ by persuading them that it will lead to more benefits for the poor. What are the consequences of this political strategy?
FRG: I find your observation very pertinent. In effect, during the last decades there has been a trend in self-denominated ‘progressivist’ options among the candidates introduced to the electorate. I refer to candidates that could be described as ‘low level’, ‘ordinary’ and ‘ill-educated’ if not merely ‘ill-bred’. To me this portrayal of the ‘socialist realism’ is a political version of the ‘dirty realism’ or the ‘Sans culottes of the XXI century’. Such movements, usually categorized as populist and anti-system, are notoriously demagogic and factious. This trend can indeed be observed in Iberoamerica (a preferred expression for Latin America in Spain), but it is not confined to it.
Recently in Europe there have been many social consequences from candidacies led by persons that come from the entertainment industry including some professional clowns, as well as eccentric, grotesque and ‘vulgar’ characters such as Silvio Berlusconi in Italy. And today, there is Donald Trump in the United States, who, in spite of everything, represents a choice to the electorate which is by no means marginal. Furthermore, Spain holds the questionable honour to be the originator of the alternative social unrest movement known as ‘indignants’ (indignados). Posteriorly converted into a political party (Podemos). Thanks to its several ‘franchises’, it has managed to obtain important mayor offices throughout the country (Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, etc.) and has great chances of gaining the country’s government in coalition with other left-wing parties.
The consequences of all of this, very worrisome indeed, entails an obscene staging of the kind of ‘povertism’ that sentences citizens to delight in misery and society to a social and economic disintegration.
JPO: One of the traits that can be perceived in a great part of Latin America is an insistence to remain as a separate civilization from the Occident. What are the major advantages and disadvantages of this isolationism?
FRG: You refer to a topic which is certainly dramatic. Iberoamerica is a subcontinent with huge possibilities, both in the material sense, through its ‘natural wealth’, and the cultural sense. Sadly such natural and cultural wealth has been systematically squandered or badly used to the point of it having several delinquent and/or failed states , not to mention the awful permanence, until this day, of the Castro regime in Cuba. The causes of this catastrophe are many: from the heyday of populist nationalism to the peak of indigenization; from the ‘caudillist’ inclination to the continuous reoccurrence of military revolts and coups, rough expressions of a ‘permanent revolution’ and its dream of liberty. All of this is a kind of ‘poor man pride’ impregnated by an anti-West resentment, particularly against the United States (the ‘yanqui’ or ‘the gringo’) or Spain (the former ‘mother country’ which the folk-populist ideology converted into the ‘wicked stepmother’).
Finally, it is very painful to admit the little success obtained from the few and far between efforts to sow the seeds of liberal democracies in the region, with the objective to drive those countries out of the insularity and isolation that prevent them from integrating fully with the West.
JPO: What are the traits that characterize a true civilization?
FRG: As duly noted by Norbert Elias, the process of civilization is measured, fundamentally, by the gradual substitution in society of the systematic use of violence as a way to adapt to the environment and survive, by other means based on communication, exchange and cooperation. Thus, commerce is the alternative to conquest; contracts the alternative to bursts of force (wars, revolts, revolutions); contracts, business and negotiations are the alternatives to coercion and threats by the system. In this sense, the advent of capitalism and the pursuance of economic benefit made man a being who is more interested and less passionate; more savvy and calculating but less a brute and volatile; more concerned about his business and less interested in dominating the life of others; certainly more hypocrite but also less dangerous to others.
In consequence of that, modern civilized societies adjust themselves to the model of liberal democracy that is fundamentally defined by the exercise of individual freedoms, the principle of equality of all men before the law, and the free market. These are the three most important civilizational warranties: political stability, legal security and capitalist economy.
This explains my interest in showing in the book which is the topic of our conversation, how important is the interaction between wealth and liberty in order to persuade man not to conform to surviving but to aspire to the best, the good life and the free enjoyment of earnings and property. The fortunate individuals and societies are those already achieving such objectives. Sadly, there are many others who continue to be victims of servitude and poverty.
The writer Imre Kertész, a Holocaust survivor who won the Nobel Prize of Literature in 2002, wrote in his book of memoirs, The Ultimate Inn (A Végső Kocsma; 2014) the following: «I become overwhelmed by self-pity when I think that I spent a great part of my existence under a malignant dictatorship of a provincial and malignant country [Hungary], while in the other half of Europe, the better one, flourished welfare and the good life».
JPO: Thank you very much, Fernando, for this enlightening interview and your time.
FRG: It is I who thank you and to PortVitoria for your kindness and hospitality.