Tuesday, June 26, 2012

After Obama, A New Birth of Freedom

President Obama famously declared that he wanted to "fundamentally transform" America.  That is, of course, the eternal revolutionary's creed.  But a famous football coach said that when you go to pass the ball, one of three things could happen, and two of them are bad.

In other words, when you go for the long ball, as when you choose a decisive battle, you are opting for a decisive win or a decisive loss.  I am starting to think that President Obama is heading for a decisive loss in November, one that will fundamentally transform US politics and complete the Reagan revolution.

For I believe that the fundamental fact of US politics since 1989 is that liberals have refused to concede the Reagan victory.  They have refused to concede its economic aspect, that low tax rates and sound money and limited regulation are the foundation of a healthy economy.  And they have refused to admit the social aspect, that the social safety net should not be an iron rice bowl of universal big government programs, but a flexible web of associations and charities anchored on the assurance of government help in an emergency.

In my view our liberal friends are about to receive a terrible blow, right in the solar plexus: a Republican president with decent majorities in both houses of Congress.  The last time this happened was in 1928, for the great Reagan era featured a Republican Senate for the first six years and a Democratic House throughout.

The challenge for the future is to establish a new national myth, a convincing "story so far" about what happened in the big-government era, why it was wrong, and what we must to do to restore America to its greatness.

The first thing to establish is what went wrong.  The answer is fairly simple.  We abandoned the idea of the strong society and replaced it with idea of the strong state.  Society is the net effect of humans cooperating as social animals in their millions of social relations and combinations.  When that is replaced by rigid, mechanical government bureaucracy, something dies.  That something is the social instinct to share and reciprocate.  Big government reduces everything to rigid rule and compulsion.

The second thing to establish is what has worked.  We have just come off two centuries in which daily income went from $1-3 per person per day to $120 per person per day.  And violent death in the West since about 1300 CE has gone from about 50 deaths per year per 100,000 population to about 5 deaths per year.  Think of that: prosperity has increased by two orders of magnitude and violence has decreased by one order of magnitude.  How great is that?

There are two great competing narratives about why this happened.  One narrative is the Invisible Hand  argument of Adam Smith, that people naturally serve others in order to serve themselves.  The more that people stop fighting for plunder and start working to serve other people, the more prosperity you will get and the less suffering.  The other is the Exploitation argument of the international Left, that social relations are blighted by exploitation and oppression unless corrected by idealistic activists.  Things get better only if good people take a committed stand against injustice and violence.

As a conservative, I'm partial to the Panglossian Invisible Hand world view.  But I also accept the need for the Exploitation world view.  We are talking about the fight against slavery, against racism, and ruthless industrial discipline.

It is important, I think, to recognize that the real and authentic experience of different people will prompt them to take different views of the two great arguments.  If you are a competent middle-class person, you will likely think that the world is a friendly place and that hard work will lead to a life of reasonable prosperity and happiness.  But if you are a recent immigrant to the city you will likely experience the world as a dangerous and oppressive place.  You will feel that you are barely hanging on against brutal economic forces and see the need to be ready to fight against the powerful at any time; you will probably find yourself a powerful patron to fight at your side.

If you believe that the Invisible Hand argument is central, then you will think that the government does not need to be very big or very powerful.  If you believe that the Exploitation argument is central, then you will think that you need a powerful government to fight on your side and end the history of exploitation and oppression.

This brings us to the need to get it right.  The astonishing increase in prosperity in the lands that have practiced the Invisible Hand doctrine is surely an argument that the Invisible Hand works.  The end of slavery, of racism, and of grueling manual labor surely means that the application of the Exploitation doctrine has worked and that the remaining oppressions--such as gay marriage--are much less urgent than the old evils of slavery and satanic mills.  Yes: for some people this is still a cruel and heartless world.  But overall, things have got remarkably better.  The takeaway?  We need much less social compulsion in our society.  Since government is the principal agent of compulsion, that means that we need much less government.

Let's come right out and say it.  It's time to say: "no more victims!"  The notion of humans as social animals means that we are all social beings and we should all be active in societal interaction and cooperation--even the poor who are so often cast in the role of helpless victims in our modern political dramas.  There is a lot of modern commentary--from writers like James Tooley and Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh--that shows the urban underclass poor to be energetic and resourceful.  They scrape up the money to send their kids to private school in cities like Hyderabad and they figure out how to run off-the-books businesses.  They even figure out how to manage and save money in the chaotic world of the urban slum.  Let's stop treating them like helpless victims!

That leads us to the idea that everyone can and should contribute.  It has been well said by Mark Steyn that the problem with the welfare state is that it makes everyone into teenagers.  We get to decide what cellphone to use and what car to drive, but every other decision is made for us.  That's the difference between teenagers and adults: adults have responsibilities.  The modern welfare state attenuates the responsibilities of citizens and collapses citizen responsibilities into government programs and bureaucracies; it turns adults into teenagers.  But Arthur C. Brooks in The Road to Freedom argues that people need two things to be happy.  They need to work at something they love and achieve earned success.  And they need to give.  The more they give, the happier they will be and the less envious they will be.

You can see what this means.  It means that if individuals are to be happy they must stop being teenagers and become adults, with responsible work and active engagement in their community where they give time and money to others.

It is obvious that the only way this can happen is if big bureaucracy, corporate and governmental, takes a big dive.  It's hard to feel your work is meaningful when you work in a big bureaucracy.  And it's hard to give to the community if the government has scarfed up all the social tasks of helping others and relieving the poor.

But golly.  Lookee here.  We've just finished up two centuries in which the low-compulsion Invisible Hand society has performed wonders in lifting everyone up from poverty.  And we've already cleared away the great evils of slavery and racial discrimination.

So the stage is set for a new era of freedom and cooperation, a culture of involvement, from the foundation president to the neighborhood mama, with a lot less governmental coercion.

But there is someone standing in the courthouse door, bellowing: Progressivism today, Progressivism tomorrow, Progressivism forever! It is your neighborhood liberal. America cannot move forward until liberals step back, stop insisting that the US is an evil, oppressive nation, and relax their death-grip on the levers of political and cultural power.

That is why the election of Barack Obama in 2008 was a good thing, and the defeat of President Obama in 2012 will be just as beneficial.  The election of Obama in 2008 proved that the US had got beyond slavery and racism.  The rejection of Obama in 2012 will prove that the US utterly rejects the canard that the US remains an oppressive nation that needs gigantic government to force it into the ways of virtue.

The election and the rejection of Obama will clear the public square of all the dirt and dross of a century of big government; it will demoralize the liberal ruling class that has spent the last generation refusing to learn the lesson of Reagan.  It will create the space for a new birth of freedom and cooperation.

Is this a great country or what?

No comments:

Post a Comment