Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Indictment

Conservatives have only one real problem with the administrative welfare state. Our problem is that the welfare state is unjust. Of course, we don't like the fact that it is also cruel, corrupt, wasteful, and anti-human-welfare, but the extras are just penumbras on the basic indictment.  Don't agree?  Let me count the ways.

Force.  Government is force, and big government is big-time force.  The result is that many social functions become exercises in force.  We are forced to send our children to school, and for the overwhelming majority, that means a government school run by government supporters.  We are forced to contribute to a government pension scheme, and the government manages the scheme badly.  We are forced to contribute to a government health-care scheme for our retirement years, and the government has badly underestimated the resources it will take to deliver the promised services.  What is the solution?  For government, more force.

Division.  Government is the means to defend against enemies, foreign and domestic.  But government cannot fight the foe unless it unites the people against the enemy threat.  Thus politicians are experts in the art of uniting.  But that also means they are experts in the art of dividing.  If there is no foreign threat that politicians can use to unite us then they will unite one half of the nation, in a political party, to fight against the other half.  There is nothing sinister about this; that's just what politicians do.  Obviously the more the government does, and the more money it spends, the more scope there is for uniting and dividing.  You can do it with class, you can do it with race.  You can set employees against business owners, and health-care consumers against insurance companies.  The more division you can create, the more that you can mobilize your supporters against the evil greedy ones.  There has to be a better way.

Freeloading.  Freeloading is the great issue for social animals.  We derive enormous benefit from our social engagement with each other, but every society has to deal with the freeloaders, the people that want to get their share without contributing their share.  In the past, societies have developed ingenious ways of dealing with freeloaders short of force, including naming and shaming and divine justice.  Of course, societies have long accepted that some people just cannot contribute, for no fault of their own.  But now we have developed the cult of the victim, in which people are encouraged to define themselves as indigent and unable to contribute their fair share.  Politicians use the cult of the victim to build support.  Where once leaders frankly offered loot and plunder to the warriors in their feudal host, now they offer loot and plunder to people that vote for them and define themselves as victims.

Patronage and Clientage.  In the agricultural era the food producers lived under a peculiar disadvantage.  They needed to store food against the next harvest, but any pirate or plunderer could come by and steal their store.  So the food producers ended up as clients of feudal patrons; they became serfs to warriors that could keep the plunderers at bay.  Since the warrior lords were predatory as well as the pirates, you might say that the cure was often worse than the disease.  Now the bourgeois revolution in the early modern era proposed to ditch this patron-client social relationship with the national state model.  The monarch got an army to defend against marauders, and the people were free to produce and consume in a market economy without having to truckle to a powerful patron.

It is clear, from the history of the last 200 years, that when people first arrive in the city from the country they bring their old patron-client culture with them from the countryside.  All immigrants to the US have begun by joining some sort of patronage machine, from Tammany Hall to the modern Democratic Party.  That is what they understand.  It is only when they get confident and competent in the world of the city that they come to embrace the individualist creed, which asserts the notion of the responsible self that confidently offers services to the community based on the faith that the money will follow.

But really, do we need a patron-client relationship to govern government employment?  Do we want basic social services to be delivered by powerful bosses?  Do we want favors distributed to grateful clients on the basis of race or class?  That way lies injustice.

Impossibility of reform.  The market economy is a process of constant adjustment.  No job, no fortune is guaranteed.  Every participant must consider, every day, how to serve the consumer.  That is why so many of us look to government to guarantee our jobs with labor legislation and preserve our fortunes with crony capitalism; we just don't have confidence in our ability to serve the consumers.  But the result is that government makes impossible promises to its supporters that cannot be withdrawn without a fight.  That is what is happening in Europe right now as people riot in the streets to protest the cuts in social services.

Any system that cannot reform itself short of riots in the streets is a failed system.  The welfare state system is a process of political warfare, a battle to divide the spoils of taxation and borrowing and regulation.  But the winners in each battle seem to think that they have won for all time, and are willing to fight to assert that right of victory.  There has to be a better way.

There is a better way.  Conservatives have recommended a limited government since the dawn of the modern era.  But Marxists have come a close second.  It was Marx that wanted to free the workers from the alienation of wage labor in factories so they could develop their human capacity to the fullest.  It was the Marxists of the Frankfurt School that argued that government and business both had dominatory tendencies, reducing everything to the mechanics of rules and system.  There had to be another way, a social way, that resolved issues of social cooperation in communication and persuasion rather than rules and penalties.

Everybody wants a better way.  Liberals call it "peace and justice."  Conservatives call it "limited government and peaceful cooperation."  The question is how do we get there from here?

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