Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Liberals! Stop Blowing Things Up!

What with Obamacare a full-fledged disaster and all, commentators are just about united in describing President Obama as "blowing up the health care system" for the sake of the 30 or 40 million or so "uninsured."

Only now it turns out that the uninsured aren't signing up for health insurance, not so you'd notice.  So, the commentators are now saying: we blew up the health care system -- for what, exactly?

When you think about it, liberals are always blowing things up.  And for what?

One hundred years ago they blew up the credit system and substituted the Federal Reserve System.  How's that been working out, as the dollar has gone from $20 per ounce of gold to the present $1,300 or so?

What about the wonders of Social Security?  Well, according to some researchers nations, a pay-as-you-go government pension scheme results in people that seem to stop having children.  And that's apart from the fact that Social Security blows a hole in the savings rate.

Then there's welfare.  That's blown up the low-income family, to the tune of $20 trillion over the last 50 years.

Then liberals decided they had to provide "affordable housing" to everyone, regardless of ability to pay.  That ended up blowing up the credit system in 2008.

What else?  Well there is always the student loan system that is in the process of blowing up higher education.  There is always the war on drugs that has blown up the inner city.

Right now I'm reading Doctor Zhivago, about how the Bolsheviks blew up Russia.  Really, Russia has never been the same since.  Go back before that and read about how the Jacobins blew up France.  Ditto France.  It has never been the same.

The fact is that the only thing government knows how to do is to kill people and to blow things up.  But very rarely is that necessary in the course of human events.

Let's take two present issues: marijuana and abortion.

The problem is that both of these are moral questions, not criminal questions.  People may disagree about the morality of abortion, but it is not a criminal matter that should be decided by police.  Same with drug use.  It would be far better to conduct these matters as moral issues, and make abortion and drug use shameful rather than illegal.

President Clinton famously tried to square the circle on abortion by making it "safe, legal, and rare."  I'd say that conservatives should trump him by making abortion "safe, legal, and shameful."

Ee should use the same strategy on drug use.  We shouldn't make it illegal.  We should make it déclassé, darling.  And that means women getting together and whispering about the friend who's doing too much alcohol, pot, pain-killers, anxiety drugs -- like, whatever.

That's how we solve social problems: socially.

And then maybe we could stop blowing things up all the time.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The System Isn't the Solution

Why is Obamacare such a mess?  Why is the economy barely growing?  Why are the rich making money hand over fist in the stock market while ordinary Americans are struggling to find jobs?

It's the system.  Or rather the faith in system.  Our liberal friends believe that politicians can and should construct a system of health care.  They believe that government can fine-tune the economic system.  They believe that government can intervene in the labor markets to improve the outcomes for workers.

We talk about the free-enterprise system and the market system but really it isn't.  Nobody set up an economic system; it just evolved.  And the modern market system evolved out of the limited markets that obtained during the feudal era.  As people got more freedom from the hierarchical demands of their feudal ties they interacted with each other and developed markets and trading and credit and prosperity.  The folk that did international business, like the Champagne fairs of the Middle Ages developed the bill of exchange that allowed them do transact business without having to pay in coin.  Nobody ordered it; it just evolved.

Of course we are trammeling here into the dangerous waters of Social Darwinism.  It is one thing to say that genes evolve by an unconscious process of natural selection, where the offspring that are blindly better adapted to the environment survive and the others don't.  It is another thing to say that the same process applies to social interactions.

But you can see what happens when the unconscious interactions of market players are banned and a state system of interaction is substituted.  You get the flavor of it in Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago.  As the market interactions of ordinary Russians were made illegal and the "system" failed to provide food and basic necessaries in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution people were forced to exchange goods in a criminal manner in the dark of night.  You exchanged household goods for food.  On the train you leaped off at stations to buy food from peasant women that stood around the back of a shed ready for the train passengers with cooked food wrapped in quilted towels.

Here's Michael Totten driving across Cuba in a bus.
Most of Cuba is more or less flat. I could see off in the distance outside the window because the landscape is not forested. It consists mostly of grass, stray palm trees, sad little agricultural plots, and unused fields gone to the weeds. 
Unused fields gone to the weeds?  There's an infestation of weeds from Angola, and "no one seems to have a clue how to get rid of it."  Now why would this be so?

It's because nothing happens in Cuba outside the "system."  If you are an enterprising soul you can't rub a couple nickels together and buy a little weedkiller or experiment with a bit of poly-culture.  No indeed.   Because nothing moves in Cuba unless it's approved by the "system."

It is telling that the best indictment of "system" has been developed by a leftist, Jürgen Habermas.  The system that you get with any large organization, whether capitalist or governmental or military is inherently dominatory, according to Habermas.  That's because the whole point of a system is to force everyone to work for a single goal, and a system always thinks and acts strategically.  His solution is to balance the strategic domination of system with communicative "Handeln."  Handeln means "action" in German but it also means haggling and negotiation.  When applied to Jews and business people it seems to be a pejorative.

I don't know if Habermas knew what he was proposing, but it seems obvious to me that the combination of system and Handeln is in fact modern capitalism with a minimum of interference by lefties.  There is no doubt that the knowledge and the organization of institutions that make and sell goods and services are enormously powerful and dominatory.  But the market is voluntary; actual transactions are subject to negotiation.  You don't have to buy at Walmart, but many people do, and will continue to do so as long as Walmart offers their Everyday Low Prices.

The huge error at the center of Obamacare is to imagine that you can substitute the complex interaction of system and Handeln with a single bureaucratic systems manual.  There is a category error here.  You can create a government system to e.g., invade the continent of Europe.  There's a single, simple goal that, given the biggest economy in the world, you can achieve if you allocate 40 percent of GDP to the task for a few years.

But health care is not so simple.  It cannot end with the defeated enemies of good health care signing an instrument of unconditional surrender.  It is a constantly changing, constantly adapting thing -- an unconscious organism responding every moment to the great tides of secular change and the little ripples of individual need.

When you want something to respond every moment to every change in human need you don't want to give the job to government.

There is in the human breast the constant yearning for an end to all the struggling, to live in peace and tranquility free from the brutal forces of the world: the Kantian dream of Perpetual Peace.

And so, time after time, humans try to create that dream, by fiat, by saying let it be so.  But the only way that people can seem to imagine such a paradise is by forcing their dream on other people.  And so they transform the dream into a nightmare.

Liberals have been dreaming of a universal system for health care for about a century.  If only we had a centralized system, they have insisted, then all the inadequacies and injustices of the current system would be eliminated.

But our liberal friends are in the middle of being proved disastrously wrong on their health care dream.  And instead of a dream they are creating a nightmare.

They have only themselves to blame.  Economics says that a government system is not the answer.  Political theory says that centralized power is not the answer.  Even lefty sociologist-philosophers say that system is not the answer.  And that is to say nothing about the actual facts of history, from the failure of socialist communes in the 19th century to the failure of communist dictatorships in the 20th century and the dead hand of government bureaucracy everywhere you look around.

The system isn't the solution, liberals.  Why is that so hard for you to understand?

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Inequality, Crony Capitalism, the Left and Obamacare

The modern secular religion that we call the Left has a vision of human liberation and emancipation: a liberation and emancipation of all humans from the oppressions and subordinations of the past.

But the odd thing about its vision is that it is wholly political; it can only imagine getting to the future by force.

This is a puzzling thing, because the whole point of human society is that it represents a zone of peace; disputes between humans within society are not to be settled by force, but by other means.

This requires the left -- and every political actor -- to divide the society into Us and Them.  Properly, We are the group, the tribe, the nation, the society and They are the Enemy in the next village, next nation.

In the notion of the left the enemy is a viper in the bosom of our own society, a nest of exploiters, or robber barons, or class enemies, or racists, sexists and bigots.  Thus the left must mount a war of the people against the powerful, the workers against the bosses, the gays against the "haters."

In other words, the left is always waging a civil war against the domestic enemy.  The irony is that this usually requires the left to co-opt some of the people that it normally characterizes as the "enemy."

Take Obamacare.  For decades the left has taught everyone to believe that the problem with health care is insurance companies and drug companies and corporate greed.  Yet President Obama and the congressional Democrats designed Obamacare around the need to co-opt the drug companies and the health insurers into its plan so that they would not oppose it, and it exempted big corporations, the ones that self-insure, from many onerous regulations and requirements.  There is even a "risk corridor" to bail out insurance companies from losses if Obamacare's projections turn out to be wrong.

When corporations get in bed with government we conservatives and libertarians like to call it "crony capitalism."

Of course, nothing prevents the left from turning on their corporate "partners" when things go wrong.

But this is all wrong, and cannot end well.  That is because the whole point of capitalism is that it is adapting, every moment, to the demands of the consumers.  The whole point of a big-government program like Obamacare is that it protects people from adaptation, and solves, for all time, some monstrous oppression or injustice, and it sets up a bureaucracy to manage it.

That is the point: bureaucracy doesn't adapt.  It wants to keep running things the old way, and resists change.  It can resist change for a while because it has the power of government behind it.

Today the cry of the left is against "inequality."  Of course it is.  Because the left always needs some rationalization for the use of government force.  If some people are rich and some people are poor then it requires a government intervention to redistribute it.

But what if the government policy supported and implemented by the left has actually contributed to inequality?  Somehow our lefty friends cannot imagine that.

There is a better way to look at this.  It is that freedom (and liberation and emancipation) needs individualism.  You cannot have freedom unless individuals are free (and also obligated) to search out and discover how they can contribute to society.  Servitude, the other side of the coin, always involves collectivization.  If government -- whether the family patriarch, the village big man, the local baron, the political commissar or the nation state -- guarantees anyone a lunch ticket then it must force people to work to provide that lunch.

When the Brits started emerging from feudalism a thousand years ago, they did a curious thing to break up their serf households; they sent their children away from home as apprentices and servants.  This meant, of course, they the detached their children from the mother's teat.  Each child had to find their own way in the world.

In a way, it's a cruel idea.  Each child must find a way to support itself on its own or perish.  But the alternative, of course, is to stay at home and submit oneself forever to the authority of the father.  Then you survive or perish upon the decisions of the patriarch.

OK, which is more cruel?  You rely on your own efforts to secure a livelihood or you rely on the efforts of the family patriarch, the precinct captain, the party boss, the charismatic politician?

I know what I think.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

"What is to be Done?"

Back in 1901, the year before my father was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, V. Lenin published a political tract titled "What is to be Done?"  Lenin set forth the Bolshevik vision that the working class on its own would never transform the state; it would take a vanguard party of middle class revolutionaries to engineer a fundamental transformation of Russian society.

Conservatives in the US are in a similar position.  Existing Republican leaders like Governors Scott Walker (R-WI), John Kasich (R-OH) and Chris Christie (R-NJ) are never going to do more than nibble away at the welfare state.  They are never going to push the boundary of the possible; they are never going to put the whole question of the administrative welfare state in question.  OK, maybe Scott Walker has pushed the boundaries a little.

That is why "A Conservative Vision of Government" by Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner is so disappointing.  They warn Republicans not to be seen as enemies of government, because, as James Q. Wilson wrote:
"Telling people who want clean air, a safe environment, fewer drug dealers, a decent retirement, and protection against catastrophic medical bills that the government ought not to do these things is wishful or suicidal politics."
Quite.  But conservatism turns on the nice question: the "we" in "we must have clean air" does not have to mean government.  "There is such a thing as society, it's just not the same thing as the state."  Therefore, write Gerson and Wehner:
Providing [social] services and securing that safety net does not mean accepting the technocratic mindset of the liberal welfare state. It means replacing that mindset with a conservative approach that puts government on the side of civil society and private enterprise in order to achieve a more just and thriving society.
But that is precisely the point.  We are not going to replace the liberal welfare state with a couple governors here and a president there, and a reform of liberal technocracy.  A genuine reform of the liberal welfare state starts with something much bigger a vision of what could replace the administrative welfare state.

Everyone wants "a decent retirement," but is a government pay-as-you-go program the best way to go? Everyone wants a pension, but is the old "defined benefit" pension anything more than a 50-year-old lie?

The problem is that there are millions of people that have paid into Social Security's pay-as-you-go program for decades, and they properly fear any changes.  How can conservative reform this program so that it becomes a genuine savings program and ends its unjust robbery of black men?  How can you tell, e.g., Boeing machinists, that their defined benefit pension program cannot be continued because it makes an impossible promise about the future?

The situation conservatives face right now is that the American people have too much invested in the liberal administrative state to consent to any reform.  This is no accident.  The state is just like an army; it constructs reality to make it really hard and dangerous for any individual in the rank and file to desert the colors.  So the only time that soldiers desert is when the army has been defeated and the food stops coming and the officers have mysteriously disappeared.

That is why Barack Obama is probably a stealth conservative.  The only way that health care could ever have come up for real reform would be if the government crashed the whole system, so that millions of people would be desperate for a real solution.  Thanks Barack!

The same goes for pensions, education, welfare.  The only way to reform them is to wait till they crash.  Then and only then will the American people consent to reform.

The job of conservatives meanwhile is to construct a vision of what American could be.  We do that all the time when we witter on about civil society, home schooling, vouchers, privatized pensions in Chile and Australia, published prices for health care procedures.

Our faith is the old one of Mahatma Gandhi: "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."

Where do you think we are?  Somewhere between "laugh at you" and "fight you?"  Let's hope so.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Is There a Revolution in Our Future?

The conventional wisdom about political revolutions is that they represent a failure of the "old regime" to modernize and keep with the times.

But Steve Pincus in "1688: The First Modern Revolution" sees it a bit differently.  He experiences the British Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the French Revolution of 1789 as the "old regime" pushing for modernization but losing control.

The problem for the "old regime" is that when it starts to modernize it opens modernization as a political question.  It extends state "authority more deeply into society" and so "politicize[s] and mobilize[s] people on the periphery," the people we call the low-information voters.  But people don't just get mobilized for the state's modernization project. There are regime opponents out there eager to mobilize the lo-fos against the state's modernization project and for their own modernization project.  Pretty soon the issue becomes not just modernization, but modernization for what, and for who.

In France before 1789, it is important to remember that Louis XVI was a modernizer. His modernization opened the question to discussion.
By announcing a break with the past, modernizing states create an ideological opening.  In order to explain and justify state expansion, state transformation, and the necessary intrusions in everyday life, modernizing states have to proclaim and explain their new direction.  In doing so they are compelled to concede the need for radical change... Modernizing states necessarily stir up wide-ranging debates about the means and ends of modernization.  Modernizing states create the ideological space for a modernizing opposition.
 The same thing applied in Britain during the Glorious Revolution.  James II started a modernization project to strengthen the army and navy and ally Britain with Catholic France.  But the Whig grandees wanted to strengthen the army and navy to ally instead with the upstart Protestant Dutch.

You can see where I want to go with this.  For years Democrats have forbidden any reform of their welfare state and have demagogued anyone that tried as tipping grannie over a cliff.

But with the Obamacare reform and its manifest troubles, Democrats have opened the whole question of reform.  With the lies and failures and millions of people losing their insurance the Democrats can no longer stop reform by worrying about grannie or the children.  Grannie is already being hurt; children are already starving.

So now the question is not between doing something or doing nothing.  We have already made that decision.  The question is what is the best way forward?  What kind of health care system do we want?  Do we want individual Americans to make their own decisions about health care or do we want the government to decide for us?

Obamacare is already changing Medicare with its attack on Medicare Advantage.  So that brings the whole of Medicare into question.  Radical lefties like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) are proposing benefit increases for Social Security.  Are you sure, Sen. Warren?  Because that brings the whole question of Social Security into the public square.

In the US today it is the liberals that represent the "old regime" and they have fought any attempt to reform their cruel and corrupt administrative state.   But now their modernization of health care is turning out to be a complete disaster they have accidentally opened the discussion about alternatives.

The aftermath of Obamacare may be a revolution in a lot more than health care.