Friday, August 6, 2010

The Culture of Compulsion

What is the center of the conservative critique of liberalism? It is, I believe, that liberalism has replaced the community of social relationship with a rigid mechanism of administrative bureaucracy.

Of course, the old ways of traditional face-to-face community had its problems. It was often unreflectingly conservative and often hardened hierarchy into oppression. The question at the beginning of the modern era was how to replace the often oppressive hierarchy of the old regime with a new web of freedom.

In the adventure of freedom the Anglo-Saxons attempted a balance of powers that tried to compromise between national power and local loyalty, and set the different branches against each other in a separation of government powers. The French attempted to erect an empire of Reason, and it led directly to the guillotine and the Terror. The Germans erected an empire of rational hierarchy from schools to state bureaucracies to the armed forces. They turned a nation of poets and thinkers into an army. It was an army that could conquer the French any time it wanted to, but it led to the ruin of 1945.

You'd think that everyone would get the message but they didn't. In all the great areas of political life we moderns have marginalized instinctive, cooperative voluntarism and built up huge structures of rational administration.

We have built up huge government pension programs wonderful in their mechanical completeness but utterly unconnected to underlying economic reality. That is to say, we have decreed what is to be paid to older people in benefits and what is to be paid by younger workers in taxes and contributions, but we have no way of balancing the two. In all western nations, the government pension program is breaking down.

We have built up huge government health care programs. The British National Health Service is the largest administrative organization in the world after the Indian Railways. Each administrative system reflects the latest ideas from the politicians, from the health producer interests, and political interest groups. But it cannot respond to the day-by-day needs of ordinary people and adjust itself to their priorities. It is subsidized at the point of delivery but ruinously expensive overall.

We have built up huge government education systems. These systems require that children be sent upon compulsion for most of their childhood and youth to government custodial facilities to learn--not very much. The education system is designed around the needs and notions of the educated professional class. Thus it assumes that every child should prepare for a college education, ignoring the fact that most people learn by doing. The system responds, as any government program, to political winds and desperate attempts by politicians to respond to the latest disaster. But it cannot respond to the individual needs of parents and children. It pits parents against each other as its centralized administrative structure forces it towards one-size-fits-all.

We have built up huge government welfare systems. These systems treat the poor as passive objects of compassion that either qualify or do not qualify for benefits. But humans are not passive objects. They are resourceful creatures, descendants of a species that has hacked a habitat out of a nature that only rains down its blessings upon the adaptable. Thus the poor and the not-so-poor develop a cunning knowledge of the system and learn how to adjust their lives to qualify for benefits. They become world experts in qualifying for government pensions when youthful twenty-somethings; they expose the lie of an intelligent elite assisting helpless victims proving themselves intelligent exploiters of a mechanical monster.

These vast administrative structures marginalize ordinary people. They make them into cogs in a vast machinery. The administrative state turns people from free citizens responsibly serving their fellows in voluntary cooperation into dependent drones anxiously searching for the right shaped benefit outlet in which to plug in for a battery charge.

There must be a better way. There must be a way of building a society in which the ordinary person has a social and responsible role, something with more dignity than an insecure dependence on a government program.

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