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.

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