Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Whither Liberalism?

I think "whither" means "where does (noun) go from here?" So that's what I mean when I say that....where was I? Oh, yes. Liberal dogma is in a lot of trouble, for multiple reasons. It might be going too far to say that the current Obama scandals could finish it off altogether, but they might well give the Left's conventional wisdom severe and permanent damage.

As you probably know, what we oppose has had a variety of names: socialism, progressivism, technocratism, and currently, liberalism. Leftists change the packaging and the emphasis depending on circumstances and when the existing version has become discredited, but it remains an ideology of government control and (especially if your name is Michael Bloomberg) micromanagement, all in the name of a planned, perfected society.

Up until 1945, the Left was more openly totalitarian in its aspirations. Fascism, communism, state socialism: these were the wave of the future. And then we had a couple world wars and planned mass murder and suddenly totalitarian rule didn't seem so hot. So instead, liberals started talking about "social democracy," which was a lot milder. No abolition of private property, no special camps for political enemies: Instead, it's all about government aid, making sure everyone has enough to eat, every skinned knee gets treated, and so on and so on. "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" was still the guiding principle, only with free elections and an army of taxmen and social workers to accomplish it, rather than a jackboot. And hey, if everyone was fat and happy and gradually got used to it, why not? So for the past half-century or so, liberals were very good at promoting the idea that they and their democratic welfare state now represented the happy medium; as opposed to the excesses of Stalin and Mao on the far Left and, more importantly, evil laissez-faire conservatism on the Right.

But this story of liberal progress ultimately rests on two claims: 1) The welfare state can adequately deliver the goods to its citizens and maintain a productive economy; and 2) Its functionaries will always act with the public good at heart.

The former, of course, has so many holes in it it's almost not worth repeating. Just look at Europe, its continent of origin. Andrew has already discussed how Sweden, the old role model of socialism-lite, has been forced to drastically scale back its programs in recent years, after chronically high unemployment and economic stagnation. Meanwhile, its Scandinavian neighbor, Denmark, has seen so many people opt for the government benefits attached to unemployment that only three of its 98 municipalities now have a majority of residents employed, and working a low-paying job instead of living on the state's largesse is increasingly seen as the sucker's way out. Spain, which may well soon become a bigger basketcase than Greece, has seen such a collapse that a visitor to the country sees abandoned condos and half-completed freeways all around, and youth unemployment is well over 50 percent. And the Franco-German alliance that has basically driven a united, planned Europe is under increasing stress, with France's new Socialist government attacking Berlin for being selfish and the Germans responding by calling their western neighbor a "problem child." Haven't we kinda seen this movie before?

And I trust I don't need to bring up how things are on our side of the pond, where we head into Recovery Summer IV: The Legend of Curly's Gold Hoarding with small businesses stifled by crushing regulations, the indicators of economic activity still sluggish, and ObamaCare collapsing under its own bureaucratic nightmares. Or the bottomless pit into which whole states like California are falling. Not only can the liberal model not "deliver the goods," it's having a hard time just keeping the lights on.

So what about that other claim? The one about members of government being disinterested servants of the common good? Well, well, well.

I'm not even going to try recapping all the scandals and crap of the past couple weeks. What I want to know is, how is anyone surprised by all of this? I haven't spent nearly as much time in government as others have, but never did I see an agency or office completely free of politics. Maybe partisan considerations didn't directly influence policy or treatment of subjects, but step behind the scenes and you'll absolutely hear the employees talking smack about some person or party. And there is definitely such a thing as "groupthink."

The truth is, the government is not an entity unto itself. Like every other organization ever, it's made up of people; fallible, non-impartial people. And as with all people, the more power and less oversight they're given, the more likely they are to abuse what they have. This seems obvious, but for some reason, there's a common assumption that this doesn't apply where the "representatives of the people" are concerned. Yes, we joke about individuals and occasionally whole branches being corrupt or liars, but never does it enter our heads that there could be an actual plot afoot to target the government's political enemies. Collectively, DC is supposed to be responsible enough not to act like that; and that reputation is what's kept the populace rather quiet up to now.

The real outcome of all this, then, may be to fix in ordinary people's minds the idea that citizens and the state really are antagonists. That's not to say we're going to see an end to leftist policies; lest we forget, there's still three and a half years of Obama to get through. But over the long run, we may begin seriously rethinking our notions of order and liberty and whatnot. The liberal dream of an all-powerful welfare state can survive a lot, but not a common conception of the government as both ineffectual and sinister.

It'll be interesting to see what comes next.


AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, It's always hard to predict how people will respond to things like this, but in light of my article yesterday and yours today, I think the answer is what liberals are starting to say -- that their dreams of making government into something the people look to are dead again.

Think about this. Obama was presented as something new -- a competent Democrat. BUT... he's drive the country to near-bankruptcy. He's created a laughably incompetent healthcare plan that will collapse under it's own weight. He achieved nothing he wanted. He's mired the country in permanent recession. He's robbed the taxpayers to help his friends. Now we learn that Mr. Happy Good Guy has been spying on the press and his enemies. He's Nixon only worse. He's misused the IRS to get his enemies. And the whole government seems to be determined to punish those who oppose him in the most petty of ways.

The end result is that rather than making government cool, they've made the government petty and adversarial.

AndrewPrice said...

Also, I didn't know that about Denmark. I'm not surprised, but I am amused. I guess they want to become Greece North.

On Spain, by the way, I read somewhere that over 50% of the employed people in the country work for the government. Ditto on Scottland and a few other places in Europe. Good luck with that folks.

K said...

First off, pro-liberty advocates shouldn't be calling the left "liberals". We should be taking a page from the collectivist playbook and use either "Progressives" (see 1930s eugenics movement support and influence on Mussolini) or alternatively "left wingers" which puts them on the Stalin continuum.

I agree that ultimately the present course of the left will be bankruptcy, but what happens after that is as yet undetermined. There could be a Russian style collapse and subsequent political anarchy which I think would be the best case or a Hugo Chavez type "democratic" communist government after the fall.

El Gordo said...

"It'll be interesting to see what comes next."

I foresee more of the same. Whining about "the system". You see, the left means well but the country is just ungovernable. It´s just too damn rotten after the rich, greedy neocapitalist obstructionists stacked the deck and starved our noble institutions of funds for decades. We need a total overhaul. Even more fundamental change. The solution for government failure is more government. Also, race, class, gender. It´s self evident, no?

That will probably be the favored narrative. It isn´t new. I´m not sure many Americans will buy it, IF there is a clear counter-narrative.

The problem with Europe is, there isn´t one. Europeans are cynical about politicians but they believe in the state. It´s statists all the way down.

Tennessee Jed said...

the two claims you list as necessary to validate progress are interesting. First, whwther it can "deliver the welfare goodies, AND maintain a productive economy." I think what actually happens is that economics IS cyclical and can be impacted by things well beyond government policy. People are seeing Obama has failed to deliver on this promise, but rhetoric will be "it would have worked if we could only have completely shut Republican knuckle dragging." To an extent, during Republican years, wealth did flow to fewer and fewer. That is a fact of capitalism, so Capitalists do need to spread the wealth enough to keep the populace from longing for welfarism. Second, tenant is that liberalism will work if only we can get good, kind hearted people at the controls. Well, it remains to be seen if we get a special prosecutor or not. Liberals do remind me of little kids and Tinkerbell. But, the press will do their best to "protect the King." Until, we have absolute proof of wrongdoing at high levels, it will be stonewall congressional hearings and refuse special prosecutors so Holder can investigate and intimidate.

T-Rav said...

Andrew, I did just see an article from the Daily Beast by a liberal (well, it's Kirsten Powers, who is more centrist than many of them) who is trying to argue, "No, liberalism didn't cause these scandals, you can't blame a whole ideology for them." Which is an understandable thing to say, but clearly the Left is starting to worry that this perception might become ingrained in the population.

That said, these scandals aren't very old, so we've yet to see how far they will stick. But it's sure interesting.

T-Rav said...

As for Denmark, they are taking some steps to trim back their welfare programs, like Sweden and other countries. But they're really hampered by the entitlement mentality that has developed, so we'll see.

A lot of those places are famous for their bloated and ineffective bureaucracies. Would that Scotland's 50% rate was an outlier; from what I've read, a few areas like Northern Ireland have 75% of people employed in the public sector.

T-Rav said...

K, I agree that referring to those on the Left as "liberals" is kind of inaccurate; however, the two terms are pretty well linked in people's minds at this point. Calling them "progressives" might be a viable alternative, but in practice we'll continue to see all these terms used interchangeably.

To be clear, I don't think the Left will just go away. As we've discussed before, the problem is always who's implementing or responding to their ideas, never the ideas themselves. What course of action they would take in the event of bankruptcy and economic collapse, I have no idea; but the way things have gone in California, coupled with the general abuse of power we're now learning about, is not exactly encouraging.

T-Rav said...

El Gordo, I agree about what the Left's intellectual response will be, but unfortunately, I suspect a lot of people will continue to believe it. There's the fact that liberals continue to hold a lot of the opinion-making levers, and then there's simple inertia. If the elections proved anything, they proved that people really do not like to admit they were wrong, even to themselves.

As for Europe, I really don't know. There are genuine anti-statist parties and movements at work, and a few reforms in places, and it's not out of the question that we could see a greater reaction in that direction. But, it would require significant commitment and coordination by those in power, which we're not seeing much of so far. Also, Europe's demographic collapse has resulted in the voting-age population being skewed toward the elderly, who have the most to gain from the welfare state and are in many cases the most wedded to it mentally. So there's a lot of barriers to overcome.

Tennessee Jed said...

I got a little side-tracked on my earlier comments regarding your second tenant of liberalism, even though the rant does speak to issue of whether corruption of the Obama administration will end up doing much damage to the brand. I do think it is interesting that almost every liberal that dares to speak up about the current scandal doesn't so much try and defend Obama, but rather talks about the fact is Bush's fault, or he was just as bad, etc. I think that right now, our voting populace seems to be set up to thwart huge moves to the left or right. Since neither party actually does much, and since corruption is almost built into the process, what we see is "let's change horses every 4 or eight years.

T-Rav said...

Jed, I think the first of those claims is easier to comprehend than the second. On the surface at least, there's not a clear correlation between which party is in power and economic strength, so it's understandable that one could claim Democrats do better for the economy (even if it's not true). Any claim to the government being made up of wise, kind-hearted do-gooders, though, ought to be dealt a mortal blow by these scandals. It's a confirmation of what Hayek said in The Road to Serfdom: Create agencies with lots of power over the population, and they tend to attract people with no scruples in exercising that power.

T-Rav said...

Jed, as far as I know, Commentarama has no policy against rants. :-)

I meant to add earlier, too, in reply, that we're already seeing a lot of Democrats coming right out and saying that this really wasn't such a bad thing to be doing and, hey, maybe the snooping, double standards, and so on were kind of justified. Even when they don't say that, they carefully avoid saying anything that might tarnish the liberal vision. Like you mentioned, they say it was Bush's fault, or (just as often) suggest more money and more agencies are the solution. That government might need to be shrunk would never occur to them.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav and Jed, Nope, we have no anti-rant policy.

On Powers, good luck with that! LOL! The public will see Obama as a failure of liberalism, not as a failure of Obama. It takes the liberal delusion that somehow liberalism has never been tried to fall for that, and the public knows better.

rlaWTX said...

"there's still three and a half years of Obama to get through." Thanks for bumming me out, T-Rav!

But this is a hopeful thought! "The liberal dream of an all-powerful welfare state can survive a lot, but not a common conception of the government as both ineffectual and sinister."

darski said...

I think you have forgotten about the Obama voters. Do you really think that liberty or honour mean anything to them? What do they care about a free press - free presses don't pay for Obamaphones. What do they care about ambassadors and sovereign states? What do they care about the IRS when 48% of your people do not contribute? No pain;no drain.

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, I think there is a lot to be hopeful about. I think the American people by and large haven't bought into liberalism and we're definitely in no danger of liberalism actually working out around here.

AndrewPrice said...

darski, Obama voters are a very small percentage of the population -- about 21%. If we can start to win over the people who have stopped voting over the last couple decades, then the Obama voters won't matter.

T-Rav said...

I'm sorry, rla! Hey, maybe we'll get lucky and Obama and Biden will both be forced to resign, making John Boehner the new President. It could happen....right?

T-Rav said...

darski, of course they don't care. But that wing can't determine policy all on its own. If enough moderates/independents turn against the Dems, all their Obamaphone voters can't help them.

T-Rav said...

Andrew, I really don't mind if they see Obama as a failure of Obama and liberalism, just so long as they see him as a failure of liberalism.

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