Sunday, April 3, 2011

Return to the Beginning

The Recovering Bureaucrat concluded the last post with the final lines of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, a powerful poem about expansion of consciousness. Eliot explores the experience of many humans that spiritual growth often requires exile from one’s initial beliefs only to return, after much struggle, to the fundamental truths that were always there, usually in the form of religious principles, from the beginning.

And so it must be for America to find its way back from its flirtation with too much government to what makes it, in Lincoln’s immortal words, “the last, best hope of earth.”

The RB operates from two interconnected principles. The first is that the American experiment in self-governance requires an ever-renewing civic consciousness of and recommitment to our founding principles. The second is the understanding that those founding principles stem from the conviction that all human progress depends on mature, self-actualizing individuals, able to pursue happiness unfettered by any form of tyranny not agreed to by the lawful consent of the governed.

The American Civil War, whose sesquicentennial we are about to observe with the 150th anniversary of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, marked the high point of our civic commitment to these founding principles. Over 600,000 of our countrymen died to cement the “new birth of freedom” that Lincoln so rightly proclaimed at Gettysburg.

Inevitably, in the decades that followed Appomattox, the dramatic rise of the industrial economy here and in Europe sparked a push-back against the limited government philosophy of the free individual. The Progressive movement was based upon an explicit rejection of the supremacy of individual liberty as the basis for the American experiment. It sought instead to impose a new communitarian theory upon the polity.

Those avatars of progressivism, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, differed only in the form of communitarian governance they would inaugurate. They both believed that in order for their domestic imperialism to triumph, the population would be required, either through persuasion or coercion, to submit to the mastery of the experts.

America, they and their Progressive allies asserted, was becoming too big and complicated for the average voter to make informed political choices. In addition, all those individual choices could impede the progress toward a proper state of affairs.  After all, hadn’t the nation just endured the Gilded Age, in which individualism ran amok, blackening the landscape with the soot of industrial expansion, lowering the wellbeing of the population with the squalor of poverty and ghettoes, and sapping the moral fiber of the nation by permitting robber barons to pillage the common weal?

Over the course of twelve years, TR and Wilson experimented with different ways to empower the state at the expense of individual initative and opinion.  The "Red Scare" of Wilson's tyrannical Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer should be seen as a constituent element of this endeavor.  So, too, was the promotion of the 18th amendment to the Constitution enshrining prohibition into our fundamental law.

Americans decisively rejected the Progressive experiment when Warren Harding, promising a “return to normalcy,” won by a landslide in the election of 1920. The statist dreams of TR and Wilson would have to wait for the Depression to shift public opinion sufficiently to welcome by majority vote the new political philosophy.

And we have been dealing with the fall-out ever since.

Important books have been written exploring the impact of the New Deal revision of our founding principles. For a historical analysis, the RB recommends Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism and Stephen Hayward’s two-volume The Age of Reagan for starters.

What’s important for today’s post is to recognize that one of the unfortunate offspring of the TR-Wilson-FDR counterrevolution against our founding principles is the culture of entitlement and victimhood. The belief that “society” owes its members an outcome of success in their personal circumstances and that the failure to receive this outcome is an act of aggression against them is so prevalent in our official culture that to point out its psychopathological nature is heretical.

This assumption forms the basis of the endless entitlement state we Americans have established since the New Deal. To those who assume the eternal truth of this creed, there is no government program unworthy of the taxpayers’ largess. Worse (or better, if you are so inclined), the indelible flaws that mark human nature require ever newer programs to deal with always brutal effects of human interaction.

We no longer believe that we ourselves are responsible for our lives; we have projected this onto the collective society. And because we individuals are incapable of making sound choices for ourselves, we are equally incapable of making them for the collective; therefore we must submit to the judgments of the experts who, by virtue of their superior training and moral righteousness, know what’s best for the community.

A scan of the Sacramento Bee’s editorial pages is guaranteed to offer ripe examples of this mindset. In today’s paper we read, as one example, a letter from one Carol L. Kent, helpfully entitled by the Bee’s headline writers “GOP peddles lies when it says we must settle for less.” In it Ms. Kent assails Republican Assemblywoman Diane Harkey for wanting “to foist upon California . . . nothing more than a blood bath of lost services, further decimation of our educational systems and unsustainable cuts to health care, public safety and other public services. California's quality of life was the best.”

Now the RB is sure that Ms. Kent is a fine person, probably well-educated and certainly well-meaning. And the RB has no desire to defend Ms. Harkey, whose caucus has inexplicably eschewed the opportunity to put forth meaningful counterproposals to Governor Jerry Brown’s budget.

But in reading Ms. Kent’s letter (assuming that it has been accurately edited—something one must always take into account when reading mainstream media), one can’t help but be struck by the sense of entitlement and victimhood it so ingenuously displays.

Remember, the tone of choice of this mindset is outrage. The victim is outraged that she has been victimized yet again! And because she is entitled to her outrage, she can accuse the oppressors of anything and everything awful—in this case, she accuses Ms. Harkey and her colleagues of wanting to initiate a “bloodbath.”

The serious reader, of course, stops right here and heads directly for the comics (and possibly a good martini as well). Bloodbaths are what people in Libya, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Rwanda, the Ivory Coast, and other fragile societies have had to face over the past several decades. And, of course, they have experienced actual bleeding and dying of the mortal kind, not the potential increase of class sizes and co-payments for doctors’ visits.

But the heart of her complaint, and the example of her captivity by the entitlement mindset, is in what she characterizes as “a pack of lies”: that because of the GOP opposition to raising taxes, “we have to settle for inferior schools, deteriorated parks, decreased health services, etc.” What Ms. Kent means is that “we” cannot have decent schools, parks, health service, etc., unless they are managed by government “experts” and paid for by taxpayers at the rates demanded by those experts.

Hmmm. Really? It apparently escapes Ms. Kent’s notice that the private sector supports a myriad of schools, parks, hospitals, and so on, without a dime of taxpayer subsidy. So it is possible, according to existing evidence, to have such things without the government. Notice the RB did not say that it is better, only that it is possible.

Why? What’s the point? The point is that once one assumes that society must provide certain things as a matter of political right, then there is no limit to what the taxpayers must finance. Worse, the more the government does for us what we could do for ourselves, the more dependency-inclined becomes our assumptions.

As our outraged victimhood becomes our political philosophy, we must permanently have oppressors; after all, we are no longer responsible for ourselves. And sure enough, Ms. Kent comes through. “The financial meltdown,” she instructs us, “was caused by the greed of Wall Street, the lack of regulation, and, by extension, the lack of protection of the public.”

What a vicious circle. The public, incapable as we are of protecting ourselves from greedy Wall Street, must always depend—there’s that word again—upon the disinterested and benevolent regulators. Therefore, public safety demands that everything be regulated.

Now there’s a full employment program!

The RB suggests that Ms. Kent and her fellow congregants of the Church of the All-Powerful State re-read 1984. The top dogs in that novel created a world of perpetual strife, requiring the all-powerful state to monitor not only the actions of its denizens but their very thoughts as well—the better to thoroughly protect them from Eurasia. Or Eastasia. (Orwell's ironic point is, of course, that the actual oppressor is less important than that the victim agree to his victimhood by always being ready for the Two Minute Hate against whoever has been identified as the Bad Guy.)

So in this one letter we get the entire collectivist counterrevolution in six pithy paragraphs: outrage, victimhood, entitlement, inability and/or unwillingness to take individual responsibility, blame for the oppressor, and demand for government protection.

America was started as an epochal revolution against the tyranny of George III and the British parliament that stifled individual sovereignty. It is, for better or worse, a revolution whose victory has not yet been won and is not pre-ordained. Our statist counterrevolution masked a return to tyranny, not of the king, but this time of the expert-managed state.

But tyranny is tyranny. The RB is betting that, in our return to the beginning, we will reinvigorate our founding principles that are animated by our endless human potential, rather than returning to the tyrannical principles of the all-powerful government inspired by our fears.

This is the slippery slope from Woodrow Wilson to this moment of decision. The problem is, we have rung up so much financial debt that we now have the stark choice: fully fund all the entitlements of the post-New Deal world, or recharge our economy by giving full rein to the power of individual initiative and entrepreneurship. Someone needs to tell Ms. Kent we can no longer do both.

1 comment:

  1. RB, your observations of statism growing from victimhood & entitlement are intriguing, but you also seem to hint at an inevitable self-defeat of V&E. Perhaps a self-defeat that owes directly to the statist outcome V&E desires. If you’re headed in the direction I think you are, I wish you’d elaborate further, because I think there may be a flipside to the “vicious circle” you point out.

    You observe, tongue in cheek, “the public, incapable as we are of protecting ourselves from greedy Wall Street, must always depend … upon the disinterested and benevolent regulator. Therefore, public safety demands that everything be regulated.”

    But here’s another vicious circle operating on a parallel plane: As everything becomes regulated, the public becomes more and more dissatisfied – perhaps victimized? – by its government.

    Hayek points out in “Road to Serfdom” that socialism (which I think we can appropriately consider V&E-driven government) is doomed not only by impractical means to achieve its end, but also an impractically defined end. Socialists all like egalitarian entitlements generically, but their common purpose lasts only so long as they don’t compare each other’s unique expectations of what each person’s entitled to. Each socialist favors – and deems him/herself entitled to – a certain combination of the goods and services to be rationed by his or her state. But who gets to decide this combination? As government regulates and provides more and more of the staples of our personal lives, Hayek predicts the decisions about these combinations will become more and more contentious, and irreconcilable. In other words, the socialist state will fail to be all things to all people.

    The V&E flock believe they’re all on the same side, but if they ever got their fully socialist state, I think they’d quickly discover they’re actually fractured by incalculable divisions. But drifting slowly toward s statist regime, they’ve instead mistaken the government’s failures as a failure of means, not a nonattainment of a non-end.

    What’s Congress’ public approval rating again?

    To sum up, perhaps this cycle is explanatory: V&E leads to statism (quixotically overextended and governmentally impotent) that by its failures fuels V&E?

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