The expansion of the state and the services it provides, well or badly as the case may be, inevitably changes the relations between citizen and state. Among other effects, it corrodes the idea of privacy and even the very possibility of privacy: for the more the state does for citizens, the wider its locus standi to interfere in their lives. It becomes, in the wonderful phrase of the Marquis de Custine about Nicholas I in his great book, Russia in 1839, eagle and insect: eagle because it soars above society, taking its capacity for an overview as an entitlement to direct everything, and insect because it bores into the smallest crevices of what lies below, though perhaps nowadays vulture and termite might be a better zoological metaphor.
A report of the British charity Oxfam recently drew attention to the fact that Britain’s five richest families had more assets than the lowest 20 per cent of the population put together. It called upon the government to consider instituting a wealth tax to reduce the gap, by how much it did not say. Would the poorest fifth be much the better off, or at least happier, if 20, say, or 50, rather than five families now had more wealth than they?
So President Barack Obama and the Democratic Congressional leadership are going to end inequality? A half century after President Lyndon Johnson’s attempt to eliminate poverty, progressives aim higher. While cynics may think the real goal is changing the subject from Obamacare, most progressives actually have kept the faith. Eliminating inequality guarantees the moral high ground, especially with a supportive media who also desperately want to believe and who will faithfully transmit whatever theme their political allies send their way.
Where does the Tea Party come from? William Galston recently argued that the Tea Party represents an update of the “Jacksonian tradition.” Drawing upon the work of Walter Russell Mead, Galston says that they “embrace a distinctive code, whose key tenets include self-reliance, individualism, loyalty and courage.” That’s true to a point but it also misses something fundamental. There are also some Puritan elements in the Tea Party.
This edition of Liberty Law Talk is with Yuval Levin, author of The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left. A 2013 Bradley Prize recipient, Levin connects us with the actual contest between Burke and Paine as they debated the central claims of the French Revolution and much of modern political thought with its focus on rights, individualism, the social contract vs. Burke's more expansive notions of social liberty, the contract among the dead, the living, and those yet to be born, and his belief in prescription or the notion that change should be…
In various lectures and publications, I’ve had occasion to call attention to the problem of the “birth dearth,” the fact that the birth rate has dropped below–often well below–the rate of replacement in just about every prosperous and high-tech country.
The relevant facts are laid out for our country (if hardly for the first time) in Jonathan V. Last’s thoughtful and accessible What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster. I can’t resist immediately making the point that American “disaster theory” is going in two different directions. One pole is all about climate change (warming) and the ecological disaster. The other is population change (declining) as the disaster for “social” (as opposed to natural) ecology. There’s obviously something unnatural or “manmade” about both disasters. And in both cases, the claim for disaster might slight the singular capacity of our species to ingeniously adapt to change of all kinds.
The only political prediction which I am proud to have made is that there would be demonstrations on the Boulevard St Germain if, in response to the riots in the banlieues of French towns and cities in 2005, the French government attempted the slightest liberalization of the French labor market. And so it proved: thousands of young people came out on to the streets to protest against what was really only a straw in the wind or a cloud on the horizon. They were protesting, in fact, against the potential withdrawal not of the privileges that they now enjoyed but that, as children of the prosperous and the fully-employed, they hoped to enjoy in the future.
It never occurred to them that the employment protections of some are the exclusion from the labor market of others. They were, in effect, like the white miners of the Witwatersrand in South Africa who went on strike in 1922 against the use of black miners as an economy measure by the mine owners. Their slogan, under the leadership of the South African communists, was ‘Workers of the world unite for a white South Africa.’
Tom Palmer has responded to several criticisms I made of his contributions to a recent anthology that he has edited on the welfare state. Despite what Palmer has written in defence of what I criticised, I stand by my original criticisms and want in this rejoinder to explain why.
My criticisms of Palmer occur in an otherwise favorable review of his anthology.
Below I consider each criticism I levelled in turn, summarizing Palmer’s response to it, and then explaining why I remain unmoved by his response.
‘Young people today are being robbed…[o]f their rights… freedom… dignity… [and] futures…[by] the world-straddling engine of theft, degradation, manipulation, and social control we call the welfare state.’
So Tom Palmer begins the editorial introduction to his anthology, After the Welfare State: Politicians Stole Your Future… You Can Get It Back…, on the welfare state and its alternatives. Along with this introduction, Palmer contributes three of the volume’s nine contributions.
As is apparent from his opening statement, Palmer has a very low opinion of the welfare state. He considers it responsible for the economic and financial turmoil in which much of the world currently finds itself. In the next sentence to the one just quoted, he continues:
‘The welfare state is responsible for two current crises: the financial crisis that has slowed down or even reversed growth and stalled economies around the world, and the debt crisis that is gripping Europe, the United States, and other countries.’
A main theme of the anthology is that the current welfare spending by western liberal democracies is no longer sustainable, especially that on health care and pensions.
As the Democratic convention rhetoric solidifies into cigarette ash and economic performance figures assail us, one line from President Obama’s speech should continue to intrigue and horrify us. Dealing with what he describes as decades-old challenges “will require common effort, shared responsibility, and the kind of bold, persistent experimentation that Franklin Roosevelt pursued during the only crisis worse than this one.”
Experimentation? Did Obamacare grant him a medical license? Did he at least obtain a human subject release form? All he knows is that he must be the total (“bold, persistent”) master of the situation. Whether we are the subjects of behavioral economics or of happiness commissions or rats in a maze is of no matter.
But there is far more here than Obama’s apparent admission of ignorance—it is his vision of a scientific controlled experiment that most alarms. Such “bold, persistent experimentation” requires a tyranny. The subjects of experiments, no more than inmates in a prison, may not control their treatment. Scientific utopias demand elimination of freedom, as we know from dystopian speculations from Plato through Bacon to Skinner.