Bismarck in California

February 27, 2010

Welfare state against itself in Athens

The father of the modern welfare state was Otto von Bismarck.  I have had trouble finding detailed explanations of this strange fact, but the outlines of the story are clear.  Bismarck was a Prussian monarchist – a Junker who lacked the most elementary faith in democracy and equality.  He feared the popularity of Marxist socialism; in an astonishing political maneuver, he appropriated the socialists’ program.

The welfare state was erected to keep Germans dependent on their government, and docile in their political demands.  The maneuver worked.  The German monarchy collapsed from its own stupidity rather than revolution – and when the socialists tried to take advantage of the moment, they were slaughtered by reactionary elements.

So the first point of interest is that the welfare state was established to keep democracy at bay – though Bismarck, not surprisingly, justified it on moral grounds, calling his social program “practical Christianity.”

Today’s welfare states, including the US, are uncomfortable compromises with liberal democracy.  Even the terminology is awkward.  Social programs are called “entitlements,” a word with a monarchic, Junkerian ring to it.  Entitlements are supposed to be untouchable when budgets get slashed:  the give and take of democratic legislation, for these programs, is out of bounds.

The reasons given are no different than Bismarck’s.  Moral duty can’t be haggled over or accounted for in dollars and cents.

So the second point of interest is that the welfare state builds a wall of aristocratic privilege within liberal democracy.  An obvious question is:  who benefits?

Advocates of the welfare state would answer:  the weak and the sick and poor, who need a helping hand to find, for example, affordable housing, or health care, or food to eat.  It is for these unfortunates that the government must engage in a secular version of “practical Christianity.”

The Bismarckian appeal to morality, however worthy, has a number of problems buried within it.  One is the definition of the dependent class.  Who counts as sick enough to engage state assistance?  Poor enough?  The choices made will be irremediably subjective.

Another problem is the expectation that wielders of power will act strictly on moral principles.  This is asking a lot from human nature.  To the question of who benefits from the enormous wealth given to a government to distribute on welfare, the answer in a democratic setting might well be:  those who run the government, and those who have the power to influence it.

The first two problems lead to a third, possibly fatal, one.  The lack of definition of the dependent class means it can expand at will.  The fact that powerful groups benefit from such entitlements means that a vested interest exists in expanding them.  Ever more citizens must be declared, in some way, dependent.  The effect is to increase the power of those in government, and the access to wealth of those who can influence it.

The third problem is where Greece and California find themselves today.  Entitlements have increased beyond the ability of the economy to sustain them – but, being entitlements, outside all negotiation, the beneficiaries, on the highest moral grounds, refuse to yield their benefits.

In Greece, according to Mark Steyn, public sector workers retire at 58, and “redefining time itself,” receive 14 monthly payments each year.  Yet the government’s feeble attempts to enforce some budgetary discipline has inspired riots in the streets.  Here is  Steyn’s judgment on the matter:

. . . as the Greek protests make plain, nothing makes an individual more selfish than the socially equitable communitarianism of big government: Once a chap’s enjoying the fruits of government health care, government-paid vacation, government-funded early retirement, and all the rest, he couldn’t give a hoot about the general societal interest; he’s got his, and to hell with everyone else. People’s sense of entitlement endures long after the entitlement has ceased to make sense.

A third point of interest is that the welfare state’s appeals to altruism, in Greece and elsewhere, have justified purely self-interested, beggar-thy-neighbor behavior.  A fourth point is that such behavior will, if left unchecked, destroy the welfare state.  Entitlements will simply continue to balloon until a financial explosion is reached.

Steyn makes the parallel between Greece and California.  In both cases the main beneficiaries of additional welfare expenditures have not been the sick or the poor but public sector unions.  Here was the situation in a California township which ultimately went broke:

So a police captain receives $306,000 a year in pay and benefits, a lieutenant receives $247,644, and the average for firefighters — 21 of them earn more than $200,000, including overtime — is $171,000. Police and firefighters can store up unused vacation and leave time over their careers and walk away, as one of the more than 20 who recently retired did, with a $370,000 check. Last year, 292 city employees made more than $100,000. And after just five years, all police and firefighters are guaranteed lifetime health benefits.

As in Greece, too, half-hearted attempts by the state government to impose fiscal order have been met with riots in the streets.  A last point of interest, then, is that the collapse of the welfare state will not change the behavior of its managers and stakeholders.  Their justifications aren’t practical or financial but moral and absolute.

Every aristocracy believes its existence is worth the enormous sacrifice of others.  Bismarck, the Junker, was willing to play socialist to save his class – but at least he could afford to do so.  Similarly, privileged groups in Greece and California seem ready to bankrupt their governments and their people to preserve their entitlements – a non sequitur, because by the financial logic of the situation they will go down along with the others.

Even in a welfare state, guided by the wisest Keynesians, it is impossible to spend money which isn’t there.

Window broken in Berkley, California protest (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Window broken in Berkley, California protest (AP Photo/Ben Margot)


Disobedience unto death

February 26, 2010

Orlando Zapata Tamayo

Orlando Zapata Tamayo was a plumber and a bricklayer in Cuba:  not an elite figure.  But he had political opinions.  He was active in a political group.  I don’t much know about the opinions or the group, but in the end it doesn’t matter.  They weren’t the official opinions imposed on the population by the old men’s regime in Cuba.  It wasn’t an officially sanctioned group.

In December 2002, Zapata was imprisoned for a crime that translates as “disobedience.”  He didn’t toe the line.  He forgot to be afraid.  He spoke and acted like a free man, and the semi-corpses who rule the island considered this a breach of discipline.  Freedom had to be squashed, obedience imposed:  Zapata spent eight years in one of Cuba’s grim provincial prisons.

There he was regularly beaten and abused.  No doubt, the idea was to break the disobedient man, to make him docile, resigned to the yoke.  Zapata would not break.  He was clearly the kind of stubborn laborer who could not say “white” when he saw black, or “good” when he saw evil:  Lech Walesa comes to mind.  This attitude, and the notoriety it gained for him, only earned more concentrated abuse.

Early in December of last year, in desperation, he began a hunger strike.  He publicly denounced his torturers, and criticized the conditions in which his fellow prisoners were kept.  He was moved to a hospital – one story has it that he was denied water for many days.  As his condition worsened, he was moved again, to Havana.

On 23 February, Orlando Zapata Tamayo died.  His death gave those rushing to embrace the Cuban regime – out of innocence, or self-loathing, or anti-Americanism – a moment of pause.  Brazilian president Lula da Silva, democratically elected, arrived in Havana just as Zapata was expiring.  With Raul Castro standing at his side, Da Silva regretted the event but said he was opposed to hunger strikes.

I too am opposed to hunger strikes.  I’m against suicide.  My circumstances, however, like Da Silva’s, are grounded in freedom and personal choice.

That was all Zapata asked for.  As the torture and humiliations in prison continued, he must have felt the future shrivel until only two narrow doorways were left ahead.  One led to falsehood and surrender.  The horror and despair that drove him through the other door to a disobedient death, neither I nor Da Silva can imagine.

The independent-minded Cuban blogosphere has been mourning his loss.  Claudia Cadelo of Octavo Cerco (“Eighth Circle,” in Spanish) reflects on how, on most days, she feels proud of her country and her fellow Cubans.  But she concludes:

However, there are other days when I feel deeply ashamed of the land of my birth.  At times I look at the people and they are faceless, they are all the same and all are afraid.  Days when I know nobody will be saved, nobody will shout out, nobody will extend a hand and nobody will say “my love” because the terror is too great.  Days of indolence, of regret, and of powerlessness for them and for me.  Days in which the waiting gets too long.  Days when the pain makes me weep and I can’t understand why the others aren’t weeping.  Days in which it seems absolutely necessary that a sea of tears stream from 12th Street to Malecon, because our dried-out eyes lead us nowhere.

Since the death of Tamayo all my days have become like that.

Cadelo’s post was translated in full by Leandro Feal of Babalu Blog.  It’s more than worth a read.


Political labels and moral agency

February 24, 2010

Liberal democracy is an open stage on which we, as moral actors, play out our lives for good or evil.  Other political systems dictate behavior at the point of a gun.  They achieve a sort of morality by means of power and terror.  Liberal democracy leaves the question for the individual to answer.  Freedom means the people must supply, from ground level, the virtues necessary to hold a community together.

Those are the only two systems of government which have ever existed:  the power of the few or the virtue of the many.  For the people, the difference is between being cogs in a machine or players in an unscripted drama.

The question arises of what to call these incompatible systems:  which labels to apply.  Because tyrants and elites hide their hunger for authority behind glorious and seductive  names, this is not a trivial matter.  We must each know who we are.

Current political labels, I think, have had their edges eroded by time and events.  Most Americans refer to two spectrums, indifferently:  right-left and conservative-liberal.  Both wear the outlandish costume of another age.

Left and right named positions in France’s revolutionary National Convention.  The first leftists were republican radicals.  The original rightists wanted a constitutional monarchy – the English-style system so admired by Enlightenment thinkers.

Today, long after Robespierre, Marx, and Lenin, being a “person of the left” is still an honorable calling in Europe – witness Bernard-Henry Levy, who desperately wishes to be thought of as one.  For him, the left entails a keen sensitivity to social injustice, and the wish to mobilize politics, or state power, to impose solutions.  Unfortunately, what counts as injustice and what’s tolerated in state power vary immensely:  it is difficult to see what Levy’s politics have in common with, say, those of Kim Jung Il.

In the US, left and right are often used pejoratively, to imply fanaticism.  It’s what one side calls the other.  A notable exception was the New Left which coalesced around a group of college kids in the Sixties.  While not entirely irrelevant to present-day politics, New Left ideas were more preoccupied with the romance of personal liberation than the hard slog of political work.  Today, the aging heirs of this sect prefer academia to the proletariat, cultural demolition to charging the barricades.

The political right has been in a sense a creature of the left, sliding along in opposition.  It lacks historical definition or coherence, having been composed, at one time or another, of economic interests, unyielding traditionalists, nationalists, racialists, corporatists, clericalists, fascists, and more.

Right and left have nothing useful to say about the many and the few.

Liberal and conservative fare no better.  Unlike left and right, Americans identify with these labels:  about 40 percent call themselves conservatives and slightly more than 20 percent liberal.  The meaning of both terms, however, has been unstable over time.

When the word was first coined in the nineteenth century, liberal meant a believer in limited government and free trade.  If this meaning could be rescued, it would be a clarifier, standing  for the distribution of power among the many:  what we have in mind when we say “liberal democracy.”  But by the twentieth century liberal referred to an advocate of state intervention – again, with huge variation on the limits of intervention.

Classic liberals signaled the need for an open political space in which moral agency could play out; liberals today dwell in a confusion of statist and narcissistic ideas.

This is due in part to the collision between the liberalism of FDR and JFK, with its focus on economics and support of labor, and the New Left ideas of racial and sexual identity and personal liberation.  The result has been a bipolar politics that at once embraces government regulation and untrammeled self-expression.

American conservatism, if not bipolar, has certainly behaved erratically in pursuit of its ideal of small government.  The term implies a defensive posture, and that was the reality of the early history of conservatism, which “stood athwart history” on questions like  states’ rights, balanced budgets, and anti-union legislation.

At moments, conservatism has claimed the standard of classical liberalism:  limited government and free markets.  Yet presidents who called themselves conservatives have inflated the size of the government and expanded its reach.  When terror struck and the economy wobbled, former president Bush, a “compassionate conservative,” placed his faith entirely on bureaucracy and regulation – on the wise elites – and declined to see in the citizen a moral adult.

We now speak of social conservatives, who engage New Left radicalism on the cultural front, and economic conservatives, who want a cheaper, less intrusive government.  The two groups need not agree on any point.  Neoconservatives, on the other hand, are really economic conservatives with an ambitious foreign policy agenda.

It is possible for a liberal to favor the many, and a conservative to empower the few.  The trend runs in the other direction, but not irresistibly so.

The inadequacy of our political labels has inspired the invention of new ones.  The most popular is libertarianism – part classical liberalism, part New Left self-expression.  Libertarians rule the internet:  representative sites are Instapundit and Reason.  I find them enjoyable because they challenge Leviathan at every point of every domain, even those which were swallowed long ago.  It’s a healthy instinct.

But the libertarian posture is mired down in paradox.  Its only rule – do no harm – is frequently wielded by government to regulate behavior, and breaks down in a universal conflict of victimhoods.  At that point, the libertarian must either appeal to traditional values, surrendering the dream of total social freedom, or spiral off toward anarchism and nihilism.

Beyond the libertarians, I find it notable that the “tea party” movement, so much in the news, has consciously distanced itself from our habitual labels.  This may be a brilliant political maneuver, allowing people to fill in the blank, but it also denotes a lack of identity with the given categories of American politics.

Our problem isn’t one of nomenclature but of understanding.  We don’t have names for the two great systems of the many and the few because our thinking has run aground on obsolete categories – we are confused about what is important, and unable to push ahead.  Liberal democracy is primarily an instrument of moral agency.  That this isn’t seen with clarity is just another scandal of a blindly political age.

Few thinkers have turned their attention to the fundamental divide between political systems.  A notable exception is Thomas Sowell, who distilled two clashing visions from most of the world’s ideologies.  One is the unconstrained vision, in which a few brilliant minds employ their dazzling rationality to invent the world anew; the other is the constrained vision, which aggregates many personal decisions made in a condition of freedom.

Sowell’s two visions are my two nameless but ever-present systems.  Think of them as the party of rationalism, based on coercion, and the party of experience, based on private and public virtue.

Now, I have in the past called myself an unlabeled man – but on this clearly-marked landscape, I  know where I stand.


Post without words

February 22, 2010

Photograph: Goran Tomasevic/Reuters


Books to read: Franklin, or the public-minded man

February 20, 2010

Even though his image graces the $100 bill, Benjamin Franklin may be the least appreciated of the Founding Fathers.  He ranks with Jefferson – who practically invented us – in his influence on the American character.

Jefferson articulated the American ideology:  the belief in limited government, and the irrepresible faith in human nature necessary to sustain this belief.  This ideology has been implanted in the hearts and souls of the American people – it is who we are, as even a popular politician like President Obama, in seeking to expand federal power, has learned.

But on every question of detail, Jefferson was wrong.  He imagined the US as an agricultural nation, with small farmers providing the unbending backbone of the citizenry.  Cities, businessmen, banks, the middle class – about the groups and institutions which would forge the American future, Jefferson’s attitude ranged from contempt to indifference.

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Franklin places him, in a sense, at the opposite pole from Jefferson.  Franklin was nothing if not practical.  He was a man of principle, not of ideology – he carefully avoided religious disputes, for example.

Yet he exemplified virtues which were prophetic of the future character of his country:  self-reliance, hard work, generosity, mutual assistance, openness in friendship, all spiced with a sly sense of humor.

Franklin was proud to be a man of the city and of the mobile “middling” part of the population.  He lacked Jefferson’s romantic notions about farming, yet in a backhanded way he became the living model of the Jeffersonian ideal.  The urban middle class, sturdy and capable, made the system of limited government a going concern.

It did this by a relentless self-accounting, of the kind Franklin made famous.  To the poetic soul, the call to pinch pennies may sound like spiritual poverty, and the desire for self-improvemement may appear fatuous.  But let’s recall Franklin’s circumstances.  He was a self-made, self-taught man.  He had known real poverty, and labored with little assistance other than will power to eradicate his own ignorance.

The struggle for moral self-improvement waged by Franklin had a private and a public aspect.  He avoided debt and drink, and lived frugally, to avoid falling into a debased  dependence on others; for the same reason, he scorned get-rich schemes.  On the public side, he understood the importance of honesty and integrity to the success of business and government.  Both aspects of morality can be found in the moral to-do lists he often  penned:

  1. It is necessary for me to be extremely frugal for some time, till I have paid what I owe.
  2. To endeavor to speak the truth in every instance; to give nobody expectations that are not likely to be answered, but aim at sincerity in every word and action . . .
  3. To apply myself industriously to whatever business I take in hand, and not divert my mind from my business by any foolish project of suddenly growing rich . . .
  4. I resolve to speak ill of no man whatever.

Above all, in an almost superhuman way, Franklin was public-minded – I believe he might have been  the most useful man who ever lived.  He worked hard at the printing profession, and saved his pennies to achieve personal independence.  But he worked still harder to organize an astonishing number of activities which aimed – again, in a practical and sensible way – to improve the community.

The list of Franklin’s public achievements boggles the mind, particularly when one considers how many have lasted to this day.  He conceived and implemented the first subscription lending library in the colonies.  He was the moving spirit behind the first volunteer fire brigade, to which he brought his own leather bucket.  He helped establish the American Philosophical Society, which still continues its scholarly work.  He organized the first Pennsylvania militia – to the scandal of the Penns and the Crown, a volunteer, self-managed body.

He proposed, designed, and helped raise money for an academy of higher learning in Philadelphia – what is today the University of Pennsylvania.  Unlike Jefferson’s University of Virginia, it intended to educate the offspring of the middle class, rather than produce a natural aristocracy.

Franklin was inexhaustible in the service of his neighbors, his city, and his state.  In the end, however, he served his country longer and, arguably, better.

He was appointed postmaster to the colonies, and significantly improved the speed of the mail.  He was probably the most famous member of the Continental Congress that produced the Declaration of Independence.  He was without a doubt the most successful American diplomat ever – the leading negotiator of the treaty of alliance with France which ensured victory for the Revolution, and of the treaty of peace with Britain which assured the new country of an unencumbered path ahead.  Then he went hope and played a leading part in the Constitutional Convention.

None of this accounts for the activities which made Franklin famous in his own lifetime:  his science and inventions, of which the lightning-rod and bifocal glasses are only two of the better known.

Given this roster of accomplishments, I confess to some mystification regarding Franklin’s place in our history.  There can be no doubt he was a towering figure, one of a handful in terms of lasting influence.  It’s instructive to compare him with his peers.

George Washington was an incorruptible statesman and military hero.  Abraham Lincoln combined common sense and practical politics with a moral grandeur expressed in almost biblical language.  Jefferson was an ideologist and moral legislator, president and diplomat, and wielded the most articulate pen in American politics.

But Franklin was a successful and lasting author, an organizing dynamo, a scientist of note, a famous inventor, a brilliant diplomat, and – like Lincoln but unlike Washington and Jefferson – a model of how to rise from a humble start to such accomplishment.

In the closing chapter, Isaacson observes that Franklin’s reputation has suffered at the hands of romantics and Marxists.  Both, in essence, found him too bourgeois.  One has to wonder, however, why the rest of us, who owe him so much, should allow a judgment on a Founding Father to stand based almost entirely on snobbishness.


Before I be your dog

February 19, 2010

My dog is a formidably clueless creature.  No matter where I am, or want to go, he blocks  the way ahead – all 80 pounds of him.  When I want to sleep late, he’d rather bark – a thunderous noise – at the passing scene.  When guests arrive, he simply can’t contain his excitement, and makes blood-curdling noises.  He loves to eat  paper products.  He just has no idea.

If I were to rate him as a moral agent, I’d have to say he’s pretty shallow.  He can beg, but he’ll never pray.  He can feel a kind of shame – mostly, when caught eating paper products – but never remorse.  I don’t expect introspection from him, or a new year’s resolution to reform his character.  (There’s not much there to reform.)

The best that can be said is that, due to the magic of unnatural selection, he knows we like it that he likes us.  Thus he bumps his enormous head against one’s knee to be petted – most people seem to find this charming.  And I admit that, when I arrive home after a long business trip, my wife seems exhausted, my kids are indifferent, and only the clueless dog looks really, really happy.

Despite their genetic need to love us, dogs haven’t gotten a good press in the great moral systems of the world.  Owls, which eat rodents, are supposed to be wise.  Lions, which eat people, we consider regal.  But dogs attract the attention of moralists chiefly by their disgusting behavior.

In medieval art, dogs stood for lechery.  The book of proverbs in the bible vividly informs us, “As a dog returns to his vomit, so a fool returns to his folly.”  (Biblical dogs were clearly different from mine, who’d rather let his beloved humans clean up the mess.)  According to wikipedia, most Muslim jurists hold dogs to be ritually unclean – I take that to mean they respect their carpets more than we do ours.

My favorite dog insult, because it inverts their one solitary virtue, comes from the blues.  The last thing a blues singer wants to be is a dog to his lady.  He’ll never look happy when she comes home after a long trip.

So it’s surprising to read this account in Scientific American Mind (via A&L) about the “keen sense of right and wrong” found in the “ethical dog.”  According to the authors, the social behavior of canids – the family that includes domesticated dogs but also wolves and coyotes – resembles that of our human ancestors, particularly when it comes to morality and fair play.

Canids, like humans, form intricate networks of social relationships and live by rules of conduct that maintain a stable society, which is necessary to ensure the survival of each individual. Basic rules of fairness guide social play, and similar rules are the foundation for fairness among adults. This moral intelligence, so evident in both wild canines and in domesticated dogs, probably closely resembles that of our early human ancestors. And it may have been just this sense of right and wrong that allowed human societies to flourish and spread across the world.

For the sake of what’s left of human dignity, I really hope not.  But I am now seized by this vision of a remote ancestor, lost in the mists of time, always standing in people’s way and desperate to find a paper napkin to chew on.


Virginia the model (2)

February 17, 2010

Living within our means forces painful choices, especially once a community becomes addicted to living on debt.  Every budget cut hurts someone.  Unwillingness to make any cuts, however, will be destructive to the economy:  will hurt everyone.  Those who doubt this, look to California.

This, I repeat, is a moral, not a political or partisan, question.  To live beyond one’s means is, in the short term, to consume without producing – to become a drone fed and cared for by the productive class.  In the long term, it’s unsustainable.  The debt will come due.  That’s true for Republicans and Democrats, Marxists and libertarians, rich and poor, independents, flat-earthers, whatever.

The debt will come due:  and the ultimate disgrace would be for the present generation to slough it off on the next.

For this reason, we must support those elected officials willing to make hard choices.  I’m pleased to find the new governor of Virgina, Bob McDonnell, among this group.  He has made a start, cutting $2.3 billion from the state budget.  Even after the cuts, the state remains $4 billion in the red – but that hasn’t stopped the inevitable screams of outrage.

“We’re really throwing kids in the poorest districts under the bus,” is the accusation by a teacher’s union representative.

That’s the kind of charge that in the past has frightened politicians into inaction.  I hope Gov. McDonnell has the intestinal fortitude to resist, because I believe that a large majority of us Virginians will endorse this effort to put the future ahead of the present.  It’s painful – to pretend otherwise would a lie.  But the only alternative is self-delusion, burying our heads in the sand.  The debt will come due.

I note that the new governor in New Jersey is doing the same thing.  I found it psychologically impossible to do a “New Jersey the model” post, however – a Virginia prejudice, I’m sure.