Thursday, December 17, 2009

Requiescat in infernus

Today Obama's personal approval rating has sunk to 47%, a larger percent disapproves of his performance, and nearly 50% more poll respondents reject the healthcare plan than want it. Lieberman and Nelson seem on the verge of scuttling the healthcare bill, Obama's cap and trade law seems DOA, and the merger between the Republican Party and the Teabaggers is being consummated. It seems like a good time to take stock.

As far as I can tell, the Great American Voter (GAV) reasons as follows: (1) The Republicans left the country in the biggest mess since the Republicans last messed up the economy in 1929. (2) Th Democrats have failed to clean it up, thanks to Republican obstructionism. (3) Therefore the GAV should support the Republicans.

It is entirely possible, even likely, that this reasoning will prevail next November, and even more in 2012. Apart from the crazy logic, there may actually be a coherent philosophy behind these developments, and it is worth considering whether, in fact, most of the GAV doesn't actually subscribe to that philosophy.

That philosophy denies that we share a national community in the normal sense of the term. Tony Judt noted in the NY Review of Books, December 17 2009, "And indeed, it is not by chance that social democracy and welfare states have worked best in small, homogeneous countries, where issues of mistrust and mutual suspicion do not arise so acutely. A willingness to pay for other people's services and benefits rests upon the understanding that they in turn will do likewise for you and your children: because they are like you and see the world as you do. Conversely, where immigration and visible minorities have altered the demography of a country, we typically find increased suspicion of others and a loss of enthusiasm for the institutions of the welfare state."

The Republican/Teabagger view sees Americans as a highly diverse federal union whose citizens hold in common only a minimal number of common interests: defense against foreign attack or interstate internal disorder; protection of commercial interests and interstate commerce (but not of citizens from commerce); the creation and maintenance of interstate public works; the management of US government property; the protection and promotion of traditional social values; etc. In this view, many of the federal programs that now exist or are proposed have no legitimacy at the federal level. Social security, medicare and medicaid, welfare, tax subsidies for the poor, and other programs to assist the weak or afflicted are for private charity or local efforts. The federal government's obligations in this regard run only to its own employees or veterans.

In this conception, we are on the national level a competitive and individualistic society in which the successful or lucky ones have no obligation toward the rest. As Margaret Thatcher reportedly said (see Judt, above), "there is no such thing as society. There are only individual men and women and families." Another foundational belief seems to be that largely unregulated businesses will efficiently meet all our needs, or at least the needs of those who count, the ones able to pay, in a free market; and yet another is that a claim for the existence of externalities or interstate consequences must be taken with great skepticism since those who make it have suspect personal motives. The federal government should do no more than is necessary to satisfy the selfish needs that are common to ALL its citizens.

This is a coherent point of view, heavily drawn from libertarian thought, and its basic theory--that government has no business acting where it is unnecessary or unwanted--can hardly be disputed. Unfortunately, it is also premised on a false view of how society, the physical environment, and the world economy now work. It ignores realities that largely negate the effect of purely local action, such as the ease of travel and communication, the interconnectedness of things, the short-sightedness of business, and the impacts of technology. One might compare this view to Newtonian physics: an admirable intellectual achievement, and highly functional under circumstances that prevailed in the 17th century and in some places today; but no longer a realistic or usable framework for understanding or working with the world as we now know it.

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