Friday, December 17, 2010

A Century of Bad Faith

On the day after the Obama tax increase was averted, and the day after the $1.1 or $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill was withdrawn in the Senate, it's time to think about what comes next.

Walter Russell Mead would like to create a Liberalism 5.0, and rescue the good name of liberalism from its betrayers. "Can the L-Word Be Saved?" he wonders. He would like to reform liberalism and learn the lessons of the last century.

But I think we need to grasp the profound bad faith that has been a part of liberals and liberalism almost from the start of what Mead calls Liberalism 4.0 in the late 19th century.

Obviously, the post-civil war era raised up new questions of power in society.

In the late nineteenth century, the rise of huge industrial corporations created yet another force that threatened to crush individual liberty; 4.0 liberals began to think about the state as a possible ally to defend individuals from unaccountable private power.

Yes, that's true, but I think it true to say that by 1910, when giant combines like Standard Oil had been broken up, and J.P. Morgan had personally, with the richest men in the US, bailed out the economy in the Crash of 1907, people of good faith should have concluded that the new giants of business were not robber barons but responsible servants of the market. After 1910 it was an act of bad faith to rouse up the common people against the power of the corporations. Take the BP oil disaster. Mother Jones has run an end-of-the-world cover story on BP's coverup. But the central fact about the BP oil disaster was that when President Obama said: "Jump," BP said: "How High?" and agreed to cough up $20 billion, sight unseen. That tells you who calls the shots between politics and business.


[T]he industrial revolution and mass immigration threatened to divide society into paupers and millionaires... A society including millions of impoverished urban workers from radically different cultural backgrounds could not be run exactly the same way as in the past; the situation grew even more complex as millions of African-Americans left Dixie for the big northern cities after World War I...

The development of a professional, bureaucratic civil service and the regulatory state were intended to preserve individual autonomy and dignity in a world dominated by large and predatory corporate interests[.]

Yes, but. Let's allow that some sort of emergency centralization was needed to manage the vast migration to the cities, and ward off the threat of revolutionary socialism. It has surely been obvious at least since the end of World War II that the heavy hand from the center is not really needed. The migrants to the city settled down pretty well, and didn't revolt despite the utter failure of centralized government in the Great Depression (spun by liberals as a stunning success). The capitalist system has rained down prosperity upon the once huddled masses, instead of impoverishing them as liberals prophesied. Instead liberals came up with more and more reasons to centralize society into the administrative state which, not coincidentally, gave more power to liberals.

(Yes, for one shining moment, liberals midwifed the civil rights revolution. But then they went back to patronage/clientage politics and the expansion of big government.)

Now think of the ways that liberals have brought a murrain down upon the people that trusted them with their vote.

Liberals told us that we needed a central bank. The result has been two gigantic financial meltdowns and the loss of 98 percent of the value of the dollar.

Liberals told us that we needed government operation of mutual aid and charity. The result has been the demolition of the mutual-aid associations and the conversion of labor unions into raw political pressure groups.

Liberals told us we needed government operation of old-age pensions. The result has been a bankrupt system and the conversion of the savings of the people into a political slush fund, for that is what the "surplus" of Social Security is used for.

Liberals told us that old people and poor people could not get access to health care without massive government management and taxation. The result is a corrupt and wasteful system that is already utterly failing the poor and will soon fail the ageing poor.

None of this is remarkable. we have always known that governments are incompetent and corrupt. But liberals said: Trust us, we will be different. We will staff government with a professional civil service and credentialed experts. Well, we ended up with a unionized civil service that loots government at all levels, and experts that cannot see further than the next government grant.

So I really wonder whether it makes sense, after this century of liberal bad faith, to resurrect the liberal concept. It's time acknowledge the truth, that liberal politics is a canard. For the last century it has almost always meant centralized power, incompetence, and corruption. The time has come to make a break with the failed past and open a new chapter in the story of democratic capitalism. We must acknowledge that the basic parameters of the market economy, its markets, its ethos of fair dealing, its culture of trust, need to he honored and respected and taught. And the educated elite that has refused to accept and honor the wealth-generating and trust-extending wonders of capitalism needs to be rusticated and its cruel fingers prized away from the levers of political power.

As we start the New Year in 2011, the lesson of the last two years of Obama/Reid/Pelosi is surely that liberalism is not liberal, and never can be. It is all about political power, corruption, and the culture of compulsion. And it always will be.

Let us proclaim this to the reverberate hills: Limited government is the system of government that limits the power of the political elite, whether that elite is a royal family, an aristocratic cabal, a business elite, or an educated elite. And we the people demand it.

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