Wednesday, June 29, 2011

What Is Called "Austerity?"

When I was a lad growing up in Limeyland in the 1950s the older generation used to talk about the post WWII "austerity." I understood, of course, that they were referring to the rationing and general hard times after the war, during which Britland had to adjust to the fact that the war had pretty well eaten up the seed corn and then some.

Now we are talking about "austerity" again, particularly in the case of the Greeks, who seem, like Falstaff, to "have misused the king's press damnably."

That is to say, the Greek government has handed out tax money and borrowed money left and right and now it is going to have to cut back a bit. In response, the Greeks are rioting in outrage.

We saw a similar, though muted, action in Madison, Wisconsin, from government employees when Gov. Scott Walker (R) proposed to increase, moderately, the contributions required of said government employees to their health and pensions benefits.

In other words, "austerity" means that the government proposes to cut back a little on government benefits. And the usual response by the recipients of government benefits is to riot in the streets (Greece) or take over the State Capitol (Wisconsin).

For some reason, I find this obscene. Here we have monies taken by force from citizens and given, out of the kindness of many hearts, to deserving beneficiaries. When it turns out that there ain't any money left in the kitty, the government determines that benefits must be cut, and so the beneficiaries riot.

There is only one sensible takeaway to this. The government should not distribute benefits among the people. Recipients don't regard the benefits as a remarkable and generous benefaction. They regard them as a right, and they get violent if anyone proposes to cut back on their rights. On top of everything, these government employees are not desperately low-paid, but usually earning something like 50 percent more than equivalent workers in the private sector who, wages and benefits aside, lack the tenure and security of government employment.

None of this is remarkable. Joseph Schumpeter wrote half a century ago that democracy is the rule of the politicians and politicians, before anything else, are people good at winning elections. They promise anything, if it will help them get elected. The problem comes later, when the extravagant promises must meet reality, usually in a recession.

Center-left philosopher Jürgen Habermas has attempted to differentiate between "representational culture" where "where one party [e.g., the king,] sought to "represent" itself on its audience by overwhelming its subject," and "Öffentlichkeit" culture, "a public space outside of the control by the state, where individuals exchanged views and knowledge." The representational culture is pure strategic/instrumental reason, one side trying to use the other as a means, to get something out of them. The Öffentlichkeit culture Habermas calls a process of communicative action, of two sides in a conversation of equals trying to tease out a path to social agreement through discourse. Wikipedia:

Unlike "representational" culture where only one party was active and the other passive, the Öffentlichkeit culture was characterized by a dialogue as individuals either met in conversation, or exchanged views via the print media.

The interesting thing about the administrative state is that it is clearly a "representational" culture, where only one party is active, although our liberal friends go on endlessly about dialog and national conversations.

When are our liberal friends going to catch up with the ideas of their greatest thinkers, release their white-knuckle grip on political power, and allow free and equal dialog about the great political and social questions of the age, most notably the bankruptcy of their administrative welfare state? If we can get to a bit of Öffentlichkeit as a result of all this "austerity" it will be worth the pain and the rioting in the streets.

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