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Barack Obama Conservativism Criticism Economics Financial Crisis Liberalism Political Philosophy The Opinionsphere

The intellectual deterioration of the conservative movement

Richard Posner has written one of those posts that gets talked about despite it’s lack of hyperventilation – it’s a thoughtful, reflective piece on what he calls the “intellectual deterioration of the once-vital conservative movement in the United States.” Posner summarizes the deteriotion:

[T]he policies of the new conservatism are powered largely by emotion and religion and have for the most part weak intellectual groundings [such that]the face of the Republican Party [has] become Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber. Conservative intellectuals [have] no party.

Posner sees this decline as a symptom of the movement’s success. I think he’s half right.

Philip Bobbitt posited some time ago his theory of the evolution of the state – from princely city-states to kingly states to imperial states to the modern nation-state. The next step – according to Bobbitt – the one to which we are already evolving – is the market-state. And while a nation-state was legitimized in the eyes of it’s people by ensuring people were provided for (thus setting up the economic battle of the Cold War, as capitalism and Communism competed on this front), the market-state is legitimized by offering the maximum amount of opportunity for it’s citizens. Bobbitt’s theory is interesting – and if not entirely perfect, it is certainly useful. 

Given this structure, you can easily understand how the nation-state liberalism of Lyndon Johnson gave way over time to the market-state liberalism of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. By this reading, conservatism did not so much win any more than nation-state liberalism “won.” Both were appropriate responses to their times.

Unfortunately for it’s proponents, conservatism (like nation-state liberalism in the 1970s) did not evolve with the times, but remained staticly committed to the principles that worked so well three decades earlier. The innovative ideas of the 1980s have become the brittle orthodoxies of the present. As conservative historian Niall Ferguson explained – “only the left” has a credible response to the issues of our day. The Right is still fighting the battles they won decades ago.

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Financial Crisis

Preparing For A Summer of Rage

[digg-reddit-me]Those in power are clearly nervous about what will happen if this crisis continues to deepen. British police are predicting that 2009 will be a “summer of rage” as middle-class anger at the economic crisis erupts into violence on the streets of Great Britain. Protest organizers are claiming that the police are merely trying to prepare the public for more brutal put-downs of protests by the police – but even this in itself indicates a nervousness on the part of the police, a fear that protests will get out of control. 

At the same time, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the powerful inside player in Washington since he was National Security Advisor under Jimmy Carter, warned on MSNBC that this recession could lead to riots in America:

[T]here is public awareness of this extraordinary wealth that was transferred to a few individuals at levels without historical precedent in America . . . And you sort of say to yourself: what’s going to happen in this society when these people are without jobs, when their families hurt, when they lose their homes, and so forth?

…[T]here’s going to be growing conflict between the classes and if people are unemployed and really hurting, hell, there could be even riots.

The financial crisis has already lead to the increasing instability, civil unrest, and conflict in Russia, Pakistan, Mexico, and throughout the world – all of this during the normally dormant winter months.

It was often said that China’s government was only able to remain in power and maintain stability if the economy was growing at a fast enough rate. It’s beginning to be clear that this is true for most of the world’s governments. As I wrote before:

As long as American citizens have their basic needs met and a reasonable opportunity to succeed, they will accept a polarized distribution of wealth, corruption of various sorts, and sundry other injustices. And as long as the Chinese citizens are moving towards having their basic needs met and have a reasonable opportunity to succeed, they will accept a single-party state, restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly, and other restrictions.

Any state’s constitutional structure is legitimated by whether it provides for the needs of it’s people. In another age, the state merely provided security against hostile invasions and criminals; later, it provided an identity as well; by the middle of the 20th century, a state was legitimated by the extent to which it could provide for the basic needs of it’s citizens. The Cold War was, to a large degree, a competition between the capitalist states and the Communists states to see which could provide more ably for the needs of it’s citizens. Today, the state is evolving from providing for the needs of it’s citizens to providing opportunities for it’s citizens.

We are now facing the spectre of rapidly increasing unemployment and diminished opportunities for millions accustomed to a rising standard of living. A prolonged depression, or even a slowing in growth, in a market-state undermines the government’s legitimacy and society’s stability, perhaps to the breaking point.

Many of the world’s societies are only peaceful and stable to the extent that their people believe they can improve their lot in life, or their children’s lot. The opiate of the masses is no longer religion – it is hope, the expectation of better things to come grounded in expanding individual opportunity. This financial crisis may test what happens when this opiate is removed.

Categories
China Economics Financial Crisis Political Philosophy

Stimulus Is What We Need

[digg-reddit-me]It is commonly stated that China’s ruling power has struck a kind of bargain with it’s people – that they will accept the one-party rule and other political restrictions – as long as the government is able to keep the standard of living rising. Orville Schell, Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley and author of several books on China, gives a typical explanation:

…it would not be excessive to say that everything – economic health, social stability, political reform, environmental modernization, etc. – all depend on China’s economy maintaining at least a 6 percent to 7 percent growth rate. This is something that most market economies cannot do in perpetuity given the nature of cyclical growth cycles.

When this topic is brought up in foreign policy discussions, it is often understood as a uniquely Chinese problem – this bargain between the people and the state that they will accept an authoritarian government in return for a growing economy. But a government’s dependence  on its ability to increase opportunities for its people for its legitimacy is not a uniquely Chinese problem. The Chinese government may only be able to survive as long as it continues to provide economic growth to it’s citizens, but how different is this bargain the Chinese people have made with their government from the bargain the America people have with ours? As long as American citizens have their basic needs met and a reasonable opportunity to succeed, they will accept a polarized distribution of wealth, corruption of various sorts, and sundry other injustices. And as long as the Chinese citizens are moving towards having their basic needs met and have a reasonable opportunity to succeed, they will accept a single-party state, restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly, and other restrictions.

Any state’s constitutional structure is legitimated by whether it provides for the needs of it’s people. In another age, the state merely provided security against hostile invasions and criminals; later, it provided an identity as well; by the middle of the 20th century, a state was legitimated by the extent to which it could provide for the basic needs of it’s citizens. The Cold War was, to a large degree, a competition between the capitalist states and the Communists states to see which could provide more ably for the needs of it’s citizens. Today, the state is evolving from providing for the needs of it’s citizens to providing opportunities for it’s citizens. The basic problems of sufficient housing, food, clothes, and other necessities are able to be met with our global prosperity.1

This evolution of our state into a market-state can best be seen by looking at the long-term trends in politics, shaping both the left and the right – as politiciains, with their ears constantly attuned to changing expectations, have sensed this evolution before most. Looking from Carter to Clinton to Obama, we can see how each has progressively embraced a different sort of liberalism – each less focused on a government providing services and more focused on government providing opporunity. Carter was a traditional big state Great Society liberal; Clinton favored free trade, ending welfare, and reining in the deficit; Obama’s liberalism accepts a number of libertarian premises and seeks as it’s goal the maximization of opportunity – as his health care reform plan, for example wouldn’t force people to join any particular program while offering a stable base for a necessary service that often causes people to remain in jobs they would not otherwise. A similar evolution can be seen in Nixon to Reagan to Bush – as Nixon favored big government programs; Reagan attacked big government; Bush focused on creating an ownership society among other reforms. Even when misguided – as for example his Social Security proposal – it was focused on offering greater opportunity.

James Glassman speaks for many doctrinaire anti-government conservatives when he suggests we allow our economy to contract – as eventually, it will reach bottom and bounce back. Stimulus – he says – is the wrong metaphor:

“We’re going to have to jump start this economy with my economic recovery plan,” [Obama] said on January 3. According to the image, one can jolt a dormant economy into action just as one can hook up polarized cables to a car battery, clamp a defibrillator to the chest, or breathe into the ear of a reluctant lover. Suddenly, the object of our attention will be back in action, aroused…

In fact, stimulus may be precisely the wrong metaphor. Rather than getting jazzed up, we need to be calmed down and to take the time to learn from the Great Depression, a time when government did too much, not too little.

Putting aside the non-consensus historical take on government action in the Great Depression (discussed here), Glassman misses the point our political leaders do not: our societal order is premised on the idea of continuous growth. A growing economy in a market state is like a beating heart – without it, we cannot survive. Perhaps a more apt metaphor is a business not making a payroll – the company can’t continue if it’s employees don’t get paid. The employees will no longer consent to subject to their employer’s authority – and the company will dissolve. When the nation-states of the early 20th century were not able to legitimate their structure by providing for the basic needs of their citizens, radicalism, revolution, and war ensued as the old order broke down and fascism and Communism took it’s place. Today, if market-states are unable to provide opportunity their citizens, they will not survive going forward. 

Our politicians and the elites sense this – which creates the manic desire to arrest this free fall and start our economy moving forward again – before it’s too late.

  1. Clearly, the problems associated with deficiences in these areas aren’t gone. But technologically, we have solved them. The problems remaining are systematic – how to satisfy the needs of those who don’t have access to the excess prosperity of the developed world. []