Posts Tagged ‘Socialism’

The Populist Right Isn’t a Political Movement.

Monday, April 12th, 2010

[digg-reddit-me]Last week, I wrote my response to the Tea Party: Government is Good! It’s one of those pieces that I wrote 10 separate drafts of, and if I had included them all, would have written some 10 pages on the subject.

So, I’ll be following up with some further thoughts on the subject periodically.

My first follow-up, the first point that made it into previous drafts, but was excised from the final one is the glaring discrepancy between:

  • the populist right’s rhetorical opposition to all domestic government action on the grounds that it is incompetent, ineffective, and a threat to liberty; and
  • the populist right’s support for apparently unlimited government power on national security and law enforcement matters on the grounds that it is highly competent, effective, and the defender of liberty.

What you get are many arguments asserting that the state is competent and effective enough to deprive some people of liberty without any check on its power, to trample on their every right and to strip away their sanity through torture, and to kill them — all in the name of protecting liberty; but — at the same time — government is so toxic to liberty, so ineffective, and markets are so fragile, that if taxes go up 1% for those making over $250,000, if corporations can’t give money directly to candidates, if Wall Street is forced to suffer more regulations, or if people are required to purchase health insurance to provide for medical care or suffer a small penalty – that if these things happen, we have descended into abject Socialism.

The common cop-out I’ve heard to explain this is that the government’s proper role is to provide for the common defense. But it is the government’s proper role to assess income taxes and to regulate interstate commerce as well.

The populist right simply isn’t ideologically coherent. Ron Paul may be, to his great credit — but it is precisely his coherence that makes him unpalatable to the rest of the populist right, the bulk of the Tea Party, and the Republican Party. The bulk of the populist right is in favor of the government’s curtailing of the civil liberties of resented minorities in the name of a War Against Terrorism. It favors wars abroad — or at least, doesn’t favor “retreat” or anything that doesn’t look tough enough. It is enamored of the war atmosphere, of the narrative of good versus evil, that permeated Fox News’s coverage of the Bush administration. It is enamored of the revolutionary atmosphere, of a nation under assault by a Hitler-wannabe, of another narrative of good versus evil, that permeates Fox News’s coverage of the Obama administration.

From a political perspective, it makes no sense to call the government too incompetent to provide postal service and yet still consider it competent enough to detain, torture and kill anyone it deems a terrorist.

The populist right, then, cannot be properly understood as a political movement. It is a cultural movement and a media phenomenon with political overtones.

[Image not subject to copyright.]

Shadow Government: TownHall.com warns of a scary Obama!

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

TownHall.com – a site which I have come to love for the ridiculous stands it takes – just sent me an email promoting a new book called Shadow Government. It’s a page turner that “Obama doesn’t want you to read” that “exposes the truth” about “all thirty-five czars Obama has picked to carry out his socialization of America.” Thrilling stuff, clearly.

What struck me about this email was the image of Obama they used – and of course the fact that they placed Obama in front of a bunch of Da Vinci code looking monks rather than menacing Communists. The cover seems to convey the idea of Obama as Anti-Christ more than Obama as secret socialist.

But what struck me was the image of Obama – perhaps it’s fine – but it looks a bit off to me, though I can’t quite put my finger on it – I’m curious if anyone out there could guess what they did to the image or if this is just an odd shot of Obama.

Ten Principles of Liberalism

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]Barack Obama’s incipient presidency has set off a furious debate over what his administration’s principles are. George Will described Obama’s administration on this past Sunday morning as the Third Wave of government intervention and expansion (with FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society being the first two. Will, for some reason, declined to mention TR’s introduction of the regulatory state, as does almost everyone.) Right-wingers from Rush Limbaugh to Sarah Palin have described Barack Obama as a “socialist.” Meaghan McCain and Niall Ferguson deride what they characterize as a leftist agenda. On the other hand, supporters of Barack Obama’s candidacy have criticized him for betraying his progressive vision and defending the status quo. Others have defended him against charges of socialism and suggested he stands for good old-fashioned liberalism.

At this moment in history, as capitalism seems to have failed, as American international power is at an ebb, as globalization seems destined to continue, as the threat of terrorism continues to grow – evident both in our vulnerability and in the number of our enemies, as the nation-state which derives its legitimacy from providing for the needs of its citizens seems to be evolving into a market-state which is legitimated by the opportunities it offers its citizens – at this moment in history, Barack Obama has become president. The liberalism I am attempting to describe in this post is merely a sketch – but it is a sketch of what I see to be the right approach in this world – which as I have commented before, seems to have much in common with what I identified in the summer of 2007 as the Obama approach. As liberalism tends to be pragmatic rather than theoretical, many of these principles have regained prominence most specifically in response to recent problems in the world and with the Bush administration. I am focusing here on those aspects of principles which distinguish liberalism from other political philosophies – specifically, progressivism, various leftist movements, conservatives, libertarians, and extreme right-wingers. 

Here are the 10 principles of liberalism – whose three goals are to allow individuals liberty, opportunity, and community.

  1. Doubt v. Action. These two competing impulses are at the heart of all the rest of these principles. A Hayekian doubt about the efficacy of centralized planning coupled with a Rooseveltian (TR or FDR) need to act – to conduct “bold, persistent experimentation” while acknowledging that our “grasp on the truth is always provisional.” This balance was best articulated by Reinhold Niebuhr who wrote that while “We must exercise our power,” we must be remain aware that power corrupts even ourselves. Hayek similarly explained that “we needed to think of the world more as gardeners tending a garden and less as architects trying to build some system.” Liberalism was never utopian, but today’s liberalism has been tempered by the failures of big-state liberalism – as well as the failures of anti-regulatory “free” market fetishism. Only conservatism, properly defined historically, attempts a similar balance.
  2. The Market & the Government. Contemporary liberals reject the doctrinaire distinction between the “market” and the government that animated so much of the conflict in the 20th century. The free market should not be treated as some theoretical utopian ideal or as a perpetually lost state of innocence. And the government is not some evil force which must be reduced until it is of a size that it “could be drowned in a bathtub.” Rather the government and the free market exist together – and in a capitalist republic such as ours, each is dependent on the other. The free market does not exist in a state of nature but must be created by and maintained by the society and the state which provide the values and the rules and other conditions without which a market cannot be free. In other words, a free market is a product of a just government.
  3. Empower individuals. One of the key roles of government then – in creating a free market – is to empower individuals to participate in market freely, as individuals. A market is less than free if employees can be held hostage by large corporations and health care burdens1. To empower individuals then, the government must ensure that there is sufficient technological and transportational infrastructure; the government must ensure that basic needs can be met by individuals – for example access to health care; and the government must ensure that every individual has the opportunity to get an education. At the same time, individuals must be empowered to shape and control government more directly. Liberalism in a market-state must exhibit a preference for the individual over the corporation and government and must empower individuals against bullying and coercive measures of these large institutions.
  4. Predictability & stability. Government in a market-state must be predictable and the economy and society must be stable. Neither of these is an absolute good – both are contingent goods – as without predictability and stability, economic growth is impeded and liberty is impossible. Related concepts are sustainability and resilience.
  5. Reform. (Not revolution.) Liberalism has embraced a policy of reform – presuming that the status quo is not perfect yet acknowledging that rapid change could lead to worse. Reform is the balance liberalism strikes between stability and progress. This distinguishes them from conservatives who embrace the status quo over any change (standing athwart history yelling stop!) and leftists and right-wingers who embrace revolutions of various types to overthrow the current order as fundamentally wrong. The focus on reform is informed by the balance between doubt and action. Perhaps the best understanding of what reform means for a liberal can be found in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s advocation of the word “tinkering.”
  6. Preventing destabilizing concentrations of power and encouraging fair processes of distribution. Liberalism acknowledges that power tends to become concentrated – sometimes in particular branches of the government (for example, in the presidency in the unitary executive theory); sometimes in corporations (as they become too big to fail); sometimes in a particular class of individuals (as they control more and more wealth.) Liberalism sees that such concentrations of power are incompatible with democracy and liberty – and that while such concentrations of power will empower certain individuals – they do so at the expense of most people. While socialists and communists and other utopians believe equality must be created – liberals merely seek to prevent extreme concentrations of power in the hands of any minority. At the same time, as Confucius said, “In a country well governed poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed wealth is something to be ashamed of.” Which is why liberals must ensure that power is distributed through a fair process. Political power has been distributed by a constitutional order that needs to be tweaked now and then – and sometimes shaken up, as with the abolition of slavery. Economic power similarly is distributed in a market that sometimes is entirely unjust – as pollution imposes costs on some that are paid by others; and of course with the issue of slavery again. Government must step in to ensure that such unfair practices are not allowed. The goal is not to prevent someone like Bill Gates from having so much wealth, as his wealth is small enough to pose little threat to stability no matter what he does (almost) – it is to prevent 75% of the power from being controlled by 5% of the population – which does pose such a threat.
  7. The Rule of Law. Liberals embrace the fact that our nation was founded “as a nation of laws, not men” and that laws, while sometimes inconvenient are the foundation of our social bargain. Our leaders swear to uphold the law and to remain subject to it. That means if say, a President authorizing wiretapping in direct contravention of federal law, then he must be prosecuted.
  8. Aid to the disadvantaged. Liberals believe in the moral principle that a society and a government cannot be judged without taking into account how it deals with the disadvantaged – especially those who are disadvantaged as a result of the inevitable flaws in the system we choose to embrace. Liberals subscribe to the idea that “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”
  9. First among equals. Liberals acknowledge that America has often been and remains a force for good in the world – but they believe that it detracts from this when it considers itself unrestrained by any law or treaty and unilaterally imposes its will. This creates instability and unpredictability – as well as encouraging other nations to form collectives against us and to obtain weapons of mass destruction to prevent an invasion and provoke a standoff. Instead, liberals see that America has been most effective and done the most good when it acted as “first among equals” in the community of nations. As technologicaland macro-economic forces have been rapidly decentralizing power, America remains the single most potent force in a non-polar world – but it detracts from it’s power when it acts alone and delegitimizes the trust the world has given it to act responsibly.
  10. Diversity and federalism. Liberals – embracing their fallibility as human beings, and acknowledging that their grasp of the truth is always provisional – embrace diversity and federalism. Diverse viewpoints, diverse cultural, cultural, economic, etc. backgrounds all should be welcome and protected so long as they do not attempt to impose their specific view on those not willing. This is why liberals must embrace federalism – which has traditionally been a conservative principle. Liberals seem to be embracing the idea of federalism – at least with regards to the issues of gay marriage and medical marijuana.

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  1. As Daniel Gross explained in Slate, “An affordable national health care policy, which could allow people to quit their jobs and launch businesses without worrying about the crippling costs of premiums or medical costs, might be a better spur to risk-taking than targeted small-business loans.” []

Socialism, huh?

Thursday, October 30th, 2008

Hendrik Hertzberg brilliantly rebuts the charge of “socialism” that McCain and Palin have been flinging:

The Republican argument of the moment seems to be that the difference between capitalism and socialism corresponds to the difference between a top marginal income-tax rate of 35 per cent and a top marginal income-tax rate of 39.6 per cent. The latter is what it would be under Obama’s proposal, what it was under President Clinton, and, for that matter, what it will be after 2010 if President Bush’s tax cuts expire on schedule.

And then there’s this gem from that straight-talking maverick of 2001:

YOUNG WOMAN: Are we getting closer and closer to, like, socialism and stuff?. . .
MCCAIN: Here’s what I really believe: That when you reach a certain level of comfort, there’s nothing wrong with paying somewhat more.

Read the whole thing – and spread the word.

Barack Obama Is Not a Socialist!

Thursday, October 16th, 2008

[digg-reddit-me]Data Points

  • My dad emailed me an editorial from Investor’s Business Daily – whose editorial page was described by the snarky, center-left online magazine Slate as veering “to the outer reaches of the right, making even the Journal‘s trademark business-friendly editorial line seem moderate.” The article my dad sent me stated that Obama is a “stealth socialist,” a kind of sleeper-agent for socialism, ready to unleash the forces of Marxism when he reaches the White House. (The same accusations flew around Bill Clinton in 1992.) The editorial alleges that Obama speaks in code to like-minded audiences, specifically citing the scary term, “economic justice.”
  • A friend of mine writes in his Facebook feed, “WAKE UP EVERYONE! HE IS A SOCIALIST!” including this picture of Stalin (a Communist.)

    I think he would have done better to include something like this picture. I thought of responding to this silly idea by pointing out that Palin and Stalin have most of the same letters in much the same order.
  • I’ve been having a long-running conversation with another friend – an “independent” voter who has been a supporter of McCain since 2000 – but who is very suspicious of the “far left” and “creeping socialism.” He believes that while Obama is not a socialist, he will allow those “far lefties” to gain influence and take away America’s freedom.
  • Sarah Palin, in her debate with Joe Biden, brought up the specter of socialist health care and then quoted Ronald Reagan saying that “freedom is always just one generation away from extinction” – a phrase he used to attack the very popular Medicare program as socialist (as Paul Krugman pointed out in a recent column).
  • The bailout and the various other proposals and actions by the Bush administration have been described in the pages of the financial journals as “socialism for the rich,” and there is a great deal of justifiable concern about the amount of leverage and power the government will have in the marketplace after this crisis has passed.

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