the civilizational tango
I have described progressive and conservative politics as existing in a sort of necessary “civilizational tango.” This is often the vantage point from which I’m operating when I consider such things as the importance of both political and economic decentralization as well as the very definite need to provide some form of universal health care, especially to the poor and the lower middle class. Conservatives often worry about this sort of entitlement because they see it as another encroachment of the state on personal freedoms (sort of how progressives view the ban on gay marriage, or DADT).
Here’s the thing, though. We live in a capitalist world. Capitalism and markets are very natural, very efficient ways to create wealth and promote higher standards of living, and even to promote peaceful trade between nations. Nevertheless, markets exist in the human world and are thus flawed. Markets are influenced by governments, by cheaters, by monopolization, and so forth. As industries rise and fall and jobs are created and lost we are faced with various conundrums. High unemployment, loss of benefits, loss of pensions or retirement savings, inflation, deflation, stagnation – all these things ride in the wake of a turbulent market, and come out in force during a recession. During good times, not so much, but even then there is always a portion of our society left disenfranchised, because no theory is perfect and the market has not been harnessed in such a way as to provide the proper safety nets. Markets haven’t been utilized to create a wider “confidence net” for the countless middle-class working people who rely heavily on their employers for many of their safety nets either – an untenable position that can leave them suddenly without not only a job, but without health insurance.
So somewhere in this mix lies a balance between the duties and responsibilities of the state and private citizens. I honestly don’t believe that a capitalistic society can flourish without an underpinning of social services. Does this mean we need to adopt “Europeanization” of our economic and political model? Not at all. Reihan Salam is right to note that:
When conservatives fret about the Europeanization of the American economy under President Obama, they’re getting at something very important. Though generalizations about Europe’s diverse economies can be misleading, there is a real sense in which inflexible labor markets have excluded large numbers of people from the economic mainstream.
So-called automatic stabilizers protect immigrants and the poor from the worst ravages of poverty, yet worklessness, like homelessness, has contributed to intense social isolation and poor health and, at the risk of sounding overly sentimental, a pervasive sense of despair across the continent. The high-employment American model, in contrast, has much to recommend it.
Yet you have to wonder: Is the American welfare state as it exists the best imaginable expression of the underlying American social model?
Again, somewhere in between lies a balance. Keeping people working and prosperous with a chance to “move up” is important both to the our economy as a whole, but also to the morale of the nation and especially of the nation’s youth and working class. Salam talks about despair across the pond, but there’s real despair here too. People are really, truly worried about whether they will be able to afford to retire, or about whether they will be able to afford surgery or even to go get their cavities filled. Depending on what economic perch you’re sitting on, this can all take on different shapes. If you’re living paycheck to paycheck, things look a lot bleaker – especially as good blue collar jobs drift overseas or are taken over by robots.
I’m wary of big government, but I also think there is a definite “public” sphere in which government ought to play a role, and so I’m leery of claims of “statist” or “socialist” whenever any government-based program is floated – like socialized medicine, for instance. Sometimes when government doesn’t play a role in these areas, it is simply replaced by corporate interests, and a corporatism every bit as centralized, uncreative, and stifling as big government. Sometimes the two work in collusion or by happenstance to erect a statist corporatism that is even more entrenched, uncreative, and stifling than either would be on their own – the current state of our health care policy, for instance, is a good example of such an interwoven, bungled attempt at private/public cohesion.
We are a society, part of a civilization, part of a past and a future. Perhaps the trick is to separate where the public and private spheres ought to exist more thoroughly, to draw those lines more accurately. In health care reform, for instance, perhaps a robust public option is a necessary first step to provide for lower income people and the unemployed in order to enact reforms that deregulate and free up decentralized, thoroughly privatized health insurance for the upper tiers of society. Is that a reasonable trade?
I don’t know.
But this is why I write like a schizophrenic sometimes on domestic issues, leaping between my “Kainian small is beautiful conservatism” as John Schwenkler once dubbed it, and then on to defend public schools and socialized medicine. A balance must be struck and I haven’t found it yet. We, as a nation, haven’t found it yet.