by Victor Davis Hanson
The Great Debate Oddly Is Not Over
We are still in a great public debate between capitalism and socialism, and individual freedom versus statism — odd since hundreds of millions worldwide have escaped poverty the last 30 years due to the spread of Western-inspired free markets.
Many choose sides in the debate based on their own predicaments. Sometimes the more independent and secure who have thrived under capitalism promote it, the more dependent who have not detest it.
At other times the realist mind is opposed to the idealist. And we can also envision the split as an age-old dichotomy between the tragic view and the therapeutic: either man is born pretty awful and must toughen himself through denial of the appetites, or he is by nature wonderful but corrupted and hurt through the burdens placed on him by society.
In whatever way we frame the debate, again more than ever Americans are choosing sides.
On the one, are those who believe personal freedom and liberty trump egalitarianism and fraternity. Oh, they don’t believe in letting the less successful perish, but they seek to help those who do not do as well in the open arena through three mechanisms:
1) a limited government that in extremis would support only the needy, sick, disabled and aged (no more self-esteem counseling, 6-year student loans, or research grants for self-adjustment);
2) reliance on entrepreneurship, freedom of action, and private enterprise to allow real economic growth that enlarges the pie itself rather than perennially haggling over the pieces of a shrinking whole;
3) A culture of shame that makes the more successful help those less so in his family, in his community, and in his nation through philanthropy and private giving.
On the other side are those who wish a large government to ensure an equality of result. Their notion is that personal responsibility, talent, behavior, luck, fate, etc. do not so much determine why one is well off and another not so. Instead, there is insidious racial, gender, and class oppression everywhere — sinister forces at work that conspire to keep those down who otherwise in a fair system would thrive.
Therefore a big paternalistic — all-knowing, all-powerful — government must step in, rein in the wild horses, break them, and harness them to pull the collective cart. At the end of the day, those who like to work long hours, start businesses, or take risks can continue for the sheer enjoyment of it; while others who chose not to will end up with about the same house, car, medical care, college, and travel opportunity. Does the son who likes to lay inside on Saturday mornings go unfed, just because he won’t help his brother mow the lawn? Is he any happier for his sloth, the other any better for his zeal?
Key to the statist mind is the acceptance that compensation is inherently unfair: why should a brain surgeon who takes out 3 meningiomas successfully a day make any more than the poor floor cleaner who washes the linoleum between operations? The former gains more status anyway, so why deepen the wound of inequality through unequal pay for the latter?
Ultimately that is what the present struggle is over. The Obamians wish to err on the side of egalitarianism rather than freedom of the individual. Traditionally there has been a balance in the U.S., but we are witnessing a genuine attempt to swing the pendulum hard to the left.
Example 1: California
Nowhere is there a better example of the collective effort than in California. Politics don’t matter here; both Republicans and Democrats embrace statism, high taxes, and growing entitlements.
So — we have the highest gasoline taxes, highest income taxes, highest sales taxes and collect enormous amounts of revenue to pay the highest-compensated and most numerous state employees in the nation to allot these revenues for others. We have the largest number of illegal aliens, and offer the most generous state subsidies for health, welfare, and education and legal aid. We pay more per prison convict than anywhere else, and have more of them per capita as well.
State Worker Paradise
If one is a teacher, a public nurse, or a state bureaucrat, and stays close to home, life is not too bad. Two tenured teachers at midlife can easily make together $160,000 with summers off — far more than the owner of a brake shop or a farmer of 40 acres of trees — and without worry over burdensome regulations or the daily need to drive down the 99 for a living, or to fly out of LAX for business, or to depend on the local CSU to provide literate, skilled employees. Life is therefore pretty good, at least so far.
But if you are a private company, dealing with high taxes, all sorts of regulations, a crumbling infrastructure (take a 300-mile drive from Gilroy south on 101; spend a day at LAX, or try finding a convenient east-west route out of California in the winter), and poorly educated employees, the experiment in egalitarianism has failed.
Answer? The best job in California is a state one; the worst a private-sector one. Result? 3,500 flee per week with capital, education, and know-how; 2,500 arrive with far less capital and training.
The state is billions in the hole; the public employee unions are furious that there is no “they” left to fork up more money.
And the big companies are gearing up to leave as well. Agriculture is under assault by affluent green state-employed professors, biologists, lawyers, and park officials. Prison union employees, prison administrators, lawyers etc. are all haranguing each other over shrinking funds. Los Angeles is a mess — broke, subpar schools, a place where grandees arrive for the work day and leave asap at 5. San Francisco survives by its natural beauty that snags tens of millions of tourist dollars; without it, it would devolve into Lima or Cairo.
On the National Scene
This California model is important because Obama is adopting it as a blueprint on a national scale. If he wins (and don’t count him out), life really would be more patterned on an equality of result. New payroll, income, state, local, and healthcare surcharge taxes would hit those over $200K with about a 70% take of one’s income. The public sector employees double in number, unionize, and demand ever more from “them.” Cap-and-trade charges raise monthly utility bills 20%. Things like SUVs, Winnebagos, and private jet travel are taxed out of reach — except for a guardian class that uses public moneys for a rarefied lifestyle of governance and enforcement (sort of like the jets parked on the tarmac at Copenhagen or Barack’s night out in the Big Apple).
We would all want a job at the DMV but would never want to go there for any service — a model for healthcare to come. In short, the poor get a little better off, the better-off a lot worse, and America becomes a sort of collective lower middle class at about a 1950s lifestyle, praised and congratulated for ending “poverty.”
And On to the World
Hugo Chavez was greeted as a rock star at Copenhagen, despite his anti-democratic, anti-Semitic, violent and corrupt rule. The climate change conference doesn’t seem to be just about climate change, but rather is degenerating into a call for universal socialism, with money going from West to the South.
America’s model, we see now at Copenhagen, can be expanded globally as well. The “poor” nations (many fabulously wealthy, like Zimbabwe, in natural resources) demand money from the wealthy West to even the playing-field under the guise of carbon-offset penance.
The West taxes its populace to hand over trillions to those without as many polluting cars and industries — on the socialist belief that impoverishment in Latin America and Africa is due to oppression, neo-colonialism, and economic imperialism rather than endemic corruption, tribalism, ethnic and religious strife, gender apartheid, the lack of legal protection for property and the individual, and statist bureaucracies. “They,” not “we,” did it to “us.”
(Never mentioned is the corollary of the Copenhagen shake-down: wealthy countries produce the steel, plastics, and information-based knowledge that poor countries use: paying a Zimbabwe billions for using less carbon would be as asinine as charging them billions for R&D full costs for the cars, industries, pharmaceuticals, eyeglasses, and technology their people use, but have not invented, fabricated, and in most cases maintained and repaired.)
The Great Chain of Socialism
In other words, we are seeing a strange era in which the once last bastion of capitalism, the free-market U.S., is trying to emulate the California model — and in turn the world wishes to follow what the Obama administration is trying to do in America.
Note well: California depends on “them” producing real wealth in food, fiber, manufacturing, oil, gas, timber, construction, and high-technology. In turn, the U.S. depends on 50 states doing the same to provide for the expansive regulatory and administrative federal class, and the world relies on the U.S. economy to provide the growth and capital to redistribute. (e.g., We can’t all be the Obamas, Valerie Jarretts, David Axelrods, Rahm Emanuels, Van Jones, Timothy Geithners, etc. who have made good livings as advocates, regulators, bureaucrats, legislators, etc. without having to worry about meeting a payroll).
In truth, in some ways, the world economy depends every day on some engineer, farmer, architect, radiator shop owner, truck driver or plumber getting up at 5:00 a.m., going to work, toiling hard, and producing real wealth so that an array of bureaucrats, regulators, and redistributors can manage the proper allotment of much of the natural largess produced.
The whole system from California to Copenhagen will keep on working as long as the productive classes feel there are still incentives to jump out of bed at 5. When they don’t, the power is cut off to thousands of gears and cogs — and the world looks more like Ecuador or Somalia than the U.S.
©2009 Victor Davis Hanson