by Victor Davis Hanson
America against the World in Ways We Never Imagined
Survey the world’s statist systems of every stripe, from soft to hard. One sees either failure and misery or stasis and lethargy. At the most extreme, a North Korea is turning into a Neanderthal society where subjects eat grass. Castro’s Cuba is imploding, and the Great Leader in his dotage is now renouncing his communist catastrophe. Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela proves that even an oil-rich exporter can destroy itself with self-imposed socialism.
India progressed only when it adopted free markets. People do not outsource 1-800 numbers to socialist paradises. No need to review the Soviet collapse or the change in China from a peasant to a wealth-building capitalist society. Europe for a while longer works despite (rather than because of) democratic socialism. From Germany to Greece, Europe is moving away from the encroaching public sector that has nearly destroyed the European Union.
So the trend of the world — even after the meltdown of September 2008 — is away from statism, except in the United States. I don’t say that lightly or as a slur, but empirically. The Obama administration has absorbed large sectors of the auto industry and some segments of banking and insurance. The student loan program is federalized.
I never understood cash for clunkers; it seemed flawed in every facet. If this administration has its way, it will hike income taxes and take off the caps on income subject to Social Security payroll taxes (potentially the largest tax increase in history) — part of an effort to redistribute income from the top to bottom brackets (40% of these income filers pay no income tax now at all). Inheritance, healthcare, and capital gains taxes are all slated to rise.
The failed British medical system is now our model. Yet even the pretense that it will save money is now abandoned. To get reelected, many of its Democratic adherents now run from their earlier votes. For some reason the chaos of the emergency room, the mess of the social services office, or the bureaucracy of the county building permit agency is our ideal for the brave, new doctor’s office.
The percentage of GDP that is government-run will markedly increase; the trillion-plus annual deficits, in gorge the beast fashion, will force higher taxation to pay for redistributive payouts and entitlements — or inflate the currency to erode saved capital. The UN is worshiped and reported to. Allies are now neutrals, and enemies are courted. We seek to prove that we are not “exceptional,” but simply one among many — a sort of socialist approach to foreign policy where all nations are the same.
Symbolically the president, before and during his tenure, has called for “redistributive change,” “to spread the wealth,” and openly suggested that, at some arbitrary point (known to him alone, but apparently sufficiently high enough to allow Costa del Sol and Martha Vineyard vacations) one need not make (as in, keep one’s earnings) additional income. I could go on, but you get the picture: Obama would like to take us down a path that leads inevitably to a Greece, even as the world is racing away from it.
The Five Dangers of Socialism
1) Policing the police. There is no check on an omnipotent government. We see that already with the hundreds of tax cheats in Congress and the White House, and the embarrassments of a Tim Geithner or Tom Daschle. Who oversees industry when industry is run by government?
Another agency? Do you sue in federal court to stop state industry pollution, when the payout will hamper the ability to pay the federal court staff itself? When I take brush to the dump, I am careful to tarp the pickup bed (I know the dangers of, and fine for, flying debris). When I am behind a municipal garbage truck, I both expect to be splattered by flying garbage and know there is no punishment for the driver; he is tenured and his agency part of the same system as the sheriff’s.
When I see a Greyhound bus driver drive erratically, I expect he can be sued or cited by government. When a municipal bus driver recently almost hit me at a crosswalk — its driver smoking and text messaging all at once — I knew there was little redress. What is the transportation agency worried about — losing market share when it is a monopoly? Government is necessary, but the least is better than the most.
The new technocracy also finds mechanisms to live capitalistically while ordering socialism for others. Hypocrisy leads to endemic cynicism. A look at the careers of a Charles Rangel, Maxine Waters, or Chris Dodd, or the tax ethics of a John Kerry, suggest that our statist overseers simply feel exempt from the law in Animal Farm fashion. At the most extreme, one gets the Sovietnomenklatura, while in a less pernicious form the expense-account cheating EU bureaucrat. A certain sort flocks to socialist government to escape accountability and find a good life that his merits would otherwise not earn. The European public workers’ pension system is proof enough of that.
2) Demography. When one demands cradle to grave care, a classical (now scoffed at) reason for childbearing (to change diapers for those who might one day change your own in gratitude) is destroyed. And if there is no struggle to create income and savings (the state provides all needs; the state ensures against all risks; the state takes away most income; the state gobbles most inheritance), why worry about transcendence or passing anything along to children — or why children at all?
Agnosticism leads to a shrinking population and vice versa. If the state is the god, and defines happiness as social justice in the material sense, then the here and now is all that matters. The state defines morality as the greatest good for the greatest number — as it sees it.
Lost is a sense of individual tragedy, self-sacrifice, personal accountability for sin and transgression, and appreciation for a larger world beyond and after this one. A society that does not believe in a hereafter will be sorely disappointed that the state never quite satisfies its appetites. We see that hedonism well enough from Greece to California. “Never enough” (Numquam satis) is the new de facto motto.
3) Defense. It is far harder for a socialist state to defend itself — unless it is a tyrannical authoritarian one in the Hitlerian or Stalinist model. For a European socialist, why spend collective income on defense, when it might better go to more entitlements and redistribution? Just as everyone is equal at home, and social pathology is a result only of deprivation and exploitation that can be remedied by material redistribution, so too abroad all nations are of equal merit, with the more aggressive simply in need of a global version of Social Security, ObamaCare, or a 70% tax on wealthy nations to transfer ill-gotten funds to poorer ones. Evil is not intrinsic, but results from exploitation that can be remedied without deterrence.
4) Land of the Lotus Eaters? When most of us have public-sector, tenured DMV-like jobs, what is the incentive to do well at work? To increase efficiency to serve the state that always seems to pay our salaries regardless of our office’s productivity or the state’s financial health? To help the public who has the same attitude at work as we do (one statist can spot another a mile away)?
There is no good, no bad, just everything and everyone the same. We see that now in a socialization of culture, quite apart from government — in everything from degraded titles and honorifics to block-style socialist apartment buildings. (One does not have to go to Eastern Europe to see the ugly cinder block urban apartments; there are plenty in a France, Italy, or Greece or urban renewal in our large cities.) State-supported art, literature, and music are usually bland, about what you expect when art serves ideology or, like Dutch-supported art, is designed to provide employment regardless of merit. Our society becomes like tee ball, with good intentions replacing runs scored.
When I enter a state Athenian bank, I see 10 Greek employees literally doing nothing other than serving coffee to each other or stamping forms, and long lines of petulant customer clerks who are thinking, “Damn, they are doing to me what I do to them too at my own state job!”
5. Mediocrity. To ensure equality, socialism must take the top down. That is far easier than bringing the bottom up. In schools, that means far more invested in remediation than in honors. That prime directive translates into 15 valedictorians rather than one. In our fairer worlds, 75% receive As rather than 20%. We are heading to a society where we are degreed and certified — and all know very little. What would be the point of erudition when it would mean that recall, speech, writing, and reference would be beyond the majority’s comprehension and therefore of no social utility? Why have a Tolstoy when at the ministry of education a committee can issue novels with far better themes of diversity and gender equity?
Only in things less important like sports does pure merit still count. Oh, if Obama would only leave the economy alone and turn his statist attention to socializing basketball. Imagine:
Diversity: 20 person teams with racially imposed diversity matching national demography;
Fairness: each team required to play 20 minutes with their poorest percentage shooters;
Egalitarianism: at reaching 40 points, a scorer is forced to leave one team and join the other;
Social justice: last year’s bottom-half teams start the new season with an automatic 10 wins; a behind team gets 3 points for every basket until it catches up;
The safety net: ObamaCare and only ObamaCare for all athletes;
Saving jobs: federal takeovers and buyouts of money-losing franchises;
The goal? 30 equal teams, each with a 40 wins/40 losses record.
Leave healthcare to us, and work on the NBA instead.
©2010 Victor Davis Hanson