Wednesday, April 27, 2005

"Whenever someone says the word community, I want to reach for an oxygen mask"

People have learned what liberal programs and rhetoric have taught — governments exist less to secure our unalienable natural rights than to deliver our unassailable public entitlements
writes William Voegeli in his Wall Street Journal article on the liberal mind — American, European, or otherwise.
(We can glimpse the success of this project in the general strikes that bring France to a halt when the government is foolish enough to talk about reducing the five weeks of guaranteed vacation.) The "Don't Tread on Me" spirit is now visited upon any government that doesn't come across with every entitlement it promised, or induced us to make it promise. The insurance facade of the Social Security system has served its purpose. That the people regard their benefits as a "legal, moral and political right" is clear. But so too is the debasement of their understanding of the ideas of law, morality, politics and rights. …

What, then, of the idealistic argument for Social Security? Robert Kuttner, co-editor of The American Prospect, points us in that direction:

In a democratic polity that also happens to be a highly unequal market economy, there is immense civic value to treating middle-class and poor people alike. A common social security program, or medical care program, or public school program, helps to create the kind of cohesion that Europe's social democrats like to call "social solidarity"--a sense that basic humanity and citizenship in the political community require equal treatment in at least some areas of economic life. And by doing so it also creates a reliable constituency for the Democratic Party.
This is an argument from which neither political calculation nor circularity has been expunged. Social solidarity promotes the growth of the welfare state, which promotes the growth of social solidarity. Mr. Kuttner doesn't ask if there's a point at which the welfare state might become too big, or where social solidarity might trigger claustrophobia. Nevertheless, his concern for cohesion, basic humanity and political citizenship suggests that he sees social solidarity as an end in itself, not just as an instrumental value.

Benjamin R. Barber, a political theorist who teaches at the University of Maryland, elaborated the case for the intrinsic value of solidarity in a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed. Privatizing Social Security would, he argued, "do irreparable harm to our democratic 'common ground.' " "Privatization--whether of education, housing, or Social Security--makes us less of a public. It diminishes the republic--the res publica, or public things that define our commonweal. It turns the common 'we' into a collection of private 'me's.' " Privatization is "a kind of reverse social contract: It dissolves the bonds that tie us together."

As with Mr. Kuttner, it is hard to know how far Mr. Barber wants to pursue togetherness. The most important words in the English language, it has been said, are "up to a point." We can only assume, or hope, that there is a point beyond which Mr. Barber would not wish to press his argument that any privatization makes us less of a public. …

Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria recently told an interviewer, "People often say, 'How could you, living in India, end up a Reaganite?' Well, the answer is, live in India. There are two things that people don't understand. One is the degree to which a highly regulated economy produces masses of corruption because it empowers bureaucrats. It just has to be seen to be believed. The second is that you are very quickly inured to the charms of preindustrial village life. Whenever someone says the word community, I want to reach for an oxygen mask."

…[Elizabeth Anderson's] bland confidence on [her defense of Social Security] is compatible with Richard Rorty's association of leftism with "a constant need for new laws and new bureaucratic initiatives which would redistribute the wealth produced by a capitalist system."

… Few Democrats or leftists of any stripe have come forward to applaud Bush's pragmatic, experimental social policy. Yet, they can't confess that their "principle," that government must always grow and never shrink, is something they pulled out of the air.

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