Friday, April 09, 2010

Why Conservatism is So Counterintuitive and Ideologues are Lazy, Part 2

America may soon embark to do something few nations have ever done: reverse the inevitable statist march. Nations have overthrown Communist governments in heroic and history-making fashion. Think the Berlin wall coming down or the Ceau┼čescus running for their lives. When things get bad enough, governments either adapt, as China has, they fall of their own weight, or they are overthrown. But rarely is there pre-emptive change, to use a notorious word. Rarely does a nation catch sight of what is coming and do something to reverse course. That may be changing.

There are reasons no nation has done this. In essence, citizens get in the habit of delegating more responsibility to the state, and most states are all too happy to comply. The citizenry grows lazier and chooses to take less responsibility for itself. They lament the unpredictable nature of life - where will my healthcare come from? Is my retirement secure? - to the point where they are willing to trade more liberty for more security. There's also the inevitable class envy that propels "spreading the wealth around." Couple that with Frederich Hayek's prediction that the worst in society always seem to end up on top (because of their naked ambition) and you have a recipe for increased state intervention every time.

Faced now with a rather lengthy onslaught of government debt and over-reaching, the American public seems poised to embrace conservatism in a way that transcends the Republican party, and may actually work to repeal legislation and shrink government. Well, one can hope. Conservatives achieved this for a short (and glorious) time during Bill Clinton's presidency, but the gains were modest and did not last. During Bush's and especially during Obama's term, the sense that our currency is unreliable and jobs are disappearing has grown exponentially, and the pattern of delegating responsibility to the state may begin to end in November.

But the larger question of why people delegate in the first place is hard to answer. Why do people relinquish control over their own money, their own property, or even their own way of life? The only answer that makes sense to me is that when conservatism is explained in policy terms, when its shortcomings are highlighted, a bleak picture of it can be, and is, painted. A system without the proper controls, a system with loopholes, a system that leaves the most vulnerable without guarantees…these are the results of the free market. To support such a system, then, could hardly be considered moral. Every time something goes wrong in a free society, the lack of central control is an easy explanation, even if inaccurate. It's an easy solution to a complex problem. It's intuitive, even if false.

People need to know, it seems, that someone is at the switch. Someone needs to be in charge of providing housing, someone needs to be in charge of food, someone needs to be in charge of jobs and healthcare. And when the natural business cycle (and/or government regulation) results in high prices or inavailability, the market is the scapegoat. There aren't enough controls and we need someone who can guarantee me what I need. That need for control is so intuitive, its practically biological. So when conservatism refuses to answer the question of who will provide food/shelter/healthcare/etc. with anything more than a shrug, it is considered morally delinquent. In truth, it trusts that someone will provide the service needed. That service may be provided imperfectly, but it always does so more perfectly than a central planner.

That trust is a delicate political commodity. The ideologue knows that trust is fragile, especially when times are tough. The ideologue, who seeks to solve no problems, exploits that trust and tries to make the citizen feel foolish for trusting a system that has resulted in problems. For example: "What I won't do is return to the failed theories of the last eight years that got us into this fix in the first place, because those theories have been tested, and they have failed." And what are those theories? While not apologizing for the Bush presidency, the theories Obama seems to have in mind are these: people, through voluntary and cooperative means can procure and supply for themselves the goods and services they need, and that a central planner of any magnitude is almost wholly unnecessary.

In one sentence, he vaguely and brilliantly pecks away at our trust in the free market system. To what exact policies is he referring to? Government corporations like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac? Government bailouts of banks? The 48 months of continuous economic expansion and microscopic unemployment during the Bush years? This is another brilliant sentence that is both non-committal while destructive of a straw man all at once.

It is admittedly somewhat difficult to trust that with no central planning, goods and services will be provided, even if we have centuries of proof that they will be. It is far easier, and lazier, to trust that someone else will provide it, that some point person somewhere is on top of it. That laziness is now being explored on a mass scale. The solution to every problem this nation faces has been met with the same solution from this administration: more government. Be it through regulation, bureaucracy, control, or legislation, this administration refuses to trust that problems might be solved by doing less. And for now, we're going along, because, well, it's intuitive. If there is a problem, we should do more, right? The hard work is to say, no, we, as a government, should do less. The easy answer is for the ideologue to say yes, let me do more through laws, fiat and unproven solutions.

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