Wednesday, November 07, 2007

A danger to the community

"They are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there's no such thing as society."
-- Margaret Thatcher

"Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem."
-- Ronald Reagan

I was reading Ian Welsh' post here on societies with mandatory military service. Going back to Athens and the "hoplite democracy" there an idea that only universal military mobilization can create the conditions needed for a sustainable democracy. In the case of Athens, you literally stood side by side in the line of battle with your fellow citizens. The Swiss have famously had one of the world's oldest democracies and still possess one of the only conscript armies left in Europe. And there's a number of surveys that show Americans believing they were more fulfilled and more connected with each other during WWII. So it's not like this is an idea out of nowhere.

And then I was reading Rick Perlstein's post here about how Republicans are trying, and failing, to block federal aid to drought-ravaged states in the US because government spending is basically communism in drag, right? It's a telling example of how the right-wing revolution has critically neutered the American capacity for basic self-government.

And there's an interesting common element between the two posts: one of the leading thinkers for both America's right-wing putsch and the end of mandatory military service was none other than Milton Friedman. Friedman participated in the Gates Commission which recommended a volunteer military for the US Government, in which he gave the classic reply to Gen. Westmoreland:
Mr. Westmoreland said he did not want to command an army of mercenaries. Mr. Friedman interrupted, "General, would you rather command an army of slaves?" Mr. Westmoreland replied, "I don't like to hear our patriotic draftees referred to as slaves." Mr. Friedman then retorted, "I don't like to hear our patriotic volunteers referred to as mercenaries. If they are mercenaries, then I, sir, am a mercenary professor, and you, sir, are a mercenary general; we are served by mercenary physicians, we use a mercenary lawyer, and we get our meat from a mercenary butcher."
I think it's clear that both Friedman's economic and military views were informed by the same basic principle -- and calling Friedman's views anti-statist is, I think most observers would agree, like calling the Pope Catholic.

(Two things to note here: one, I'm not even entirely unsympathetic to Friedman's argument about mandatory military service. Two, please, please, please don't write in saying it's unfair to glom Friedman in with the modern conservatives: the man was a self-professed Republican until the day he died, and he endorsed Bush twice. He explicitly rejected Blair-Clinton "third way" politics and said Thatcherism was the only option for the Continent. Oh, he also said the Euro was doomed, doomed I say!)

This ideology, which Friedman helped rebirth in the 1970s, and Thatcher, Reagan, Mulroney, and others all ran with, has been rhetorically successful, if a failure in practical terms. As Brad Delong is fond of pointing out, it's bizarre to say that politicians like Goldwater or Gingrich have "won" the debate when they've managed to roll back 1% of the New Deal, leaving the other 99% intact. Social Security checks still get dutifully mailed out, and the Tennessee Valley Authority still sells electricity.

But this ties in with a common sentiment I hear expressed about unions all the time: Sure, unions were necessary back in the good old days when bosses could just beat their workers in to submission, but we don't need them now. We've solved that problem. Indeed, one of the prime arguments used against unions is that we have a well-developed corpus of labour laws in the developed world, so unions are irrelevant.

Ignore, for the moment, that the same people who broke strikes back in the day with truncheons also fought tooth and nail against labour laws. Ignore, for the moment, that the same people who think unions are irrelevant are usually the same people screaming about "government red tape" like, you guessed it, labour laws. And ignore the fundamental foolishness that we've "solved" the issue of worker exploitation in a a capitalist's system.

The basic problem with the idea that limited government is acceptable because "we solved those problems" is that problems never stop coming. And I'm not even talking about the real hard stuff -- social change like racial equality or gender roles -- but the tangible, solveable problems: roads, rails, energy, environmental problems, health care, and education. These are things that we tackled, achieved amazing progress with in some case, but have largely left to rot with neglect thanks to a mantra of low taxes and inactivist government.

We are, I submit, never ever going to solve climate change so long as we remain mentally shackled to the belief that, as modern conservatives seem to hold so fervently, government can only ever be part of the problem. Or that there is no such thing as community. That, at a basic level, your problems will never ever be my problems, and mine never yours.


Catelli said...

You lost me with the union parallel.

As an individual who has worked with and within the union workforce in Ontario's manufacturing sector, I do find unions largely irrelevant and counter productive. Largely because the worker abuse issues are gone, but unions have to justify the dues collected from the workforce so they continuously negotiate non-productive changes into the collective bargaining agreement. In other words, I do find the larger unions (CAW, Steelworkers) etc. have disproportionately tilted the power balance too much towards the worker. The side effects we are witnessing through the plant closures happening now.

My solution though? More government red tape to help ensure worker abuse does not happen
We can tilt at each other on this one for a while.

So from that viewpoint, I have totally lost the thread of your argument here. Which is a first for me.

Catelli said...

I think I lost my own point. In case I wasn't clear, based on my own viewpoint and history with unions I totally lost the thread of your post.