Liberalism and the Failure to Recognize Human Limitations

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2009 Five Presidents, President George W. Bush...

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Do you remember your mother or father telling you the old saw, “Money doesn’t grow on trees.” You were a child and wanted something your parents could not afford. You may have thrown a fit, but if your parents were responsible, they would not give in in order to teach you a valuable lesson about human limitation. Human beings can only buy as much as their resources allow. Any responsible parent knows that going into unnecessary debt can harm the entire family. A family receives a finite income every year. A family whose income is $50,000 a year should not buy a $40,000 car or a $1,000,000 home.

Businesses also realize that they can overreach–when a business overspends beyond the benefits and loses money, that one failure can sometimes destroy, or at the very least weaken–that business. The same thing is true with local governments and most state governments. California, with its past history of profligate spending, is an important exception–and an important lesson on recognizing that resources have limits.

The federal government has not learned these lessons. George W. Bush began the current spending spree, with the mainstream Republicans in Congress, wanting to gain votes, appropriating the money. When the banking crisis occurred, Mr. Bush and Congress spend billions on a massive bail out. But what Mr. Bush did is child’s play compared to Mr. Obama’s free spending ways. What was billions in debt quickly became trillions, to the point that there seems no end to the massive debt of the United States. China holds us over a more precarious pit than was present in the Bush administration. Problems with the Euro have helped the dollar to survive as a viable currency despite massive supply due to the government printing more money–but eventually supply and demand will catch up with the dollar. The threat of hyperinflation looms over the United States to a greater degree than in any recent decade except the 1970s.

The American people’s desire for a utopia on earth has driven massive spending. Unlike Europe, which spent freely due to people wanting la dolce vita after seven years of brutal war, American’s desire to benefit from government had already begun in the 1930s with the Roosevelt administration‘s rapid expansion of federal programs in response to the Great Depression. Americans, no longer disciplined by hardship and war, turned to government to solve social problems and to provide benefits for the middle class. The idea was that only government had the massive resources to fight poverty (Lyndon Johnson‘s “Great Society“)  and protect the middle class through social security, unemployment insurance, and Medicaid. Now government has been used by Mr. Obama to solve another financial crisis and to expand social welfare benefits. Cuts in defense spending are not nearly enough to make up for massive social programs. Thus the problem of debt is just as unsolvable in the United States as it is in Western Europe. Mother was right–money does not grow on trees–and the worth of money is not guaranteed by the government’s printing more bills.  Currency traders will not ignore economic reality forever. The United States, like Western Europe, will be driven to recognize its limitations if it must be driven kicking and screaming.

Classical liberalism is superior to social democratic liberalism, but it still has an overly optimistic view of human nature and often does not recognize human limitations. Many classical liberals believe that science and the private sector will create an ideal society, and such a belief can clash with economic and other human limitations. Adam Smith believed that a society made up primarily of virtuous people, civilized by Christianity and Western culture, would make the “invisible hand” work. With the breakdown of key virtues such as taking responsibility for one’s behavior and integrity, the capitalist system will be corrupted. Even if it were not corrupted, resources for the well-being of people are finite, not infinite. Science and the market can substitute for God just as much as “the People” substitute for God in Marxism.

The truth is that there is no ideal world that any economic system can make. The world will always be a mixed bag of good and bad. People can do what they can to alleviate the negative and “accentuate the positive” (as my late colleague Parker Wilson used to say). To do so with massive government aid programs or social engineering programs creates programs that almost always fail, and the government spends more money and goes deeper into debt. Because social democratic liberals cannot follow a mother’s or father’s aphorism that “Money does not grow on trees,” the country in which I was born and reared may become unrecognizable sooner rather than later.

The Failure of the Welfare/Warfare State

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Franklin Roosevelt IMG_4680

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In the future the United States will not be the country it once was–thank God. The U.S. will not have the money to keep its empire, and like all empires, it will lose its client states such as Iraq and Afghanistan. If we’re lucky, U.S. troops will also be withdrawn from South Korea and from Europe. The utopian Wilsonian idea that the United States has the duty to “spread democracy to the world” will hopefully be laid to rest. The military-industrial complex, with its drain on resources and its support for continual warfare may fade away, hopefully to engage in manufacturing more than instruments used to kill other human beings.

Even if the empire falls, the money saved will not be nearly enough to balance the budget or stop high deficits. The welfare state, developed during the massive New Deal programs designed to ease the Depression (whether they did or whether they prolonged the Depression is a matter of legitimate debate), and vastly expanded under Lyndon Johnson, will have to make deep cuts in its programs. It may be too late to avoid social chaos. Years of making people dependent on the government have contributed to large numbers of individuals who take advantage of the system and do not attempt to get a job. Those who do try to work quickly realize that welfare leaves their families better off than a job–even a job that pays significantly more than minimum wage. Although there are many exceptions, there are also many people in the underclass whose behavior is morally lacking. Promiscuity, drug use, drug dealing, a failure of fathers to care for children–all are the products of the welfare state, moral relativism, the decline of the family, and the decline of religion. If the federal welfare state is dismantled, there may be social chaos for a while, but hopefully the dismantling would force people out of the dependence on government mindset and encourage them to go to school, go to work, and contribute to the American economy, both monetarily and in the old sense of the word “economics,” oikomounia, the social economy that is part of every household. When the household is run well, this helps the overall economy by providing productive workers to the workforce, and it helps the social and political economy by providing virtuous people to contribute to society’s good.

There are no guarantees. But the United States may default on its debt if current spending levels are not radically lowered That could lead to a Depression and to violence in the streets. A firm hand in dealing with phenomena such as flash mobs should restore a measure of social order, although it will take decades to expunge the harm of the New Deal and of The Great Society. These systems have helped undermine the basis on which republican government can be run. People who demand “bread and circuses” from the government seldom make good citizens.

Welfare is a necessity is some cases when there is no family or friends to help someone who is having a difficult economic time. Its allocation by government should remain, at the broadest, at the state level. The United States has become too large to effectively govern, and it may be in the future that at least some of the states will be independent or have more limited autonomy from the federal government. Local resources can be used to help those locally in need. Then the United States should have policies that encourage Americans to manufacture items in this country. If more manufacturing comes, this would ease the burden on society by giving jobs to those previously were not able to find work.

Entitlements of every kind must be cut. The U.S. has no other choice. Pork barrel projects must cease. If the president refuses to have fiscal discipline due to his support of the welfare/warfare state, someone should point this out. Cursing out the Tea Party, as Maxine Waters did, reveals her ignorance of economics–that the United States must get its fiscal house in order, balance the budget, and use any surplus to help to pay the national debt. If fiscal responsibility does not happen, any recognizable U. S. may quickly succumb to the resulting economic chaos.

 

 

The Intellectual Arrogance of the Left

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White House: head shots of Amb. Adlai Stevenson

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As an academic, I am often in informal gatherings with colleagues, some of whom take for granted that social democratic liberalism (as opposed to classical liberalism) is the correct political philosophy to follow. If anyone dares to deviate, few arguments are given; rather, there are accusations that the lone conservative “is not committed to critical thought.” This claim is merely asserted, not argued.

The Democratic Party in the United States is doing the same thing that academics are doing–claiming that those who support Republican candidates are intellectually vacuous. Now I would be the first to admit that there are some conservatives (just as there are some liberals and some moderates) who are intellectually vacuous. Ignorant people are found of all political persuasions. But intellectual conservatism has a long history stretching from Edmund Burke through Russell Kirk through academic conservatives today who vigorously debate the meaning of conservatism. Such debate is a sign of a healthy movement committed to intellectually weeding out views that are not helpful to a stable social order. One may disagree with such conservatives, but to call them intellectually vacuous is unfair.

What about conservative voters? Are some of them ignorant? Of course, but there are also ignorant moderate and liberal voters. When Democrats insult voters for shifting their loyalty to Republicans, this is a foolish move that alienates most voters. Adlai Stevenson discovered this the hard way, and did not learn his lesson in 1952 when he lost again to Eisenhower in 1956. When the left shows its intellectual snobbery, it fails in politics. To win, it must hide its superiority complex behind a veil of populism.

Conservatism at its best values practical reason and recognizes that behind traditions there often lies deep wisdom gathered over time. Intellectual experiments in social order invariably fail, as the failure of the Great Society programs has shown to most individuals who are not blinded by intellectual dogmatism. It is this wisdom that many conservative voters recognize. Most may not be among the academic elite, but they have a common sense and practical wisdom (phronesis, to use Aristotle’s term) that liberals lack. The left can be intellectually arrogant all it wants, but behind its theories lies the true complexity of real life, a complexity that is lived by real people living in real communities rather than by academics hiding in their ivory towers.