Socialism vs. Statism

George Will lit off a broadside against the Republican party yesterday in his regular newspaper column. It began with the McCain-Palin campaign gambit that had Obama spreading the wealth around:

America can’t have that, exclaimed the Republican ticket while Republicans — whose prescription drug entitlement is the largest expansion of the welfare state since President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society gave birth to Medicare in 1965; and a majority of whom in Congress supported a lavish farm bill at a time of record profits for the less than 2 percent of the American people-cum-corporations who farm — and their administration were partially nationalizing the banking system, putting Detroit on the dole and looking around to see if some bit of what is smilingly called “the private sector” has been inadvertently left off the ever-expanding list of entities eligible for a bailout from the $1 trillion or so that is to be “spread around.”

Besides the general fun of watching Will kick the Republicans around for their sloppy rhetoric, there’s a bigger issue. We don’t recognize the difference between Socialism and a strong state. In the US, partly as a result of the conservative assault on government, we think a weak Federal government is the only safeguard to our prosperity.

Cutting taxes had become a Republican tenet to starve the Federal government from growing. (Did it work?) And yet, Americans want their entitlements and their pork projects. They love their Congressmen at the same time that they hate “Congress.”

However, a strong state doesn’t have to be in the social welfare business. It doesn’t have to be a nanny. A strong state can set the rules and step back from the action. It can guide policy through authority, not just activist programs. It can create investment and innovation.

It is easier to have a strong state in other countries where there is a homogeneous population and one group doesn’t worry that the state is going to take the fruits of their effort and give it to another group. In a country without ethnic division, statism can lead easily to socialism. In the US, we opted for a kind of libertarianism. Liberals got a state that stayed out of their social lives and conservatives got a state that stayed out of the economy.

When we needed to use the mechanism of state power, we relied on the military as both an economic support and to provide social functions like job training and research and development. Now that we’re facing an epic economic failure, we’re going to have to resolve the contradictions at the center of our political system and start rationalizing how we use the state and for what purposes.

Here George Will isn’t very hopeful:

In America, socialism is un-American. Instead, Americans merely do rent-seeking — bending government for the benefit of private factions. The difference is in degree, including the degree of candor. The rehabilitation of conservatism cannot begin until conservatives are candid about their complicity in what government has become.

As for the president-elect, he promises to change Washington. He will, by making matters worse. He will intensify rent-seeking by finding new ways — this will not be easy — to expand, even more than the current administration has, government’s influence on spreading the wealth around.

We might find more to feel confident about. Changing what government does should be the change Obama talks about–and effects. There is a role for government in fixing this mess without taking on the responsibilities of becoming a bank and an auto maker. Let alone a hospital.

America can have a strong, but limited, state that sets the rules and polices them well. But we have to agree on the government’s role. If we can, though, we might get a state that can unleash innovation and dynamism. The things that made us prosperous in the first place.

The common interpretation of the New Deal–and you’re hearing it bandied about a lot these days–is that the New Deal didn’t resolve the depression, the war did. War is condition where the state expands its power immensely. A century ago, William James called for “a moral equivalent of war.” He meant harnessing the coordination and direction of a military campaign for humanitarian purposes.

We should be calling for the economic equivalent of war.

‘Socialism’? It’s Already Here.


The Washington Post, November 15th, 2008

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