Dark Currents   1 comment

It’s strange the thoughts that go through my head while I’m writing Transformation Project. It’s an apocalyptic series set the day after tomorrow, when terrorists have fried several US cities to a crisp with suitcase nukes. A Threatening Fragility is about to go into rewrite and I’m thinking about how the headlines affect the plot.

When I’m on the exercise machines at the gym, I listen to the Communist News Network (CNN) and the Fanatics News Network (Fox) and I think “this is the exact right time to write this series because we are witnessing the collapse of social democracy.”

It’s not a new crisis. It’s been swelling gradually for decades like a cancer that started years before and has just been discovered. We see the symptoms in the extremist parties in Europe and the sometimes violent political confrontations in the United States. The times cry out for a complete rethinking of the relationship between the individual and the state and between society and its governing institution. I get to do that fictionally, but there’s a real world comuppence headed our way.

I was surprised to discover the other day that our son didn’t know what a social democracy was. He’s getting As in Government and Economics and he didn’t know the term. Wow! That really speaks volumes about how bad the American education system has become. I daresay his sister only knew it because I told her. For the record, we live in a social democracy. Put aside the notion that this is socialism or even democratic, because it’s not. A social democracy is the unlimited rule of self-proclaimed elites who think they know better than the rest of us who to live our lives.

Image result for image of the breakup of social democracy

Quick history – end of World War 2, the intellectual and political elites in the United States decided that ideology should die. This wasn’t a new thought for them, but they decided that after two devastating world wars with high rates of American deaths, they could introduce the concept to American culture and we’d not object to their plans. I suggest reading 1960: The End of Ideology by Daniel Bell. A self-described “socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture,” he said that all wild-eyed visions of politics had come to an end. They would all be replaced by a system of rule by experts that everyone will love forever. They believed the world would be a safer place if nobody believed anything too deeply and we all agreed on some system of public administration that controls every aspect of our lives so that conflicts aren’t possible. To this end, they would build a cradle-to-grave welfare system so that scarcity would no longer be an issue, an administrative state wherein objective and scientific experts would be given authority to build and oversee large-scale state projects that would touch on every area of life. This would involve a regulatory apparatus to make all products and services perfect, a labor agency to achieve the perfect balance of capital and labor, huge infrastructure projects to inspire public awe, all while fine-tuning the economy along Keynesian line, administering a foreign-policy regime that knew no limits to its power and empowering a central bank to act as the lender of last resort.

Although they claimed they wanted an end to ideology, these central planners codified an ideology that wasn’t socialism, communism, fascism or capitalism. They called it “social democracy”, a gigantic invasive state, administered by elite bureaucrats drawn from the intellectual class and given the cover of consent through the use of ill-informed universal suffrage. After all, democracy will assure that no oppression occurs. Right? Uh, ….

A funny thing happened on the way to social nirvana. During the Cold War, the threat of Soviet communism kept many people from questioning the institutions around them. Yeah, they didn’t match what we read in the Constitution, but if they kept us safe from the Soviets …. We were taught in school that it was best to be post-ideological, but we still needed to be on guard against the ideological extremism of Russia and anyone who might sound like Hitler, so ignore these contradictions. You wouldn’t be able to exercise the former right as a government-regulated privilege if the government weren’t protecting you from Vladimir Putin … I mean, Nikita KhrushchevThe threat of nuclear annihilation was enough to keep mass discontent with government institutions at bay until the Cold War abruptly ended in 1989, beginning a new attempt to impose a post-ideological age as the elites had wanted for so long.

“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” (The End of History, Francis Fukuyama)

Yet, it was now safe to question the post-war social-democratic consensus. We no longer needed to put aside our differences to face an existential threat. Over the last 25 years, every institution of social democracy has been discredited and the middle class now faces the grim reality that the American dream is failing.  The moon landing was the last time a government program really seemed to work well. As government became a symbol of inefficiency and waste, heavily ideological protest movements began to spring up in all corners of American public life: the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Bernie, Trump, and whatever comes next.

Intellectuals today fret about the fracturing of American civic life, expounding about what has gone wrong and why. Social media reflects this anxiety, certain that this leader or that program is the answer to our problems, that which will pull us back together in cohesion. Alternatively, this leader or that program is said to be “a sure fired way of destroying all that America stands for.”

Bull! Our government institutions have grown bloated and imperious over time and are becoming increasingly untenable. The experts didn’t know what they were doing after all, and this realization is shared widely among the people who were supposed to be made so content by the existence of these institutions. This is because they have discovered that most programs are failures.

Many forms of welfare only work because they borrow from the future to support the present. Nobody asked my children’s generation if they wanted to support other people’s grandparents and sometimes their great-grandparents in luxury for 30 years after retirement. Social Security worked so long as the few in older groups could pillage the numerous in younger groups. Now that the demographics are flipping so that there are many on the receiving end and few on the paying end, young people know that they will be paying their whole lives and either get nothing in return or net a terrible return on investment. Medicare and Medicaid are beset by the same problem. The welfare state became a way of life rather than a temporary help. Subsidy programs like housing and student loans created unsustainable bubbles that burst, causing fear and panic.

All forms of government intervention presume a static world without change and institutions that operate in certain predictible ways. Public schools today operate as they did in the 1950s, despite access to a new global information system that has otherwise transformed how we seek and acquire information. Antitrust regulations deal with industrial organization from decades ago even as the market has moved forward. There is a huge variety of programs open to the same criticism: labor law, communications regulations, drug approvals and medical regulations, and so on. All this red tape costs and those costs grow and grow, while the service and results deteriorate.

The bailouts after the 2008 financial crisis were indefensible to average people. Both political parties participated in this. What was started under Bush was repeated under Obama. Neither party can say “Oh, it was the other guy.” Nope, it was both parties.

I don’t know how to justify using all the powers of the federal government to provide well-connected elites billions in bailout money for the crisis they created. Forget about too big to fail or concepts of fairness. Capitalism is supposed to be about profits and losses, but in 2008 it became about private profits and socialized losses. The sheer injustice of it staggers the mind, but that’s just the surface. How can you pillage average Americans of 40% of their income then blow the money on programs that are either terminally inefficient, financially unsustainable, or just plain wrong? The US government administers a vast spying program that violates any expectation of privacy held by American citizens. Meanwhile, wars now last decades and leave only destruction and terrorist armies in their wake.

People have been discontent with inefficient, low-quality, or morally questionable government and not neared revolution before. So what’s the difference now?

“Government by agreement is only possible provided that we do not require the government to act in fields other than those in which we can obtain true agreement.” (FA Hayek, 1939)

Exactly. For public institutions to be politically stable, they must at least enjoy some agreement of opinion in the population. There must be some minimum level of public consensus to elicit consent. That’s possible in small countries with homogeneous populations, but it becomes far less viable in large countries with diverse populations, as represented by the United States and the European Union.

Diverse opinion and big government create politically unstable institutions because majority populations begin to conflict with minority populations over the proper functions of government. Under this system, some group will always feel oppressed and exploited by others, which creates large and growing tensions in the key ideals of social democracy, that of government control and public services.

Our vast array of public institutions are predicated on the presence of agreement, but we no longer agree on much. We currently live in a political environment divided between friends and foes, and these fault lines increasingly open up along lines of class, race, religion, gender identity, and language. If the goal of social democracy was to bring about a state of public contentedness and confidence that the elites will take care of everything, it appears they have failed. Discontentment is growing, as is a sense that everything is spinning out of control.

In 1944, F.A. Hayek warned that when agreement breaks down in the face of nonviable public services, strongmen come to the rescue. He was explaining Hilter and Mussolini (or for that matter, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt), but he could just as easily have been describing Donald Trump. President Trump won for a reason. He’s the canary in the coal mine, warning us that the old order is sinking fast. It was already too late for Europe when Hitler came to power, so I’m thinking there’s big trouble headed our way sooner rather than later.

With dark and dangerous political movements festering all over the Western world, seeking new forms of command and control, social democrats must make a choice. Will they keep their liberal ideas of multiculturalism and jettison their attachment to rule by an administrative elite that cannot tolerate diversity of opinion or will they jettison their multicultural ideals and keep their beloved unitary state?

Social democratic partisans can fight a hopeless battle for the restorations of their ideas, but they’re working against human nature as they do so, so they might wisely prefer not. They might consider joining the classical liberals to rally around the only real solution to the looming crisis — freedom itself.  The ultimate end-of-ideology system is liberty. Genuine liberalism doesn’t require universal agreement on some system of public administration. It tolerates vast differences of opinion on religion, culture, behavioral norms, traditions, and personal ethics. It permits every form of speech, writing, association, and movement. Commerce, production, and trade are the lifeblood of liberalism, allowing everyone who wishes to participate a means to live a better life. It only asks that people – including the state – not violate basic human rights. Live your life the way you see fit, so long as your actions do not harm someone else.

Voluntarily choosing your own path in life … isn’t that better than distant bureaucrats deciding how we should live our lives regardless of our own thoughts on the subject?

The future battle lines of ideology will not be left versus right, but freedom versus all forms of government control. The social-democratic dream of widespread consensus has been defeated by human nature, which yearns to put self in control of one’s own choices. Might it not be better to work with human nature rather than to attempt to explain it away?

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