(originally written Nov 2010; uploaded Aug 21, 2012 as part of my Great Upload of Musings… for balance, I’ll soon post the follow-up which praises some portions of libertarian philosophy which are very dear to my progressive heart. Politics makes for strange bedfellows, and I’m not above shacking up with occasional allies. :) )
It looks like the Democrats are going to get clobbered in the [2010 midterm] US elections. Economic malaise tends to do this to governing parties, which is one reason currency devaluation is the policy-du-jour: if country A can make its currency cheaper, it becomes more competitive and can export goods (and unemployment!) to countries B, C and D, whose currencies remain more expensive. It’s this kind of race to the bottom which has given gold aficionados their current decade in the sun. Of course, though Hemingway never lived to write about it, the sun also sets… :)
The Tea Party’s emergence has been an interesting but predictable phenomenon. The stagnation in American incomes for the past generation has finally hit a boiling point (what took so long?). Increased prosperity has largely been confined to the top 1% — and even then mainly the top 0.1% — of income earners in the population; those nice folks whose job titles begin with “Chief” and end with “Officer”. :)
In many cases, union-busting concessions levied in the name of improving competitiveness went straight into C-suite compensation: “trickle-up economics”, as it were. I don’t have the American numbers handy, but here are some Canadian ones. Perhaps one day, left-leaning parties will realize that they’ll get more support if they confine talk of tax increases to the very, very topmost folks. Noblesse oblige, and all that.
The anti-government stance of the — ugh — “Teabaggers” contrasts spectacularly with the strikers in France. The French were striking over a government plan to increase in the retirement age (from 60 to 62), to address pension costs. In other words, they were striking for more government (services, spending and so forth). Meanwhile, in the US, the Tea Party is agitating for less government.
One wonders if this different outlook comes from the two countries’ respective revolutions. In France, the French aristocracy was overthrown by the downtrodden masses, whereas in America, the British nobility was overthrown by a homegrown one. This is a simplification, but is reflected in the voting rights that resulted: every man in France had the right to vote as of 1792. (Revolutions, counter-revolutions, empires and monarchies made this a bit dicey for a few decades… ;) ) In the US, until about 1840, you couldn’t vote unless you were a property-owning white guy. So it was really a democracy of the rich. Not unlike today, really… ;) The rest of the XY club got to vote one Civil War later, vote-suppression campaigns notwithstanding. To give the US some credit, women’s suffrage arrived there in 1920, beating France by a quarter-century.
The Tea Party’s anti-government stance traces back to heavy funders the billionaire plutocrat Koch brothers, who have that libertarian streak common to the ultra-wealthy, and the clueless rubes who believe they’ll join those ranks if only [X] gets out of their way. The brothers Koch, building on decades of conservative dogma, have cunningly equated [X] to government; and specifically, a government that gave tax cuts to the bottom 98% of the population as one of its first orders of business.
As a quick recap, libertarians want minimal state interference in their daily lives. Most oppose motorcycle helmet laws as unnecessarily restrictive, but the hardliners — the few, the lucky few, that band of brothers — are still fighting… seat belts. And income tax. And public schools! Mind you, all groups have their flaky enthusiasts. ;)
Libertarianism has cast a large shadow over the American experience, and can be argued (weakly or strongly, you decide :) ) to be responsible for two standout features of American society: its litigiousness and its religiousness. This is ironic, because lawsuits are about the only thing that can cut the ultra-wealthy down to size… and because by and large, the only things libertarians abhor more than government services, are religious services. (Pun intended.) If you think governments are fussy about personal liberties… ;)
Putting my “Freakonomics” hat on, the litigious aspect of American society comes out of rational self-interest. If someone gets hurt — at work, in traffic, or elsewhere — and there’s a 1% chance a million-dollar complication will result later in life, very different results occur if you’re part of a universal healthcare system or not. In the former case, you won’t pay anything out-of-pocket: you’ll be subsidized by your fellow citizens. Unless there’s a matter of punishing gross negligence, you don’t have an incentive to sue. Besides, litigation is time-consuming, expensive, and stressful.
But in the latter case, medical complications could very well bankrupt you. (Medical costs are perennially the leading cause of bankruptcy in the US.) As such, litigation becomes a matter of self-preservation. Instead of one out of a hundred victims receiving a million dollars of medical intervention at some point in the future, all hundred will be in the courts to get the money that could save them from bankruptcy, up-front. That’s a hundred million dollars cash; an enormous drag on the system. All thanks to the paradigm shift from a country of millions, to millions of fiefdoms of one. :)
In recent centuries, the welfare state (in rich countries) has expanded into roles religious communities have traditionally paid — caring for the ill and infirm, minding children, and so forth. The reason churches and temples provided these services instead of business people, is that it’s tough to profit from these activities. (The current setup in most places, where houses of worship can provide such services alongside the public sector, is probably a good thing all in all, because a little competition keeps everyone honest.)
In the US, though, the paucity of public social spending means religious communities have retained a tremendous influence; they’re the only groups who will consistently provide the social services non-multimillionaires will depend on at one point or another in their hopefully-long lives! As such, being part of a faith community is a matter of rational self-interest for the average American; in addition to the spiritual nourishment they hopefully provide, they usually offer support / safety net services when there’s no publicly-funded game in town…