Wednesday, May 15, 2013


The Trap

The proponents of economic ideologies are seldom embarrassed when their ideas are put into practice and fail. Instead of reconsidering their ideas, they insist that the theory is correct but has yet to be put in practice with sufficient purity. For most of the history of the old Soviet Union, for example, the party reacted to the shortcomings of a demand economy by making the demands for efficiency and production more strident and backing them up with threats and violence. Fortunately, the story of the Conservative ascendancy has been less dramatic. For forty plus years now we’ve been following a neo-liberal program of decreased taxes (especially on the wealthy), privatization, free trade, government hostility to organized labor, and the weakening of the social safety net. None of these measures has restored us to the robust growth we enjoyed before 1970. Median wages have performed very poorly, and finance has become an unhealthily large proportion of our economy. Deregulation may not have caused the disaster of 2008, but it surely exacerbated it. The response to these disappointments has been to suggest that all will be well if we only reduce the government’s role in the economy still further, stop worrying about economic inequality, and finish off the unions.

There’s a political version of this sort of thing. Conservatives have been afraid of democracy for hundreds of years and spend a great of effort figuring out how to neutralize it. From John Adams to Fareed Zakaria, the same story is retailed. The mob will overturn the proper order of things if the great unwashed get power for unscrupulous demagogues will rouse them against their betters, thus resulting in legalized looting, economic collapse, and the wrong kind of dictators, i.e. Chavez rather than Pinochet. Thing is, though, over and beyond the recent evidence that oligarchs and their technical advisers aren’t very good at economics themselves, the Burkean vision of politics is self defeating in another way. If you design your political system as a series of bulwarks against the interests of the many to the point that ordinary politics is unavailing for them, you guarantee the emergence of unordinary politics. When Venezuela was securely in the control of the plutocrats, much of the population regarded elections with indifference since things had been arranged so that no outcome would alter the balance between haves and have nots. That’s how we got hurricane Hugo.

You’ve got a lot of nerve to complain about the menace of mob, when you’ve been working for so many years to create the mob. And if elections are set up to be heads I win, tails you lose, it will be small wonder if people stop believing in elections and begin to consider other means of making their point.