Oh Be Joyful

E.J. Dionne’s column should give you some holiday cheer.

In 1984 three exit polls pegged Ronald Reagan’s share of the ballots cast by Americans under 30 at between 57 and 60 percent. Reagan-style conservatism seemed fresh, optimistic and innovative. In 2006 voters under 30 gave 60 percent of their votes to Democratic House candidates, according to the shared media exit poll. Conservatism now looks old, tired and ineffectual.

I noticed years ago that the rank-and-file “movement conservative” is younger than I am. Well, OK, most people are younger than I am. But surely you’ve noticed that a disproportionate number of True Believers are people who reached their late teens / early twenties during the Carter or Reagan years at the earliest. They came of age at the same time the right-wing media / think tank infrastructure began to dominate national political discourse, and all their adult lives their brains have been pickled in rightie propaganda.

But now it seems much of the new crop o’ young’uns are looking at the freak show that movement conservatism has become, and saying, holy bleep.

When the right seemed headed to dominance in the early 1990s, the hot political media trend was talk radio and the star was Rush Limbaugh, a smart entrepreneur who spawned imitators around the country and all across the AM dial.

Is it me, or has rightie talk radio become a tad déclassée?

Now the chic medium is televised political comedy and the cool commentators are Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Their brilliant ridicule of the Bush administration and conservative bloviators satisfies a political craving at least as great as the one Limbaugh once fed. Stewart and Colbert speak especially to young Americans who rely on their sensible take on the madness that surrounds us. The young helped drive their popularity, and the Droll Duo in turn shaped a new, anti-conservative skepticism.

I like to think that the liberal blogosphere made Stewart and Colbert possible. I remember when the old Media Whores Online site seemed deliciously seditious. Then sedition bloomed on thousands of blogs, broke out of the Internets and into mass media, and became The Daily Show.

Of course, just because the young folks are waking up to the sham of contemporary American conservatism doesn’t mean they’re ready to embrace liberalism. And that may be just as well; it’s not healthy to bounce from one ‘ism” to another. Be skeptical, young folks. Think for yourselves. No one ideology has all the answers. Resist being programmed by anybody.

Since the 1970s, supply-side conservatives have been brilliantly successful in redefining economic thinking. They shifted the popular focus from workers to entrepreneurs, from incomes to wealth, from job creation to share-price increases, and from government policy innovation to private-sector autonomy.

Suddenly economic inequality is a problem even conservatives are taking seriously. Corporate America is looked upon, let us say, in less heroic terms. Economic security is no longer a dirty phrase, and staunch capitalists aren’t quite so eager to preach the virtues of “creative destruction” to displaced industrial workers. Government — with some wariness, to be sure — is being invited back into the economic story to redress grievances and to right imbalances.

Government isn’t the solution to all problems, but it’s actually quite good at addressing some problems. I’m tired of talking heads on television preaching that government can’t be used for anything but making war and protecting embryos.

I mean, all the other industrialized countries have national health care; why can’t we?

At this point I wouldn’t mind placing a moratorium on all ideologies. We need to re-think basic questions, like Why is there government? A smart commenter named Patrick wrote, “A particular kind of libertarian ideology has permeated virtually all levels of public discourse in the US: the notion that Capitalism rather than representative self-government is our founding principle.” I agree. And in recent years I’ve been stunned by the number of people I run into in political forums and on blogs who don’t understand what “representative self-government” means.

The comment thread of a previous post became infested (before I closed it) with libertarians who worship the Constitution as Holy Writ yet dismiss representative self-government as blasphemy. To claim that the Constitution was not created to be an instrument for representative self-government is like claiming a piano isn’t an instrument for playing music. In fact, that’s the point of it.

I hope the young folks are growing weary of being told what they can’t do and what they can’t have because movement conservatism (or libertarianism, or some other ism) says so. Maybe in the years to come they’ll be willing to consider what we can do — for ourselves, and our posterity — if we choose.

And Another Thing

This sorta kinda ties in to the last couple of posts — “Why Limited Government?” and “Another Rightie Who Can’t Read.”

John Hawkins of Right Wing News
objects to something he read at Smirking Chimp.

“American Capitalism is a malignancy that permeates our economic, social, and political systems and institutions. This untreated cancer ravaging the body of civilization is spreading like an unchecked conflagration in a munitions factory. Feudalism didn’t die; it simply evolved. Corporatism, Consumerism, wage slavery, debt slavery, free trade agreements, deregulation, and privatization condemn most of the global population to varying degrees of slavery, serfdom or indentured servitude.” — Jason Miller at the popular liberal blog, The Smirking Chimp

For the record, I don’t think capitalism in itself is to blame for the bad stuff Jason Miller attributes to it. I think any way you choose to run an economy can lead to “slavery, serfdom or indentured servitude” if ordinary people have no protections from powerful people. Sooner or later the wealthy and powerful will find a way to game the system, whatever it is, to their advantage. Capitalism may be a little easier to game than some other systems, but none are foolproof. Certainly communism, which is capitalism’s polar opposite in most respects, has been found to lead to “slavery, serfdom or indentured servitude” wherever it’s been tried.

Anyway, Mr. Hawkins comments,

Because Mr. Miller and his many comrades in the Democratic Party don’t understand human nature, they don’t understand capitalism.

First off, Mr. Miller didn’t say anything about being a comrade of the Democratic Party, and Smirking Chimp (which is not a blog, but which contains many blogs, including Jason Miller’s) is not an instrument of the Democratic Party. Greens and Naderites are free to blog there also, I believe. I’ve met the proprietor of Smirking Chimp, and he doesn’t strike me as the sort who demands loyalty oaths. Hawkins needs to relieve his knee from its tendency to jerk.

Capitalism is designed to take advantage of one of the most basic truths about human beings: people are selfish.

People will work very hard for themselves and their families, but, they are not automations and very few of them are going to work hard to line someone else’s pocket or for “society,” if they don’t think their efforts are being properly rewarded.

With capitalism, that selfishness leads businessmen to hire more workers to increase their profits, to earn more money which they pay taxes on, and to create products and services that the rest of society can use — not out of the goodness of their heart, but because they benefit from it. Take away the benefits that people can earn from themselves, then they won’t go the extra mile and society won’t be able to profit from their efforts.

Let’s take a look back at the Golden Age of Laissez Faire in the United States

1820-1880: The Seamstress Impoverished

Seamstresses were familiar figures in early 19th-century American cities, filling the needs of an expanding garment industry. Working at home, they stitched bundles of pre-cut fabric into clothing worn by Southern slaves, Western miners, and New England gentlemen. Dressmakers were responsible for producing an entire garment and could earn a decent wage. Seamstresses, however, were poorly compensated for work that was both physically demanding and unpredictable. Paid by the piece, seamstresses worked 16 hours a day during the busiest seasons, but their income rarely exceeding bare subsistence. Making matters worse was, shop owners were notorious for finding fault with the finished garments and withholding payment. Consequently, seamstresses often relied on charity for their own and their families’ survival.

Yeah, capitalism worked like a charm for those women. Oh, wait …

Here’s another little blast from the past:

History In 1888, New York state factory inspectors provided the following description of sweat-shops: “In New York city, in the tenement house districts where clothing is manufactured, there exists a system of labor which is nearly akin to slavery as it is possible to get. The work is done under the eyes of task-masters, who rent a small room or two in the rear part of an upper floor of a high building, put in a few sewing machines, a stove suitable for heating irons, and then hire a number of men and women to work for them.” Explicit in the inspectors’ definition of a sweatshop is the exploitation of garment workers by contractors, who forced their workers to labor for long hours only to be paid insufficient wages. In addition to physically sweating as a result of their toil, workers were also “sweated” in the same manner an animal would be milked or bled.

By the 1880s, for the most part, seamstresses no longer negotiated work on an individual basis but were subsumed into a system of contracting. Contractors received components of garments that they in turn assembled according to designs. These finished products were returned to the manufacturers and marketed under the company’s label. As a result, manufacturers distanced themselves from the hiring and equipping of a labor force, which became the responsibility of the contractor. Manufacturers paid a set price for each finished garment they received from the contractor, which was considerably lower then they would then charge retail. Consequently, contractors, in order to make any profit, forced longer hours and lower wages on their workers.

Capitalism didn’t put a stop to these practices. Free markets didn’t put a stop to these practices. It was government regulation and labor laws that, finally, provided some protection for workers.

The notion that unfettered selfishness and deregulation benefits everybody has been disproved by history time and time again, yet ideologues refuse to learn that lesson. Capitalism needs watchdogs to keep it honest, or it corrupts into plutocracy and, eventually, corporatism. That’s a plain fact. Selfishness may inspire people to better their lives, but it also inspires people to lie, cheat, steal, hoard, and exploit.

One of the biggest atrocities of human history — the death by starvation of more than one million Irish during the Famine — was made worse by “free market” ideology. Free markets didn’t cause the blight, but the ideology prevented the English from providing relief when it easily could have.

In deciding their course of action during the Famine, British government officials and administrators rigidly adhered to the popular theory of the day, known as laissez-faire (meaning let it be), which advocated a hands-off policy in the belief that all problems would eventually be solved on their own through ‘natural means.’

Great efforts were thus made to sidestep social problems and avoid any interference with private enterprise or the rights of property owners. Throughout the entire Famine period, the British government would never provide massive food aid to Ireland under the assumption that English landowners and private businesses would have been unfairly harmed by resulting food price fluctuations.

In adhering to laissez-faire, the British government also did not interfere with the English-controlled export business in Irish-grown grains. Throughout the Famine years, large quantities of native-grown wheat, barley, oats and oatmeal sailed out of places such as Limerick and Waterford for England, even though local Irish were dying of starvation. Irish farmers, desperate for cash, routinely sold the grain to the British in order to pay the rent on their farms and thus avoid eviction.

In the first year of the Hunger, the British Prime Minister arranged for some shipments of corn to Ireland that helped a little. But then the government changed hands, and a new Prime Minister took over.

Once he had firmly taken control, Trevelyan ordered the closing of the food depots in Ireland that had been selling Peel’s Indian corn. He also rejected another boatload of Indian corn already headed for Ireland. His reasoning, as he explained in a letter, was to prevent the Irish from becoming “habitually dependent” on the British government. His openly stated desire was to make “Irish property support Irish poverty.”

As a devout advocate of laissez-faire, Trevelyan also claimed that aiding the Irish brought “the risk of paralyzing all private enterprise.” Thus he ruled out providing any more government food, despite early reports the potato blight had already been spotted amid the next harvest in the west of Ireland. Trevelyan believed Peel’s policy of providing cheap Indian corn meal to the Irish had been a mistake because it undercut market prices and had discouraged private food dealers from importing the needed food. This year, the British government would do nothing. The food depots would be closed on schedule and the Irish fed via the free market, reducing their dependence on the government while at the same time maintaining the rights of private enterprise.

And at least a million Irish starved, and about another million left Ireland on “coffin ships” in which many more died of disease. This is the nonsense that the “free market” devotees want to go back to. Like it worked so well the first time.

Almost a century ago Theodore Roosevelt quoted Abraham Lincoln:

“Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.

“If that remark was original with me, I should be even more strongly denounced as a communist agitator than I shall be anyhow. It is Lincoln’s. I am only quoting it; and that is one side; that is the side the capitalist should hear. Now, let the workingman hear his side.

“Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights… Nor should this lead to a war upon the owners of property. Property is the fruit of labor;… property is desirable; is a positive good in the world.”

And then comes a thoroughly Lincolnlike sentence: —

“Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another, but let him work diligently and build one for himself, thus by example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence when built.”

It seems to me that, in these words, Lincoln took substantially the attitude that we ought to take; he showed the proper sense of proportion in his relative estimates of capital and labor, of human rights and property rights. Above all, in this speech, as in many others, he taught a lesson in wise kindliness and charity; an indispensable lesson to us of today. … The issue is joined, and we must fight or fail.

Do read the whole speech, if you haven’t already. TR laid out the essential foundations of modern American liberalism in this speech and gives “deregulation” of business a resounding bitch slap. “The right to regulate the use of wealth in the public interest is universally admitted,” he said. He said that in 1910. We need to do some universal re-admitting.

Another Rightie Who Can’t Read

I noticed this trackback to the last post. It proves my point about the general fuzzy-headedness of the “limited government” argument. Even though I specifically (and clearly, I think) wrote that government must be restricted from abusing civil liberties, the blogger wrote,

Does Ms. O’Brien really believe that there shouldn’t be any limits on the will of the people ? If she does, then we’ve got to toss out most of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, because that’s precisely what they do.

I wonder sometimes if these meatheads cannot grasp that, ultimately, “the government” and “the people” are the same thing. In the U.S. the government is an instrument by which We, the People, govern ourselves. The Constitution provides the basic parameters, structures, and divisions of authority of that government. The Bill of Rights enumerates which things the government does not have the power to do, meaning that no government official or political faction can use government to do those enumerated things.

And I think that’s grand. But libertarians want to deprive people of the ability to use government in ways that don’t have a dadblamed thing to do with civil liberties, and which in fact fall under the aegis of matters for which the Constitution was purposed —

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

If We, the People, want to promote the general Welfare by initiating taxpayer funded universal health care, for example, ain’t nothin’ in the Constitution that says we can’t have it. People opposed to it can argue about why they think universal health care is not a good use of taxpayer dollars, and then the voters can decide which way they want to go. But when such a program is nixied purely on some ideological dogmas about “big government,” that’s essentially an argument against republican government, and against democracy itself. It’s an argument that says people may not govern themselves, and it’s a violation of the principles on which this nation was founded.

The blogger I’m snarking about is the one who wants to “toss out most of the Constitution” and replace it with an antigovernment ideology.

It isn’t the size of government that makes it oppressive. I provided an example from history in the post below — in the very decade (the 1870s) that government was “smallest” and least intrusive into matters of business, markets, securities, etc., it was opening peoples’ mail to be sure they weren’t using the postal system to provide information on birth control.

Some years later federal courts ruled that Comstock Law agents could not interfere with dissemination of birth control information and devices. To many at the time, the courts’ rulings were an example of “big government.” Would the libertarians reduce the power of government to protect the civil liberties of people?

The knee-jerk attitude that government is always bad, and “big” government is worse, is not based on either reason or the Constitution.

The simple fact is that people oppress each other. They do this with or without government. Sometimes powerful political factions do use government as an instrument of oppression, but throughout our history government has also been the tool used by citizens to gain relief from oppression.

I say that reducing the size and power of government does not reduce oppression, because oppression takes place by means other than government. Those laissez-faire businessmen of the 1870s oppressed their workers outrageously, for example. Many of the inhuman outrages that were common then are rare today — because of government. We, the People, decided workers should have some protections. Labor unions were behind much of the political organization that brought about the Department of Labor and legislation protecting workers, but labor unions by themselves weren’t having a whole lot of success at protecting workers before that.

I’m old enough to know that much of the hysteria over “big government” that arose after World War II came about because government acted to protect the rights of African Americans and other oppressed minorities. The racist bigots who jeered at the “Little Rock Nine,” for example, thought that “big government” was oppressing them. The Governor of Arkansas had wanted to use National Guard to keep African Americans out of the public high school. A federal judge issued an injunction against this. When Little Rock police feared they could not protect the Nine from mob violence, President Eisenhower sent 1,000 troops from the 101st Airborne Division to protect the students from the mob. Eisenhower also federalized the Arkansas Guard, taking it away from control of the Governor. (Note that Eisenhower acted after the mayor of Little Rock asked for help.)

For years after that, white bigots complained about those armed troops in the streets of Little Rock and whined about how their “rights” were being infringed by “big government.” They were talking about their “rights” to prevent nine teenagers from going to school because of their skin color. They were talking about their “rights” to form a mob and tear nine young people to pieces because of their skin color.

Libertarians want to protect those “rights.” They want to deprive the federal government of the power to protect the civil liberties of citizens.

I’m not saying that all libertarians are bigots. I’m saying they haven’t thought it all through. They see “big government” and think “oppression,” and that’s that. But whether government is “big” or “little” is not the issue; the issue is whether government functions within the parameters of the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, or whether it doesn’t. The issue is whether our government remains an instrument for self-government as it was intended, or whether it doesn’t.

Update: I’m closing comments on this post, as we’re starting to get an infestation of commenters who don’t know they should be polite to the hostess.