The Road to Serfdom

Today’s Paul Krugman column is a must read. Shorter version: We are all New Orleans now.

Today, much of the Gulf Coast remains in ruins. Less than half the federal money set aside for rebuilding, as opposed to emergency relief, has actually been spent, in part because the Bush administration refused to waive the requirement that local governments put up matching funds for recovery projects — an impossible burden for communities whose tax bases have literally been washed away.

On the other hand, generous investment tax breaks, supposedly designed to spur recovery in the disaster area, have been used to build luxury condominiums near the University of Alabama’s football stadium in Tuscaloosa, 200 miles inland.

But why should we be surprised by any of this? The Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina — the mixture of neglect of those in need, obliviousness to their plight, and self-congratulation in the face of abject failure — has become standard operating procedure. These days, it’s Katrina all the time.

If you want to be worked into blubbering outrage, read Tim Shorrock’s “Hurricane Recovery, Republican Style” in Salon. Although tight-fisted with Louisiana, the Bushies have been more than generous to Mississippi and its Republican governor, former RNC chairman Haley Barbour. But distribution of the funds in Mississippi has favored the wealthy, and a large part of it is being used to build casinos and luxury condominiums while poor, devastated communities wait for help. And notice there’s little about this outrage in the mainstream media.

Krugman continues,

Consider the White House reaction to new Census data on income, poverty and health insurance. By any normal standard, this week’s report was a devastating indictment of the administration’s policies. After all, last year the administration insisted that the economy was booming — and whined that it wasn’t getting enough credit. What the data show, however, is that 2006, while a good year for the wealthy, brought only a slight decline in the poverty rate and a modest rise in median income, with most Americans still considerably worse off than they were before President Bush took office.

Most disturbing of all, the number of Americans without health insurance jumped. At this point, there are 47 million uninsured people in this country, 8.5 million more than there were in 2000. Mr. Bush may think that being uninsured is no big deal — “you just go to an emergency room” — but the reality is that if you’re uninsured every illness is a catastrophe, your own private Katrina.

Yet the White House press release on the report declared that President Bush was “pleased” with the new numbers. Heckuva job, economy!

Today E.J. Dionne wonders why the rising number of uninsured Americans isn’t getting more news coverage. “Why is it that the poor — and, for that matter, the struggling middle class, too — disappear in the media, barricaded behind our fixation on celebrity, our titillation with personal sin and public shame, our fascination with every detail of every divorce and affair of every movie star, rock idol and sports phenom?” he asks.

Poll after poll puts health care near the top of citizens’ concerns. But I’ve yet to see anything remotely resembling an intelligent discussion about the health care crisis in mass media. If the issue is addressed at all, it’s given a six-minute segment in which some well-paid partisans mouth talking points and demonstrate they are utterly out of touch with Americans’ real opinions and concerns.

Back to Professor Krugman:

The question is whether any of this will change when Mr. Bush leaves office.

There’s a powerful political faction in this country that’s determined to draw exactly the wrong lesson from the Katrina debacle — namely, that the government always fails when it attempts to help people in need, so it shouldn’t even try. “I don’t want the people who ran the Katrina cleanup to manage our health care system,” says Mitt Romney, as if the Bush administration’s practice of appointing incompetent cronies to key positions and refusing to hold them accountable no matter how badly they perform — did I mention that Mr. Chertoff still has his job? — were the way government always works.

And I’m not sure that faction is losing the argument. The thing about conservative governance is that it can succeed by failing: when conservative politicians mess up, they foster a cynicism about government that may actually help their cause.

This worries me, also. Younger people in particular (i.e., anyone born after 1970) can’t remember a time before the “government doesn’t work” meme took hold. My parents’ generation, whose ideas about government’s capabilities were shaped by FDR’s Hundred Days and World War II, generally trusted government. It was us Boomers who became cynical about government, and not without reason. But now that cynicism is paralyzing us.

Even as the health care crisis touches nearly everyone in the middle class, directly or indirectly, government and media continue to treat it as some little inconvenience for “the poor.” Being cut off from all but emergency care is considered a personal problem no doubt resulting from an individual’s bad choices. Just about every voice in Washington and mass media tells citizens that it’s wrong to expect government to make it possible to get decent health care. They should just suck it up and cut out trans fats. (See also “Let Them Eat Gold-Plated Cake.”)

But while ordinary Americans have bought the idea that government solutions are not for them, for the wealthy and well-connected government works just fine.

Of course, the Right cannot abide the thought of citizens using their own government to solve problems. Even though they mostly support the Republican Party, the Right doesn’t seem to grasp republican government. They think like 19th century imperialists who saw the “underclasses” as an intractable burden, and their “let it rot” attitude toward New Orleans is reminiscent of Britain’s treatment of Ireland during the Hunger.

Lurking behind much rhetoric about “big government” is Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, first published in 1944. Full disclosure: I haven’t read Hayek, although I’d be willing to bet not many of today’s wingnuts have read him, either. But I understand that his ideas had an enormous impact on people like Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. “Hayek’s central thesis is that all forms of collectivism lead logically and inevitably to tyranny,” says Wikipedia. For a synopsis I’m told is accurate, see the cartoon version.

Hayek’s first step, “war forces national planning” of the economy, was no doubt a swipe at Franklin Roosevelt’s War Production Board, which I notice did not lead to serfdom. But generally, says Hayek, planned economies lead to planned everything else, and pretty soon you’ve got a totalitarian government. Certainly the Soviet-style planned economy was accompanied by political oppression, and bread lines to boot. But I have never in my life met a fellow American who seriously proposed establishing a planned economy, in which government controls all production and distribution of income. And there’s a huge difference between a planned economy and citizens choosing, through their elected representatives, to establish a universal health care system.

And the biggest laugh of all is that righties, fleeing in hysteria from serfdom threatened by communist government, run headlong into the waiting arms of serfdom imposed by a corporatist government.

Professor Krugman concludes:

Future historians will, without doubt, see Katrina as a turning point. The question is whether it will be seen as the moment when America remembered the importance of good government, or the moment when neglect and obliviousness to the needs of others became the new American way.

I think it can be argued that America has been at this crossroads for a long time. Certainly “neglect and obliviousness to the needs of others” was the rule through all the years when white America was able to shut racial minorities out of equal opportunity, for example. But the truth is that as long as America had a big, strong and upwardly mobile middle class, the nation also grew stronger and, in fits and starts, wealthier. But now the rot has reached into the middle class, and if we don’t turn this trend around, America can look forward to long years of diminishment and decline.

19 thoughts on “The Road to Serfdom

  1. What do you wanna bet that the cartoon pamphlet version of “The Road to Serfdom” is the only philosophical work Reagan, Thatcher, et al. ever read.

  2. Hayek’s first step, “war forces national planning” of the economy, was no doubt a swipe at Franklin Roosevelt’s War Production Board, which I notice did not lead to serfdom.

    Actually, I think he was mostly referring to England and the equivalent system in England – where planning during the war was more all-encompasing and who used it for far longer after the war.

    Full disclosure: I haven’t read Hayek, although I’d be willing to bet not many of today’s wingnuts have read him, either.

    Yup. Hayek is like Clauswitz – many more people quote him than actually read him or understand his point.

    I recommend you do get around to reading “The Road to Serfdom”. I think you will find it is not nearly as simplistic as the wikipedia summary makes it sound.
    I think the key point of Hayek was not “Collectivism is always bad and invariably leads to tyrrany”. It is rather and explanation of how it can and sometimes does happen: ” Different people have fundamental differences in outlook and perception. Even if everyone agreed to ‘work for the common good’ there will often be differences amongst people about both what the ‘common good’ is and the best way to achieve it, and no single ‘plan’ will have majority support. If, however, people insist on having a ‘plan’ despite the lack of one with majority support, it will invariably mean that the chosen plan will be forced on the majority by the minority.”

    Clearly, this leaves room for various forms of “collectivism” whose oppression falls short of “totalitarian” – for example, if a society doesn’t “insist” on planning and accepts it only in cases where there is a lot of support for an actual plan (not just the idea of planning) then it doesn’t have to slip into totalitarianism.

    The “Totalitarianism” – like you see in the cartoon version – flows from the WORST CASE scenario where the desire for “planning” in general is so great that people want it even when there is lots of disagreement over which plan should be used. The conflicts over various “plans” leads to public anger at the “inefficiency” and a belief that “Something Must Be Done” which leads to one group seizing control and forcing their plans on everyone.

    Hayek focuses on the “worst case” because he saw it happen up close in Germany and at a distance in the USSR. He lived in a messed up time and his views reflect this. But if you read the book with an open mind you’ll see its got a lot more depth than you might think.

  3. I read most of the book a while ago. I remember noticing that Hayek was much more tolerant of a social safety net than today’s nutcakes. If he were alive today, though, maybe he wouldn’t have to be.

  4. Hayek talks about “socialism” being the “Road to Serfdom,” but he clearly defines socialism as government control of the means of production. What he is really criticizing is centralized power (aka unitary executive.)

    What the wingnuts call socialism is a regulated but otherwise free market along with social safety nets.

    BTW- Read Hayak, it’s a fairly easy book to read, but if you’re in a hurry just read the 1st couple chapters and skim the rest, it’s repetitious.

  5. Or why there is not enough press coverage as to how and why this administration and other Republican administrations deliberately are destroying government agencies and then declaring them “broke”.
    It is no secrete that the Republicans do not beleive in government taking care of the people?
    So why are the same people complaining AND electing these people?
    Democrats and Republicans are two very different parties.
    The Republicans have fronted their party with pro life, anti gay rhetoric with tax breaks thrown in Yet behind the scenes, they destroy government agencies that take care of the middle class and the wealthy(Tony Snow’s health care is paid by you and me, he’s not paying for it!).
    It is time for the Media to take responsibilities and show the American people what the 2008 elections will really mean.
    We can demand from our elected officials what we want. especially health care!
    Let CNN do a story about that

  6. Sorry, above should read, ” they destroy government agencies that take care of the middle class and the POOR, not wealthy”.
    My error!

  7. funny… i seem to remember that when there were liberals to bash – aka George Clooney on O’Reilly, the (non)distribution patterns of money after 9/11 was all over the media…. hmm. not a peep now about luxury condos 200 miles inland. hmm. all roads lead back to the media it seems.

  8. “Long years of diminishment and decline…”

    Into decadence and depravity…(As Dr. H.S.T. Himself would say…)

  9. We will have many years of diminishment and decline. As long as people do not realize what accepting others definitions of ‘the problem” is doing to the whole country it will go on. What the right has succeeded in doing is brainwashing a couple of generations that all the problems are individuals’ fault and responsibility and that group action( group insurance, group investment, group labor, even group retirement, group education, group military service) is evil and inefficient. They want to destroy public education, public retirement, public service, public military service, public investment, public works, public ‘insurance’. Give it all over to private interest so someone can get wealthy off of what used to be a public good and turn it into exploitation of individuals who have no power to fight large powerful interests. And yes welfare is great when it all goes to the few very wealthy to the toadies and the contributers. They just redirected government benefit to their little club and have loosed the vultures on what used to be a middle class america with economic and political stability. divide and conquer indeed.

  10. You wrote,

    ” E.J. Dionne wonders why the rising number of uninsured Americans isn’t getting more news coverage.” Well, we all wonder about this. But I think it has to do with the idea that not only is there something wrong with working for peace, but there’s alspo something evil about being concerned about the poor, or the plight of anyone who hasn’t made it big.

    The idea about peace is that by being concerned about peace, one lays open our country to the terrorists who don’t care about peace except to use peace advocates as dupes.

    The idea about our concern for the poor or suffering probably goes about the same. By being concerned about suffering we coddle these people. The sympathy generated for sick kids, or families devastaed by unemployment or medical catastrophes, is used just to undermine the success of those people who have made it. The poor and sick are just burdens on our otherwise glorious society. The upshot would be, I suppose, that instyead of giving suffering humanity any notice, we just ignore them like so many panhandlers who try our patience asking for a few pennies.

    People who are not now suffering from any economic downturn don’t want to pay any attention to these stories about Katrina or medical insurance catastrophes because these stories can be ignored. They don’t pay any attention because most people, apparently, believe it could never happen to them, and that it only encourages them, the poor, to complain more instead of doing anything to help themselves by paying attention to them.

    That is,, people have to be in denial about how everyone is connected.

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  12. Hayek’s first step, “war forces national planning” of the economy, was no doubt a swipe at Franklin Roosevelt’s War Production Board, which I notice did not lead to serfdom.

    Meanwhile, even the very poorest among us are now forced to pay 12.6% of their income so that Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Lorena Helmsley, et al. will receive their “Socialist InSecurity” check…

    BTW, How much did a “serf” have to pay to his “lord” under ‘feudalism’?

    “We’re Not Serfs! (because I said so…)“.

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  16. “BTW, How much did a “serf” have to pay to his “lord” under ‘feudalism’?”

    Serfs were largely involuntary sharecroppers. They were loaned a small plot of land to grow their own crops, and in exchange were obliged to work the other land to produce for the Lord and his entourage. Not only didn’t they own the land, they were “bound” to it – they couldn’t leave the estate without the noble’s permission. Largely, labor and barter were the units of economic exchange; money hardly circulated outside the top 5% of the rural population.

    Perhaps the single greatest contributing factor to the rise of classic serfdom was the military protection that the local ruler provided, under near anarchic conditions, that was a compelling reason for the former agricultural class – descendents of slaves and small farmers – to accept the deal.

    Most historians believe that what gradually ended serfdom in Western Europe (it prevailed in Eastern Europe into the beginning of he 20th Century), was the Black Death which created a massive labor shortage that broke down the economic basis of the system.

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