The Middle Ground
In today’s column, Paul Krugman discusses the fact that while it is a good idea for us all to listen to each other, what we are likely to find is that we really do disagree with each other. He points out that on the one side, we have people that really do think that taxation is theft and regulation is tyranny. On the other, we have people who believe in a market system, but who think that those who do well should be taxed to provide a social safety net. Given this, there really isn’t any room to compromise. He is fundamentally right that is the political dialog in America, but I’m not sure he is right on the compromise front.
The truth is, the possible political dialog is far greater, as seen in many other countries. The American liberalism consisting of a free market with a social safety net is already a compromise with early, more strident forms of egalitarian systems. The real choice is between socialism and classical liberalism; the compromise is the mixed economy of the New Deal and the Great Society. The compromise is modern liberalism.
What is so frustrating about political debate in the United States is that virtually all who wish for a libertarian ideal, not only don’t really want it—they don’t even know what it is. They don’t see all of the government infrastructure that allows the free market to flourish. One step back from that are all the people who hate socialism except as it affects their lives. For these people, all of American socialism can be found in that 20% of the federal budget that is not Social Security, Medicare, and the military. And one more step further, we find all the rich who suck off the tit of taxpayer money, as so brilliantly exposed by David Cay Johnston in his book Free Lunch.
Marx’s idea of socialism was that a country (or the world) would be so wealthy that it would not have to use humans as glorified pack animals and thus each person would be freed to find fulfillment in life as he saw fit. Yes, this is an overly optimistic view of the future. As I have complained elsewhere, the main problem here is not that we don’t have the economic ability to do such a thing—it is that the vast majority of people want to do exactly the same thing: sit around watching TV. But this itself may be an indication of just how disillusioned everyone is with our political/economic system. Regardless, I don’t think that Marx’s utopia is any more far fetched than the libertarian utopia.
As long as we say that mixed-economy liberals need to compromise with libertarian or socialist utopians—we are lost. The mixed-economy is the compromise. And, of course, we are lost when people equate The Communist Manifesto with Mein Kampf (as many did over the last week). I’m not suggesting that either book be a blueprint for political action—only that the books have little in common other than being revolutionary in nature; that Mein Kampf alone is a racist, militaristic screed (in fact, I believe but for the racism and WWII, it would be acceptable reading today—that Glenn Beck would recommend it); and that I’m sure no one I heard equating them had read either. When we can take seriously utopian libertarianism, but not utopian socialism (as found in The Communist Manifesto, not Mein Kampf), we have a real problem. When our debate is between center and right, where do we move? Center-right? And then where? Hard-right?
Are we really going to abandon a system that worked pretty well up to 1980—and lesser so thereafter? All for a mythical ideal that most of its proponents don’t even understand? I hope not. But then, we have already abandoned so much. I can see things getting much, much worse. I’m not one of these idiots who believe, “We live in the greatest country in the world!” But we still live in a pretty damned good country. The problem is: the trend is bad.