Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Emptiness of Conservativism

Often, when criticizing conservativism, we focus on its many glaring real world policy failures.  After all, we are living in a prolonged real world experiment in deregulation, rigged trade, lower and flatter taxation, privatization and well, just leaving everything to the market to solve itself.   The result has been a disaster, not just in America, but in the rest of the industrialized/rich world, and how bad it has been lines up quite well to how completely each country has implemented the modern conservative agenda (basically neoliberalism).

Today I came across PZ Myers linking to a good article talking about Finland's great success in education, a success found in doing basically nothing the neoliberals say will fix education in America.  Pieces like this are not hard to find.  In the heath care debate, liberals point at places like Canada, France, Japan and Australia as having health systems that deliver better results for less money than America's.  On taxation or general matters of equality, we point to, say, Sweden or maybe Japan.  Here in Canada, where we are allowing the tar sands oil reserves to suck us into the resource trap by killing off other sections of the economy, I could easily point to Norway as an example of an oil rich country that manages not to let the oil warp and pervert their entire system and where everyone benefits from the natural bounty left in the ground by sheer providence.

What can conservatives point to?  Where are their great success stories?  Where are the nations living well using conservative policies?  Aside from the Pinochet period in Chile and pre-2008 Ireland, generally the only nation conservatives could point to as containing both success and heavily conservative policy was America itself.  Now, they are reduced to pointing at a place like Texas, which by virtue of creating a higher absolute number of jobs in the past couple years than other US states becomes the metric of "success."

Which really highlights the abject failure that is conservativism.  Texas is your success?  Because it had a slightly less terrible job creation record?  Really, is that the heights of conservative vision?  I think it is.  A world of minimum wage earners bowing and scraping to their betters for fear of being excluded from the job market in an "at-will" and "right to work" labour market, and hoping against hope to defy the odds and be one of the few called to some higher strata of the economy.  A world of hard knocks and a constant awareness that no one will help you up if you fall.  What do we all get in exchange for this?  Even if we take their economic claims at face value, we supposedly get higher aggregate economic growth and maybe a wider variety of consumer goods.  On the one hand you might be laid off any day for any reason without warning or compensation.  On the other hand, you'll have lots of shiny gadgets to play with while you're unemployed.  If you can afford them.

This is something I think could be a fruitful line of attack on conservativism, if any prominent liberals were inclined to actually attack it.  Conservatives can and do debate whether liberal ideas work in reality, but at our best, our vision is just head and shoulders better than theirs.  We propose a world free from deprivation and desperation, free from fear, and most of all a world of dignity for all.  It isn't utopia by any stretch, someone still needs to clean the toilets and take out the trash.  But the people who do that in the liberal vision are treated with respect, like everyone else is.  And if you want to claim that our economic system of high marginal taxes and judicious regulation limits economic growth and reduces consumer choice, that really doesn't seem like so much to give up in exchange. 

Most humans seem to agree.  Every social insurance scheme that I know of, from Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in the US, to their various counterparts in the rest of the rich world are very popular with their populations.  Even America's heavily corporate and right wing media, cut loose from the fairness doctrine for decades now has been unable to convince the public that these programs are bad for them.  At best, they're sometimes able to convince a majority that the programs are unaffordable.   These claims are nonsense, but the tactic highlights the enduring popularity of safety over the vaunted "choice."  People don't really want to make choices where "abject poverty" or "death" are distinct possibilities for choosing wrong.  This is what conservatives offer:  "Come, gamble on your retirement at the Wall Street casino.  You may just strike it rich!  Or you can die in a gutter if you bet wrong."  In fact, we generally treat people willing to gamble at stakes this high as mentally ill.  Despite a population with north of 40% of people calling themselves "conservative" and another 40% who are "moderate" US conservative leaders cannot manage to get majorities on board with the propositions involved in gambling on your healthcare or retirement.

The conservative vision stinks and people know it intuitively.  Even if their ideas worked as they claim, the result would be generally terrible for almost everyone who wasn't filthy rich.  It's time to make this point regularly.  

1 comment:

  1. The "conservative" agenda has been in the process of being implemented for 30-some years
    now, one chunk at a time. 30-35 years ago, Americans couldn't tolerate the idea of simply turning our backs on the poorest among us. Today - eh, no big deal. Today, we can't imagine simply cutting off the elderly, seriously ill and disabled. But we can adjust to being as indifferent toward their suffering as today's generation is to the suffering of our very poor. On social policies, the post-Clinton Democrats make Republican presidents Richard Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower sound like socialists. Meanwhile, Republicans have gone so far to the right, they make Mussolini look like a liberal. Clinton achieved what Republicans have tried to accomplish since at least the 1930s -- drove a deep wedge between the poor and middle classes, ensuring that there will not be another 1960s (or 1930s, or 1900s) sort of social uprising that forces changes within govt. Divide and conquer.