Government and the good life
This weekend, in the wealthy corner of the world, is the traditional time to step back from the pressures of daily life and reflect on morality and fate. In the wake of the financial catastrophe of the past two years, even more so.
That catastrophe has led us into a troubling paradox. We had our skins saved by the state: to escape mass ruination, we relied on big actions by big government, and they worked. It is no longer possible to argue, as many people did a few years ago, that government is an impediment to the good life, or that its role should be stripped down to basic oversight and security. Now we’re all for big government.
Yet we do not trust government. Recent elections across the Western world, which have generally delivered moderately conservative governments, have been notable for their lack of enthusiasm for any large ideas or visions. We want parties that would like to cut taxes and reduce the size of government, although we rely more than ever on that government to keep us solvent; we don’t know how to square that circle.
We don’t have faith in the state. We don’t trust financial markets any more, either. In fact, we don’t trust one another in general: This is an age without trust.
That dilemma has been taken up by the English-American historian Tony Judt, whose essays and books offer what is probably the best writing today on post-communism, European history and Israeli politics, in his new book Ill Fares the Land. This slim manifesto is the pointed cri de coeur of a man who knows his days are numbered: paralyzed with a fast-advancing case of ALS, he dictated it awkwardly to assistants, drawing on his peerless knowledge of the currents of the 20th century.
Tony Judt gives us a useful reminder that we’ve been here before. Last time everything was ruined and trust had fallen apart, after the horrific experience of the Great Depression and the wars, we gave up on a strictly economical, cost-benefit calculation model of government and turned to the larger, more important questions. It became a time of high seriousness, a turn to the state.
“The urgent question was not how to celebrate a magnificent victory and get back to business as usual,” he writes, “but how on earth to ensure that the experience of the years 1914-1945 would never be repeated.”
People were frightened of the economy: It had done terrible things to them. There was, by 1945, what John Maynard Keynes called a “universal craving for security.” This craving, Mr. Judt notes, led some people, even those not conquered by Stalin, to put far too much trust in the dangerous logic of planned economies. In the capitalist world, this widespread fear was “addressed by the provision of public services and social safety nets incorporated into postwar systems of governance from Washington to Prague.”
We didn’t just use government to get us out of a trap. It, and its social-safety-net mechanisms and welfare-state provisions, became the backbone of the greatest stretch of innovation, entrepreneurship and employment that capitalism has ever seen. It was only when those mechanisms began to be winnowed down that capitalism became dangerously wobbly.
“Today,” he writes, “it is as though the 20th century never happened.”
We will have to relearn it. Even conservative leaders are now realizing that there is no public desire to strip away public services as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and their lesser imitators did. “The likely consequences of this coming age of uncertainty – when a growing number of people will have good reason to fear job loss and long-term redundancy,” he writes, “will be a return to dependency upon the state.”
Only governments can address the huge problems of a global economy that is increasingly only beneficial to those with elaborate educations. Only governments can keep the deep troughs of economic downturn from becoming recursive cascades of ruin – but they can also turn the peaks into periods of shared prosperity for entire communities, something we’ve forgotten. “The task of the state,” he writes, “is not just to pick up the pieces when an under-regulated economy bursts. It’s also to contain the effects of immoderate gains.”
This does not mean a return to socialism, planned economies, master narratives, all-embracing theories or religious answers. Those hurt us terribly, too. But, he says, we don’t need grand schemes to rebuild trust.
“Incremental improvements upon unsatisfactory circumstances are the best that we can hope for, and probably all we should seek,” he reassures us. “Others have spent the last three decades methodically unravelling and destabilizing them … why have we been in such a hurry to tear down the dikes laboriously set in place by our predecessors? Are we so sure there are no floods to come?”
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