Sunday, June 06, 2004

What Reagan Got Wrong - Liberty is not the absence of government. By William Saletan

Reagan is dead, and it couldn't happen to a nicer guy. Good riddance.

Reagan was the most destructive president to occupy the White House and the icon of an ideology which, over the past 25 years, has trashed the country.

Before war and scandal made Americans cynical and depressed, we imagined that we could create a Great Society with economic security and fair treatment for all. That was hardly a pipe dream: with vast natural resources, a developed economy and political stability we could easily have created a society where all Americans enjoyed the good life. Instead we let Reagan and the conservative ideologues that followed lead us into the pit.

In the ancient world Tyche/Fortuna was worshipped as a god because there was little anyone could do to circumvent dumb luck. The lives people lived were determined by accidents of birth or capture, by being male or female, slave or free, Greek or Barbarian. Disease was inevitable; poverty and illiteracy were the norm. For the past 25 years we've been busily recreating that world, a society without fairness, security or opportunity.

We don't notice it because now, as in the ancient world, only those of us who drew the lucky numbers get to write about it. It's extraordinary how easily most of the lucky are able to ignore the counterfactuals--the fact that they, we, escaped the shitty life that most people live. Walmart is the largest employer in the US--the life that Walmart employees live on minimum wage, without benefits, trapped all day, working at stinking, boring, mind-killing jobs is the norm. All of us are dangling over that pit like Jonathan Edwards sinners in the hands of an angry god--in the hands of Tyche.

We should contemplate Walmart as a momento mori. I never go through a checkout line, were the cashier is trapped all day in 2 square feet of space without thinking how close I came to being there. I don't place an order by phone or fill in a form without vividly imagining the rooms full of women in carrels answering phones, keying in data and processing orders. That is exactly what I would be doing if it weren't for equal opportunity and affirmative action policies to promote fairness and opportunity. No women is ever overqualified for anything and without government "interference" that is exactly the stinking life I would have had.

Friday was the 15th anniversary of Tienanmen Square and Wednesday I leave for China. The Chinese, embarassed by the events of 15 years ago still argue that it was necessary to suppress the dissidents in order to provide the stability for economic growth in China and a better life for all. They may be right. Political liberty is a luxury. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of the press are of negligible value compared to economic security, education and decent work. It may be that for poor countries it's worth trading off political liberty to create a better life for citizens.

But we are a rich country and could have had it all. Raising taxes to pay for a single payer health care system, universal child care and education and income transfers would not have made us slaves of the state. Affirmative action policies would not have significantly undermined the vast liberties we enjoy--except of course the liberty of employers who want all women typing and filing. We had the choice between life and death and chose death. We were suckered by the rhetoric of freedom and American greatness and turned a potential paradise into a hellhole where no one is ever safe from poverty and drudgery.

Do we have cause for optimism? Bush will no doubt get a temporary boost worshipping at the round of Reagan apotheosis ceremonies but, mercifully, not close enough to the election to do him much good. Maybe without the Beast stomping the earth, even if only in a senile fog, the country will get back on track and move to becoming a civilized society again.

Sometimes I wonder why most people don't share my take on things. Of course my life is better now than it was 25 years ago--but not because of conservative policies. I lived in blind terror until I got tenure, fighting for all I was worth to get into Academia and stay, knowing that even one slip, even a one degree turn of the wheel of fortune, would land me in a life of pink collar shit work, trapped behind a check out counter or in a carrel, keying in data, ringing up groceries, trapped in a confined space doing mindless work with endless repetitions, without the possibility of any achievement, buried alive.

1 comment:

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