Thursday, September 28, 2006

Freedom, Security and Good Red Herring


American Prospect Online - Centered Right: Something odd is happening in Scandinavian politics. Or rather, something normal has stopped happening. Everybody knows that for the better part of a century, social democrats have been building Keynesian welfare states in Scandinavia. The news is that economic liberals ('liberals' in the classical, continental sense of the term) have basically ceased to attack them. In fact, Scandinavia%u2019s center-right parties now actively embrace the welfare state. And suddenly -- and not coincidentally -- voters like them

I'm not sure I understand how a center right party can embrace the welfare state, much less an improved an expanded one, since I thought that the criterion for being "left" or "right" was precisely acceptance or rejection of the welfare state. What on earth else is there?

However that's a semantic issue. The substantive point is the realization by Rasmussen, the leader of Sweden's center "right" party, that "the welfare model is a necessary condition for the goal of liberalism, defined as a maximization of individual freedom and self-reliance....concerned with freedom to as freedom from."

From this perspective, government is not a categorical infringement on individual rights; on the contrary, government can and should expand individual freedoms by providing opportunities for citizens. Thus the accessibility of a quality education is a freedom issue, as is the availability of affordable health care, day care, paid maternity and paternity leave, etc.

It's surprising that this should be news in Sweden--or anywhere else. We're constrained, thwarted and hemmed in in innumerable ways--by the brute facts of nature and by the refusal of others to cooperate in supporting our most important interests. Without that cooperation, we can't get what matters most: interesting work, leisure and the avoidance of drudgery, opportunities for travel, the use of technology, novelty and variety. It's hard to imagine any life more meager or constrained, or less free than the life of a self-sufficient survivalist scratching out a living in some remote outback if freedom in the sense that matters means having a wide range of options.

In affluent Western countries, particularly in the US where libertarian sentiment is most entrenched, the government is the least of our worries. It's hard for me to think of how the government restricts my freedom in any serious way or prevents me from getting anything I want--apart from imposing speed limits with which I find it hard to comply. The government of course taxes me and to that extent restricts my options--since money is nothing other than the permanent possibility of preference satisfaction. But if I had that money in hand it wouldn't expand my options for all practical purposes because, in order to see to it that I wasn't backed into a corner--old, poor, with few options and at the mercy of others--I would have to save that money or use it to buy into private insurance schemes of various sorts.

So why, one wonders, are most Americans convinced even now that government is the problem rather than the solution and, more fundamentally, that there's a trade off between freedom and security? Security, safety nets and the knowledge that we will never be backed into a corner with few opportunities or choices, is precisely what liberates us from scrounging, skimping and perennially saving to preserve our freedom. Why in particular is it that people who are less secure and so less free than we are, those rural and exurban working class voters who could benefit from the welfare state, are most adamantly opposed to it: the old question again--what's the matter with Kansas?

At bottom I think it's a lack of imagination: they cannot imagine what it would be like to have a wider range of more desirable options--better access to education and training, a wider range of job options, shorter hours at work and longer vacations, affordable child care and good schools for their kids. They're constrained and financially insecure, stuck with mega-commutes from remote semi-rural areas because cities are unlivable and inner suburbs are unaffordable, stuck working 8 hours a day and overtime, 50 weeks a year and quite reasonably afraid that the few options they have will be taken away. Conservatives, whose policies have backed them into that corner, exploit that fear.

This is standard Third World practice, the policy of tin pot dictators whose policies keep the peasantry impoverished and then, at election time, win their votes by dispensing little bits of money. And they vote for the guy because the only alternative to a crumby life with patronage from the Big Man is a crumby life without patronage. This is Walmart giving Thanksgiving turkeys for the poor and promising employees from its New Orleans stores flooded out by Katrina equally lousy jobs in other parts of the country. This is Roger Hedgecock, the local conservative radio call in talk show pundit telling low-wage non-union workers that they could of course see that unions were out to do them wrong to benefit rich, greedy politicians: unionized labor jacked up the price of food. And these low-wage workers, judging from those that got on the air, they bought it--after all it was they who most needed cheap food given their low, non-union wages. The logic is the same as the logic of arguing that we shouldn't oppose the war in Iraq because if we if we weren't fighting there we would be in danger of terror caused by anger over the war in Iraq.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

What you're missing, I think about Sweden, is that it was built as a welfare state by people who had been incredibly poor. The big man social democrat finance minister, Gunnar Sträng,was one of twelve children, two or three of whom died of TB; my own dear mother in law (ex) was one of fourteen, who all grew up in one room, with a kitchen. She did not have a bedroom of her own until she was fifteen. And, yes, she walked to school in the snow, and was only bought new shoes once in her childhood. etc. So the idea of collective security came naturally to them, and the so-called right-wing government has just been elected on a platform of three years' paid parental leave.


he was Reinfeld, not Rasmussen, last time I looked.