Belaboring the Obvious

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The teabaggers' 'Big Gummint' lament....

Invariably, the right wing in this country--regarding most any issue that might improve the lot of ordinary people--starts screaming about 'Big Gummint' intruding in their lives, and they eventually drive themselves nuts because of it.

Usually, a fair amount of this is pure smoke generated by corporate interests who stand to lose profits, and are astroturfing madly to maintain some particular status quo. Some, though, is meant to tug at longstanding fears of conservatives about the way things worked in the Soviet Union. Anything that smacks of central planning is anathema to them, mostly because of the disastrous way that Stalin's henchmen did economic planning, and because those economic plans had dire consequences for the Soviet populace. Conservatives, always tending to either/or binary thinking, therefore have a very strong tendency to believe in the "invisible hand" of markets to sort out all societal problems, big and small. If only that were true. But, largely, it's not.

Most self-described conservatives today have no knowledge as to why the Soviet system went badly sour, beyond the simplistic "communism doesn't work, there's no progress without profit incentive" mantra, which doesn't exactly get to the root of the problem. Stalin, in particular, saw the Soviet society as technologically backward, and his answer to this problem was to import as much current technology as possible in the shortest space of time, and to him that meant two principal things--greatly increasing the amount of electricity available and ramping up the production of steel. By 1930, Soviet planners found what they perceived to be the perfect model for the modern industrial city: Gary, Indiana.

Integrated into this vision of Stalin's was the belief that one could engineer a new, modern society in the same way one could engineer a bridge or a power plant or a subway. If every aspect of life--education, art, manufacturing, agriculture, social interactions--were engineered in a wholly rational fashion, Soviet society would flourish. It's the reason, for example, why Stalin would refer to the writer as "the engineer of human souls."

It was, of course, folly. Human beings aren't always rational, innovation rarely comes on a schedule, and creativity is a capricious creature. The Five-Year Plans were exercises in self-deception, and the political horrors carried out to force-fit Soviet society to them was a sure sign to any outside observer that they were doomed to fail.

Despite this, there have been times when central planning was indispensable, even in the U.S., as during WWII. During the war, the federal government established considerable control over manufacturing, extraction of raw materials, agriculture, in short, over almost every aspect of society that might contribute to the successful prosecution of the war. That effort was largely the result of a clearly understood need for central planning. As a result, a war spanning several continents and oceans required, from declaration of war in December, 1941, to final surrender of the Japanese in August, 1945, just three years and eight months.

These two examples indicate that central planning, in and of itself, isn't intrinsically bad and to be avoided. It can be done badly or well. In times of strife and national emergency and impending calamity, there is almost no way to coordinate the resources necessary to address the problem without some central planning by government.

And yet, today, whenever there's some suggestion that government has to step in to solve a persistent or looming problem, the conservative wailing and gnashing of teeth (along with some mind-blowing infantilism) over "Big Gummint" begins anew, even to the point of denying the existence of more and more obvious problems (and by ignoring that the very largest part of government--the national security apparatus--grows larger and larger by the day). In the case of the deeply intertwined problems of carbon emissions and impending world oil production decline, the "invisible hand" of the market has been not only of no use, it's been decidedly unhelpful. The big corporate players in that market aren't responding to those problems in rational ways. They are, instead, using every public relations tool at their disposal to convince the public (and its representatives in government) that the problems don't exist--that they're fictions--even as the evidence for them continues to mount. Pretty much the same routine has been employed to derail the effort to reform health care delivery, even though the societal and economic costs of the current system are unsustainable.

The essence of conservatism is to resist change, and that's never more true than when the status quo is profitable to the country's elite. But, when the vaunted "invisible hand" is simply grasping for more dollars and chooses to ignore problems affecting the entire society (or world, for that matter), government has no choice but to step in, order resources and plan for solutions to those problems. I think that's what the Founders meant when they included in the Constitution's preamble the words, "promote the general welfare...."


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