Saturday, August 11, 2007

Conformity and Despotism?

"In any game where the rules have been abandoned, those with the fewest scruples win." -- Daniel Brook, "The Trap"

Brook was talking specifically about the rise of lobbyist influence in Washington, but the sentiment applies to much of what's gone on in D.C. in the last decade. Andrew Sullivan has described the impulses driving American politics as "scruple-free." Corporate American has both enabled and followed its Washington misleaders, reaping economic windfalls, but those rewards have not trickled down to Average Joe.

"The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America" deals with the corporatization of America and the loss of freedom Americans face as a consequence. He profiles working people who feel they've sold their souls for economic security, stifling their urges to serve their communities in order to finance middle class homes and families once attainable on teachers' and firefighters' salaries.

Yet even while New Deal policies were building a powerful, more egalitarian American middle class, Barry Goldwater warned that:

Equality, rightly understood, as our founding fathers understood it, leads to liberty and to the emancipation of creative differences. Wrongly understood, as it has been so tragically in our time, it leads first to conformity and then to despotism.
Goldwater said that on the heels of the conformist, red-scare 1950s, and (ironically) on the cusp of a radically nonconformist decade. Goldwater conservatives advocated smaller government and free markets as the means for unleashing individual talent and avoiding the bogeyman of creeping socialism. But were their fears justified? The conservative policies begun under Ronald Reagan and accelerated under George W. Bush have left Americans with fewer choices, not more, Brook argues:
A free-for-all society does not set people free. Instead it sets in motion a moral race to the bottom reminiscent of the savage state of nature described by seventeenth-century British political theorist Thomas Hobbes in which simply surviving becomes the overarching goal of human life and all higher aspirations must be stifled. "No Arts; no Letters" was Hobbes's stark phrase. Yet any civilization worth living in depends on having some talented people who opt not to maximize their earnings potential and instead pursue less lucrative creative and service professions.
For all the promises of greater freedom, conservative economics has delivered wealth for a few and insecurity for many. Freedom, as Goldwater understood it, meant freedom to spend more of your money as you see fit. That you'd be free to determine how you spend your life was assumed. "The Trap" examines how, whether they want to or not, more Americans -- including her best and brightest -- are compelled into serving corporate interests at the expense of their own. Necessity, not choice, is keeping them out of lower-paying public service jobs, from teaching to the Peace Corps. Many who can still afford college graduate with loans nearing six figures -- conservatives having worked to eliminate state funding for college tuitions in recent decades. Saddled with debt, with pay scales stagnant, unions under assault, and private health care costs skyrocketing, Americans who hope to cling to a middle-class lifestyle are finding themselves limited, not emancipated.

And while conservatives talk a good game on supporting entrepreneurship, Brook says:
A 2005 survey showed that 28 percent of Americans have considered setting up their own businesses, compared to only 15 percent of Europeans. Yet the employment statistics reveal that Americans are far less likely to actually do it -- 14.7 percent [pg. 66] of the European workforce is self-employed, compared with only 7.3 percent of Americans.
National health care in EU countries explains that discrepancy, Brook suggests. In 2006 the Financial Times (Britain's Wall Street Journal) found less entrepreneurial inhibition in Europe:
With its low [real estate] costs and generous welfare net, Berlin is a entrepreneurs' heaven, where barriers to entry are low and failure rarely entails personal ruin. In the past two years, twenty-seven thousand companies have been created.
Brook cuts the quote too short, however. The Times continues: "... and they are overwhelmingly one-person businesses."

Conservative pro-big business policies and anti-government orthodoxy here made things even worse with the recent bankruptcy "reform" that makes individual entrepreneurship that much more risky. Brook laments:
America is thwarting the very ambition that has long defined its people.
And under conservative economic policies, are we coming closer to realizing Goldwater's feared conformity and despotism?

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