Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Liberal Faustus

Brooks' column "Faustus Makes a Deal," provides a nice counterpoint to Herbert's. In it, he details several recent developments as being perfect for turning America towards classic liberal ideas. Then he states that these developments not only did not have the desired result, they had the opposite effect.

There are a few elements that stand out, first "Instead of building faith in government, the events of 2009 and 2010 further undermined it. An absurdly low 6 percent of Americans acknowledge that the stimulus package created jobs, according to a New York Times/CBS survey." While stimulus has been a less than roaring success I had thought I hadn't realized that the idea that net government spending hadn't increased when state and local government were taken into account had sunk in better than this. I guess not.

Aside from that little fact the most interesting part of the post, which I think is pretty much spot on is this:
Moderate suburban voters do not see the world as liberals do, even in the most propitious circumstances, and never will.

Bitterly and too late, Dr. Faustus saw that liberals can’t have their way and still win elections in places like North Carolina, Ohio and Missouri. Bitterly and too late, Dr. Faustus recognized that economic policies are about values. If your policies undermine personal responsibility by separating the link between effort and reward, voters will punish you for it.

This quote reveals to me a bedrock assumption of the political beliefs of many voters. It is the assumption that institutions are what make men bad, if not for them society would work just fine. Government's intervention is seen as allowing for people to not be hard workers and contributing members of society. Voters want their elected officials to act on this view and find ways of promoting personal responsibility to solve our problems.

My problem with this view is that it's false. Liars, cheats, and scoundrels have always been part of society, a key role of government is dealing with these people so the average Joe doesn't have to. Government can't promote personal responsibility, only remove those that aren't personally responsible from common view. Something I've remarked on before is how incredible it is that modern government has largely eliminated the ever present vagrants and other problematic groups from being part of the social consciousness, removing government from the picture will do nothing but bring back problems that have been solved by its intervention.

This is a problem for the next election. Americans very much want personal responsibility to be the solution to our problems. At the completely absurd level it is to many of them (though others, like health care or terrorism are simply too diffuse to be meaningfully addressed at the individual level), if people could magically be made responsible, upstanding citizens many of our problems would simply cease to exist and the state could whither away. But people were irresponsible long before the state had a supporting role, dashing hopes for this as an idea for a working plan of government. It's already been tried, it doesn't work. Still, this is not a winning political platform and politicians running have the choice between saying the nonsense people want to hear about how society should work and actually trying to fulfill the calling (I'm giving the benefit of the doubt in their good intentions here) that led to their involvement in politics and actually trying to make our country a better place to live in. I don't envy them their job this year.

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