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The Fragility of Statist Societies

Statism: (noun) 1. the principle or policy of concentrating extensive economic, political, and related controls in the state at the cost of individual liberty. [Random House]

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman isn’t alone in touting the alleged benefits of authoritarian regimes. A variety of progressives claim that utilitarian arguments show it’s practical to have the state control large swaths of citizens’ lives. Ethical arguments aside, that view is belied by a large body of evidence.

The recent Russian drought and fires required them to slash exports by 30 percent. China’s widely admired infrastructure push has produced widespread dislocations from floods and man-made landslides. Haiti’s earthquake that killed over 200,000 will have them reeling for years, even with billions in international aid.

The point here is not simply that natural disasters cause major damage. It’s that the recovery time and effort in statist societies is typically longer, more painful, and causes major unnecessary social disruptions.

When there’s little freedom or incentive for private individuals to profit from cleaning up a mess, it has to be organized and paid for by the state. But the state always has lots of other financial commitments and priorities, and few reserves. With so many hungering to get a sliver of the spoils and so many expansionist plans always on tap, statist regimes are perpetually short of resources.

By contrast, countries with a much larger ratio of private enterprise to government are better equipped to endure economic shocks without producing national crises.

Private insurance companies, by their nature, maintain large rainy day funds. Despite the severe drains caused by the after-effects of 9/11, Berkshire Hathaway continued to thrive. Many news reports from a few years ago showed that privately run Katrina disaster-relief programs around New Orleans hummed (slowed only by local bureaucracy) while state efforts lagged.

Economists Andreas Bergh and Magnus Henrekson have produced a study showing this:

In wealthy countries, where government size is measured as total taxes or total expenditure relative to gross domestic product (GDP), there is a negative correlation between government size and economic growth — where government size increases by 10 percentage points, annual growth rates decrease by 0.5 to 1 percent.

Beyond the material and economic effects of poor disaster relief, statist societies are more exposed to wide-scale social unrest — usually in the form of open violence.

The United States has been in existence for over 220 years in its present form. Much has changed, particularly in the past 40 years as progressive ideas accelerate the weakening of its foundation. Yet through earthquakes, floods, and wars, America remains. Large-scale riots, common in statist countries despite severe repression, are rare here. Nationwide disputes may be noisy in the U.S., but they’re typically settled peacefully. (Note how the exceptions occur when statists like the SEIU and G8 protestors are involved.)

During half that same period, Russia and China have had three wrenching shifts from monarchism to communism to the unstable mixed systems of today. Several South American countries have seen a new form of government every twenty years or so, most of them statist. Greece went from a colonial monarchy to a military junta to a welfare state to a basket case. All these events carried with them widespread violence.

Jostling for power takes place in the government of any country. But in statist societies, that behavior is amplified manyfold. The squabbles of Democrats and Republicans in D.C. are often ugly, but they’re nothing compared to the coups and assassinations that typify dictatorships. As the opportunity to increase control and disburse spoils rises, so does the coercion that occurs within and by the political class.

The effects of that process are felt well beyond a nation’s capital in authoritarian countries. Neighbors in a statist society have good reason to mistrust one another. A careless word can send them to a labor camp, and the need to prop up the regime spreads spies everywhere. Even in “merely” semi-statist countries like Venezuela, one man’s benefit is frequently another’s injury, since property rights are not respected.

By contrast, citizens in freer countries like Denmark and Germany may have to suffer high taxes and enervating regulations, but criticizing the government brings, at most, disapproval from those who disagree. That may breed a soul-stultifying caution, but removes any need for perpetual paranoia. That freedom does more than allow for greater individual happiness (a value collectivist utilitarians could easily dismiss as of lesser importance compared to social engineering goals). It allows citizens to carry on business without continually looking over their shoulders, leading to more productivity and a more stable society.

The political correctness that has oozed over American universities and corporations over the past 40 years represents a midway point between freedom and statism, and the effects are telling. When individuals in a classroom or business setting no longer feel at ease to express a potentially controversial opinion because it might be contrary to the consensus, original thought and innovation suffer. Those important social institutions become more fragile as a result.

Political protests have shown similar trends recently in America. While the charges of racism and violence are unsupportable, progressive commentators are onto something when they note the increased temperature at tea party rallies around the country.

The near-daily crises from the past two years have driven many in the country to a degree not far below the boiling point. Not since the open riots of the ’60s, when the modern bacilli of statism were first infecting schools and protesting the Vietnam War, has there been such a fever in the body politic.

The explanation isn’t hard to find: the ongoing dictates emanating from Washington. TARP, the semi-nationalization of banks and two large auto companies, ObamaCare, et al are all statist policies. Nationwide uncertainty and social unrest are the inevitable response.

The practical (and moral) answer isn’t, as progressives would prefer, for citizens to passively acquiesce to still more statism in the name of “partisanship.” Nor should we allow the left to quash dissent through abridging the First Amendment (something pushed by Cass Sunstein, the FCC chairman, and others). It’s to eliminate the unconstitutional controls that dictate how rights-respecting Americans must live their lives.

The ultimate justification for a free society rests on moral principles. Individuals have inherent rights — to life, liberty, and property — that governments are always wrong to violate, no matter the (temporary) benefits to others. But even on their own terms, the pragmatists who argue that coercion works are mistaken.

Freedom is good, the ultimate social good. But it’s also practical in more ways than state-worshiping bean-counters are willing to score.

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