The Long March From California to Copenhagen

The Great Debate Oddly Is Not Over

We are still in a great public debate between capitalism and socialism, and individual freedom versus statism — odd since hundreds of millions worldwide have escaped poverty the last 30 years due to the spread of Western-inspired free markets.

Many choose sides in the debate based on their own predicaments. Sometimes the more independent and secure who have thrived under capitalism promote it, the more dependent who have not detest it.

At other times the realist mind is opposed to the idealist.  And we can also envision the split as an age-old dichotomy between the tragic view and the therapeutic: either man is born pretty awful and must toughen himself through denial of the appetites, or he is by nature wonderful but corrupted and hurt through the burdens placed on him by society.

Free Will

In whatever way we frame the debate, again more than ever Americans are choosing sides.

On the one, are those who believe personal freedom and liberty trump egalitarianism and fraternity. Oh, they don’t believe in letting the less successful perish, but they seek to help those who do not do as well in the open arena through three mechanisms:

1) a limited government that in extremis would support only the needy, sick, disabled and aged (no more self-esteem counseling, 6-year student loans, or research grants for self-adjustment);

2) reliance on entrepreneurship, freedom of action, and private enterprise to allow real economic growth that enlarges the pie itself rather than perennially haggling  over the pieces of a shrinking whole.;

3) A culture of shame that makes the more successful help those less so in his family, in his community, and in his nation through philanthropy and private giving.

Collective Concern

On the other side are those who wish a large government to ensure an equality of result. Their notion is that personal responsibility, talent, behavior, luck, fate, etc. do not so much determine why one is well off and another not so. Instead, there is insidious racial, gender, and class oppression everywhere — sinister forces at work that conspire to keep those down who otherwise in a fair system would thrive.

Therefore a big paternalistic — all-knowing, all-powerful — government must step in, rein in the wild horses, break them, and harness them to pull the collective cart. At the end of the day, those who like to work long hours, start businesses, or take risks can continue for the sheer enjoyment of it; while others who chose not to  will end up with about the same house, car, medical care, college, and travel opportunity. Does the son who likes to lay inside on Saturday mornings go unfed, just because he won’t help his brother mow the lawn? Is he any happier for his sloth, the other any better for his zeal?

Key to the statist mind is the acceptance that compensation is inherently unfair: why should a brain surgeon who takes out 3 meningiomas successfully a day make any more than the poor floor cleaner who washes the linoleum between operations? The former gains more status anyway, so why deepen the wound of inequality through unequal pay for the latter?

Ultimately that is what the present struggle is over. The Obamians wish to err on the side of egalitarianism rather than freedom of the individual. Traditionally there has been a balance in the US, but we are witnessing a genuine attempt to swing the pendulum hard to the left.

Example 1: California