Here’s a good interview in The European with Harvard’s Harvey Mansfield, on the subject of politics in a time of austerity. I strongly recommend the whole thing. Here are some excerpts:
The European: Many discussions about the future of the welfare state have been framed in purely economic terms. But even if we disagree on whether welfare spending needs to be reduced for the sake of financial sustainability, there’s another argument to be made: What does this do to our idea of society and the social contract?
Mansfield: The welfare state was intended to calm down politics and give you benefits that would no longer be disputed and that were considered irrevocably yours. “It’s yours,” that is what the word “entitlement” means. This was done without reference to the common good or the political circumstances at the time. The state would take care of your most crucial concerns. You could still argue about politics, but it would be more of a sport, since your basic needs had been met by welfare programs. Until now, that was a consensus opinion among liberals and conservatives. Both sides agreed that the welfare state was a good thing to keep people secure and happy and content. That hasn’t really worked, because differences over the role of government still persisted. And in the future, it certainly will not work, because any benefits that we have or wished to have will be quite insecure.
The European: If this observation is correct, is the gradual takeover of economic logic a sign that philosophers have failed to be persuasive?
Mansfield: It coincides with the decline of politics. It is easier to manage people through the sub-rational inclinations – what economists call “incentives” – than it is to rule them directly. Democracy began with a non-economist, Machiavelli, but it has learned from economics how to manage people and satisfy their desires instead of their political goals. It’s the idea of rational control through irrational means. You don’t appeal to reason but to incentives. You nudge them, as Cass Sunstein has called it. When people desire security and material things instead of valuing active political participation and persuasion, you end up with a system that caters to those motives.
David Brooks writes today about the Scott Walker recall election, saying Walker went about imposing cuts in an unfair, nakedly partisan way, but at least (says Brooks) he did something politically bold and necessary. More Brooks:
In this country, the federal government has borrowed more than $6 trillion in the last four years alone, trying to counteract the effects of the last two bubbles. States struggle with pension promises that should never have been made. Europe is on the verge of collapse because governments there can’t figure out how to deal with their debts. Nations around the globe have debt-to-G.D.P. ratios at or approaching 90 percent — the point at which growth slows and prosperity stalls.
It all goes back to the increase in the tolerance for debt.
Democrats and Republicans argue about how quickly deficits should be brought down. But everybody knows debt has to be restrained at some point. The problem is that nobody has been able to find a political way to do it.
The common view among politicians is that pundits may rail against debt, but voters don’t actually care. Voters don’t want to face the consequences of their spending demands. They’ll throw you out of office if you make the tough decisions required to cut deficits. That’s why debt mounts and mounts. Voters want it to.
Until maybe today.
I wish Mansfield had spoken more critically of the Right with regard to debt and politics, because let’s not forget it was George W. Bush and the Republicans in Congress who ran up the national charge card to a degree unseen since LBJ’s glory days. Brooks is right: American voters of the left and the right don’t want to pay for what they have. In his interview, Mansfield alludes to why this is so: politics has become about satisfying and managing desire, and nothing but. It’s decadence, and it can’t last forever, because there simply isn’t enough money to pay for all the things we want.
Mansfield says he’s encouraged by the Tea Party. I can’t see it. I’ve been skeptical of the Tea Party since I saw that Tea Partier with a sign demanding that the government keep its filthy hands off his Social Security. Similarly, I got into an argument with a Tea Partier, an elderly man who said he was sick and tired of all these layabouts sucking at the government teat. When I said that we were going to have to have some sort of serious reduction in Social Security — via means testing, I said — and in Medicare, he was ready to fight. “Those are mine!” he protested.
You see the problem.