Monday, August 12, 2013


I'll sheepishly admit that I came back and read this book by historian Tony Judt, after once rejecting it after reading ten pages a year or so ago. Why? Well, I've just become more and more open to the way he looked at the world. Maybe I'm becoming a big boy now. What at first read to me like a jeremiad against my general belief in free markets and creative destruction is, in fact, just that. It's me that's coming around to the fact that my political persuasion in 2013 is not really what it was in 2003 nor 1993.

For years I've proudly worn the "libertarian" lapel pin and flown the free minds/free markets flag in things I've written, in how I've voted and in my pontifications to anyone who might want to know what I think about things (not many, let me tell ya). This past year I decided to take the pin off. I'm no libertarian – or if I am, I'm a totally fraudulent one. I'm just a namby-pamby liberal at the end of the day – no different from you, probably. My last bastion of rebelliousness against gutless conformity hath finally been broken.

I blame Tony Judt. Not entirely because of his final book, "ILL FARES THE LAND", though the ideas within it, which he espoused frequently throughout his books "POSTWAR" and "THINKING THE TWENTIETH CENTURY" have been percolating in my conscience for some time. No, it's due to a dawning mistrust of many actors and authority figures who make up life as we know it these days. The government, "the state", had always been my biggest, and sometimes my only, bugaboo. Until and even after the 2008 recession I had almost undying faith in markets, but my rhetoric and past proclamations to the contrary, I can't say that that's completely true anyone. I've always believed myself to be a "social liberal" on most issues, and for the most part I believe in capitalism as the best system of economic and societal organization ever created. Yet Judt's arguments for a return to many aspects the "social democracies" of FDR-era New Deal America and the postwar governments of Europe sound better now to me than they ever have at any time in my life. I'm willing to consider that the safety net could, and possibly should, be enlarged, and that this might in fact be a net positive for America and like-minded countries like the UK. I'm willing to consider that The State might actually be sometimes considered a guarantor of freedoms, rather than a suffocator of liberty.

Essentially, Judt's book, which was dictated to his assistants as he was sadly dying of ALS several years ago, and then published in 2010, is a small distillation of a core theme in all of his writing: that Western society was at its best in the postwar era of 1945-1980, and saw unprecedented advances in opportunity, equality, rights and wealth during these years. Judt believes in no uncertain terms that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan put the brakes on this, and pandered to humanity's more base instincts in the pursuit of profit for some at the expense of the many. This has led to an atomization of society and a painful inequality that we're still reeling under, in his telling, and a shredded safety net that leaves society's most vulnerable scared, sick and unable to advance in their own lifetimes. I'm not being unfair in stating his positions as being this starkly black and white, because that's exactly what they are. Pre-1980 = good; Post-1980 = bad.

There are many things I find preposterous and wrong in the way Judt writes about the post-social democracy years. This is a guy who is more reactionary than any 1980s conservative, except he's looking nostalgically backward at the State-managed utopias of the 50s and 60s, rather than at the "family morals" of that era. Judt overreaches greatly, and celebrates a made-up world in which we all had a unity of purpose and enjoyed being under the benevolent hand of the US or UK or Swedish government, up to and including a call for a return to a pre-automobile era in which we all crowded together on buses. Judt fails to recognize that capitalism and how people define themselves vis-a-vis The State are always evolving and changing, and that what worked in 1955 needs to also be informed by the knowledge of what worked in 1980, 1994 and in 2013 – and that knowledge includes why the people of England elected Thatcher three times and the people of the US elected Ronald Reagan twice (three times as well, if you count the first George Bush). We didn't just become stupefied and lame in 1980 – Judt's social democracies, as currently constituted, were choking under the economic dead weight of what they had wrought.

It's the sort of government-knows-best moralism that I can't stand. Judt also seems to forget that humanity is made up of widely varying levels of intelligence, and that, unfortunately, there really is and will always be a natural stratification of humanity along intelligence lines. That said – moralism is the main reason I recommend this book. Judt is at his best when he encourages readers to consider political views as having an intensely moral component. Not, "Will this proposed policy fit my political views?", but "Is this policy the right and moral thing to do for the most number of people?". Health care is a perfect example. The social democracies, with the exception of the US, enacted state-controlled policies of health care that certainly have their flaws, but that also ensure that health care is a "right" that is effectively free and inalienable, provided in exchange for consent to a higher rate of taxation. Was this the right thing to do? Talk to a Canadian, or a Brit, or a Swede. Ask them if they'd like to switch to the United States' model of health care. I've yet to find one that would.

There is a moral dimension in extolling the profit motive above all else, and I'm getting tired of defending the latter (to myself, especially). I'm a guy who went and got an MBA in the 1990s (instead of the poverty-making Masters in English Literature that I really wanted), and one that finds much to admire about American business. Even back then, though, I had my doubts about many aspects of modern capitalism as practiced. I think that the way public companies are run in the United States is a big problem (short-term profits and stock market gains driving short-term, profit-above-all-else behavior – which is not healthy for a company long-term, nor for the society it sits in). I'm fed up with the complicated ties between government and banks and Wall Street; for instance, I would greatly prefer a simple set of well-understood rules for, say, mortgages – like, "all borrowers need to put 20% down before they can buy a house" - and Fannie & Freddie and the complicated hedge schemes and derivatives can die out. I, like Judt, would like to see a safety net that successfully eliminates poverty, squalor and need in the richest country on earth. I even can see some sense in the arguments for publicly-funded broadcasting, where I saw only stupidity before. His book, along with my observations of the world since 2008, has me adjusting my first principles a bit, and I think that's a good thing.

If anything, I'll work to incorporate a more moral dimension into how I think about spending, regulation and taxation issues. I was already a libertarian apostate on guns (I hate 'em) and on some criminal justice issues (I'm actually a bit of a right-wing nut when it comes to locking up violent criminals). I think the mark of a healthy society is one that looks at what's worked in the past, what's working now and what's broken, and continually readjusts to fit present realities. If that means that we address certain aspects of modern life with state-run solutions that private enterprise isn't effectively tackling, then so be it. (I also still very much believe in the opposite – like, say, the post office). I may not pine for a pure State-run social democracy a la Sweden in the 60s, but I'm willing to consider that there's a reason it worked for the Swedish people at the time, and that they've retained elements of it fifty years later out of choice and because it works. This, for me, is progress, if you want to call it that. Thanks to Tony Judt and his infuriating little book for helping me along the path.