Sunday, July 1, 2012

Tough Row

Why do U.S. progressives have such a hard time creating and/or maintaining social programs of the sort people in every other wealthy nation on Earth (England, France, Germany, Japan, Australia, Sweden, Canada, to name just a few) take for granted and would scream bleddy murder at anyone's trying to take from them?

We're on several decades now of serious hand-wringing over this question, we progs.  Because despite such occasional "triumphs" of "socialist liberalism" as the new health-care law, one of whose effects will be creating millions of new customers for private mega-corporations like Blue Cross and Aetna (some socialism), it's hard to get around the fact that for something like two full generations now American progressives have been getting their asses handed to them.

Why?

It's because here in the Twitter-feed era (twenty years ago it was the sound-bite age; twenty years before that, the bumper-sticker epoch), the catch phrase to which American conservatism boils down is way sexier than the one to which American liberalism does same.

Oh, the liberal catch phrase is pleasing enoughprovided you don't catch wind of the conservative one first.  It goes like this:

Social responsibility. 

As in we're all in this together.  As in I don't need a third Bentley when my neighbors' kids are sitting in classrooms with rodents scurrying over their styrofoam ceilings.  As in we're all of us our brothers' keepers; we're all of us responsible for each other.

It's a catch phrase sure to warm the cockles of most human beings' hearts.  Those especially, you'd think, raised in any of the world's major religious traditions.

But if you think that phrase is good, watch now as the conservative one bends it over and spanks it:

Maximum liberty!

Note how comfortably it wears the exclamation point the liberal phrase cannot.

Note too that unlike its liberal counterpart, which now begins to look suspiciously like a summons (jury duty, anyone?) to a labyrinth of moral and historical complexities ("social" is practically a synonym for "oh, Jesus, what a headache"), the conservative phrase is totally self-sustaining, self-validating: the first liberty one might purchase with it is liberty from the social, liberty from moral complexity.  I'll have mine (this catch phrase promises), you'll have yours, and no filthy government shall arrogate to itself "responsibility" for evening up our booty piles, as any such endeavor would impinge on my booty-pile-making liberties (and yours). 

If this seems cruel, poverty-stricken American, remember you're every bit as maximally free as I am.  But remember, too, then, you're as free to fail in life's marketplace as to succeed.  If you perceive you don't have the advantages walking into that marketplace many of the rest of us were born with, just remember the operative word is perceive: it's a false perception you're suffering from, since in a maximally free society, all obstacles are really just opportunities in disguise.  

We the wealthy acheived our station in life when someone in our lineage willed him- or herself to this realization.  Now it's your turn to will yourself to it, so you, too, can start putting your maximum liberty to maximum use.

I know, I know: the Swiss have Twitter.  The Japanese were sound-bitten twenty years ago, too.  And the Canadians were riding around digging each others' bumper stickers twenty years before that.  Just like us.  

And still, citizens of those countries seem to do considerably better at looking out for each otherat being socially responsible.

But then people in those countries haven't deified the notion of liberty to quite the extent we Americans have.  It's enough to make a U.S. prog wish Jefferson had used language just a bit more tempered.  Didn't he see that bomb waiting to go off in the Declaration's most famous line?  Instead of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," couldn't he have gone with "life, liberty within reason, and the pursuit of happiness"?  Couldn't he have said something about sensible liberty?  Intelligent liberty?

Probably it would have ruined the poetry of the line.

But in a freedom-worshipping nation where we conceive absolute liberty as an absolute good, and where conservative beliefs, consequently, look way more bitchin' as tweets than progressive ones, conservatism will keep winning most fights on most days. 

This means we can expect the wealth chasm to keep widening.  We can expect public-university tuitions to keep climbing.  We can expect the LBJ-era safety nets to keep fraying.  Because not even a full 140 characters can get at the thorny truth of the matter: that there is, despite most Americans' fervent belief, no such thing as absolute liberty; that society (which you, like, need if you want to have any readers for your tweets) begins with the putting on of shackles and the adopting of responsibiltiesyes, social responsibilities.  

This means the best we can do is be reasonable, be sensible, be intelligent about the fetters we all of us put on together. 

And how intelligent are we being when wealth distribution in the U.S. looks like this?

Those hellbent on maximum liberty! should perhaps summon the courage of their convictions and quit paying for the stuff they pick up at the supermarket.  Quit driving on the right-hand side of the road.  Quit wearing clothes.  Quit talking words.  Go live naked, hairy, and tick-ridden in whatever national park you care to reclaim from the dirty federal government that has the gall to keep Wal-Mart and Exxon from invading it.

Just watch out for those grizzers.

They, too, enjoy maximum liberty!