Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Populist Libertarian

Adam Ash cites Populism's Revival -- by James Lardner/ San Francisco Chronicle[PDF] and Lardner has many interesting things to say, which, I might add, nicely verify my own gut-check on this issue.

If cheap imports (or, for that matter, low-wage immigrants) could explain a long, sharp increase in inequality, France, the Netherlands and much of Europe would be going through the same experience; they're not. If skill was the crucial factor, the long-term winners would be the top 20 or 30 percent of Americans. Instead, they've been the top 5, 2, or 1 percent -- the 1 percent who now pocket almost a fifth of all personal income, roughly twice what their share was during the 1960s and '70s.

The data suggests a story of power rather than skill -- rule-making power. The trail of evidence leads into the arcane world of economic policy; and if you look back over the past few decades, ignoring the catchy labels ("deregulation," "personal responsibility" and the rest), you'll find a pattern of government action -- on taxes, trade and the minimum wage, among other things -- favoring corporate insiders and financial manipulators over the rest of us.

You'll also find inaction -- a wholesale abandonment of the tradition of public investment that, in earlier periods of our history, from the Louisiana Purchase to the G.I. Bill and the Higher Education Act of 1965, earned the United States the right to honestly call itself a land of opportunity.

I'm a Libertarian, but not a Libertarian that considers a "corporate individual" the same as a person. Nor am I a Libertarian of the "devil take the hindmost" variety, which seems at times to be the majority of all Libertarians. I feel "the government who governs least governs best" as Jefferson put it, but there's an irreducible minium, and that minimum should neither advantage nor disadvantage any citizen or group of citizens more than any other, if for no other reason than the simplest and most obvious. Every time the government gets involved in deciding who "should" benefit, they invariably screw it up. This is because such value judgments are made by underpaid, overworked civil servants based on obsolete data and studies that were commissioned by interest groups.

I'm also very aware that whatever form of government I think ought to exist, the one that will exist will either constitutionally serve the will of the majority - or something much, much uglier will occur, in order to maintain and preserve the status quo. And I'm quite well aware that few people indeed would comfortably thrive within a Randian universe. On the other hand, true Randians seem well-equipped to manage well enough in most any tolerable system.

But the return to Populism this is not seemingly the result of an ongoing political debate among the members of the electorate; this is much more a dawning realization that there has been theft and chicanery at the highest levels. It is a wholesale disgust with corruption over a span of years that leaves neither party - or indeed any person associated with Washington in general - wholly free of taint. Add to this the outrage of the heartlands, who thought that in sending a wave of republican freshmen into congress in `94, they would be changing things for the better.

Instead, they were presented with the results of corruption and indifference to the needs and fates of ordinary folks that passes all understanding.

So a return to populist politics is both inevitable and refreshing - even though it is a fickle wind from a dangerous quarter. That is why I join with my liberal and progressive friends and allies in pointing out that whatever size and shape government is, it's critical that it be an ethical and Constitutional government in these Americas (and yes, I mean all of them) that is concerned with the well-being and prosperity of The People - as a whole.

Yes, folks, the Internet is global. These sea-changes are no longer confined to our shores, nor do our borders keep the tides from rising. Or do you think Vinchente Fox's populism has been without effect here?

But more to the point, social changes happen when they become possible and practical. When they are both possible, practical and widely desired, those who object tend to be swept rudely aside.

A government that is concerned with the welfare and well-being of all citizens need not be expressed as some form of kleoptocratic socialism. Aside from being wrong, such centralized arbiters of "fairness" end up with results not all that different than the ones we find ourselves in now.

But I'd like to see a government that was actually useful to me on a personal level, one that I could use to leverage my intelligence, promote my talents, enhance my knowledge and which would in turn draw upon the skills, knowledge and abilities of all citizens. I'm not speaking of a vast revolutionary change - I'm speaking of a simple shift in the practical means of getting things done. And here I am typing to you, using something very much like that.

Part of that would involve a more direct conversation with citizens. This last election has been an education to the practical power of our voices in that regard; an electronic roar of outrage that could all too easily translate into more direct and violent expression were it stifled or ignored. So while the mainstream media tries to discount and, when at all possible, completely ignore this paradigm shift, it's increasingly at the expense of their own relevance.

Now, if that seems like a liberal screed, forgive me, but as Steven Colbert observed, "Reality has a well-known Liberal bias." Or more to the point, far too many of us - and I include many of my more curmudgeonly libertarian fellows in this - are far too attached to their ideas of how things should be and how people should act to have a very good grasp of how things actually are, and what people are actually likely to do. Anyone pointing that out gets called filthy names, like "liberal."

No philosophy of culture, of morality, of governance or economics that is based on such voluntary delusions can long persist, though it's outward trappings may well persist as a fig-leaf to a stark and ugly contradiction.

Free markets: If it were a free market for goods, services and labor, there would be nowhere near such a concentration of wealth and power as exists now. Come to think of it, why don't you ask one of your entrepreneurial fellows how "free" a market it is when you try to start up a new business. Aside from minding your own business, you pretty much have to hire someone else to do the paperwork that will permit you (conditionally, subject to review) to do business.

And there's few of those forms that actually do a damn bit of good for you, your employees, your customers or your environment.

But there is one thing that should be obvious - it's a lot easier for a large business to absorb compliance costs than a small one. Furthermore, they can throw money around in ways that a mom and pop business cannot.

Net result - Mom and Pop go out of business and end up wearing blue smocks at Wal-Mart.

As for their employees... Wal-Mart probably doesn't need them.

But all of these things could and should be changed, can be easily addressed with technology we have now and moreover, improved a great deal in terms of addressing intent.

First, we need a truly fair and free market for labor. One way of doing that is to ensure that there is a built-in social safety net so that people can afford to say "take this job and shove it."

It also eliminates a great deal of need for legislation intended to protect people from being unjustly fired. And not just legislation - litigation!

Tort reform restricting awards largely to actual damages would be the next step. I'd think an additional reform would be a possibility that a judge or jury could direct that the standard for criminal negligence had been met, in which case criminal sanctions would apply to those found negligent in a civil trial.

Universal access to health care that is user paid, but is not conditional upon an employer or current health. Simply creating that system - which is no more than secure database and wide area network - would save taxpayers billions and billions of dollars. Note that I'm not suggesting anything socialistic - what I'm talking about is much more a system of leveraging bets.

Insurance companies continue to do what they do, but the government sets up a standard and regulates a market, an exchange for, say, blocks of health consumers and coverage packages. It will not be determine what you have to do in exchange for a lower rate, say, or rationing coverage, or dictating whether you smoke or not, for example. You may pay more, you may pay less, but the system will be set up so that you will be able to have coverage - and currently, it's quite possible to be in a situation where nobody will take the money you could pay.

Now, this approach life easier for everyone, I might add, and that is what a government exists for, to make living together easier, help share the load of collective responsibilities, to promote neighborliness and maintain 'the commons,' the infrastructures that make life and commerce possible.

Here's where I depart from the most doctrinaire sorts of Libertarians, who believe every road should be a toll-road and all property private. In that universe, we'd all be nickled and dimed to death just trying to cross the street to buy a sandwich - with competing forms of variably-accepted currency, no less!

I'm an anarchist in terms of personal issues and freedoms, where personal choices affect only those involved. I don't consider "being offended" to be much of a reason for taking away even a smidgen of Liberty. If you insist upon walking about naked with your genitalia painted in day-glow colors, I imagine the social consequences are consequence enough. Mocking laughter certainly has a chilling effect on me!

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