Thursday, November 11, 2010

Socialism: The Peasant Mentality

From Victor Davis Hanson:
Traditional peasant societies believe in only a limited good. The more your neighbor earns, the less someone else gets. Profits are seen as a sort of theft. They must be either hidden or redistributed. Envy rather than admiration of success reigns.

In contrast, Western civilization began with a very different ancient Greek idea of an autonomous citizen, not an indentured serf or subsistence peasant. The small, independent landowner — if left to his own talents and if his success was protected by, and from, government — would create new sources of wealth for everyone. The resulting greater bounty for the poor soon trumped their old jealousy of the better off.

Citizens of ancient Greece and Italy soon proved more prosperous and free than either the tribal folk to the north and west, or the imperial subjects to the south and east. The success of later Western civilization in general, and America in particular, is testament to this legacy of the freedom of the individual in the widest political and economic sense.

We seem to be forgetting that lately — though Mao Zedong’s redistributive failures in China, or present-day bankrupt Greece, should warn us about what happens when government tries to enforce an equality of result rather than of opportunity.

Even after the failure of statism at the end of the Cold War, the disasters of socialism in Venezuela and Cuba, and the recent financial meltdowns in the European Union, for some reason America is returning to a peasant mentality of a limited good that redistributes wealth rather than creates it. Candidate Obama’s “spread the wealth” slip to Joe the Plumber simply was upgraded to President Obama’s “I do think at a certain point you’ve made enough money.”

The more his administration castigates insurers, businesses and doctors; raises taxes on the upper income brackets; and creates more regulations, the more those who create wealth are sitting out, neither hiring nor lending. The result is that traditional self-interested profit-makers are locking up trillions of dollars in unspent cash rather than using it to take risks and either lose money due to new red tape or see much of their profit largely confiscated through higher taxes.

No wonder that in such a climate of fear and suspicion, unemployment remains near 10 percent. Deficits chronically exceed $1 trillion per annum. And now the poverty rate has hit a historic high. We are all getting poorer in hopes that a few don’t get richer.

That limited-good mind-set expects that businesses will agree that they now make enough money and so have no need to pursue any more profits at the expense of others. Therefore, they will gladly still hire the unemployed and buy new equipment — as they pay higher health care or income taxes to a government that knows far better how to redistribute their income to the more needy or deserving.

This peasant approach to commerce also assumes that businesses either cannot understand administration signals or can do nothing about them. So who cares that in the Chrysler bankruptcy settlement, quite arbitrarily the government put the unions in front of the legally entitled lenders?

Health insurers should not mind that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius just warned them to keep their profits down and their mouths shut — or face exclusion from health care markets.

I suppose that no corporation should worry that the government arbitrarily announced — without benefit a law or court ruling — that it wanted BP to put up $20 billion in cleanup costs for the Gulf spill.

What optimistic Americans used to call a rising tide that lifts all boats is now once again derided as trickle-down economics. In other words, a newly peasant-minded America is willing to become collectively poorer so that some will not become wealthier.

The present economy suggests that it is surely getting its wish.
Hanson’s point is consistent with the thinking of famous political theorist Louis Hartz, who in a book called The Liberal Tradition in America (“liberal” as in free markets and free people) observed that socialism in Europe did not grow out of capitalism. It rather grew out of the feudal past of the continent. It was simply the peasant mentality applied to modern industrial society.

Of course, the lust for redistribution in the U.S. today does not come from the poor, and certainly not from the working class. It comes from the New Class — people in government, academia, the media and activist groups who use redistribution as a tool to attack a rival elite, the business class.

It is not, in other words, the project of people who value equality, but rather the project of a new elite, an elite perfectly personified by the Obama Administration.

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