Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A flood of conservatism

Italy and France have long had conservative governments. Recently Spain and Britain have voted for conservative governments. The Netherlands, long a bastion of liberalism, has turned to the right in recent years; Canada has a very conservative Prime Minister. In the Iowa caucuses, Michele Bachmann won the most votes.

Everywhere we look, conservatism appears to be in the ascendant. In times of tremendous suffering for people without jobs, for those who are underemployed or only earn minimum wage, large layers of the population seem to be most concerned about the taxes of multimillionaires. Many people worry most about the tax rate of corporations who, in fact, manage to get away with paying no taxes at all.

How can we understand that? One assumption underlying our advocacy of democracy is that most people are the best judge of what they need and what is in their best interest. But now large numbers of people who are not particularly living in the lap of luxury are supporting governments determined to cut services for the poor and taxes for the rich. The conservative advocates of small government are eager to scale back services to low and middle income Americans but no one has so far mentioned the possibility of cutting the tax write offs for oil companies or the price support for large agricultural corporations.

Are we wrong about democracy? Are most people too uninformed or too irrational recognize their own self-interest, let alone the good for all?

The worldwide wave of conservatism appears to challenge our confidence in democracy.

One kind of response to this worry about the soundness of democracy as a political system is to assert, in effect, that we do not have a democracy. People give different reasons for that. One of them points to the overwhelming power of money in our political system. Rich people who can pay for advertisements and lobbyists on a grand scale are effectively in power. The rest of us with limited incomes have no real say. Ours is not a democracy but an oligarchy – the rule of the few with lots of money.

A different response blames our political problems on mass media and that, once again, leads us back to the overwhelming power of money in politics but also in mass communications.

There is some justification for both of the these complaints, but both are incomplete.

The advocates of democracy tend to believe that most people are able to figure out what is best for them. But that is not true. Our world is very complicated. None of us can see into the future and predict with confidence what will happen. We can therefore rarely be sure about the consequences of actions we are thinking of taking. Even the smartest of us, even the most intelligent and well-informed constantly make mistakes. Just think of Afghanistan, Iraq, Lehman Brothers. Democracy is justified not because all of us have infallible crystal balls, but, on the contrary, because when it comes to foreseeing the future none of us are much better off than the least informed.

Ascendancy of the political left and ascendancy of the political right therefore come and go in sequence. An existing government may have successes but it always also has problems and the electorate tends to move away from prevailing orthodoxies to the opposite in the hope that the parties, currently out of power, will find solutions to the problems which the ruling parties have been unable to solve. If, in the US, the Republicans end up with serious difficulties, the Democrats gain power. If they don't solve the problems they inherited and/or created, the electorate will give a chance to the opposite party. 
In a situation where the doctrinal differences between the major parties are very small, popular discontent may well move to the fringes of the political spectrum. Hence the popularity of Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachman. They testify to widespread disillusionment with the standard, middle-of-the-road politicians – Republican or Democrat.

The worldwide wave of conservatism is not proof that we should surrender our dedication to democracy. But it does suggest that we should rethink the reasons for valuing democracy. Democracy is not good because we are all experts but because even the so-called experts are fallible. Democracy is good because we should be allowed to make our own mistakes instead of – as we are doing at present – suffering the damages done by the mistakes of experts.