Monday, March 11, 2013


Will citizen activism save us?


Thomas Jefferson was a bit of a socialist in that he believed that all people should own some productive assets. Farmers owned a piece of land, carpenters and shoemakers owned their tools, schoolmasters owned their school, and the parishioners owned their church. That made everybody independent. They did not, in Jefferson's word, have to "pander" to customers or, worse, to employers. In Jefferson's day that was pretty much the condition of America. When de Tocqueville came from France in the 1830s he was struck by the general equality prevailing among people. Not only did people have equal rights but their economic conditions did not vary substantially from one person to the next.
With industrialization all that changed. Massive amounts of capital were needed to build canals and then the railroads. After the Civil War large industries arose and with them the large capitalists like Carnegie in steel and Rockefeller in petroleum. At the same time, the small farmers and artisans of Jefferson's days had become industrial workers. No longer independent and, to some extent, self-sufficient entrepreneurs, they had been turned into wage workers dependent on the capitalist employers for their livelihood and their very existence.
These new wage workers lost their autonomy. They could not solve their own problems in times of unemployment or commercial crisis. They could not educate their children. They could not move out of the slums surrounding the factories where they worked because they needed to be close to their work.
This new working class needed government protection. Hand in hand with the growth of large business and their more monopolistic practices grew up a government that tried to shore up corporate capitalism by protecting working people against the worst excesses of the corporate regime. This new protective government came into its own during the Great Depression. Franklin D. Roosevelt saved capitalism but understood clearly that the working class needed saving also. That gave us a set of new government agencies and projects to protect health and old age for workers, to clean up the cities where workers lived, and to protect everyone when businesses were cutting corners.
Roosevelt's welfare state was just the beginning. After World War II the Federal Government sent thousands and thousands of veterans to college and into graduate schools. In the 1950s Pres. Eisenhower had the government construct a vast network of four-lane roads crisscrossing the entire country. President Kennedy launched the Federal Government into space exploration and Pres. Lyndon Johnson will launch the Great Society with its War on Poverty.
As American capitalism expanded further by becoming global, the government also expanded in many different directions to become all the larger and more intrusive.
It now seems to many people that this partnership between very large global corporations and an increasingly large government with aspirations of global control is coming to the end of its usefulness.
Perhaps the history of the former Soviet Union is instructive here. Their centrally planned economy managed to modernize Russia at an astonishing pace before and during World War II and perhaps for a decade or two after that. But then that system fell victim to its own success. The Russian economy kept expanding until it became too complex to be planned from the center. At that point it began to decline.
Perhaps our caretaker government has also become too big and thus becomes more and more cumbersome and often inefficient if not outright bizarre. Libertarians and people on the political right want to shrink government. But it is clear from their proposals that a shrunken government will leave millions of Americans without health care, jobs or housing. It is not possible to return to a small government as it existed in the early days of our Republic, but keep corporations as mammoth as they have become.
But if the federal government has become too large and complex to provide needed services for citizens, what can be done to streamline it? Advocates of small government never consider that letting the government take care of poverty, of environmental protection, of the problems of the sick and the elderly is also a great convenience for us, because we don't have to worry about people who grow hungry. Presumably the government takes care of it.
If we are unwilling to have the government do everything then we obviously have to do it ourselves. Citizens who want to shrink the government cannot just do this at the expense of the poor, or the sick, and the old, without taking responsibility for our less fortunate fellow citizens. Shrinking government can only be done by citizens who become more active and who take upon themselves the jobs of caring for those who fall victim to our economic system.
Obviously, that is easier said than done. Too many people who are well-off work 70 or 80 hours a week. They're always connected to the workplace. They are always doing something to make money. They have no time to work at the local food bank, to tutor students, to work in organizations helping the elderly, or to provide free medical care for those who cannot pay for it.
It may well be true that the federal government has become too large. If we want to take back control over our lives, we need to be willing to do the work which the government is doing now. We cannot simply allow people to starve, to die prematurely for lack of health care, or to have children grow up without a decent education for lack of good schools and good teaching.
Am I wrong in thinking that not many people are willing to do that?