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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The (Now) Anglo-American Disease

<onvinced that Great Britain was the primary loser of the Second World War.  An interpretation of that statement is conventional wisdom.  A variously worded aphorism roughly goes that Churchill saved his country but lost an empire.  Disregarding the Empire (it was a costly vestige of another era in 1939 much less 1945, anyway), Great Britain still lost the war because it had emerged too intact.

At the cost of millions of lives and profound and widespread alienation and disorientation, the detritus of centuries – countless protections and monopolies and antiquated and conceited commercial and industrial practices – vanished in much of the Continent, to good economic and social effect.  The postwar German wirtschaftswunder and strong democracy is but one leading example.  Almost uniquely, Britain emerged from the war with its institutions and practices largely unchanged.  This happy fact was a mixed blessing.  Victorious Britain remained hidebound, and within decades trailed its former enemies. 

We were victors, too, but our next sixty-five years were on the whole much happier.  The Soviet Union, of course, is a whole different story.  I risk oversimplification, but postwar America was a comparatively new nation intended from birth to be free of the stifling cultural, political, and economic forces of the Old World.  Guilds, unions, landed squires, and other special interests had not had millennia to grow.  Nor were we wracked with that British curse of class, the funeral expenses of empire, or trade patterns made obsolete in the postcolonial world.  The United States had only recently before the war begun to develop the features of a Western European state: a strong central government and a mixed economy with a semblance of a welfare state.  We still enjoyed the blessings of youth in the early postwar years.

Our present political and fiscal messes are the unintended consequences of our bid for national maturity.  Ever since Bismarck, every wealthy country has built some form of welfare state.  The welfare state does quite a bit of good, but buyer beware: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid may be worthy programs, but they require a flexibility to tinkering alien to all public enterprise.  Our New Deal- and Great Society-based welfare state depends on the four-child families and 60-something life expectancies of 1945 and 1965.  Federal policymakers have not adjusted entitlement programs to reflect the reality of fewer workers supporting more old and sick people.   

Entrenched special interests are nearly impossible to dislodge.  No good economic reason explains why Hamilton’s eighteenth-century tariff should have been a campaign issue for Woodrow Wilson or why Depression-era farm subsidies find bipartisan support today.  The clients of the welfare state – entitlement beneficiaries and the well-paid civil service employees tasked mainly with administering the myriad redistribution schemes – are just such a special interest.  We cannot expect that AARP and AFSCME (or the tort bar and health insurance lobbies) will enjoy any less vigor and longevity than the manufacturing or farm lobbies. 

An odd conservative am I to argue in the fall of 2010 that Washington is not the obstacle to reform.  The nature of Washington is not to blame for the poor public policy of the last two years or the last sixty years.  Despite exceptional partisan gridlock (to which I have no objection), our federal political institutions operate normally.  We don’t require, as Thomas Friedman argues, a third party or a soft form of Chinese authoritarianism. Our elected officials respond to their constituents now as always.  The Madisonian conception of competing interests fighting for political representation endures.   The problem is the dearth of strong interest groups to fight for what needs fighting: prudence.    

In the absence of a global conflagration to reduce our nation to scratch like the Axis powers, those of us who object to the current national course must work within existing institutions.  The public sector unions and AARP can easily rally millions to lobby to protect what they hold most dear: inflated civil service pensions and quarter-century-long retirements and Medicare benefits for which we will pay.  We the malcontents have an uphill battle.  Apathy is frighteningly potent, and too many of us concern ourselves with the meaningless politics of identity.   

A political entrepreneur who could do some good would not flatter (“we are the ones we’ve been waiting for”) but rather throw a much-needed scare into our age cohort (something like “we’re the only ones we’ve got”).  Our parents preferred to occupy themselves with acid, amnesty, and abortion rather than tinker with the minutiae of securing a sound economic inheritance for us.  We risk the same folly.  Call me a sore loser (if you had not guessed, I voted McCain/Palin ’08), but in that election cycle which excited our generation more than any before in our lives and perhaps after, I sensed virtually no campus discussion of substantive policy. 

Since we’re going to inherit this mess shortly, we might want to strategize.

-James Kerson is a Carletonian columnist.

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