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Sunday, June 05, 2005

Liberalism: The Procrustean Brand

In mythology, visitors had to fit Procrustes’s bed exactly.  Too tall, your feet got chopped off; too short, you were put on the rack and stretched.  In the liberal-socialist welfare state, individuals must accept whatever the lawgivers and bureaucrats decree, whether it fits their needs or not.

Liberals aim to eliminate all risks of everyday life, and, necessarily, all individual choices.  This is called “caring.”  Anyone who objects to liberalism’s aim of egalitarianism is excoriated as a heartless, reactionary capitalist.

This relentless drive toward uniformity was recently manifested in my home state of Connecticut.  The State Assembly is in the process of enacting a new, mandatory required coverage in health insurance policies.  Every health insurance company doing business in Connecticut must, presumably, include coverage of infertility among the standard benefits in its health insurance policies.

Never mind that the most rapidly growing segment of the population, old geezers like me, have no need whatever for infertility insurance.  Nor do most couples in the child-bearing age range.  Never mind that the average infertility treatment cost is said to be $40,000.  Never mind that the vast majority of policy holders will have to pay substantial additional premiums for coverage that they do not need and do not want.  Never mind that young people just entering the job market or young couples just getting married will not be able to buy stripped-down, basic-coverage health insurance that they can afford.

It’s a good, “caring,” welfare-state regulation by the intellectual bureaucracy to protect people who, in the paradigm of liberalism, cannot fend for themselves, people who are helpless in the diabolical hands of businessmen in an environment of free-market competition.

My friend Ray Justus called my attention to relevant portions of a Theodore Dalrymple article that I had cited earlier in a different connection.  That article, titled “The Roads to Serfdom,” appeared in the Spring edition of City Journal.

Mr. Dalrymple discusses how the British Labour Party (the socialists) immediately after World War II set out to bring perfection to the United Kingdom:

“The war having instantaneously created a nostalgia for the sense of unity and transcendent purpose that prevailed in those years, the population naturally enough asked why such a mood could not persist into the peace that followed. Why couldn?t the dedication of millions, centrally coordinated by the government?a coordinated dedication that had produced unprecedented quantities of aircraft and munitions?be adapted to defeat what London School of Economics head Sir William Beveridge, in his wartime report on social services that was to usher in the full-scale welfare state in Britain, called the ?five giants on the road to reconstruction?: Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor, and Idleness?

“By the time Beveridge published his report in 1942, most of the intellectuals of the day assumed that the government, and only the government, could accomplish these desirable goals. Indeed, it all seemed so simple a matter that only the cupidity and stupidity of the rich could have prevented these ends from already having been achieved. The Beveridge Report states, for example, that want ?could have been abolished in Britain before the present war? and that ?the income available to the British people was ample for such a purpose.? It was just a matter of dividing the national income cake into more equal slices by means of redistributive taxation. If the political will was there, the way was there; there was no need to worry about effects on wealth creation or any other adverse effects.”

No one in the United States who lived through the disaster wrought by President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society will be surprised to learn that matters did not turn out as Sir William Beveridge expected.  Mr. Dalrymple notes:

“.....The destruction of the British character did not come from Nazi- or Soviet-style nationalization or centralized planning, as [Friedrich] Hayek [author of “The Road to Serfdom”] believed it would. For collectivism proved to be not nearly as incompatible with, or diametrically opposed to, a free, or free-ish, market as he had supposed.

“In fact, Hilaire Belloc, in his book “The Servile State,” predicted just such a form of collectivism as early as 1912. Like most intellectuals of the age, Belloc was a critic of capitalism, because he held it responsible for the poverty and misery he saw in the London slums. His view was static, not dynamic: he did not see that the striving there could?and would?lift people out of their poverty, and he therefore argued that the liberal, laissez-faire state??mere capitalist anarchy,? he called it?could not, and should not, continue. He foresaw three possible outcomes.

“His preferred resolution was more or less the same as Carlyle?s half a century earlier: a return to the allegedly stable and happy medieval world of reciprocal rights and duties. There would be guilds of craftsmen and merchants in the towns, supplying mainly handmade goods to one another and to peasant farmers, who in turn would supply them with food. Everyone would own at least some property, thereby having a measure of independence, but no one would be either plutocrat or pauper. However desirable this resolution, though, even Belloc knew it was fantasy.

“The second possible resolution was the socialist one: total expropriation of the means of production, followed by state ownership, allegedly administered in the interests of everyone. Belloc had little to say on whether he thought this would work, since in his opinion it was unlikely to happen: the current owners of the means of production were still far too strong.

“That left the third, and most likely, resolution. The effect of collectivist thought on a capitalist society would not be socialism, but something quite distinct, whose outlines he believed he discerned in the newly established compulsory unemployment insurance. The means of production would remain in private hands, but the state would offer workers certain benefits, in return for their quiescence and agreement not to agitate for total expropriation as demanded in socialist propaganda.

“Unlike [George] Orwell [author of “1984” and “Animal Farm”] or Beveridge, however, he realized that such benefits would exact a further price: ?A man has been compelled by law to put aside sums from his wages as insurance against unemployment. But he is no longer the judge of how such sums shall be used. They are not in his possession; they are not even in the hands of some society which he can really control. They are in the hands of a Government official. ?Here is work offered to you at twenty-five shillings a week. If you do not take it you shall certainly not have a right to the money you have been compelled to put aside. If you will take it the sum shall stand to your credit, and when next in my judgment your unemployment is not due to your recalcitrance and refusal to labour, I will permit you to have some of your money; not otherwise.? ?

“What applied to unemployment insurance would apply to all other spheres into which government intruded, Belloc intuited; and all of the benefits government conferred, paid for by the compulsory contributions of the taxpayer, in effect would take choice and decision making out of the hands of the individual, placing them in those of the official. Although the benefits offered by the government were as yet few when Belloc wrote, he foresaw a state in which the ?whole of labour is mapped out and controlled.? In his view, ?The future of industrial society, and in particular of English society . . . is a future in which subsistence and security shall be guaranteed for the Proletariat, but shall be guaranteed . . . by the establishment of that Proletariat in a status really, though not nominally, servile.? The people lose ?that tradition of . . . freedom, and are most powerfully inclined to [the] acceptance of [their servile status] by the positive benefits it confers.?

“And this is precisely what has happened to the large proportion of the British population that has been made dependent on the welfare state.

“The state action that was supposed to lead to the elimination of Beveridge?s five giants of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor, and Idleness has left many people in contemporary Britain with very little of importance to decide for themselves, even in their own private spheres. They are educated by the state (at least nominally), as are their children in turn; the state provides for them in old age and has made saving unnecessary or, in some cases, actually uneconomic; they are treated and cured by the state when they are ill; they are housed by the state, if they cannot otherwise afford decent housing. Their choices concern only sex and shopping.”

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