Advancing a Free Society

Can We Stand the Cure?

Monday, June 6, 2011

In his history of Rome written during the last days of the dying Republic, Livy wrote, “We can stand neither our disease nor the cure.” The United States seems to be in the same predicament, unable politically to solve pressing government spending problems that threaten our economic health.

For the Romans of the Republic, wealth and luxury had corrupted the political virtues that accounted for Rome’s remarkable rise to dominance in the Mediterranean. Our disease is peculiarly modern, yet no less lethal. It is the therapeutic sensibility that views suffering, risk, and loss as unbearable injustices that need to be corrected so that we can enjoy a utopian world of abundance, leisure, and pleasure. The non-negotiable, tragic limits that defined and ennobled human experience in the past are to us anomalies requiring intervention. Sickness, old age, war, failure, differences of talent and achievement must be eliminated or corrected so that we all are equally happy and successful. It is the T-Ball world, that children’s baseball game where everybody bats, everybody wins, and everybody is the most valuable player.

We entertain this delusional vision of human life because our technology has indeed been successful in mitigating or eliminating most of the poverty, disease, suffering, and pain that once defined existence for our ancestors. But rather than enjoying and appreciating this unprecedented success, we remain dissatisfied with our lives, demanding that our government remove the remaining impediments to universal unceasing happiness and affluence. And many of are willing to give more and more power to the state and its technocratic elites in order to achieve this utopia.

But apart from being simply untrue to the complexity of reality and a human nature “from which,” Kant wrote, “nothing straight can be made,” the therapeutic sensibility is alien to the fundamental beliefs that underlay the creation of our political and economic system. Our government was created to achieve not a utopia, but a political order comprising the minimum amount of limitations needed to ensure public order and security. Such limited government thus protects the freedom of men so that they have scope to exercise their talents and pursue their aims according to their own lights. The point was not to make everybody a winner, but to remove the traditional limits that once inhibited men from using their abilities to strive for success. Equality of opportunity, not of result, was the aim.

So too with free-market capitalism. The process of capitalism’s “creative destruction” leads not to the impossible world of income equality and universal economic success, but rather to a dynamic process in which individual initiative and talent are given the space to improve economically and expand wealth by creating jobs and opportunities for others. Over time, some losers will become winners, and some winners will become losers, all the consequence of individual initiative, drive, talent, and luck. But also over time, increased wealth and opportunity will be available for greater numbers of people. In an imperfect world of flawed humans, the opportunity, not the guarantee, for success is about the best we can hope for. As history shows, all attempts to improve on this model by government manipulation and intervention lead to economic failure at best, and mass murder at worst.

For decades we have mover ever farther from this model, empowering government to remove or correct the consequences of failure at the expense of political freedom and economic dynamism. These metastasizing costs of entitlement spending and unfunded liabilities are the consequence of our own delusional expectations and unwillingness to take responsibility for our own health-care costs and provisions for old age. So we have ceded power to a government that has not just taken over that responsibility, but has escalated the number and range of such entitlements, at a cost that for years has been obviously unsustainable. The result is expansions of national debt and deficit spending that threaten to derail a system that has created levels of wealth and its distribution unthinkable for earlier peoples.

The Congressional elections of 2010 suggested that a critical mass of citizens had awoken to this danger, and were demanding a reduction in such spending and the accompanying debt it engendered. The recent election in upstate New York, however, in which a Democrat in a traditional Republican stronghold won election to the House of Representatives by exploiting fraudulent Mediscare tactics, suggests that there may be even more people unwilling to face the hard truth that we simply can no longer afford the entitlement utopia. In fifteen months we will know which cohort of the body politic is larger: those who are willing to let government borrow and spend us into economic decline or worse, as long as it takes responsibility for keeping at bay the tragic realities of existence; or those who can “stand the cure” of our therapeutic disease and make the hard choices and sacrifices necessary for maintaining a political and economic system that may not have made everybody equally successful and wealthy, but has still delivered more wealth and freedom to more people than any other in history.

(photo credit: Matthew Coughlin)