L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

15 November 2008 Blog Home : November 2008 : Permalink

The Siren Call of Socialism

Samizdata has a nice Mark Steyn quote:

Unlike those excitable countries where the peasants overrun the presidential palace, settled democratic societies rarely vote to "go left." Yet oddly enough that's where they've all gone. In its assumptions about the size of the state and the role of government, almost every advanced nation is more left than it was, and getting lefter.

He goes on to note that many of McCain's policies were at the very least statist of not explicitly leftist. I don't think he brings it up but the same goes for GW Bush and his "compassionate conservatism" not to mention his apparent love of huge sprawling bureaucracies.

Jerry Pournelle has written an essay that likewise mourns the apparent death of the small government Republican party and how it has turned itself in to Democrat LITE. The same applies in spades in Europe where the UK Tories have embraced statism in a way that would make Mrs Thatcher furious if she were sufficiently compos mentis to grasp what they've done. In Germany the CDU is much the same and the whole of southern Europe seems wedded to the idea of big governments and big bailouts. About the only place where big government is less popular is in the former Soviet east of Europe where they've endured decades of excessive government.

So the question arises. Why? Why are the politicians who are supposedly on the right and keen on individualism so wedded to collectivist policies. It should be noted that the politicians who get themselves into leadership positions aren't usually stupid when it comes to the popular mood. They may (indeed often are) wrong headed and prone to snap judgements about things they don't understand but their real skill is to get themselves elected and that means they are good at seeing what the majority of their potential voters want. Hence it seems likely to me that the reason why these pols promote collectivist ideas is because they are popular with the voters.

So the question changes. Why do voters want big government?

I think it all boils down to security and freedom from worry.

A friend of mine recently went to Kazakhstan and had a chat with a taxi driver there which I think is illustrative. The taxi driver (he was something to do with the soviet space program before communism failed) said essentially that the great thing about soviet life was that you didn't have to make major decisions. You were assigned a house. You had little or no choice in what to wear or to eat or where you worked and so on. Yet on the other hand you knew that you would be taken care of in the same limited choice fashion come what may. And that, for the most part, you would be taken care of as well as (or as badly as) everyone else. Oh of course it was horribly inefficient. The quality of life was pretty dire and so on. But you didn't have to worry because the government would look after you.

I suspect that much the same desire can be seen in the people who have loyally worked for GM or IBM or any of the other large bastions of capitalism who promised good wages and pensions in exchange for service. It isn't, in fact, a bad thing and I think that this desire to be looked after - the desire to have the major choices and worries made by others - is very common in the human soul.

In the long run it doesn't work and as the pyramid scheme gets larger we discover that it doesn't scale. But humans are very bad at making the risk calculation for distant events and hence they don't see the problem. I think it is the same desire that leads people to fundamentalist religions, in their case it is God and his prophets who tell you what the major choices are, but it is the same thing. Which means that, in some ways, the Christian right - or parts of it - have much in common with not only the Islamofascists but also the secular socialists.

The people who don't think like that are small business owners, authors, and other self-employed as well as those people who jump at the idea of joining a silicon valley startup, the survialists and so on. Put together we're a ragtag bunch. Joe the plumber, the founders of Google and long-haired weirdos who don't communicate with their neighbours and we probably disagree with each other as much as we disagree with the sheep who want their religion or government security blanket. About the only thing we have in common is our tendency to zag when others zig and otherwise herd like cats (which probably explains why libertarian political parties tend to have such "interesting" internal political feuds).

The problem is that I don't think there are enough of us to win elections except when the wheels come off the socialist wagon. And these days there aren't many places we can emigrate to. This may explain why so many of us are so enamoured with Science Fiction and Fantasy where the freedom we crave is possible.