Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Ideology Matters

Yesterday I argued that one reason that it is so hard to cut government spending is that so many people no are direct recipients of government money. Another important obstacle to a more sound economic system is our contemporary ideology of state provision.

Robert Higgs explains a significant change in American ideology that has taken place during the past 120 years. He uses a recent speech by President Obama in which the President warns, "if we don’t work even harder than we did in 2008, then we’re going to have a government that tells the American people, ‘you are on your own.'"

Higgs responds,
How horrible the prospect! On your own to pay for your own health care; on your own to pay for your own college expenses; on your own to pay for a lawsuit against a corporation that has harmed you unlawfully. How can anyone with an ounce of humanity in his body expect people to take such self-responsibility? The next thing you know, those callous, reactionary Republicans—you know, the ones who ran up the size, scope, and power of government consistently under every Republican president since Chester Arthur—will demand that people take care of their own children and aged parents! Where will it end? 
Higgs' shows how contrary Obama's rhetoric is to the historic American tradition by quoting from remarks made in 1887 by President Grover Cleveland as he vetoed a bill that authorized $10,000 to help farmers struggling with drought. "I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and duty of the general government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit."

Higgs concludes:
No politician seriously seeking the presidency today would dare to say what Cleveland—an exceptionally courageous and honest politician even in his day—said in the late nineteenth century. American politcos have learned that the people have come to crave government paternalism, indeed, that they pant for it and demand it at every turn. Obama is not the brightest light, yet he understands how to get elected, and in that quest he is pandering to the same personal irresponsibility and desire to prey on one’s fellows that have been the hallmarks American politics from the Progressive Era to the present.
This discussion brings to mind a passage from Ludwig von Mises' Human Action. When discussion the importance of a person's ideology on his actions he uses a anthropomorphic allusion:
If we hypostatize or anthropomorphize the notion of ideology, we may say that ideologies have might over men. Might is the faculty or power of directing actions. As a rule one says only of a man or of groups of men that they are mighty. Then the definition of might is: might is the power to direct other people's actions. He who is mighty, owes his might to an ideology. Only ideologies can convey to a man the power to influence other people's choices and conduct. One can become a leader only if one is supported by an ideology which makes other people tractable and accommodating. Might is thus not a physical and tangible thing, but a moral and spiritual phenomenon. A king's might rests upon the recognition of the monarchical ideology on the part of his subjects (pp. 188-89).
Given the power of ideology as described by Mises, if Obama is right and we have adopted dependency as a reigning ideology, I am less than optimistic that we live amongst a people who will be willing to abide shrinking the size of government. Alas, drastic shrinking is necessary for a return to true economic prosperity.

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