The Philosopher's Eye

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Government Debt and Anti-Governmentalism

The standout nominees from the Ames straw poll were one Tea Party member and someone who may as well be. They are set to make every possible opportunity out of the obvious weaknesses of their common rival, Mitt Romney, not least, as The Onion put it, his ‘dark past of trying to help uninsured sick people.’ There is a good deal of media fluff and bubble about the border issues these candidates like to campaign on – gay marriage, evolution, and other emotive distractions. But the real meat of their political philosophy comes down to one thing. They are small government people. They are seriously small government people. They are nanogovernmentalists. Rick Perry hates the idea of government spending so much he thinks quantitative easing is treason.

When a political philosophy of this extremity becomes mainstream, the philosopher should take stock. Where does all the extremism come from? The answer does not lie in economics.  According to the New York Times finance correspondent, Floyd Norris, ninety-five out of a hundred economists will say that government should be expanding rather than shrinking right now (listen to him on the NYTimes podcast, The Caucus). Even Christine Legarde has recently made a general recommendation for short-term increases in spending, balanced by long-term commitments to debt-reduction, as have George Soros and Gordon Brown.

Why, then, are people so willing to support plans to go in the opposite direction – shrinking government – not moderately but with religious fervour? What renders this more confusing is that the majority of households, clustered below the mean income, are expected to shoulder the burden of austerity, as well as being the primary victims of the sluggish growth likely to result from it. The rich have yet to be asked for their contribution to ‘shared sacrifice’ – see Warren Buffet’s NYTimes article. Support for aggressive austerity measures thus implies the belief that the poor have made insufficient sacrifice of themselves for the comfort of the rich. The election of the current UK government, religiously committed to austerity regardless of its effect on national income, on a timescale that makes electoral rather than economic sense (as Ed Balls observed in a lecture given at the LSE) reveals the same belief to be widespread there also.

There is no mystery about why richer citizens would support such plans – the poorer the poor become, the greater the comparative wealth of the rich; and psychological studies suggest that comparative wealth is what counts for happiness. In happiness terms, this is trickle-up economics. But why do poorer citizens support them? The answer is suggested by the popularity of movements like the Tea Party is that now, at the very moment when voters should be hassling their governments to do the right thing, many people would rather be rid of government altogether.

How do they justify this preference? The thinking person’s answer is, I think, something like the following (I am getting this, vaguely, from David Brooks’ recent book, The Social Animal): ‘Government policies are based on models that suppose people’s needs and interests to be basically rational, and therefore capable of being scientifically tracked and met. This is a naïve and outdated view. Modern cognitive science is daily hammering away at it. In fact people are complex social animals, led by emotional attachments more than by abstract reasoning; their interests cannot be tracked by big aggregative models. Your idea – getting government to help us achieve prosperity and fairness – is ignorant and passé, based on an overly sanguine view of social science and its capacity to ground effective social policy. It should be replaced by my idea – rolling back government to make way for spontaneous, grass-rootsy organisations arising out of communal feeling.’

The same basic ideal informs Philip Blond’s ‘Red Toryism’ and David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’, which the former partially inspired. Brooks is clever to link this modish agenda with some modish developments in cognitive science. Its real source, however, is junk philosophy. The obvious fact being obscured is that this anti-government, pro-community agenda is colossally unfair. The biggest social inequalities in all developed nations exist between naturally-formed communities, not within them. The ideals of localism and devolution may provide an exciting way to deal with local unfairness, but they don’t touch the problem of global unfairness. Of course communities sometimes help each other, but surely they do not do so anywhere near enough to make large-scale government initiatives and investments unnecessary. And while community feeling is a very important thing during a long recession, avoiding the recession in the first place is even better.

Humans are indeed social animals, and can achieve extraordinary things  through collective feeling and spontaneous community (though not always, you will have noticed, admirable things). But they are also, thankfully, the animals that can use reason to build abstract models and large institutions in order to solve problems much bigger and more complex than spontaneous community feeling could ever hope to address. Clever pundits tell the public that these models don’t work. And the public are really in no position to judge for themselves; according to reports by Demos, public economic literacy in the UK is dismal. Whether intended or not, the consequence of doubt-mongering about social science and its ability to support sound social policy is that ignorance gets enlisted into the service of insanity. The rise of the Tea Party is a sign that the US public is losing its collective mind. The UK government are a mad hatter’s tea party wearing unconvincing masks of sanity. If philosophers can’t end this madness, perhaps we can at least name it.

Related Articles

Associative Political Obligations (pages 477–487)

Theories of Political Justification (pages 893–903)

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