Amazingly, despite a century of evidence to its disastrous consequences, socialism still sticks its ugly face out in the public arena from time to time. Before the Berlin Wall fell its demagogues were trying to pick what they thought were the cherries out of the Soviet pie and present them as a palatable, even tasty option to Capitalism. Then the Soviet empire crumbled, and after a decade in the wilderness the socialist ranters came back with a vengeance.
They had found “global warming”.
We who went to school in the ’70s and early ’80s were told by our science teachers that the world was steadfastly heading for a new ice age. Science books came with frightening images of cities, far down in southern Europe, buried in ice and snow. On the horizon, a mile-thick glacier that slowly pushed south.
Some time during the ’80s the preachers of climate change stopped talking about the pending ice age. Perhaps they could not get enough research grants to continue to stay away from teaching at their colleges, so they invented a new climate change story: global warming.
A couple of years ago the climategate scandal put a big, fat nail in the coffin of the global-warming fairy tale. In January of this year news broke that there has been no global warming for 16 years now. By now, even moderately intelligent liberals should start wondering what their climate preachers have been up to, and why they can’t deliver the climate disaster they have promised for so long.
While the world is slowly beginning to see the light with sober eyes, many leftists have invested far too much of their careers in the global-warming fairy tale to let go of it. One of them is a South African socialist by the name of Jay Naidoo. Like so many other socialists of late, he is trying to use “global warming” as a moral carte blanche to impose his collectivist nonsense on his fellow man.
Naidoo is former minister of reconstruction and development in the South African government and currently chairs an organization called Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition. He gets plenty of space on the Euractiv website to rant about everything between “climate change” and poverty, except what really matters:
“The drought is brutal in the north of Kenya around Lake Turkana. The rains seldom come and the lake is drying up. So is the hope of the Turkana, a proud people. They are mainly pastoralists. But the grazing lands are fast disappearing as are the fish in the rapidly receding lake.
Right here, Naidoo has put the blame on the hardship of the Turkana on non-existent global warming. Without offering the slightest evidence to the claims he makes about their environmental situation, he takes it as the starting point of a long rant on poverty and the evil West.
Even more amazingly, in the next paragraph he tells us that the Turkana are the victims of lawlessness and anarchy – yet somehow the poverty of the Turkana is still caused by evil Capitalism:
Heavily armed marauding bands of bandits from the Horn of Africa regularly raid lands and seize the cattle of the Turkana. As one herder said, “They take our wealth and our food. Our cows are our bank. We are alone. There is no government here to protect us. It is the rule of the gun. Our homes are torched, our innocent are murdered. They want to drive us from our land. Our children are not safe. They must go to the city.”
Any common-sense minded person would immediately ask why the Kenyan government, who claims jurisdiction over the territory where the Turkana live, is not interested in enforcing the rule of law. Another question is why property rights are so weak in this part of the world. Could it be because socialists look down their nose at private property?
In the next sentence Naidoo takes all the blame for the poverty of the Turkana away from the thugs who assault them, as well as from the Kenyan government:
Here poverty is driven by climate change, a precursor to the new resource wars to be fought over water, land, food and competition over scarce resources.
Like mankind has never lived under resource scarcity before. Mother of all ignorance…
Any time the price of an item is higher than zero, it is because that resource is scarce. Scarcity, in fact, is one of the driving forces that makes a society evolve – it does not motivate societal evolution on its own, but it is one of the key ingredients. But scarcity is universal and affects all mankind one way or the other. We all have to adjust our lives to the fact that we cannot get everything we want, in an instant, for free.
The question is why some societies evolve under scarcity, while others don’t. The best and most obvious answer to that question is found on the Korean peninsula. South Korea, with a population twice the size of North Korea’s and on a smaller piece of land, is able to feed itself, clothe its population, cure the vast majority of their diseases, educate them and keep them safe. The North on the other hand cannot even feed its own children.
Most people would dismiss the comparison between South and North Korea with something to the effect that “well, everybody knows that Communism isn’t working”. But the point is that despite this knowledge – despite the glaringly obvious, ocean-wide difference between Capitalist South Korea and socialist North Korea – socialism is still given a valid presence in the global public policy debate. For some reason there are people who still believe that you can blend South and North Korea, yet what they find out too late when they try is that the ingredients from “North” that go into the blend are venomous to vital organs of “South”.
The very essence of socialism is the transferal of property rights from the individual to the “collective”, almost always represented by a government. The “collective” is given the right to seize parts or all of what the individual acquires through work, trade and investment. Yet when the “collective” is given this right there is a proportionate loss of rights for the individual, and with the loss of right to the proceeds of his work, trade and investment, the individual also loses the incentive to pursue those proceeds.
This is the first and most important reason why societies with socialist economies are poorer than societies that rely on Capitalism.
As for the Turkana in Naidoo’s story, their reason to evolve and become more prosperous is robbed from them by the thugs who can come and seize their cattle with impunity. The thugs have de facto become their socialist government that imposes a heavy tax on them.
Naidoo, of course, is blind to this fact. On the contrary, he continues to cast the blame for the Turkana’s poverty on everyone else except the thugs who steal their cattle. Euractiv again:
The poverty is chronic, systemic and leaves many in despair, abandoned by the political and economic elites of the world.
Then he globalizes his warped views:
That story is repeated in the many villages I have been to in the India subcontinent, in the slums of Africa and Asia where families live in a space that is barely bigger than the bathroom of middle class families. In these communities people feel that God has forsaken them. While we have undoubtedly made progress, when I see the official reports suggesting “Enormous progress has been made towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Global poverty continues to decline, more children than ever are attending primary school, child deaths have dropped dramatically; access to safe drinking water has been greatly expanded…” I wonder when these gains will trickle down to the billion people I encounter at the edges of our humanity.
My native country, Sweden, was one of the poorest nations in the northern hemisphere back in the mid-19th century. It went from being an agricultural backwater on the northern edge of Europe to a dynamic economy with rapidly growing prosperity in the 1930s. What happened? Did the world suddenly give Swedes foreign aid? Did the rest of the world suddenly impose a hate-the-rich tax in order to give handouts to Swedish farmers?
No. The reason was the same that allowed industry and entrepreneurship to thrive and prosperity to grow all over Europe: limited government and respect for property rights. (That Sweden later abandoned those principles is another story.) The smaller a government is, the more concentrated it becomes on its only real function in society, namely to protect life, liberty and property. By contrast, the bigger government gets the farther away it will drift from that function. That is why socialist governments – which includes the Kenyan government – lose track of things like people’s right to the proceeds of their own hard work.
Hence the disaster in Turkana.
Back to Euractiv, where Naidoo starts pushing for a global welfare state:
What the bottom half of humanity sees is a new apartheid that divides a global rich and predatory minority from the overwhelming majority’s growing poverty, joblessness and social inequality.
And here we go. A man who purports to be some kind of compassionate caretaker over the poor in the world finally comes out as what he truly is: a socialist hate merchant.
People who live in free countries with democratic governments, who have the right to own the proceeds of their work, who get up in the morning, provide for their loved ones, obey the law and donate to charity – they are characterized as a “predatory minority” by Naidoo. People who live honest, decent, productive lives and do their best to be contributing members of society – they are castigated as “predatory” by Naidoo, simply because they happen to live in a rich, industrialized, free country.
Even worse, Naidoo’s rhetoric is aimed at those who create jobs for hundreds and hundreds of millions of people. Entrepreneurial visionaries like IKEA’s Ingvar Kamprad or Microsoft founder Bill Gates; industrialists like the Toyoda family; around-the-clock working corporate executives who make sure their businesses continue to provide the world with clothes, food, cell phones, medicines, light bulbs, tools, appliances, water purifiers and other essential consumer goods. All these men and women are a “predatory minority” in the eyes of Jay Naidoo.
This is the level that all socialists eventually sink to. Their world view is one of relentless, ongoing conflict. To them, people do not cooperate voluntarily. People do not by their free will take a job with a large corporation – they are forced into that job by the “system”. To socialists like Naidoo there is no other cooperation than that which is enforced by government.
Even more pathetic is the fact that socialists like Naidoo are so totally and utterly blind to the free will of individual human beings. Ask any young engineer who works long, hard hours for the car manufacturer Hyundai in South Korea if he has been forced into that job by an evil Capitalist. Ask him if he would rather live and work in North Korea instead.
When Naidoo resorts to referring to the high-productive people who take advantage of economic freedom as a “predatory minority”, he gives away his true identity. His rhetoric is nothing more than the same old, dingy class warfare rhetoric that socialists have been using for a century and a half by now – and what has that rhetoric given us?
It has given us the Gulag Archipelago; the Berlin Wall; the Killing Fields in Cambodia, Cuban prison camps and children starving to death in the streets of North Korea. And don’t forget the Third Reich brand of socialism, according to which the “predatory minority” should bear a yellow six-point star and be exterminated in death camps.
Wherever socialists have gotten the chance to identify a “predatory minority” they have brought about war, chaos, starvation, depravity and death.
Naidoo’s rhetoric is the same kind of divisive, aggressive, conflict-driving language that has caused so many wars, civil and other, around the world over the past century. Naidoo’s class warfare rhetoric fueled the Leninist revolution which ended up costing 25 million Russians their lives. Naidoo’s class warfare rhetoric falls in the same line as that which Josef Göbbels used to fire up the masses against a small, innocent group of fellow citizens. Naidoo’s class warfare rhetoric built an Iron Curtain across Europe and is still today being used to defend the North Korean tyranny.
It does not help Naidoo’s case that when he gets to the practical side of his rant, he focuses entirely on “equality” and totally ignores the variables that really matter:
We need to go beyond measuring progress as a set of narrow input and output indicators. We need to address the underlying drivers of poverty and that the data has hidden a growing social and economic inequality which has risen dramatically in the world.
Suppose Jack and Joe earn $1 per day on Monday. On Tuesday Joe starts manufacturing gobbletigooks in his basement. He sells them with great success and rapidly increases his daily income. On Wednesday he earns $2 per day, while Jack still earns $1.
Where there was income equality on Monday there is now income inequality. How is Jack worse off under income inequality than he was under income equality?
On Friday, Joe needs to hire help. He now earns $4.50 per day and hires Jack to do the simple manufacturing work at $1.50 per day. The income inequality is now bigger than ever, but comparatively low-earning Jack has increased his income by 50 percent thanks to Joe’s entrepreneurship.
How is Friday’s income inequality worse for him than income equality was on Monday?
Of course, socialist Naidoo does not answer this question. Instead he dismisses China’s enormous strides toward prosperity in the past two decades:
Poverty has been defined as an income of less than $1.25 a day. Because figures are not disaggregated what is ignored is the fact that China accounts for the bulk of this success. Sub-Saharan Africa, on the other hand, is not on track on its poverty reduction
Of course not. That region is still ruled by dictators and war lords, and its largest country, Nigeria, is being torn apart by radical, Medieval islamists whose respect for individual and economic freedom we know from the Taliban era in Afghanistan. Once again, Naidoo proves the point about the correlation between on the one hand the lack of respect for life, liberty and property and on the other hand prosperity and opportunity for all.
In his position as chair of a large lobbying organization, Jay Naidoo has considerable influence on the global public policy arena. His divisive, hate-mongering socialist rhetoric is wrapped in dangerously seductive, superficial compassion for the poor, yet when push comes to shove all he wants is more government, more bureaucracies and more redistribution from the rich to the poor. He totally ignores the economic mechanisms that bring about prosperity. He turns a blind eye to the forces that have successfully lifted more than a billion people out of abject poverty in the past two decades.
Jay Naidoo is the kind of person who would rather see everyone equally poor than everyone wealthy, if that meant some got wealthier than others.
At the end of the day, that is precisely what socialism is all about. It turns people into instruments for an idea, an ideology, reducing them to bricks in a game of political power.
Socialists have had a century to prove that their ideology can work. On every occasion where they have gotten the chance, they have failed. And they have failed on every account imaginable.
Socialism is nothing more than a highway to poverty, tyranny and serfdom – for all.
In a series of articles I have expressed great concern for the economic and political future of South Africa. My interest in this nation on the southern tip of the African continent is founded in the events that took place two decades ago, when Apartheid fell and South Africa rose on a wave of hope as the ANC formed a new government. All over the world people had high, but realistic expectations: the movement that had prevailed over institutionalized racism would unify the country and lead it into a peaceful, prosperous future.
Freedom and democracy would celebrate another triumph over divisiveness and totalitarianism.
Sadly, those expectations have fallen flat to the ground. The hope that millions of South Africans had has been shattered by an economic and social crisis that only seems to deepen by the day. Unemployment numbers are horrifying, crime and corruption threaten the very stability of society and the vast majority of the black population are living under conditions that have not improved at all since Apartheid ended.
What does the ANC do to respond to this? Part of the answer is in a thoughtful op-ed for Business Day, a premier daily South African publication. Two researchers from the Socioeconomic Rights Institute, Michael Clark and Jackie Dugard, present a very interesting analysis of the deterioration of the ANC regime. Their analysis has general applications to other countries, far beyond South Africa’s borders:
In his state of the nation address on February 14, President Jacob Zuma said there were important lessons to be learnt from the Marikana tragedy. Skipping over what many may view as the most important lesson about the South African Police Service’s tragic use of lethal force, Zuma drew attention instead to the issue of violent protestors. Calling on South Africans to exercise their constitutionally protected right to protest in a peaceful manner, Zuma pointed out that protests that were not “peaceful” were “unacceptable”. He said he had empowered the justice, crime prevention and security cluster to put measures in place to ensure that violent protests are dealt with appropriately, that arrests are made and that speedy and effective prosecutions occur.
Before we continue, for the sake of context, here is a presentation of the institute where the two op-ed authors work:
The Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI) is a non-profit organisation providing professional, dedicated and expert socio-economic rights assistance to individuals, communities and social movements in South Africa. SERI conducts applied research, engages with government, advocates for policy and legal reform, facilitates civil society coordination and mobilisation, and litigates in the public interest (the SERI Law Clinic is registered as a public interest law centre).
In an American context they are a mixture of a 501c3 and a PAC. More importantly, though, they are a kind of “foot soldier” movement carrying the idealistic torch of the ANC-led anti-apartheid revolution into the communities of today’s South Africa.
It is helpful to keep this in mind as we return to the op-ed in Business Day:
In addition, Zuma explained that specialised courts would be allocated to give priority to protest cases. Some have criticised this stance, arguing that similar measures have not been implemented in relation to a number of other pressing societal issues, such as rising inequality, violence against women and corruption. Later in the same week, Justice Minister Jeff Radebe further elaborated on Zuma’s comments, saying in relation to protests that the state had to “exercise its authority” in order to maintain peace and security.
There are two reasons for this. Either the ANC leadership has lost track of what their revolution was all about, or they never intended to build a lasting democratic state in the first place. Given that the early leaders of the ANC were schooled by radical Swedish socialists like Olof Palme and Pierre Schori, it is entirely possible that the organization has always viewed parliamentary democracy as a shell game. But regardless of whether authoritarianism has always been their intention or if it is the result of power intoxication over the past two decades, the desire of the ANC leadership to continue to lead, at increasing cost, is now on full display.
By prioritizing enforcement against desperate protesters over empowerment of the desperately poor, the ANC regime is choosing power over democracy.
Clark and Dugard ask why the ANC government is so much more preoccupied “with crowd control” than with increasingly urgent socio-economic problems:
The answer seems to emerge from the protests themselves. Since 2004, and gaining momentum over the past few years, there has been a huge surge in the number of popular protests that occur in poor communities, causing some commentators to suggest that SA is facing a mushrooming rebellion. While undoubtedly related to socioeconomic conditions such as chronic unemployment and inequality, and often referred to as being about “service delivery”, the protests are also about poor communities’ desires to meaningfully participate and influence the decisions that affect their daily lives: protests signal communities’ frustration with being excluded from decision-making processes by officials who either fail to engage with them or unilaterally convey government decisions that have already been taken on their behalf.
As I explained in August last year, there is no doubt whatsoever that the ANC government is turning a blind eye to South Africa’s mounting problems with poverty, unemployment and crime. Their lack of interest in, and inability to deal with these problems were further highlighted in the ANC’s “National Development Plan”, which could just as well have been written by a group of young teenage socialists trying to sound like they know what the world needs.
Then Clark and Dugard make a chilling observation:
With formal avenues for contest and dissent blocked off, communities resort to a more visible expression of their discontent in protest actions. Protests thus expose the failure of formal democratic processes, which may explain the government’s profound discomfort in responding to public gatherings. Indeed, it seems it is the visible dissent and not necessarily the threat of violence that has spurred the government towards this repressive stance.
This could have been written during the Apartheid regime, which raises the question how far it is from Sharpeville to Marikana. The comparison is admittedly a bit provocative, but there is no doubt that the ANC government is on a sliding scale from the moral high ground it held in 1994 into the muddy waters of corruption and authoritarianism.
[The] protests represent an increasingly visible failure on the part of the government to advance an inclusive democracy. The state’s response is to attempt to suppress the rising tide of dissatisfaction by repressive means if necessary. This is apparent in the conduct of the police at public gatherings. … as any community attempting to protest will attest, in case after case, the authorities unreasonably delay processes and the police regularly label ensuing protests “illegal”, using this terminology to unlawfully disperse legitimate protests or intimidate and threaten demonstrators. The police have also been criticised for their increased brutality and heavy-handedness. This ruthless attitude was recently highlighted in the shocking video footage of a taxi driver … who was viciously assaulted by police and dragged behind a police vehicle. The taxi driver later died, while being held in police custody. This incident speaks to a culture of violence that is being left unchecked.
One might also ask if there is a re-emerging culture of violence, one that the ANC is fostering because its leadership feels its grip on power over the past 19 years may not last forever. While formally, by the letter of the law, maintaining that life as the South Africans have known it for two decades is unchanged, they can easily make de facto changes to how they treat people.
Most governments with an authoritarian slant enter the ugly shadow world of totalitarianism in this very way. It does not take a violent overthrow of democracy and freedom. All it takes is the intoxication of power and the addiction to ruling, and leaders who came into office on high moral credentials will descend to just another power grabber. As the protests emerge, what better way to close the ranks than to command a sizable police force?
Or, as Clark and Dugard put it…
…mere tolerance of such unchecked violence indirectly serves to undermine dissent. At protests, police often use teargas, rubber bullets and even live ammunition for crowd management. … This reactionary violence is then employed by the police to justify the use of excessive force. The same criticism can be launched at the criminal justice system in general, where the arrest, detention and prosecution of demonstrators occurs regularly, often on trumped-up charges, in an attempt to intimidate, threaten or destabilise community-based movements. These actions are generally targeted at community activists who are depicted as “troublemakers” and “criminals”.
This is to a large degree how Hugo Chavez turned Venezuela from a functioning parliamentary democracy into his own totalitarian backyard empire. And just like he dismissed protesters and legitimate questions regarding his way of governing…
…labelling allows the government to disregard underlying concerns instead of meaningfully engaging with the protesters and incorporating these concerns into formal democratic processes.
This is a divisive form of governing. Political leaders choose to use it not because they are unaware of its consequences, but because they have an interest in a confrontational form of government. The similarities between the ANC regime, the “bolivarians” in Venezuela and other socialist authoritarians, like Cristina Kirchner in Argentina and to some degree president Obama, are centered around precisely that: confrontation instead of cooperation, personal attacks and labeling of political opponents even at the expense of the democratic process of government.
Any politician who governs divisively instead of inclusively reveals his or her true colors: that person has no true interest in allowing the will of the people to lead the country into the future.
Clark and Dugard say it well:
With each new protest, the government’s failure to meaningfully include the majority of South Africans in the benefits of our democracy is more evident. However, instead of recognising our failures and encouraging participation at the formal and informal levels, the government appears to be going all out to clamp down on protests and suppress growing popular dissent. This is a very worrying trend that should concern us all.
Let us hope South Africa can save its democracy. And let us keep the words of these two thoughtful researchers in mind. Their analysis of what the ANC is up to has much broader application than to just their country.
Enjoy the first issue of the Quo Vadis Essay Magazine. This issue has one essay – it is about the concept of the individual and it is definitely worth reading! Over time the content will grow richer.
In the wake of the horrific shooting at a school in Connecticut, people are already crying for stricter gun laws in America. There are even legislators who say government should “exploit” this so called opportunity to seize guns from law-abiding citizens.
I am not a constitutional scholar, but I seriously doubt such an attempt would prevail in the Supreme Court. That aside, though, the focus on banning guns is very troubling. It establishes a dangerous logic for government intervention into people’s lives.
This issue is a test of leadership for our president and members of Congress. The test is about the ability to see cause and effect; to be able to separate twitter-generation punditry from solid analysis. It is easy to focus all attention on the guns and wish for them all to go away. But this simplistic approach will do irreparable harm – without doing anything about the problem it is designed to address.
Such a ban would have two serious consequences. The first has to do with the status of the individual citizen vs. government. By seizing guns from law-abiding citizens in response to the acts of a mad man, government will reduce the individual citizen from a sovereign agent and member of society to a subject of government. The individual is no longer considered able to separate right from wrong and therefore will be trusted with fewer and fewer responsibilities.
At some point, such a demotion of the individual leads to the rise of an authoritarian government, a government that in itself is no longer capable of telling right from wrong.
The second consequence is moral equvalency. The irresponsible acts of a mad man are elevated to the same moral level as the responsible acts of law-abiding citizens. Government thus declares that each and every citizen is a potential mad man, but it also states that there is no real reward for acting responsibly. If your neighbor cannot use his gun properly, you are being punished for his behavior. If you are going to be punished for other people’s actions, then what is your incentive to live within the framework of the law in the future?
It is not hard to see the broader consequences of ban-gun logic. If a madman’s abuse of a handgun renders my law-abiding, gun-owning friend an illegitimate gun owner, then what happens after a lethal DUI accident? By logical consequence, the deaths caused by a drunk man driving down the wrong side of the interstate should preclude every member of Congress – and every other American – from owning a car.
We don’t even have to go that far. Consider the application of the “ban gun” logic to a car accident in Ontario County, NY in June 2007. Five 17-18-year-old girls die in a gut-wrenching accident when their SUV collides with a tractor trailer and bursts into flames. Investigators determined that the crash was caused by cell phone use: the driver lost control of the vehicles because she was text messaging while driving.
If we ban responsible citizens from owning guns because of the acts of a mad man in Connecticut, then we should also ban responsible citizens from owning cell phones because of the acts of this young woman. The DUI analogy is relevant for another reason than to simply display the consequences of the ban-gun argument. It is already illegal in every state in America to drink and drive. We have outlawed drunk driving, and still up to 17,000 people die each year in alcohol-related accidents. By the same token, it is illegal to commit murder.
Evidently, making drunk driving illegal has not worked – just as making murder illegal does not stop a mad man from killing.
If the inability of the ban on murder to stop murder leads the ban-gun activist to advocate a total ban on guns, then that ban-gun activist must also support a ban on cars because DUI laws do not stop people from driving drunk.
It has been estimated that the Columbine High shooters broke some 20 gun laws. Would 25 laws have stopped them? 40 laws?
While tempting to some, a ban on motor vehicles to fight drunk driving would be considered an extreme measure by the vast majority of Americans. The reason is of course that the vast majority of Americans do not drive drunk, nor do they use their motor vehicles irresponsibly in any other way. I am sure the ban-gun activists are willing to admit as much.
It is only logical that they also concede that the vast majority of Americans do not abuse their handguns and therefore should be allowed to keep them.
Instead of focusing on the instrument of evil, we should focus on evil itself. How we do that is a matter for another, coming article. For now, here is a list (incomplete for lack of time) of mass shootings that took place in countries with tighter, in some cases much tighter gun laws than any state in America:
1994, Aarhus University, Denmark. A student goes on a shooting spree in a cafeteria. He manages to shoot four people, two fatally, with an illegal shotgun.
1994, Stureplan Plaza, Stockholm, Sweden. A man is denied entrance to a bar, goes home, retrieves an illegal assault rifle, comes back and guns down 24 people. Four die, many others are seriously wounded.
1994, Falun, Sweden. A military officer uses his service weapon, an AK-5 assault rifle, to shoot eight people in downtown Falun. Seven of the victims die.
1996, Dunblane, Scotland. A former scout leader shoots 17 people to death in a school, 16 of whom are children. This massacre happened after Britain had tightened its gun laws in response to the 1987 Hungerford massacre.
2002, Erfurt, Germany. An expelled student returns to his former school and starts killing teachers. He leaves 16 people dead, including a police officer who responded to the scene.
2006, Ermsdetten, Germany. A former student comes back to his high school, shoots five people to death and leaves a sixth victim wounded.
2009, Winnenden, Germany. A 17-year-old high school student goes on a shooting spree at his school, killing 15 people.
2009, Espoo, Finland. A man shoots four people to death in a shopping mall, using an illegally acquired handgun.
2010, Cumbria, England. Strict British gun laws passed after the Dunblane massacre, making it illegal for civilians to own handguns, do not stop a man from going on a shooting spree in Cumbria. After several hours, his final tally is 12 dead and 11 wounded.
2011, Liege, Belgium. A gunman, breaking Belgium’s tight gun laws, kills three and leaves dozens other wounded in a town square during Christmas shopping.
2011, Oslo, Norway. A man kills 77 people, most of them at a youth camp, using an illegally acquired firearm.
2012, Berlin, Germany. A man whose girlfriend has received an apartment eviction notice kills four people before taking his own life.
2012, Toronto, Canada. Tight Canadian gun laws did not prevent a shooter from killing one and wounding seven at the Eaton shopping mall.
2012, Toronto, Canada. A gunman leaves two dead and 23 wounded at a party in a private home in Toronto.
If someone cannot get hold of a gun and still wants to commit atrocious acts of violence, they can do what a student in Ansbach, Germany did: use Molotov cocktails and an ax. Or use a knife, as in the Osaka school massacre in Japan, which claimed eight children’s lives and left 15 other people wounded.
Knives have also been used in mass violence attacks at schools in China (the latest claiming 22 victims).
The perpetrator of the largest one-man mass murder in American history did not fire a single bullet. He used farm fertilizers to create a bomb with which he killed 168 people. Among his victims were about as many children as died in the Connecticut massacre.
The worst mass murder in U.S. history was perpetrated by a group of conspirators who used box cutters and airplanes to take three thousand lives.
Cars do not drive drunk. Knives to not stab. And guns do not kill. People do. When we realize this; when our focus is on evil itself and not on its instruments; then – but only then – can we begin the long journey toward ridding our society of senseless violence.
This is a very long article. I tried to keep it as short as possible, but the topic does not lend itself to brevity. I therefore decided to let the discussion, not the format, determine its length.
The European debt crisis has reached such proportions that it is now threatening the political stability of many EU member states. This raises the important question of what the consequences will be for Europe’s chosen form of government, the parliamentary democracy. If voters in, e.g., Greece, Spain and Italy see that their democratically elected governments are not governing based on their preferences and desires, but taking marching orders from entities outside their country, will they at some point lose faith in their democratic system?
Not much attention has been paid to this issue. That is unfortunate: based on what is happening in Europe on an almost daily basis you cannot draw any other conclusion than that there is a slowly but steadily rising threat to democracy in the very part of the world that invented it.
Not everyone is turning a blind eye to the perils associated with the debt crisis. In the German news magazine Der Spiegel, Cordt Schnibben writes a good analytical piece about how the debt crisis is eroding the status of the parliamentary system. His conclusion is wrong – he blames the creditors who lend money to governments for effectively nullifying democracy – but his route to that conclusion is filled with good observations and pertinent questions.
Since Schnibben is German, he has a very wordy writing style. Therefore, his piece has spilled out into three long sections. For the purposes of reasonable brevity we are not going to discuss them all in great length, but instead highlight some of his main findings.
Be it the United States or the European Union, most Western countries are so highly indebted today that the markets have a greater say in their policies than the people. Why are democratic countries so pathetic when it comes to managing their money sustainably?
The answer is obvious: too much government spending. But as Schnibben shows, a longer answer can sometimes be instructive and helpful. This is especially true when it comes to the relationship between government indebtedness on the one hand and freedom and democracy on the other.
On to his first part, where Schnibben paints a grim but accurate picture of a Western world deeply mired in debt:
In the midst of this confusing crisis, which has already lasted more than five years, former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt addressed the question of who had “gotten almost the entire world into so much trouble.” The longer the search for answers lasted, the more disconcerting the questions arising from the answers became. Is it possible that we are not experiencing a crisis, but rather a transformation of our economic system that feels like an unending crisis, and that waiting for it to end is hopeless? … Is it possible that financial markets will never become servants of the markets for goods again? Is it possible that Western countries can no longer get rid of their debt, because democracies can’t manage money?
The first question is of a more eclectic nature, but the question of how a democratic form of government can sustain under the heavy pressure from government debt takes us right to the frontline of the European crisis. The immediate reason for this is that all governments in the EU that are currently subjecting their citizens to harsh austerity policies are democratically elected. Large segments of the populations in austerity-hit countries are vehemently opposed to those policy measures. The tougher government gets on entitlements, the more serious the hardship that people suffer through. As their lives get tougher, people alienate themselves from their elected officials whose policies inflict that hardship.
So long as the only ones suffering are the poor and needy, a cynical observer could make the point that there won’t be enough voters around to vote for totalitarian alternatives to the democratic form of government. But I have never been a fan of political cynicism, and I also want to point out that the current austerity measures in Europe are eating their way into deeper layers of the population. Austerity is now entering the living rooms of the middle class.
Europe is not yet turning its back on democracy, but there are enough signs across the continent for everyone to be concerned.
It is important to keep in mind, though, that government indebtedness is not just a problem for democratic governments in Europe. We here in the United States are very wise to pay attention, in part because we are vulnerable to the same socio-economic mechanics as Europe, and in part because our culture of borrowing to pay for government entitlements is at least as old as it is in Europe. Schnibben again:
Until 1971, gold was the benchmark of the US dollar, with one ounce of pure gold corresponding to $35, and the dollar was the fixed benchmark of all Western currencies. But when the United States began to need more and more dollars for the Vietnam War, and the global economy grew so quickly that using gold as a benchmark became a constraint, countries abandoned the system of fixed exchange rates.
It is correct that the U.S. borrowing during the Vietnam War era was the beginning of the end of the Bretton Woods system of fixed international exchange rates. However, it is an irresponsible over-simplification to say that the deficits were driven by the war in Vietnam. During that same period of time the federal government created or significantly expanded a number of entitlement programs, the foremost among them being Medicaid and Medicare.
The emergence and expansion of the American welfare state is a key explanatory factor behind our persistent deficits. The Vietnam War ended in 1974, but the federal deficit prevailed.
Back to Schnibben, who makes an interesting point about financial-market deregulation and the proliferation of deficits in welfare-state budgets across the Western world. We need to examine this point in order to move on to the issue of whether or not democracy is threatened by the debt crisis:
A new phase of the global economy began, and two processes were set in motion: the liberation of the financial markets from limited money supplies, which was mostly beneficial; and the liberation of countries from limited revenues, which was mostly detrimental. This money bubble continued to inflate for four decades, as central banks were able to create money out of thin air, banks were able to provide seemingly unlimited credit, and consumers and governments were able to go into debt without restraint.
Not without restraint. The only reason why banks will ever lend money to private citizens with sub-prime credit is that governments create artificial conditions on the credit market. If banks do not have to accurately assess the credit risk of a sub-prime borrower, then obviously it will be more inclined to lend on that market than if free-market conditions prevailed.
The same goes for governments. They don’t borrow because there is easy credit available. They borrow because they have come up with a reason to spend money.
There is, however, an important element in Schnibben’s argument, namely the parallel between private and public debt. It is true that private debt ratios have grown by unhealthy numbers over the past few decades, but so has the cost of government. Taxes in the Western World are higher today than ever before, and the trend of rising tax ratios – taxes as share of private earnings – began about three decades ago. That was the point in time when government spending in many welfare states had grown past the magic 40-percent of GDP mark.
Beyond that point, it becomes too costly for the private sector to absorb and adapt to the costs of government. Instead they simply choose to go into long-term decline. This affects GDP growth over time, which in turn leads to an erosion, in relative terms, of the tax base. Government spending, on the other hand, continues to grow as per the preferences of our elected officials.
As a result, we see persistent deficit problems in every welfare state. This in turn motivates government borrowing and a monetization of the deficits. Hence the point Schnibben makes. But it is also important to note that higher taxes make it increasingly difficult for middle-class families to finance a house, a car, even furniture, appliances or other long-term items. Germany is one example of what this can lead to; the Spanish mortgage crisis is another example.
Schnibben then goes on to his second part and addresses the consequences this debt accumulation has for democratic government:
The one sovereign stalks the other, while the pressure of the markets contends with the pressure of the street. In Europe, in particular, this has become an unequal battle. Since Jan. 14, 2009, when Standard & Poor’s downgraded Greek government bonds, the markets have determined the direction and pace of European integration. They want bigger and bigger bailout funds, they want to safeguard their claims, they want a European Central Bank that buys up government bonds indefinitely, they want slashed government budgets, they want labor market reforms like the ones in Germany, they want wage cuts such as those in Germany and, at the same time, they want these incapacitated countries mired in recession to offer the prospect of healthy growth.
This is where Schnibben goes wrong. He gives the impression that the credit rating institutes somehow dictate the economic policies of heavily indebted European countries. That is not true: the governments in Greece, Italy and Spain are bound to the last euro they spend by dictates or nosy oversight powers from the EU, the ECB and the IMF. The Italian prime minister is not even elected by the Italian people – he is a bureaucrat appointed by the three aforementioned organizations.
The Greek austerity programs that have decimated the economy over the past three years were not forced upon Greece by Standard & Poor; they were put in place by the European Union in exchange for loans that provided fiscal life support for the government.
Schnibben implies that the credit rating institutes have replaced the legislative part of government in indebted countries. But credit rating institutes only respond to how countries handle their debt. It is not their fault that Greece has accumulated a debt and thereby has made itself a ward of the EU. If anyone outside of Greece has taken over that country, it is the eurocracy in Brussels.
Despite missing this point, Schnibben correctly argues that the indebtedness of Europe’s governments reinforces the mistrust that has already created a rift between European institutions and national governments, and between national governments and their voters. He then makes an interesting and provocative observation:
The democratic decision-making process reaches its limits in this fundamental crisis, but even in the decades when debt was being accumulated, it was clear that democracies have a troubled relationship with money. There was always justification for new debt. The catchphrases included things like more jobs, better education and social equality, and the next election was always around the corner. Debt was justified at the communal level to expand bus service or build playgrounds, at the state level to hire more teachers or build bypasses and, at the federal level, to buy tanks and fund economic stimulus programs.
This problem has been exacerbated by the expansion of entitlement programs that make endless commitments of cash or in-kind services to “entitled” citizens. These programs reached their full “maturity” in the ’70s and came with tax increases. Those increases in turn caused a permanent slowdown in GDP growth all across Europe. (The United States did not reach this point until after the Millennium recession.) As a result the tax base eroded and Europe’s welfare states found themselves dealing with perpetual budget-balancing problems.
What to do? Politicians who had created the welfare state ruled out spending cuts. That of course did not solve the problem: tax revenue shortfalls despite record-high taxes led governments into accumulating debt.
Schnibben misses out on this aspect, but his point about a long-term trend in debt is nevertheless valid. Then he reaches one of the most provocative parts of his analysis:
A closer look at which countries acquire and pay off debt, and to what degree, reveals unsettling correlations: The more often governments change and the more pluralistic they are, the faster the debt increases and the more difficult it becomes to pay if off. The more democracy, the looser the money.
Apparently, once again mankind has proven that when people can vote themselves free money, they’ll do it…
Just to drive home the point about how difficult it is to rein in this kind of structural deficit, Schnibben explains:
To hold an administration responsible for the debts of its predecessors, there are debt limits in democracies. In Helmut Schmidt’s day, for example, there was a provision in the German constitution stipulating that total debt could not exceed total investment. In Europe, the provisions of the Maastricht Treaty, which is aimed at ensuring the stability of the common currency, limit the amount of debt a government can accumulate to no more than 60 percent of gross domestic product. So far, such debt limits have never worked in any country.
In addition to the problem with the ideologically driven welfare state, there is also a problem of a cultural shift. Before the welfare state people defined progress as them being able to make more money, expand their business, climb up the career ladder or in other ways bettering their own lives – based on their own work. By contrast, under the welfare state progress becomes associated with more spending on entitlements.
Living off someone else’s money becomes part of the culture. When you run out of that someone else’s tax money you borrow to keep “improving” and making “economic progress”.
This cultural shift from self determination under a limited government to self subjugation under a welfare state has been hard to grasp for Americans, but the 2012 election probably provided a glimpse of what this means in reality. This new culture has almost become part of the European genome, and once our welfare state has reached European proportions we will inevitably experience the same type of cultural metamorphosis. (This is why we need to end the welfare state, not just rein it in.)
Since entitlement spending almost by definition grows faster than tax revenues, this cultural shift reinforces a trend of perennial budget deficits. As Schnibben explained, that trend is strong enough to blow right through any legislatively imposed debt limit.
So where do we go now? Do we sacrifice democracy, acknowledging that it does not work because people will always vote themselves a slice of someone else’s pie? Schnibben draws his conclusions in the third part, but unfortunately he goes really wrong. Asking three questions, he turns on capitalism and the free-market economy:
First, how can a debt-ridden economy grow if a large part of demand in the past was based on debt, which is now to be reduced?
This is fairly simple. Structurally reform away the welfare state, cut taxes proportionately to each reform and restore the self-determining individual that was the foundation of the economic success of Western Civilization.
Schnibben’s second question:
The second major problem of modern capitalism is this: How can the unleashed financial markets be reined in again, and how should the G-20 countries come up with joint rules for major banks, which are their financiers and creditors, and for markets, which punish and reward these countries through interest? How much freedom do financial markets need to serve the global economy as a lubricant, and what limits do they need so that banks, shadow banks and hedge funds do not become a threat to the system?
Once again: the current crisis was not caused by banks. It was caused by:
a) Entitlement-minded politicians in America who thought that it was everyone’s right to own a home, who therefore took over most of the mortgage market in order to incentivize, encourage, strong-arm or force banks into giving loans to people with as low a credit score as 480;
b) Likeminded politicians in Europe, primarily Spain, who wanted to make sure that people who made less than $19,000 per year could get a mortgage loan; and last but absolutely not least,
c) Spending-addicted politicians whose relentless expansion of the welfare state has created fiscally unsupportable entitlement programs.
When welfare states cause budget deficits, governments issue treasury bonds. Up until a couple of years ago such bonds from Western countries were considered iron-clad investments. As a result, lenders asked for very low interest rates.
Today, we know that welfare states can default on their loans – it is called “debt restructuring” or something similarly fanciful, but it is always, at the end of the day, a partial default where lenders are forced to forgive part of the loans. This has of course led lenders to demand higher interest rates, for the very same reason as someone with excellent credit gets a lower interest rate than someone with a fair credit rating.
This simple fact is hard for many analysts, talking heads, politicians and other pundits to grasp. Perhaps it is easier for them to do so if they ask themselves: would I rather lend $100 to my hard-working, always-reliable brother, or to my other brother who drinks, can’t hold a job and always has a stupid story to tell to explain why he needs to borrow from you?
Bottom line: banks were roped into the current crisis by lending to private citizens based on artificial credit market conditions, and by lending to governments that had promised more spending than they could ever earn from taxpayers. Their crisis is a symptom, not a cause, of the real crisis.
Schnibben’s third question reinforces the impression that he is not entirely clear as to what has caused the debt crisis:
Third, how do governments mediate between the power of the two sovereigns, how do they reestablish the primacy of citizens over creditors, and how does democracy function in debt-ridden countries?
End the welfare state. That is the only way for the Western world to avoid going over the fiscal cliff.
Again, Schnibben makes a good point that democracy is in danger in countries that are about to default, or already have defaulted, on some of their debt. But the threat does not come from credit rating institutes or banks – it comes from people whose lives are being destroyed by austerity. They lose faith in democratic government because the democratic government is the one subjecting them to hardship.
It would be a terrible mistake – a fateful one in fact – if the West decided to try to get out of its crisis by crippling capitalism and the free market even more than is already the case. The welfare state cannot live without a functioning free-market economy.
On the other hand, the free-market economy can live without the welfare state.
The welfare-state crisis that is ravaging Greece, Spain and other European countries is rocking the foundations of the very European Union itself. It is hardly a secret that four in ten Greek voters last June cast their votes on parties that are more or less openly against the EU. It only takes a minor shift in the balance of public opinion to put a constellation of those parties in a majority position in the Greek parliament.
Similarly Euroskeptic voices are being heard in Spain, though more indirectly in the form of separatism directed against the Spanish nation itself. But nowhere is the criticism of the EU stronger than in the European Parliament when British parliament member Nigel Farage, chairman of the United Kingdom Independence Party, sounds off.
There clearly are reasons for Europeans to be skeptical, even harshly critical, of the EU. The Union is run by non-elected bureaucrats and suffers from a heavy democratic deficit. It forces regulations and other policy instruments on member states without giving those states a proper chance to voice their opinion. But the most destructive element of the EU is that it forces member states with large budget deficits into one destructive austerity policy package after another.
The anti-EU sentiments are now at such a height that EU proponents are getting really worried. For example, two representatives of the Union of European Federalists (UEF) are voicing great concern in an articl on EurActiv.com. The UEF is an old organization of politicians and others who strongly support European integration. Nothing wrong in that per se, but their defense of the current EU structure, which is far from federal in nature, is worrisome.
Marko Bucik is a foreign affairs writer and former UEF board member, and Nikos Lampropoulos is a current UEF board member.
In a typically restrained European way, Bucik and Lampropoulos express great worries about where the EU is heading under the pressure from its increasingly strong critics:
The EU has undoubtedly gone through tumultuous times over the last three years. Because of an unprecedented economic crisis, its leaders have been challenged both by stabilising their own economies, as well as by assisting those states facing financial collapse. … Most importantly, the EU has so far held together. Despite often justified criticism, it managed to pull together a level of solidarity among member states that has ensured no country has been left behind.
It is unclear what they mean by “left behind”. Greece is going through a full-scale economic collapse, with five straight years of shrinking GDP, rapidly deteriorating public-sector services and unemployment numbers at explosive levels.
By all reasonable measures, Greece is being left behind – and it is being left behind by economic policies dictated to it by the EU.
Back to our two European federalists:
However, behind this headlines summary, we can observe with increased concern that little attention is paid to a more fundamental shift within the EU. The once-benevolent supranational integration that regulated free trade, consumer rights and abolished borders among European states, has over the last three years acquired significant new powers that impact the very essence of the functioning of the welfare state. The Euro Plus Pact, the Fiscal Treaty and the new set of legislative measures to strengthen economic governance are all extending EU’s powers into areas that have been traditionally under national democratic control. Most EU observers will probably agree that these measures are necessary elements of a proper economic union.
Right here, if you are a federalist, you would unequivocally criticize these new powers. What is happening in the EU is not an evolution in the direction of a federation – if so the EU powers would be limited and enumerated – but instead a trend toward an ever stronger European nation state.
This point escapes Bucik and Lampropoulos:
So do we.
Why? They never explain. Instead they pay lip service to the EU’s democratic deficit, which, they acknowledge…
…is set to grow and further undermine the diminishing legitimacy the EU has among its citizens.
Then they turn the entire current EU debate into one about packaging. It is a matter of giving EU residents an idea that they somehow have some sort of democratic influence over their own lives:
The extended powers and the increasingly ideological nature of the EU need popular legitimisation in one form or another.In fact, the already existing lack of legitimacy is the main reason why national leaders have had such a tough time arguing for solidarity in the face of a crisis. For short-term political expediency, they have for years blamed Brussels for unpopular decisions, instead of honestly talk about why certain decisions have been necessary. Such narratives, bundled with some ignored referendum results, have over time led to EU being progressively seen as an elitist project run by unelected bureaucrats.
But they stop short of admitting that the EU is progressively elitist and run by unelected bureaucrats.
Euroscepticism is now not only an exotic part of British politics, but a widespread political trend. And the national leaders’ own narrative is coming back to hunt them. In the long run, establishing a genuine dialogue about what the EU is and what it does is essential to prevent the inevitable from happening: the hardening of stereotypes, euroscepticism and resistance to needed steps towards greater integration. … the more important question is whether the EU will come out of the crisis more democratic and empowered with greater popular legitimacy or less democratic and with popular support at historically low levels. If the leaders’ answer to the crisis is further integration in the form of a banking and fiscal union, it must come along with a political union where accountability is the rule, not the exception.
That would take separation of powers between the member states and the EU; it would take open and direct elections of a legislature and an executive office similar to the American presidency; it would take a three-fold separation of powers with an independent judiciary; and, most important of all, it would necessitate explicit and iron-clad limitations of EU powers.
None of this appears conceivable to our two federalists, for understandable reasons. Any such move in the direction of an American federation would strengthen the member states and, most important of all, give the European people full control over who they are being governed by.
Such a federal is beyond the realm of imagination to EU proponents. They are completely stuck in their nation-state way of thinking that all they can discuss is how to sell the “necessary” expansion of EU powers to the uninformed half-a-billion people whose lives are being subjected to those powers.
We certainly have our problems here in America, especially with the re-election of Obama. But our constitution is stronger than it might seem, and there is a good chance we will come out of his second term with a renewed appreciation of our federal form of governance. The Europeans, on the other hand, are so tied by conventional thinking to the nation-state’s monolithic form of government that the only way the EU can progress from here is in the direction of more authoritarianism. This only reinforces the points made by such prominent EU critics as Nigel Farage.
But it also means that if the critics lose, the EU will eventually destroy democracy – on the very continent that invented the concept of accountable government.
The most important invention in the history of Western Civilization is: the individual.
Everything that makes the Western project unique; everything that elevates us above other civilizations in human history; is attributable to the invention of the individual.
Up until the late Middle Ages, the understanding of the individual as a unique entity was limited to isolated parts of ancient Greece. The clash between Socrates and his political environment was in part caused by his attempts at being an individual in the fullest sense of the word. The Greek society, however, was not built around the concept of the individual.
It was not until the 13th century that Italian philosophers began pursuing a line of thinking that eventually led them to “the individual”. In the introduction to The Renaissance Philosophy of Man, an excellent collection of essays, Renaissance scholar Paul Oskar Kristeller explains how philosophers at Italian academies at the time questioned the established notion that every individual is just a part of a big lump of “matter”. This lump, said the prevailing Aristotelian philosophy of the time, was God’s creation and each one of us was only borrowing our existence – our body and intellect – from this big lump. After death we all returned to the lump and were molded in to it.
Any trace of our individuality would vanish, it was said, and therefore our individual existence was merely a transition between two stages of being “lumped together”.
Early humanists began questioning this theorem and developed a partly new view of what God’s creation looked like. Their path breaking notion was that the soul – the personality and the intellect of a human being – does not at all vanish into some collective entity after death of the body. Quite the contrary, the humanists claimed, the soul is immortal and lives on, carrying with it our individual uniqueness. (See Kristeller, pp. 10-12)
Why is this so important? There are two answers to this question. The first answer remains on the philosophical level and has to do with the meaning of the individual. If a soul is immortal, then he prevails beyond the temporary collectivist structures in which he lives while occupying a human body. In plain English: the individual is more important than the collective – the state in modern terms – and has the right to exist as a recognized, separate entity.
This means that the individual has rights, and that those rights are self evident and derived directly from God. There is a direct line from the humanists’ invention of the individual to the Preamble of the Constitution of the United States: the concept of the individual serves as a foundation of the boldest, most successful nation in human history.
It also means that the individual has responsibilities. From this we derive some elements in modern jurisprudence, such as the idea that every man is equal before the law. But the responsibilities also mean that an individual can now be held accountable in other ways, such as when elected to a government office. The modern forms of Western government, parliamentary democracy and constitutional republic, came about because of the discovery of the individual, his rights and his responsibilities.
In short: the philosophical reason why the invention of the individual is important is that it allowed for the conceptualization of accountable government – and limited government. Prior to the invention of the individual, virtually the only form of government that mankind knew was one that put collective above individual. There were attempts in other directions, but they never succeeded in proving themselves like modern, Western forms of government have.
The second answer to the question why this invention matters has to do with the economy. Once the individual was invented, it would not be long before the modern concept of property rights and contractual freedom were established. Especially the Lockean formulation of property rights made an enormous difference here: the individual, unique as he is, has the right to distinguish the proceeds of his own labor from other matter. If Joe plows an acre of land that no one has ever plowed before him, he becomes the owner of that land and has the right to dispose of it as he sees fit. No one else can come and claim that acre as his property, unless Joe voluntarily transfers the property right.
And so, the modern, free-market economy was born.
The rest is history.
America is the first nation in history to be constructed around the concept of the individual. Over time we have allowed this concept to be contaminated – in a philosophical sense – by collectivist ideas. That contamination, however, is not lethal - not yet. We can still restore America to what she was meant to be. But in order to do so we need to understand, in a profound sense, where we came from and what brought us to where we are today.
That soul-searching begins with the recognition that the individual is the most important invention in the history of Western Civilization.
While most of America is focused on summarizing the GOP convention and getting ready for the Democrat circus to move in to Charlotte, NC, other, more fundamental questions are looming in the background. The crisis in Europe is of a dimension that the democratic system of government itself is in danger. Back in June, four out of ten voters in Greece backed parties with an authoritarian ideology – they view the democratic society as merely an instrument toward a higher ideological goal – or with outright totalitarian principles. The latter breed of political parties is the most dangerous of all, obviously: if they were in power they would not even try to use the democratic form of government. They would abolish it. This opens frightening perspectives for the future. There is a theoretical possibility that, for the first time since the 1970s, Western European countries could be ruled by non-democratic regimes.
Since the fall of the Greek, Portuguese and Spanish military dictatorships some 35 years ago, there has been an overwhelming consensus in Western Europe about the superiority of parliamentary democracy. When the Berlin Wall finally came down, Eastern Europe embraced this widely spread way of governing a nation state.
For good reasons, obviously. The only form of government that is preferable to parliamentary democracy is our American constitutional republic. But in the face of the enormous economic crisis in Greece, a large number of voters turned to parties who are willing to part with democracy. How is this possible?
To find an answer, let’s go to South Africa. This nation has an even shorter history of uninterrupted parliamentary democracy than Greece – 18 years, or roughly half of what Greece has been blessed with since its military rule ended. South Africa is mired in social and economic problems at a level that to some degree matches the Greek crisis – and in some ways exceed it in severity.
Mark Barnes, columnist with Business Day, has some thoughtful reflections on democracy in a country that has some of the highest rates of corruption, crime and poverty in the free world:
On Sunday, I was in an old South African situation discussing the new South Africa’s challenges. I was driving with Elias, a black man. We were talking about Marikana and water supply and … you know, our stuff. He identified the root of the problem as the inability of a revolutionary movement to transform into a government. He asked what I thought; I wanted to know what he thought. Then he said: “Why don’t we try going back to apartheid?” I was taken aback, to say the least. I said he was mad, and we both had a good laugh — relieved, I guess, that there was no possibility of us going back there.
There is one side to this rhetorical question that we should not dismiss with a nervous laughter. Putting all other aspects of Apartheid aside, pre-democracy South Africa had one thing going for it: it was a stable, predictable economic environment. Even for those who do not have access to power, it can be preferable to live in a predictable, stable everyday environment, if the choice is to be allowed to cast your vote but not be able to secure your property, even your own life, as you go about your daily business.
This, of course, does not mean that tyranny has anything to offer that democracy cannot do better. But this rhetorical question about going back to Apartheid puts words on what we are willing to sacrifice for the individual freedom that comes with a parliamentary democracy. This is the exact same question that Greek voters asked themselves when they voted for neo-Nazis or Hugo Chavez-style communists.
That is not to say that the black man in Mr. Barnes’s story actually would vote for Apartheid if given the chance. But the rhetorical question is in itself a way to play with a thought that otherwise would be political taboo.
Back to Mr. Barnes’s column:
So, what did I suggest? The popular choice is not always right. Democracy can result in the most ambitious, misguided psycho becoming the leader (no names, but you know they’re out there). In a moment of anger or as an act of protest, the populace can elect a leader and see to its own demise.
Can you say Obama?
Mr. Barnes then goes on to ask how we can make democracy fool-proof. His answer, which has a slight touch of tongue-in-cheek to it, is actually a more profound challenge to the conventional wisdom that parliamentary democracy (or, by consequence, the constitutional republic) always leads to better results than any other form of government:
That is the fundamental flaw of democracy. What about a kind of voting licence, with a points system? At birth, your identity number includes four digits that determine your voting power. Everyone starts with 1,000. Then you get merits and demerits: • Education: you get 10 points for every grade you pass at school, with bonus points for leadership roles (captain of the tennis team, or prefect). More points are awarded for all forms of tertiary education or skills accumulation, with bonus points for nurses, teachers and police officers (public service professions).
Obviously, he goes overboard here. If public employees have more of a say in the size of government than private-sector employees, then our road to big government is wide open. Somewhere he knows that his list of merits and de-merits is just a playful way of asking a serious question:
Of course we can’t do this in real life — how would we work out the price per point on the “informal” market? But if we all started behaving as if we could, we may just elect a leader who will help us find that rainbow. We have to.
The rainbow being the promise of a better South Africa after Apartheid. But beyond that, his fundamental question is really about two things: that democracy requires more civic skills of all citizens than tyranny; and that democracy can lead to its own demise.
Basically, these two issues are two sides of the same coin. The problem is well illustrated in the struggle for the future in Greece. Greek voters have used their one-man-one-vote power to create a welfare state that is now sinking the country into economic ruin. It is easy to make the argument that voters in Greece were uneducated about the macroeconomic ramifications of their own decisions. Now that voters see how the welfare state is in trouble and they see the contours of a difficult choice down the road between the welfare and parliamentary democracy, they have expressed a preference for the welfare state.
Since it was democracy that led to the welfare state, then should a majority of voters choose totalitarianism at some point, democracy will de facto be responsible for its own demise.
In the case of South Africa, voters are struggling with the fact that they have elected massively corrupt, and tragically inept, leaders. They are asking themselves if democracy is worth the levels of crime and economic hardship they are faced with. In both countries, democracy has been a culprit in a deterioration process that is now threatening democracy itself.
Is there an antidote that can save democracy from destroying itself? Yes, there is. But that is a question we will have to return to.
Those of you (very few I suspect…) who heard me guest hosting Across America on Saturday, on KGAB AM650 or at kgab.com, heard me say that I do not believe that our constitution protects economic freedom to the level we need. I did this based on my analysis of the Supreme Court’s Obamacare decision, where I said that:
a) The Supreme Court, being the highest authority on the constitutionality of law, did its job;
b) Our constitution, as brilliant a document as it is, does not adequately protect us against the welfare state.
Obamacare is part of the expansion of the welfare state in America. The welfare state, in turn, is one big, organized and ideologically driven invasion of our economic freedom. Our Founding Fathers did not see the welfare state coming, for a very simple and obvious reason: the welfare state was not invented until about a century after the constitution was written. It was impossible for the Founding Fathers to conceptualize it, let alone understand it to the level where they could put a protection against it into the constitution.
Fortunately, we can correct this. The Founding Fathers were intelligent enough to realize their own shortcomings: they knew that as smart as they were, they could not design an absolutely perfect constitution. Therefore, they gave us the opportunity to amend it.
Which we may have to do now, to protect our economic freedom.
I am no big fan of amending the constitution, and I know it is not an easy thing to do. That’s good – the fact that we have only made 27 amendments so far is a tribute to the respect we show the constitution as a founding document of our republic. But we should also recognize that there is a strong, and still growing, dissatisfaction among the American people over how government continues to grow out of control – and how there does not seem to be any constitutional barrier in the way of that growing government. The expectations were high that the Supreme Court would stop the growth of the federal government with Obamacare – and the constitution failed to live up to those expectations.
Hence the idea of an economic freedom amendment.
Obviously, there is a lot of work to be done to shape this amendment in a way that is legally workable, but even more importantly so economically workable. To make the latter happen we need to make sure that the definition of economic freedom that goes in to the amendment is a scholarly sound and economically solid one. There are examples of attempts at amending state constitutions to protect some aspect of economic freedom, but they all tend to fall short in one critical aspect: they rely on very narrow, sometimes outright misconstrued definitions of economic freedom.
It is difficult to explain all aspects of a scholarly definition of economic freedom in one blog article. (See this paper for an example of such a definition.) However, there are two basic features that we can use as starting points for a discussion about how to design an economic freedom amendment:
1. Economic and individual freedom. A free individual engages in economic activity by exchanging voluntarily with other free individuals; whatever we gain from voluntary exchange is gained under economic freedom. Therefore, economic freedom is as sacrosanct to a free society as individual freedom.
2. Property and justice. A society is morally just when its individual members – private citizens – have the full and unabridged right to their own property. Property, in turn, is what we have acquired through voluntary exchange with other free individuals.
It follows from these two features of economic freedom that a private citizen has the right to every penny he makes by selling his labor, leasing his capital (investing in the stock market, leasing property, lending money, etc) or gets in the form of gifts (inheritance, voluntary donations, charitable giving, etc). No one else can make a claim to any part of his earnings. This ban on such claims includes taxes. All taxes; even a sales tax would take a way money that we have rightfully earned.
It also follows that no one can take Jack’s money and give it to Jill. In other words, we have now effectively killed off every entitlement program ever created by government.
But we are left with a problem. If we ban taxes absolutely, down to the last penny, then it becomes difficult to fund a government that protects our lives, our liberty and our property. Without such a government it is difficult to claim that we live in a society defined by the rule of law. Thus, we need a minimal tax to pay for a minimal government.
At the same time, if we relax the ban on taxes, we once again open the same can of worms that has taxed us up to the big government we have now. So instead of a complete ban on taxes, let’s put the ban where government starts growing endlessly: economic redistribution.
What makes the welfare state so dangerous to economic freedom is that it is built on the premise of redistributing income and wealth between private citizens. This creates an ever growing cadre of government dependents who falsely believe that without getting a handout from government they would not be able to survive. This drives the continuation – and expansion – of government programs such as the welfare acronym trio SNAP-WIC-TANF, but also programs that are less often recognized as being redistributive, such as Medicaid and public education.
Once government starts redistributing income and wealth, whether in the form of cash handouts or in-kind services, there is no moral end, as far as statists are concerned, to how big government can get. That is why government keeps growing here in America.
If the constitution would ban the use of tax revenues for the purposes of redistribution between private citizens, then it would make government programs such as the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional. It would also, over night, make unconstitutional virtually every other non-defense and non-law enforcement program that the federal government has. (It is a bit unclear if Social Security would survive.)
Since redistribution of economic resources is the very essence of the welfare state, a constitutional ban on tax-paid economic redistribution would permanently shield us from the welfare state. By making the welfare state unconstitutional, this economic freedom amendment would also guarantee that government taxation would be limited to the small spending needed to maintain the rule of law and the safety and security of the United States from foreign threats. By a ballpark, this would limit all taxes – federal, state and local – to approximately four percent of our GDP.
There are a lot of other questions pertaining to an economic freedom amendment that I have not addressed here. Consider this a conversation starter, though – a lot more to come!
It has been said that when a man is staring into the abyss, and there is nothing staring back, he either falls in or finds his character. That applies to nations as well. Independence Day, America’s birthday, was a good occasion for considering what that means for our great republic.
There is no doubt that we as a nation can spot an abyss ahead of us. We are not on the edge of it yet, but we are approaching it. We have let go of many of our adult responsibilities that the Founding Fathers entrusted us with. We have run up an enormous government debt; we have diluted our rights with stifling regulations that range from free speech to starting a business; we have put our armed forces to work where no work was needed, unnecessarily risking and even sacrificing American lives; we have blurred the boundaries between our three branches of government and allowed tax-paid bureaucracies to invade our checkbooks.
We have chosen short-term political gratification over long-term constitutional and economic responsibility. As a result, we have brought ourselves to the point where our children are growing up to a life no more prosperous, filled with no more opportunities, than ours.
We still have a standard of living that is the highest in the history of mankind; we still enjoy all the benefits of an advanced industrial society. But we are no longer advancing. We are no longer growing our prosperity. Our wealth trajectory is flattening.
What kind of country will our grandchildren inherit?
That question brings us to the edge of the abyss. A standard-packaged political answer to this question would be the combination of a nervous smile and some generic words about “It is all Bush’s fault” or “Obama is evil”. Either answer is guaranteed to make us take a step forward and fall into the abyss.
To find our character as a nation, we need to be bigger than that. We need to realize that the future we are facing, especially over the next couple of years, comes with more ominous threats to America than we can fit within the daily partisan bickering over who is responsible for the current economic crisis.
Don’t misunderstand me. I am not giving President Obama a pass for having mismanaged the economy. I have explained in numerous articles how and why his policies have failed. But his share of responsibility – or the share that falls on President Bush’s shoulders – is of little importance in view of what is coming down the pike.
More than finding out who is responsible for our current crisis, America needs to find leadership for the coming crisis. This is a crisis with global proportions – literally. There is growing evidence that we are heading for a perfect storm of economic uncertainty, fiscal mismanagement and political turmoil that span across several continents. To navigate through these stormy waters we need a president with exceptional leadership skills, with authority and credibility internationally – and with the understanding that his first and foremost duty at all times is to protect America.
To grasp the nature of this looming crisis, let us start in Europe. The enormous fiscal problems in Greece have been replicated by other countries, such as France, Italy and the Netherlands. The newest kid on the crisis block is Cyprus (see my analysis here; Cato scholar Dan Mitchell also has a good piece about Cyprus) which only reinforces the point made on this blog numerous times: the European welfare state is suffering from morbid fiscal obesity and there is no other way forward than to dismantle it.
However, it is going to be a long time before the Europeans come to that conclusion. Their immediate concern is to try and save their dying welfare states through yet more bailouts, a road that is rapidly coming to its end. Germany, the only country that has been able to carry Europe so far through its current crisis, is putting a big, heavy foot down. From the EU Observer:
Bavaria’s conservative leader Horst Seehofer has threatened to withdraw support for German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition if more concessions are made to ailing euro-countries. Seehofer, who chairs the Christian Social Union in Bavaria … told Stern magazine on Tuesday (3 July) that Germany’s contribution to bailouts was already “borderline”. ”The time will come when the Bavarian government and the CSU can no longer say yes. And I wouldn’t then be able to support that personally either,” he said. “And the coalition has no majority without CSU’s seats,” the party chief added. His biggest fear, he said, is that markets will soon turn to Germany and start asking if it can cope with all the rescues: “That is the point I regard as the most dangerous of all.”
In other words, the Germans are beginning to realize that their attempts to lift Europe’s fiscally obese welfare states out of the water have failed. It is now dawning on them that if they keep trying, they will in fact fall in and drown with those who can no longer rescue themselves.
What does this have to do with America finding its character? I realize that I am taking you down a long road of reasoning, but it has a profound point. Please stay with me.
Back to the Germans. The decision to pull out of the bailout programs is the only right decision they can make. They have poured billions upon billions of their taxpayers’ money into the black fiscal holes of unsustainable governments all over southern Europe. These bailouts were sold as a way to help nurture Europe’s economy back to life again, but nothing has been done about the structural causes of the fiscal problems in, primarily, Greece. The black fiscal holes remain and the Germans are getting nothing but another spending burden in return.
Obviously, if Germany refuses to go along with more bailouts, the consequences for Europe will be enormous. This does not change the fact that pulling out is the only wise thing for Germany to do. And just to emphasize how desperate Europe’s problems are, the political leaders of Germany have been trying to bend and stretch their constitution to get German taxpayers to dole out more cash to their European neighbors. As the EU Observer story explains, this is not sitting well with some Germans:
[Mr. Seehofer] also vented anger at the deal sealed last week at an EU summit, where Merkel was seen as giving in to demands from Italy and Spain on changing the rules of the yet-to-be-created permanent bailout fund to help Rome and Madrid lower their borrowing costs. ”We were debating about the stability pact in the Bundestag. And at exactly that time the government leaders of some euro countries were working to soften precisely those stability criteria. Who is supposed to understand that?” Referendum suggestions made by finance minister Wolfgang Schauble are also a no-go in Bavaria: “Hands off our constitution! We have this constitution to thank for the most stable state and the most stable democracy there has ever been in German history. We don’t want a different constitution.”
He is referring to the constitutional changes needed for Germany to deepen its commitment to bailing out other European governments – or the violation of the constitution that German politicians would have to make themselves guilty of if they want to defy the growing opposition to Europe’s welfare-state rescue plan.
That opposition is coming from other countries as well, including Finland, Estonia, Slovakia and, notably, also-troubled Netherlands. The final quote in the EU Observer article illustrates how high the tensions are across the EU:
[German Chancellor Angela] Merkel is travelling to Rome on Wednesday to meet Prime Minister Mario Monti. ”We will try to overcome opposition from countries like Finland and the Netherlands, which have a certain intolerance towards stability mechanisms,” Monti said on the eve of the talks.
This statement reflects a great deal of arrogance on behalf of the Italian prime minister. But what is so ominous is that he is far from alone in harboring such disdain for a democratic discourse. Even though the German Chancellor is trying hard not to admit it, she is also trying to get around the German democracy and domestic critics who demand that the people – or at least the constitution – have a say in how their money is being spent at the European level.
In fairness, it is to some degree understandable that some politicians are willing to compromise with, or even sacrifice, the influence of the people in order to continue the bailout efforts in Europe. They see a crisis they so far have not been able to manage and want to resort to increasingly desperate measures to find a solution. They are right, of course, in that this is indeed a serious crisis – British Member of the European Parliament Daniel Hannan calls it a looming “Eurocalypse”.
But even if we accept the premise that Europe should sacrifice its democracy to save its economy, the solution they have suggested is not going to work. More bailout funds for overspending governments will not change the fact that those governments are still overspending.
Worse still is of course the fact that in the bargain, they will destroy the very democracy they fought a war over in the 1940s. The problem is that there does not seem to be any alternative in Europe to a showdown between democracy and efforts to save the economy. The austerity efforts in Greece and other countries have already paved the way for that artificial choice: democracy and a thriving economy are not mutually exclusive.
The problem in Europe is that they are using austerity to bring spending under control, a strategy that is indeed a big failure (as predicted). Instead of straightening out the economy, the austerity policies have perpetuated the need for the very same bailout programs that are facing growing resistance across Europe. The reason for this is that the overarching political premise in Europe is precisely that: to preserve the welfare state: the European political leadership want to save the welfare state by every method conceivable – even if it means creating a conflict between the economy and democracy.
So long as saving the welfare state remains the primary goal of Europe’s political elite, the continent is going to sink further into its current economic problems.
That spells trouble not only for them, but also for us here in America. Europe as a whole is an important political ally and a big trading partner. If they continue their economic decline, it will put more stress on our economy – and reinforce the need for a real American recovery policy. Obama has tried and failed to restart the economy; frankly, in view of where the world is heading, I am worried by Obama’s lack of macroeconomic insight.
Yes, the world. It is not just Europe that is sinking economically. China, a perceived – and to some degree actual – growth engine in the world over the past decade, is losing steam, and fast. The Global Post reports about one aspect of China’s problems:
It’s getting hard even for the bulls to pretend something isn’t off about China’s breakneck growth story. On the one hand, as everyone knows, China’s GDP is said to have expanded by an incredible average 10 percent per year for 30 years,according to the IMF, bringing millions of people out of poverty, and making it the second largest economy in the world behind America’s. On the other hand, much of this growth has been fueled by investment — in innumerable highways, airports, apartment complexes, and trains — so much so that some experts say China’s economy is not only imbalanced, but may actually be smaller than previously thought, due to waste and environmental destruction.
A very good analysis by Derek Scissors at Reuters lays bare far more troubling systemic problems within the Chinese economy. From over-emphasis on investment to deteriorating demographics to expanding wastelands, China is about to face a serious hangover from the last decade. But that’s not all, as explained by this well-written piece in the Business Standard out of India:
China has debt at various levels and pockets. Let’s add to this central debt, the local government and provincial debt figures. This figure is around $1.9 trillion. Let’s further add the obligations of the Ministry of Railways. That’s $360 billion. And finally let’s also add 80 per cent of outstanding bank credit. This adds $6.3 trillion. We add bank loans to national debt because unlike most countries, China uses banks for nearly all of its directed, policy lending programmes. … By pushing its lending via the banks’ balance sheets, China creates the impression of a country that has very low budget deficits and, of course, very low central debt. We take 80 per cent of bank debt into the national debt figures under the assumption that 20 per cent goes towards consumer and private sector credit. Now let’s total up the few trillions we have unearthed. As of 2011, this figure amounted to a tad over $10 trillion! And the ratio of total debt to GDP becomes a more ominous 149 per cent. … But the story gets worse from hereon. China’s growth model is highly capital or, more accurately, debt intensive. … [Given] the overall low growth environment globally and the worsening trade situation for China, generating a unit of GDP growth now requires higher and higher doses of debt.
A slowdown of the Chinese economy adds insult to the injury inflicted by Europe’s perennial welfare state problems. If these analysts are correct – and I strongly suggest that they are – China is out of the growth game for many years to come. This, again, reinforces the need for skilled, strong, visionary political leadership in America.
It is bad enough that two of the world’s most significant economies, Europe and China, are at a point of standstill. What is even worse is the fact that in both places the economic downturn is likely going to be associated with a totalitarian turn in politics. In Europe, fears are rising that a collapse of the euro-zone will lead to a rise in aggressive political extremism. There are also acute signs of political desperation coming out of Greece, where the newly elected government is basically telling the rest of Europe to “help us or our democracy is dead”.
When we add this to the contempt for democracy increasingly put on display by Europe’s political leaders, we get a dangerous political environment where totalitarianism is poised to climb to political relevance, one way or the other.
It is entirely possible that China will go the same way, that the slow expansion of individual and especially economic freedom will come to an end with the nation’s strong growth record. If so, America will be squeezed on two fronts by a combination of economic stagnation and the resurrection of authoritarian political ideologies. That will require exceptional leadership of whoever is going to be our president after this year’s election.
To further reinforce this point, consider the turn for the worse of the “Arab spring” in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood is a dangerously totalitarian movement with clear ambitions to impose Medieval sharia law on the Egyptian people – and possibly to provoke a war with Israel.
How should we handle this, on top of the trouble seen in Europe and China? By reinforcing America as a beacon of freedom and prosperity in the world. We should respond to the storms rising across the globe by returning to the foundations that have made this republic the greatest nation in the history of mankind.
This will not be easy. There is a widespread notion that you can just hold an election and everyone will be swept off their feet by the amazing attractiveness of a European-style parliamentary democracy. In the Egyptian case, this has led some politicians, such as our own president, to believe that once the Muslim Brotherhood got to participate in an election, democracy and freedom would be there to stay. Another representative of this utterly naive perception is actually the aforementioned Daniel Hannan. While being on the right side of the issue of the collapsing euro, he was helplessly unable to see that the Muslim Brotherhood would take over Egypt by the very means provided by free elections. In a radio interview with Sean Hannity before the Egyptian election, Daniel Hannan confidently predicted that the Muslim Brotherhood was not going to win. He based his prediction on the existence of a middle class in Egypt which, he apparently believes, automatically will vote for politicians who resemble British liberals more than Egyptian Muslims. Because the middle class would stop the authoritarian Muslim Brotherhood from getting a majority, Hannan believed the Brotherhood would get bogged down in the grinds of parliamentarism and gradually transform into mellow British backbenchers.
This blind faith in some political gene connecting “middle class” to parliamentary democracy makes Daniel Hannan a sad representative of the Chamberlainian attitude that is so widespread among Europe’s and America’s liberal intellectuals. It prevented them from seeing how the Arab Spring was turning into a Nuclear Winter and it seems to prevent them from seeing how the slow crumbling of the European economy is very likely going to lead to the rise of totalitarianism there as well.
The same Chamberlainianism will prevent them from understanding that just because China has now gotten a big middle class, the country is not immunized against the resurrection of totalitarianism.
The root cause of Chamberlainianism is the failure to recognize the existence of pure evil. This failure leads people to believe that when someone says they want sharia law instead of a parliamentary democracy, you don’t take them seriously until they have in fact killed democracy (and a lot of its proponents) in favor of, well, sharia law. This failure to understand that evil is evil – nothing else – makes liberal intellectuals overlook the threats to freedom in their own backyards. Up to 40 percent of the votes cast in the Greek election went to parties that directly or indirectly endorse a totalitarian government over a parliamentary democracy.
Once totalitarianism has taken over, the Chamberlainian attitude is to talk to the tyrants – and all of a sudden believe the tyrants when the tyrants say that they want peace and freedom. In a world where economic crisis and totalitarianism is looming in all corners, we cannot afford to have a president whose entire foreign policy is built on Chamberlainian principles.
We need a president with Ronald Reagan’s moral backbone. And Dick Cheney’s resolve to defend America. We need to find the character inside of us that motivates us to elect the leadership we need – and to hold them accountable as true leaders, not bickering partisanists and opportunists.
We, the American people, need to find our way back to our national character.
Either we do that, or we fall into the abyss.