Reason, Economic Growth and Government
History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.
A 10/24/17 Pew Research poll of more than 5000 adults finds that Americans are more polarized than ever, both within and without their political parties. In 2004, 49% of all Americans, “…took a roughly equal number of conservative and liberal positions on a scale based on 10 questions….Now its dropped to 32 percent,” less than a third.
There is a discussion among political scientists and sociologists whether income pressures or cultural factors cause political gridlock in Washington, preventing economic reforms such as remedies to globalization, automation and demographics. In fact an article notes, “ the two factors are interrelated,” and feed upon each other.
The Pew Research poll, however, notes a wide area of agreement. 56% of all respondents say that it is possible to have economic policies that benefit all (long-term infrastructure or regional policies encouraging balanced growth, anyone?). Considering both the popular vote and the electoral college, the 2016 elections were very close. Many voters can likely be convinced by candidates attuned to local concerns and to the credible specifics of generating economic growth. Both business and government require rationality. Government requires rationality to produce justice, a balanced and ordered state of affairs acceptable to most in a society. Business requires rationality to produce a profit, in a (only somewhat) less balanced and ordered manner.
Reason is acting for reasons factually related to the goals that people have.1 Reason is therefore about the discovery of truth, developing valid reasons (independent variables) that affect a situation (the dependent variable), and making good decisions. Reasoning in complex situations can be as simple as using Benjamin Franklin’s ledger, totting up the reasons for and against a certain course of action. But like life, both politics and the stock market contain elements of rationality and irrationality.
Liberal democracy is a reasoned form of government. Founded in 1787, the United States was the world’s first large scale democracy. What enabled both democracy and scale was a reason that enabled opponents to perceive the merit of the other person’s viewpoint and then compromising to create better policies, solutions to problems acceptable to all in a system of shared (not hoarded) power. Thus in Federalist 51, James Madison wrote, “In the extended republic of the United States, and among the great variety interests, parties and sects which it embraces, a coalition of a majority of the whole society could seldom take place on any other principles than those of justice and the general good…” (this was before the Age of Ideology). 2
Modern, complex societies require reasoning experts who are supposed to keep things running well. But what if these experts don’t? The result is likely to be an outbreak of widespread social irrationality. In an article in the November/December 2016 Foreign Affairs, Professor Sheri Berman of Barnard/Columbia writes, “What turned fascists from marginal extremists into the rulers of much of Europe was the failure of democratic elites and institutions to deal with the crises facing their societies during the interwar years. Despite real problems, the West today is confronting nowhere near the same type of breakdown it did in the 1930s. (but)…Right-wing populism – indeed, populism of any kind - is a symptom of democracy in trouble….if governments do not do more to address the many social and economic problems the United States and Europe currently face, if mainstream politicians and parties don’t do a better job reaching out to all citizens, and if conservatives continue to fan fear and turn a blind eye of extremism, then the West could quickly find itself moving from the former to the latter.” 3
The roots of the 1930 interwar year crises were earlier laid in the economic, social and philosophical developments of the 19th century. What follows is a short discussion of the politics of Europe at that time; developing social conditions in the U.S. now make this relevant.
The Broadway musical, Les Misérables, is not about the French Revolution of 1789. It is about the Revolution of 1832, when in the aftermath of Napoleon, the republican French struggled against a constitutional monarchy of popular sovereignty. The struggle among supporters of an absolutist or a constitutional monarchy or a republic subsequently played out across Europe, a land that further riven by, “…fears of property owners that had little to with any specific social doctrine. Serfs rebelling against their feudal lords, peasants seizing wood from the forests, craftsmen demanding a return of the guilds, artisans and laborers going on strike…” 4
To this social tinderbox then came an economic crisis caused by the growth of industry and the market economy. “It was quite clear to contemporaries that the economic crisis of the years 1845-47 was the precursor to and precondition for the revolution of 1848…(the preceding three years) were particularly difficult years, because they saw the interaction of three separate but interrelated crises: a run of very poor harvests; a trade cycle downturn…and a financial and banking panic…” 5 The result was an outbreak of popular revolutions throughout Europe in 1848, “The Springtime of the Peoples” (sound familiar? ) by the Ukrainians, Czechs, Hungarians, Romanians, Poles and Germans. These national revolutions were short-lived as the conservative forces representing “religious, regional, and dynastic loyalties” 6 restored order, taking advantage of the oppositions’ divisions, “most of all against each other.” 6a
The restoration of an inflexible conservative order in an era of very rapid economic change caused considerable angst: mass politics, the nihilism of Nietzche, leading ultimately to, “The Triumph of the Will,” where in Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase, “everything is permitted,” 7 and the totalitarian horrors of the 20th century. To get back to reasoned cause and effect: we here note that social disorder combined with the catalysts of economic crises or war, has extreme political consequences – this is true anywhere because in chaos reason has no grasp. To cite a few examples:
1) The French Revolution of 1789 caused by the inability of the state to effect financial reforms and was sparked by, “Conditions throughout urban France…rapidly approaching the level of a food war.” 8
2) The European Revolutions of 1848, discussed above.
3) The Asian Revolutions of the 20th Century in China, Vietnam, and Cambodia, caused by war.
4) The Fascist Revolution in Germany caused by the humiliation of Germany’s defeat in WW I, destruction of the middle classes by the inflation of 1922 and by the Great Depression of the 1930s.
5) The United States electoral upset of 2016 caused by an unwillingness to undertake broad system reform and the lingering effects of the Great Recession of 2008.
The structure of the Republican Party does not presently facilitate national reform, with its office-holders afraid of being called “Rinos,” Republican in Name Only, and becoming “Primaried” by the highly ideological base. Ideological cookbook solutions, such as minimized government, are irrelevant in the 21st century - if they ever were. That idea was ineffectual in the 1930s and is now being used to justify the redistribution of existing wealth – upwards 9. The calculated political strategy is to simultaneously feed the evermore angry base a divisive and nationalistic, “Don’t Tread on Me” attitude.
The reforming Democratic Party needs to get its groups and programs together, to convincingly address the needs of the whole country with candidates attuned to local concerns and to the credible specifics of generating economic growth. Above all, it is necessary not to deplete the social capital of trust, reduced by the social media.
Why do things get better economically? The major ways are by technological and organizational innovations. Why do things get better politically? The journalist, William Pfaff, wrote, “We go forward by certain institutional arrangements that ameliorate the way communities deal with one another.” 10 All progress requires reason; resulting in a coherent, steady and credible United States – that is still an established power.
This Bloomberg interview with British historian, Sir Max Hastings, discusses some of our essay topics, and others, with common sense.
What’s happening in Washington? An outbreak of unbridled Romanticism, the philosophical kind. Romanticism is at the philosophical root of the study of history and respect for nature, also the individualism and nationalisms of the modern era.
What did Isaiah Berlin think of Romanticism? In “Against the Current (1980)” he explains:
“Man, at his best, that is, at his most human, seeks in the first place to fulfil himself (so do nations)…in spontaneous, unhindered creative activity, in a work that consists of the imposition of his personality on a recalcitrant environment. (Georges) Sorel quotes his political enemy Clemenceau as saying : ‘Everything that lives, resists.’ …This is, of course, not a new idea. It lies at the heart of the great revolt against rationalism and the Enlightenment, identified particularly with French civilization, that animated the more extreme German Protestant sects after the Reformation and which, towards the end of the eighteenth century, took the form of celebrating the primacy of the human will against material forces and calm, rational knowledge alike.” (p. 299)
In “The Roots of Romanticism (1999)” he explores this idea further and shows how it is now part, but not the whole, of the modern world:
“The (entire) movement…is an attempt to impose an aesthetic model upon reality, to say that everything should obey the rules of art. For artists, indeed, perhaps some of the claims of romanticism may appear to have a great deal of validity. But their attempt to convert life into art presupposes that human beings are stuff, that they are simply a kind of material…and to the degree to which this is not true, to the degree of which human beings, in order to communicate with each other, are forced to recognize certain common values, certain common facts, to live in a common world; to the extent to which not everything which science says is nonsense, not everything which common sense declares is untrue – because to say that is in itself a self-contradictory and absurd proposition – to this extent romanticism in its full form, and even its offshoots in the form of existentialism and Fascism, seems to me to be fallacious. *
What can we be said to owe to romanticism? A great deal. We owe to romanticism the notion of the freedom of the artist, and the fact that nether he nor human beings in general can be explained by oversimplified views…. We also owe to romanticism the notion that a unified answer in human affairs is likely to be ruinous, that if you really believe there is one single solution to all human ills, and that you must impose this solution at no matter what cost, you are likely to become a violent and despotic tyrant in the name of your solution…The notion that there are many values, and that they are incompatible; the whole notion of plurality, of inexhaustibility, of the imperfection of all human answers and arrangements; the notion that no single answer which claims to be perfect and true, whether in art or in life, can in principle be perfect or true – all this we owe to the romantics.
…as a result of this passionate, fanatical, half-mad doctrine, (…whose chief burden is to destroy ordinary tolerant life…to destroy common sense…to raise everybody to some passionate level of self-expressive experience, of such a kind as perhaps only divinities, in older works of literature, were supposed to manifest…and considering the likely consequences – our comment) we arrive at an appreciation of the necessity of tolerating others, the necessity of preserving an imperfect equilibrium in human affairs…” (p.p. 145-147)
* This quoted sentence is one of Berlin’s longest, 138 words. His many writings are well worth the time, once the reader gets used to his prose style, because there is much common sense in what he writes. His father was a Russian lumber merchant, which may explain this. The first essay we read of his is called, “The Sense of Reality (1997)”.