January 22, 2012


The Change We Can Actually See (But Only Half Believe In) (Peter Augustine Lawler, Fall 2011, Intercollegiate Review)

By thinking of ourselves more and more as free individuals who are responsible for ourselves, we have produced an aging society with a growing number of old people and fewer young ones. The result is that the ratio between productive and unproductive Americans continues to tilt in favor of the later, despite the fact that we put more of a premium than ever on being productive. (One reason among many why viewers are appalled by the advertising executives on Mad Men staggering back to the office from multiple-martini lunches is the loss of a half day's productive work.)

It is impossible to overstate the extent to which our existing entitlement programs were premised on "Baby Boom" demographics. As long as the population and the economy were both growing briskly, we could easily afford to sustain and even expand benefits for the elderly. Public policy deliberations in the late 1960s and early 1970s were also informed, however, by deep concerns about overpopulation. So President Nixon's Commission on Population Growth and the American Future (1969) actually endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment as a way of discouraging female fertility--a way to get women to think of themselves less as mothers and more as free individuals. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see that our experts were intent on undermining the demographic foundation of the welfare state. If it were reasonable to hope we could soon be anywhere close to returning to Baby Boom birthrates, there would be no talk today of entitlement reform.

Lockeans might begin to attempt to solve our demographic problem by saying that the old should just become more productive: we need to push the retirement age back--way back. If the elderly are healthy, they should keep working. We can expect that to happen, and responsible experts say many or most people might well be stuck working as long as they can. But there are obvious limits to that remedy. A high-tech society is full of preferential options for the young; the old might be healthy, but they still often lack the mental agility required to keep up with incessant techno-change. Even in college teaching--not a demanding profession--there's plenty of complaining that the abolition of mandatory retirement is keeping around the ineffective and out-of-touch at the expense of scholarly productivity and consumer (student) satisfaction. The aging, overpaid professorate is probably the most compelling argument against tenure, one that will prevail soon enough in our techno-meritocracy. If the old keep working, we will quickly realize, it will have to be in less productive and (much) lower-paid positions. After all, we value the wisdom connected with age less than ever, and we're getting more skeptical of the thought that being old means being entitled.

Some of our Tea Partiers--especially those in the rural South--believe that the dissolution of the welfare state will restore the situation that prevailed in most of our country's history of liberty. The elderly, like on The Waltons, will return to live in the homes of their children and grandchildren. I actually favor government programs that would facilitate that change, but again there are limits. A Lockean or techno-productive society has dispersed families throughout the country and the world. The ties that produced extended families are weaker than ever. It seems less natural or normal for parents and their grown children to share the same place.

Throughout most of our history, the health-care system has been dependent on most caregiving being done voluntarily by women. But that isn't usually possible in a Lockean country where women have become productive individuals just like men, and where there are fewer young people to provide caregiving, whether paid or voluntary, for the burgeoning number of elderly. Not only that, health care will remain far too costly for ordinary families to afford, and techno-progress by itself cannot make it cheaper. We are getting better and better at keeping the old and frail around, but our wonderful success in sustaining their biological being often takes decades of expensive medical intervention. The good news is that we are steadily pushing back cancer and heart disease. The bad news is that the default form of dying is becoming Alzheimer's, which is a long, predictable, costly, caregiving-intensive disease for which there is no cure. For young women compelled by duty or circumstances to care for a parent with such a disease, there will be less opportunity than ever to become a mom, and so the situation they face will be worse still for the generation to follow.

Locke himself rather coldly suggested that the only compelling tie parents will have on their grown children will be money. He wanted to free individuals from the constraints of patriarchy; he didn't want parents to be able to rule their adult children. And he didn't want the relations of free individuals to rely on love--except the love for little children (who are temporarily incapable of taking care of themselves). If you're going to get old--which Locke was in favor of--you'd first better get rich. Our libertarians aren't wrong to say that we should do what we can to encourage people to save for their own futures. But our 401(k)s can no longer be counted on to produce returns that outpace inflation. The average person is less sure than ever that his money will last as long as he will, but nonetheless he surely knows that he'll be stuck depending largely on his own money to live well.

The implosion of the welfare state, which is caused most of all by our aging society, doesn't look like a new birth of freedom for old folks. As we learn from Socrates's musings in The Republic, there may be nothing more difficult than being old and poor in a democracy, a regime which has no idea what old people are for. That is not to say that we are going to begin euthanizing the elderly or even "rationing" them to early graves. We know that the elderly are free persons--they're not nothing--and so we're committed to helping them stay around as long as possible. To say the least, however, we don't know much about how they might have purposeful lives in our increasingly individualistic world.

The Entitlement Implosion

The primary experience of most ordinary Americans these days is the erosion--with the prospect of implosion--of the various safety nets of our relatively minimalist welfare state. The change we can actually see has been, and will continue to be, from defined benefits to defined contributions. Private and even public pensions are done for. They will continue to be replaced by 401(k)s. That kind of change will also be true of health care, as employer-based plans become unsustainable. It will also soon be true of Medicare and probably Social Security--if not quite as soon as Representative Paul Ryan thinks. Ryan, it is already obvious, will come to be known as a man just slightly ahead of his time. In that sense, just as obviously, he is the real progressive--the prophet of the more or less inevitable world to come. And his opponents, who are called Progressives, are just as obviously the real reactionaries.

The good news here, the new birth of freedom celebrated by the Tea Party, is more choice--a lot more choice--for individuals. The bad news is that risk is being transferred from the employer and the government to the individual. All of our entitlements will have to be transformed in a Lockean or individualistic direction in what might nevertheless be futile efforts to save them. Other, related changes that Lockeans should believe in include the fact that unions, both public and private, are also done for--despite President Obama's efforts to prop them up. Their reactionary attempts at protectionism have no place in a globalized and rigorously competitive marketplace. The same can be said of the ideal of employer and employee loyalty. People will be able to be--and will have to be--a lot more entrepreneurial and self-employed. One reason among many that employer-based health care cannot survive is that it depends on an increasingly obsolete model of employment. The present health-care system is actually not particularly good for the self-employed--which is to say, for more and more of us. Fear of losing insurance shouldn't be a reason for passing up an entrepreneurial opportunity, and guilt about an employee's health-care situation shouldn't be a reason for not firing superfluous or inadequately productive employees.

All these economic changes have, of course, both good and bad aspects. We might say that they are changes we can sort of half believe in. The Tea Partiers are enthusiastic about a new birth of freedom and a return to the Lockean Constitution of our Founders. And there really is a lot of good to be said about a renewed emphasis on individual responsibility, just as there is a lot of good to be said about perfecting the productive meritocracy that is the main source of our prosperity. Perhaps there will also be a new birth of voluntary associations--such as the extended family, the church, and the neighborhood--and voluntary caregiving for the social support even free individuals need to live well. Lockean political and economic reform is not incompatible with Christian charity, and anxious, lonely individuals futilely pursuing an ever-elusive happiness and even more futilely trying to cheat death might have more reason than ever to turn to the organized and relational religion of the personal Creator. Certainly the usually solidly churched, big-family, and otherwise communitarian Tea Partiers don't really share the comprehensive libertarianism of our sophisticated autonomy freaks.

Status Quo Conservatism

It would be wrong, however, to call these changes popular. The Tea Party has peaked, and it never got anywhere near to a majority of Americans. People can't help but be conservative when it comes to preserving the entitlements on which they have come to rely. Consider that, at present, the Republicans continue to dominate the debate on health care; people remain convinced that Obamacare will wreck their employer-based plans without replacing them with anything nearly as good. Republicans are mostly campaigning against the president's bigger-government change without offering a clear alternative. They know, of course, that the employer-based schemes don't have much of a future. The Republicans' advantage over the president might fade quickly if they were to begin emphasizing the reasonable view that there is really no alternative but to have each individual buy his own private insurance, and have means-tested subsidies to make it possible for everyone to be covered. Individuals would have their own insurance; they would have more choice and could be cost-sensitive consumers; but they probably wouldn't get the coverage they have now at (to them) such a low cost.

When it comes to health care, most people are neither Progressives nor Lockeans. They are status quo conservatives, believing that change in any direction will not be progressive in the sense of serving their personal interests.

The biggest question about the Third Way--which is in many ways just the transition from benefits to contributions--is one that few have even considered yet, but that Mr. Lawler hints at here.  We can all grasp that contributing to private accounts at an early age is more cost effective than paying out benefits from public accounts at a later one (or later ones).  But once we truly start building those accounts up--which is rather easily done--we will also be "liberating" individuals from their dependence on anyone, everyone and every thing.  The troubling truth of the matter is that spending more money on social welfare up front does not increase dependence but increases atomization.  Even simply putting money into accounts for newborns and building those accounts for them until age 18 ends up providing them enough personal wealth that they don't just not need to make claims on the treasury in old age but, more troubling, end up independent from the help of family, friends, church, community associations, etc. altogether.  

We Burkeans recognize that conservatism must be progressive, rather than just a matter of the haves protecting the status quo from the have nots (as the Tea Party wishes).  But we have to be aware of the ways in which progressive conservatism--like privatizing Social Security and health care insurance and so forth--represents genuine danger to the values we hope to preserve.

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Posted by at January 22, 2012 8:02 AM

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