February 15, 2009


The End of the Ownership Society? (Marc Goldwein , 2/16/09, HNN)

Like their libertarian counterparts, conservative ownership advocates aim to reduce the overall size and scope of the government and emphasize the importance of individual responsibility. But while free-market supporters address this goal on the supply-side – pushing policies which will either directly reduce government spending or push politicians toward such actions – conservative ownership advocates focus on the demand-side, aiming to reduce the public’s need and desire for government assistance. In fact, ownership advocates often support increasing the supply of government upfront, using activist public policies to expand asset-ownership.

Supporters of an ‘ownership society’ envision a world in which the vast majority of Americans are able to provide for themselves through the accumulation of appreciating assets – especially real estate and private equities. By owning these assets, the argument goes, individuals will be able to take advantage of the high economic returns to capital and thus be more self-sufficient. Advocates also argue, as President Bush did, that “if you own something, you have a vital stake in the future of our country,” and so expanded ownership strengthens citizenship and community involvement. Additionally, supporters of ownership see it as the truest path to freedom, putting individuals in charge of their own social and economic fates. And finally, conservatives believe broad ownership can strengthen their governing coalition by creating a new class of worker-capitalists who are less apt to support redistributive or regulatory government policies – especially those that might hurt asset values.

Ownership has long been a part of the nation’s political economy. Such ownership has been a major component of this nation’s private welfare state, 1 and its expansion has been pursued by liberals and conservatives alike (with the former supporting it as a supplement rather than replacement for existing welfare state programs). Bush’s particular concept of an ownership society, though, is most closely related to Margaret Thatcher’s ‘popular capitalism.’ During her time as Prime Minister, Thatcher declared that “spreading the ownership of property more widely is central to this Government’s philosophy,” and passed measures to sell public housing (of which there was a considerable amount) to interested tenants and partially privatize the country’s public pension program. This became a source of inspiration for America’s conservative ownership agenda. 2

During his time in office, President Bush pursued a number of policies to increase property ownership – lower capital gains and dividend tax rates, health savings accounts, 529 college savings accounts, expansions of 401(k)s and IRAs, support for small businesses, etc. But in line with Margaret Thatcher’s popular capitalism initiatives, the centerpiece of Bush’s ownership agenda was housing and Social Security. His goal was to increas homeownership rates and partially privatize Social Security to offer all workers personal retirement accounts. While both initiatives entered the public agenda in the mid-1990s, they were pushed most vigorously during Bush’s time in office; and ultimately, both failed under his watch.

The recent push to expand homeownership actually began with President Clinton’s ‘National Homeownership Strategy’ in 1995, after which the homeownership rate shot up 5 percentage points in the next decade (having remained stagnant for the three proceeding decades). Yet while new initiatives to promote homeownership began under President Clinton, the Bush administration pushed hard for using “the mighty muscle of the federal government…to encourage owning your own home.” These measures included tax credits, down payment assistance, vouchers, financial education, regulatory reforms, and pressure on the private sector.

The Social Security privatization movement also became popular in the 1990s, when a number of bipartisan commissions, outside think tanks, and members of Congress began proposing that Social Security have a private accounts component.

Compassionate Conservatism: Ten Lessons from the New Agrarians (Allan C. Carlson, 02/13/09, First Principles)
In discussing the New Agrarian version of “compassionate conservatism,” a useful place to start is a 1934 essay entitled, appropriately enough, “The Task for Conservatism.” Written by the popular historian Herbert Agar, it appeared in a remarkable, albeit short-lived journal, The American Review. This article stands as a model of “activist” or “radical” conservatism.

Agar was writing, it should be recalled, at the very worst point of the Great Depression. One-third of American workers were unemployed; the nation was littered with failed banks; stock certificates issued during the exuberant 1920s had been rendered worthless. Agar argued that the label “conservative” had been thoroughly twisted by what he called the “apostles of plutocracy” into the defense of economic “gamblers and promoters.” He observed that “according to this [strange] view, Mark Hanna was a conservative.” Agar sought to save the term by appealing to “another, and an older, America,” a time when there was virtue in and a moral plan for the nation.

Central to this plan, Agar said, was “[t]he widest possible distribution of [productive] property.” For Thomas Jefferson, this had meant a nation of self-sufficient farmers. For John Adams, this had meant “an interdependent community” of farmers and modest merchants, with government holding the balance. All of the American founders, Agar maintained, had held that “a wide diffusion of property . . . made for enterprise, for family responsibility, and in general for institutions that fit man’s nature and that gave a chance for a desirable life.” Physical property, in short, was so important to the full and rich human life that everybody should have some.

But America had lost its way, Agar continued. Under current economic conditions, the ownership of real property fell into ever fewer hands. “The normal human temptation to sacrifice ideals for money” had grown, lifting “the rewards for a successful raid on society to dangerous heights.” A culture of widely distributed property had fallen under assault by “the barbarism based on monopoly.” The great banking houses and financial institutions had destroyed “an entrenched landed interest” in the South during the Civil War. In 1914, the same group determined that America no longer needed an agricultural surplus for export, and it set out to destroy the independent farmer as well.

Agar called for an effort—at once “radical” and “conservative”—to restore the Property State. This “redistribution” of ownership must become “the root of a real conservative policy for the United States.” As he explained, the ownership of land, machine shop, small store, or a share of “some necessarily huge machine” needed to become the normal thing, in order to set the necessary moral tone for society. Agar stressed the radical and political nature of this attempt, for it was on its face inconsistent with existing economic developments. As he wrote: “It must be produced artificially and then guarded by favorable legislation.” All the same, such an effort was necessary to rebuild a humane America, a compassionate America, an America that would make for “stability in family and community life, for responsibility, [and] for enterprise.”

Agar was not alone is this appeal to a radical conservatism. The whole line of New Agrarians agreed on the same orientation. Agar’s special focus was on the power of private property as a defense of liberty and the source of the good life. But the New Agrarians pressed other points as well, insights that might contribute in our time to a richer understanding of the term “compassionate conservatism,” insights into what an “activist” conservatism might look like.

The second lesson from the New Agrarians will seem strange to many: it is love of the earth, a genuine ecological sensitivity. Liberty Hyde Bailey, named Dean of the College of Agriculture at Cornell University nearly a century ago, crafted most of the themes that would characterize twentieth-century agrarian thought, and an environmental passion was at the core of his vision. Bailey’s most provocative book appeared in 1916. Entitled The Holy Earth, it emphasized “the oneness of nature and the unity in living things,” a process guided by the Great Patriarch, God the Father. As Bailey explained:

Verily, then, the earth is divine, because man did not make it. We are here, part in the creation. We cannot escape. We are under obligation to take part and do our best living with each other and with all creatures. We may not know the full plan, but that does not alter the relation.

Every man, Bailey said, should know “in his heart . . . that there is goodness and wholeness in the rain, in the wind, the soil, the sea, the glory of sunrise in the trees, and in the sustenance that we derive from the planet.” The true conservative, then, begins as an ecologist, aware of the inner-connectedness of our lives with the Creation.

The third lesson is the positive value of human fertility. Harvard sociologist Carle Zimmerman, founder of the discipline of “rural sociology” in the 1920s, was the New Agrarian writer most committed to dismissing the gloom of Malthusian ideas. Instead of fretting about “overpopulation,” Zimmerman celebrated high human fertility and an abundance of large families as signs of social health. In his book Family and Society, Zimmerman called “an absolutely stable or decreasing population. . . . unthinkable for the survival of a nation.” In his massive tome Family and Civilization, he stressed that hope for the future rested on “the making of familism and childbearing the primary social duties of the citizen.” Zimmerman’s celebration of small family farms rested on their very biological vitality. As he wrote: “These local family institutions feed the larger culture as the uplands feed the streams and the streams in turn the broader rivers of family life.” [...]

The ninth New Agrarian lesson is the unique power of marriage, a point made with special effect by the contemporary writer Wendell Berry. Proper marriage, the Kentuckian writes, is a sexual and an economic unit; the sexual function without the economic function is ruinous, with “degenerate housewifery” and “degenerate husbandry” the result. When brought together, though, the consequence is beauty. As Berry explains in his poem “The Country of Marriage”:

Our bond is no little economy based on the exchange
of my love and work for yours, so much for so much of an expendable fund. We don’t know what its limits are
that puts it into the dark. We are more together
than we know, how else could we keep on discovering
we are more together than we thought?

Marriage, so understood, is an economy of joy.

Contra Mr. Goldwein, a politics so deeply embedded in the Anglo-American tradition and so embraced by the successful electoral parties of both Right and Left throughout the Anglosphere isn't anywhere near an end, though it might rest for a bit.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]
Posted by Orrin Judd at February 15, 2009 10:01 AM
blog comments powered by Disqus