Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Blue Social Model and the Future of Liberalism

Here's a very good piece by Walter Russell Mead, who has been arguing for some time that the "blue social model" of big government, big labor, big corporations and big benefits is running out of steam.

He says liberalism has had to renew itself in fundamental ways at least four times since it emerged in the seventeenth century. Liberalism 1.0 was the Glorious Revolution in 1688 in England, which established parliamentary supremacy. Liberalism 2.0 was the more individual creed of 1776 and Washington and Jefferson. Liberalism 3.0 was Machester Liberalism, the laissez faire of the 1880s. Liberalism 4.0 was Theodore Roosevelt and the turn-of the century progressives, who thought a stronger state was necessary to counterbalance giant corporations and trusts. And Liberalism 4.1 was Franklin Roosevelt, the New Deal and the more explicitly welfarist and redistributionist model of the 1950s and 1960s.

All were immensely successful in their day. All were superseeded by newer and better versions. 

But now the decline that happened to the blue private sector -theGeneral Motors and Kodaks of the world -is hitting the public sector.  

The real crisis today in the United States is the accelerating collapse of blue government, not blue private industry, which is a phenomenon largely behind us.


So, he concludes, we need to develop liberalism 5.0, a new synthesis of the noble concept of liberalism which better reflects changed circumstances. 


All four versions have something else in common: None can serve as the political program for the heirs of the two great revolutions today. We don’t want the constitutional monarchy and Anglican establishment of William III; we don’t want the aristocratic, limited-franchise republic of George Washington; we don’t want the Manchester liberalism of the 1860s; and we don’t want the managerial state that liberals and progressives built in the first two-thirds of the 20th century. That doesn’t mean we should not admire, learn from and build on each of these liberal traditions, but our job today is to synthesize enduring liberal values in a 21st-century liberalism 5.0. 


A lot of the problem with the blue model, he says, is it stripped lives of meaning. 


Finally, in this regard, the blue model has impoverished our lives and blighted our society in more subtle ways. Many Americans became (and remain) stuff-rich and meaning-poor. Many people classified as “poor” in American society have an historically unprecedented abundance of consumer goods—anything, essentially, that a Fordist factory here or abroad can turn out. But far too many Americans still have lives that are poor in meaning, in part because the blue social model separates production and consumption in ways that are ultimately dehumanizing and demeaning. A rich and rewarding human life neither comes from nor depends on consumption, even lots of consumption; it comes from producing goods and services of value through the integration of technique with a vision of social and personal meaning. Being fully human is about doing good work that means something. Is a blue society with our level of drug and alcohol abuse, and in which the average American watches 151 hours of television a month, really the happiest conceivable human living arrangement? 


The key is to find the balance between freedom and stability. 


Uniting all the versions of liberalism since 1688 has been a drive to find a creative compromise between the individual’s drive for self-expression and freedom and the need for a stable society. Liberalism insists that an open, dynamic society will lead to a better life for all, and that promoting ordered liberty is the morally obligatory as well as the pragmatically desirable thing to do. 


I very much agree that much of the problem in society is purposelessness and lack of meaning. Our basic problem is our economy is designed to produce frozen chicken legs or televisions or iPods with remarkable effectiveness and ease. But not satisfaction or ease of mind.


The problem is most versions of liberalism have steered away from those issues. The whole point of liberalism is the individual is left alone on issues of purpose and meaning. It was designed to stop monarch and church and (to some extent) the state encroaching on those issues - until liberals came to see procedural liberalism and its values as the only acceptable purpose as well.


Dynamism and stability are also very much in tension. The problem with the progression towards liberal values centered on reciprocity /exchange and procedural fairness, which we were looking at in recent posts in connection with Pinker and North, is that it may potentially not be compatible with stability. 

So I think Mead, who is prolifically brilliant, without a doubt, clearly identifies the problem but does not have much of a solution

What does a solution look like? I keep coming back to the fact that we are seeing a phase shift in the nature of needs, away from issues of material scarcity to higher levels of need - happiness , connectedness , purpose, meaning. And that phase shift requires broader changes to incentives and institutions.

We have the frozen chicken, check. We have the gizmos, check. We need more than that, the things past monarchs and aristocrats and moguls maybe never got to. 

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