Monday, August 13, 2012

Progressivism and Civil Society

You know I've never met one person who is for sharing wealth who would ever share a dime. - Jane, a commenter at JOM.

Indeed. But why? Yuval Levin has a nice article in the latest NRDT in which he points out that progressivism includes the intent to eliminate civil society, which includes sharing the wealth via private charity. It does this by arguing that if you're in favor of sharing then you agree that the government should transfer wealth from the rich to the poor and take over all social functions held by the institutions of civil society, so as to ensure these functions are performed by law. Indeed, any function of civil society worth doing should be relinquished to the government to make sure it is done and made available to all, equitably. The civil society vanishes, and all that is left is the individual and the state, where the individual's entire life is reducible to functions of the state in which he partakes. He loses his individuality. He no longer can assemble a life of his choosing by piecing together those elements of the civil society which appeal particularly to his inclinations and talents. He does as he's told, just as everyone else does, by bureaucrats who do not know him.

So, the non sequitur "You're in favor of giving to the poor, so you must support the welfare state vision of progressivism" is not only a powerful tool to confuse muddle who aren't prepared to notice its fallacy but also a weapon wielded against civil society. "Sharing" has nothing to do with it, nor does welfare.

Moreover, civil institutions which individuals create reflect their values, are chosen by them, and are meaningful to them. They have the marks of very specific backgrounds from which they emerge. They reflect and contribute to ways of life which have a history. When these institutions are created by government they are generic and devoid of specific marks and reflect no ways of life at all, embody only a distant bureaucrat's values if any values at all, are chosen by few who want to partake of them, and are meaningful to no one. Meaning gone, all that is left are work, government, private pleasures and private prayer.

So, the government can't even take over the civil society and run it. The progressive's welfare state, in requiring the subsumption of civil institutions by government, requires the demise of the civil society. There isn't room for both in human life. They are competitors. The asymmetry in this competition is that a healthy civil society can tolerate a healthy and functioning government, one small in size, but a welfare state cannot tolerate a healthy and functioning civil society because a civil society that is small is not healthy or functioning. The welfare state must eliminate the civil society but civil society tolerates government (and even needs government.)

The larger the share of GDP the government has the smaller the civil society becomes. That's just math. You can't wriggle out of that. When you move up from 15% to 25% and beyond to larger government shares of the GDP, you begin to squeeze the institutions which make for meaningful lives out of existence. The same math which fiscally dooms the progressive budget also dooms civil society. You can print or borrow money for a while to cover up this math but sooner or later you must face it. The welfare state destroys civil society and also itself.

You can't have prosperity and poverty reduction while confiscating capital from private industry. You can't have enormous tax revenues while making it impossible to amass capital in private business. You can't maintain a welfare state while maintaining a rich civil society. Inasmuch as a healthy society requires prosperity and a functioning civil society, the progressive's welfare state is a mathematical and economic impossibility. This does not entail that there are no progressives do not realize this and earnestly wish for prosperity, the welfare state and civil society to coexist. But it does entail that the others are totalitarians and care nothing about anyone's welfare but their own.