Democratic Self-Indulgence and the Analgesic State

 

Name-checking “what Jonathan Rauch of the National Journal once called demosclerosis,” David Brooks devotes his latest column to the fact that “governments have become entwined in a series of arrangements that drain money from productive uses and direct it toward unproductive ones.” The crescendo:

States across the nation will be paralyzed for the rest of our lives because they face unfunded pension obligations that, if counted accurately, amount to $2 trillion — or $87,000 per plan participant.

All in all, governments can’t promote future prosperity because they are strangling on their own self-indulgence.

In his original article, Rauch nails the what of ‘demosclerosis’ while dancing around the why, and Brooks furthers the mystery by pinning the blame on simple ‘self-indulgence’. What is it about ourselves that ‘we’ are indulging?

I’d put it very plainly: our fear and loathing of suffering. The growth of the entitlement state has been driven by a powerful desire to prevent Americans, whether in the public or private sector, from suffering. And the frightful lesson of the past several decades is that minimizing suffering cannot be the mission of government — certainly not among a free people, and apparently not even among a people willing to slip into servitude. Not only is government uniquely bad at funding the sorts of outlays that minimize suffering — the sensitivity to suffering, and the appetite for its minimization, seems to have no limit in democratic times. Put these two pathologies together, and what you see today is what you get.

The real reckoning behind the economic crisis is a crisis of democratic culture. Brooks, dinged by conservatives for his love of muscular government, at least can envision a purpose for government beyond and besides minimizing suffering. That alone puts him on the side of a democratic culture with a future. On the other side are those for whom the war on suffering is the pursuit of justice. Bill Clinton was smart enough to know that government can feel your pain for free; the hard facts of the Obama era make plain that government will go broke before it can take your pain away. Forget, for a minute, the Surveillance State, the Police State, or any familiar symbol of government gone hopelessly wrong. What we can least afford is the Analgesic State, and the fears that it so dearly indulges.

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  1. Profile Photo Member
    @

    The answer to state-sponsored pain alleviation is simple – soma.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brave_new_world

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    @Cycleboy

    There is an additional element of “failure” in this concept of alleviating suffering through government intervention, that is wonderfully described in Marvin Olasky’s “Tragedy of American Compassion”. When government “owns” the process of helping individuals facing challenges associated with poverty, or physical disability, or other similar issues, there is a dehumanizing aspect of this assistance that is not present when support is provided by private charities/religious organizations. As a result, quite often the unintended consequences of government involvement are the counterproductive outcomes that we have seen from the rise of the welfare state in the 1960’s.

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    @EJHill

    How many Congressmen will the Analgesic State get after the census?

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    @Palaeologus
    James Poulos, Ed.: What we can least afford is the Analgesic State, and the fears that it so dearly indulges. ·

    But James, when people hurt government has to move. What’s this talk about being able to afford it?

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    @FrozenChosen

    To put this is a religious context, when someone voluntarily provides assistance to someone less fortunate both the giver and the receiver are blessed. When an individual is forced to provide that assistance through government fiat, neither is blessed.

    We should all make true charity an integral part of our lives and I believe we have a responsibility to help alleviate suffering as we are able to do so. When government assumes this role it simply becomes another racket for the special interests to exploit…

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    @DavidLimbaugh

    Maybe I’m missing something here, but I would add to James’ excellent post that what Brooks is suggesting in the following quote is nothing new:

    “governments have become entwined in a series of arrangements that drain money from productive uses and direct it toward unproductive ones.”

    Isn’t that the whole point about command-control economies versus market driven ones? That is, the government planners can’t possibly spend money as efficiently as consumers through the “invisible hand of the market” because consumers tell you what they want and what is needed through the outworking of demand and supply forces. That’s why in my view government expenditures can’t possibly create the kind of multiplier effect that Keynesians always claimed — these artificially imposed make-work jobs and other government expenditures are not likely to beget as much derivative spending because they weren’t naturally generated by the people’s will or preferences. So to Brooks I would say: it’s not that governments have suddenly become entwined in a process of diverting money from productive to unproductive purposes, but that beyond a few essentially important government tasks, government expenditures have always been that way — it’s inherent.

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    @BlueAnt
    David Limbaugh, Guest Contributor: the government planners can’t possibly spend money as efficiently as consumers through the “invisible hand of the market” because consumers tell you what they want and what is needed through the outworking of demand and supply forces.

    Right on, but I think our current crop of politicians is trying something new: in recognition of the above fact, they’re trying to actually bend the demand curve, instead of just tinkering with supply.

    This meta-goal offers a simple explanation of all the proto-fascistic aspects of liberal rhetoric: vilification of success, turning welfare into a positive “human right”, identity politics erecting a universal framework of victimhood… all ultimately leading to the reduction individual choices and freedom in the name of greater societal good.

    Perhaps these are delivered in politically persuasive arguments not merely to justify increasing the state’s power, but in hopes of convincing the people to actually internalize such destructive rationales.

    If you can get consumers to demand less private goods and more public goods, the market takes care of itself.

    Relevant quote: “The issue is always the same: the government or the market. There is no third solution.” – Ludwig von Mises

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    @Eiros

    We modern humans are most radically different from our ancestors (and even our grand-parents) with regard to our lifespans. No society on earth has ever faced the entitlement crisis that now confronts the developed nations. So, unfortunately, history has little or nothing to teach us here.

    One thing is certain, though: to think that government programs originally designed to care for a handful of people who lived long enough to retire can be re-treaded to handle a majority of citizens who reach retirement age is insanity!

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    @JamesPoulos
    Trace Urdan: Great post James.

    Much of the optimism I feel for our ability to recognize what is happening comes down to the examples of government failure at the state level. Many of my neighbors will rail against the evil Meg Whitman and then turn around and blast the outrageous unfunded pensions owed to state workers. The proposition Diane mentioned earlier where San Francisco is asking its public employees to make the most modest contribution to their own health care costs I predict will pass overwhelmingly. No matter how the heart bleeds, everyone is stopped by the very simply notion that there is no money to pay for everything we would like to do. · Oct 12 at 12:09pm

    True, Trace, that the closer to home the failure, the clearer we can see. Alas, even at the state level, the public pensions problem didn’t hit home until now — when it might, in some places, at least, be too late.

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  10. Profile Photo Member
    @

    Great post James.

    Much of the optimism I feel for our ability to recognize what is happening comes down to the examples of government failure at the state level. Many of my neighbors will rail against the evil Meg Whitman and then turn around and blast the outrageous unfunded pensions owed to state workers. The proposition Diane mentioned earlier where San Francisco is asking its public employees to make the most modest contribution to their own health care costs I predict will pass overwhelmingly. No matter how the heart bleeds, everyone is stopped by the very simply notion that there is no money to pay for everything we would like to do.

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