Minimal State

There are those among us who see the political state as a Big Brother who watches everything we do and tells us NOT to do those things we want to do. Or it takes our money. They would minimize the role of the state, if not eliminate it entirely. They call themselves “libertarians” because they are convinced that without a political state watching over us we would be free as birds. What they don’t realize is that the sort of freedom they envision is chaos, like a crowd trying to escape from a burning theater. Without restraint we do not have freedom. Quite the opposite.

In any event, the economist Robert Heilbroner, who wrote The Nature and Logic of Capitalism, has a chapter in the book that addresses the relative roles of the state and capital and their need for one another. Those who would do away with what they regard as state interference would cut off their very noses to spite their faces. Ugly, to say the least. And stupid. The state does tend to become bigger and bigger, that’s certainly true. And we all hate to pay taxes (those of us who do pay taxes, that is). But the role of the state has become absolutely necessary to the preservation of our society and for the continuered prosperity of those who would do away with it. As Heiolbroner notes:

“It is equally evident that the designation of capitalism as ‘self-ordering’ . . .must be understood in a qualified sense. The term applies that all essential activities connected with the material process can be, at least in principle, consigned to the markets. [This is untrue] not alone in the case of such goods as defense, without which no marketing system seems imaginable, but in the broad historical reality of capitalism as a self-reproducing social formation. Here the state, both as defender and promoter of the economic realm, has played so prominent a role that even the most abstract scenarios of the system unwittingly assign it a central and indispensable place when they take as their unit of conceptual analysis the state. Remove the regime of capital and the state would remain, although it might change dramatically; remove the state and the regimen of capital would not last a day.”

The state provides capital with avenues of transportation for their goods as well as avenues of communication to open up new markets and keep those open that are at present offering the owners large profits. The state also provides the capitalist with trained (if not educated) workers and health care for the employees in order to enable them to continue to work and produce commodities and goods. This is in addition the huge military machine that, as Heilbroner suggests above, defends the capitalist from those who would threaten his profit-making activities. In addition, as we have seen especially in recent times, the government stands ready to bail out struggling or failed businesses, — as in the case of such things as farm subsidies and the recent bailouts of the banking industry and two of the three major auto companies in this country.  Government is absolutely necessary to the continued existence of business and the health of our economy. It is perceived as Big Brother watching and nay-saying, but it is in fact Big Brother who makes it possible for those who would do away with it to prosper.

At present, of course, we have a president in this country who is a staunch advocate of minimal state, because he also sees the state as having outgrown its usefulness. He would do away with those regulatory agencies that protect the citizens and their health, forgetting in the process that upon their good health depends the continued prosperity of such things as, oh I don’t know, say, the hotels and resorts that have made the man a fortune? The desire to minimize the state and reduce, if not eliminate altogether, its role in our economy is myopic, to say the least. It sees only what it wants to see in its paranoid condition, and ignores the fact that the political state is the underpinning of everything they regard as valuable, namely, those things that have made (and keep) them healthy and wealthy. It is short-sighted, if not simply stupid — not unlike the continued ignorance of global warming that is a direct threat to their continued existence, not to mention the continued growth of their obscene wealth.  It’s as stupid as, say, thinking this nation can go it alone in the day of international conglomerates and global business in which the economies of the nations of the world depend upon one another as never before. Isolationism is not the answer; it’s not even a desirable option. Neither is libertarianism. We all depend upon one another in so many ways — as never before.

Seeking Answers

I hesitate to suggest a possible explanation for the increasing nervousness that seems to be surrounding us. Clearly, there are numerous causes. But the fact that people are growing increasingly fearful is clear and it behooves those of us who seek to understand to suggest possible reasons for that fear. As increasing  numbers of people in this country turn to people like Trump for answers we must admit that many seek a person or persons who can make them feel safer from the evils that surround them and which are exaggerated at every possible opportunity by those who seek power over them.

But the fear is more widespread than just in this country as we see England withdraw from the European Union and we hear about coups in Turkey and massive killings in France. The world is in turmoil and clear heads are hard to find in the midst of confusion. The trend is decidedly toward isolationism as folks seem convinced they are safer if left alone and rid of people unlike themselves. We see it on a personal level as the trend toward what I have called “inverted consciousness,” the tendency to fixate on the self and personalize all issues, has gradually become commonplace. The social media simply exacerbate the problem. And we now are beginning see it on an international level as countries seek to isolate themselves and turn their attention inward rather than outwards.

A blogging buddy of mine has suggested on his blog that we need to build bridges rather than fences and he is right. Until or unless folks start talking with one another they will continue to fear what they do not understand. And as the human population grows, the planet becomes more crowded, and violence becomes more widespread among frustrated and fearful people, the desire for fences, unfortunately, will become even greater. Fear is the rule of the day and the demagogues who seek public office know this better than anyone. They feed on it and pass it around like porridge, knowing that starving folks will gobble it down. And they offer solutions in the form of platitudes and over simplifications — and downright lies. Their seeming command of answers reassures those who have none and who live with their own sense of powerlessness. “Deliver us from evil.” That is the promise.

The fact is, however, that others cannot solve our problems. We cannot escape the fear except by knowing more and we cannot understand others without opening lines of communication with them. DeTocqueville once said that Americans desire freedom but they would trade it away in a second for equality — they want what others have more than they want the freedom that brings with it the burden of responsibility. The same could be said about security. We talk about freedom and think we have it here in this country. But we vie with our neighbors and we wallow in fear of those who seem to threaten us in one way or another. It appears we will settle for the security offered by those who promise to rid us of our fears, even if in doing so we abandon freedom altogether. That way lies totalitarianism, political control by the few and powerful.

In any event, we must not look to others for solutions. We must seek solutions ourselves. We must come out of ourselves and turn toward others since that is the way toward increased understanding. Others might frighten us (heaven knows Trump frightens me) but we must try to listen to what they have to say and figure out some way to open lines of communication rather than turn away, build fences, and seek safety in our hidey-holes. The answer is not found in social media or self-absorption, and it is not in the lies and empty promises of vapid politicians; rather it lies in seeking to know the truth about the real world, terrifying though it is, and the people who make up the real world, terrifying though they can be at times.