What do uptopians and libertarians have in common? Their principles are both unrealistic and unworkable — doomed to inevitable failure. Belief that like-minded people can live together in harmony with minimal government and maximum freedom by adhering to commonly held principles ignores centuries of human history that say otherwise. Distrust of government only adds to the rate of failure.
True believers invariably have highly selective viewpoints, willingly ignoring how human nature and behavior consistently undermine every attempt to create a more “perfect” form of human existence. Distrusting government is particularly foolish. Who other than government is going to champion the greater good. And even this requires a general consensus as to what the greater good is and how it is best achieved. Citizens have to understand and accept that because of the flaws and imperfections of humans, their institutions will always have these as well.
Libertarianism is really just a variation of utopianism, with deeply flawed assumptions. Inadequate personal freedom and tyrannical government are fictional themes from those who promote a mythology of U.S. history that fails fact-checking and leaves out all the contradictions. Distrust of government includes the assertion that taxes are theft and can never be low enough. This ignores that cutting taxes to make an economy more successful isn’t supported by economic data, but can and does undermine the greater good. (Kansas, thanks to its clueless governor and legislature, is the current example of this.) There’s a trillion plus dollars of student debt now because of inadequate government investment in higher education (matched by inadequate investment in infrastructure). I have long maintained that American exceptionalism is 10 percent true and 90 percent just made up.
It’s not cynical to note that what worked, or at least helped, in the late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries is no longer doing so. Both democracy and capitalism need rethinking for the 21st. This is the utter failure of conservative ideology and libertarianism. They are mired in a past — largely misremembered while being idolized — that no longer exists. This country, like so many others, has changed, and going back is not an option. This century is going to present unprecedented challenges at a time when the U.S. is becoming increasingly dysfunctional politically and economically.
Many U.S. voters are like the definition of insanity — doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Those electing and reelecting candidates who don’t champion the role of government as an agent of change and problem-solving are enabling decline. They get the government they deserve, as do those who don’t vote. The only way to stop decline is by electing moderates who believe in the power of governance to get things done and make things better for the greater good. Elect those who like the way things were back when, and the country’s problems will only get worse.
Here’s an axiom I find pragmatically realistic: If you think your country is the greatest on the planet, it probably isn’t. This belief in exceptional greatness is simply narcissistic nationalism that pretends things can’t be as good or better elsewhere. Perhaps they aren’t better in all ways in other nations, but they often aren’t worse, and many times they actually are better. The U.S. has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, and many in that 4+ percent do not experience greatness. Except for perhaps the top 15 percent of the U.S. population in the coming decades, the economic quality of life for the rest will remain static or decline. Simultaneously, it will improve for larger percentages in other countries.
The difference is that capitalism with socialism, taxes with pro-active government policies and an overall trust in government are accomplishing what isn’t happening in this country. The U.S. is the only developed country without a plan. No economic and social roadmap, no defined problem-solving goals and no compelling, innovative governance. In a changed world, American exceptionalism is a liability. Too many Americans distrust their government even as inequity and stagnant mobility erode their lives and their futures. No amount of praying while bemoaning the moral collapse of the country will change any of this.
The moderates and pragmatists who don’t vote, or don’t vote at mid-term elections, aren’t helping. Candidates who are the least capable of, and most inept at, responsible governance are elected by those who are well right of center and vote consistently. These voters represent less than 20 percent of the electorate, so it becomes government by minority, not majority. And that’s the reason for failing governance. When women and ethnic-racial minorities aren’t voting in large numbers in every election, they are contributing to the problem and its effect on them.
Greatness is in the details. I noted months ago that while governance is failing most at the nation-state level, it is thriving and effective at the city level. Mayors are getting things done because residents hold them accountable for doing so. Out of necessity, mayors are pragmatists, not political party failures. But this won’t help with the larger issues that remain unaddressed by national politics and the legislative branch. While the Koch brothers are funding their agenda through grants to colleges and universities with stipulations and through political action committees run by know-nothing tea party zealots, national governance is barely functioning thanks to those who do vote…and those who don’t.