Friday, February 05, 2016

Galbraith on "What Ever Happened to Conservatives?"

Political economist, James K. Galbraith, wrote The Predator State toward the end of the Bush/Cheney fiasco. In this book he dissects what today stands as our economic orthodoxy - globalization and free market fundamentalism.

Galbraith doesn't denounce the High Priests of modern neoliberalism - Hayak, Friedman et al - as charlatans. To the contrary he contends they all started out as true believers who just happened to catch the attention of Reagan, Thatcher and Mulroney who found this economic ideology entirely suited to their political fantasies.

What Galbraith points out is that long ago even Friedman and his apostles realized they were wrong. Their theories were tried and they failed. They did not deliver the predicted outcomes.

The issue is not whether the great conservative ideas once had appeal or a foundation in reputable theory. The issue is whether they have a future. And on that point, there is general agreement today, largely shared even by those who still believe passionately in the conservative cause. The fact is that the Reagan era panoply of ideas has been abandoned as the intellectual basis of a political program. ...The economic conservative still reigns supreme in the academy and on the talk shows, but in the public realm, he is today practically null and void. He does not exist. And if he were to resurface today in the policy world offering up the self-confident doctrines of 1980, he would be taken seriously by no one.

... There is a reason, in short, that principled conservatives find themselves in the political wilderness once again: they belong there. They are noble savages and the wilderness is their native element. They do not belong in government because, as a practical matter, they have little to contribute to it; they are guilty of taking the myths they helped create too seriously, and to sophisticated people, that makes then look a bit foolish.

A Flawed Ideology that Became a Contagion that Infects Us to This Day.

...few politicians in either party have yet publicly divorced themselves from the Reagan Revolution, in particular from the idea of the free market. Politicians notoriously say what is convenient and act along different lines entirely, causing problems for those who try to write about their views in a careful and serious way. But perhaps on no other issue is this tendency more pronounced than in matters relating to the markets, a word one apparently cannot use in the United States without bending a knee and making the sign of the cross.

And here the political world is divided into two groups. The are those who praise the free market because to do so gives cover to themselves and their friends in raiding the public trough. These people call themselves "conservatives," and one of the truly galling thing for real conservatives is that they have both usurped the label and spoiled the reputation of the real thing. And there are those who praise the "free market" simply because they fear that, otherwise, they will be exposed as heretics, accused of being socialists, perhaps even driven from public life. This is the case of many liberals. Reflexive invocations of the power of markets, the "magic" of markets, and the virtues of a "free enterprise system" therefore remain staples of political speech on both sides of the political aisle. However, they have been emptied of practical content, and the speakers know it.

...the Left has been doing too little thinking of its own. Liberals have yet to develop a coherent post-Reagan theory of the world, let alone a policy program informed by the political revelations, world policy changes and scientific realities. ...In consequence, new economic issues emerging under the influence of pressing events are dangerously underexamined. These issues include war, climate change, energy supply, corruption and fraud including election fraud, the collapse of public governing capacity, the perilous position of the international dollar and the position of immigrants in American society. These issues form the crux of the future of economic policy ...but none of these issues is geting more than passing development as yet from those to whom liberals look for ideas.

Re-read that last passage and ask if you haven't felt that same way, particularly since the ascendancy of Stephen Harper. There are so many issues that should be shaping our national policy - economic, social, military and international - that seem discarded by those who chart our nation's path, those who today write our grandchildren's future.

It seems as though, with each grand trade deal (they're not "free" trade, nothing of the sort), we give up aspects of state sovereignty to the corporate sector until, eventually, the state becomes only partially governable without the acquiescence of the new multinational power partner. The political caste has enfeebled its ability to govern coherently by shackles it freely clasped to its wrists and ankles.

That may be the undercurrent that will lead today's government to yield to one more fetter, the Trans Pacific Trade pact. The best argument I've heard in favour of TPP is that while it won't do Canada much good, we'll be really buggered if we don't sign on, if we refuse to succumb.

We have allowed transnationals to become more than super conduits of trade. We have established them as political powers in their own right and, in the process, we are creating what Galbraith calls "the Predator State."


Hugh said...

Reducing GHG emissions would mean a reduction long-distance trade I would think. Like not importing milk from New Zealand.

Owen Gray said...

As I read the last highlighted passage, Mound, I thought of how much the second J.K. Galbraith was indeed the son of the first J.K. Galbraith.

The Mound of Sound said...

I'm having an intriguing albeit unnerving time exploring the underpinning of modern neoliberalism through the writings of people like Galbraith, Philip Mirowski, Gar Alperovitz and, of course, John Ralston Saul. It's telling how the history they depict forms a compelling supportive narrative for the Steady State economic theorists such as Herman Daly, Norgaard, Costanza, Goodland and Prugh.

All of this reinforces my suspicion that we have been powerfully "conditioned" (there's no other word for it) to accept a false reality no more substantive than the 19th century snake oil salesmen of the Wild West.

In the process of our conditioning we have accepted and burdened ourselves with a supposed orthodoxy that is toxic, even lethal. At its core lies our unquestioning belief in perpetual, exponential growth and its role as the default operating system of the political castes in the Developed World.

Even today, even here in Canada, every one of our political leaders speaks "in tongues" of growth, growth, and more growth as the mystical elixir that cures everything from toothache to social inequality. As it continues to fail, our response is to double down on this horrible bet, heedless of how this must end.

I think I'm coming to a more complete understanding of the phenomenon Jared Diamond explores in his book "Collapse."

Toby said...

We have a word for perpetual growth. That word is cancer.

The Mound of Sound said...

Amen to that, Toby. The thing is, how do we change course if that's not already too late?

Hugh said...

The only way to sustain the growing debt load is with more growth.

This would make sense if planet earth were growing as well.