Toynbee, in his chapter titled Social Effects of the Lycurgan Reforms, wrote the following:
“A tug-o’-war between public and private interests at Sparta gradually produced the peculiar Spartan spirit in which the way of life was reflected. The pressures that, at Sparta, were stamping human nature with this peculiar imprint became more and more severe as Sparta’s situation, within her own dominions and abroad, became more and more difficult. But even the utmost turn of the screw could not change human nature. All that it could do was to repress nature; and, if and when the pressure was removed or was even just relaxed, the rebound of human nature was correspondingly violent.”
This quote, as it relates to the Spartans, will be discussed in the next post, but I will use it here to reference the political situation in the United States today. As my readers know, one of the themes of this blog is “relating ancient history to today”. This is one of those comparison points -- the situation where the American Progressive movement is hard at its attempt to implement neo-socialism in America. Neo-socialism, in my use, refers to government control of industry rather than the more classic definition of government ownership. We see government now controlling health care, wanting to control our relationship to the environment, these initiatives to be funded by a re-distribution of wealth through taxation. My first inclination is to suggest that these programs are too idealistic for human nature and will, in the end, be ineffective, but we’ll have to analyze this further.
I wrote about Marx in a post called Karl Marx Redux on September 3, 2009. In that article I discussed Marx’s lack of knowledge of antiquity, and stated that if he would have known the history, he would have realized his own theory was suspect. By theory I mean his notion that people can somehow be made socio-economically equal in a society -- that we can create a system where all people have an equal standing and the rich and poor are eliminated as constituencies. According to Marx, a revolution is supposed to occur by the force of human will when the lower classes become galvanized to overcome repression at the hands of the wealthy and their evil corporations. We all know how the story ends. Communism turned out to be the antithesis of equally when it was implemented via an autocratic bureaucracy.
Today, we have a different force at work; theoretical ideas of the left wing elitist academic class, who believes that leveling society is “the right thing to do”. This fairness doctrine is defined as the rich do not deserve their wealth so as much of it as possible should be taken for the benefit of lower classes.
Communism failed because it was idealistic and did not take into account human behavior. European socialism worked for a time, but now it has run out of money and is experiencing the economic impact of inefficiency. So why are we trying to duplicate something that no longer works in Europe?
The fundamental problem with neo-socialism are that it represents an unrealistic view of man in society AND its attempts to create human leveling are doomed to failure because they can only be inefficiently implemented, and, in the end, will not accomplish their purpose.
I call neo-socialism unrealistic because it imagines that if society were leveled, people would be better off. Somehow the have-nots by becoming haves would be happy. Of course, the main assumption behind this is that they desire to live in this new “leveled” society and be the haves. How well the new haves will be able to manage themselves, after they have been pulled out of a lifestyle that was familiar and placed into one that is foreign is open to question.
In the real world, human nature is quite divergent. People’s accomplishments depend on their intelligence and personality type. These two factors largely determine where a person ends up (as long as he hasn’t been born rich) and there is little that society can do to change this equation. Obviously, there are exceptions; a child who escapes the ghetto to enroll in Harvard Medical School being an obvious example. Still, the majority combine their birth situation, family experience, environment, intelligence, and personality traits to achieve what they achieve, and government proscribing their ultimate placement in society is not only unrealistic but a violation of basic human rights. An artificial “leveler” is as silly as Marx’s notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Let’s set up our leveling system and see how it works. We said we would have the tax rates adjusted to take money from the rich and re-distribute it to the poor. What amount is to be taken? Is a fair amount $ 1,000 per rich person or $ 10,000? How do we decide who to give the money to? Do we start with the poorest, maybe the homeless, and give them money first? How do we know when they have enough money? When they can pay for an apartment? Or when their apartment is full of furniture and they have purchased a car?
The bottom 22% of the American population (yearly income) has about 16,700,000 families. These are people who make less than $ 30,000 per year. The median income of all Americans is $ 65,000, so should we raise the lowest 22% up to the median? If we assume the median income of the lowest 22% is $ 15,000 per year, then it will take $ 50,000 x 16.7 million families or $ 835,000,000,000 to raise the lowest 22%. We still have 28% more families to take care of who are below the median.
Now we have to come up with a mechanism to manage the leveling, so we will create a government bureaucracy to handle the task. This bureaucracy will need tens of thousands of employees to keep track of everything. If person A becomes a “have” he has to be taken off the have-nots list, but remain in monitor status to make sure he doesn’t split back. If he does, the flow of money to him has to begin again. At all times, we will have new haves being monitored, have-nots being funded, and old rich haves giving up their money. Oh yea, we’ll have to monitor the old haves too because they may slip into have-not status.
This all sounds ridiculous doesn’t it?
In the real world the rich would have their taxes raised to generate the required $ 835 billion. Then Congress would have to decide how to distribute that money through programs it would create. There would be programs for education, programs for housing, programs for food distribution, and programs for jobs. Wouldn’t those programs have to have a lot of complicated rules? How would they be managed to insure successful outcomes? Wouldn’t they be inefficient like every other bureaucracy?
The other question we have to ask is “How comfortable are we with the permanence of this solution?” In other words is this a teleological (end justifies the means) or deontological (means justifies the ends)? Those on the side of the former are on shaky ground because we cannot predict the long term outcome of a radical re-structuring of a society. Those on the side of the latter can prove their point if there are benefits to society as we move along toward the future. But reality is reality and what will happen will happen.
Today’s western society is in its youth compared to the ancient societies. The Greek Polis lasted 500 years – Rome between Republic and Empire 1000 years. Modern western society had its beginning with the American revolution, a mere two hundred and forty-four years ago. If you read the ancient histories, you know that political systems evolve, as Polybius suggested. Each one has a beginning, middle, and end according to the forces at work on the culture. Radical changes can be effective for a time, but as Toynbee suggests, circumstances spring people back to an equilibrium state at some point.