Monday, December 26, 2016

I saw Mommy kissing the continuing resolution

Drawing by Thomas Nast, 1881, via Wikipedia.
Blogfriend Steve M, on holiday, surfaced on the Twitter to react to a piece of sublime idiocy from the tax crusader Grover Norquist:

It struck me that there's actually something to that; not, I mean, that government is a bishop from Anatolia who's been dead for 16 centuries so we're foolish to believe it exists. Or that we should leave a plate of cookies and a glass of milk for the OSHA inspector because he's our dad. What Grover said, as opposed to what The Hill reported, is a little more sophisticated.

Question to Radio Yerevan: Is it true that Frédéric Bastiat called the state the "dangerous fiction by which everyone hopes to live off others' work?

Answer: In principle, yes. But, first of all, he called it a "great fiction", not a "dangerous" one; second of all, he was talking about how everyone made an effort to live, not how they "hoped"; third of all, everybody was seen as attempting to live off everybody (WikiQuotes translates "everyone else", but there's no justification in the original), not "others"; and fourth of all, they were attempting to live at everybody's expense, not everybody's "work":
L'Etat c'est la grande fiction à travers laquelle tout le monde s'efforce de vivre aux dépens de tout le monde./ The State is the great fiction through which everybody endeavors to live at everybody's expense.
He does talk about enjoying the fruits of others' labor, "jouir du travail d'autrui", elsewhere in the essay the quote is taken from, but that's how the quote itself goes, and there's no reason to imagine Grover might have looked at the whole thing in any case.

Bastiat (1801-50) wasn't worried about anybody living off his labor; he lived work-free on the proceeds of the farm estate he'd inherited, at 24, from his grandfather. In spite of his proto-Austrian belief in the intrinsic selfishness of man, he seems to have worked very hard, first at the study of English-style economics and other matters, and then at writing voluminously about it, in witty and aphoristic denunciations of just about every possible government activity from tariff collection through infrastructure building to public education, until the Revolution of 1848 catapulted him into running for the New National Assembly. Then he died, two years later, of tuberculosis, a disease government-sponsored scientists like Jean-Antoine Villemin and Robert Koch were just beginning to understand thanks to the large-scale research projects that were becoming possible at the time through public investment. Marx called Bastiat, in the preface to the second edition of Capital vol. I (1873),  "the most superficial and, therefore, the most complete representative of the apologetics of vulgar economics" ("der flachste und daher gelungenste Vertreter der vulgärökonomischen Apologetik").

The state he was writing about in that feuilleton really was fictional, in the sense that it was in the process of being created, by the revolutionaries, as the Second French Republic, and it wasn't clear how it would work out; every possible interest group was in Paris demanding special treatment, nobody was offering to make any sacrifices, and in the end, as we know, the whole thing fell apart in short order when President Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte decided he preferred to be the Emperor, like his famous uncle.

But what Bastiat was complaining about was the usual rightwing strawman picture of a state without limits, which will attempt to remove every source of conflict from people's lives, a state
with bread for every mouth, work for every arm, capital for every enterprise, salve for every wound, balm for every pain, counsel for every perplexity, truth for every intelligence, solutions for every doubt, distractions for every kind of boredom, milk for childhood, wine for old age, providing for all our needs, anticipating all our desires, satisfying all our curiosities, redressing all our mistakes, atoning for all our sins, excusing us forever henceforth from foresight, prudence, judgment, wisdom, experience, order, thrift, temperance, and activity.
Bastiat had a sort of interesting way of claiming that the United States, which he admired, was free of this sort of abstract state, by the rhetoric of the Preamble to the Constitution, in which it is the people themselves ("nous, le peuple") who set out to do the ordaining and establishing:
No chimerical creation here, no abstraction from which the citizens demand everything. They expect nothing except from themselves and their own energy.
Norquist's Santa analogy exposes the falsity of the whole construct, without Norquist actually realizing it. Because though there may be no factory or reindeer stable at the North Pole, no living miracle-working fat dude in white beard and red outfit, Santa Claus is certainly real, in the determination of parents around the world to make sure their children feel protected by some deeply mysterious but benign power, up until the ages of six or seven. Santaism is the real American religion, in fact, not the Christianity with which it is loosely associated, and parents are Santa's mystical body, sacrificing themselves freely to maintain the tradition.

 (Yes, it's wrecked in so many ways by the trumpery of the economic Christmas system, the advertising, the crappiness and ugliness of the things, the slave labor that produces them, the pervasive status anxiety, and the existence of the rich displaying what great stuff they got for Christmas, but I really want to think at a humbler level just for now.)

In the same way, the "state" in a republic works or is supposed to work as the projection of all the people, or all the voters at least, doing the collective will, citizens making the country a better place. I mean when it's working properly, which nobody would likely want to argue it is at the moment, partly no doubt because we've lost so much faith that it can ever work, under the decades of attack by people like Grover and his friends.

But what Grover doesn't understand is what the little children see in the morning, when they pad out to the room with the tree, that there's still something there, even in hard times, because the real Santa is people, and people do care.

Devoutly wishing the state could be a little more like that, not less...

Cross-posted at No More Mister Nice Blog.

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