Wednesday, March 2, 2005

Privatizing Unity

Indulge my cut-and-paste of Robert Steinback in the Miami Herald. I can’t do it justice if I cut it, and even though it’s free, registering for the Herald is an inconvenience. So here’s the whole thing. It’s worth it to risk fair-use abuse for this.

There are only a few elementary forces capable of naturally binding a people together as a society or nation. Unrestrained, across-the-board privatization attacks the only desirable bonding agent the people of the United States have — our sense of shared social commitment.

I fear that the relentless, unabated push for privatization will eventually turn America into a nation of dog-eat-dog, every-person-for-himself competitors, shredding our sense of shared national destiny — which has been the strength of all Western nations. How, after all, can you bond with someone you are conditioned at every turn to view as a rival to be bested?

Make no mistake: The wall-to-wall privatization of American society is the goal of Bushian economic strategy. Both President George Bush and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush view every government revenue stream as ripe for diversion to the private sector — Social Security, Medicare, public schools, prisons, child safety and welfare, health-insurance coverage, even military operations and more.

Not all privatization is bad. Free-market competition is the best choice where profit, efficiency, capital distribution and innovation are the goals. The breakup of AT&T’s government-protected monopoly in 1984 unleashed healthy market forces to sort out rightful winners and losers in the telecommunications industry. I can envision a day when the U.S. Postal Service is privatized.

Sometimes, though, society properly wants everyone to succeed. Do we really want some children to win while others lose? Is it desirable for some elderly people get adequate food and medical care while others don’t? Should competition determine who gets mental-health or drug-addiction treatment, the chance to go to college or proper prenatal care?

Free-market competition works fine for those capable of competing. But children, the elderly, the mentally ill, the unemployed and other groups can’t effectively compete for their own prosperity. A true nation frees capable individuals to be productive, yet joins together to support and encourage those who aren’t productive yet, are no longer productive or who need help in order to regain productivity. You are free to rise as far as you want individually, but we should unite as a nation to mitigate the worst of life’s ills: uneducated and exploited children, desperate and suffering elderly, abandonment of the mentally and physically ill, hunger and destitution for the able-bodied but unfortunate.

This concept of shared national goals and sacrifices emerged only in the 20th century as the industrial revolution progressed. From it came universal public education, labor unions, child labor laws, food safety standards, Social Security, welfare and unemployment insurance among many other government policies.

In its extreme forms — communism and pure socialism — this philosophy morphs into tyranny. But in its milder Western form, social welfare consciousness is just a safety net for those unable to compete.

There are two other natural forces — ancient ones — that bind people together as nations. One is a shared tribal or cultural history, which the United States, as a nation of immigrants, never had. The other is war — the threat of an external enemy.

Prior to the 20th century, America struggled for its national identity. Rivalries among the states finally erupted in the Civil War in 1861.

What finally put the ”united” in U.S.A. were World Wars I and II, and in between, the Great Depression. All Americans suffered through all three, and the nation triumphed together. But this cohesion is threatened by Bushian privatization — of which the governor’s proposed expanded school-voucher program, and the president’s proposals for Social Security modifications are the latest volleys.

I see an ominous link between the president’s economic and international policies.

Bushian philosophy overtly encourages us, as a national mission, to concern ourselves only with our families, not our fellow citizens. Save for your own retirement. Educate your own kids. Worry about your own productivity. Let your fellow Americans fend for themselves.

With no common tribal history, and no sense of shared social commitment post-privatization, what generator of national unity will remain for us as Americans?

Ah, yes. War. War in Iraq. War in Syria. War in Iran. War against terrorists. Never-ending war.

One day soon, it may be all that unites us Americans.