Turmoil in the Middle East has resulted in the fall of governments in Egypt, Tunisia, probably in Libya and Yemen, possibly in Bahrain, Syria, maybe even Iran and more. Protests continue in Greece, London, Portugal and other EU nations. Here in the United States, actions to curb union power in Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan have sparked unrest. Is there a common thread? Yes. Statism or collectivism, has once again proven unsustainable.
Whether it comes about through military coup or democratic elections, the underlying principals of statism, or collectivism are the same. The central authority, which produces nothing, takes from some and redistributes to others. The idea is that a small group of knowledgeable, wise, benevolent overseers can more efficiently and fairly distribute the fruits of the labor of the general population for the benefit of all. Overseers can be unions, elected officials, kings or dictators, but the promise is the same.
It has proven to be a compelling proposal. It’s failed a number of times, yet people still gravitate to it. The idea that you can contribute a little and have all your worries and cares tended to by someone else seems to be quite attractive. In fact people are even willing to give up quite a bit of their own personal freedom in exchange for such security, if you can deliver. Therein lies the rub.
The upheaval in the Middle East is not centered on religion or ethnicity or even political philosophy. It stems from shortages of food, employment, basic services and all the things the totalitarian governments there have promised to deliver. After decades of living under oppression, the people there have finally determined that it’s not working. They don’t necessarily have a new system in mind. They just know the current one is no good.
In the case of EU democracies, politicians have gotten themselves elected by continually promising more and more from government in the form of services, employment, pensions, housing, job security and other entitlements. Now they’re at a point where even the politicians have to admit that they can’t deliver what they promised. People are angry. They are actually demanding a continuation of the status quo, which is impossible. Something’s going to give.
In the U.S., the Great Lakes States were once the center of global manufacturing. There was lots of money and there were lots of jobs, but all was not well. Workers were getting a raw deal. Enter the unions. For a small fee, the union would advocate on your behalf in negotiations with management. This seemed to make perfect sense, until they evolved far beyond employee advocacy organizations. Unions began offering benefits in addition to advocacy. This costs money. Dues went up. They further evolved to take on political advocacy. The idea was that what they couldn’t achieve at the negotiating table, they could accomplish through legislation. They increasingly got involved in funding political campaigns. Of course, the very notion that a group of union representatives can better select your government representatives than you can, assumes that your life is primarily about your work; the work you do for the collective. If you prefer a different candidate, well, you’re just not a team player. As unions increased the mandates on producers, producers left the states and/or the country, seeking more affordable locales and workforces. Some went out of business. All turned increasingly to automation. The more expensive humans become, the more affordable machines become by comparison. The union movement sought more fertile grounds in the public sector. That worked out great for awhile, as the public trough seemed bottomless. It’s not, and once again they and their membership have to tangle with the reality that they cannot possibly deliver on their promise.
The alternative to the collective is self-reliance and a government that provides an infrastructure that makes it possible. Government can remove the threat of force from transactions so that a free market can be developed based on the cumulative decisions of individuals engaging in free trade. Government can also serve as arbiter between parties who disagree in good faith as to whether or not one or the other has upheld their agreement. There’s no guarantee that you’ll get what you want or even what you need, but there’s no fees for empty promises involved either, and contrary to popular belief, charity still takes place and even thrives within free markets.
I don’t know if the current global turmoil will result in a shift away from statism and collectives and toward self-reliance and limited government or if people will opt for a “new and improved” brand of collectivism. I’m inclined to think that most people still hold out hope for state-provided, cradle to grave security, no matter how many times its futility is demonstrated. I do know for certain that if you expect bigger, more pervasive governance to improve your quality of life, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. As Plato put it, you’ve got to tend your own garden.