Tag Archives: co-operation

Now I Get It!

For several years now, I’ve been confused about the GOP’s constant warnings about  “socialism”–usually invoked to dismiss reasonable government efforts to address obvious problems and inefficiencies. Typically, the target of those accusations bears little or no resemblance to socialism.

Thanks to a recent column by one of my two favorite Nobel-winning economists, Paul Krugman (the other is Joseph Stiglitz), I now understand. 

It isn’t that Republicans don’t know what socialism is, although most clearly don’t. They  define any social co-operation as socialism.

Krugman’s column connected the dots between several seemingly disparate policy areas: gun rights, COVID vaccine denial and Bitcoin, and explained how Republican policies–really, Republican antipathy to anything that might be considered an actual policy–can all be explained by the party’s rejection of Hobbes’ famous proclamation about the necessity of society, and the very negative consequences of living in a “state of nature.” (Life becomes “nasty, brutish and short.”)

Krugman began by reminding readers of the failure of Texas’ electrical grid during the deep freeze last winter. Governor Abbott’s bizarre response wasn’t to strengthen the grid by requiring energy companies to winterize; it was to encourage Texan Bitcoin mining.

This would supposedly reduce the risk of outages because Bitcoin’s huge electricity consumption would eventually expand the state’s generation capacity.

Yes, that’s as crazy as it sounds. But it fits a pattern.

Then there’s the Florida legislature under Governor DeSantis–intent on blocking any measure that might limit the spread of COVID.

They have, however, gone all in on antibody treatments that are far more expensive than vaccines, with DeSantis demanding that the Food and Drug Administration allow use of antibodies that, the F.D.A. has found, don’t work against Omicron.

Krugman then reminds us (as if we needed reminding!) that, although America leads the world in massacres of school children, Republicans absolutely refuse to enact widely-supported, common-sense measures like restrictions on gun sales, required background checks or bans on privately owned assault weapons. Instead, they want to expand access to guns and, in many states, “protect” students by arming schoolteachers.

What do these examples have in common? As Thomas Hobbes could have told you, human beings can only flourish, can only avoid a state of nature in which lives are “nasty, brutish and short,” if they participate in a “commonwealth” — a society in which government takes on much of the responsibility for making life secure. Thus, we have law enforcement precisely so individuals don’t have to go around armed to protect themselves against other people’s violence.

Public health policy, if you think about it, reflects the same principle. Individuals can and should take responsibility for their own health, when they can; but the nature of infectious disease means that there is an essential role for collective action, whether it is public investment in clean water supplies or, yes, mask and vaccine mandates during a pandemic.

And you don’t have to be a socialist to recognize the need for regulation to maintain the reliability of essential aspects of the economy like electricity supply and the monetary system.

Reading this led me to an “aha” moment. The reason the GOP misuses the word “socialism” is that they have confused this essential social co-operation with the top-down central planning conducted by hardline socialist states. (Democratic socialism of the sort practiced in Scandinavian countries is apparently beyond their capacity to recognize or imagine.)

Krugman says that the modern American right is antisocial —not anti-socialist.  It summarily rejects any policy that relies on social cooperation. The policies he has enumerated, and a number of others, would return us to Hobbes’s dystopian state of nature.

We won’t try to keep guns out of the hands of potential mass murderers; instead, we’ll rely on teacher-vigilantes to gun them down once the shooting has already started. We won’t try to limit the spread of infectious diseases; instead, we’ll tell people to take drugs that are expensive, ineffective or both after they’ve already gotten sick.

Even the party’s weird embrace of Bitcoin falls into this category. As Krugman notes, a number of Republicans have become fanatics about cryptocurrency. He quotes one  Senate candidate who proclaims himself to be “pro-God, pro-family, pro-Bitcoin.” Krugman notes that cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin

play into a fantasy of self-sufficient individualism, of protecting your family with your personal AR-15, treating your Covid with an anti-parasite drug or urine and managing your financial affairs with privately created money, untainted by institutions like governments or banks.

In the end, none of this will work. Government exists for a reason. But the right’s constant attacks on essential government functions will take a toll, making all of our lives nastier, more brutish and shorter.

We need to move America’s Overton Window back from the brink….