Sunday, August 23, 2009
The Man Who Poured America Down The Drain by William Kleinknecht
The appeal of Ronald Reagan to certain segments of the country is no mystery. America was deeply paranoid and insecure in the late 1970's, a time when oil shocks and resulting stagflation had threatened American prosperity to a degree not seen since the Great Depression. The invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union and the seizure of the American hostages in Iran made us fear for our ability to stave off our enemies in a dangerous world. The economist Robert Heilbroner wrote of those years that "a great national illusion was gradually destroyed- the illusion that an invisible sheild surrounded the United States that held at bay the brutalities and irrationalities that seemed to be part of the life of other nations, but not our own."
Reagan was the perfect antidote to this gloominess and uncertainty. He seemed to personify the confidence and elan of America's past. It hardly mattered that he was misrepresenting that past as a laissez-faire utopia. What was important- at least to the 27 percent of eligible voters who pulled the lever for him in 1980, a year with record low turnout at the polls- was the intensity of his convictions. Such assuredness has deep resonance in American history. It is indeed the central; tenet of the only important American-bred schjool of philosophy, pragmatism, which emphasizes basing one's actions and ethics on personal experience rather than an abstract search for the truth. "The true", wrote William James, "is the name for whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief, and good, too, for definate and assignable reason'. In his famous essay Self-Reliance, Emerson had provided the foundation for pragmatism: "To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men- that is genius."
It is axiomatic that great men bend history to their will, and that the peculiarities of their own psychology, or their understanding- warped or not- of long-dead philosophers, can become the dominant ethos of an age. It is no less certain that the masses are more easily swayed by appeals to the emotions than to their intellects. Even a humanist like the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr could fault liberalism as "the gray spirit of compromise", lacking the fervency and power of myth. "Liberalism", he wrote, "is too intellectual and too little emotional to be a force in history."
But the genius of James and Emerson, while inspiring as philosophy and edifying to the individual in search of self-esteem and self-justification, while potentially electrifying on the campaign stump, is not necessarily a recipe for sound government or stewardship of something so complex as the American economy. In public policy, as in science, there are truths and there are untruths, and the wrong actions have dire consequences.
It has proven untrue that deeply slashing income taxes promotes investment and creates an increase in tax revenues; it has proved disasterously untrue that deregulating the financial sector benefits the consumer; it has proved tragically untrue that abandoning social-welfare spending and locking up millions of young black men solve the problems of the inner city.
The fervency with which Reagan believed these things, and the riches they brought to certain Americans, did not make them true.
Our nation was founded on the principles of the Enlightenment, the idea of a society based on reason, democracy and social contract, not on the perquisites of monarchs and aristocrats. The Progressive Era and the New Deal rested on those principles. They brought intellect to bear on the most serious problems of society. Reaganism replaced Enlightenment thinking with a corrupted Romanticism that portrays free-market purism as an article of religious faith that is the real meaning of America. The answer to any of the economic challenges of the twenty-first century is to do nothing. Cut taxes, eviscerate all regulation of private enterprise, and trust the market to guide our fates.
With Reaganism has come an abandonment of all faith in reason and progress, and it has accrued manifestly to the detriment of the average American. It is the fate of that common lot of humanity that is the subject of this book.