Democracy is dying. Time to get to work.
I came across an article by George Monbiot (www.monbiot.com) that appeared in the Guardian this July. In this article, Monbiot writes about James McGill Buchanan, an economist influenced by neoliberalism and deeply funded by billionaire Charles Koch, the 7th wealthiest person in the world.
According to Monbiot, Buchanan was an advocate for what he called the public choice theory. The general gist is that “society could not be considered free unless every citizen has the right to veto its decisions. What he meant by this was that no one should be taxed against their will. But the rich were being exploited by people who use their votes to demand money that others have earned, through involuntary taxes to support public spending and welfare. Allowing workers to form trade unions and imposing graduated income taxes are forms of “differential or discriminatory legislation” against the owners of capital.
“Any clash between what he called ‘freedom’ (allowing the rich to do as they wished) and democracy should be resolved in favour of freedom. In his book The Limits of Liberty, he noted that “despotism may be the only organisational alternative to the political structure that we observe.” Despotism in defense of freedom.
His prescription was what he called a “constitutional revolution: creating irrevocable restraints to limit democratic choice. Sponsored throughout his working life by wealthy foundations, billionaires and corporations, he develop both a theoretical account of what this constitutional revolution would look like and a strategy for implementing it” (Source).
Buchanan’s influence extends beyond the United States. In 1980, he assisted the Pinochet dictatorship to write a new constitution. “Amid the torture and killings, he advised the government to extend its programmes of privatisation, austerity, monetary restraint, deregulation and the destruction of trade unions: a package that helped trigger economic collapse in 1982” (Source).
Nevertheless, believe it or not, in 1986 Buchanan was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize for economics. This was the man who was against desegregating schools in the American South. He advocated for the privatization of just about everything: universities (at which all students would be required to pay full tuition). He was a proponent of privatized health care which is so costly what is spent in the United States by governments to mitigate its impact on those who can’t pay exceeds the costs of universal health care in Canada. He also thought it would be a good idea to privatize Social Security. Ask yourself when privatization materially improved the lives of everyday people.
According to Monbiot, Buchanan set out to “demolish trust in public institutions. He aimed, in short, to save capitalism from democracy” (Source).
While you may not have heard of Buchanan, his economic theories and political ideology appear to have served as the backbone for how things work in America.
One has to wonder if his form of “radical capitalism” influenced the financial crisis in 2007, when millions lost their homes due to banking and loaning practices that were driven by greed by those with money in pursuit of more. Remarkably, despite legal activity up the yin-yang, those who caused the disaster were bailed out, made sure they got big bonuses, and no one went to jail. Those who lost their homes received no help to speak of.
As income inequality prospers in the United States (and to a lessor extent in Canada), we see the Trump administration making decisions that benefit the super wealthy and punish those struggling to survive. His new health care act will kill people, harm those who are just surviving, and create more profits for mega-health providers. He is a savvy businessman if nothing else. He knows that a single payer system would work better and cost less. By the way, despite their advertisements to the contrary, these health care corporations hire people who can earn bonuses by denying claims (based on an interview I did with a claims officer at one of the largest health providers in the US.).
It all comes down to money. Not humanity. Not any smidgen of moral obligation to the marginalized. No one would vote to give up more of what little they have in order to increase profits for the wealthy – well, at least not knowingly. Oddly enough the poorest of the poor tend to vote Republican. This has been true for year and years, and yet they are no better off for their loyalty to the party.
There is a distasteful mythology that has been nurtured by those who are not poor about those who are. The poor are lazy, defective. They don’t have a work ethic. They prefer to lay about and live off of others. Given the obsession that successful people often have about their own success as a model for others, it makes sense, twisted sense I grant you, that one who purports the bootstrap theory of success would in turn rile against the unsuccessful as deserving of their failures. Blaming the poor by defining them as lesser beings than those who have money is a major reason why poverty continues to exist.
Monbiot concludes his article this way: “In one respect, Buchanan was right: there is an inherent conflict between what he called ‘economic freedom’ and political liberty. Complete freedom for billionaires means poverty, insecurity, pollution and collapsing public services for everyone else. Because we will not vote for this, it can be delivered only through deception and authoritarian control. The choice we face is between unfettered capitalism and democracy. You cannot have both” (Source).
President Franklin Roosevelt once warned Congress: “The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism.”
Look at what is happening in the United States. Fascism is something we think is done over there, across the water, by despicable people. Now, it’s emerging at a rapid rate just south of our border. It’s frightening, isn’t it? A president who holds himself above the law, who threatens to fire people if they don’t toe the line, who utters outlandish diatribes at anyone who would hint at opposing him. He won’t be transparent about his taxes. He makes decisions that are rooted in his own passion for self-benefit. Although I have to doubt President Trump ever read a word of Buchanan’s, he appears to be an ardent advocate for the super-rich, while unable to hide his distaste for the poor.
We can see this thinking and the divisiveness it perpetuates elsewhere of course. Even here in Canada, where we see the emergence of a far right political party in Alberta. Its leader, Jason Kenney, a student of Ralph Klein, who believe some pretty scary stuff, such as (Source).
“We shouldn’t indoctrinate students into the most extreme view about [climate change], I don’t think we should be teaching in our schools that whatever David Suzuki says is gospel truth.”
“Carbon dioxide is no biggie because trees like CO2.”
“I think it’s the first generation [Millennials] to come through a schooling system where many of them have been hard-wired with collectivist ideas, with watching Michael Moore documentaries, with identity politics from their primary and secondary schools to universities. That’s kind of a cultural challenge for any conservative party, any party of the centre-right, and we’ve got to figure out how to break that nut.”
He is anti-choice, against gay marriage, does not support assisting the severely ill with ending their lives. And he believes that the supremacy of God trumps the authority of Parliament. I assume he means the right and true Christian God. All the others no doubt do not matter.
When Trump ran for president, I still had my head in the sand. I thought no way he will become president — and voila. I have urges to discount Kenney as a quack that no sane Albertan would vote for, but I know those urges are wrong. Acting like an ostrich will not protect ourselves from the dangers in the wild.
We are on a journey, have been for a long time, to a time when life is ruled by dark money by old, wealthy men in closed-door meetings.
I have often wondered if despicable people have a good side. Did Hitler open doors for elderly women? Did Pinochet ever say a kind word to a homeless person on the street? Did George Bush Sr. ever regret introducing HMOs into the US healthcare arena? Does Trump ever for a moment stop to truly think about how many people will die because of his ego and shabby, hurtful design of a new health care system?
I don’t really know the answer to such questions, though I have my suspicions. But I do know that it will take courageous political leaders to turn our journey into a better direction. I wonder who will do that, who will turn away from corporate donations that come with clear expectations, if not demands?
Who will rise up to claim democracy once again as the way we should and must live, where people are equal under the law, have human rights that are enforced, and where governments make decisions that benefit the majority, if not everyone.
If you think improving socio-economic conditions requires systems change, this is what we are facing: A Noble prize winner, funded by billionaires, who has set a course for a place where the rights of the few trump the rights of the many. Ironic that the US president is named, “Trump.”
Who will lead a new journey? We know who won’t. But we can’t do it without leadership at all levels of government.
Thanks to Monbiot and others like him, we can see the twisted agenda of the super powerful and wealthy.
In the context of Collective Impact, which is a practice area for me, we do not just need to agree on what the problems are. We need to understand that the old maxim, “Know thy enemy” rings true here as well.
Time to get to work.