Avoiding the Republic of Fear

David Brooks has a solid piece about horrors of personal insecurity

English: David Brooks

David Brooks, perhaps in his slightly younger years.

.  It is an eye-opening essay, but only because we have been turning a blind eye to desperate reality that billions of people face across the globe.  It is time we pay attention, especially in an increasingly wealthy and interconnected world.  Brutish medieval injustices should not be left to go unchecked.

Brooks makes a refreshing observation as well.  He reminds us that “The primary problem of politics is not creating growth.  It’s creating order.  Until that is largely achieved, life can can be nasty, brutish, and short,” to quote Hobbes who argued that prior to government the state of society was “war of every man against every man.”

I don’t want to co-opt the story of the world’s desperate poor who often do indeed live a nasty, brutish, and short life, but I do want to caution that even in the wealthiest societies, we seem less focused on order and more focused on individualism.  I might argue that if you take this individualism — or even tribalism that’s become prevalent today, especially in sects of politics and religion, for example — if you take it to its logical conclusion, we reach a state of every man against every man.

As Brooks implies, our priorities for government, especially in the political of the United States, has been more and more about growth, economic growth, and we have turned that into a priority that trumps all others, one that will resolve our ills and put everything in order.  But I think we have this in reverse.

The social achievements of what is today’s developed world were gained through law and order established to protect a core of basic rights.  It isn’t as if the Industrial Revolution happened, made a few people rich, and they bestowed upon society a structure of rights, equality and opportunity.  They didn’t pass laws to protect rights, establish fair courts, and create a public police force as a result of wealth.  In fact, quite the opposite.  The steps toward securing a common good and security, while imperfect, was more political than economic.

Book by Thomas Hobbes - Leaviathan, which talk...

Thomas Hobbes – Leaviathan, which talks about society and absolutism. 

And yet we put increasing faith in economic solutions, often with disastrous results, especially in the developing world.  (cf. Naomi Klein‘s excellent Shock Doctrine, for example.)  These economic solutions often serve economic interests before they serve human interests.  Many parts of the world that are ruled largely by thuggery had been once “rescued” by economic solutions a la the Chicago School of Economics.  The list is long.  Chile, Argentina, Bangladesh, more or less the entire Middle East, Indonesia.  It is why people protest global organizations like the IMF and World Bank.

In this country, we are making the mistake of making government’s priority an economic one.  On the right in particular, political speeches celebrate business and free markets, not people.  The thinking goes if we create a strong economy everything will be ok.  It isn’t that simple.  It didn’t happen 100 years ago, it isn’t happening today.

And as we build government for business and by business, we have put security for people in decline.  Ironically, even as the economy has become the focus of government, people in America face economic prospects worse than they have been in generations.  (People don’t see that?)

We are slipping into a Republic of Fear.  Politics has become brutish and nasty.  People literally “stand their ground” with weapons drawn out of fear.  Meanwhile, like a third world banana republic, oligarchs garner both the nation’s riches and the protection of the state.

Front cover of The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of...

The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism 

I don’t expect David Brooks to make the connection between the stagnate development of third world countries and our own decline in the United States, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t.  A generation ago we had our problems, but do we really think we are better off socially today than we were thirty years ago?  What about in terms of economics as a shared prosperity?

Look at what has changed.  What happened circa 1980 that has set the course for where we are today?  If we are to avoid becoming a Republic of Fear, we need to pay attention and answer these questions.

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