The Good Society was originally published by Little Brown and Company in 1937. In it, Walter Lippmann argued that modern liberalism is better than communism or fascism. Modern liberalism was the dominant American political ideology from after the American Civil War until World War II ended. Lippmann tried to make modern liberalism, a mild form of socialism, seem like a modern political approach that was unlike other forms of collectivism. He imagined that American courts could protect Americans from the problems faced in other collectivist societies. The Good Society may be the best book to explain American modern liberalism. But it also can help us to understand what has happened after modern liberalism was replaced by neoliberalism. Here’s a quote from The Good Society that I think describes today’s neoliberal problems that arise when governments operate under the goal of limitless power.
“The predominant teachings of this age are that there are no limits to man’s capacity to govern others and that, therefore, no limitations ought to be imposed upon government. The older faith, born of long ages of suffering under man’s dominion over man, was that the exercise of unlimited power by men with limited minds and self-regarding prejudices is soon oppressive, reactionary, and corrupt. The older faith taught that the very condition of progress was the limitation of power to the capacity and virtue of rulers…All the wishing in the world, all the promises based on the assumption that there are available omniscient and loving autocrats, will not call into being men who can plan a future which they are unable to imagine, who can manage a civilization which they are unable to understand.”
To summarize Walter Lippmann, he’s saying that granting more power to our government won’t make government bureaucrats and elected officials smarter or more able than they would be without such terrible power. Giving them more power doesn’t mean that they will accomplish more. Americans should keep this in mind when they want our government to tax (others) more and do more (for their friends or themselves). With twenty trillion dollars of debt, our government can’t do whatever people imagine it can do for them. Twenty trillion dollars in the hole and an economy that still hasn’t recovered since the Great Recession is a lot of failure.
Wish fulfillment isn’t what a government does, anyway. And that is especially true with twenty trillion dollars of debt. I have been puzzled to hear political proposals for free tuition and free healthcare. We can see that neither goal has been realized. Warfare in the Middle East can’t continue either. Neoliberals have tried to externalize corporate and government spending to ordinary Americans. They risk capital in risky ventures backed up by tax payer dollars (remember the sub-prime mortgage crisis: unqualified borrowers, debt default, tax money instead of bank failure). Such mal-investment wastes society’s resources as much as war and failed government programs do. In fact, by imagining endless power by printing more money (a policy that has failed with horrible results many times over history), American political and economic policies have veered off from trying to accomplish what’s possible to striving for what’s impossible. Just look at the mess that our policies are causing.
Most people understand that “there’s no sense crying over spilled milk.” That after the milk has spilled it has gone to waste. Most people understand that a person’s opportunity can be wasted or an investment that hasn’t paid off has been wasted. And after it’s wasted, its value isn’t still obtainable. When our economy isn’t working well to build prosperity, money that a healthy economy might have created isn’t hiding somewhere, it’s gone. When you consider how many working age people aren’t employed in the U.S., that represents a waste. Isn’t it time to change what’s not working?
Walter Lippmann, The Good Society, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, New Jersey, USA, 2005, 40-41.
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