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Posted by on Jan 13, 2007 in At TMV | 16 comments

Freedom means Opportunity

David Brooks wrote an Op-ed in the NY Times, “The American Way of Equality”, about the unique way Americans view freedom. (unfortunately it is available only through the Times Select Paid subscription.). He describes the work of recently deceased Seymour Martin Lipset who, over a lifetime of research, made distinctions between the US and other Cultures.

Mr. Lipset pointed out that relatively uniform cultures, as in most countries in Europe and Asia, believe that their government should provide social safety nets, While diversified cultures like ours tends to define freedom as opportunity and that individuals are responsible for their own success and wellbeing. “Over 70 percent of Americans believe “individuals should take more responsibility for providing for themselvesâ€? whereas most Japanese believe “the state should take more responsibility to ensure everyone is provided for.â€?

Political movements that run afoul of these individualistic, achievement-oriented values rarely prosper. The Democratic Party is now divided between moderates — who emphasize individual responsibility and education to ameliorate inequality — and progressive populists, who advocate an activist state that will protect people from forces beyond their control. Given the deep forces in American history, the centrists will almost certainly win out.

Indeed, the most amazing thing about the past week is how modest the Democratic agenda has been. Democrats have been out of power in Congress for 12 years. They finally get a chance to legislate and they push through a series of small proposals that are little pebbles compared to the vast economic problems they described during the campaign.

They grasp the realities Marty Lipset described. They understand that in the face of inequality, Americans have usually opted for policies that offer more opportunity, not those emphasizing security or redistribution. American domestic policy is drifting leftward, but there are sharp limits on how far it will go.

I suspect that what began in the midterm elections is a correction back towards the middle where most Americans live. It seems to me that the Democrats got the messages and an article in today’s Washington Post “House Republicans Break Away” seems to indicate that the Republicans are waking up as well.

One Republican Congressman who has been voting with the Dems recently said “The Democrats “deserve the same credit that we got in 1995,” when Republicans took control, “They’ve picked up on the really big issues of the day, the ones they won the election on, and the ones that really resonate in Republican districts.”

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Copyright 2007 The Moderate Voice
  • Freedom is available only through the Times Select Paid subscription?

  • Alas, its a capitalist system, eh.

  • Paul Silver

    People just don’t appreciate something they get for free 😉

  • Well, a lot of people appreciate radical leftist rhetoric, and they hand that out for free on the sidewalks around campus….

  • Jim S

    One question about that system is that will it survive if the current tendencies towards greater economic inequality continue. If you can’t afford college for your children or to further your own education in order to keep current skills necessary for the job market where is your faith in that system of opportunity? If the system continues to have large numbers of people who lose their jobs through no fault of their own and their new jobs pay significantly less than the ones they lost and there are long periods of unemployment between those jobs will the demand that the safety net be strengthened increase?

    One thing about the end of the middle class jobs for relatively unskilled labor means is that if you must change careers it takes longer to acquire those skills than current unemployment benefits help people make it through. Will a new system of some kind be necessary that can help people avoid losing their homes while they spend one or two years in retraining? I don’t see those questions being addressed by those who have faith in the existing system.

  • No alternative system seems available.

  • T Ratcliff
  • Can’t see the link.

  • Jim Clark

    A safety net is as important today as it ever was.

    Globalization and market capitalism are producing great wealth, and that’s a very good thing. But in addition to the accelerating income inequalities the system currently produces, accelerating personal insecurity is probably more threatening to most Americans.

    An increasingly volatile global economy places average Americans at increasing risk of losing their jobs and their pensions and their health insurance. These potentially catastrophic events lurk all to near for many families. People rightly see themselves as vulnerable to forces beyond their effective control. We needn’t kill the Golden Goose, but we should do much more to insulate average Americans against the most disruptive consequences of an increasingly volatile system.

  • T Ratcliff

    The link should have pointed to Ellen Goodman’s column for Jan 12 2007, sorry about that.

  • We needn’t kill the Golden Goose, but we should do much more to insulate average Americans against the most disruptive consequences of an increasingly volatile system.

    That I can agree with. I just reject the radical critiques of capitalism/globalization as being fundamentally non-responsive on the point of an alternative.

  • No, T, I mean I can’t see the link between the amount of a CEO’s pay and the idea that somehow it harms the middle class. This sort of comparison has always seemed to me a rhetorical red herring.

  • Jim S

    Jason,

    I think the point is that all the risk is in the lower levels of the economy. If a CEO of a large company loses his job nowadays his severance package leaves him a multi-millionaire not counting what he received as salary and benefits while still employed. Many members of the lower economic classes don’t even get a severance package anymore.

  • Ok, but the way to address that isn’t to control CEO pay or try to make rich people be less rich. The way to deal with it is to set up a decent safety net that includes retraining, education benefits, and basic health care assurances.

    The problem I have with Ellen Goodman’s approach is that the “politics of envy” just try to create class anger instead of coming at it from a problem-solving approach.

    Then again, her job is to be an instigator, not a policymaker. It’s just important to remind people not to take apples-and-potatoes comparisons from op-ed pages at face value.

  • Paul Silver

    I agree with Jason. The government can help provide opportunity but not results.

    As a CEO I appreciate the essential job the leader of a company provides. It is a RARE talent and art to navigate a company through intense competition and market changes and to protect it from failure.

    President Bush is the CEO of the USA and we can see the extreme damage that can be done by poor judgment. Wouldn’t many people support paying him a hundred million dollars to just go away? 😉

  • Jim S

    Paul,

    Paying them something to make them go away is one thing but it’s really going to far lately.

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