Thursday, January 13, 2011

My Conversation with Irving Kristol on the Welfare State

In an attempt to break through the neoconservative ideology, it's important to understand why they are so successful. Simple messages, repeated over and over, laid the groundwork.

And with that simple messaging, they target, what they would refer to as the "average" or "ordinary" citizen. The "ignorant masses". The "wandering herd". Because they were needed to sell the message. These were the people that political strategists would refer to as "the base".

Karl Rove used a play-to-the-base strategy when directing George Bush. And when Guy Giorno, Harper's former chief of staff, made the decision not to include abortion as part of the maternal health issue, he used the same philosophy:
Perhaps more than any issue that’s arisen in Giorno’s nearly two years as Harper’s top adviser, outlawing overseas abortion funding threatens to drag him unwillingly toward the centre of media attention. (Giorno declined to be interviewed for this story.) Montreal’s Le Devoir reported a few days ago that an unhappy Harper wants the matter defused before world leaders, many of whom disagree with his stance, arrive in Ontario for the summits. But Giorno is reportedly worried about how Conservative supporters would react to any retreat and is urging Harper to “protect the base.”
"Protect the base". All decisions are made to protect that base, because they are the ones who can help you achieve, and stay in power.

It's telling that the simple messaging is being crafted by academics. Academics, like Irving Kristol, who called himself the godfather of the neoconservative movement (see video below). They are the ones who intellectually construct simple messages. As Kristol himself said: "There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people. There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy."

I've been reading his essays, compiled in book form, and am immediately struck with how very wrong he is on a variety of topics. He probably knew that. But he didn't write them to be scholarly. He wrote them to sell an ideology. But I am going to challenge him anyway.

This time on the "Welfare State".
By now it is obvious to all who wish to see that we are experiencing a profound crisis of the welfare state. Several crises, in fact. There is the financial crisis now evident in all the Western democracies, where all governments, whether left or right of center, are trying desperately to limit government spending and government commitments.

Though it is this crisis that grabs most of the headlines, it is probably over the long term the least serious. That is because of the two basic laws of eco­nomics: what can't happen won't happen, and what must happen will happen. Government will succeed in edging the welfare state back from the brink of bankruptcy, though at a considerable political cost. That cost will be seen in political convulsions that can be quite scary. Still, after the dust has settled, the welfare state will have been sufficiently trimmed to avoid national bankruptcy which would be the worst convulsion of all, and one that no government can contemplate as an option.
This argument was used to suggest that it is the 'welfare state" that is causing the economic woes. Social programs that Kristol already implied only made people lazy.

What he doesn't mention is why governments are finding it difficult to maintain important social programs, that protect a nation's citizens. It's been misguided tax cuts, and lots of them, especially to the rich. And wars paid for on the credit card.

At the peak of the economic crisis, we heard a lot about John Maynard Keynes, and the "Keynesian" philosophy of using government money to stimulate the economy. It helped to take our minds off the corporate bailouts and who really created the crisis.

But there is something of Keynes that was overlooked. In his book, How to Pay for the War, published in 1940, he argued that the war effort should be largely financed through higher taxation. This was not a new concept. Special taxes always paid for war, as well as the promotion of war bonds, whereby workers loaned the government money to offset the costs.

But in today's conservative logic, as we saw with George Bush, the government lowered taxes, while at war. And they encouraged spending, not saving. And yet they blame the financial problems on the people.

But Kristol doesn't stop there. He also blames the welfare state for the destruction of the family.
There is also a social crisis of the welfare state. Fifty years ago, no advocate state could imagine that it might be destructive of that most social institution, the family. But it has been, with a poisonous flowering of those very social pathologies—crime, illegitimacy, drugs, divorce, sexual promiscuity—that it was assumed the welfare state would curb if not eliminate. This has come as such a shock to welfare statists that they have been busy explaining it all away. Their most common hypothesis, by now a dogma of the Left, is that the persistence of economic inequality and the absence of economic opportunity are the root causes of it all. But only those who have succeeded in repressing all historical memories can actually believe that. There are just too many people still alive who can testify that in times past when economic inequality and lack of opportunity were certainly no less evident than today (and for most people were probably much greater), such social pathologies were far less widespread.
What a lot of hokum. I was living during some of the period that Kristol refers to, and see things quite differently. Divorce may not have been as prevalent, but unhappy marriages, that can be just as destructive to their notion of family, were. And educated women who were expected to stay home, or were failures as mothers, created a Valley of the Dolls society.

And things like promiscuity, were not less common. They were just hidden. Popular television programs, which is often what the right believe constituted typical family life then, were for the most part fairy tales. You can't handle crises in 22 minutes and a teenager's bed is not always made.

And the idea that men had to marry virgins, put all of the pressure on the women to fight desires, because they were the only ones who faced the consequences.

The problem is that neoconservatives believe that a family must be mother, father, children. But the modern family has many different dynamics. Same-sex, single parents, blended families. And children raised in these situations, no longer have to wear the stigma. Societal acceptance has neutralized those prejudices.

Canada's neoconservative movement was crafted in part by William Gairdner and his book The Trouble with Canada. According to author and journalist Murray Dobbin, this book "functioned as ‘the de facto manifesto for Preston Manning’s Reform Party’" (2) Gairdner sold copies of his book at Reform Party assemblies.

I read The Trouble With Canada, and it is eerily similar to the writings of Irving Kristol, using the same arguments to convince us that we should abandon the welfare state. Maybe they have a template. I got his new book, The Trouble With Canada ... Still, for Christmas, and "look forward" to reading it.

William Gairdner is also the founder of the Civitas Society, that plays an integral role in determining Conservative Party policy. Their list of founding members is also interesting. See how many Harper insiders you can identify:
Founding President: William Gairdner

Other Past Presidents: Tom Flanagan, William Robson, Lorne Gunter and Brian Lee Crowley

Founding Directors: Janet Ajzenstat, Ted Byfield, Michael Coren, Jacques Dufresne, Tom Flanagan, David Frum, William Gairdner, Jason Kenney, Gwen Landolt [REAL Women of Canada], Ezra Levant, Tom Long, Mark Magner, William Robson, David E. Somerville [National Citizens Coalition], Michael Walker [Fraser Institute].

So What do we do Now?

We have to start, not only framing our message, but selling it. That has been the biggest factor in the rise of the far-right. PR. It doesn't hurt that they have huge amounts of corporate money behind them, but it doesn't take money to just talk to people. You might meet with some opposition, but you'll probably also be surprised at how many people agree with you, but feel that they are in the minority.

I watched a rerun of Bill Maher last night, and while everyone assumes that the latest Republican success, was because people were now looking to neoconservatism to get them out of the mess they were in, statistics show otherwise.

Obama ran on a message of hope. Hope for fiscal sensibility, a plan to address climate change, and provide public healthcare. But once elected, he spent too much time worrying about the right-wing echo chamber, instead of following through on his promises. Of course, he had to deal with the corporate funded Tea Party and AstroTurf groups like Americans for Prosperity, which also has ties to the Harper government.

But he should have stood his ground. Because the Democrats who held their seats, were the progressives. Not the ones who pretended to be right-wing, and refused to discuss healthcare or global warming. But the ones who stuck to their liberal values.

That's the lesson here.

We can debunk neocon ideology, but it's up to the parties representing the left to offer an alternative, not just more right-wing nonsense, like the notion that corporate tax cuts will help the poor.

The Harper government is currently on a massive spending binge. Fighter jets, prisons, and yes more corporate tax cuts. They are selling these enormous expenditures as "job creation", and claim that they won't have to raise taxes to pay for them.

So where will the money come from? We are already in a deficit and heavily in debt.

And they suggest that they can't afford to address climate change until the economy improves, despite the fact that a "green economy" will actually create jobs, not just produce some abstract notion of job creation.

So maybe the best way for us to frame that message is to simply ask "how is that possible"? How is taking out a 30 year mortgage on new prisons and prison expansion, going to help in the long-term? How will fighter jets, deemed to be a maintenance nightmare, pay for themselves?

So we just ask "where will the money come from?" And don't accept rhetoric. Hand them a pad and paper and ask for some figures. They won't give them to you because they can't. Their decisions are not based on studies but simple ideas.

And focusing on things like military hardware and crime and punishment, means they won't be forced to address more important issues like homelessness, child poverty or healthcare.

But if they are willing to go further into debt for jets and prisons, why not instead go into debt for more doctors, clinics, and hospital expansions? They create jobs too and are more beneficial to society. And yet hospitals are closing beds while prisons are opening them.

And the increase in prison beds is coming at a time when our crime rate is the lowest in our history, but an aging population is producing a need for more hospital care.

Maybe as part of our Army of US's or WE's, we should launch a campaign called "cut the crap". Just how stupid do they think we are?


1. The Neoconservative Persuasion, By Irving Kristol, Basic Books, 2011, ISBN: 978-0465-02333-2, Pg. 96-97

2. Preston Manning and the Reform Party, By Murray Dobbin, Goodread Biographies/Formac Publishing, 1992, ISBN: 0-88780-161-7


  1. Wonderful post. love it, esp. this line

    Hand them a pad and paper and ask for some figures.

  2. Also, I think "welfare state" is code for "women who have too much power and won't sleep with bad men".

    What do ya think Canada?.


  3. I ♥ your blog Emily Dee ~ thanks again for your insights and continued commitment to Canadian democracy.