Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Fascists are Coming, The Fascists are Coming

Post lifted from The American Thinker

The American left never, under any circumstances, engages in anything that can be called McCarthyite tactics. They leave that to the far right, unbalanced, vicious, and desperate. The left, on the side of reason, decency, and fair play, has never had any need for that kind of thing.
So I guess we'll have to call it something else.

Last Sunday, The New York Times featured a review of American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, in which author Chris Hedges makes the argument that millions of Americans are about to fall on their fellow citizens and punish them in the name of a righteous Lord. This is the latest of a series of such volumes - also mentioned is Michelle Goldberg's Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. We could add as well the recent "militant atheist" volumes by Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, which are intended to serve the same readership for the same purpose.

While reviewer Rick Perlstein doesn't particularly approve of the book in question, he does buy into the thesis. "Of course there are Christian fascists in America", he insists, followed by several anecdotes that demonstrate no such thing.
"...they want dominion - for the Lord to make an America where other values are impossible to hold", he concludes.
And that, in a nutshell, is the latest left-wing horror story. The fascists are coming. They're waving crucifixes this time.

Though you'd never guess to look at the accepted histories, this is all of a piece with previous left-liberal behavior. It seems that no sooner does a Democratic administration step into office (these frenzies usually, though not always, occur just after a new administration takes over) than its supporters start looking around for an easy victory. It's as if they have no confidence in their power unless they can show it off in the most blatant manner conceivable. This is a pattern that holds true for the past fifty years and beyond. While the GOP may have Tailgunner Joe to live down, the Dems appear to be suffering from an ingrained, unshakable pathology.

In his excellent (though oddly overlooked) study of American anticommunism, Not Without Honor,  Richard Gid Powers recounts a 1944 incident in which the Roosevelt administration, apropos of nothing, prosecuted a number of individuals who had been involved in antiwar activities before Pearl Harbor. The case mingled - probably deliberately - Christian pacifists, America Firsters, Nazi sympathizers, and members of the German Bund (though, curiously enough, no communists, undoubtedly the most effective antiwar force during the prewar period). The charges varied, but in total amounted to something very close to treason. The press breathlessly promoted the whole affair as the uncovering of an American "fifth column", prepared to turn the country over to the tender mercies of the SS as soon as word arrived from the Führerbunker.

The case was so badly handled that the defendants themselves began to jeer the government lawyers before the first day was out. No actual evidence was presented, and at last the judge halted proceedings, blistered prosecution hides with a lecture on due process and constitutional rights, and dismissed the case. While it's unknown who the actual instigator was, the case has the fingerprints of Harry Hopkins, with his almost naked admiration for Stalin's methods including show trials, all over it. The story is aching for a complete historical investigation.

Fast-forwarding through the decade of the McCarthyite ordeal, we reach the early 1960s. You'd think that, having gotten back into office at last with JFK, America's liberals would have been eager, after years of quivering in terror before one unshaven Irishman, to show how clean their own hands were. Instead, beginning in 1961, we got a media-driven frenzy involving "right- wing extremists" who, goaded by such sinister figures as William F. Buckley, were forming "paramilitary cells" to bring the iron boot down on the New Frontier. Along with such old reliables as the John Birch Society, the country was presented with the California Rangers and the Minutemen (our current volunteer border patrol is neither as original nor publicity-savvy as they need to be).

The leader of this last ourfit, Robert DePugh, gave interviews boasting about the "tens of thousands" of members he was training out in the hills, while flourishing a glass vial which he claimed contained enough nerve gas to "wipe out the state of California".

Nothing came of it, of course. It turned out that DePugh's private army consisted of himself, his family, and a few neighbors. He was arrested late in the 60s for bank robbery. A wave of politically-motivated killings began right around the same time, but they were carried out by left wing groups like the Black Panthers and the Weathermen, so they don't count.

(A number of publications also accompanied the paramilitary terror, in this case a series of bestselling potboilers and high-budget films featuring crazed right-wing figures including Seven Days in May and Dr. Strangelove.)

If the "paramilitary" hysteria rings a bell, it's because the same routine was repeated with more fanfare and less success in the early 1990s. This, of course, involved the militia movement, which despite the best efforts of the legacy media -- at that point just beginning its slide into long- term collapse -- never amounted to much more than a few out-of-shape middle-aged men playing war games in the woods. The Buckley of this movement, according to no less an authority than Bill Clinton, was the savage demagogue Rush Limbaugh, along with his picked horde of radio talk-show hosts. There was some effort to tie in the movement with the Oklahoma City bombing carried out by Timothy McVeigh. But, McVeigh, a rabid atheist with numerous unexplained connections to overseas terrorists, was a poor fit with domestic hyperpatriots. The story was effectively dropped after Newt Gingrich unveiled his revolution in 1994. With a real uprising occurring, the media had its hands full.

Which brings us to the new millennium, and the old story. Whether or not there is anything to these rogue Christian allegations I have no idea - though I think, with my connections, I'd have heard something. It's easily possible for the Times to be printing rumors or worse. They've done it before (as a recent overdue correction column makes evident -- chalk up another one to the Blogosphere). Whatever the case, we can be sure that "Christian fascists" are about as much a threat as DePugh's Minutemen or the militias.

Which does not mean that these campaigns can do no harm. The paramilitaries scare segued directly into the brutal and uncalled-for humiliation of Barry Goldwater, one of the most upstanding men ever to set foot in the U.S. Senate, during the 1964 presidential election. The militias uproar helped undercut the Gingrich revolution, leaving the Congress in the hands of the hustlers and time-servers who threw away GOP control last November. Whatever the truth of these stories, we can be certain that somebody, somewhere, is working on a way to take advantage of them.


The Directorate of Immigration says that it will start repatriating asylum-seekers to Afghanistan and possibly to Iraq. The policy change is likely to mean that dozens - and possibly even hundreds - of asylum seekers will be denied temporary residence permits and will have to leave Finland. Finland has not returned anyone to Afghanistan or Iraq for years, because officials have considered such repatriations to be technically impossible, owing to a lack of reliable flight connections to the countries in question, for instance.

Finland has granted one-year temporary residence permits to Afghan and Iraqi asylum-applicants, who were not seen to be in need of asylum protection, but whose repatriation was not considered technically feasible. The police gave the Directorate of Immigration two statements late last year, according to which repatriation to the Afghan capital Kabul and to the Arbil area in the Kurdish region in the north of Iraq has now become technically possible.

The Directorate of Immigration has already changed its policy line concerning Afghanistan, and has given five Afghan asylum-seekers a negative decision. The decisions can still be appealed. `Afghan applicants will probably not be granted temporary residence permits, if conditions in their country stay as they are', says Esko Repo, head of the Directorate's asylum unit. Repo estimates that Finland might turn back 60 - 70 Afghan applicants this year, if the numbers of applicants develop as anticipated.

Afghans who are in Finland on temporary residence permits could also face expulsion if they have not established other reasons to remain in Finland. Last year 104 Afghan citizens were given one-year residence permits in the January-November period. In 2005 the figure was 66. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees places a number of restrictions on repatriations to Afghanistan, but is not completely opposed to sending people back to that country.

Repo says that decisions made by the Directorate of Immigration are based on very fresh information, as an investigator from the Directorate visited Afghanistan in the autumn on a fact-finding tour. `However, one must keep in mind that it is never possible to know what might happen in the future. The situation in Somalia shows how quickly things can change', Repo points out. Repatriation to Afghanistan is not exceptional on a global scale. In the European Union, at least Denmark, Germany, Austria and the UK have already done so. However, Sweden currently does not send people back to Afghanistan.

Repo also believes that it is possible that Finland will start sending people back to the Kurdish region in Northern Iraq. The UNHCR says that under certain circumstances, repatriations to southern or central areas of Iraq would be possible, but Finland is not doing so now. The Directorate of Immigration would have repatriated 77 Iraqi asylum seekers in January-November last year, if the police had been able to implement the decisions. Instead, they were given temporary residence permits. The Directorate of Immigration will decide in the coming months if it plans to start repatriations this year. `It is too early to say anything certain because of the fate of Saddam Hussein, as well as other events. We are following the situation to the very end before drawing conclusions', Repo promises. Sweden and Norway have already returned people to Iraq. Finnish police say that those repatriations have proceeded without any great problems.


There is no ‘paradox of prosperity’

So what if material progress doesn't always make us happy? It's still a good thing, and here's why.

Contemporary critics of consumerism and popular prosperity are obsessed with what they see as a paradox. A central theme of their arguments is that economic growth does not make people happier. In their view, the pursuit of mass affluence is at best futile and is probably responsible for making humanity miserable. Often the growth sceptics argue that the pursuit of material goods is akin to a disease: they say the developed world is suffering from ‘affluenza’ or ‘luxury fever’ (1). Typically they conclude we should not attempt to become richer and often they argue for the pursuit of alternative social goals such as mental well-being.

But there is reason to question whether breaking the connection between prosperity and happiness is the killer blow that the critics assume. The growth sceptics seem to ignore the possibility that greater affluence could be immensely beneficial even if it does not necessarily make people happier. Nor do they understand that the propensity for human beings to be unhappy with their lot could have a good side. The striving for a better life is an important motor force of progress. The arguments the happiness pundits advance to show that prosperity does not lead to enhanced well-being are also dubious. And the policies they often propose to make people happier tend to be authoritarian.

The idea that there is a paradox inherent in the drive for affluence is one of the key arguments for contemporary sceptics on economic growth. Many of the most influential books on the topic even have the word in their titles (2). There is Gregg Easterbrook’s The Progress Paradox (Random House 2003), David Myers’s The American Paradox (Yale 2000) and Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice (Ecco 2004). Even those who do not use the word ‘paradox’ in the title often embrace the concept. Frequently it is referred to as ‘Easterlin’s paradox’ after Richard Easterlin, a professor of economics at the University of Southern California. He first drew attention to the lack of a clear relationship between happiness and affluence as far back as 1974 (3).

Richard Layard, an adviser to New Labour and a professor at the London School of economics, uses it as a central concept in Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (Allen Lane 2005). The opening paragraph states that: ‘There is a paradox at the heart of our lives. Most people want more income and strive for it. Yet as Western societies have got richer, their people have become no happier. (4)’

Although there are variations on the theme, the way Layard puts it is the most common form of the argument. Based on opinion poll data in many developed countries over half a century, the conclusion is that affluence does not make people happier. Once people have the necessities of life they do not appear to become more contented as a result of rising average incomes. In any given society the rich are, on average, happier than the poor. But the trend in individual happiness is more-or-less flat once society passes a threshold of perhaps $20,000 (£10,000) per person a year (5).

For many of the happiness gurus such evidence is decisive. As Michael Savage has previously pointed out on spiked it is difficult for anyone to present themselves as being against happiness (6). From the sceptics’ perspective only an unadulterated misery-guts could reject the happiness agenda.

Before examining how the happiness advocates explain this paradox it is important to remember that humanity is immensely better off thanks to growing prosperity. The sceptics tend to downplay or even ignore this crucial point. Whatever our subjective feelings, the rise of mass affluence in the developed world has had huge objective benefits. Such gains are also starting to spread to the developing world as it, too, becomes wealthier. Prosperity gives us the resources to live longer, healthier and more fulfilling lives.

Fortunately a new book by Indur Goklany, an American economist, examines the data in great detail. Its title clearly sums up the argument: The Improving State of the World: Why we’re Living Longer, Healthier More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet (Cato 2007). Goklany’s book takes a similar line to The Skeptical Environmentalist (Cambridge 2001) by Bjørn Lomborg, a Danish statistician, which infuriated environmentalists when it was first published (7).

There is an immense amount of detail in Goklany’s book but some of the key statistics are worth reiterating:

  • Life expectancy, which for much of human history was 20-30 years, increased from a worldwide average of 31 in 1900 to 66.8 in 2003. For the high income countries it has reached 78.5 years.
  • Infant mortality (death of infants before the age of one per 1,000 live births) was typically over 200 before industrialisation. That is over a fifth of babies died before reaching their first birthday. The worldwide average has fallen from 156.9 in the early 1950s to 56.8 in 2003. In the developed world the average is 7.1.
  • Improving health. The onset of chronic diseases is typically happening several years later than in the past. For example, white males aged 60-64 in America are two-and-a-half times more likely to be free of chronic disease than their counterparts a century ago.
  • Air quality. Despite the common prejudice that economic development leads to air pollution the evidence in the developed world overwhelmingly suggests that air quality is improving. For example, the traditional pollutants have declined in America for several decades.

The fact that the trend is improving does not mean that everything is perfect. There are many instances, particularly in the developing world, where things could be far better. But to the extent there are still problems they constitute an argument for more development rather than less. If the developing world could reach the current living standards of the developed world, that would be a start. Billions of people would be much better off.

Nor is it true that the developed world has reached the stage where it can no longer benefit from increasing prosperity. For example, there is considerable angst about a ‘demographic timebomb’ in which the working age population can no longer support an increasingly large ageing population. But as long as society continues to become richer there is no reason why it cannot support a larger number of dependents (8). To the extent that climate change is a problem the solution is also more development rather than less. Economic growth combined with technological development should provide the means for humanity to have greater control over the environment.

However, although defending the objective benefits of prosperity is a vital task, it is not enough to defeat the sceptics. Some will even recognise the gains associated with affluence while still arguing that it makes people miserable. Gregg Easterbrook, an American journalist and author, is one of the most prominent writers to take such a line. The sub-title of The Progress Paradox, his book on the subject, tell the story: ‘How life gets better while people feel worse’. Easterbrook argues strongly that affluence has brought enormous benefits while at the same time pointing to widespread misery in American society.

Although there are many variations of the argument, the sceptics’ explanation of the paradox most often hinges on inequality. Although they do not generally put it so baldly, they essentially argue that it is futile to pursue absolute increases in prosperity because relative inequalities will always exist. From such a perspective, to strive for greater prosperity can only make people more miserable as society will remain unequal. The most common solution they put forward is to use taxation to curb the consumption of the wealthy.

The sceptics’ argument on inequality takes two main forms. The first is that there are certain ‘positional goods’ that are inherently scarce for social rather than physical reasons (9). For instance, in principle there need not be any shortage of land for growing food because farmland can be made more productive. An area of land that once fed, say, 10 people could, with improved agricultural techniques, feed 100. But a plot of land used as a pleasure garden for one family cannot be divided up between ever-growing numbers of people (10). Similarly, someone who owns a Rembrandt often does so at least partly because of its scarcity value. It cannot be divided among more than one owner.

A parallel example is that places at top universities are inherently limited. Only a certain number of people can get into Harvard or Oxford. It may be one person rather than another who is successful but overall the number of such coveted places is limited. Competition for such places is a zero-sum game with some people winning and others losing but no overall benefit to society. A similar principle is also applied to top jobs and in many other areas (11).

The other main variation of the argument is that people judge their well-being by their relative position in society (12). Those at the top tend to be happier while those lower down are generally more miserable. The conclusion drawn from this observation is that everyone should stop striving for more. Even if the acquisition of more material goods gives us a temporary boost it does not lead to lasting happiness. We may initially be delighted if we acquire a new BMW or a plasma screen television but we soon end up adapting to our new standard of living. The cycle then continues with a drive to acquire ever more ridiculous material goods. Humanity, in this view, is engaged in a pointless ‘rat race’, or, to change the metaphor, walking a ‘hedonic treadmill’, which can only make everyone more miserable. Human well-being is therefore undermined by affluence.

Although the arguments on inequality may sound convincing, they are open to question. Even if some things are inherently scarce it does not follow that they are not worth pursuing. Competition to get into a top university, for instance, may help raise the standards of all high school students. In addition, the increase in resources that is associated with economic growth could help increase the standards of all universities. Even if inequalities persist there can be gains from competition and from greater resources.

Neither are the arguments on pleasure gardens or Rembrandts as clear-cut as the sceptics assume. The creation of new products or the public provision of existing ones can both help to solve the problem. One piece of land may be owned by a particular family but, in principle, it would be possible to raise the quality of all inhabited land. Land that one day is part of a slum or farmland could be converted into an area of outstanding beauty. Alternatively, parkland could be created so it can be enjoyed by more than one family. Similarly Rembrandts could be put in a museum or new works of arts could be created for people to enjoy.

As for the poor comparing their living standards against the rich, the practice is entirely rational. Since the wealthy tend to have more possessions, better technology and higher quality healthcare their lifestyles give an inkling of what can be achieved. The typical pattern is for the wealthy to be the first to adopt new types of material goods. No doubt the first people to own cars, computers, mobile phones and virtually every other type of good were generally rich rather than poor. As a result the rest of society could clearly see what was potentially possible.

Coveting what the rich have should not be dismissed as unhealthy envy. On the contrary, the fact people are dissatisfied with their lot can be seen as a healthy motive for change. Humanity has historically progressed by constantly trying to improve its position. As a result people are better off than ever before. In this sense unhappiness should be welcomed. It is a sign of ambition and a drive to progress rather than one of inherent misery. In contrast, the essentially conservative message of the happiness gurus is that people should be happy with their lot.

From here it should be clear that there is no paradox of prosperity. The rise of mass affluence is an incredibly positive development. It has bolstered the quality of people’s lives enormously. But there never was any guarantee that such progress would bring happiness. One of the most positive qualities of human beings is that they often want more than they have got. They typically want the lives of their children and grandchildren to be better than their own. The growth sceptics would have us stay where we are or even retreat to living a life of lower living standards.

If popular prosperity is such a positive development it begs the question of why it is so widely questioned by the sceptics. I have already discussed the key factors in a previous essay on spiked on growth scepticism (13). However, some of the main points bear re-examination.

One of the most important is the decline in the rate of economic growth in the developed world. The idea that growth should be a key national priority was only prevalent from the late 1940s to the late 1960s (14). Before that the emphasis was on ensuring economic stability following the experience of the great depression of the 1930s and the Second World War. From the 1970s onwards the benefits of affluence were increasingly called into question as economic growth began to slow. During the 1950s and 1960s the steady rise in living standards had bolstered the legitimacy of both the American and British states. But as growth faltered in the 1970s, and unemployment surged, it became harder for the economy to deliver such benefits consistently.

Another factor was the defeat of the left and the demise of 1960s radicalism. As the left was defeated from the 1970s onwards it became increasingly susceptible to anti-growth and environmentalist ideas. In addition, the 1960s counter-culture increasingly took on an anti-consumerist and ecological outlook. The forces that, in the past, could be expected to fight for popular affluence became increasingly sceptical about economic growth.

These developments were bolstered from the 1980s onwards by a new set of factors. The end of the Cold War strengthened the idea that there is no alternative to the market. Progress was widely discredited as an idea. Striving to realise the human potential was increasingly seen as creating problems rather than being a worthwhile goal.

In addition, society has become increasingly anxious about risk-taking. Social atomisation and the breakdown of traditional institutions have created an intense risk aversion (15). There is a growing fear of the potential dangers that the future holds.

These last two factors are important as they also help explain a growing fear of the future. What the growth sceptics identify as a lack of happiness can, at least in part, be more accurately described as social pessimism. There is no longer a sense that the future can be better than the present. On the contrary, potentially positive developments, such as technological or scientific advance, are routinely viewed with foreboding. Under such circumstances, it is no wonder that survey data sometimes appears to indicate that people feel miserable. The happiness pundits themselves have taken on the idea that, at least in material terms, the future cannot be better than the present.

The fact that the sceptics are wrong on the supposed paradox of affluence should not be dismissed as simply an academic error. On the contrary, their views and the policies they often advocate have at least two sets of dangerous consequences.

First, society as a whole, and the poor in particular, suffer as a result of assaults on prosperity. Although such attacks may be pitched as criticisms of the rich it is the mass of society that benefits most from rising wealth (16). The wealthy already largely enjoy the advantages of living an affluent lifestyle. In contrast, the rest of us still have a lot to gain from living in a more prosperous society.

Second, the pursuit of happiness as a social goal – as opposed to being a personal matter – opens the way to authoritarian policies. It is a short jump to conclude that if we are not happy then the government must somehow ‘correct’ our thinking. The authorities increasingly takes on a therapeutic role where its sees it sees it as necessary to manage people’s emotions. Regulating individual behaviour becomes one of the central missions of government (17)

So not only is there no ‘paradox of prosperity’ but pursuing happiness as a social goal is also likely to make us worse off. It downplays the economic growth that could hugely enhance people’s lives while inviting the authorities to regulate our emotional affairs. It should be up to individuals to decide if they want to pursue happiness as one of their personal goals. For society, the goal of greater economic growth, leading to an increase in popular prosperity, is a worthy one to follow.


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