A Scale Question and the Closing of the American Mind

I have engaged friends at the college with a simple question: how big can a federal republic get before it collapses? Hopefully I can grab some answers. It reminds me a Ryan Avent post at The Economist in reference to something Romney told a press conference (for some reason the video is no longer available embedded at the magazine). Romney said:

Do you believe in a government-centred society that provides more and more benefits, or do you believe instead in a free enterprise society where people are able to pursue their dreams? …We have a very different approach the president and I between a government-dominated society and a society driven by free people pursuing their dreams…

Here Romney is alluding to scale, while at the same time setting up a false dichotomy and a false set of choices that use typical and meaningless political buzz words. Avent remarks on this to some degree:

To me, this perfectly illustrates the massive blind spot in current GOP orthodoxy. The belief that there is an irreconcilable conflict between government benefits and the freedom to pursue dreams can only arise among those who have never had to worry about the reality of equality of opportunity in America. For most Americans, public schools are a critical piece of the machinery of economic mobility. Things like unemployment insurance and social security, meagre though they are, sometimes mean the difference between destitution and the possibility [sic] of a second chance or a non-wretched standard of living. For many Americans, the ability to even contemplate dreams for a better life is down to the small cushion and basic investments provided by governments, provided for precisely that reason, because an economy in which only those born with a comfortable financial position can invest in human capital and take entrepreneurial risks is doomed to class-based calcification.

Avent points to the “class” appeal in the Romney quote. But I’d rather go after the dichotomy and then an inaccurate and infantile use of terminology: “We have a very different approach the president and I between a government-dominated society and a society driven by free people pursuing their dreams . . . ” The false dichotomy has to do with the stated choice of beliefs. The audience is supposed to “believe” first in either a “government-centred society” or a “free enterprise society.” Romney provides a definition for each: the first is a “society that provides more and more benefits” while the second is a “society where people are able to pursue their dreams.” It is taken as “fact” that a society that provides “more” benefits is a society in which people are inhibited from pursuing dreams. This is not, however, a “fact,” as we can imagine societies where healthcare is provided as a major “benefit” by the government and have, under such great “benefit weight,” demonstrated ample ability to “dream.” Example: Norway, whose ranking on the Human Development Index is nothing to laugh at, unless, of course, you’re inclined to accept gross generalization.

The other side of the coin is the “free enterprise society,” defined as a place where people are free to “pursue their dreams.” It is treated as a fact that such is a place where the government “does not provide more benefits” is expressed as a legitimate counterweight, which is just an odd phrase to utter in the company of people with brains. Is there such a thing as “unfree enterprise”? Is it not possible for people in a “free enterprise society” to have their dreams crushed? Another problem is Romney’s method of using rhetorical amplification by subtly equating “government-centered” with “government-dominated,” when the first phenomenon can be refuted by even fifth-grade research, and neither is effectively defined in the context of a reality-based system of classification. “Government-centered,” I assume, is a keyword for a Fascist state.

This is argument by trigger words. “Benefits” is the first case is another way of saying that people are handed what they should otherwise work or “dream” for. One should both “work” for a college education and then, after graduation, “work” for a high standard of living. An underwritten education, on the other hand, signifies that the college student in this scenario is “dominated” by the government. By extension, one could argue the principle of the slipper slope and claim that underwriting would lead to a narrow or hollow curriculum. But Madison would have a lot to say about that, and it avoids constitutional realities. For Madison, the people underwrite.

Romney’s are not smart arguments. They belittle the American electorate and Close the American Mind.

Joseph Stiglitz writes this about what amounts to a correction of the terms:

Inequality in “market incomes” — what individuals receive apart from any transfers from the government — has increased as a result of ineffective enforcement of competition laws, inadequate financial regulation, deficiency in corporate governance laws, and “corporate welfare” — huge open and hidden subsidies to our corporations that reached new heights in the Bush administration. When, for instance, competition laws are not enforced, monopolies grow, and with them the income of monopolists. Competition, by contrast, drives profits down. What is disturbing about Romney and Ryan is that they have done so little to distance themselves from the economic policies of the Bush administration, which not only led to poor economic performance, but also to so much inequality. Understandably, perhaps, Romney has not explained why those, like him, in the hedge fund and equity fund business should be able to use a loophole in the tax law to pay 15 percent taxes on their earnings, when ordinary workers pay a far higher rate.