Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Arguing with a child

I realize it's stupid, and I shouldn't do it, but I just can't help myself. Jonah Goldberg (yeah, that's right, the chickenhawk par excellence) today asks a question about the difference between European socialism and American liberalism which he claims is serious rather than rhetorical:
What exactly differentiates the goals, ambitions and/or philosophical drives of, say, the liberal wing of the Democratic Party from European social democrats? Is there anything fundamental to social democracy that Nancy Pelosi (forget Obama for the moment) disagrees with because she is a liberal and not a “socialist”? Is there anything Nancy Pelosi believes about the role of the state that would cause the average Swedish or British social democrat to object?

I am sure that there are some cultural differences to account for. Swedes are culturally different from Belgians who are different from San Francisco liberals. But are they philosophically all that different?
OK. Let me try to explain this very slowly, using no big words.

American liberals believe that the government should offer a "social safety net," including elements such as unemployment benefits; cash transfers; food stamps; price subsidies for "essentials" such as food, electricity, public transport, or housing; public works; public subsidies for health care; public education; and so on.

"Socialists" (European or otherwise) believe in all that, too, of course. But what they also believe in is the collective or common ownership of the means of production, at least for major industrial components ("the commanding heights"). [Aside: there are important debates about how this should be implemented -- through state ownership, worker cooperatives, or what have you.]

This distinction is what sets off American liberals from European socialists. The belief in collective ownership is held by very sizable minorities in most European countries, and in fact is a programmatic element of the party platforms of many European social democratic parties. By contrast, in America, almost no one believes in collectivizing the means of production; and it's certainly not a view propounded in any fashion by Pelosi, much less Obama.

On the basis of this distinction, it is clear that the recently-passed health care bill, despite the Luntzian claims of a "government takeover," was a perfect example of non-socialism: yes, the federal government put into place mandates and subsidies (e.g. liberalism); but what it did not do was to nationalize (e.g. to collectivize the ownership of) the health care industry (e.g. socialism).

Either Goldberg understands this distinction, and chooses to ignore it because it would collapse his ability to red-bait, or he really is incredibly stupid.

(Update: OK, maybe not "stupid," but at minimum willfully obtuse.)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Saturday, December 18, 2010

When will China overtake the US economy?

A neat tool from the Economist. The future is sooner than you think.

More nGram timesucks

I mentioned the shifting shape of utopia in yesterday's post, using Google's nGram reader to track the rising fortunes of the idea of human rights and the (entirely non-coincidental) falling fortunes of collectivist hopes for human emancipation. Well, above is a better version, this time comparing "socialism" to "human rights."

Well, here's another one, this time that tells you something about the social attention to the endless wars on drugs.

And this one ain't bad either: "capitalism" v. "globalization":

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Last Utopia

I'm finally setting down to read my friend (and Humanity colleague) Sam Moyn's wonderful new book The Last Utopia, on the rise of the discourse of human rights. The book is filled with many wonderful observations, and its central thesis is powerful and revisionist. In a nutshell, the book argues that the contemporary concept of human rights discourse did not emerge, as the standard story inside the human rights community usually has it, in the late 1940s, with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, much less with the French and American revolutions in the 18th century (as others have argued), but rather much more recently, in the late 1970s - specifically with Jimmy Carter's inaugural address in 1977.

But to me the most striking aspect of Sam's argument is his claim that the rise of individualist human rights discourse is a direct result of the collapse of collectivist notions of human emancipation - specifically, the exhaustion of revolutionary idealism in the wake of the 1960s. (In this sense, Sam's book can be read in interesting counterpoint to Jeremy Suri's The Global Revolutions of 1968, which tracks the common global fervors of "youthful idealism," and the common reactions of the Establishments from Prague to Paris to Peking.) As I say, an interesting claim, and one that I buy intuitively.

But can we actually "test" this proposition? Well, it just so happens that Google Labs has just launched a new tool, the nGram Viewer, which lets you graph and compare phrases over time. And so I decided to plug in the two key terms in question here, namely "human rights" and "revolution" to see what I would get. And here you have it:

So what we see pretty clearly here is the way that revolutionary expectations and discussions (among English language books) peaked right around 1970, and human rights discourse takes off right around 1977, just as Sam's qualitative analysis suggests. Not that this is proof, but it's pretty compelling evidence.