Since prehistoric times, human tribes have had social mores and taboos. A society ‘civilized’ itself once materialism seeped into its marrow via regular economic surpluses, and a government rooted itself in those surpluses.
The essence of all political ideologies lies not just in what government is supposed to do, but in what government is not supposed to do. The core issue is what responsibilities government has for the welfare of its citizens. President Calvin Coolidge philosophized that “government should not assume for the people the inevitable burdens of existence.” He said that in 1929, after presiding over America’s roaring ’20s, and about to head into the Great Depression as a severe hangover.
That government should maintain social order is relatively noncontroversial, yet this seemingly simple directive goes to the heart of the controversy about government. How far does “maintaining social order” go? If the mandate is merely preventing violence among citizens, then government is essentially a police state, reserving for itself a monopoly on violence.
If instead the mandate is maintaining the social order as it exists, then government effectively forms a totalitarian state, in thrall to the private interests that hold power at present. Many democracies, including the United States, hew to a totalitarian status quo because elections are essentially purchased by the wealthy. Gullible voters pay the tab afterwards.
Given social stratification, the viscosity of strata practically defines how well a society functions as a meritocracy. If a society is not meritocratic, it becomes dissolute, with politics that smack of despotism, however democratic they may seem on the surface.
Where governments have failed to engender or maintain meritocratic fluidity among the populace, plutocracy reigns. This has long been the norm, regardless of regime. As English moral economist Adam Smith observed in the 18th century, “government is in reality instituted for the defence of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.”
Societal malaise throughout much of industrialized world owes to socioeconomic stagnation, the responsibility of which ultimately lies at the doorstep of the polity that tolerates it.
Meritocracy acts as a solvent on an inequitable status quo, and so is corrosive to plutocracy, unless the exceptionally meritorious may be coopted. Mythical “rags to riches” stories both turn potential revolutionaries into contented patrons of plutocracy and provide propaganda of hope for those stuck in the underclass. American capitalists have been especially adroit in promoting a meritocratic myth.
In capitalist economies, private enterprise profits from the goods, while government acts as the janitor for the prodigious bads of the market system, particularly pollution and unemployment. Because governments under a capitalist system are invariably plutocratic, neither pollution nor unemployment are abated beyond a level which precludes revolution.
Inequality is an inevitability of capitalism, and it has vibrant political implications. If the proletariat cannot be misled about a society’s lack of meritocracy, they become deeply cynical. Such is Russia’s heritage and America’s future.
The United States is an outstanding example of kleptocracy in play. Because its people still generally believe that they can “get ahead,” rebellion musters in few minds, even as inequity festers as a societal cancer. Mirages matter greatly in politics.
American writer Gore Vidal observed that “the genius of our ruling class is that it has kept a majority of the people from ever questioning the inequity of a system where most people drudge along, paying heavy taxes for which they get nothing in return.”
That democracies fail to protect the public from well-organized corporate interests demonstrates that politics have not advanced beyond Jean Rousseau’s identification of the problem 250 years ago.
The preamble of the US constitution ordained that the government “promote the general welfare.” This mandate was one of the most profound declarations in the document and has been studiously ignored like no other purpose set forth in any constitution.
A large underclass in abiding poverty, lack of affordable health care, and the ongoing precarious economic conditions most people face in their lives indicates that current regimes have not delivered the prosperity that was the promise of capitalism and democracy. The most damning denouement is the mass extinction event underway as a fruit of industrialized civilization and the political regimes which succored it.
Capitalism isn’t going to “save the planet.” Democracies around the world are electing conservative and right-wing leaders who deny there even is a climate problem. Other, more sympathetic political leaders wring their hands.
Outside outlier efforts at socialism, however flawed, the modern political failure has been the acceptance of parasitic governance, of kleptocracy and plutocracy.
Humanity is now on the cusp of self-extinction; a situation which evolved because the mass majority were fine with government shirking responsibility for society’s well-being – capitalists concerned that too much government would be bad for business; conservatives afraid that change would be disruptive to their lives, or too stupid to see how the situation could be improved; liberals without the courage of conviction that societies could be engineered for the betterment of humanity and the environment.
If humanity is going to survive to the 22nd century, government is going to have step up and “assume for the people the inevitable burdens of existence” by organizing societies more sensibly than they have been. Otherwise humanity’s demise is certain.