Hyperbrief summary: Conservatives are disingenuous about their views on government intervention and liberals fall for it.
Recommended?: Yep, especially as it’s available free.
Dean Baker is an impressively credentialled American economist. He’s written a bunch of books, many of which are downloadable for free from his website. The subtitle of this one represents what seems a common theme in his work: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer. Its basic idea is something that’s been seeming increasingly obvious to me for a while now, as I grow incrementally less dumb and ignorant about politics and economics.
According to the popular narrative, left-wing liberals believe that there are things we can’t get done as a society without relying on government to do them for us, whereas right-wing conservatives support independence, personal autonomy, and minimising government interference in lives of citizens. The public debate is commonly framed in these terms, and both sides tend to argue as if from this premise.
In fact, this is an entirely inaccurate basis for discussion, and liberals regularly leave themselves at a massive disadvantage by capitulating to this idea, allowing conservatives to claim a monopoly on fundamental American concepts like freedom and independence. Conservatives want and demand state intervention in the “free market” as much as anyone, generally to further entrench and concentrate the money and power of the rich and powerful.
One of the book’s main strengths is the consistent recognition that the way things are right now is not the only way they could possibly be. In numerous areas of life, there are clearly major drawbacks to our current way of doing things, and it’s our responsibility to be open to the possibility of substantial change. (I mean, he could do with turning that healthy revolutionary attitude up a notch on subjects like taxes, but in general it’s pretty good, and a lot better than most mainstream conversation.) The intended purpose and substantial downsides to our current systems are examined rigorously, and it’s sensibly analytical about the positives and pitfalls of alternative approaches.
It’s efficient in its writing, more than being particularly charming or witty, or otherwise infused with the author’s personality. Which isn’t really meant as a criticism, just something I noticed in comparison with most other books I’ve encountered that attempt to do a similar job. If you aren’t expecting too much of a casual chat, but want to see someone making their point articulately and concisely, it’s a good read.
One drawback for me was the way the word “state” is almost never used throughout the book without the word “nanny” preceding it. I get that this phrase is what summarises the thesis behind each individual argument, and he’s essentially right about all of it, but referring quite so often to “nanny state conservatives” as the people supporting the policies he argues against starts to feel like unnecessary name-calling – especially when “nanny state” becomes an inappropriate metaphor for what he’s describing.
I’ve never liked it that much anyway, as a term for an over-meddling government. Nannies are people we hire to come into our homes and provide a vital service looking after our children. They might have a stereotypical image as overbearing and overprotective, but that’s not inherent to the job, and they only exist because the tiny humans they’re looking after would be in serious danger of harm or death if a nanny wasn’t around to keep them safe. I guess the idea is that children are genuinely helpless, and need someone to take basically full responsibility for their lives, which is what some people act as if they want the government to do for all of us, but it still feels a bit weak as an epithet, especially when so overused.
Most of the time it’s not so bad, because the over-bearing intervention of the state is the correctly identified problem. But there are times when it talks about the wrong sort of intervention, or even when the government refuses to meddle in ways the book thinks it should – to let rich people get away with things in ways the less privileged wouldn’t be allowed to, say – at which point the overbearing nanny allegory entirely fails.
It’s not like his criticisms of government policy are suddenly any less valid or acutely observed at these points, but the patriarchal actions of a “nanny state” aren’t a good descriptor for the problem.
I was especially interested in the section on Social Security in the US, and how it compares to other systems. According to the figures cited, the administration costs of running Social Security are around 0.5% of the tax revenue that pays for it, compared to a figure of 15-20% of revenue going toward admin costs in privatised social security systems, such as in the UK.
Embarrassingly, given that I’ve worked in the field for several years, I had to google the name of the paper in the citation to figure out that the UK’s “privatised social security system” refers to pensions, in particular the system by which insurance companies sell annuities. (My mind only went to the socialised free-at-point-of-use NHS, which was more of a given when this book was published in 2006.)
But he’s obviously right that all the costs associated with being an annuity provider, such as executive pay and advertising and whatnot, are hugely inefficient. It’d never occurred to me to make the direct comparison to the US’s government system of Social Security; I’m going to need to read up on this in order to better understand the distinctions.
The Conservative Nanny State is a free e-book available on the author’s website. If you have any kind of political investment or personal leanings as regards liberalism, libertarianism, conservatism, or any of the ways humanity attempts to get its shit together, you’ve got no excuse not to read this and learn some more about how the system you think you understand actually works.