by Robert Maynard
I would like to follow up on an early piece I wrote entitled “The Left’s Authoritarian Vision”. In that article I noted the left’s historical tendency to admire central planning even if it means pointing to authoritarian/totalitarian regimes as models to follow. The latest to trod this path is SEIU’s President Andy Stern and his citing China as an economic model that we should emulate. The natural question one may ask is what drives this fascination with central planning?
The visions that animates the left is that a society can be socially engineered to create a utopia if only the right people were in charge of the economic, political and social levers of society. This vision was inspired by the successes of the hard sciences in making technological advances that improved our lives. If we could use science to engineer better machinery, or bioengineer better plants and livestock, why can’t we socially engineer human society as well? The conviction that we can was at the heart of an explosion of collectivist thinking in the 19th Century. The possibilities of creating a utopia inspired religious like devotion in the advocates of this view. There is one problem though. As Behavior Psychologist B.F. Skinner pointed out: “the hypothesis that man is not free is essential to the application of the scientific method to human nature.” Human free will and the tendency to make our own decisions makes socially engineering human society via the scientific method problematic at best. Individualism must be discouraged if the central planners are to succeed. Here is how Vermont’s John Dewey put it in an 1899 address to educators in which he stated: “You can’t make socialists out of individualists. Children who know how to think for themselves spoil the harmony of the collective society which is coming where everyone is interdependent.” As they say in Japanese culture “The nail that sticks up must be hammered down”. It is the hammering down of those who do not wish to fit neatly into the “harmony of the collective society”, that accounts for much of the brutality in totalitarian societies. In societies that lean toward democratic socialism, the socializing of the population to accept the “harmony of the collective society” is done more subtly. Either way, the notion that society should be socially engineered by the best and the brightest is a common characteristic of both approaches. Neither approach approves of those who think they can govern themselves better than a collection of so-called experts. At its heart, the left’s vision is at odds with self-government. When push comes to shove it is not very democratic if the choices arrived via the democratic process do not rubber stamp the “visions of the anointed”. (My apologies for the twist on Thomas Sowell’s work)
An example of how this approach is still being held can be found in the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. On OWS’s Burlington Facebook page there appeared a first draft of a “manifesto” back in early November. It as entitled “Rebuilding America” and it got 95 “likes”, which was more than any other post I saw. It calls for a constitutional convention, which would take the following action: “All sitting politicians are relieved of office, the system that put them there was not legitimate anyway so they were not duly elected by the population.” How are we to replace our elected officials while the new system gets worked out? “Trained, professional civil servants form interim directorships of agencies under a short term contract.” This brings to mind Lenin’s “Vanguard”. What if the people decide to pursue policies not in line with those favored by the ”trained, professional civil servants”? The assumption here is that such trained professionals would rationally set up the perfect system and the people would simply rubber stamp it via the democratic process. Would those who dissented become “enemies of the people”?
This assumption that a small group of so-called professionals knows what is better for the rest of us was seen again when the advocates of health care reform here in Vermont decided to have a five member board of “experts” design a system for us and not even make such details as costs and type of care covered known until after the next election. They are more concerned that these experts be put “in charge” of the system than they are that those creating the system be held accountable to the voters. When one of the voters has the audacity to bring up concerns about the direction of the reform, such objections are met with ridicule and scorn from the Vermont House’s health care panel. This is one of the subtle ways in which the nail that sticks up gets hammered down. Again, the democratic process is seen as a mere formality meant to rubber stamp the visionary goals of the social engineers. Another example of this is the recent so-called “listening tour” that was supposed to receive input to those designing Vermont’s health care reform system. These tours were little more than exercises in creating a consensus in support of an already determined path.
Vermont is not only acting as a laboratory for the government takeover of our health care system, it is one of the primary testing grounds for instituting the progressive vision overall. Vermonters need to be more alert and aware of how those who dissent from the visions of the anointed are viewed. The subtle discouragement of dissent does not bode well for our democratic traditions.