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“Nothing turns out to be so oppressive and unjust as a feeble government”*…

Yes, the private sector deftly turned publicly-funded technologies into commercial successes, and there was a place for individual genius in that. But those successes were also built on long hours by tens of thousands of engineers (many of them immigrants, many of whom went to public schools). The Ayn Rand image of the solo entrepreneur — Hank Reardon toiling alone in his laboratory to invent a new kind of steel — is a pernicious deception.

Myths have their place, and America’s worship of individual innovators inspires real achievement. The opportunity for success attracts the ambitious and those willing to work hard, like my parents, along with millions of others who land on American shores. But the myth becomes a liability when society becomes so enamoured with the idea of individual success that it forgets, and even attacks, the very institutions that enable it…

The efficiency of public-sector programmes can be seen all the time. An American family with an annual income of $52,000 per year pays approximately $16,000 a year in federal, state, and local taxes. In exchange, that family gets roads, public schools, environmental protection, national security, fire, and police. Try assembling that as a package of private services and see what it costs.

Antipathy to government institutions is often called “conservatism,” but it bears no resemblance to any principled tradition by that name. Conservatism is rooted in a respect for institutions. Its intellectual founding father, Edmund Burke, wrote, “Nothing turns out to be so oppressive and unjust as a feeble government.” The observation comes from his most famous work, a criticism of the anti-institutional, pro-individualism of the French Revolution and the bloody terror that followed. There is plenty to criticise about the American administrative state, but idolatry of the individual is hardly a true “conservative” critique.

Nor can the current, degraded notion of freedom be found in the works of America’s founders. The premise of the Declaration of Independence is not simply that our rights are “self-evident” but that “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.” This is to say, the founders respected “government” — they saw the state as a vehicle to guarantee freedom. In the years after the American Revolution, those who fought for liberty spent the rest of their lives progressively strengthening the central government they had formed in order to secure that freedom. Their legacy is the stability and prosperity we have come to take for granted. The exaggerated emphasis on individualism imperils their achievements.

In the U.S., Covid-19 did not find an exceptional country. Instead, the virus found a land of individuals — too many of them poor, overweight, under-educated, and overly imprisoned. It found underfunded institutions and a population teeming with a sense of entitlement rather than community.

What separated America from countries that staunched Covid-19 is neither size nor geography. China has the world’s largest population (Wuhan has more people than New York City). And though many countries that did well are islands, oceans offer scant protection from a pandemic. (The first person to die of Covid-19 in Iceland was an Australian, and the virus reached America from China and Europe, not Mexico or Canada.) No common political system or cultural tradition links the successful countries.

America’s response was inept because the institutions designed to protect the public failed or were enfeebled. At almost every level of society, people chose individual convenience over collective well-being.

What can be done to reverse the country’s self-destructive course, and to repair and prepare? America should use the pandemic as a turning point for renewal. Just as the human immune system develops antibodies from one viral infection to fight off another, Covid-19 presents us with the opportunity to build “societal antibodies” — practices to fend off the contagious disease of selfishness.

The country needs a “Corona Corps.” Similar to the armed forces or the Peace Corps, it would consist of people largely aged 18 to 24, trained and equipped to fight the virus. The Corps would conduct contact tracing, staff testing, and vaccination centers, and work with people required to isolate, providing anything from food delivery to a sympathetic ear. Corona Corps members could not only be paid but could also earn credits to reduce tuition and lower their debt — as well as gain experiences that serve as an on-ramp to jobs post-graduation.Once the virus is tamed, we should transition Corona Corps into a robust national service programme. 

A second reform is our tax system — a government function that is fundamental to all public programmes, but which has been ravaged by our disregard for the state institutions. Allowing the super-wealthy 0.1 percent to enjoy a greater share of spoils while we cut their taxes is not the hallmark of a functioning society. 

Regardless of the tax rules we adopt, administering them requires an efficient institution — and America’s Internal Revenue Service has been severely underfunded. A recent congressional report estimated that a $100bn investment in tax enforcement would take in $1.2trn — yes, trillion — in revenue over the next decade.

But the bigger point is that we must pursue a cultural shift: a renewed recognition of the value of institutions, and of the balance between the individual and the community in a prosperous society. Certainly, people should complain about the arcane and sometimes onerous regulations that hamper entrepreneurship — at the point of contact, institutions often feel like friction, like something to be avoided. Yet we must also recognise that beyond disagreements over the size and specifics of government institutions, those institutions are essential and honourable — as are the people who serve in them.

Individualism is embedded in America’s cultural identity, but it is a sign of national character to act together as a community. 

An excerpt from an essay by Scott Galloway (@profgalloway): “Institutions,” eminently worth reading in full. Indeed, this piece is a slightly-abridged version of “Scott Galloway on recasting American individualism and institutions” in The Economist (but behind their paywall).

See also the apposite (but differently-focused) piece by Scott’s NYU colleague, Davis Stasavage: “Lessons from all democracies.”

* Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

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As we seek a middle path, we might recall that it was on this date in 44 BCE, that Casca and Cassius decided that Mark Antony (Marcus Antonius) should not be killed with his ally Julius Caesar in the assassination planned for the next day; rather, that he should be waylaid so as not be in Senate at the time. It was the conspirators’ undoing.

They believed Caesar’s death would restore the Republic. But Caesar had been immensely popular with the Roman middle and lower classes, who became enraged upon learning a small group of aristocrats had killed their champion. Antony, as the sole consul, soon took the initiative and seized the state treasury. Calpurnia, Caesar’s widow, presented him with Caesar’s personal papers and custody of his extensive property, clearly marking him as Caesar’s heir and leader of the Caesarian faction. Antony negotiated a crafty compromise with the conspirators… then, on March 20th, gave his famous speech at Caesar’s funeral– which ended with Antony’s brandishing of Caesar’s blood-satined toga… Several buildings in the Forum and some houses of the conspirators were burned to the ground. Panicked, most of the conspirators fled Italy. The few remaining– including Brutus and Cassius– were assigned distant (and relatively menial) posts in Sicily and Asia by Antony “for their own protection”; insulted, they fled instead to Greece.

George Edward Robertson, “Marc Antony’s Oration at Caesar’s Funeral”

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