30 March 2012

Who is 'the villain?' Who is 'the solution?'

Mitt Romney states the difference in worldviews the divides the country in fair terms in a preview excerpt from a speech to be delivered today. Apparently attempting to be as generous toward the President as possible, the Man From Bain claims that Obama's "desire to help others could not be more admirable," but chides the former community organizer for seeing "free enterprise as the villain and not the solution." He infers Obama's attitude from a comment about seeing "communities ravaged by plant closings." It would be hard not to see "free enterprise" as the villain when businesses close plants in your community, but Romney most likely sees plant closings as symptoms of a larger problem rather than causes, while the larger problem, for him, has less to do with free enterprise than with conditions that handicap it. Among the possible handicaps are a political attitude that "attacks success," or policies that go too far attempting to "guarantee that every one of us will achieve the success we seek." For Romney, it seems, liberty comes with an acceptance of risk and a readiness to accept the consequences of failure. But before anyone pounces on perceived hypocrisy here, let's address the fundamental question Romney raises.

It's taken for granted now that a large number of Americans distrust government, the public sector and the "political class." It's taken for granted by many observers of this phenomenon that that distrust is irrational or, at best, ideological. It should be taken for granted just as often that a large number of Americans distrust corporations, the "business class" and the private sector. These Americans assume that employers and executives will throw workers under the bus every time, that their bosses are always out to screw them, that they know now real constraint in their pursuit of profit by the easiest means. They don't see themselves as the aggressors in "class warfare," but assume that such warfare is the natural state of affairs in society, that the relations between employers and employed are typically if not always adversarial. People who hold this attitude will also affirm that it's a less irrational attitude than the mirror-side's distrust of politics and government because they can point to countless personal experiences that appear to confirm their viewpoint. The other side might appeal to personal experience too, but those experiences usually won't be the sort with which workers can empathize. But both attitudes are irrational -- knee-jerk distrust of either private or public sector -- to the extent that they presume how a person will behave based on his class or occupation. Neither attitude becomes more rational when it insists that one sector or the other has the exclusive "solution" to all problems. It could be argued that the division of society into these two inherently hostile sectors, or more specifically the presumption of such a division, is irrational. Only with such an assumed division is the presumption that "free enterprise" is villain or solution possible. What we need is for people to trust each other regardless of the roles they play in our vast division of labor -- to not assume that someone playing a particular role is out to rip you off or enslave you. Unfortunately, what we have now all too often is the opposite attitude: an assumption that both private and public sectors will screw us over -- whoever we are in such a case. Trust remains essential, and Romney doesn't help things by insisting that we trust the private sector while continuing to peddle distrust of the public sector. His desire to help others may be admirable, too, but if he sees politics and government as the villain and not part of the solution, he's no better than he claims Obama to be.

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