James K. Boyce: There is individual irresponsibility on the right of US politics
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. In coming November elections in the United States, one of the debates that seems to be raging is between the so-called nanny state and let the private sector do it. Well, here’s what Professor James Boyce wrote about this. “In the United States today, conservatives have hijacked the word ‘responsibility.’ Social security, unemployment insurance and health care from the ‘nanny state,’ they declare, undermine personal responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions. . . .” Yet “irresponsibility is alive and well on America’s political right. It is irresponsible, for example, to pretend that governments can provide roads, schools, or security if citizens don’t pay taxes. Draped in the anti-tax flag, big money cynically pursues its self-interest in the name of curbing ‘big government.’ The real way to tame government is not to ‘starve the beast’ but to exercise the democratic rights and responsibilities of citizenship.” Now joining us to discuss his article is Professor James Boyce. He joins us from the PERI institute in Amherst, Massachusetts, where he runs the peace-building and environmental program. Thanks for joining us, James.
JAMES BOYCE, DEVELOPMENT AND ENVIRONMENT PROGRAM DIRECTOR, PERI: Nice to be back, Paul.
JAY: What exactly are you talking about here? Especially your specialty is the environmental issues. So how does this debate play out there, and what are the consequences of it?
BOYCE: Well, what I tried to point out in the piece, Paul, is that there’s a certain schizophrenia these days in American thinking about government. On the one hand, there are many folks who decry the nanny state, as you mentioned, claiming that it saps individual responsibility. On the other hand, many of these same folks are big proponents of what might be called the daddy state, the state as a protector, the state as the source of security that will guard us against evildoers around the world and against natural and accidental disasters at home. And there’s a fundamental disconnect between the idea that the state can perform all of these functions and the idea that we don’t need to have taxes or we need to radically reduce taxes, particularly on upper income groups, because providing any kinds of services, be it security or schools or roads, all of these things require us to pay taxes. And if we really are worried about the government getting out of control, the way to control it is not to starve it of resources (the phrase that some on the right have used on the United States), but rather to make sure that we participate in the political process in ways that subordinate what government does to what we want it to do. At the same time, I think it’s also a big mistake—and this was the main point of my article, Paul—that many folks think that security is something that can be entirely entrusted to the government. All we have to do is let daddy take care of us, and then we don’t have to take responsibility in our own lives and the way we run our economy for trying to create security ourselves. It can be handed off to the government. And I think that’s a mistake. It can’t be handed off.
JAY: How does this play out in terms of the environment? What are some the consequences of this?
BOYCE: Well, let me give you one example to start with. If we’re interested in building a secure economy and protecting ourselves from harm, one of the things we have to think about seriously is how to build resilience into our infrastructure. By that what I mean is minimizing our vulnerability to disasters, be they natural disasters or human accidents or deliberate efforts to inflict harm upon us. One way to think about resilience metaphorically is it’s the ability to bounce without breaking. Let me give you a concrete example. Think about our electric power grid. If you have a power grid that’s based on a relatively small number of very big plants that feed the power into the grid that has centralized control over how that power gets distributed, then a breakdown in one part of the system can cause a catastrophic disruption of power supplies over a large area. And we’ve already seen that happen accidentally with big regional blackouts in the United States in the past decade. It could happen again. It probably will happen again. So if we want to have a resilient power grid, as Amory and Hunter Lovins pointed out in a study they did for the Pentagon back in 1982 that was reissued after the 9/11 attacks, a study called “Brutal Power”, what we need to have is a system that takes account of the reality that in the end you’re never going to be able to prevent 100 percent of accidents or sabotage or natural disasters from striking. They are going to strike. And if you’re going to accept and recognize that reality, you need to build a system that can withstand those events which, despite our best efforts to prevent them—.
JAY: The counterargument will be that economies of scale are more efficient. Isn’t that true?
BOYCE: That’s one of the arguments. And one of the problems with conventional economics is that it really is constructed around ideas that are antipathetic to building resilience into a system. For resilience what you need are dispersion, you need diversity, and you need redundancy. Right? In economics (in conventional economics I’m talking about here), dispersed, small power-generating facilities around the country that are feeding into the grid, which is the kind of thing that proponents of resilience recommend, is viewed as somehow overridden by economies of scale. Now, I don’t have anything against economies of scale, Paul, but we’ve got to recognize that with a centralized structure, whether it’s big government or big corporations, with a centralized structure comes vulnerability to disruptions. And if we want to be resilient in the face of that eventuality, we need to have decentralized systems that are more able to withstand external shocks. That’s one of the problems with conventional economics. Another problem, if you think about diversity, a diverse mix of types of plants feeding into the power grid, for example, or redundancy, having surplus capacity and systems that will serve as backup systems when other systems go down, these things are also in conventional economic analysis viewed as departures from efficiency. Efficiency means you put all your eggs in the best basket. You assume away the possibility that that basket’s going to develop a hole and the eggs are going to fall out.
JAY: James, how do you get to this? Because if you leave the market forces to themselves, as most of the right wants—and when I say “right”, I should include most of the Democratic Party certainly pledges allegiance to the free market. But free market tends to lead to monopoly, not to a lot of small, diversified forms. So how do you get there? Because right now we’re headed to more monopolization, not more diversification.
BOYCE: Well, I think this is where the role of the state comes into the picture, Paul. It’s not necessarily the case that free market in and of itself leads to monopoly. That can happen, but very often the way that monopolies get established is through the power that individual firms and actors bring to bear on the political process, so that they’re in effect able to capture the state and direct state resources towards uses and designs that are going to benefit their efforts to establish bigger, more powerful institutions, and thereby establish, in many cases, monopolies of one sort or another over the supply of goods and necessities to the public. So it’s not just the free market here that’s at work; it’s a political process that’s at work. And in order to counter that, it’s not a matter of simply trying to interfere with the market; it’s a matter of trying to intervene with the political process in ways that protect the sustainability of our economy, protect our security against disasters, by building into the systems ways that diversity, dispersion of activity, and redundancy are encouraged rather than discouraged.
JAY: Well, this is partly the argument you hear from libertarian economists, and to some extent Republican economists (they’re not necessarily the same thing), that the only way to do this, then, is to have smaller government, because monopolies use government to make themselves stronger and bigger monopolies. So the answer is just shrink government.
BOYCE: Well, two things, Paul. One, just because conservatives say it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong. Huh? There are ways in which the government has served the powerful and does serve the powerful, and that’s one of the reasons why so many people are upset about government today. But the second point is that we need governments. Governments do have a role to play. As I’m saying and arguing in the piece you referred to, I don’t think we should entrust everything to governments. I think we need personal responsibility and responsibility as communities for our own security and for our own well-being as well. But governments are necessary. And, therefore, if you’re going to have governments, you need to have an active citizenship ethos amongst the population so that people aren’t just handing it off to daddy and letting daddy take care of it for them, but rather are actively engaged in shaping what government does in ways that protects their interests and their security. So it’s not about big or small, really; it’s about concentrated power versus dispersed power. That’s true whether we’re talking about electrical power or political power.
JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, James.
BOYCE: Thank you, Paul.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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