Sonntag, April 11, 2010

Ill Fares The Left?

Tony Judt has a new book out.

The forward is published here.

And here is a fisking, because it deserves it. I'm not going to repeat it all, just the parts that need to be ... fisked.

Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: Is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them.

This very first sentence, that something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today, is the basis for the modern left. It is not that individual behavior is bad, or that institutions need patching, or that jobs need to be created, or any one of a number of discontents is crying to be resolved: rather, it is an all-encompassing, comprehensive criticism: further the criticism is not merely that Democrats don't like Republicans, but goes far beyond the pale, reflecting a fundamental problem, a profound problem. What is the problem? How we live today, how our very existences are constituted, that our very lives are false, wrong, incorrect, invalid. That's one heck of a critique: he is critiquing the very existence of modern society (and note that his "we" is clearly aimed at the West, not the developing countries or China).

Going back thirty years, we have 1980. That was the year that I first moved to Germany, that was the year that Reagan was elected, that was the year I consider to be the start of the end of the Soviet Union as it wrestled with Afghanistan and the strains of the folly of socialism was made increasingly clear to those living under it. It is also the point in time when China slowly started moving away from the suppression of the economic motive, it is still a time in South America of corruption and incompetence, it is still the time of proxy wars between East and West in Africa and the Middle East, and it was the point in time when the Islamicist beast of nihilistic terrorism was scarcely an inkling in the minds of Imams.

For Mr. Judt, those thirty years have been the time when we have made a virtue of material self-interest.

Think of that: to make a virtue of material self-interest. What does this mean, this material self-interest? Self-interest, of course, is homo oeconomicus, the rational economic actor of academia; self-interest is the basis of Adam Smith; self-interest is the basic driving force of human economic action. Material self-interest is, then, the great rising, of the transformation, literally, of millions from extreme poverty to the mundane and boring middle-class in nations like Brazil, China and India.

This pursuit is now what constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose?

What does Mr. Judt mean here? Collective purpose is the key here to understanding: collective purpose. The purpose of the collective, which I can only understand here as the purpose of the political collective, the state, as Hobbes would understand his Leviathan. Material self-interest is now the purpose of the state: in other words, the purpose of the state has become to better the material well-being, the material self-interest, of its citizens.

We know what things cost, but have no idea of what they are worth? Here we have the simple statement of the valuation problem, that there are things that cannot have their value expressed in terms of money. The inverse of this, of course, is that unless you can place a value on things, there is no way to determine if the money spent on these things is "worth" it.

Mr. Judt is looking for a rebirth of politics. He is looking for a resurrection of the primacy of politics, rather than the primacy of economics.

The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition. Much of what appears "natural" today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatization and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor. And above all, the rhetoric that accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth.

Really? Not inherent in the human condition? What Mr. Judt is complaining about here is the fact that economics has indeed trumped politics, as it always will: the collapse of the socialist experiment, and it literally costs millions of lives before it collapsed, was first and foremost an economic collapse. To say that economics, or rather the acsension of modern capitalist economics, is not inherent in the human condition - please note not the political condition, but the human condition in and of itself - is to deny that humans are economic actors. The obsession with wealth creation, the "cult" of privatization and the private sector, growing disparities of rich and poor, are all not modern creations, but rather have been part and parcel of human history: without wealth creation there is no capital and you live the life of the economic brute of Hobbes; without private activity and the rule of law protecting private property, you have no civilization beyond the reach of the feudal lord; without disparities of rich and poor you have soul-crushing poverty for everyone, not riches for everyone.

Uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth: here we see the true colors emerging. These are all straw-man arguments, made by the modern Left to set up economics to be taken apart, but ignoring the fact that these things do not exist. Period. There is no uncritical admiration for unfettered markets amongst Chicago economists; any economist worth his profession does not disdain the public sector, and no economist has the delusion that growth is endless.

We cannot go on living like this. The little crash of 2008 was a reminder that unregulated capitalism is its own worst enemy: sooner or later it must fall prey to its own excesses and turn again to the state for rescue. But if we do no more than pick up the pieces and carry on as before, we can look forward to greater upheavals in years to come.

Here we start again: we cannot go on living like this/something is profoundly wrong. What Mr. Judt cannot abide is the fact that economic growth from day one has been a story of business cycles and their effects. The pig cycle existed when the first farmers started selling their pigs. This is not economic analysis or critique: this is the denial of economics, it is the call for the abolishment of economics.

And yet we seem unable to conceive of alternatives. This too is something new. Until quite recently, public life in liberal societies was conducted in the shadow of a debate between defenders of "capitalism" and its critics: usually identified with one or another form of "socialism." By the 1970s this debate had lost much of its meaning for both sides; all the same, the "left–right" distinction served a useful purpose. It provided a peg on which to hang critical commentary about contemporary affairs.

Aye, and there is the rub. The Left is unable to conceive of alternatives: there are none, and this, given the politics driving Mr. Judt and his colleagues, this is intolerable. There is no alternative to economics: the slow, shoddy, syphilitic collapse of socialism began in the 1970s, and the loss of meaning here is one way of saying that socialism lost: for the capitalistic West, the debate lost its meaning because we won: for the Left, it lost meaning because it was unmistakable that socialism was doomed to the trash-heap of history.

On the left, Marxism was attractive to generations of young people if only because it offered a way to take one's distance from the status quo. Much the same was true of classical conservatism: a well-grounded distaste for over-hasty change gave a home to those reluctant to abandon long-established routines. Today, neither left nor right can find their footing.

Here Mr. Judt is accurate: the driving force behind many people's interest in Marxism, especially in the 1960s, was that you could easily criticize the status quo and pretend to be radical: it's called radical chic, and underscored how little those of the 1960s really understood what they were doing. But he is inaccurate is contrasting classical conservatism with the Left: instead, part of the reason for the utter disenchantment of the vast majority for Leftist memes is the fact that the generations change, and the stultifying conformity of Leftist thinking is what younger generations reject. The modern Right won the Cold War: they never lost their footing.

If young people today are at a loss, it is not for want of targets. Any conversation with students or schoolchildren will produce a startling checklist of anxieties. Indeed, the rising generation is acutely worried about the world it is to inherit. But accompanying these fears there is a general sentiment of frustration: "we" know something is wrong and there are many things we don't like. But what can we believe in? What should we do?

Umm. no: there is the anxiety of failing to be the economic actors that they want to be. People are worried about jobs as many move to developing countries; people no longer worry about nuclear war - and should be happy for that - and instead have to face the mundane and terrifying prospects of actually having to work for a living. The "we" here is not all of us: rather, it is the "we" of the media, of academia, and the sense of foreboding, the sense that something is wrong, is the meme that the Left has been selling to the public for decades: for 30 years and more.

Here Mr. Judt is setting up another straw man: in this case, the claim that people feel that something is wrong, but in reality they have been told that there is something wrong for so long that this should come as no surprise: the basis of revolution is discontent, and at the end of the day, Mr. Judt and his colleagues desperately want the revolution, the one that will not be televised. They are, after all, facing an existentialist crisis. the one that has been brewing for 30 years as the slow collapse of socialism left those on the Left with...nothing in their lives.

This is projection on a grand scale and explains a lot.

This is an ironic reversal of the attitudes of an earlier age. Back in the era of self-assured radical dogma, young people were far from uncertain. The characteristic tone of the 1960s was that of overweening confidence: we knew just how to fix the world. It was this note of unmerited arrogance that partly accounts for the reactionary backlash that followed; if the left is to recover its fortunes, some modesty will be in order. All the same, you must be able to name a problem if you wish to solve it.

It is ironic, but not quite for the reasons that Mr. Judt indicates: the note of unmerited arrogance didn't account for a "reactionary" backlash, but rather the discovery that the modern Leftist Emperor, the stultifying meddling in the economy, wore no clothes. What Mr. Judt doesn't understand is that there is no way for the left to recover: the fact of the utter and complete collapse of socialism means that the Left is dead.

It refuses to believe this, it is in denial. Projection and denial, and that explains even more.

When journalists and commentators advocate public expenditure on social objectives, they are more likely to describe themselves—and be described by their critics—as "liberals." But this is confusing. "Liberal" is a venerable and respectable label and we should all be proud to wear it. But like a well-designed outer coat, it conceals more than it displays.

A liberal is someone who opposes interference in the affairs of others: who is tolerant of dissenting attitudes and unconventional behavior. Liberals have historically favored keeping other people out of our lives, leaving individuals the maximum space in which to live and flourish as they choose. In their extreme form, such attitudes are associated today with self-styled "libertarians," but the term is largely redundant. Most genuine liberals remain disposed to leave other people alone.

First, the automatic assumption that journalists are advocates is illuminating: it is part and parcel of the problem.

Mr. Judt's description of classic liberalism is accurate, but he fails to understand the irony of what has really happened: that it is the modern liberalist that is intolerant, vastly more intolerant than any of his conservative predecessors. Classic liberalism still exists, but you do not find it on the Left anymore: the transition is complete. You find it, instead, on the modern Right, in Reagan Republicans. Liberalism is the core of modern political economics as well: leave people well enough alone, and you will find that they work happily towards bettering themselves.

The intolerance of the Left is here especially ironic, given that Mr. Judt is explicitly and deliberately setting up liberalism in economics as the fall guy in his arguments.

We now see the path of the future for Mr. Judt and his colleagues:

Social democrats, on the other hand, are something of a hybrid. They share with liberals a commitment to cultural and religious tolerance. But in public policy social democrats believe in the possibility and virtue of collective action for the collective good. Like most liberals, social democrats favor progressive taxation in order to pay for public services and other social goods that individuals cannot provide themselves; but whereas many liberals might see such taxation or public provision as a necessary evil, a social democratic vision of the good society entails from the outset a greater role for the state and the public sector.

Social democracy was hated by the classic Left, as it suborned and replaced revolutionary elements and was, by them, considered nothing less than the suborning of the revolutionary process by the bourgeoisie in order to continue to exploit the proletariat: there were more deaths on Berlin streets in the 1920s and 1930s between the various Leftist groups than there was deaths in street fights between the Left and the Right.

Social democracy is what you end up with when bourgeois elements stop the revolutionary process to maintain their status and their ability to exploit the masses.

Which is exactly what Mr. Judt is basically arguing for: social democracy is the last desperate attempt by a class, enshrined in comfort and plenty, living off tax money, to continue to exploit the tax-paying class for their own selfish goals.

Now, that's ironic.

The state and the public sector as necessary for the the vision of the Good Society: I guess that one must set one's goals a tad lower when one looks back at the wreckage of the Great Society.

One of my goals is to suggest that government can play an enhanced role in our lives without threatening our liberties—and to argue that, since the state is going to be with us for the foreseeable future, we would do well to think about what sort of a state we want. In any case, much that was best in American legislation and social policy over the course of the twentieth century—and that we are now urged to dismantle in the name of efficiency and "less government"—corresponds in practice to what Europeans have called "social democracy." Our problem is not what to do; it is how to talk about it.

Here we see the core of the argument: the state is going to be with us for the foreseeable future (it certainly isn't going to wither away). The huge debt accumulated under President Obama's administration ensures this: if anything, it is part of the reason it is being accumulated, since these debt levels will effectively enshrine "progressive" policies until the debt can be retired. Taking on such massive debt means that future administrations, no matter what they look like, will have their hands tied, unless, of course, the debt is repudiated. The very fact that so much of this debt is being siphoned off into corrupt practices underscores this: the Democrats can have their cake and eat it to.

The idea that the government can play an enhanced role in our lives without threatening liberties is anathema to classic liberalism as Mr. Judt defines it.

Social democrats today are defensive and apologetic. Critics who claim that the European model is too expensive or economically inefficient have been allowed to pass unchallenged. And yet, the welfare state is as popular as ever with its beneficiaries: nowhere in Europe is there a constituency for abolishing public health services, ending free or subsidized education, or reducing public provision of transport and other essential services.

It is not the criticism that the European model is too expensive or economically inefficient - note that this is actually one criticism, not two - that is the problem: it is the fact that it is economically inefficient. If you have any intellectual honesty, this is not a claim, but a fact: it is, in that sense, unchallengeable. Of course the welfare state is popular with those who profit from it: that doesn't change the fact that it is unsustainable and leads first to lower growth and second to fiscal ruin.

In the early years of this century, the "Washington consensus" held the field. Everywhere you went there was an economist or "expert" expounding the virtues of deregulation, the minimal state, and low taxation. Anything, it seemed, that the public sector could do, private individuals could do better.

The Washington consensus remains correct: private entities, driven by the profit motive, can do a better job in most everything that the public sector does. There are exceptions, rightfully so, where the work becomes political: then vested interests and conflicts of interest forbid the use of private ventures. This is nothing but good governance.

The Washington doctrine was everywhere greeted by ideological cheerleaders: from the profiteers of the "Irish miracle" (the property-bubble boom of the "Celtic Tiger") to the doctrinaire ultra-capitalists of former Communist Europe. Even "old Europeans" were swept up in the wake. The EU's free- market project (the so-called "Lisbon agenda"); the enthusiastic privatization plans of the French and German governments: all bore witness to what its French critics described as the new " pensée unique."

You know why these were greeted so positively? Because it transformed moribund economies from statist, inefficient entities into rather more dynamic and successful economies. Should Ireland, in the wake of financial collapse, have not ventured at all instead? The quality of life in Ireland after the financial collapse, viewed as a whole, is vastly better than it was under the old life style that led not to domestic expansion, but rather emigration.

Today there has been a partial awakening. To avert national bankruptcies and wholesale banking collapse, governments and central bankers have performed remarkable policy reversals, liberally dispersing public money in pursuit of economic stability and taking failed companies into public control without a second thought. A striking number of free-market economists, worshipers at the feet of Milton Friedman and his Chicago colleagues, have lined up to don sackcloth and ashes and swear allegiance to the memory of John Maynard Keynes.

All born our of economic necessity after politicians thoroughly screwed things up: I cannot but repeat the point that without the creation of toxic instruments such as subprime mortgages, there would be no subprime crisis. It really is that simple. But this is not the triumph of Keynes, but rather prudent government intervention to prevent a greater breakdown: Keynes would be appalled at what is called Keynesian economic policy, which has little or nothing to do with what he wrote about. For Keynes, prudent economic policy was to create reserves during upswings so that one could support employment during downswings: what we see today is profligate acquisition of debt to prevent political partners - financiers and the unions, lucrative supporters of Democratic politicians - from bearing any damage. This is not Keynesian policies, these are corrupt and incompetent politicians bailing out their political supporters, doing exactly what they have been paid to do, and all profiting nicely at the cost of the US taxpayer.

If it is to be taken seriously again, the left must find its voice. There is much to be angry about: growing inequalities of wealth and opportunity; injustices of class and caste; economic exploitation at home and abroad; corruption and money and privilege occluding the arteries of democracy. But it will no longer suffice to identify the shortcomings of "the system" and then retreat, Pilate-like, indifferent to consequences. The irresponsible rhetorical grandstanding of decades past did not serve the left well.

Sorry: how can the Left, after the decades of vicious suppression of freedom and liberty, after the deaths, literally, of hundreds of millions of innocents sacrificed to the altar of state control of the means of production, how can the Left in any of its incarnations be taken seriously again, unless they repudiate the core of their own identity? There is indeed much to be angry about: the unrealized potentials of those hundreds of millions of dead, the injustices of Leftist politicians continue to show their faces in public and not to have their ill-gained assets seized (here I am talking of the follow-on parties of the SED, the East German communists, who have the audacity to re-enter politics after so many deaths).

And the ignorance of economic laws and the absolute and continuing indifference to consequences of Leftist policies is exactly what the Left must repudiate if they are to be taken at all seriously. No grandstanding can make up for this, and Mr. Judt is indeed accurate in that this has not served the Left well: we see this today in the collapse of the environmental catastrophe politics of the various watermelon parties (greed outside, red inside).

We have entered an age of insecurity—economic insecurity, physical insecurity, political insecurity. The fact that we are largely unaware of this is small comfort: few in 1914 predicted the utter collapse of their world and the economic and political catastrophes that followed. Insecurity breeds fear. And fear—fear of change, fear of decline, fear of strangers and an unfamiliar world—is corroding the trust and interdependence on which civil societies rest.

This fear is what everyone living in developing countries experience every day, and is indeed normal life: it is instructive that the instrumentalization of this transition to an age of insecurity as being one of fear -  rather than opportunity - is really addressing the core value of Leftist statism, of gaining control over all aspects of life to remove insecurity, but without realizing that it is exactly this insecurity which drives economic growth.

All change is disruptive. We have seen that the specter of terrorism is enough to cast stable democracies into turmoil. Climate change will have even more dramatic consequences. Men and women will be thrown back upon the resources of the state. They will look to their political leaders and representatives to protect them: open societies will once again be urged to close in upon themselves, sacrificing freedom for "security." The choice will no longer be between the state and the market, but between two sorts of state. It is thus incumbent upon us to reconceive the role of government. If we do not, others will.

The second-to-last sentence says everything: there can be no market, there is only the State. And this must be made in the image of Mr. Judt and his colleagues because otherwise someone else will do it.

Here we see the recurring meme: change must cease, the state must prevail over chaos, be it change ... but wait. What he is saying here is not change, but rather challenge: it is not that terrorism casts stable democracies into turmoil - indeed, no stable democracy has ever been so challenged by terrorism that it abandons democracy, despite the feverish hallucinations of the Left that President Bush's administration did that - but rather that we consistently face new challenges: changing to meet challenge is the core of human nature, it is what makes us, a species, successful.

Only the state can remove this by providing a safety blanket: in this case, though, the kind of safety blanket envisioned is one that smothers the infant in its crib. Change, creative destruction, is at the core of every successful economy: remove this, and you reconceive not the role of government, but of how the economy should work. In this case, the pathology of statism, with the suppression of that which brings change, the human spirit.

Now Mr. Judt comes to the core of the problem:

All around us, even in a recession, we see a level of individual wealth unequaled since the early years of the twentieth century. Conspicuous consumption of redundant consumer goods—houses, jewelry, cars, clothing, tech toys—has greatly expanded over the past generation. In the US, the UK, and a handful of other countries, financial transactions have largely displaced the production of goods or services as the source of private fortunes, distorting the value we place upon different kinds of economic activity. The wealthy, like the poor, have always been with us. But relative to everyone else, they are today wealthier and more conspicuous than at any time in living memory. Private privilege is easy to understand and describe. It is rather harder to convey the depths of public squalor into which we have fallen.

This is nothing other than the politics of envy, the politics of pitting those with against those without. Mr. Judt does speak one piece of truth: industrial activity, measured as a percentage of GDP, has fallen: this is, however, a function of the expansion of the financial sector, rather than, at least in the US (in the UK this is different), the decline of industry.

What Mr. Judt cannot stand - nor can the Left in general - is the freedom to do what you want with your money. The conspicuous consumption that Mr. Judt decries is the kind of consumption that the newly rich indulge themselves in. It is true: the wealthier are wealthier, despite heavily progressive tax structures, but this is per definition intolerable: this is the politics of envy, the politics of class struggle.

The irony here is that many of those who have become so obscenely rich are those who support the Left: George Soros, the Wall Street bankers who buy their Democratic politicians as insurance against government action against their interests. The Democratic Party, in an instance of supreme irony, continues to portray itself as the party of the working man, of the common man, whilst being run by those with supreme contempt for the working man (unless, of course, he is unionized) and financed by the very rich.

Poverty is an abstraction, even for the poor. But the symptoms of collective impoverishment are all about us. Broken highways, bankrupt cities, collapsing bridges, failed schools, the unemployed, the underpaid, and the uninsured: all suggest a collective failure of will. These shortcomings are so endemic that we no longer know how to talk about what is wrong, much less set about repairing it. And yet something is seriously amiss. Even as the US budgets tens of billions of dollars on a futile military campaign in Afghanistan, we fret nervously at the implications of any increase in public spending on social services or infrastructure.

Poverty for Mr. Judt is an abstraction because there is no real poverty in the US or in the industrialized West: it has been effectively eliminated. The problem that the US and other countries face in their infrastructure is not one of failure: it is one of corruption, of unionized thieves in collusion with their bought-and-paid-for politicians preventing, for instance, the proper care of levies outside of New Orleans, where environmentalists prevented work from being done. The collective failure of will does not exist: rather, there is a clear and specific governmental failure of corruption and inefficiency.

Here is the mythology of the Left:

To understand the depths to which we have fallen, we must first appreciate the scale of the changes that have overtaken us. From the late nineteenth century until the 1970s, the advanced societies of the West were all becoming less unequal. Thanks to progressive taxation, government subsidies for the poor, the provision of social services, and guarantees against acute misfortune, modern democracies were shedding extremes of wealth and poverty.

The problem is here two-fold: first, the economic sustainability of socialist spending and second, the failure of these policies.

To be sure, great differences remained. The essentially egalitarian countries of Scandinavia and the considerably more diverse societies of southern Europe remained distinctive; and the English-speaking lands of the Atlantic world and the British Empire continued to reflect long-standing class distinctions. But each in its own way was affected by the growing intolerance of immoderate inequality, initiating public provision to compensate for private inadequacy.

There it is: the key to understanding the folly and futility of the Left. Initiating public provision to compensate for private inadequacy. This is folly because of a fundamental fact, one that the Left consistently fails to understand: this is equalizing what is naturally unequal and which therefore can never be equalized. You can throw money at this problem, but it is never solved by throwing money at it: this is the greatest folly of public spending.

Over the past thirty years we have thrown all this away. To be sure, "we" varies with country. The greatest extremes of private privilege and public indifference have resurfaced in the US and the UK: epicenters of enthusiasm for deregulated market capitalism. Although countries as far apart as New Zealand and Denmark, France and Brazil have expressed periodic interest in deregulation, none has matched Britain or the United States in their unwavering thirty-year commitment to the unraveling of decades of social legislation and economic oversight.

Now we see the sour grapes: according to the progressives, their opponents are not allowed to change things back (which is why progressives hate change so much...). The commitment to economic sensibility after decades of economic incompetence was not one that happened magically: it was the result of voters deciding that enough was enough. New Zealand, by the way, did deregulate much of the economy and has done very well as a result, thank you.

There has been a collapse in intergenerational mobility: in contrast to their parents and grandparents, children today in the UK as in the US have very little expectation of improving upon the condition into which they were born. The poor stay poor. Economic disadvantage for the overwhelming majority translates into ill health, missed educational opportunity, and—increasingly—the familiar symptoms of depression: alcoholism, obesity, gambling, and minor criminality. The unemployed or underemployed lose such skills as they have acquired and become chronically superfluous to the economy. Anxiety and stress, not to mention illness and early death, frequently follow.

Here Mr. Judt confuses things: the lack of intergenerational mobility is not the result of increasing inequality, but rather because tax burdens are becoming so onerous (and public debt so stultifying) that chances for the children of today are objectively worse: it is because their parents have spent all their money and are presenting their children and grandchildren with the bill. This is tantamount to the murderer throwing himself on the mercy of the court for killing his parents because he is an orphan. The current generation has consumed the seed corn for the future.

But it gets better:

Income disparity exacerbates the problems. Thus the incidence of mental illness correlates closely to income in the US and the UK, whereas the two indices are quite unrelated in all continental European countries. Even trust, the faith we have in our fellow citizens, corresponds negatively with differences in income: between 1983 and 2001, mistrustfulness increased markedly in the US, the UK, and Ireland—three countries in which the dogma of unregulated individual self-interest was most assiduously applied to public policy. In no other country was a comparable increase in mutual mistrust to be found.

This is absurd: correlation is not causation, Mr. Judt, as much as you would like it to be. Trust has increased markedly as people in the US, the UK and Ireland realize how their taxes were being wasted.

Even within individual countries, inequality plays a crucial role in shaping peoples' lives. In the United States, for example, your chances of living a long and healthy life closely track your income: residents of wealthy districts can expect to live longer and better. Young women in poorer states of the US are more likely to become pregnant in their teenage years—and their babies are less likely to survive—than their peers in wealthier states. In the same way, a child from a disfavored district has a higher chance of dropping out of high school than if his parents have a steady mid-range income and live in a prosperous part of the country. As for the children of the poor who remain in school: they will do worse, achieve lower scores, and obtain less fulfilling and lower-paid employment.

Well, duh: those who are wealthier can afford the best care. Behavior changes prudently when more money is involved. What is more crucial is the behavior of people, either choosing high-risk life styles (sex, drugs, obesity, other risky behaviors) or choosing more prudent ones. This has everything to do with individual choices and little to do with a gini coefficient. You can live a very healthy life style with little money, but you have to choose to do so.

The wider the spread between the wealthy few and the impoverished many, the worse the social problems: a statement that appears to be true for rich and poor countries alike. What matters is not how affluent a country is but how unequal it is. Thus Sweden and Finland, two of the world's wealthiest countries by per capita income or GDP, have a very narrow gap separating their richest from their poorest citizens—and they consistently lead the world in indices of measurable well-being. Conversely, the United States, despite its huge aggregate wealth, always comes low on such measures. We spend vast sums on health care, but life expectancy in the US remains below Bosnia and just above Albania.

Sweden and Finland are two of the Left's favorite countries to hold up as examples, and two of the poorest comparisons: two very homogeneous countries with high incomes and a very strong work ethic. Compare this to the US: a strongly heterogeneous country with high incomes and a strong work ethic within the productive community, but which is indulgent in supporting those who don't want to work. The lowered US score reflects not the poor state of the US, but rather the large immigrant communities who are starting from a lower position and which of course lowers the overall US score as a result. Those are the facts.

Inequality is corrosive. It rots societies from within. The impact of material differences takes a while to show up: but in due course competition for status and goods increases; people feel a growing sense of superiority (or inferiority) based on their possessions; prejudice toward those on the lower rungs of the social ladder hardens; crime spikes and the pathologies of social disadvantage become ever more marked. The legacy of unregulated wealth creation is bitter indeed.

Inequality, Mr. Judt, is what drives the economy: it is what drives competition, not what destroys it.

As recently as the 1970s, the idea that the point of life was to get rich and that governments existed to facilitate this would have been ridiculed: not only by capitalism's traditional critics but also by many of its staunchest defenders. Relative indifference to wealth for its own sake was widespread in the postwar decades. In a survey of English schoolboys taken in 1949, it was discovered that the more intelligent the boy the more likely he was to choose an interesting career at a reasonable wage over a job that would merely pay well. Today's schoolchildren and college students can imagine little else but the search for a lucrative job.

Only on the Left can the myopia be so great: economic necessities have always driven people to find lucrative jobs. Anything else indicates that the writer knows less of economic history than anyone thought.

How should we begin to make amends for raising a generation obsessed with the pursuit of material wealth and indifferent to so much else? Perhaps we might start by reminding ourselves and our children that it wasn't always thus. Thinking "economistically," as we have done now for thirty years, is not intrinsic to humans. There was a time when we ordered our lives differently.

This is the guilt of the Left made naked: they have failed to conquer human nature and consistently fail to understand that they never will. The New Soviet Man was a myth. There was a time when we could be so indulgent as to afford the fantasies of Mr. Judt and the Left: their legacy is that we can no longer be so indulgent. That is intrinsic to humans.

There was a time when we ordered our lives differently, a time when we still understood the Gods of the Copybook Headings.

Mr. Judt never did, nor does the Left.

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