Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Government and Mazlow's Hierarchy of Needs

Life, even after a few years of falling wages, is pretty good in the west. Whatever the idiots of the left tell you, you need to pretty comprehensively screw your life up to be homeless in any developed western economy. Some people fall through the net, but they're exceptions who're often on the streets because they reject help. Starvation in the west, is almost always a result of mental illness, not want. This is why shroud waving about 'the bedroom tax' has fallen flat. It's just contrary to what people can see with their own eyes.

So, unlike almost every society preceding it, the west delivers all the physiological needs of food and water to all of its people, with near 100% reliability. Most do a pretty good job of providing affordable healthcare too.

With the bare necessities of life secure, a place to live is fairly high on the list of requirements. And very, very few people have nowhere to live. Some fall through the cracks, and for too many it's far too expensive to live reasonably near work. We build too few houses, and prices are too high for sure. But that's a problem soluble within the present system. Unlike many economies on earth, however almost everyone in the west has access to a secure house.

Other elements in 'security' are amply provided by western societies. We enjoy secure property rights. Few of us die of violence. There is justice, imperfect to be sure, but there is a reliable dispute resolution process. We can travel freely, and seek to do business worldwide, and assume contracts are honoured. Regulations ensure our homes and workplaces are safe. None of these are perfect, but by with centuries of problem-solving, things get better, in fits and starts.

This is the bread and butter of politics. The steady, patient accumulation of good ideas, and the abandonment of bad ones. Free market, democratic capitalism has delivered material wealth unimaginable to our forebears, and will continue to develop improvements, and hopefully find ways to distribute them better. Regulation, and robust institutions to enforce them, are necessary, in part so people don't have to re-invent the wheel every time they innovate. What works - from hard hats on building sites to banking capital adequacy is a reasonable function of government. And it's pretty dull. Much of this is supranational trade regulation, outsourced to bodies like the WTO and EU to enable bigger, and therefore more efficient markets. Too much regulation, of course strangles the golden goose. But that too is tested world wide and locally. Bad ideas like marking-to-market are abandoned, good ideas which seem to work, spread. This is only possible because people are allowed to question our rulers.

From Magna Carta in 1215 (and similar ideas in the Islamic world at about the same time) which put rulers under law, imperfectly, and with many retrograde steps, the idea that Government should obtain their people's consent gained traction. And because people are good at solving problems, the societies which governed by consent, and which broadened the stake in society, were far more successful than the autocracies with which they competed. We free people have seen off big, bad ideas: The divine right of kings, Bonapartism, religious absolutism, slavery, fascism, communism and we're having another competition with religious absolutism now, but no-one thinks seriously that Radical Islamists pose any existential threat to western democracies.

We, broadly if not universally, won. And if the Koreans or Japanese have caught up, it is by taking up our good ideas and applying them to their society. They now compete to generate the new ideas which help society improve. As more and more countries join us on the technological frontier - the former soviet Eastern Europe is catching up fast, as is China, and so more and more of humanity's creative endeavour will be applied to solving problems, creating solutions we can all share.

In politics, it's tempting for politicians to rubbish others' ideas and try to sell theirs as revolutionary. But because we've defeated all the really, really bad ideas, we're now arguing about ever smaller and smaller problems. This, in turn makes politicians look small and petty. We're no longer arguing about how to organise society, we're arguing about distributing success. This requires managers, not leaders. And so turnouts fall worldwide and people shift from parties of government to single-issue pressure groups. We hanker for the old, simple, black and white questions were WE could broadly persuade ourselves that WE were on the side of Angels, and THEY were the bad guys. And if you grew up with the cold war, in the democratic west, we were the ones outside the wall, asking the others to tear it down. And now, the Green movement is on the side of the planet against big, bad business, which is destroying the planet. Or UKIP blaming everything on the EU and the LIBLABCON Westminster clique.

Feeling part of something, especially AGAINST something self-evidently wicked, is more important in many ways than material and economic security. These are the social, love and esteem layers of Mazlow's Hierarchies of need. British elections in the 1980s were in part between those who sympathised with the communists, and those who identified with America. Parties were mass movements, and satisfying as a result. In success, politicians lost something to define themselves against, even as they maintain the forms of adversarial debate. When you're discussing potential nuclear holocaust, or how to defeat fascism, this is fine. But if you're trying to present £11 a week  off benefits as existential crisis, or a small change in tax-rates as a return to communism (guilty as charged...) you just look ridiculous.

While this was manageable during a long rise in living standards, it rapidly became less so when the great recession hit. Having got used to success, governments spent and spent to fund promises of ever greater services, and ever greater consumption. And eventually the money ran out. Insurgent parties then moved into the void across the world - UKIP, the Tea Party, Front National and others. Some more responsible than others, but each coming with their own comforting 'Them and Us' narrative.

Ultimately I think these parties, should they ever be confronted with the realities of Government will either end up looking exactly like the parties they claim to oppose, be absorbed by them, or will implode under the weight of their internal contradictions. The upper levels of the hierarchy of needs are not really deliverable by politicians. All they can do is promise to manage the ever shrinking portion of economies needed to deliver safety, security and possibly health to the people. It used to require the productive efforts of 95% of humanity just to provide food, a task delivered in the west by just 1% now.

People want to be listened to, as an inevitable consequence of having enough to eat and a place to eat it. But everyone wants something different. So we require a new politics, one that enables and facilitates, rather than seeking to impose a one-size fits all approach. Formal government needs to shrink, sharing, as David Cameron used to say in the good times, the proceeds of growth between tax-cuts and better services. This will leave people to seek the social, love and esteem without government interference, and with an ever-shrinking burden of taxation. You want freedom. Free people from want, let them feel secure, then watch our creative talents take man to the stars.

Yes, we (unfairly) despise politicians, because they have solved the major problems of life, and continue to do so. The answer isn't to return to them-and-us politics, but with smaller questions; Instead we must take more questions out of the politicians' purview. Their job is largely done, and they can recede, to be the people to whom we outsource the bin collections and sewage regulation. What they do is important. But it is now unglamourous.

One day perhaps we will give no more thought to the Government that delivers health services, organises some redistribution, funds education services and defends the realm than we do to the remarkable supply-chain that delivers our bread. Libertarianism will not come from destroying government, but by building on its successes something vaster and grander, and more satisfying to the people who live in it than any Government or bureaucrat could possibly imagine. Let us not despise democratic government, but reduce it over the next few centuries to the status of the monarchy in the UK now, a useful, decorative relic which doesn't get in the way much, while the free people get on with delivering what people actually want from each other.

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