Mises Daily Articles
The Bourgeoisie's Favorite Forms of Socialism
The mindset of the middle class is off-putting — to the heterodox, to the sovereign, and to the individualist. The mindset is a dull recital on the virtues of moderation and proscription: don't stay up too late; don't drink too much; don't exercise too hard; don't risk too much; don't challenge authority; don't question orthodoxy. By all means exist, just do so on an even, bovine keel.
Moderation is myatonia — a flabbiness, a lassitude. Moderation is a blob. A summer day at the beach reveals the adult middle-class body nourished by the moderate, FDA-approved diet and exercised moderately — a walk (which isn't exercise), a treadmill, a recumbent bike. The middle-class body is a unisex, lust-tempering, pyriform lump. At least the obese and the emaciated are objects of niche desires; no one fantasizes over rounded shoulders, a protruding stomach, and an extra 25 pounds. Perhaps that's the virtuous puritanical goal; and if it is, mission accomplished.
A formless body is understandable if formlessness is the opportunity cost of dynamic mental activity. It's a dubious crutch for the middle class, whose overarching focus is conformity and security; hence the gullibility toward any theory that further paves the road to easedom, the bedrock of socialism — for instance, the "neighborhood effect." We all benefit, so we should all pay. We all impart costs, so we should all pay. We all incur costs, so we should all be compensated.
This convenient economic theorem has infected the middle-class neighborhood like a Spanish flu pandemic, and no more so than in education. The argument for compulsory learning is so seductive because it is so appealing to unrefined sensibilities. Even the middle class's favorite free-market economist, Milton Friedman, would get loopy and socialist when pondering the education neighborhood effect:
A stable and democratic society is impossible without widespread acceptance of some common set of values and without a minimum degree of literacy and knowledge on the part of most citizens. Education contributes to both. In consequence, the gain from the education of a child accrues not only to the child or to his parents but to other members of the society; the education of my child contributes to other people's welfare by promoting a stable and democratic society. Yet it is not feasible to identify the particular individuals (or families) benefited or the money value of the benefit and so to charge for the services rendered. There is therefore a significant "neighborhood effect."
Persuasive to the egalitarian, but not to the individualist. What is and who defines "minimum"? Who is so endowed as to define the opaque, nebulous notion of "stable and democratic" and "common set of values"? Has everyone forgotten that slavery was once a common value? What can't be presented as a neighborhood effect?
Mr. Friedman preferred choice in education, but government delivery is what we got; and now government-delivered education has become so unquestioningly accepted and inculcated to become impenetrable. Yet the middle class wants no part of it, because education requires thought and effort. So the middle class long ago kicked the can to government, which delivered a colossal, reductive, stultifying, homogeneous education costing hundreds of billions of dollars per annum, and primarily serving the needs of the bureaucrats who administer it.
Does the middle class object? To the contrary, the middle class fights any attempt to reform the education leviathan. Worse, the middle class further entrenches the leviathan at every election; rarely is a ballot initiative to provide more funds for education rejected. The middle class is the most sycophantic of teacher's pets.
The relationship is symbiotic. The middle class wants the illusion of exceptionalism; the education bureaucrat wants control. The bureaucrat asks that the middle class not concern itself with the curriculum, and, because concern induces stress, the middle class obliges; hence the unspoken quid pro quo: the bureaucrat teaches a curriculum that promotes her prejudices, the student delivers a report card limned with A's and accolades. It's hardly a fair swap, but the education the bureaucrat delivers ensures the middle class remains clueless.
Director's Law states that the bulk of public programs — financed by all classes — are designed to benefit the middle class. Based on the size of its population and its aggregate wealth, the middle class will always be the dominant interest group in a modern democracy. As such, the middle class will strive to maximize state benefits and minimize its portion of state costs.
In addition to education, Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security are all outgrowths of the rapacious middle-class desire to maximize benefits and minimize costs. It's a fool's errand and a Faustian bargain spooled into one. The very beneficiaries pay for what they are getting — in taxes, debt, inflation — and they pay the cost of administrating the collection and distribution of the largess. Pay a hundred dollars, receive fifty in ill-fitting benefits.
This willingness to accept lopsided exchanges is an outgrowth of middle-class fear — fear coupled with greed (defined by theft, fraud, and coercion, to differentiate it from ambition). The middle class owns just enough wealth to be irrationally fearful of poverty. This fear can only be quenched by the greedy promise of the delivery of someone else's property — confiscated and distributed via theft, fraud, and coercion under the guise of democracy and representative republicanism.
Aristotle saw the middle class coming, and got it half right:
The most perfect political community must be amongst those who are in the middle rank, and those states are best instituted wherein these are a larger and more respectable part, if possible, than both the other; or, if that cannot be, at least than either of them separate.
Yes, perfect, if the goal is to a create a middling, egalitarian society; imperfect if the goal is to promote individuality and liberty. Democracy is particularly appealing to the middle class because it appeals to a faux sense of empowerment. Laws are passed by 51 percent of the voting public to the detriment of the 49 percent and the nonvoting public, who simply couldn't care less about the wasteful election process. We have tyranny of the voting majority, who are really a citizen minority.
But all this doesn't matter, because there is no empowerment. The middle class can only tolerate annoying Fabian incrementalism. As the political punditry note, politics is played within the 40-yard lines — and nothing significant happens within the 40-yard lines. Still, it pays politically to foment the possibility that the opponent will hurl the long ball.
"Social Security reform will hurt the middle class." "Educational reform will hurt the middle class." "Tax reform will hurt the middle class." "We are losing the middle class." These odes to conformity are incredibly durable. Listen to any presidential candidate speech over the past 50 years; if the odes aren't repeated verbatim, they are repeated in close paraphrase.
We are fortunate that our politicians are as moderate in their ambitions as the middle class they serve. The truly ambitious politician can mix the promise of Cockaigne and the threat of a bogeyman preventing Cockaigne together to great effect. Joseph Goebbels sneeringly observed,
Our movement took a grip on cowardly Marxism and from it extracted the meaning of socialism. It also took from the cowardly middle-class parties their nationalism. Throwing both into the cauldron of our way of life there emerged, as clear as a crystal, the synthesis — German National Socialism.
From the seeds of middle-class nationalism blooms the false flowers of sacrifice and the greater cause — mostly war. Insecurity is cloaked in patriotism, jingoism, and recitals on liberty and freedom, which the middle class is too timid to embrace. Thousands are killed. The bodies return in flag-draped coffins. The coffins are treated with pomp and circumstance and a smattering of fanfare. The bodies are buried and forgotten by all except the immediate family, who dull their grief in the belief in the fictitious greater cause.
The searing truth is that past wars are buried in history with the bodies; the causes are forgotten, and so are the memories of the military men who died for the causes. Their lives, in short, were wasted, but few in the middle class protest.
Today's generation of soldiers forfeit their freedom and risk life and limb of their own volition, but in previous wars conscription was the law. As Russian marshal Georgy Zhukov noted, "In the Red Army it takes a very brave man to be a coward."
It also takes a brave man to repel middle-class morality. Conscripts fleeing to Canada during the Vietnam War were branded as cowards. The characterization was not only wrong but grossly offensive. The expatriates were brave and endured great sacrifice. They abandoned comfortable lives, their families were sent to Coventry, they risked incarceration — all for what mattered most, liberty and life.
Meanwhile, the "brave" soldier who acquiesced to authority and allowed himself to be sent to the other side of the world did so as passively as a lamb entering an abattoir, and for nothing more than the good thoughts of those whose thoughts don't matter and the causes of the potentates Étienne de La Boétie so completely eviscerated:
Too frequently this same little man [political leader] is the most cowardly and effeminate in the nation, a stranger to the powder of battle and hesitant on the sands of the tournament; not only without energy to direct men by force, but with hardly enough virility to bed with a common woman.
The middle class is the human equivalent of an animal herd, because it never learns the concepts of unintended consequences, moral hazards, and opportunity costs. Such concepts are never taught, for obvious reasons, in its government-run education system. That the middle class pretends to understand the concepts of freedom and liberty makes it even more contemptible. Threaten the middle class's government-sponsored rice bowl with the specifics of liberty and it reflexively reacts with the brand of opprobrium: radical.
We don't get the government or the life we deserve; we get the government and the life the middle class wants. The middle class is Aristotle's perfect political community for thugs, prevaricators, meddlers, and tyrants.