Freedom's Frightening Uncertainties

GEORGE F. WILL

October 07, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

London. -- From the streets of Moscow to the debate about U.S.-Mexican commercial relations, people are flinching from the consequences of accelerating change.

The 10th decade of this century of rampant statism has now seen fighting in Moscow, the city that was, from 1917 through 1991, capital of the most virulent statism. The uprising by Boris Yeltsin's enemies has been partly the fury of the old communist ruling class, and partly rekindled nationalism, a facet of the old tribalism resurgent in what no longer is spoken of as ''the new Europe.'' What unites Mr. Yeltsin's enemies is rejection of the uncertainties and fluidities of freedom.

Marx thought communism would be the final stage in mankind's passage from feudalism through capitalism and then socialism, to the end of history. Actually, communism was the rebirth of feudalism's melding of economic and political life. Today the pressure for the expansion of politics into the economic sphere is mounting in many places.

The acceleration of technological change, and intensified competition in the global economy, are provoking reactions against freedom even in societies which, unlike Russia, have much experience with the stresses that freedom occasions.

In Russia, and elsewhere in Europe, the new anxieties might result in the recovery of the left (old communists, and socialists pursuing their old goal of autarky). Or the anxieties might fuel the rise of the right, promising the consolations of ethnic solidarity and nationalism. Or the left and right may together produce a hybrid with dark precedents: national socialism.

Even the world's most fortunately situated nations, the politically stable and economically advanced nations of the North Atlantic community, are showing signs of stress.

Some of the rationales for the rise of the welfare state came from two 19th century conservatives, Disraeli and Bismarck. They hoped that government provisions for economic security, such as unemployment insurance and pensions, would reconcile people to the vicissitudes and hazards of life in dynamic, competitive, entrepreneurial market economies. But today welfare-state arrangements are making people ambivalent about open economic systems.

Nations as different as China, Indonesia and Poland are being swept into the global economy, with competitive consequences unpleasant for developed nations with high wages and low pain thresholds. In some emerging nations the cost of labor is less than 5 percent of the cost, including wages and benefits, in Germany. (About half of Germany's labor costs of $27 an hour result from taxes for welfare-state entitlements.) Emerging nations push developed economies like Germany's toward areas low labor-intensity. This need not be unfortunate in the long run; short run, it can be painful.

In welfare states where wages and benefits stay high, one result of the entry of new nations into the global economy may be protracted unemployment. Western Europe's unemployment now exceeds 10 percent -- almost 20 percent among people under 25. Hence Europe's rising xenophobia, hostility to immigration, violence against immigrants, and pressure for protectionism.

Clive Crook, deputy editor of The Economist, notes that through almost all of human history the average rate of economic growth each year has been, to the nearest round number, zero. In light of that, 2 percent annual growth, which would double output in 35 years, may seem splendid. But in many developed welfare states, 2 percent growth now seems both too little and too much.

It is too little for political peace -- too little to fund welfare-state entitlements for aging populations. But democratic political systems cannot easily sustain the social dislocations involved in achieving the economic dynamism required for sustained growth of better than 2 percent.

Britain's James Goldsmith, one of the world's most successful men of business, said here recently that there are, around the world, 3.1 billion people working on the land. If all agriculture were brought to the mechanical and scientific sophistication of Australian and Canadian agriculture, 2 billion of those people would move to cities.

The movement of people from low-productivity rural employment to high-productivity urban employment has driven the material betterment of mankind for two centuries. But, says Goldsmith, urbanized societies that already are worried about the fraying of their social fabrics will not tolerate the sort of wrenching social change the modern world might dish out in the form of mass movements of populations and the abrupt obsolescence of many jobs.

The reflex of flinching, of seeking to freeze the status quo, poses the problem of contemporary politics. The challenge, in Moscow and Washington and elsewhere, is to make freedom palatable for those who, with reason, find it frightening.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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