'Left' vs. 'Right' Debate Not Solving Our Economic Problems

Both Big Government and Big Business are expanding.

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Last week, I passed along a quote from the sociologist Robert Nisbet about the parallel growth of central governments and individualism.

In our politics, these two institutions are supposedly locked in a zero-sum game: As government gets bigger, individual liberty shrinks accordingly.

But that picture is wrong, and always has been.

Nisbet's contribution to political theory in the last century was to highlight the indispensability of intermediary institutions, or "civil society," a preoccupation of earlier European thinkers like Edmund Burke.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

Here's a window into that era—a real-time assessment of the legacy of the French Revolution by Pierre Paul Royer-Collard, who had supported the revolution when it began but, having lived through its excesses, came to favor a synthesis of constitutionalism and the monarchy:

We have seen the old society perish and with it this great number of local institutions and independent tribunals which formed part and parcel of it. These were powerful symbols of personal privileges, true republics within the framework of the monarchy. These institutions, these tribunals, it is true, did not share the prerogatives of sovereignty; but they set limits to it which honor defended with stubbornness! Not one of them has survived, and no new ones have been put in their place. The Revolution has left nothing standing but individuals. ... Indeed where we have nothing but "individuals," all matters which are not properly theirs are public affairs, affairs of the State ... This is how we became an administered nation.

Nisbet, for his part, argued that communities were ground under by business as well as the centralized political state. This phenomenon was obvious to turn-of-the-century American politicians like Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. Though they became bitter political enemies, they shared a common fear of business monopolies, or trusts.

[See photos of the "Occupy" protests.]

Wilson, an old-school free-marketeer, famously favored a "trust-busting" approach, which was designed to restore smaller-scale economic competition. Roosevelt, in contrast, had acceded to the rise of Big Business and thought Big Government could countervail inordinate private-sector power. (Big Labor, the other big countervailing force of the 20th century, came later.)

A century removed from the "progressive" era, we're faced with similar challenges. We have, on the one hand, a de facto consensus on personal individual freedom and social space that has all but extinguished traditional norms about gender relations, sexual activity, and the like. The old welfare safety net is badly strained, private-sector union influence is disappearing, and Western economies are buckling under the pressures of the global economy.

Communities, now as then, are being trampled. Local affinities are fraying and social divisions are hardening. Here's David Brooks from a few years ago:

[Fifty years ago] the owner of the local bank lived in the same town as the grocery clerk, and their boys might play on the same basketball team. Only 7 percent of adult Americans had a college degree.

But that's all changed. In the decades since, some social divides, mostly involving ethnicity, have narrowed. But others, mostly involving education, have widened. Today there is a mass educated class. The college educated and non-college educated are likely to live in different towns. They have radically different divorce rates and starkly different ways of raising their children. The non-college educated not only earn less, they smoke more, grow more obese, and die sooner.

Before the Great Recession, the benefits of the global economy weren't trickling down to the working class. Now, even college graduates are having trouble finding jobs.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Long story short, we're stuck in the latest version of the Nisbet Parodox: Big Government has gotten bigger. Big Business has gotten bigger, and gone global. The social networking revolution notwithstanding, civil society continues to diminish. And individuals are even more adrift.

I don't claim to have the answers on how to fix this—how to restore the health of human-scale institutions. I'm not even sure it's fixable. But what I do know is that the debate we are having—between left vs. right, capitalism vs. government, individualism vs. collectivism—is no help whatsoever.