Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Whither the Public Weal?

During my whirlwind trip to DC this week, I was able to spend a few hours on the Mall, during
which I visited the fabulous National Gallery of Art. One of the most powerful displays in that impressive collection is
August Saint-Gaudens' tribute to Robert Gould Shaw. Shaw was the commander of the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, an all-black regiment immortalized in the movie Glory, in which Shaw was played by Matthew Broderick. The dramatization of Shaw's death in battle at the head of his African-American unit is an impressively moving piece of cinematography. The monument carved by Saint-Gaudens, though, is the greater artistic feat.

Two copies of his work exist, one outdoors in Boston and one in the National Gallery. I have yet to see the Boston monument, but the one in the National Gallery is breathtaking, dominating a room at one end of the gallery with its huge figures and flawless gold finish. Saint-Gaudens took inspiration from a painting by the French painter, Jean-Louis Meissonier, entitled Campagne de France 1814, showing Napoleon at the head of a mounted column in the snow, with infantry marching in the background. Saint-Gaudens, seeking to make his work as life-like as possible, used a host of African-Americans of varied ages as studies, with amazing effects in the finished work, the first one to depict African-Americans realistically in a monument.

For its main inscription, Saint-Gaudens chose the motto of the Society of the Cincinnati, OMNIA RELINQVIT SERVARE REMPVBLICAM - He forsook all to protect the public weal.

Writing in the 1940s, economist Karl Polanyi postulated The Great Transformation. He explained that the economic order had become disembedded from the social and that labor, being treated as a good, had been dehumanized to the extent that society revolted against these conditions. Governments tried to hold the line of the old order as long as they could, but the stress of the First World War, the last war of the old order, was transmitted through a cycle of war debts and reparations, loans, and the gold standard. "The snapping of the golden thread," Polanyi wrote, "was the signal for a world revolution." Writing at nearly the same time in a book called The Twenty Years' Crisis: 1919-1939, E.H. Carr labeled the changes of the period revolutionary, as well. The revolution, he opined, was "the abandonment of economic advantage as the test of policy. Employment has become more important than profit, social stability than increased consumption, equitable distribution than maximum production."
Boats moored outside the customs house in Venice.

And so, after another world war, the postwar order was born, along with the welfare state. The new order, termed
embedded liberalism by John Gerard Ruggie, re-embedded the economic order in the social one. This, however, turned the whole logic of state-making on its head, hence the revolutionary change postulated by Carr. Charles Tilly and FC Lane influentially described the European state-making process as stemming from a process much like the protection rackets of organized crime. Tilly coined the famous statement, "War made the state and the state made war." And it is quite true. Lane, for his part, was a scholar of the Venetian Republic. Empires perpetuated their protection racket by making larger and larger areas safe for commerce, then facilitating it through common laws, measures, and the like. In turn, they expected tribute, then taxes, erecting ever larger state institutions to count, control, and tax their subjects. In Venice, this can be seen in the structures of the Dogana del Mar, the customs house sitting across the water from the fixtures of the Doge's Palace and St. Mark's Church, though it is another church that is featured in the painting.

Luckily for me, the National Art Gallery had evidence of this as well, in the form of a British painting from 1834 showing the Dogana and the merchant ships with their wares moored outside, awaiting their accounting. Empires operated on the profit motive. They wanted to expand their protection racket by expanding commerce, consumption, production, and most importantly, their cut. This was not a very liberal or kindly mode of interaction, but it certainly had an abiding logic. The postwar order, though, seemed to have a more universal and benign logic. The logic of the welfare state is to protect and extend the public weal.

This is a noble enterprise to be sure. And some like Robert Gould Shaw will forsake everything for the public weal. Most, however, will not. The welfare state, it seems, quickly devolved from a vessel for the protection and provision of the public weal, to a cacophonous fight in which everyone wants their cut, whether that is in the form of welfare entitlements on one end of the spectrum, or government contracts, preferential legislation, or military action, security, infrastructure, and human capital to fuel and facilitate lucrative enterprises at the other. Everyone wants the government to do something, even those who swear they don't, but precious few care to pay for, much less forsake all for the public weal. It is a state of affairs that cannot be sustained without a significant change of course. This is the crisis of the welfare state. Whither the public weal?

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