Book Review “Ill Fares the Land” by Tony Judt 2/6/11
These days many new political books are poorly written, one-sided, and devoid of human interest. The major thrust is scoring points on the opposition. Fairmindedness, balance, and nuance are typically out.
An exception to the above generalization is Tony Judt’s book “Ill Fares the Land”. Published in 2010, it is a short and elegant defense of social democracy. The book is somewhat heretical as it takes on all comers, criticizing the New Left as well as conservatives and libertarians. It is unlikely to make any side too happy.
The title comes from Oliver Goldsmith’s book “The Deserted Village” written in 1770.
“Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.”
Central to the book is Judt’s critique of inequality, particularly the rampant inequality which has worsened in the U.S. and U.K. over the last 30 years. Judt attacks the dominant philosophical underpinning of our era that the point of life is to get rich. He is not impressed with the pursuit of wealth as a goal or ambition. He notes that up until the late 1980’s it was uncommon to meet any independent-minded students who even wanted to attend business school. As an academic, he was in a good position to make that assessment.
Judt encourages questions about public policy like: is it good? is it fair? is it just? will it help to bring about a better world? He believes, and I agree, that our moral sentiments have been corrupted.
Judt points out that in 2005, 21.2% of the U.S. national income accrued to the top 1% of earners. The CEO of Wal-Mart earns 900 times the wages of his average employee. The wealth of the Wal-Mart founder’s family was estimated at about the same ($90 billion) as that of the bottom 40% of the U.S. population: 120 million people.
Judt argues that “…economic disadvantage for the overwhelming majority translates into ill health, missed educational opportunities and – increasingly – the familiar symptoms of depression: alcoholism, obesity, gambling and minor criminality. The unemployed and the underemployed lose such skills as they have acquired and become chronically superfluous to the economy. Anxiety and stress, not to mention illness and early death, frequently follow.”
It is refreshing to read a book that recognizes that unregulated capitalism is its own worst enemy. Yet, it is amazing how many people fail to see what is so obviously true, even after the last three years with all the subprime lending and widespread foreclosures. Apparently nothing, absolutely nothing, can shake the true believer’s faith in unfettered markets.
Judt has the traditional social democratic belief in collective action for the collective good. He believes in both the relevance of the public sector and in progressive taxation for public services. He makes no apologies. While the Right looks at taxes as a curse and as uncompensated income loss, he looks at taxes’ contribution to the quality of life and to the provision of collective societal goods.
Judt brings historical perspective to the question of the role of the state. He believes liberals, social democrats, and the Left have been too modest about positive accomplishments during the 20th century. Not even considering the great accomplishments of the New Deal like Social Security and unemployment compensation, he mentions the Civil Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps, Headstart, Legal Services, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
These have all enriched our world. Given the historical record, there is an irrationality about the demonization of Big Government. He does recognize, however, that government can get things wrong and he is sensitive to issues of coercion. His critique of government is subtle though and he is balanced in weighing pros and cons.
I had a hard time relating to his critique of the New Left although I certainly think there is plenty to criticize there. Judt critiques the individualism of the New Left. Rather than social justice, Judt saw the Left as about “doing your thing” and “letting it all hang out”. Focus was more on faraway places than shared purpose at home. Plus he said to be a radical in those years was to be self-regarding, self-promoting, and parochial. I found his critique one-sided and really the perspective of an outsider. I would agree the New Left lost perspective and marginalized itself. Still, he understates some of the positives, particularly the movement against the war in Vietnam which hugely shaped a generation.
Judt is extremely wary of totalistic solutions. He says incremental improvements upon unsatisfactory circumstances are the best we can hope for and probably all we should seek. I would say his viewpoint is informed by both the experience of fascism and Stalinism. To quote him further:
“If we have learned nothing else from the 20th century, we should have at least grasped that the more perfect the answer, the more terrifying its consequences.”
However, it is the Right that draws his strongest fire. He says they have abandoned the association of political conservatism with social moderation. From the war in Iraq through the desire to dismantle public education and health services to financial deregulation, it is the Right which has inherited the ambitious modernist urge to destroy and innovate in the name of a universal project. His critique is that the Right is not conservative, but extremist.
Sadly, Judt died in 2010. He explicitly wrote this book to encourage idealistic young people to engage politics. The book deserves a wide audience. I will close with a quote from Adam Smith that appears in the book and is particularly apropos:
” The disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and powerful, and to despise, or at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition…(is)…the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.”