Without the state, western democracies will remain a paradise for predators

Opinion: Personal freedom is a fine ideal, but unrestrained rampant individualism can undermine the common good

Protesters march in front of the New York Stock Exchange. Photograph: Brendan McDermid/Reuters

Protesters march in front of the New York Stock Exchange. Photograph: Brendan McDermid/Reuters


In what has been touted as a bold move towards redressing the alarming levels of inequality in his home town, New York mayor Bill de Blasio announced last week that he will be legislating to give an entitlement to sick leave to all those employed by businesses with five or more staff.

The mayoral narrative – dubbed the “Tale of Two Cities” – has generated great expectations among ordinary New Yorkers, struggling to survive in one of the world’s most expensive cities. But real change will come not from more legislation – New York already has plenty of labour law on the books – but from enforcement. That is why the mayor’s decision to put the toothless Department of Consumer Affairs in charge of enforcing this initiative leaves some New Yorkers wondering what the Dickens he’s thinking. The inability of governments everywhere to protect ordinary citizens from unscrupulous employers who wish to exploit them is, ironically, the culmination of decades of slavishly seeing government as the problem and individual freedom as the solution.

“Western societies like ours are dedicated to maximizing personal autonomy. That’s a good thing, and something to cherish. But individualism of the kind we value falls apart – it’s completely undermined – when government fails to vindicate the public interest or fails to attend to issues of social justice,” says historian and legal scholar Mark S Weiner.

Inequality is about more than wages and sick leave and to redress it we need to have someone in our corner.

The umpire
For the first 30 or so years after the second World War, government was the umpire, the entity that stood by the little person, levelling the playing field and making justice, whether social or legal, a real possibility.

Freedom and individuality are thought to be synonymous, but not even John Stuart Mill could have envisaged the advent of today’s hyper- individual, a person who owes nothing to anyone – not to mother, father, children, employee or community. And this current cult of individualism has heralded an era of growing inequality and diminished protection for the vulnerable.

If the state does not have the resources to ensure that laws are enforced, employers and corporations, with their access to the best legal advice, know they can run rings around government agencies and act with impunity.

In a revolution that began with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher – the Artful Dodgers of their day – New York, along with most of the rest of the developed world, has diminished the state (in all its national, local and agency manifestations) to an almost empty shell.

Weak labour laws and weak consumer protection, coupled with a state so emaciated it can’t enforce the laws that do exist, have transformed western democracies into a paradise for predators.

Mayor de Blasio’s announcement on sick leave was not accompanied by notice that the Department of Consumer Affairs would get additional staff or resources.

Tighten belts
To point this out is not to dismiss de Blasio as a phony; it is simply to acknowledge that after decades of deregulation and trickledown economics, most of the resources once available to governments have evaporated, leaving the state powerless. The imposition of austerity seems to require everyone but the rich and powerful to tighten their belts. According to figures emerging from the Davos World Economic Summit, the richest one per cent owns 46 per cent of the world’s wealth. This elite’s determined pursuit of its own interests has left the modern state without the resources needed to maintain effective government.

Real individuals and families were better off in the first 30 postwar years, giving rise to what Weiner calls a paradox of individualism. “Individual freedom is one of the basic values of the liberal Enlightenment . . .”

But it operates against the common good when its pursuit means that we fail to attend to issues of social justice.

“That happens when government is captured by private or corporate interests or when its institutions are too weak.”

For decades now government has been represented as the problem, as something that strangles enterprise and restricts the free flow of goods and the ability of markets to operate effectively.

But the gradual erosion of the state has had the opposite effect to increasing general wellbeing. The 1 per cent are indeed thriving, but for the rest of us, it’s a case of “Please sir, I want some more.”

Jillian Abbott is a lecturer at the City University of New York and a freelance journalist

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