Chris Patten: America’s Groucho Marxists

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Maybe it's no coincidence that Groucho Marx was an American citizen

Here is Chris Patten's commentary on the Project Syndicate news series. Patten is a former EU Commissioner for External Relations, Chairman of the British Conservative Party, and was the last British Governor of Hong Kong. He is currently Chancellor of Oxford University and a member of the British House of Lords.

America’s Groucho Marxists

By Chris Patten

LONDON – Groucho Marx has always been my favorite Marxist. One of his jokes goes to the heart of the failure of the ideology – the dogmatic religion – inflicted on our poor world by his namesake, Karl.

“Who are you going to believe,” Groucho once asked, “me, or your own eyes?” For hundreds of millions of citizens in Communist-run countries in the twentieth century, the “me” in the question was a dictator or oligarchy ruling with totalitarian or authoritarian powers. It didn’t matter what you could see with your own eyes. You had to accept what you were told the world was like. Reality was whatever the ruling party said it was.

The designated successor to Mao Zedong in China, Hua Guofeng, raised this attitude to an art form. He was known as a “whateverist.” The Party and people should faithfully follow whatever Mao instructed them to do.

Groucho posed two insuperable problems for the “whateverists” of communism. First, your own eyes and your reason would surely tell you before long that the communist idyll – the withering away of the state and the triumph over need – would never come. Communism, like the horizon, was always just beyond reach. It would be interesting to know how many of those at Beijing’s Central Party School – the party’s main educational institute – believe that the Chinese state is about to wither away, or ever will.

The second application of Groucho’s question was that citizens of most Communist countries soon learned that the loss of freedom that they suffered was not compensated by greater prosperity or a higher quality of life. The more that Russians, Poles, Czechs, and others saw of the life-style in the Western democracies, the more they questioned their own system. In his magisterial book The Rise and Fall of Communism, Archie Brown notes how travel abroad opened Mikhail Gorbachev’s eyes to the failure of the system that he had lived under all his life.

So, in the political sphere, reason has trumped both faith in an unattainable goal and self-delusion about the consequences of its pursuit. Authoritarian party-states, such as China and Vietnam, survive, but not through commitment to communism. Their legitimacy depends on their ability to deliver economic growth through state-managed capitalism.

Democracies, of course, allow people to use their reason to make choices based on the evidence of their own eyes. When you don’t like a government, you can turn the rascals out without overthrowing the whole system. Change can be made in an evolutionary, rather than a revolutionary, way. But no one should think that debate in democracies is always based on reason, or that democracy necessarily makes people more rational.

Sometimes reason does prevail. This is what appeared to happen in the last Indian election, and the election in the United States of President Barack Obama was also plainly a supremely rational moment. But reason does not seem to be getting much of a hearing during the current health-care debate in the US.

Outsiders, even admirers, have often wondered how the most globalized country in the world – a continent inhabited by people from every land – can be so irrationally insular on some issues. We scratch our heads about America’s gun laws. We were astonished during President George W. Bush’s first term at the administration’s hostility to science, reflected in its stance on climate change and Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. The opposition to health-care reform is a similar cause of bemusement.

We know that despite its great wealth – and its groundbreaking medical research – America’s health-care system is awful. It is hugely expensive. Its costs overwhelm workplace health-insurance schemes. The poor go unprotected. Too many of the sick are untreated. Overall health statistics are worse than those in comparable countries.

Yet Obama’s attempts to reform health care have run into hysterical opposition. His proposals would lead, it is said, to the state murdering the elderly. They would introduce Soviet communism into the US – just like what apparently exists in Canada and Britain, with their state-sponsored health systems. Communism in Toronto and London? Or just better, cheaper, more reliable health care for all?

Reason seems to be having a hard time of it in the US just now. Maybe it’s no coincidence that Groucho Marx was an American citizen. But surely the way a society cares for its sick and needy and elderly is sufficiently important to deserve serious and thoughtful argument based on what we really can see with our own eyes rather than on uninformed partisan prejudice.

Chris Patten is a former EU Commissioner for External Relations, Chairman of the British Conservative Party, and was the last British Governor of Hong Kong. He is currently Chancellor of Oxford University and a member of the British House of Lords.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009.
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