Middle Israel: Days of demagoguery

'Social justice' is nice to preach but impossible to deliver, or even define

US lawmakers during this week's debt debate. (photo credit: Reuters)
US lawmakers during this week's debt debate.
(photo credit: Reuters)
Fearing he would be late for his own lecture, British biologist Thomas Huxley jumped on a passing horse-drawn carriage and ordered the coachman: “Top speed!”
The driver lost no time, whiplashed the horse and stormed the horizon. It took a little while, but eventually Huxley stuck his neck out of the cabin and shouted at the horseman, “Do you know where I want to go?” to which the driver answered, “No idea sir, but I am riding as fast as I can!”
Such is our sweltering summer’s colorful social upheaval, whose lack of focus might ultimately leave its positive energy wasted.
The protests have elicited conflicting responses. On the Right there has been a tendency to caricature, and also bad-mouth the protest. Some have said the demonstrators are spoiled brats, others that they are being funded by assorted groups with (God forbid) peace agendas, and others that they are feeding on sushi while puffing smoke bottles. This tactic of changing the subject has only enhanced the impression that the government is panicking.
On the Left, at the same time, some have waxed poetic as if witnessing the Creation (“A true social torch has been kindled,” wrote Haaretz’s Gideon Levy) and some have turned to an alarmism worthy of an approaching tornado (“Tahrir Square is here,” asserted Labor’s Binyamin Ben-Eliezer).
Middle Israelis of course reject both attitudes, but emotionally they are with the latter. Anyone who knows Israel easily saw that the people who rallied from Beersheba to Kiryat Shmona really included a critical mass with genuine grievances, who would never in their lives be taken for a ride by this or that manipulative NGO.
These people took to the streets because they work hard, pay exorbitant taxes and serve in the army, and yet are left feeling that the country’s economic success is passing them by. They really have a hard time paying off mortgages, rents, day care, and university tuition, and footing bills for electricity, water and phone service that keep steadily rising, as do the prices of fuel and food.
And there is indeed plenty to celebrate about this sudden outburst of democratic zeal. Even if one is in total disagreement with the demonstrating lot – and nobody is – one must still appreciate the innocence and freshness it has just poured into a hopelessly cynical political system. And it is certainly heartening to finally see our lawmakers sweat the way they did this week, realizing that a bunch of anonymous youngsters have exposed them as the political Lilliputians they have been all along.
And yet, with all due respect to emotional solidarity, on the rational side things are more complex than this protest’s many wide-eyed fans are prepared to concede.
The crowd's most common slogan, “The people want social justice,” is a case in point. What, actually, is “social justice”? Yes, some had very simple answers to this challenging question, and the most prominent among them now inhabits a mausoleum in Moscow. And though communism has been disgraced since his time, the last decade’s meltdown on Wall Street has restored the global celebration of, and quest for, “social justice.”
Suddenly it is as if everyone just emerged from Michael Moore’s blockbuster Capitalism: A Love Story, where wealth is equated with greed and capitalism with lust, where delinquent mortgage borrowers are shown evicted from their homes without being asked why they borrowed more than they could return, and where Jesus is imagined as a capitalist in order to demonstrate the absurdity of such a charitable man preaching deregulation to money changers and telling the poor they must pay for their health care.
Surely such cinematic celebrations of emotional blackmail, like Naomi Klein’s more serious but equally manipulative diatribe The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, still fail to convincingly define social justice, even before we discuss the feasibility of its delivery by anyone, let alone the government. Is it when everyone owns similar houses, cars and bank accounts, regardless of their talents, industry and success? Is it that everyone 18 years and older receives a monthly paycheck from the state, regardless of what they do? Or is it that those who can’t buy apartments are given ones by those who can? And since God, for reasons He never explained, created no two people with equal wisdom, resources and luck, does it mean that any two people’s unequal creation is unfair, unjust, maybe also immoral?
I don’t know the answer to any of these questions, but I do know that America’s anti-market backlash following the 2008 meltdown has already bred disaster. Three years after unleashing multi-billion-dollar stimulus programs, America’s growth remains minimal – 1.3 percent and 0.4% in this year’s first two quarters – while unemployment remains some 9%. Worse, the urge to let the government create “social justice,” which has always been a nicer way of saying “let’s borrow and spend like there is no tomorrow,” has now led the US to the brink of a historic debt default.
How banal. So soon after the collapse of communism in Europe’s one half, and of social democracy in its other half, the US has launched its own experiment in governmental economics only to learn just as empirically that the laws of economic gravity that govern Europe govern America as well.
Middle Israelis believe these laws also apply to the Promised Land, and that there is no reason to learn this through experimentation, by surrendering to a twentysomething’s charming yelp of “Free tuition for all from age zero!” delivered from the depths of a backpacker’s tent on Rothschild Boulevard into a passing TV camera. If we heed such calls, and most other market- intervention demands that are now flying in the air like August’s mosquitoes, this economy will also start sliding down the slippery slope to debt, deficits and inflation, and one bleak morning we, too, will be wondering just how our debt grew so tall.
Such are also the jihadist calls to shake empty every billionaire’s pockets. Are some of our so-called tycoons greedy? Big time. But would this economy benefit from debilitating them? No, it wouldn’t. The fact is, they create jobs, and however flawed their conduct, it is still better than a politician’s or a bureaucrat’s.
Anger at the wealthy is ancient. “The race is not to the swift,” observed King Solomon, “nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding” (Ecclesiastes 9:11). Even so, the same Bible said that poverty will never be eradicated, and Maimonides, having heard that a false messiah appeared in Yemen and promised to hand out the rich people’s money to the poor, ridiculed him and said his plan would change nothing because it would turn the poor rich and the rich poor.
It follows that in order to focus, our young demonstrators must not eye the state’s budgets, or the rich’s wealth. Rather, they should demand that the government spend less, and make retailers compete more, thus leaving the middle class with more available income to buy what it currently can’t afford. That is how the demonstrators, unlike that coachman, will know just what it is they are storming, while our painstakingly built economy will know it is not being led to ruin.