June 16, 2009

Kaiser Bill: the workingman’s emperor

Although I certainly don?t want to cramp Keith Preston?s style or libertarian persuasion, his polemic today is so full of factual errors and fallacious comparisons that I feel obliged to respond. For the record, Kaiser Wilhelm II was not a socialist, as Preston would learn from reading Eberhard Straub?s study Kaiser Wilhelm II in der Politik seiner Zeit (2008). The last German emperor ruled over a highly decentralized federal state, in which most internal governance took place in the constituent administrations of the Empire, which were a collection of kingdoms, duchies, and free cities. The total tax burden for German citizens in 1900 was somewhere below 7 percent for those who were employed, which was the lowest tax rate in Europe at the time. Although the German working class was the most literate and enjoyed the highest living standard in the world, the German welfare state had hardly taken off in 1900, if one discounts modest workers? pensions and something like medical insurance. Wilhelm described himself as a ?Volkskaiser? and oozed sympathy for the German Arbeiterschaft, but he did not place his country on the road to Obamaism. And one suspects that at least some of his rhetoric about standing up for the workers was related to his concern that the Socialist Party of Germany, which was theoretically Marxist and which by 1914 had become the largest party in the Reichstag, would not become a true revolutionary force. By the way, I have never encountered the statement ascribed to Wilhelm, that he would support American socialists if they became Prussian militarists. It sounds like something The Weekly Standard would manufacture to kill two birds with one stone, by beating up on the Krauts for the umpteenth time while linking socialism to evil reactionaries.

I?m also disappointed that Preston has fallen for another neocon trick, previewed by S.M. Lipset and Arthur Schlesinger, assigning everyone who doesn?t fit the ideological grid to an axis of anti-democratic evil. Socialists and traditional Tories are not the same simply because neither would accept Preston?s anarcho-capitalist worldview or because neither group would arrive at the eighteenth-century liberal views embodied in the Declaration of Independence. The hierarchical, status-based universe of traditional conservatism has nothing to do with the socialist Left, except that neither would likely embrace market economics, albeit for different reasons. Traditional conservatives look back to a pre-capitalist, agrarian past, while the Left wants to build on capitalism while moving beyond it into a more egalitarian future. I?ve no idea how the two positions are similar, except that neither would appeal to Preston.

It is also never fully explained how the founders of the American republic were more leftist than the socialists. Perhaps Preston, echoing Murray Rothbard, wants to tell us that the American regime ?conceived in liberty? was truly a novelty in the eighteenth century. I?ve no doubt that it seemed so to our founders, as I am reminded each time I look at our fiat money. But would this perception prove that the American republic was more ?leftist? than socialist states in the twentieth century? There is no evidence this is the case. The work of Christian merchants and slaveholders, who were interested in protecting their property and controlling popular passions, the American founding document by modern standards was not leftist in any sense. Needless to say, this modest, clearly framed document had to be vigorously reinterpreted and steadily modified to make it into what it has become, under philosopher-kings. But that is a wholly different story.

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