British Historian Tony Judt has written a brilliant polemic on the way we view government. Judt’s Ill Fares the Land challenges the following notions on government: (1) government exists to aid us in getting richer, (2) public services can only be quantified by their economic value and therefore would be more efficient privatized, and (3) a free market is even possible without government regulation. Peppered with historical examples from the late 19th century, the rise of fascism in the early 20th century, postwar-Europe, FDR’s New Deal, and LBJ’s Great Society, Judt documents how a shift promoting an unbridled free market against social democracy begins to take hold in the late 1970s and overturns a movement of social democracy in both Europe and the US that worked towards the public good. Judt argues that this shift in the role government plays in our lives, beginning with the Reagan and Thatcher administrations, has in the last thirty years led to an ever increasing materialist society concerned with individualism often at the expense of the public good. In the end Judt wisely acknowledges that there isn’t one solution to all our economic and political problems, after all, in many ways governments will need to evolve and reinvent themselves around the challenges they will face. Nevertheless, these adaptations should be informed by the mistakes previous governments have made, mistakes often at a great expense to human life and public well being. In conclusion, Judt’s argument, whether you agree or not, will challenge you to think about why we have government.
P.S. Tony Judt passed away on August 6 after suffering two years from ALS. For a bibliography and a list of obituaries see the following article.