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Change we can believe in

Groucho Marx has always been my favourite 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, writes Chris Patten.

india Updated: Sep 09, 2009 02:45 IST
Chris Patten

Groucho Marx has always been my favourite 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 millions of citizens in Communist-run countries in the 20th century, the “me” was a dictator or oligarchy with totalitarian 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.

Groucho posed two insuperable problems for the ‘whateverists’ of communism. First, 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 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 the Chinese state is about to wither away, or ever will.

The application of Groucho’s question was that citizens of Communist countries soon learned that their loss of freedom wasn’t compensated by greater prosperity. 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, like China and Vietnam, survive, but their legitimacy depends on their ability to deliver economic growth through State-managed capitalism.

Democracies allow people to use their reason to make choices based on evidence of their own eyes. When you don’t like a government, you can turn the rascals out without overthrowing the whole system; in an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, way. But debate in democracies is not always based on reason, nor does democracy make people more rational. Sometimes reason does prevail. This is what appeared to have happened in the last Indian election. The election of President Barack Obama was also plainly a supremely rational moment. But reason doesn’t seem to be getting much of a hearing during the current healthcare debate in the US.

Outsiders, even admirers, have often wondered how the world’s most globalised country 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 Darwin’s theory of evolution. Opposition to healthcare reform is a similar cause of bemusement.

We know that despite its great wealth — and groundbreaking medical research — America’s healthcare 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 healthcare have run into hysterical opposition. His proposals would lead, it is said, to the State murdering the elderly, and introduce Soviet communism into the US, 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 healthcare 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.

Project Syndicate
The author is Chancellor, Oxford University
The views expressed by the author are personal