Friday, May 18, 2007

Yair Sheleg's Comments on the Upheaval Commemoration

'To benefit the people'

Besides the 40th anniversary of the unification of Jerusalem, these days also mark the 30th anniversary of the political upheaval that brought the Likud to power. Menachem Begin's personality played a dominant role in his government's decisions, especially during his first term. His influence can be seen as a common denominator that explained some of those salient decisions in completely different fields: economic liberalism (which began in the realm of foreign currency and became the basis of today's consumer economy); expansion of the settlements; and the sweeping exemption from military service granted to yeshiva students (until Begin, this exemption was granted to only an annual quota of young men).

It is true that each of these decisions can be explained separately - the settlements were part of Begin's political outlook; the exemption for the ultra-Orthodox was related to coalition demands; and the economic policy can be attributed to processes that were under way in the world and to the position of his coalition partners from the Liberal Party. But after all this, it seems Begin's personality played an important role, too, as epitomized in his famous slogan, "to benefit the people."

Begin was a good man who wanted very much to do well by everyone, to enable everyone to realize his or her wishes, and perhaps this is why he was so beloved. But this "good" sometimes came at the expense of the overall national interest. It is no coincidence that what began with "benefiting the people" in the name of principled arguments eventually evolved in the Likud Central Committee into the distribution of jobs and the plunder of the public coffers, in order to benefit those who saw themselves as "representatives of the people" who had been deprived in the past.

If there is today nostalgia for the maligned Mapai, it is precisely because of this point. It is not that Mapai was perfect; Mapai officials behaved in a shameful way in their persecution of political rivals, in distributing jobs only to their own people, in believing that their rule was essential for managing the state. But the longing derives from the belated recognition, after nearly three decades of the proliferation of sectoral interests, that Mapai's policies, denigrated in the past as overly centralized, were at least conducted on behalf of the national interest: Mapai officials also regarded Judea and Samaria as precious lands, but they were ready to relinquish them for the sake of what they viewed as a national interest. They imposed cold, rational considerations over deceptive emotions.

It is impossible, and unnecessary, to return to the strict, centralized policy that characterized Mapai, especially because it also had serious flaws, pushing away broad sectors of society. But there is a need to return to the principle of placing the national interest in the center of policy, rather than sectoral and private desires. This is true even in a privatized field like economics: There is certainly great importance in private entrepreneurship - which is far more efficient and agile than the public sector. (We impose many bureaucratic constraints on the public sector, seeking to make sure that the money that comes out of our pockets is well-supervised and is not spent arbitrarily.) This is the profound reason why the Gaydamaks of the world can come up with much quicker responses than the public system.

But the danger of private initiative is that its entire goal is ultimately to enrich its owners. Therefore, even if it has efficiency on its side, the bottom line is that this efficiency is channeled to benefit the owners rather than consumers. Therefore, every economic area perhaps needs the conditions of a free market, but also requires strong regulation to protect us from what is permissively called in retrospect "market failures" - that is, from situations in which the competitiveness and efficiency do not operate in the public interest, but against it.