Tolerating joblessness

Mrs. Margaret Thatcher is off and running for reelection in Britain, and the public opinion polls indicate that she and her Tory Party enjoy an excellent prospect for success in spite of the fact that unemployment in the United Kingdom stands today at 3.2 million, or 13.8 percent of the work force, and is still rising.

Ronald Reagan is campaigning for reelection in the United States unofficially , although obviously, and the polls indicate that he has a reasonable prospect of success in spite of the fact that unemployment in the US stands at 11.3 million, or 10.1 percent of the work force.

The West German voters have recently returned Helmut Kohl's conservative party to office in spite of the fact that West Germany has 2.49 million unemployed, or 10.2 percent of the work force.

These three facts tell us something most interesting about changes taking place in the Western political community.

It is only within the last four or five years that political theorists began to question the assumptions of the past generation about politics and unemployment.

From the Great Depression of 1929 down to these Reagan-Thatcher-Kohl days it has been a basic political assumption in Western Europe that no political party could survive if it allowed unemployment to go over 3 percent for any serious length of time.

The US could tolerate a higher rate, but by and large it was assumed that anything much over 5 percent would be politically disastrous.

Yet here is Mrs. Thatcher running as an almost certain winner with unemployment running at over four times the old presumed limit of political tolerance. The West German voters returned conservative Chancellor Kohl easily in spite of unemployment at three times the presumed tolerable rate.

And in the US the main current complaint against Mr. Reagan is not that US unemployment is over twice the old presumed limit, but rather that he is spending money too extravagantly on tax favors for the rich and giving the Pentagon everything it desires, even beyond its actual expectations.

On Capitol Hill in Washington today a coalition of Republicans and Democrats is pushing Mr. Reagan to be more conservative than he wants to be about the deficits.

Throughout Western history there has always been one element in the population which for a time is dominant politically.

Begin with the breakup of the Roman Empire. In its wake power was seized by whoever happened to be physically and militarily best able to protect the local community from raiders and marauders from the outside. Call them warlords. They became the hereditary ruling families, the titled aristocracy of feudal Europe.

Those titled families used their military power to acquire huge land holdings. Gradually military power was transferred from the local count, margrave, or duke to the new states. But the landowners because of their very wealth continued to hold dominant political influence till the beginning of the industrial revolution.

Gradually, from the time of the coming of the factories, political power flowed from landowners to factory owners, or ''capitalists.''

The era of the dominant ''capitalists'' came to an abrupt close with the 1929 market crash and the resulting Great Depression of the '30s. All through the modern democracies political power flowed away from the industrial managerial and owner class to politicians who represented the working classes.

The Great Depression bred the ''New Deal'' and the rise of the political power of organized labor. In Washington men like John L. Lewis and Walter Reuther held and exercised the kind of political power during the '30s and '40s which a century earlier had belonged to Goulds and Fisks, Vanderbilts, Astors, and Rockefellers, the men who had made vast fortunes out of railroads, oil, or steel.

The Great Depression gave labor its era of top power. But government for the benefit of labor encouraged industrial inefficiency and led into economic stagnation. British industry sank to an all-time low in productivity. American industry, which dominated the world only 50 years ago, was outpaced in some respects by Japan, and even by Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea.

The Reagan-Thatcher-Kohl phenomenon reflects a change in national priorities. Employment takes second place to revival of industrial efficiency. Public tolerance of high unemployment has reached levels which would have been politically unthinkable only five years ago. We are passing through one of those historic shifts in the locus of political power which mark off one era from another.

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