Of Conservatives and “public problems”
posted at 6:31 pm on August 18, 2013 by Jazz Shaw
Mike Konczal has a brief essay in the Washington Post this weekend which has been getting some play, largely because of the “historical analysis” nature of it, I’m sure. Titled, “Conservatives don’t get that some problems are public, and it’s hurting them,” the author seeks to helpfully offer advice to poor, misguided Right leaners on what America needs. It’s actually worth a read, since it deals with “inequality” (all the rage this year) and it starts with William F. Buckley and his early dismantling of Keynesian economics in general and Paul Samuelson in specific.
Most of the history lesson deals with the perceived flaws in essential conservative fiscal doctrine, specifically with the difference between public and private issues in a free market economy.
But what really upset [Buckley] was the idea that the economy was now a public issue. As Buckley emphasizes in his own paraphrase of Samuelson, “economics has become a matter of public policy, not individual action…Let us bear in mind that unemployment is a public problem” (italics in original) because “the individual firm, the individual himself, is powerless to cope with the complexities in times of stress.”
All of these problems could be addressed, it seems, if only conservatives could grasp the wisdom of President Obama, who succinctly explains why economic inequality is at the heart of the problem.
Meanwhile, for liberals, inequality is a public problem. As President Obama said in his Osawatomie, Kansas speech, “this kind of inequality – a level that we haven’t seen since the Great Depression – hurts us all.”
How? President Obama gives a couple of targeted reasons. Huge inequality can make us more vulnerable to economic instability, and a weak middle class makes stronger recoveries and innovations less likely to happen. Huge inequalities can “distort our democracy,” making it harder for government to answer the needs of the people. These supplement other arguments like inequality can cause severe deprivation, stigmatizing, unacceptable forms of domination and block equality of opportunity.
This argument is really at the heart of many of the issues we wrestle with today, and clearly it’s going to remain a talking point for the Left well into the future. But what exactly does “inequality” mean? Was there some golden age in the past which all historians somehow managed to miss where everyone wound up with exactly the same results in the game of life? The era of the great steel and energy barons was far less “equal” in terms of economic results. And that pales in comparison to both the early pioneer days and feudal times in Europe. The truth of the matter is that America in the 21st century has a safety net (which opponents claim that people such as Tim Carney are trying to destroy) that supplies more protection from falling through the cracks than was previously seen in the history of the species.
But the real argument being put forward here is that it is inherently unfair that some people do extremely well in a competitive world and others do not. That’s the part that is the true sin in the eyes of the author. The fact that some are excessively successful while many others have less and some are on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder is a symptom of some deeper flaw in humanity, and only government can step in to set things to rights. You see, unfettered capitalism leads to problems for at least a portion of the population.
Oddly enough, that last statement is correct. But at the opposite end of the spectrum we find governmental theories such as communism and a society of equals. And every time humanity has attempted that particular experiment it also fails spectacularly. Just as with capitalism, a certain percentage of the population will always seek to rise to positions of maximum power and attainment. But in communism, they simply do it under the auspices of the government, with the most successful being those who rule the system of equals, being a bit “more equal than others.”
So if unfettered capitalism leads to problems, so too does unfettered government. The question, at the end of the day, is who will do the fettering. And fiscal conservatism has no more trust of the government in that role than socialists have in the charity of wealthy capitalists. We, as a species, have yet to invent any perfect form of governance, and it’s never as simple as Mr. Konczal would have it.