A Little Late to the Party…

… But I’d like to call a couple of pieces to your attention.

First off, I’d like to start with Michael Barone’s column today, which again goes to the Major’s contention that some majority x of the population loves the stuff big government has sponsored so much that we should feed Leviathan even more (and thereby also goes to the related “What’s the Matter with Kansas” Argument.) For one thing, Barone observes that Americans may see a difference between what government offers and what it in fact provides:

[A Democratic pollster] argues that voters agree with Democrats on issues but don’t back them on policy because they don’t trust government to carry it out fairly. I think he overstates their agreements on policies: They may favor “investment in education” until they figure out that it actually means political payoffs to teachers’ unions.

But his larger point rings true. He points out that “the growth of self-identified conservatives” began during the fall 2008 debate over the TARP legislation supported by George W. Bush, Barack Obama and John McCain. The voters’ take: “Government works for the irresponsible, not the responsible.”

That was the complaint as well of Rick Santelli in his February 2009 “rant” calling for a tea party. Santelli was complaining about mortgage modification programs that used prudent homeowners’ tax money to subsidize those who had made imprudent decisions.

And this is where (for me) Barone becomes interesting. We’ve talked before about the differing conceptions of “fairness” on the Left and Right, with the Left’s consequentialist definition (equality of result) opposed to the Right’s idea that fairness consists of the same rules being applied to everyone (equality of process), even given that this will result in widely varying degrees of success. Barone borrows Arthur Brooks’s term “earned success” to describe the Right’s goal. As Barone says: “[O]rdinary Americans don’t want money as much as they want honor.”

Getting to play by special rules because one is a member of a favored political ingroup — Right or Left — is dishonorable. There should neither be “Too big to fail” nor “Too small to be allowed to fail.” Although I don’t believe the economy is a zero-sum game (which is why I don’t care how much more money Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, or the Major makes than I do. My happiness is not contingent upon their wealth.), I do believe that winners and losers (however defined) are inevitable. However, in the view of the Left, per Barone:

Ordinary people are treated as victims who need government programs like Obamacare to help them out.

But Americans prefer to see themselves as doers rather than victims. They do not see themselves, as the masses in the Progressive Era a century ago may have done, as helpless victims of large corporations and financial interests.

They want public policies that enable them to earn success, and they resent policies that channel money to the politically well positioned or to those who have not made decisions and taken actions necessary for earned success. They want to be empowered, not patronized.

Barone’s piece in turn prompted a post by Sven Wilson at Pileus. Wilson examines a point made by our esteemed commenter Dave Schutz, which is the clash between what Dave calls the Nozickers (represented by your genial host) and the Rawlsites (e.g., the Major). Wilson observes that in addition to Barone’s points:

I would add to this that Americans are also charitable.   They value safety net programs that catch people who, through no fault of their own, need help.  I would argue that most of those programs should be private efforts, not government ones, but there is a strong sentiment to help those who need help in either case.  Pundits cry that Tea Partiers want to shred the safety net, which is silly.  I think what they want to shred is a system that rewards those with political power at the expense of those without much power.

The left fundamentally misunderstands these sentiments.  They think that people want government to guarantee outcomes—you get a house, you get a job, you get health care, you get to send your kids to college, etc., etc.  This is partly the fault of economists who emphasize material outcomes above all else, but more the fault of ideologies rooted in fault[y] premises about human values.

Wilson notes that:

In the Rawlsian world, effort and responsibility, as well as talents, result from the circumstances of birth and, hence, are owned by the collective, not the individual.  Indeed, the only real self-ownership Rawls recognizes is the right to agree with Rawls.

The political left doesn’t speak of Rawls the way the academic left does, but they are infused with the Rawlsian worldview.  By this I mean not only the desire for redistribution and egalitarian outcomes, but the idea that only economic outcomes matter, not effort or responsibility.

But if only economic outcomes matter, why should we have any concern for freedom at all? I would suggest that an inability to value outcomes beyond the economic points down what an economist (ironically enough) described as the road to serfdom. Is that OK, as long as the serfs are comfy and well fed? My dog, currently sitting across the room from me, is well fed and housed. She needn’t worry about her health care or paying the bills — indeed, I just asked her if she worries about such things. She came over and received a scratch on the head, which I’ll take as a certain complaisance and contentment.

But of course, we aren’t dogs. Neither do I imagine that any of us sincerely wish to be dogs rather than human beings. Why? Because we think — we know — that to be human is to be in greater control of one’s destiny, more simply put, to be free. And like Barone and Wilson, I think that’s the flaw in Rawlsian and statist approaches; they assume that a human being can — should — be owned by the State as easily as Jasmine the Boston Terrier is owned by Clan Mondo. The question for these people is how well, how ethically, the master cares for the pet, which ignores the larger question of whether people should be regarded as pets at all. (Oddly enough, a vocal minority of these people resent thinking of pets as pets, preferring terms like “companion animals” and demanding some sort of personhood for critters like Jasmine.)

To view my life, or my wife’s, or my daughter’s, exclusively in terms of how our economic circumstances play out, and to obviate our self-determination is on some level to deny us our humanity, our status as individual children of God. I think this may be the heart of what Barone and Wilson understand, and that the Left just doesn’t get.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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