Friday, January 14, 2011

Not So Divided


I don’t like doing it, but I have to respectfully disagree with Paul Krugman.  His column today talks about what he perceives as two moralities.  He believes, “we are a deeply divided nation and are likely to remain one for a long time. By all means, let’s listen to each other more carefully; but what we’ll discover, I fear, is how far apart we are.”  Krugman continues:

One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state — a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net — morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.
The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.

My dissent is one of scope, not message.  I believe there are people who consider taxes and social safety to be “tyrannical impositions on their liberty.”  I also believe, if that’s where you are coming from, then violence seems an apt response.  That said, I think the people who truly believe that are a very very small minority.  I don’t think the divide is so great in reality, but rather in rhetoric.

A few highly influential conservative pundits have gotten very rich by stoking the flames of government’s illegitimacy and wrapping themselves in the cloak of individual responsibility.  I doubt that actually believe all of it, but it makes them money.  Why not keeping saying the extreme if it’s profitable?

I also think the current Republican party has determined that they should indulge this rhetoric because it is politically advantageous.  Those that have been part of governing (as good will partners or not) like Speaker Boehner and Minority Leader McConnell have calculated the political advantage of accepting the rhetoric, while governing from a more center-right perspective.  Yes, I believe they are being disingenuous.  Not entirely, but on many issues I think they found it easier to grab a pitchfork, then to raise their voice for calm.

Finally, I just don’t think the number of people in this country that would condemn their neighbor to poverty because they don’t like paying taxes is very large.  Most Americans aren’t so cruel, or so short-sided.  I honestly believe those Americans who consider themselves right of center either have been recipients or know someone who has been a recipient of the safety net.  This knowledge and the good it brought to themselves, a freind, or family member also reminds them that someday they might need that net, or their kids might, or their parents.

I understand what Krugman is trying to say, and I certainly wish for more honest conversations about what we truly object to, as opposed to what’s politically advantageous to object to, but I don’t think the divide is so great.  But I also enjoy waffling between cynicism and optimism.  Le sigh.

7 comments:

Colin said...

I disagree. The divide is gaping and fundamental. Republicans and Democrats have -- at least rhetorically -- very different visions of the role of government. I don't think the difference between the ideologies of the Republicans and Democrats has ever been in such sharp relief. And that's a good thing, as it brings clarity to the debate. This is a time for bold action, not half-baked compromises.

Finally, I just don’t think the number of people in this country that would condemn their neighbor to poverty because they don’t like paying taxes is very large. Most Americans aren’t so cruel, or so short-sided. I honestly believe those Americans who consider themselves right of center either have been recipients or know someone who has been a recipient of the safety net. This knowledge and the good it brought to themselves, a freind, or family member also reminds them that someday they might need that net, or their kids might, or their parents.

As someone who objects to both the welfare state and the high taxes it requires I find such rhetoric deeply insulting. Implicit in this statement is the idea that the welfare state is the sole means of expressing compassion for the less fortunate, when evidence and history demonstrate that it is anything but. If a visitor from outer space landed in the US and saw the impact of public schools, public housing and welfare dependency he would no doubt be astonished to learn that all of it was done in the name of helping people. What's truly cruel is placing people within such a system.

This is, frankly, one of the most infuriating aspects of debating with leftists. While I think the left is horribly misguided in its advocacy for the welfare state, I do not doubt their intentions. The left, on the other hand, almost never acknowledges that the political right shares their concern over the plight of the poor but merely advocates a different means of addressing it (namely through private charity and the establishment of a dynamic and vibrant economy, which high taxes and regulation only help stymie). They don't just disagree with the right, they seek to delegimitize them as advocates for the poor.

My parents -- the classic embodiment of Tea Party types -- think their taxes are too high and government too big. Is it because they hate the poor or are driven by greed and selfishness? No, of course not. Growing up my father would cut a check every year to the United Way or another charitable group, saying it was just part of his responsibility as a member of society.

The reason that people like my parents object is because they see the money being wasted by government programs that are unconstitutional, ineffective and even counter-productive. Why should they subsidize such waste?

If the left could point towards all of the successes of the welfare state then they might have some kind of point about the superiority of their approach. But they can't and they don't. In fact, some of the greatest gains in social indicators in recent years have occurred as a result of the implementation of conservative ideas that reduced the welfare state. That should be cause for some kind of reflection and introspection rather than disdain for one's ideological opponents.

Jason said...

A few things, first, I make mention of the rhetorical divide and discount it. Second, in order for us to take "bold action" in a representative democracy, is it not essential that there be compromise?

Finally, if you found my words insulting, I apologize. However, I think it's fair to say you are to the right of most Americans, as it relates to social programs. And let's be clear, you advocate for the elimination of the social safety net. If we eliminate public schools, public services, social security, medicare, and medicaid, we risk imperiling the lives of millions of Americans. How do we know this? We saw it happening through America's history and in response we built a safety net.

You may well argue that we haven't tried the pure form of capitalism that you would espouse. That "half-baked compromises" stymied the market's ability to respond to these challenges. I disagree, but perhaps to a larger point, we won't achieve some ideal capitalist utopia where the better angels of men, unfettered by regulation, will give freely to those that have not. We certainly, and admirably, see this on a smaller scale in our society today, and donations to charities should be applauded, but I don't think history teaches us that charities a social safety net make.

As to the oft cited refrain against social programs, that money is wasted and tax payer dollars frivolously spent, I can only respond, yes that does happen. I question if it happens on the scale that its critics condemn it, but it does happen. However, back to my original point, most people would not advocate for the elimination of the system because of some waste. They ask that we take a hard look and improve processes to reduce waste. This is why I don't think the divide is so great.

Colin said...

You may well argue that we haven't tried the pure form of capitalism that you would espouse. That "half-baked compromises" stymied the market's ability to respond to these challenges.

No, I don't make that argument at all. Capitalism isn't like communism in which purity is required to obtain the desired results. My position is simply that more capitalism yields better results. While purity would be a nice goal, simply progressing in that general direction -- such as with the mid-1990s welfare reform -- will lead to improvements.

but perhaps to a larger point, we won't achieve some ideal capitalist utopia where the better angels of men, unfettered by regulation, will give freely to those that have not.

Except people do this already and give to charity. I don't understand how you reason that people, if allowed to keep more of what they earn that they would cut back on their charitable donations. Actually we would probably see the opposite. Eliminating the welfare state would also go a longer way towards creating a sense of responsibility towards the poor which the welfare state has diminished, replacing it with a sense of "I already gave at the office."

You have a pessimistic view of people and believe they must be compelled by government to give their money to those with less (via ineffective government programs). I have a higher opinion of my fellow citizens.

We certainly, and admirably, see this on a smaller scale in our society today, and donations to charities should be applauded, but I don't think history teaches us that charities a social safety net make.

How do you come to that conclusion? This isn't a trick question -- I genuinely wonder why you believe that. What in history leads you to this belief?

As to the oft cited refrain against social programs, that money is wasted and tax payer dollars frivolously spent, I can only respond, yes that does happen. I question if it happens on the scale that its critics condemn it, but it does happen. However, back to my original point, most people would not advocate for the elimination of the system because of some waste. They ask that we take a hard look and improve processes to reduce waste. This is why I don't think the divide is so great.

It's not so much that I think the money is spent frivolously (although that is certainly the case), it's that it actually produces sub-par outcomes. It is wasted in the sense that it does not achieve what its advocates claim it will.

Colin said...

You may well argue that we haven't tried the pure form of capitalism that you would espouse. That "half-baked compromises" stymied the market's ability to respond to these challenges.

No, I don't make that argument at all. Capitalism isn't like communism in which purity is required to obtain the desired results. My position is simply that more capitalism yields better results. While purity would be a nice goal, simply progressing in that general direction -- such as with the mid-1990s welfare reform -- will lead to improvements.

but perhaps to a larger point, we won't achieve some ideal capitalist utopia where the better angels of men, unfettered by regulation, will give freely to those that have not.

Except people do this already and give to charity. I don't understand how you reason that people, if allowed to keep more of what they earn that they would cut back on their charitable donations. Actually we would probably see the opposite. Eliminating the welfare state would also go a longer way towards creating a sense of responsibility towards the poor which the welfare state has diminished, replacing it with a sense of "I already gave at the office."

You have a pessimistic view of people and believe they must be compelled by government to give their money to those with less (via ineffective government programs). I have a higher opinion of my fellow citizens.

Colin said...

We certainly, and admirably, see this on a smaller scale in our society today, and donations to charities should be applauded, but I don't think history teaches us that charities a social safety net make.

How do you come to that conclusion? This isn't a trick question -- I genuinely wonder why you believe that. What in history leads you to this belief?

As to the oft cited refrain against social programs, that money is wasted and tax payer dollars frivolously spent, I can only respond, yes that does happen. I question if it happens on the scale that its critics condemn it, but it does happen. However, back to my original point, most people would not advocate for the elimination of the system because of some waste. They ask that we take a hard look and improve processes to reduce waste. This is why I don't think the divide is so great.

It's not so much that I think the money is spent frivolously (although that is certainly the case), it's that it actually produces sub-par outcomes. It is wasted in the sense that it does not achieve what its advocates claim it will.

Ben said...

Colin,

I think the history of the late 19th and early 20th century provide a fairly compelling series of examples of the failures of private charity to provide an adequate social safety net. Even if the funds donated by philanthropic individuals were sufficient, government in this--and in many other--respects fills the necessary ordering and coordinating function required to avoid redundancy and inefficient allocation. Of course you recognize the benefits of economies of scale and reductions in overhead costs.

Jason said...

I think it's important to remember what the post was originally about. It was about the divide not being as great as Krugman, and now Colin, think it is.

Colin, you have objected to the notion that you are farther right then most people, and it's of no small surprise that you and I disagree about the best structure of the social safety net as I am likely farther left then most people.

That does nothing to diminish the point that by and large people desire a social safety net that operates as effectively and as unobtrusively as possible