Thursday, November 4, 2010
Morality vs. Economic Orthodoxy
There can be no arguing that inequality and hard-times involve human suffering. From sacrifice and inconvenience at best, to death, violence, pain and starvation at the worst, poverty is a terrible burden on society. The left and right can agree on this to a point. But they also have divergent attitudes regarding the fairness of inequality, specifically in the role personal responsibility plays. For most on the left, a more deterministic view is taken of inequality; the rich and poor have largely received their lot in life from social conditions that they were or were not able to take advantage of. For most on the right, inequality is the result of personal choice; the rich and poor have created their own successes or failures through a conscious choice to determine their own fate.
The morality of helping those in need thus rests on whether or not we, as members of society that guide its structure and institutional coherence, are responsible for the effects of inequality. If we are, then we owe our fellow man a helping hand. If we are not responsible, and he has only himself to blame, then we owe him nothing. This is a larger argument that is in many ways philosophically complex, and involves many assumptions about why men do what they do. But regardless, the human suffering still exists. And to the degree that we are responsible for the plight of our fellow man, we have a moral imperative to help him.
This brings us to the second area of concern in economic policy, and again a split among left on right. We can all agree that economic growth and stability is a good thing. But the left believes a stronger government is essential to a robust economy; through investments in infrastructure, regulation, education and health care, society is strengthened, leading to a stronger economy. The right believes that less government means greater economic strength; leaving it up to the individual to do what's best for himself will result in an empowered, self-reliant and innovative population. But under the burden of heavy taxation to pay for government spending, a net pull on the economy means less opportunity and wealth for all. Both views have strong arguments in their favor, and expert economists to back them up.
Unfortunately, unless you are an economist, it is hard to know who to believe. One might believe that infrastructure or social spending is important, but what if the taxes raised to pay for them slows the economy to the point where unemployment is higher, and there is greater suffering overall. On the other hand, one might believe that infrastructure or social spending is unimportant, but paying for them will ultimately grow the economy enough to pay for them.
These two views, the moral and economic orthodoxy, together form a sort of feedback loop in which moral arguments are used to bolster economic arguments, which then bolster the original moral argument. So if you believe social responsibility requires government spending, it would bolster a view that government spending is good for the economy, which in turn is the socially responsible thing to do. And if you believe in personal responsibility and less government, it is easier to embrace a view that less government spending is actually good for economic growth. And economic growth would seem to reward your original premise that personal responsibility has little need for government.
But if personal responsibility is all that is needed to escape poverty, then whether or not the economy is growing would seem little more than an inconvenience. For while the left feels that poverty and social dysfunction is a problem of social responsibility, remedied not only by economic strength but government intervention, the right doesn't believe it has much to do with economic growth. Sure, they know there would be less of it if in a strong economy, but most of the suffering we associate with poverty - the drug use, low-skill jobs, violence, etc. are all situations the right feels are chosen. There is always, according to them, the possibility of working harder and pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, as they say.
So it is difficult to see how complaints on the right of burdensome government spending are expressions of moral concern for the welfare of fellow man. At best, they are irritated over less potential for success among some people (people like them?), because - let's face it - there will always be people who will choose failure. At worst, they are expressions of irritation with their own pocketbook being marginally reduced. In which case the moral argument seems slight indeed. What you mainly have is a convenient embrace of conservative economic orthodoxy less on its merits (who but serious economists after all can really parse the complex algorithms of supply-side vs. Keynesian economics), than for purely philosophical and mostly self-interested reasons.