Tuesday, February 8, 2011

What It's Always Been About

Given all the hem and haw recently over the question of the Affordable Care Act's constitutionality, it pays to remember that for conservatives this is merely a technicality.  Jonathan Zasloff reminds us what the real concern is when, following Chait:
all success is earned success. They do not believe that luck or life circumstance play an important part in economic success. They believe that wealth and poverty are essentially moral categories, interchangeable with “hard work” and “sloth.” They decry government, but they don’t really oppose government per se. They oppose those government functions that transfer resources from the rich to the non-rich.
he writes:
What Chait could have said but didn’t is that this is essentially Social Darwinism 101, or Scrooge, or Rand.  Ironically enough, this is the only Darwinism in which Republicans believe.  So instead of the man himself, I would suggest replacing the elephant as the GOP’s symbol with William Graham Sumner, the late 19th social Darwinist.  Although Sumner’s academic bona fides would no doubt offend most in the party, his insistence on the futility and downright immorality of doing anything to assist workers and the poor would be quite congenial.

Liberals need to remember this: the fight for the disadvantaged and oppressed is not about the individuals who exploit them.  It is about the persistent mythologies that drive men to stand behind policies that enable wretchedness.  To pin the intransigency of the right on mere moral failings or character flaws is demeaning to the rich history of callousness that almost defines conservative thought.

Conservatives generally oppose the ACA because it seems a reward for people who don’t deserve it.  A “redistribution”. This is stated over and over. Yet oddly, when repeated back to them, they often respond as if this is somehow an insult, that they could be accused of such a thing! The oddest version of which was Glenn Beck's CPAC speech in which he sung the glories of “allowing people to fail”, because that is the only way they’ll really learn. As if his own AA sob-story has much to do with people who are uninsurable, or are too broke to afford insurance.

Or maybe it does: maybe the poor are really to blame for their poverty. Maybe they are too lazy. This too is a stated claim of many conservatives, even if usually spoken of in a round-about way by all but the most brave. The logic is sound. The wealthy created their own wealth, so the poor must *not* have created it, right? Further, wealth is a prime motivator. If we “give it away”, people won’t have anything to work for. Just look at communism.

Have conservatives not been listening to their own rhetoric these last few decades? Is there something about liberals saying the words that bothers them?

I think one last note to hang on this: the question of contra-causal free will plays a role here. Conservatives generally believe people are responsible for their own choices, and thus social privilege doesn’t really compute. They worship stories of men who succeeded “despite the odds”, as if to prove that privilege means nothing. And yet this magical fortitude, this mystical agency is neither a socially learned function, nor a genetic advantage. Because either (or both – as most liberals believe), would imply *causality*.

Yet if you have causality, you suddenly lose responsibility. Better genes or learning places agency’s origin in events beyond human control (we don’t pick our genes, we can only learn how to learn, how to learn (etc.). This of course is all the logic behind liberal social programs – we call this “social responsibility”. And without it, you have conservatism. Or at least to the degree you have less of it, you have more conservatism.

I personally have never heard a conservative argue around the vast data that supports this basic liberal equation. You generally get the question changed from “should we?”, to “how can we?”, with the answer usually being “it’s too expensive”, or “it’s hopeless”, or “you’ll do more harm than good”. But conservatives never have any helpful solutions aside from vague and hopelessly inadequate gestures towards charity. So then the issue is dropped. Until once again you hear conservatives complaining, “we shouldn’t… we shouldn’t”. And you then explain why, and the liberal policy is criticized (even though, like with the ACA, it has been so weakened by conservative compromises that most liberals in many ways will agree).

Yet, like Sisyphus, we keep trying, fighting for our little old “social justice”, calling for “social responsibility”, pushing that ball a little up the hill. A little more health care for the needy. A little more money for poor kids. A little more regulations on businesses destroying the environment. This will all sound like creeping serfdom to some. But to those of us just looking to give every one a fair shot at success (or just dialysis, for crying out loud), it is a better, slightly more just and ultimately moral world.


  1. If someone's worked and built a small firm up to a medium business over 20 years with 50+ employees and has accrued $2 Million in his account to show for it, I wouldn't want to tax him a penny. How much wealth and state taxes has he already generated to get there? The work and determination, yada yada. And there's no need to go after him. The return of the 90% surcharge on the "Paris Hiltons" combined with the enormous public income that would be derived from state-monopolised mortgage banking could pay for everything. (Fannie and Freddie aren't analogous examples there!). If the left enunciate a bit more clearly to the suspicious center-right business base to point past taxing on small businesses and re-focus attention on the gross wealth in the unearned, rentier-class, capital gains-fed, windfall-inherited, toll-booth economy class then half the people who are republicans would be in agreement with the left. Close foreign bases, stop bailing banks, cut wasted $ on defense, spend more on basic business infrastructure, get people working for their dollars, etc. It all sounds like a Ron Paul mantra so we're halfway there.

  2. I think that's right. I do however think there's an important philosophical argument for taxing even those who have genuinely, through their own hard work, amassed fortunes. It relies on the notions of human and social capital, both of which are derived from external causalities. So the hard worker is so because of the genes he was born with, in combination with the environment in which he developed. Thus, he is ultimately no more responsible for his success than the poor worker is for his failure. Ultimately, society, through its structure, has provided the framework for human potential to either thrive or languish.

    With all of that as an assumption, in regards to taxation the key is then to design a system in which effort is reasonably rewarded while still providing a maximum of structural opportunities through general social protections and supports. So I think it is perfectly fair to tax even the hard-working small business millionaires, although not unreasonably.

    I'm somewhat "bullish" on taxation at the upper levels. I'm fine with keeping taxes relatively low up until maybe the first couple of millions a year, but after that marginal level, the rate should skyrocket, such that at least 90% of further earnings are paid back to the government. (I use the phrase "paid back" in specific reference to the concept that this capital was only created because of leveraging of structural advantage (genes/environment)). Indeed, this is about what the marginal tax rates were 50 years ago. And the world didn't end!