Sunday, October 21, 2012

Unicorn Politics

Virgin and Unicorn, Domenichino (1605)
One of the fundamental disagreements in politics today is over the degree to which society can afford to spend tax dollars on social goods.  In some areas, such as welfare or food stamps, it is argued that the spending itself is counter-productive because it promotes negative behavior; it promotes dependency instead of forcing people to create their own productivity.

But in most areas, government spending isn't argued to be promoting bad behavior.  Instead, it is simply argued to be a luxury we cannot afford.  Things like bridges (such as the project New Jersey Governor Chris Christie famously axed "because we can't afford it"), schools, libraries, parks, police, firefighters, social security or medicare are all forms of government spending that nearly everyone supports.  Yet while they are valued, it is argued that they must be limited because we cannot afford them.  As Mitt Romney famously said, "I love Big Bird... but I don't want to borrow from China to pay for him".

So, is our fate then, according to those with this view, to live in a chronically underfunded state, with over-crowded classrooms, dilapidated libraries and parks, inadequate roads and bridges, clogged courts, and thinly stretched police forces, and denial of health care and social security to millions of seniors?

Here's where we get into the realm of unicorn politics.  Depending on which brilliant economist you ask, the government can either afford these things or it cannot.  Some will say that, like many Western countries, we can have all of these things through better regulations and higher taxes.  Others will say that more regulations and higher taxes will only inhibit growth, reducing the tax base even further and limiting our ability to spend.  The details are enormously complex, and it is nearly impossible for a layperson to realistically discriminate between the competing perspectives.  "Common sense" is irrelevant to such complexity.

So what do we do?  We have faith in our own intuitions.  We all have basic moral instincts about the role of government and social justice, what is fair.  For instance, if you tend to feel that one's income and net-worth is an accurate expression of his real worth - how hard he has worked and what he thus justly deserves - then you are more likely to feel that asking him to pay more of his money in taxes for the good of the rest of society is unfair and immoral.  If you feel that his income and net-worth have been determined not only by his hard work but by larger social forces that have enabled him to attain more wealth at the expense of others, then you are more likely to feel that he ought to pay a higher tax rate back to the society in which has privileged him so.

Unpacking the mechanics of these two very different assessments is complicated.  Serious economic and sociological arguments can be made to support either, but much of it seems to be intuition about one's fellow man.  Asking someone why they are a liberal or a conservative rather than vice-versa, is akin to asking a Catholic why they are not a Protestant, or for that matter a Muslim or Hindu.

To what extent do we simply have intuitions about what is fair, and then find post hoc rationalizations to make them fit into something that feels reasonable?  Sure, I can (and regularly do, on this blog) make a compelling case for why my perspective is based more on reality than on mythology.  But to what extent is the unicorn grazing beside my eloquence?

No comments:

Post a Comment