Saturday, March 31, 2012

Liberal Guilt, Conservative Hope

“It’s to the Capitol’s advantage to have us divided among ourselves.”
--Attributed to Gale Hawthorne, character in Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games

John Tamny, writing about “Hunger Games” in Forbes, said the story’s lessons included:
Free societies, personally and economically, don’t rely on government. Instead, a natural harmony eventuates as self-interested individuals create what they’re best at so that they can trade their production for that of others. The problem for political types under such a scenario is that people realize . . . they don’t need government.

[A]ssuming a better world where special interest groups didn’t regularly descend on Washington seeking that which natural market forces won’t provide them with, . . . politicians would invent them. Divided societies give politicians [the power to allocate] resources to the politically connected [and to] weaken a society, thus boosting their status as our allegedly benevolent Nanny.
Our previous post looked at likely liberal guilt that stems from elite support of a meritocracy that, in Brave New World fashion, condemns the “intellectually challenged” to lower class status.

There are different ways for our meritocracy to move past this guilt. One is to hold that in a land of equal opportunity, any person has an equal chance to rise to the top. But our brainiacs just know, they know, that brainpower makes a big difference. Here’s elitist Jacob Weisberg of “Slate” speaking the painful liberal truth about an elite based on academics—it brings “an even worse sting than under an aristocratic or hereditary one, because those who are less successful can't blame outcomes on the arbitrariness of the system.” Brains determine outcome, SAT tests are for real.

A far more comfortable way, therefore, for liberals to move past guilt about meritocracy is to focus instead on money. The figurative descendants of the American hierarchy that gave birth to the post-Civil War GOP, the robber barons of the Guilded Age, are still present within our upper class, and liberals are committed to taxing plutocrats heavily on behalf of the victimized masses. Echoing the cry of the French revolution, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” (Liberty, equality, equality, brotherhood), liberals want to move in the direction of equality (though deliberately), redistributing some money to those unlikely to rise in a meritocracy.

Playing Robin Hood provides the justification liberals need to hold overwhelming wealth and power in government hands. This is much to the distress of conservatives:

o George Will, Washington Post
the federal spider has woven a web of dependencies[, t]he political purpose [of which is] to produce growing constituencies of voters disposed to vote Democratic. This . . . entitlement mentality is triggered by making the constituencies constantly apprehensive about the security of their status as wards of government. . . self-indulgent liberal majorities in Congress [have created] a stimulus that confirmed conservatism’s portrayal of liberalism as an undisciplined agglomeration of parochial appetites.
o Walter Russell Mead, American Interest
The impartial administrative state (staffed by trained experts, powerful enough to rein in the base instincts of politicians, honest and public-spirited enough to counterbalance the power of the rich, educated and enlightened enough to guide and uplift the ignorant public) is the Great Engineer who brings progress to a dark polity. For upper middle class progressive ideologues, this kind of state is the summum bonum, the highest possible form of social organization. This kind of state will not and should not disappear overnight, but increasingly it needs to be transformed — and the blue social imagination can only conceive of this change as decline and fall.
o Robert Samuelson, Washington Post
What . . . government does is so vast that it suffocates informed debate and political control. The built-in bias for the status quo reflects the reality that the various parts of government are understood, defended and changed mainly by those who benefit from their existence. However strong the case for revision, it is tempered by political inertia. What's sacrificed is the broader public good. The quagmire is of our own making.
o Janet Daley, The Telegraph (U.K.)
The [1989] failure of communism should have been. . . a turning point in . . . modern thinking about the state and its relationship to the economy, about collectivism vs individualism, and about public vs private power. [Yet] we still seem to be unable to make up our minds about the moral superiority of the free market. We are still ambivalent about the value of competition, which remains a dirty word when applied, for example, to health care. We continue to long for some utopian formula that will rule out the possibility of inequalities of wealth, or even of social advantages such as intelligence and personal confidence.

There is no way of avoiding the need for individual responsibility, which lies with citizens, not governments.
But we also see conservatives expressing hope that liberals are nearing the end of their rope. From George Will:
America now is divided between those who find this social churning unnerving and those who find it exhilarating. What Virginia Postrel postulated in 1998 in The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise and Progress — the best book for rescuing the country from a ruinous itch for tidiness — is even more true now. Today’s primary political and cultural conflict is, Postrel says, between people, mislabeled “progressives,” who crave social stasis, and those, paradoxically called conservatives, who welcome the perpetual churning of society by dynamism.
And from Walter Russell Mead:
Those who still have something close to lifetime employment – tenured professors and teachers, civil servants and other government employees, postal service workers – feel the unwelcome winds of change.
“The arc of democracy is long, but it bends toward the masses.”

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