Monday, August 19, 2013

Conserrvatives Don't Get It says Liberal

Conservatives are already responding to Mike Konzcal's "Conservatives don't get that some problems are public, and it's hurting them" in the Washington Post.

Liberals, on the other hand, believe that, e.g., "unemployment is a public problem... because the individual firm, the individual himself, is powerless to cope with the complexities in times of stress."  That's how Bill Buckley put it, according to Konzcal.

OK, so now we have to define the difference between "public" and "private."  Konzcal uses John Dewey:
Dewey argued that the public is involved wherever an action between two people has consequences “that extend beyond the two directly concerned.”
Then off he goes critiquing conservatives for saying that government shouldn't provide a safety net,  that shaming the poor is better than a government response,  and that talk of inequality belongs in "quiet rooms."

Ah yes.  Inequality, President Obama's big line.  And, "for liberals, inequality is a public problem."
Huge inequality can make us more vulnerable to economic instability, and a weak middle class makes stronger recoveries and innovations less likely to happen. Huge inequalities can “distort our democracy,” making it harder for government to answer the needs of the people. These supplement other arguments like inequality can cause severe deprivation, stigmatizing, unacceptable forms of domination and block equality of opportunity.
But conservatives don't want the government to do anything about inequality.
Conservatives spend a lot of time discussing how inequality isn’t as big as we think, or how the poor have a much better life because certain durable goods are cheaper, or how austerity and liquidation are better for the overall economy than stimulus. But what they really think is that these don’t belong in the realm of the public, and that’s the realm of policy.
You'd expect that a liberal like Konzcal would make a dog's breakfast of what conservatives really believe, so let's pick over the mess he's created.

First of all, conservatives don't think in terms of the polarity of "public" and "private."  We believe that almost all human acts, especially economic acts, are social, in the sense of being not private, merely the business of one or two people, but public, in the sense that every economic act has repercussions throughout the economy.  That's what a free economy means as prices are transmitted throughout the society of producers and consumers.

The polarity that conservatives emphasize is the polarity between government and non-government, between force and voluntary cooperation.  What lies behind the benign notion of a "public problem" is the idea that voluntary cooperation has failed and force is the only solution.  In other words, liberals use the idea of "public" as a euphemism for "government" and "force."

In the conservative universe everything is a "public problem," that is, a problem that people might want to discuss in the public square.  But as soon as we are talking about government action then we are not really talking about a "public problem" any more.  We are talking about what kind of force to apply, what Lenin called "who whom."

Conservatives believe that force is usually the wrong medicine to apply to a social wound.  Take inequality.  Conservatives believe that there is benign inequality and malignant inequality.  The benign kind is the wealth acquired by Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs.  They made spectacular fortunes by making computers and iPhones that transformed peoples' lives and transformed the economy.  Good for them.  Then there is the malignant kind.  It's the difference in the wages between unionized and non-unionized workers.  The difference in wages between tenured professors and adjunct faculty.  The difference in compensation between pensioned, tenured government employees and casual laborers.

Notice the unseen force behind the malignant kind of inequality?  It's government.  It's government that allows some employees to form a labor monopoly.  It's government that supports academic tenure.  It's corrupt politicians that do corrupt deals with government union leaders in return for political support.

So it's all very well to talk about "public problems" but what if government action makes them worse?  That's the missing link in Mike Konzcal's world view.  He assumes that large-minded people can sit down at a table and construct another government program to fight inequality, and good things will flow.  But what if the opposite is true?  What if today's inequality is the result of 50 years of liberal responses to "public problems" that made things worse?  That's what conservatives are talking about when we mutter on about "unanticipated consequences" of government actions.

For instance, conservatives think that the big problem with the health care system is that 60 years of government intervention since World War II has created a monster.  We think that the monstrosity begins with the fact that most people don't pay for their health care: the insurance company does.  And so people don't pay attention to the hospital bill the way they pay attention to the grocery bill.  And we think that Obamacare will just make things worse and complicate an already complicated system of subsidies and third party payments with even more cross-subsidization.

We notice that, whatever the nature of a "public problem" may be, the liberal solution always seems to be to hand out more free stuff to their political supporters.  And we wonder.

It's baloney to say that "conservatives don't get that some problems are public."  We understand that all problems are public, in the sense that we are social animals and all our actions are social and public.  We just don't think that most problems require a government solution.  We believe, on the contrary, following Adam Smith and a host of adepts, that the solution of public problems begins with personally working to understand and helping solve the other guy's problem, as in the Invisible Hand.

Liberalism, we believe, is based on the idea of the Clunking Fist, to force the other guy to bend to your will.  Because you are right and he is wrong.

No comments:

Post a Comment