February 19, 2013

On the Liberal Social Experiment

Anyone with an ounce of intellectual honesty has to admit that among the many enormous problems that America faces in our era, the unavailability of unbiased information ranks among the most significant. We have a glut of news, a glut of opinion, and a glut of government statistics, but unless one is content with hearing reality spun to suit one’s own taste, picking and choosing facts out of the trash heap of partisan noise is a formidable problem. The agreeableness of a narrative is no measure of its truth. I believe, based on my observation of the rest of reality, that there is truth – that political and social matters exist in a real world, in exactly the way that ocean tides exist, and have real material causes. That we may not understand those causes as clearly or as definitely as we understand some other causes in nature does not mean that those causes do not exist. It means only that we can’t, or haven’t, discerned them.

So, what are some things we can reasonably claim to know about the social transformation of the United States over the last eighty years or so – not from ideological argument, but from brute, observable fact? That’s a big topic, I know, but let’s just pick out a few salient points.

First, I think any non-delusional person would have to admit that both the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement accomplished their principle goals. Although there is plenty of sturm und drang about voter ID initiatives, any U.S. citizen who is legally qualified to vote can do so. He or she might have to wait in line or suffer some minor inconvenience at the polls, but, allowing for a handful of irregularities here and there (the manipulations of both of the major political parties) everybody gets to vote. Likewise, although there isn’t perfect equality in employment opportunities, virtually no perspective employer is going to flatly deny a woman or a member of a minority a job on the basis of gender or race. A few employers might still harbor such prejudices privately, but, in practice, they live in terror of the law. The vast majority of the public, liberal and conservative, north and south, have internalized these social changes even if a few people quietly don’t like them. We did elect a black president – didn’t we? No woman has attained that office yet, but I can’t imagine any significant number of people objecting to a woman president on the basis of her gender alone. Cultures change. Really – they do.

The largely liberal project of eliminating poverty has, on the other hand, been an abysmal failure. The public policy of vast and various public welfare programs has moved us no closer to the elimination of poverty, regardless of the race or ethnicity of the recipients in question. Consider urban poverty alone. Almost every city in America is divided into two discrete if unofficial zones – a zone of safety, where the middle class and wealthy live, and a danger zone, where prudent people do not go. This is a fact. No matter how liberal or how conservative you are, odds are pretty good that, if you’re middle class or above and you live in a city, there are large parts of it you have never visited and rarely think about. Most people are little more familiar with the poorer, more crime ridden halves of their own cities than they are with the interior regions of New Guinea. These defacto ghettoes have not gotten any smaller in the last eighty years, but have actually gotten larger in most places. They are by no means the sole province of black Americans – their constituent populations vary in accordance with location – but, wherever they are and whoever inhabits them, those inhabitants are the chief consumers of most forms of government relief. Such places are a standing monument to the failure of such programs to eliminate poverty.

The continued presence of urban ghettos is a fact. Explaining their continued presence is a more speculative matter. That being said, the idea that we simply need to pour more money into existing programs to overcome the problem is highly suspect. Both the major political parties, surprisingly, cling to a single false belief regarding this issue. This belief is that human beings are naturally industrious, and if they are given a Democratic floor of support on one hand, or a Republican tax holiday on the other, they will seize the opportunity to become productive citizens. This is an astonishingly na├»ve view. We do not assume that people who live on investments really care about being productive citizens. The state lotteries thrive on the millions of middle class and working poor Americans who would love to become instant millionaires and quit their jobs. A work ethic is a learned value, not a genetic imperative. Human beings, by nature, will rarely do more than is necessary to achieve the conditions they find tolerable. Put a solid floor of entitlements under any group of humans, regardless of their race or ethnicity, and quite a few of them will find that floor acceptable and sleep there. The first generation will feel that they have won the lottery; successive generations will be acculturated to non-productivity as the norm. Make the floor a higher standard of living than one could achieve by unskilled labor, and only a handful of the most ambitious will ever climb off. While jobs programs are a better answer in theory, in conjunction with the dole their impact is largely nullified. Further, short of direct public employment programs like Roosevelt’s WPA, they have never created any substantial number of jobs. While ideological conservatives may be dubious about tinkering with the economy, Republicans have occasionally exercised a certain pseudo-Keynesian streak in the establishment of low-tax free enterprise zones – with predictably negligible results. None of it has worked. Having produced a substantial body of people who find no shame in the dole, and who are not resigned to a more-or-less arduous life of full time legal employment that the rest of us endure, we, as a society, have created a serious problem.

Perhaps more interesting than the problem itself is the collective refusal to even recognize it. Consider it in purely geographical terms. If someone fenced off an area of several square miles of city just a few blocks from your home and told you they were conducting a social experiment inside – wouldn’t you be curious? Wouldn’t you wonder, as you glanced into the area from a highway overpass on your way to and from work, what was really going on? Wouldn’t you get tired of having to detour around such a region? I suppose the honest answer for most of us is actually “no.” That is exactly what we do. We accept it. We grow numb. We watch the local news, which convinces us, daily, not to go there. Typically, society’s decision makers don’t even live close enough to experience the spillover along the edges. For them, the problem is an entirely abstract one.

The current mantra of the left is that the real problem is one of increasing economic inequality. This is to say, it’s all the fault of the rich. This is very dubious too. While the middle class have gotten poorer, the poor have not. Frankly, there aren’t any problems I’m aware of that are the fault of the rich collectively. We do have an ongoing monetary crisis which is, in large part, the fault of a poorly regulated banking sector. Too much money has been made in an entirely non-productive way, by simply shifting complex bets around. That really is a serious problem, but it is not the fault of the rich as a class. It is the fault of a very small number of very large banks, and of a government whose complicity transcends party lines. Still, to listen to the rhetoric of the Democratic Party, one would imagine that the entire top one percent (minus the Democratic leadership and a few of their exempted friends) held a fiendish conference every now and then – specifically to plan ways to maximize the suffering of the rest of us. While it is always nice to have someone to hate, and it has been a useful rhetorical tool in recent elections, blindly laying the blame at the feet of the wealthy is a form of economic suicide. Raise a generation to hate capitalism reflexively, and you will drive whatever energy is left in the economy somewhere else. Like it or not, capitalism, for all of its faults, is the organizing principle of American society. This is a market economy. The goods and services that get produced are the ones that people want. You may hate your boss, but, difficult as it may be, you have the option of quitting and taking your labor elsewhere. Beat capitalism to death, and we leave government to manage every retail business and every factory. We may find we get only what the central planners decide we need, and work when and where they decide we ought to work. We may find that the State, surprisingly, does not need many web designers or college professors. While it is obvious that some regulation is now necessary – the banking crisis being only one indicator of this need – a full blown anti-capitalist mass movement is likely to eliminate poverty only by making it universal.

In all fairness, I have no positive solution to propose. There are, of course, draconian solutions. The draconian solution of the left, as noted above, is Communism. When all are poor then none are poor. Even in this most entropic of political states, however, there are always at least two classes: the people on the one hand – and the planners on the other. The endgame of the left is an ironically simplified example of the inequality it claims to abhor. At the right end of the spectrum, we could simply pull the rug out from under the unproductive. If you’re a child born in the wrong place to the wrong parents – hard luck. Thrive or die. Society, in this view, is a state of nature with a little glitter added. Appalled as I am at the arrogance and blindness of central planning, the hardest of the hard approaches also manifests the very disease it would attempt to cure. If the disease of unproductivity has its roots in human selfishness, then so would its elimination by starving it unfeelingly to death.

I think it is fair to say that we got into to this predicament through the unintended consequences of good intentions. That is the ongoing comedy of humankind. While I cannot suggest a method to unwind our mistakes – I believe that at least admitting they were mistakes would be a good beginning.

No comments:

Post a Comment