Liberal and Conservative Thought--Economic Thought

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As I view the situation there are problems with both liberal and conservative strains of thought. The problem with liberal thought is intrinsic to the philosophy, the problem with conservative thought is extrinsic, but so pervasive one might be led to conclude that it is an underlying principle.

The intrinsic problem with liberal thought is the Rousseau-derived absolute confidence in the ability of human reason to restore paradise and the assurance that human will follows human reason. The extrinsic problem in conservative thought is the underlying turf-rooted suspicion of absolute depravity and the Puritan assumption that the elect are identifiable by their lot in this life.

As a result conservative thought, particularly economic conservative thought, tends to overlook the plight of the poor and suggest that they shift for themselves. The suggestion that one might consider raising a minimum wage sends thrills of horror through them, convinced as they are of two things: economic disaster is immediately upon us, and those who are doing poorly are doing poorly because they don't care to work for themselves. The ultimate conservative economic statement comes from Ebenezer Scrooge--"'Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don't make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned-they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there." Which is not to say that every individual conservative holds to these lines of thought, nor even that it is a majority, nor even that the thought is held consciously--I don't think it is. But I do not among conservative thinkers a distinct lack of appreciation of the plight of the poor. Conservatism has been and continues to be the economic philosophy of the well-off.

In this sense, the intrinsically flawed philosophy of liberalism offers seemingly better recourse. The problem here is that the recourse depends both upon the strength of the idea and upon an assumed willingness to see the idea through to completion. Liberal thought is the supreme philosophy of incompletism. There is the assumption that because government is established for the common good it is, within a society, the source of all good and what good may come should come through the government. In a sense, the liberal mindset establishes the prisons and the workhouses that the resentful conservative supports and pays for.

These two strains of thought working in tandem do and have done absolutely nothing to relieve the true desperation of the poor. Over the last hundred years or so fewer of the poor die from hunger, malnutrition, and other woes visited on those who do not have enough to eat (at least in industrialized nations), but the number of poor and their condition has neither diminished nor has there been any sign that it ever can be diminished. The welfare state grows larger and larger, and still the poor are poor and remain visited by non-economic manifestations of poverty.

The solution may not be in raising minimum wage or in any sort of governmental assistance, but it certainly does not rest in refuting and refusing all such helps and providing no useful suggestion about how to address the problem. More often than not, a conservative thinker will suggest why a solution is not viable without suggesting anything that is more viable. For example, alleviating poverty through an individual response to the poor. How is this to be organized, on what basis can we rely upon it to happen, what will be done to encourage and foster this response? On these question the conservative thinker is silent. On these same questions the liberal thinker, ever-ready to contradict his or her own Rouseauian roots doubts the capacity of individuals to address the problem. Not only do they doubt the capacity, but the willingness, and therefore the solution must be forced upon everyone through governmental interference.

What is needed in the realm of economics is for both sides to come to the table and admit their failings. Each needs humbly to approach the problem and seek viable solutions that may be organizationally or even governmentally mediated, but not institutionalized. In this sense "the thousand points of light" is the right view of how to approach many of the problems of poverty. Mother Teresa's approach to the alleviation of the strife of the poor was not to seek more money and set up a foundation that would dole out food or money or both to the poor, but to help each one with human hands and human heart. I don't know for a fact that she ever lifted anyone out of poverty, but she taught each person that she came in contact with what it was to be loved whether rich or poor.

The solution to poverty is in God's hands. But a first step is for everyone to see what it looks like and experience it first hand--frequently. When we understand that poverty is not a disease and not infectious, we might begin to have a better appreciation for how to begin to combat it, or at least the effects of it. As it stands, we remain opposed (rightfully so) to the forced reapportionment of goods that we work hard to obtain, while providing no other recourse for those who cannot fend for themselves. The hard reality we need to face is that for every child we pray or argue away from the hands of the abortionists, we incur an obligation to assure that that child will have at very least all that he or she needs to thrive and become a productive citizen. There is a cost to doing what is right, sometimes a painful cost, but that is our sacrifice offered up to God. In the words of this morning's morning prayer:

"We have in our day. . .
no holocaust, sacrifice, oblation, or incense,
no place to offer first fruits, to find favor with you.

But with contrite heart and humble spirit
let us be received. . .
so let our sacrifice be in your presence today
as we follow you unreservedly;
for those who trust in you cannot be put to shame.

And now we follow you with our whole heart. . . ."

Next stop--liberal and conservative social thought (maybe).

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The number of poor and their condition has neither diminished nor has there been any sign that it ever can be diminished. The welfare state grows larger and larger, and still the poor are poor and remain visited by non-economic manifestations of poverty.

You lost me here.

To say that "the number of poor" has not diminished is not really true; according to the Census Bureau the number diminished markedly during the 60s, and during the late 70s reversed itself, becoming more or less stable in the late 80s. Today the number of poor is somewhat smaller than when the government started taking numbers in 1959.

More important, however, is the ratio of poor people in the population. That value has in fact diminished over time by approximately 50%. Whereas one out of 4 people was officially poor in 1959, only one out of 8 is poor today.

To say that "their condition" has not diminished is confusing. Surely you don't mean what the phrase would ordinarily mean, since if their condition has not diminished then this implies that their condition has at worst gotten no worse, and has most likely improved. That would be a cause of celebration. Since you clearly don't feel a celebration is in order, you must mean that their condition has in fact diminished.

Yet the condition of the poor in the United State, and across the entire world in general, is far better now than it has ever been at any point in history, even forty years ago, whether one measure this by lifespan, quality of life, opportunities in life, wealth, or even income. The improvement has been on the whole gradual, though marked by sudden spurts of improvement. Some things are lost, but others are gained, and very often the gains far outweigh the losses. In some places the poor are quite comfortable, whereas in some places the poor are quite uncomfortable (even in the first world). However, in the first world at least one can generally say that unless one lives in an isolated area, such as the Appalachians, or on a Native American reservation, the poor usually own cars and phones, own or at least rent better homes, can rely on a steady source of food, even if they cannot buy it themselves from their own income, enjoy electricity feeding into their homes and sewage taking wastes out, and experience a lower rate of mortality to diseases that were common only thirty years ago.

If this does not address what you mean, please explain in more detail how the poor, on average, are worse off today in any way than they were in the recent or distant past. I'm no expert, so I can be wrong, and I actually do want to help the poor, having done so personally on more occasions than I can count.

Dear Jack,

After three attempts at a reply that would be meaningful, I say simply, thank you for the comment.



Economists say that raising the minimum wage at some point kills jobs & one argument is that a badly-paying job is better than no job. I don't know at what point raising the minimum wage significantly impacts jobs - I'm willing to test it via a good increase (though that's easy for me to say because I can afford the increased prices that would be passed down) - but if we tried to make every job provide a "living wage" - say $15 an hour - there would be fewer jobs and inflation to boot - in other words, the Jimmy Carter effect (stagflation).

I think that's less a weakness of conservatism than simply a weakness of a fallen world.

Dear TSO,

I was say that the problem with SOME conservative theorists is that they spout out the "cold equations" you articulate above and leave it at that as though the status quo is sufficient. This is the way it is economically and there is no other way. THAT is the flaw in the thinking, not the hard reality of economics that might result in the end you suggest.

So my fault would not be with the proven reality of economics as with those for whom that is sufficient. Economics rules, we must maintain an underclass.

I'd say rather that other alternatives--alternatives that don't swing to the extreme of the other side and give us the perpetually nurturing welfare state need to be tested and piloted. But there is limited interest in this in many cases because, as you point out, the fallen condition of humanity is such that "I got mine, you get yours" is the rule of law.

Or not. I'm still trying to think through these things. But what I am finding is that the identification of an idea, theory, way of being, lifestyle, policy, etc. as liberal or conservative provides for me no imprimatur of its acceptability to a carefully considered preferential option for the poor. Some "conservative" ideas about how to combat the problems seem far more likely to arrive at an acceptable solution than most liberal. And vice versa. The point is to get and keep people thinking rather than to be trapped within the swmall boxes that commonly define policy for a group.

If you look at my review of Nader's book, you'll find that I am down on anyone who claims to be thinking about "new approaches" and ends up spewing the same dreck. So my gripe is less with "liberal" and "conservative" than it is with unthinking adherence to principles in the names of these two theories.

For example is any and all governmental regulation of goods and services bad? There are some conservatives who would argue that that is the truth. On the other hand, I see enormous and widespread problems with rampant deregulation. I don't know that there is a party line that comes close to explaining it all and I would encourage all in the face of the problems we have now and those that are likely to be part of the consistently and ever sharply rising price of gasoline. I note for example that "inflation" rates must be grossly underestimated because two years ago before the sharp hike in fuel prices I can show evidence that my food bill was between 20 and 60% lower than it presently is. And yet policy experts would have me believe that I ma not living in a time of staggering inflation. I'm at a point where locally grown organic produce is cheaper than what I can get in the grocery store (this, in my opinion, is actually a good thing--but the point is to give some idea of the cost of things.)

I just don't know.



my food bill was between 20 and 60% lower

Inflation isn't monolithic; the exploding growth of the Orlando area would suggest more inflation that somewhere like Ohio, where I've experienced nothing like what you have. Food, also, is only a portion of the CPI.

But on the larger point of economics, it seems like a trade-off and we don't know what a given experiment will do until after we've done it. Welfare sounded great at the time and we've seen how ruinous it's been. Regulation sometimes works, sometimes doesn't, and it's hard to predict in advance. it seems a lot easier to add regulation and taxes and benefits than to get rid of it, which is part of the problem. Conservatives shy away from new experiments because, whether they work or not, they tend to get set in stone. (You'll recall the 'temporary phone tax' in 1898 that was or is still up & running.) The *safest* way to help the poor is via individual charity and conservatives give far more away to charity than liberals.



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on November 13, 2007 7:15 AM.

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