Saturday, December 01, 2012

Give an Example of Defeat

I expect that an objective observer of the last 40 years would come to the following conclusion: Conservative parties have won most of the battles in the U.S. and Europe on economic matters as is witnessed by their successes in lowering the tax rates of the wealthy, deregulating markets, and curbing unions. Though challenged by recent events, neoliberalism remains the dominate framework for policy on both sides of the Atlantic, which is why the Americans are arguing about the debt when their obvious problem is unemployment. The mass of conservatives don't feel like they're winning, however. What queers their triumph is that the victories on economic issues have been accompanied by a long string of defeats on social and cultural issues. The right lost on civil rights, lost on feminism, lost on abortion, lost on gay rights, and lost on many other issues. Moreover, while only a small fraction of the right actually benefited from the movement's economic triumphs, many more of them have experienced the cultural changes of the recent past as personal defeats.  

The outside observer might also suggest that conservative disappointment has another, deeper root: Conservative economic policies have unfavorable consequences for the bulk of the population, including the part of the population that is itself conservative. When measures that increase economic inequality and depress wages have their predictable effects, true believers conclude that the problem is that the economic policies put in place by Republican administrations aren't conservative enough or aren't conservative at all—hence the perception that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, the liberals are tremendously powerful, control the media, call the shots, etc. If only a real Conservative took power, not a crypto-leftist like Bush or a wimp like Romney! If only we had a true free market system!

What we have here, the observer might conclude, is an instance of recurring pattern among extreme groups left or right. The failure of a policy to make things better doesn't make the revolutionaries give up their theories. Instead, they try to apply them with greater stringency. Endlessly cutting taxes and government spending may not be as drastic as beheading more aristocrats or killing more kulaks or invading yet another country, but the same psychological mechanism is at work in all these escalations and the program is always self defeating. Eventually you invade Russia...

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Another Attempt to be Fair

Obviously a great many powerful people have an interest in preventing a rise in the tax rate for the very wealthy, but interest doesn't explain all the opposition. It’s important to recognize that much of the passion on the right reflects principled belief. Opposition to tax reform, indeed opposition to the very idea of a graduated income tax, follows inevitably from an absolutist view of property rights. By the lights of that way of thinking, taking 38% of income over $250,000 a year instead of 36% is just as bad as stealing somebody's horse. What makes the right wing even more strident about all this is the meta belief that the validity of their way of thinking is self evident so that anybody who disagrees is either feeble minded or evil—a whiff of John Calvin hangs in the air around many a conservative, especially the Southern ones.

The idea that property is a social construction, that what's mine is mine because the rest of you agree to recognize that it's mine, is worse than newfangled rubbish or recycled Marxism. For many conservatives, it's utterly alien, the ideology of Cthulhu. I think you can complain that the outlook of the right is both ahistorical and unrealistic—capitalism just doesn't work without some mechanism of redistribution—but it's neither fair nor useful to chalk up all the opposition to self-interest.  

By the way, if I’m right about all this, it follows that the Republicans we can do business with are most likely to be those for whom opposition to changing the tax code is simply an exercise of greed. You can reason with the insincere.