Jan 14 2023
By Richard Fulmer, Jan 14 2023
There is an ongoing battle today between conservatives who want to use government’s power to enforce morality and libertarians. The former believe that the nation’s moral decay is a product of classical liberal policies that allowed or even encouraged immorality. It is not. It is a product of a half century of expanding government policies dedicated to ameliorating pain.
My father-in-law worked with patients suffering from Hansen’s Disease – leprosy. One of the terrible symptoms of the disease is that people lose their sense of feeling. We tend to think of pain as an enemy, but, as my father-in-law observed, pain is “the best friend no one wants.” Imagine putting your hand on a hot stove and not realizing it until you smell your flesh burning. We need feedback mechanisms to keep us alive and in one piece.
Government can create a sort of moral leprosy by weakening or even destroying the feedback loops that make it possible for people to know when their actions are destructive or self-destructive. People learn by acting and then observing and bearing the consequences of their actions.
Government-based welfare also helped to de-moral-ize society by shifting the locus of charitable giving and work away from local communities and toward Washington.
Marvin Olasky’s, The Tragedy of American Compassion, documents the tens of thousands of lodges, charities, mutual aid societies, missions, civic associations, and fraternal organizations that existed across the country in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. These organizations helped pull people out of poverty by addressing individual causes – ignorance, addiction, or simply bad luck. Thanks to the power of the free market and organizations like these, the poverty rate plummeted from 80% of the population in 1800, to about 15% in the 1960s.
Unfortunately, the government stepped in with its “Great Society” programs and displaced private charitable organizations. After nearly 60 years of effort and trillions of dollars in spending, the poverty rate has dropped only a few more percentage points. The government is very good at writing checks, but while that helps to make the poor more comfortable in their poverty, it does little to address the unique issues that keep them in poverty. That takes compassion. Real compassion isn’t feeling pity for the less fortunate, it’s climbing into the foxhole with them and sharing and understanding their individual problems.
Central planning proponents often admit that free markets deliver the goods but argue that governments distribute them more fairly. They point to people who, because of age or disability, are incapable of producing anything. The government must control the economy, they claim, so that it can redistribute goods to these few.
But rewarding need yields more of it, adding those who will not produce to those who cannot. And taxing demonstrated ability yields less ability demonstrated. By taking from each according to his ability and giving to each according to his need, government produces more need. By contrast, under the free market, need does not pay, production does, so need declines and production grows.
The choice between government control and the free market is the choice between government coercively combating growing need amid growing poverty and individuals voluntarily combatting shrinking need amid growing wealth.
When they are allowed to work, free markets reward the “bourgeois values” of thrift, honesty, persistence, hard work, prudence, tolerance, and civility. At the same time, markets punish profligacy, dishonesty, sloth, and bigotry.
The solution is not to add more layers of government control – layers that can be used and misused by the next set of politicians elected to office – but to restore freedom.
Richard Fulmer worked as a mechanical engineer and a systems analyst in industry. He is now retired and does free-lance writing. He has published some fifty articles and book reviews in free market magazines and blogs. With Robert L. Bradley Jr., Richard wrote the book, Energy: The Master Resource.
This is a reasonable position concerning idiosyncratic misfortune. Private and individual charity can be better tailored to providing assistance in ways that prevent the recurrence of the need for the assistance. At the same time there are economies of scale in assisting with systematic need such as medical care, unemployment, and old age.
Government intervention in the healthcare market has led to a third-party payer system that creates perverse incentives for patients and healthcare providers. Reference: Overcharged: Why Americans Pay Too Much for Health Care.
Unemployment insurance is a form of forced savings that reduces people’s incentive to look for new jobs and their ability and incentive to save for possible periods of unemployment. Government job training programs have long been a bad joke.
Social Security is a financially unsustainable Ponzi scheme; by 2035, it’s estimated that there will be only 2.3 workers per beneficiary. Like unemployment insurance, Social Security reduces both the ability and the incentive to save. Reduced savings means reduced investment, which translates into less growth, less wealth, and more poverty.
Your example of private charity doesn’t address the conservative-libertarian contention.
Conservatives are for private charity and aren’t known to be fans of state-run welfare. You are confusing them with liberals.
The conservative-libertarian contention arises from the libertarian denial of moral authority of the community.
The conservative-libertarian contention arises from the libertarian denial of moral authority of the community.
No, it arises from the conservative inability to distinguish between community and government (a problem that conservatives share with progressives). The community is welcome to all the moral authority it can muster via religious organizations, shared values, etc and all that it can enforce by means of setting good examples on the one hand and expressing disapproval on the other. But conservatives want to enforce their ‘moral authority’ by state power. That is the problem.
A community (a political community, to be precise) is not merely a club of likeminded individuals.
To be more precise, the community is likeminded because it largely forms minds of the individuals comprising the community. But this general likemindedness is very different from likemindedness of a club.
Government is merely an executive of the community and thus moral authority of the community is enforced through the government. It could not be otherwise.
But this general likemindedness is very different from likemindedness of a club.
Government is merely an executive of the community and thus moral authority of the community is enforced through the government.
That sounds suspiciously like the progressive bromide of a few years ago that government is ‘merely’ another name for the things we all do together!
It could not be otherwise.
Of course it could be, and was, otherwise. All kinds of good bourgeois behaviors were formerly encouraged and enforced by example and social disapproval, not by law. Conservatives seem to want to bring in the heavy hand of government to make up for their failures to persuade.
My point isn’t that conservatives support the welfare state. My point is that social conservatives are incorrectly blaming classical liberals for de-moral-izing society. I’m placing the blame where it belongs: on the weakening of communities and of the free market system by, among other things, the creation of the welfare state.
I’m also predicting that social conservatives will only make the problem worse if they try to use government to enforce their vision of morality. That will serve only to strengthen government and further weaken communities and the private sector. Moreover, it will hand more power to Progressives when they regain control of Congress and the White House.
My point is that social conservatives are incorrectly blaming classical liberals for de-moral-izing society.
As a social conservative myself, it seems to me that we blame woke liberals for “de-moral-izing” society. We blame classical liberals for deindustrializing society.
In what sense has the United States “deindustrialized?” We’re manufacturing more goods than ever:
The so-called “China Shock” is estimated to have cost just over a half million manufacturing jobs between the years 2000 and 2007. There is more churn than that in American job markets every month.
If you’re worried that the number of service jobs will exceed the number in agriculture and manufacturing, that ship sailed back in the 1950s. Just as automation reduced the need for farm laborers, it has also reduced the need for factory workers.
For the last few years, there have been over a half million manufacturing jobs going begging. The problem isn’t that we’re shipping manufacturing jobs overseas, the problem is lack of skills, an unwillingness or inability to relocate to where the jobs are, and government payments that make unemployment more attractive than work.
As a social conservative myself, it seems to me that we … blame classical liberals for deindustrializing society.
When was society deindustrialized? US industrial production is at its all-time high right now.
Jim, take a look at your chart. Industrial production is up a grand total of 2.15% over 15 years. That’s equivalent to an average annual growth rate of 0.14%.
So industrial growth to an all-time high — at a net slow rate during the period including the Great Recession and the pandemic — is “deindustrialization”?
Jim, a 0.14% annual rate of increase for 15 years is not properly called “growth”. The standard term is “stagnation.”
In general, in economics, the question is never “What is?”, it’s “What could it otherwise be?”
From 1970 to 2000 just prior to the beginning of the China Shock (that was the brainchild of classical liberals — and so everything that happened subsequently is on them), the rate of growth for your industrial production index was 3%. Prior to that it was even higher.
Thus, if your index post 2000 had done as well as the 1970 to 2000 period, your index should be reading 175 in the year 2022 instead of 105.
You’ve made a classic “motte and bailey” argument, retreating from “the United States has been deindustrialized” to, “yes, manufacturing output increased, but it would have risen faster if it weren’t for classical liberal policies.”
But your evidence for even the “bailey” argument is very weak. The much-hyped “China Shock” accounted for the loss of about 0.55 million jobs over some seven years. But at least a million jobs are routinely lost every month in our dynamic economy. The China Shock is responsible for fewer than 6,600 of those million jobs. Moreover, as I pointed out earlier, there are currently some half-million manufacturing job openings in the country. Employment is available to nearly anyone who wants it.
There have been three economic downturns in this century: the bursting of the Dot-Com bubble, the bursting of the housing bubble, and COVID. The dips in manufacturing output coincide precisely with these downturns – none of which was the fault of classical liberal policies. In fact, classical liberals opposed the easy money policies that contributed to the first two busts, and they opposed the government-mandated lockdowns that contributed to the third.
As I see it everyone seeks to realize his personal vision of the Good or the moral, not merely social conservatives. How it could be otherwise?
Thing is you may not agree with their particular vision of the Good. Which is what politics is– conflict of different visions of what should be.
Considering the thought experiment of a welfare state without the social liberalism of 60s and after. Is the role of social liberalism in social decay to be entirely ignored?
The Right’s Unnecessary Civil War
There is an ongoing battle today between conservatives who want to use government’s power to enforce morality and libertarians.
Alas, I don’t see it. I wish it were so. Are there any regular libertarian commentators on Fox doing battle with Carlson and Hannity and the rest? (I don’t watch Fox so I don’t know.) Where is the libertarian army in this “civil war” based? It’s so small I’ve missed it.
It looks to me like during Trump Times libertarians have been plain wiped out of any right-side alliance, losing even the minor position they’d gained during the Reagan – Milton Friedman years. Paul Ryan was a Speaker of the House who understood libertarian ideas, and was purged by the Trumpistas. Who in power do the libertarians look forward to working with now? Ron DeSantis? Kevin McCarthy?
Anyhow, the interesting issue is not “conservatives are wrong” (duh), but why are conservatives so wrong as to be denigrating libertarians!? And also why are libertarians so inept at organizing any popular political support — to the point of being so thoroughly wiped out? (What’s happened to the Libertarian Party?)
Here’s a very short video of Jonathan Haidt at CATO describing the unique personality traits of libertarians — hear the libertarians laugh because they know it’s true!
“Libertarians and conservatives are a very odd couple indeed.”
Maybe this is a start to answering those questions. Libertarians, if you want to get into this civil war, it’s not enough to go around telling how everyone else is wrong — look to thyselves!
I’ll be rooting for you.
Conservatives are thoroughly infused with libertarian premises. That’s why they kept on losing the cultural wars. In other countries, the question why gay marriage has to do with your marriage is not raised. Conservatives were defeated by a strong libertarian faction which insisted that marriage should be privatised. And government should be kept out. But of course, marriage is not a private reality but a social one and the confusion in conservative ranks led to victory of the new concept of marriage.
We live in a heterogenous society and if we’re going to be able to “just get along,” we must, to the extent possible, leave space for people to live in accordance with their beliefs.
There’s no question that the Left has been the aggressor in the culture wars; rejecting any idea of coexisting with people who have differing views. For example, pro-choice advocates refused to just “taken the win” with Roe v. Wade, and, instead, tried to spike the football. They worked to promote abortion in public schools, force Catholic hospitals to perform elective abortions, force all doctors and nurses to perform elective abortions, and require all Americans to pay for abortions both at home and abroad.
Had they simply agreed to peacefully coexist, leaving room for people who believe that abortion is wrong to live in accordance with their beliefs, they would not have engendered such a strong reaction, and Roe would probably not have been overturned.
Recently, the Michigan Attorney General announced that there should be a “drag queen for every school,” leaving no room for parents who would rather not subject their children to such displays.
We saw the same sort of intolerance in the case of the Colorado baker. It’s not enough that Americans acquiesce to gay weddings, they must also be made to affirm, celebrate, and subsidize them.
But tolerance is a two-way street; the Right must also agree to coexist. Gay marriage is a done deal. Let it go.
In the UK, the poor laws of the early Victorian era are highly symbolic as the pinnacle of the era of laissez-faire that Thatcher according to her detractors looked back at sentimentally. Giving people the basic necessities should be linked to restrictions and checks not only on peoples ability to make a living, but on their moral character.
This strikes me as bizarre. Not only were the poor laws, as far as I know, the earliest example of anything approaching public welfare provisions (although it was the parishes, I think, that had the obligation to help); it should also not be a surprise that the constraints were politically necessary for the enfranchised minority to consent to such a radical step.
Meanwhile, despite her intents and infamous ideological bent (did she not slam the Road to Serfdom on the table and proclaimed that this is what we believe – a pamphlet written in the throes of war where capitalism was out and FDR admired Mussolini openly?), it is striking that Thatcher presided over increasing public expenditure (mostly legacy obligations of the Wilson era) and selling nationalised assets at firesale prices – the last thing Hayek would recommend.
So cutting expenditure is well-nigh impossible – where it has happened, it has typically come from the left in the aftermath of massive financial crises. In addition, US politics have shifted – the left stopped talking about class, embraced hawkishness, and flirts with big business; the right is struggling to find its bearings, is obsessed with sticking it to the left rather than proposing an alternative approach to, say, cutting GHG emissions; and has ousted leading members that stood for actual conservatism rather than Trump; but populism and big government is clearly winning out against the few liberals that remain.
This means that the discussion is not about big government anymore; it is not even about big government and morality; it is about which moral values should have primacy – and about framing the discussion so that the other side appears to reject those moral values altogether. To MAGA hat wearers, in Los Angeles so shunned that Larry David, in Curb Your Enthusiasm, used it to get out of unwanted lunch dates and aggressive bikers, the rejection of the left implies opposition to a thriving America; to the rejecters, the hat implies attachment to the thin end of the wedge that ends up in KKK and Nazis. Meanwhile, a point as simple as that America IS great at absorbing and integrating immigrants, in blatant contrast to supposedly social democratic Europe, appears lost on both sides. Or for that matter that the Constitution, so deified on the right, was written explicitly to minimise the power of the federal government. Or that if you ask people supporting Bidens massive spending plans if they trust the federal government to spend funds wisely, few say yes. Or question the inordinate power of the judiciary – and that rejecting the bizarre state of affairs where jurisprudence dictated politicised issues with trade offs, such as abortion, could be seen at least as much as an invitation to legislators to deal with the issue as a wholesale rejection of the right to choose (whether to abort; not whether to wear masks).
Meanwhile, Pew surveys show us pretty clearly that a majority would consent to sensible compromises, such as government funding of high-cost (as a percentage of income) health care only or the right to abortion in the first trimester and restrictions after that. Congress has become unable to come up with anything close to those solutions in favour of patently worse ones almost across the board.
To my mind, what saves America is competition among states and municipalities. Good ideas appear to spread when they are out of the purview of the federal government and identity politics. That might be why Switzerland, a country obsessed with delegating authority and duplicating public services as far down as possible (there is no federal authority for collecting taxes, license plates, and education), tops the Forums competitiveness rankings.
“did she not slam the Road to Serfdom on the table and proclaimed that this is what we believe – a pamphlet written in the throes of war…?”
She did not. Thatcher slammed Hayek’s “The Constitution of Liberty” on the table. The book was published in 1960.
Right. So not quite as dramatic as the readers digest version of Road to Serfdom, then. Still, what is telling is how little she managed to do that would be in line with the Constitution of Liberty. Tony Blair took up her reins, in many ways more Thatcherite than she herself was.
Thanks for mentioning The Tragedy of American Compassion! It’s great history. Christians in the 18th and 19th centuries feared giving too much to the poor for very good reasons. Then Christianity began to wane and people bought the socialist nonsense that we are born good and turn bad only because of oppression and property is the greatest oppressor.
National conservatism is very wrong that economic policies cause moral decline and the state can improve morality through legislation. They have bought into the socialist nonsense that people are born good.
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Jan 14 2023
There is an ongoing battle today between conservatives who want to use government’s power to enforce morality and libertarians. The former believe that the nation’s moral decay is a product of classical liberal policies that allowed or even encouraged immorality. It is not. It is a product of a half century of expa…
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