Conservatives often criticize progressives for seeking government solutions to individual problems. Their alternative is usually corporate solutions. The difference is who gets to vote. (More)

Talking Values, Part III – We the People (Non-Cynical Saturday)

After three weeks reviewing books on economics, this week Morning Feature shifted focus to moral values. Thursday we discussed why moral values are the core of political dialogue, and look at the moral value We’re All Here, Together. Yesterday we talked about Do Unto Others. Today we conclude with We the People.

The myth of individualism

President Herbert Hoover is credited with coining the phrase “rugged individualism.” In that speech, he offers an argument that still rings in the Tea Party and other conservative voices:

When the Federal Government undertakes a business, the state governments are at once deprived of control and taxation of that business; when the state government undertakes a business it at once deprived the municipalities of taxation and control of that business. Business requires centralization; self government requires decentralization. Our government to succeed in business must become in effect a despotism. There is thus at once an insidious destruction of self government.
The effect upon our economic progress would be even worse. Business progressiveness is dependent on competition. New methods and new ideas are the outgrowth of the spirit of adventure of individual initiative and of individual enterprise. Without adventure there is no progress. No government administration can rightly speculate and take risks with taxpayers’ money. But even more important than this – leadership in business must be through the sheer rise of ability and character. That rise can take place only in the free atmosphere of competition. Competition is closed by bureaucracy. Certainly political choice is a feeble basis for choice of leaders to conduct a business.

In Arnold Kling’s “standard question for liberals/progressives,” we find the same core argument:

A commenter suggested to me that Charles Sable does not fit my stereotype of liberals believing that government is the magic solution for human imperfection. But I picked out his paper on health care, and I found exactly that. He says that health care providers need to be able to improve by learning from and correcting mistakes. He then proceeds to offer legislation to force that.

My question for Sable is this:

If you know a better way to run health care organizations, why don’t you start a health care organization?

I would ask this question generically. If a liberal/progressive proposal is supposed to do X, why don’t you start a private entity to do X?

Neither Hoover nor Kling really argues for “rugged individualism.” Neither really opposes collective effort to solve individual problems. They, and other conservatives, simply insist that collective effort should happen through a “private entity.” This, they insist, preserves “freedom.”

Freedom for whom?

Russell Kirk, widely cited as the founder of the modern conservative movement, offered six canons of conservatism:

  • A divine intent, as well as personal conscience, rules society;
  • Traditional life is filled with variety and mystery while most radical systems are characterized by a narrowing uniformity;
  • Civilized society requires orders and classes;
  • Property and freedom are inseparably connected;
  • Man must control his will and his appetite, knowing that he is governed more by emotion than by reason; and
  • Society must alter slowly.

Add those six together with the argument offered by President Hoover and Kling, and the sum is a defense of “freedom” for a wealthy few. While President Hoover insisted business leaders are selected through the “sheer rise of ability and character,” that defies reasoned analysis. While there are fewer inherited business empires than there were a century ago, there are even fewer true “rags to riches” stories in American business. Most business leaders were born into at least upper-middle-class families. Indeed the most obvious rebuttal to Kling’s question is simply: “I can’t afford to start a private entity to do X.”

Conservatism has no problem with that, and indeed celebrates it. An individual’s lack of resources may be due to “divine intent,” or simply part of the “variety and mystery” of “traditional life,” but no matter. “Civilized society requires orders and classes.” The individual with few resources clearly belongs in a lower class. They should live frugally – and those who cannot afford even that frugally helped by voluntary charity – as “Man must control his will and his appetite.” That Humans are not Econs and predictably fail to make optimal choices is no excuse to impose a “radical … narrowing uniformity.” After all, “Property and freedom are inseparably connected.”

In other words, those with more property are entitled to more freedom: the freedom to start a “private entity” to collectively solve individual problems, the freedom to buy into such a “private entity” … and the freedom to vote on how that “private entity” operates, in proportion to one’s property interest in it.

In the conservative lifeboat – if conservatives accept that metaphor at all – those who catch the most fish are smarter and more diligent or, if that cannot be shown, favored by “divine intent.” They have a natural right to eat what they catch, except what they choose to share. Any voting on the distribution of fish – and the distribution of fishing tools – should be limited to those who catch fish, in proportion to how much fish each catches. That, they insist, is “freedom.”

We the People

The progressive movement was born in the manifest failures of that conservatism. The Gilded Age saw those lucky enough to catch the first industrial fish leverage that into ever increasing concentration of fishing tools. Those lucky few were indeed “free” from most of the miseries that plagued the rest in the lifeboat. And the rest of the people in the lifeboat noticed. They demanded better rules for the distribution of fish and fishing tools, and a voice in the making of those rules.

Simply, the progressive movement took seriously the first three words of the Constitution: “We the People.”

We the People are all here, together, on this pale blue dot. The Earth is our lifeboat, our home and not our trash can. Progressives know it’s immoral to throw people over the side. Each person in the lifeboat matters …

… even people who ‘make mistakes.’ I put that in scare-quotes because most of the ‘mistakes’ conservatives cite to blame the poor for their poverty are merely predictable human behaviors. The wealthy and privileged make those same ‘mistakes.’ Indeed many of those ‘mistakes’ – such as positional spending cascades – start with the wealthy and filter down to the rest of us. But the wealthy can better afford the consequences of their ‘mistakes,’ or have the clout to dump those consequences on the rest of us.

Progressives accept that people make mistakes, and that we can collectively decide to buffer ourselves from individual human frailties. But unlike President Hoover and Arnold Kling, we do not believe “private entities” are the only legitimate means to act together. The Constitution does not begin “We the Private Entities,” even if some current Supreme Court justices wish it did.

The Constitution begins “We the People.”

“We the People” does not mean only those who can afford to buy stock in America Inc. “We the People” means everyone in our lifeboat gets to vote about how we distribute the fish, and the fishing tools.

That is “freedom” … for everyone.


Happy Saturday!