Bereft Of Any New Policy Ideas Since Vietnam, America's Liberal Left Is Intellectually BankruptCommentary by John C Goodman
July 02, 2013
If you were offered 50 percent more income than you now earn, would you be willing to go work in a coal mine? Would you give up 15 IQ points for 50 percent more income? Would you give up 10 years of life expectancy?
If you are willing to accept these offers, then money is probably the most important thing in your life. At least it ranks very near the top. For most of us, money is nowhere near the most important thing, however.
Why do we need to reflect on this? Because the topic du jour on the left these days is inequality. By inequality they mean inequality of income. And they want government to do something about it.
Yet, as I wrote recently, people seem to care a lot more about physical and mental health, living longer, social status and a host of other things than they care about money. And for the most part, money can’t buy the things that people care most about.
So why are intellectuals on the left so obsessed with money inequality instead of the inequality of life’s blessings that people value much more? Certainly in their own lives they don’t act as though money is the most important value. They’re all writers and professors when they could have earned a lot more by getting a law degree or an MBA.
I believe the answer is that they are reactionaries. They’re living in the past.
When Karl Marx was writing about inequality 150 years ago, most people were struggling to meet basic needs. To obtain life’s necessities, you needed money. So it was only natural that money income and wealth were the focus of Marx’s attention. Not surprisingly, redistribution of income was the primary goal of 19th century socialists.
Today things are different. Nature produces all kinds of inequalities that seem a lot more unfair than differences in income. Women for example, live as much as ten years longer than men. Some people are born with genius IQs; others are not as lucky. Some are born with the Huntington’s disease gene; others are not.
If the left wants to redress life’s unfairness, why don’t they advocate redistribution from women to men, from people with healthy genes to unhealthy genes, from high to low IQs? And if Tom Wolfe is right, just about everybody cares about status more than income. Social status is distributed far more unequally than income. So why isn’t the left advocating redistribution from high status to low status individuals?
Why, in other words, are they focused on a 19th century socialist view of the world instead of a 21st century view?
I have believed for some time that the left is intellectually bankrupt. I can’t think of a single new idea from the left of the political spectrum since the end of the Vietnam War. Just about all the national debates since then have been over proposals that have come from the right. Try watching left-wing talk shows on television. I believe you will find that they spend almost all their time talking about people on the right and their ideas.
In education, we’re arguing about charter schools and vouchers. To reform the tax system, it’s the flat tax. For Social Security, it’s private retirement accounts. For Medicare and Medicaid, it’s private health insurance. For welfare, it’s tough love. To promote economic growth, lower taxes on capital. All these ideas come from the political right.
Even programs that you may not even think of as conservative have come from the right. The earned income tax credit (EITC), for example, is Milton Friedman’s negative income tax. It’s the right’s alternative to the welfare state. The common currency of the European Union was the brainchild of the Wall Street Journal’s favorite economist: Robert Mundell. Both Hillary Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s health reform plans were based on the model of managed competition ― which relies on artificial markets, not government, to allocate health care resources. Although I’m not a fan of this approach, the idea came from Stanford University professor Alain Enthoven and was promoted by the Heritage Foundation ― both strong critics of the British National Health Service and the Canadian health care system.
Here’s the brutal truth. The left has no idea what to do about our failing public schools. It has no solution to the problem of entitlement spending. It has no earthly idea what to do about all the problems in our health care system. There is no coherent proposal on the left to reform the tax system. I think it is no exaggeration to say that the left has no ideas. Period.
In some ways this is understandable. The 20th century was one long experiment in left-wing ideas. By “left-wing” I am including the national socialism of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. I am also including early 20th century progressivism, including the desire to re-make public education and purify the gene pool. I am also including everything on the “left” that the left refers to as “left.”
So what was the result of all that? Failure. The left all over the world was wrong about everything. They were wrong about communism. They were wrong about socialism. They were wrong about progressivism. They were wrong about the welfare state.
Throughout the entire 20th century, what did the left consider its intellectual rival? Classical liberalism. That was the political philosophy of our founding fathers. It was classical liberalism that eliminated slavery from the civilized world, gave us women’s suffrage, and extended economic and political freedom to people all over the globe.
The contrast between these two worldviews could not be more stark. The classical liberals believed the state should be the servant of free men. The 20th century left believed that men should serve the state. The results are in. The 20th century was the century of economic instability, depression and war. The 19th century was the century of price stability, economic growth and relative international peace. The 20th century was the century of dictatorship and genocide on an unimaginable scale ― with 125 million people killed by their own governments! The 19th century was a century of liberation and increasing personal freedom.
By the last quarter of the 20th century, people all over the world realized that a huge mistake had been made. Communism was dismantled almost everywhere. Countries began instituting the flat tax, private social security accounts and even school vouchers. They began privatizing, deregulating and freeing up markets.
There are still some intellectual holdouts, however. Inevitably, they are reactionaries ― seeking a return to the failed policies of the past.
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman writes longingly about the post-World War II years when the highest marginal tax rate was 91 percent, when far more workers were in labor unions and when government regulation was pervasive. (Did you know that in those years the government would not allow a bank to pay you interest on your checking account balance, dictated what interest rate they could pay on your savings account and prohibited the average citizen from even buying a Treasury bill?) Krugman also pines wistfully about the Roosevelt years, when the federal government tried to immitate Italian fascism by forcing every industry and trade to form cartels and set prices and output in virtually every market ― just like the medieval guilds.
Sorry, this is not serious thinking in anyone’s book.