by Jay Johansen | Jun 7, 2009
Liberals and conservatives have many disagreements on economic issues. They disagree about the proper role of government in the economy, about how to fight poverty, about the relationship between protecting the environment and protecting jobs, etc, etc. Are all these disagreements a mass of unrelated issues where one set of positions have just coincidentally been grouped under the heading "conservative" and another under "liberal", or is there a fundamental thread running through them? Or to put it another way, why are there so few people who take a traditionally conservative position on, say, environmental questions while at the same time taking a traditionally liberal position on poverty? Is there some Unified Field Theory, a single theory that will tie together many different phenomenon under one, fundamentally simple explanation.
Here's my unifying theory. Maybe this idea is common knowledge to many people, and I just never heard it expressed in a way that was clear to me. Or maybe it will quickly fall apart under serious analysis. But here goes.
I theorize that the fundamental difference between liberal economics and conservative economics is this: Conservatives believe that wealth is created through human effort. Liberals believe that wealth exists in nature, independent of human activity.
People in both groups will usually concede that there is an element of truth to the other side's view, but that the truly important, generally relevant factor is one or the other.
For example, a liberal will point out that the total amount of gold in the world is essentially fixed. People cannot create more gold. (Other than through complex nuclear reactions that all would agree are far too expensive to be anything other than laboratory curiosities.) The conservative will concede that we cannot create more gold. But, he replies, finding where the gold is buried, digging it out, refinining it, and then turning this gold into useful products, from jewelry to electronics, all require human effort.
Likewise, the conservative will point out that most of the things we think of as wealth must be built by humans. A house doesn't just grow naturally out of the ground: an architect must design it and builders must construct it. The liberal will concede that this is true, but he replies that the wood to build it does grow on trees, and the land it is built on is fixed.
These different perspectives lead to radically different interpretations of economic issues, and equally radically different visions of what makes a good, fair, and just society.
Just for starters: As the liberal believes that wealth simply exists in nature, it logically follows that all people have an equal claim to this wealth. As the conservative believes that wealth is created by human effort, it logically follows that each person is entitled to own the wealth that he produces.
To the liberal, if someone is poor, it must be because others have taken more than their fair share of wealth. Someone must have used force or trickery to take this person's wealth away from him. Poverty is inevitably the result of greed and oppression.
To the conservative, it's more complicated. He sees several different reasons why a person might be poor. One, it may be because someone else is preventing him from creating wealth or being able to enjoy the wealth he has created. The person may be a slave, or he may be oppressed by a tyrannical government, or he may be victimized in some other way using violence or deceit. If that's the case, then the conservative believes that the solution is to free this person from oppression so that he can produce and enjoy wealth. Two, someone may be poor because he does not know how to produce wealth. In that case he requires education -- perhaps specific vocational education, like learning to be a plumber or a technician or whatever -- or perhaps more general lifestyle education, like how to get a job and manage money. Three, the conservative believes that many people are poor because they are lazy and irresponsible, and so they simply choose to not produce wealth. In that case, it is good to find ways to encourage the person to be more productive, but ultimately their poverty is their own fault.
The liberal angrily rejects ideas two and three as "blaming the victim". Saying that someone is poor because he is lazy is literally adding insult to injury: Not only did the rich oppressors steal his money, but now they accuse the helpless victim of all sorts of moral flaws. And such thinking interferes with serious efforts to correct injustice. The poor man cannot escape his poverty by working harder, because work does not produce wealth.
Another big issue today is energy. The United States often talks about finding a way to achieve "energy independence", not relying on foreign imports to produce our energy.
To the liberal, the total amount of oil and similar resources in the world is finite, so the best we can possibly do is delay doomsday by reducing energy consumption. If people will not do this voluntarily, the only solution is for the government to step in and force people to consume less, perhaps by imposing steep taxes on energy, or by mandating that cars be more fuel-efficient. Everyone will have to sacrifice and accept a lower standard of living in order to avoid a disaster.
To the conservative, energy is produced by human work and ingenuity. So sure, if we continue to consume oil, eventually we will run out. But if you just let them, people will continue to discover new oil reserves, and eventually alternative energy sources. The solution is not to impose conservation, but to remove the restraints on production and innovation.
To the liberal, if one person has more wealth than another, that is because he is taking more than his fair share. Therefore a just society should find ways to transfer wealth from the rich to the poor, for example, by imposing high taxes on the rich and providing tax-paid benefits to the poor.
To the conservative, if one person has more wealth than another it is usually because he has worked for it and earned it. Therefore, using taxes to transfer wealth is unjust.
Furthermore, the conservative argues that high taxes ultimately hurt everyone, the poor as well as the rich. High taxes discourage people from producing wealth by depriving them of the benefits of their labor. If there is no reward for hard work, why bother? Thus the total amount of wealth in society is less, and inevitably all suffer. If the rich man concludes that it is not worth his trouble to build a new factory because the government will confiscate most of the profits anyway, the people who could have gotten jobs working in that factory lose out.
The liberal dismisses this supposed problem because it is based on what he believes to be a false premise: That wealth is produced by human efforts. To the liberal, the total amount of wealth in society is fixed, regardless of the tax rate. The only question is who gets to enjoy it.
Etc. We could go through many issues like this.
© 2009 by Jay Johansen
Sasquatch May 23, 2014
I consider Liberals and Conservatives flip sides of the same fascist coin. Both groups think the world would be just peachy if everybody else would just shut up and do as they're told. Politics is a blatant violation of the lone rule of human ethics; live and let live.