Sunday, November 13, 2011

Right Blindness

Tyler Cowen is a very erudite fellow who manages to twist himself into a very distorted picture of reality. His NYT column is worth reading, mainly as a case in point.

Nonetheless, as someone from a conservative and libertarian background, I find that I am hearing too much talk about riches and not enough about values. It’s worth recalling why so many Americans have respected the wealthy in the first place.

In nearly every age and every place the wealthy have attracted envy and all the other marks of respect, through fear and intimidation if not otherwise. Their control of culture tends to make them the heroes of their own stories. There is nothing uniqely American about this.

The United States has always had a culture with a high regard for those able to rise from poverty to riches. It has had a strong work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit and has attracted ambitious immigrants, many of whom were drawn here by the possibility of acquiring wealth. Furthermore, the best approach for fighting poverty is often precisely not to make fighting poverty the highest priority. Instead, it’s better to stress achievement and the pursuit of excellence, like a hero from an Ayn Rand novel. These are still at least the ideals of many conservatives and libertarians.

The hero must triumph over adversity, and those who rise to riches by ingenuity or criminality attract a lot of press. Mostly, though, ages of oligarchy are strongly resistant to the newly rich, and the US has often been unexceptional in this regard. I did upchuck a bit on the penultimate sentence, of course.

...the traditional, pro-wealth cultural vision has a great appeal for me...
The first problem is that higher status for the wealthy can easily lead to crony capitalism. In public discourse social status judgments are often crude. Critical differences are lost, like the distinction between earning money through production for consumers, as Apple has done, and earning money through the manipulation of government, which heavily subsidized agribusinesses have done.

Acquisition of great wealth is nearly always heavily abetted by governments. Apple's version is certainly less egregious than that of many, but a glance at the patent wars they have raged shows the hand of government is omnipresent.

The annoying thing about Tyler is that I can't dismiss him as an idiot - he does see big chunks of reality.

The second problem is that many conservatives have become so attached to their cultural vision that they have ceded sound, technocratic reasoning to the left and center. For instance there is a common willingness among conservatives to defend the Bush tax cuts, even though the evidence does not show much of an economic payoff.

But then he wanders into fantasy land:

The counterintuitive tragedy is this: modern conservative thought is relying increasingly on social engineering through economic policy, by hoping that a weaker social welfare state will somehow promote individual responsibility. Maybe it won’t. ..
Nonetheless, higher income inequality will increase the appeal of traditional mores — of discipline and hard work — because they bolster one’s chances of advancing economically. That means more people and especially more parents will yearn for a tough, pro-discipline and pro-wealth cultural revolution. And so they should.

It remains to be seen how many of us are up to its demands.

The obliviousness to history is staggering.