Sunday, February 22, 2004

The Liberal ethos of merit and equal opportunity

Two things got me thinking about the philosophical underpinnings of modern Liberalism. One was an article by my favorite economics professor, Paul Krugman. The other was a CalStuff comment discussion where the Angry Clam was left stuck, unable to compute the arguments I was presenting him much like a stereotypical robot after being shown an unsolvable logic puzzle. Liberalism is based on the idea that merit should be the prime reason for advancement in a society, not luck.

Unlike conservobots, who assume that government intervention is the only source of unfairness, liberals understand that inequities can come from multiple sources. And let me be clear, by inequities I do not mean unequal income. If a person works hard and wisely, that person deserves more money than a person who is lazy and foolish. By inequity, I mean forces that reward or punish people randomly. For example, an inheritance from your super rich parents (say, one worth more than $675,000) is not deserved money in any sense. Basically, giant outsized inheritances are randomly assigned to a number of children born each year without any meaningful competition.

The founding fathers understood the problems with unearned wealth whether it be inheritance or the naturally outsized political influence of money. They had escaped a land of aristocracy and class privilege to a comparative paradise of equal opportunity and merit. They aimed to keep it that way and so, among other things, they instituted estate taxes (first at the state level and later on the federal). This ingenious means of ensuring fairness was noted by no less than Alexis De Tocqueville in his book Democracy in America.

The founding fathers didn’t have to deal with corporations or wild income disparities. If they did, you can be sure that they would have tried to mitigate the unfairness through collective action. It’s that tradition that modern day liberals are carrying forth. Whereas one of the first actions undertaken by our Republican government was to remove the estate tax (which at the time only applied to inheritances larger than $675,000) liberals are looking for ways to make sure corporations pay their fair share. While conservative thugs go to poor neighborhoods to intimidate people into not voting, Liberals are advocating expanding suffrage to former felons who have paid their debt to society. While Republicans in congress spend our children’s money on political pork, Liberals like Bill Clinton are advocating making good on our national debt.

Conservobots like the Angry Clam don’t understand what all the fuss is about. What they get worked up about is some Mexican trying to make a better life for himself and his family. It never occurs to them that the very same concept of free trade that they say they believe tells us that an illegal washing their dishes is much less of a problem than a corporation using political influence to avoid paying its income taxes. But then, Conservobots aren’t like you or me. They can’t see what they aren’t programmed to see. Hell, they probably can’t even accept that Clinton’s economic boom was fuller and longer lasting than Reagan’s.

Update: posted the link to Krugman's essay I originally forgot.


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