What Works (2)
“I guess to make a broader point, so often in the past there’s been a sharp division between left and right, between capitalist and communist or socialist. And especially in the Americas, that’s been a big debate, right? Oh, you know, you’re a capitalist Yankee dog, and oh, you know, you’re some crazy communist that’s going to take away everybody’s property. And I mean, those are interesting intellectual arguments, but I think for your generation, you should be practical and just choose from what works. You don’t have to worry about whether it neatly fits into socialist theory or capitalist theory — you should just decide what works.”
President Barack Obama, Argentina Town Hall, March 29, 2016
I go back to this town hall meeting because it reveals the essential nature of the progressive movement. In his discussion, President Obama dismisses as irrelevant the philosophical and ideological bases for both capitalism and Marxism. The only criterion is “what works”. But how do you determine what it is that you want to work. Progressives, lacking principles on which to base their preferred policies, rely on doing what is fair. A $15 minimum wage is “fair”. A woman’s right to choose (i.e.; have an abortion) is “fair”. Mandating employers to provide healthcare for workers is “fair”.
There are two problems with this manner of policy making. The first is that the concept of fairness is not based on reason. It is very subjective. What is fair for one person may not be fair to another. A $15 minimum wage (defined by progressives as a living wage) may seem fair to an uneducated, unmotivated worker but may not seem fair to a fast food franchise owner who is hard pressed to get $15 in value out such workers for the hours they are being paid. An abortion may be “fair” for the woman but it is certainly not fair to the fetus. And why should employers be responsible for providing healthcare for employees? What started out as a benefit to attract good employees (like company cars and other “perqs”) has become an onerous government enforced burden.
The fact is that fairness is a poor standard to use for policy making. At its roots, fairness is not based on the reasoned thinking of adults, but on the subjective opinions of children. Any parent taking their child to the playground will be pelted with repeated requests of adult intervention to make the other children play fairly, or to share fairly, or any other of the plethora of childish requests for “fair” treatment. This is the same form of intervention that progressives are asking the government to make.
The second great problem that arises from the use of fairness as a standard for policy making is how opposing sides of a proposed “fair” policy initiative are characterized. If the proponents of a “fair” policy are good people motivated by good intentions, then opponents to the policy must be bad people motivated by bad intentions. You cannot have reasoned discussions of proposed policies if the presumption of one side is that the other side is acting in bad faith.
This becomes very apparent when you listen to progressives’ complaints about any contentious policy discussion. The other side is greedy, they hate women, they want their employees to die. This makes meaningful discussion impossible.
The beauty of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” guiding economic activity is that it does not depend on the motivations of the participants.
“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”
An outcomes based policy must rely on subjective fairness enforced by a superior power (whether Mom or the government). This is very different from the role of government envisioned by the Founders. To them, the role of government was to guarantee the equality of opportunity not of outcomes (outcomes would vary according to the individual). It is true that our government has not fulfilled this responsibility to the extent that it should. A poorly educated kid from a single parent household in a crime-infested neighborhood does not have an equal opportunity.
Progressives would have us throw out our principles and focus solely on the outcomes. What works, as President Obama stated in Argentina, a country devastated by this type of thinking. It is intellectually lazy to discard principles and to create subjectively “fair” outcomes through government fiat and then say you have created a better society. It is much more difficult to get at the root causes that create unequal opportunity. This can only be done by constantly rededicating ourselves to our founding principles to create this better society.
That no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles (emphasis mine).
Virginia Declaration of Rights, 1776