Friday, January 7, 2011

Spirit Level Week: The Bourbon Left

It was famously said of the French Bourbon kings as they returned to France after the fall of Napoleon that they had learned nothing and forgotten nothing. It's tempting to say the same thing of our liberal friends.

Back to start: Equality Without Context

What did President Obama and the Reid/Pelosi Congress think they were doing? And what do Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, authors of The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger think they are doing, offering up the same-old same-old after a century of the centralized administrative welfare state?

The answer is that, in the absence of formal religious belief, our liberal friends collapse their moral and cultural beliefs into their politics. What began as a moral movement 150 years ago determined to do something about the horrible sufferings of the poor in the big industrial cities of Britain and the USA has developed into a broad established church. Slowly, over the years, the concern has changed.
Originally it was helping the poor, men and women that you could see suffering on the other side of the tracks in your home town. Then it became a more amorphous war on poverty--notice the abstract noun.

But now "poor" and "poverty" doesn't cut it. Not when "Overweight among the poor seems to be strongly associated with income inequality." You mean that the poorer someone is, the fatter?

Now the broad church of the educated ruling class wants to talk about "inequality." But the agenda is the same, and even the characters are the same, including the Rowntree trusts, that helped set up the agenda for the welfare state over a century ago.

When disaster strikes, it strikes harder in cities that lack a culture of trust. Thus, after Hurricane Katrina, Wilkinson and Pickett tell us, Governor Kathleen Blanco (D) warned looters that National Guard troops were locked and loaded. But 160 years ago Alexis de Tocqueville noted the "equality of conditions" in America; people trusted each other. And so it turns out, according to Wilkinson and Pickett, that opinion polls find that "most people can be trusted" in more equal societies. And that goes for the US. New Orleans is the most unequal city and has very little trust. North Dakota is equal and has high trust.

All things being equal, everyone wants a less unequal society. But the question is: how? The answer running through The Spirit Level is more of the same, more liberal top-down centralizing, social-science based programs. If you read through The Spirit Level there is no attempt at discussion about the effectiveness of the usual liberal nostrums. Anything that liberals like is good.

The one thing that Wilkinson and Pickett do not discuss is the possibility that it is welfare state policies that create inequality.

Back in the mid 19th century women like George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell were writing novels about life at the edge of poverty. The stock villain was the young man of good family who didn't have to make his way in the world, who had an income or an allowance from his parents, and couldn't think of anything better to do than run up debts and get working-class girls knocked up. In Middlemarch the great sub-plot grinding away off-stage from the lovely Dorothea and the awful Casaubon is the moral drama of Fred Vincy, wastrel son of the mayor and manufacturer Mr. Vincy. But Fred cannot get the sensible, practical Mary Garth to marry him until he gets his life together and gets a job. What a concept.

Of course, in the lives of the educated ruling class, this sort of culture is taken for granted. Nobody respects someone without a career. Today nobody respects a woman without a career.

But liberals keep insisting that these rules don't apply to the lower orders. We've got to treat the excluded and the deprived like 19th century cads, bailing them out of their messes, paying their debts, and excusing their debaucheries. They're depraved on account they're deprived, Officer Krupke.

The lesson of the mid-century moralists was that people needed to live in a moral community in which they really depended and relied upon the good conduct and the good will of their neighbors. Why won't our liberal friends extend the same respect to their political clients instead of treating them like moral imbeciles?

No they won't, because after a century of the welfare state they have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

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