George Will has an excellent column on how liberalism treats the lower classes with paternalistic condescension, using the recent lefty attacks on Wal-Mart as an example:
Liberals think their campaign against Wal-Mart is a way of introducing the subject of class into America’s political argument, and they are more correct than they understand. Their campaign is liberalism as condescension. It is a philosophic repugnance toward markets because consumer sovereignty results in the masses making messes. Liberals, aghast, see the choices Americans make with their dollars and their ballots, and announce — yes, announce — that Americans are sorely in need of more supervision by … liberals.
Before they went on their bender of indignation about Wal-Mart (customers per week: 127 million), liberals had drummed McDonald’s (customers per week: 175 million) out of civilized society because it is making us fat, or something. So, what next? Which preferences of ordinary Americans will liberals, in their role as national scolds, next disapprove? Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet?
Will is right — the average reader of Mother Jones, The Utne Reader or the type who is part of the anti-Wal-Mart crowd tends to be lily-white, suburban, educated, and rich. Much of the liberal orthodoxy comes from a deep sense of noblesse oblige by those who have had the benefits of a well-to-do upbringing. The arguments about how the rich don’t really work for what they get always struck me as frequently examples of psychological projection — rich liberals projecting their own neuroses onto other members of their socioeconomic class. In the other hand, those who started in the lower economic classes and worked their way up tend more often than not to be Republicans. (And yes, all of these arguments are generalizations — but generalizations that are quite easily to observe.)
Liberalism argues for more control by the state to protect people from themselves — which is an inherently paternalistic and condescending line of argumentation. Hillary Clinton inadvertently spilled the beans when she talked of how the government must take things from you for the “common good”. Liberalism’s fatal flaw is that the “common good” is usually decided by people who are doing the taking — and that has never in history led to particularly beneficial results.
The whole Wal-Mart brouhaha isn’t really about Wal-Mart, it’s about who controls the destiny of the lower classes. Wal-Mart is hated because it’s successful, just as McDonalds, Chevrolet, and other major American companies have been targeted in the past. Their success portends the idea that people don’t need the paternalistic hand of government giving them everything. By the raw, hard numbers, Wal-Mart has done more for poor people than any government program ever has by reducing the cost of consumer goods to a level where everyone can afford them.
What we’re seeing in America right now is the unprecedented empowerment of the individual to control their lives. 20 years ago the idea that you could negotiate a travel package that would be the best deal possible would have been absurd — only a travel agent could do that for you, and only a fool would try to deal with the myriad little bureaucracies. Today, travel agencies have been supplanted by websites like Expedia, Travelocity, or Priceline. In just about every industry, the decision-making capability keeps getting pushed down to the individual level — and that’s a good thing. The whole crux of the situation is that you are better at making choices for yourself than someone making choices for you.
Liberalism goes against that societal trend, which is why liberalism has become more and more an ideology of opposition than a “progressive” force. What’s so “progressive” about saying that you can’t be trusted to choose your own retirement package rather than be forced into the one-size-fits-all system of Social Security? What’s so “progressive” about denying people the right to pick the right school for their children? What’s so “progressive” about denying people the right to pick the right health care system for them instead of being forced into yet another “universal” (read mandatory) government program?
The free market is supposed to be so detrimental to the poor, yet in the retail space Wal-Mart has given the less well-off unprecedented buying power by eliminating inefficiencies and lowering costs. The very same forces, if applied to things like health care, could make health care more affordable to the masses without sacrificing quality and without demanding that everyone be forced into one system of “managed” (read rationed) care.
Yet the doctrines of liberalism stand in the way of the empowerment of the individual. They prefer state-based solutions that by necessity reduce choice and individual autonomy. Apparently “choice” becomes paramount in how to eliminate one’s kids, but not when it comes to educating them. For all the talk of how liberalism is all about aiding the poor and the downtrodden, liberal policies have kept the poor and the downtrodden in their poor and downtrodden state. The battle over Wal-Mart is less about helping the poor than it is about helping the unions get a cut of the action. The fact that kicking Wal-Mart out would actively hurt the very people it’s supposed to help is irrelevant.
Will is right, liberalism and condescension go together hand in hand, and despite all the allusion of liberals towards helping the poor, ultimately liberalism is rife with the selfishness of noblesse oblige — for all too many it isn’t about helping the poor, but the outward appearance of liberal piety. An honest liberal will be in a soup kitchen, not at an anti-Wal-Mart rally.
UPDATE: Every so often, I hear something so massively stupid that I feel obligated to give it a public kick in the ass — and it also proves my point about liberal condescension as well.
You and Will want real capitalism? Let’s stop every single government payment to Wal-Mart. Let’s say that people who work at Wal-Mart are ineligible for public housing, health care or wage supplements. Let’s say that Wal-Mart has to pay for the damage it is causing to our society. That would be capitalism. What we have is corporate welfare and a government-sponsored monolith that is trending towards monopoly. What we do not have is a free-functioning market that you and your neocon buddies portend to love so dearly.
Let’s accept this hypothetic for a moment. Who gets hurt by saying that all Wal-Mart workers can no longer receive public services? It’s not Wal-Mart, except in a tangental way. Wal-Mart certainly has an interest in a workforce that isn’t malnourished and sick. However, the biggest losers are the people who work at Wal-Mart — people who are predominantly lower-class, predominantly minorities, and predominantly people who are either just entering or re-entering the workforce and need to build experience to get better jobs elsewhere.
Basically, Seth’s plan would destroy the lives of Wal-Mart workers. It would punish the very people that liberals are ostensibly supposed to protect. It would put those workers out of a job at the very least and leave them dead on the streets at the worst. And this is supposed to be from the side of compassion?
If a Republican proposed such a thing, they’d be instantly branded as heartless, cruel, and a racist. And that wouldn’t be a charge without merit.
Not to mention the issue of just who would make up for all those lost wages if Wal-Mart were to go belly up. Exactly how should Wal-Mart come up with the cash to give all their workers a “living wage” or full health coverage without going completely belly up? Even if all their CEOs gave up their money, that wouldn’t be enough to last more than a year — if even that. The left these days seems to have a kindergarten-level understanding of basic economics. It just isn’t possible for any corporation, even one as large as Wal-Mart to invent a way of pulling tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars out of their asses. Even if they could, they’d have to raise their prices through the roof to make up the shortfall — which would mean that the many low-income workers who have benefitted from the low prices that Wal-Mart has created would be out of luck.
Obviously this argument isn’t even remotely well-considered or thought out. Yet this is what passes for “thought” among the left these days. It isn’t about sane or rational public policies, it’s about playing to a silly little black-and-white worldview in which Wal-Mart is the big bad guy and the rich white liberals are the good guys and the workers are just pawns in the game.
And that doesn’t even go into the whole idiocy of the misuse of the term “neocon” and the typically overheated Manichean rhetoric of the left these days.
It’s this kind of completely slapdash, irrational, and prejudicial “thought” that constantly reminds me why I’m not a “liberal” — I like to think too much to qualify.
UPDATE: Mario Loyola points out an example of an intelligent argument against Wal-Mart.
My take on Wal-Mart is that in 30 years or so it probably won’t matter, since Wal-Mart’s dominance is as temporary as any retailers. One of the important aspect of a capitalistic system is that it is dynamic — for example, A&P was once far larger and more monopolistic than Wal-Mart ever was — and now they’re largely a footnote. Wal-Mart has roughly 5,000 stores nationwide — A&P had 16,000. That was in a country that was much smaller than America today. The argument that Wal-Mart is some evil behemoth that threatens everything that is good about America always struck me as deeply silly — and I’d imagine that to most voters it is.