Thomas Sowell has a challenging editorial arguing that the left is invested in social failure:
The old advertising slogan, “Progress is our most important product,” has never applied to the left. Whether it is successful black schools in the United States or Third World countries where millions of people have been rising out of poverty in recent years, the left has shown little interest.
Progress in general seems to hold little interest for people who call themselves “progressives.” What arouses them are denunciations of social failures and accusations of wrong-doing.
One wonders what they would do in heaven.
There’s something to that argument. I certainly don’t think that progressives want to deliberately oppress people — that’s a crude stereotype. Rather, it’s more about the paving stones on the road to Hell. The “progressive” movement has the best of intentions, the problem is that the best intentions don’t translate into sound policy.
For example, in a perfect world, universal health care would be a reality. Abstracted from any concept of economics, it’s easy to argue that everyone should have the ability to get whatever health care they need whenever they need it without having to pay.
In a perfect world, I’d also like to be dating a fabulously wealthy supermodel with a Ph.D. who think I’m the greatest thing since sliced bread. Alas, we don’t live in a perfect world.
In our world, resources are finite and human needs are infinite. Exactly what constitutes a “decent” standard of living? By just about every measure, even the poor in this country live better than the fabulously wealthy did just a few decades ago. Technological progress has allowed people to live longer with a better quality of life than was physically possible just a few short years ago. Yet, the “progressive” movement still finds all manner of faults with today’s society.
And therein lies the problem.
There is no easily definable standard of what a “decent” standard of living is — it’s entirely subjective, and by nature a welfare state will always have to grow at rates that aren’t sustainable. It’s somewhat ironic that as the Democratic Party lurches leftward, following the “progressives,” the old bastion of state socialism in Europe is moving in a rightward direction. Both France and Germany elected leaders who promise the sort of reforms that would have once been unthinkable in those countries. As Europe faces extreme demographic pressure and the challenges of economic growth saddled by the weight of an unaffordable social “safety net,” reform isn’t an option, it’s a necessity.
Yet here in America, it seems like politics are moving in the other direction — towards the very same problems that Europe is facing.
The problem is that the left views the world through the lens of economic determinism. Hillary Clinton went out and said directly that poverty is not a social issue, but an economic one. The problem with that statement is that it simply isn’t true: the vast majority of poverty in this country is caused by behavior rather than economics. The key to significantly reducing poverty in this country is actually quite simple: make sure people stay in school, don’t have kids out of wedlock, and work full-time. The problem for the left is that government can only do so much to encourage people to do those things: they can’t force people to work, marry, and stay in school. The solution lies not with the state, but with communities, churches, and individuals.
The “progressive” movement keeps pushing the same old state-based solutions, all of which have already been tried. If state-based solutions were the answer, the Great Society programs of Lyndon B. Johnson would have significantly reduced poverty in America: instead both poverty and dependency increased.
It is precisely that dependency that makes “progressive” policies so potentially dangerous. The more one is dependent on the state, the more that dependency increases rather than decreases poverty. The real ticket to prosperity in this country is simple: hard work, family relationships, and spending wisely. Welfare undermines all of those things by replacing them with the government dole. The successes of the 1997 welfare reform program were in encouraging people to engage in the sort of personal behaviors that lead people out of poverty. The solution to poverty isn’t economic (although economics plays some role — the economy has to grow to keep poverty low), but largely social.
The reality is that the “progressive” movement isn’t really progressive. In many way, it’s the “progressives” who are the conservatives — they’re fighting to keep the society arrangements of the 1960s and 1970s in which there was strong state control over the economy, unions had massive amounts of political and economic power, and the leading minds viewed poverty as something that the government could fix.
However, we live in the 21st Century, and applying last century’s solutions to today’s problems is not the correct approach. What we need is a system that maximizes the ability of the individual to achieve economic and personal success free of government involvement while encouraging the behaviors that make that possible. That means strengthening America’s education system, further cementing the gains of the 1997 welfare reform plan, encouraging marriage, and ensuring that every American has a basic level of economic literacy.
So much of the “progressive” agenda takes us away from those goals. More taxes hurts the economy, and just as a rising tide lifts all boats, a sinking one strands the most vulnerable of our society. The sexual revolution has cheapened marriage, weakening the very mortar that holds our society together. Educational reform can’t happen if the government is unwilling to demand accountability, innovation, and choice — and that requires standing up to the teacher’s unions. The path out of poverty requires entrepreneurialism — which is much harder when small businesses must navigate through a complex maze of government regulations.
It’s time conservatives stopped playing defense on economic issues. We have the keys to significantly reducing poverty in this country. The values of the conservative movement are values which can lift people out of poverty. It’s said that the GOP represents the rich — well, it’s only natural that we would want more people to be rich. We can do that, but only if we’re willing to stand our ground and not take half measures that only further the problem.
The “progressive” movement won’t actually progress this country — quite the opposite. What we need now is not a defensive conservatism, but a full-throated defense of conservative values as the solution to poverty in America. That requires a leadership willing to deliver that message where it’s most needed: America’s inner cities.
We can reduce poverty in this country, and we can do it in a way that doesn’t make people more dependent, but more independent. That is the basis of the American Dream, and it is something worth defending. The only question is whether our political culture can produce the leaders willing to make it happen.