Alex’s post below makes the case that the Democrats claim to be the part of the middle class and poor while empowering the rich and powerful. I agree entirely. In fact, I don’t think it’s an accident that supposed wealth inequality has grown as government has swelled. When you make government big and powerful it is … surprise! … controlled by the big and powerful.
But there’s another point. The Democrats’ love of the rich and powerful doesn’t just empower their friends. It keeps the boot on the necks of the rest of us. A couple of week ago Arthur Brooks wrote a great article criticizing the Republicans for essentially abandoning the poor.
An April YouGov.com poll—which mirrored every other poll on the subject—found that only 33% of Americans said that Mitt Romney “cares about people like me.” Only 38% said he cared about the poor.
Conservatives rightly complain that this perception was inflamed by President Obama’s class-warfare campaign theme. But perception is political reality, and over the decades many Americans have become convinced that conservatives care only about the rich and powerful.
In his best-selling 2012 book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion,” Mr. Haidt demonstrated that citizens across the political spectrum place a great importance on taking care of those in need and avoiding harm to the weak. By contrast, moral values such as sexual purity and respect for authority—to which conservative politicians often give greater emphasis—resonate deeply with only a minority of the population. Raw money arguments, e.g., about the dire effects of the country’s growing entitlement spending, don’t register morally at all.
Conservatives are fighting a losing battle of moral arithmetic. They hand an argument with virtually 100% public support—care for the vulnerable—to progressives, and focus instead on materialistic concerns and minority moral viewpoints.
When Rob Portman announced his support for gay marriage because his son was gay, a number of wags said they wished some Republican had poor children so they might sympathize with the poor. I felt that was ridiculous. Conservatives oppose some public handouts. But they are, by far, more generous with their own time and money (and Romney, in particular, is extremely charitable with his time and money).
But the political point is somewhat valid. Sympathy for the poor — a religious value, incidentally — has been conspicuously absent in the GOP’s rhetoric. Maybe someone can correct me but I don’t remember the GOP talking at all about the poor in their 2012 campaign. They talked about debt and jobs, yes. But there was very little sympathy shown for those who the truly downtrodden.
Poverty is not just a matter of laziness and substance abuse. 84% of poor household have someone working, almost half of the young adult poor population has been to college and substance abuse problems are about as common as the middle class (although severe problems are more common among the poor). Poverty, even in America, is difficult to escape. For example, poor people don’t have the cash for security deposits on apartments so they go with ultimately more expensive day-to-day leases. They don’t have the credit to buy a new car so they ultimately spend more maintaining a junker. Employers don’t like to hire anyone who has been unemployed for a long time. Criminal convictions — even for non-violent offenses — can block many avenues out of poverty like certain lines of work and education. It’s not impossible to escape poverty through hard work and determination, obviously. But the climb is very steep. And the road is awfully slippery.
So by now you think that Brooks (and I) are going to go down the wealth redistribution path, right? Nope.
America’s poor people have been saddled with generations of disastrous progressive policy results, from welfare-induced dependency to failing schools that continue to trap millions of children.
Meanwhile, the record of free enterprise in improving the lives of the poor both here and abroad is spectacular. According to Columbia University economist Xavier Sala-i-Martin, the percentage of people in the world living on a dollar a day or less—a traditional poverty measure—has fallen by 80% since 1970. This is the greatest antipoverty achievement in world history. That achievement is not the result of philanthropy or foreign aid. It occurred because billions of souls have been able to pull themselves out of poverty thanks to global free trade, property rights, the rule of law and entrepreneurship.
I would also note that the much-demonized Walmart, thanks to the economy of scale, has cut the cost of essentials for poor and middle-class Americans, by some estimates, by as much as $250 billion a year.
The left talks a big game about helping the bottom half, but its policies are gradually ruining the economy, which will have catastrophic results once the safety net is no longer affordable. Labyrinthine regulations, punitive taxation and wage distortions destroy the ability to create private-sector jobs. Opportunities for Americans on the bottom to better their station in life are being erased.
Bingo. What’s the big policy push on the Left right now? Raising the minimum wage. There are a few studies that say raising the minimum wage does not increase unemployment. Most studies say it does and common sense and the Law of Supply and Demand indicate that it must. But the Left keeps pushing this. In fact, Lefty Patron Saint Elizabeth Warren touted a deeply problematic study to claim that the minimum wage really should be … are you sitting down for this? … $22 an hour. No, that’s not a typo.
(The study claims that this is what the minimum wage would be if it tracked increasing productivity. But the point of increasing productivity is that … we get more products for less labor.)
There’s more. NYC wants to extend rent control, which has decimated the supply of affordable housing. Medicaid — probably the worst insurance system in the country — is being expanded to cover more and more people. Democrat-controlled cities have turned the taxi business into a high-priced monopoly. Democrats try to keep Walmarts from being built and hiring people (including many people trying to straighten out their lives). They try to ban fast food joints — one of the few vices the poor can afford — based on the mythological “food deserts”. They demonize men like Clarence Thomas, who have managed to escape poverty and mock men like Mitt Romney, who donate immense of their personal fortune to those less fortunate. And urban renewal … don’t even get me started on that travesty which gutted inner city neighborhoods in favor of high-rise slums. And the worst may be yet to come: we are rapidly approaching the point where the combination of benefits and taxes will be so steep that people tying to rise out of poverty will face a 100% or greater effective marginal tax rate.
The Republican Party could be the party of the poor. They could point out what a fucking disaster progressivism has been for the poor and how a freer society could move people up. This goes hand-in-glove with what Alex said about how the Democratic policies favor rich powerful interests (and therefore crush the ambitions of the poor and middle class).
So why don’t they? Why doesn’t some Republican run out there and say, “Yes, we care about the poor. And unlike the Democrats, we’ll put in place policies that will actually help them!” The biggest drop in poverty in the last half century came because of the welfare reform the Republicans dragged Clinton kicking and screaming to. And they did it into the teeth of a fierce opposition which branded them as uncaring racists.
Addressing the issue of poverty and inequality does not make you a socialist. It’s what you do about it that matters. Socialism, progressivism, liberalism or whatever they’re calling it this week has done very little. Conservatism and liberty have done plenty. Why should we be ashamed to say so? And why should be ashamed to say this comes from a compassion for the downtrodden?