Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Blaming Liberals for Inequality

George Packer has an essay in the New Yorker wondering why all the social progress of the past 40 years had not led to greater economic equality:
We usually think of greater inclusiveness as a blow struck for equality. But in our time, the stories of greater social equality and economic inequality are unrelated. The fortunes of middle-class Americans have declined while prospects for many women and minorities have risen. There’s no reason why they couldn’t have improved together—this is what appeared to be happening in the late nineteen-sixties and early seventies. Since then, many women and minorities have done better than in any previous generations, but many others in both groups have seen their lives and communities squeezed by the economic contractions of the past generation. Like almost everything else, the new inclusiveness divides the country into winners and losers. It’s been good for those with the education, talent, and luck to benefit from it; for others—in urban cores like Youngstown, Ohio; rural backwaters like Rockingham County, North Carolina; and the exurban slums outside Tampa—inclusiveness remains mostly theoretical. It gives an idea of equality, which makes the reality of inequality even more painful.
Samuel Goldman thinks this is "historically and politically obtuse." To him, one of the main explanations for the rise in inequality is the shift in the left's focus from the economic empowerment of the working man, mainly through the union movement, to the rights of women, minorities, and gays:
The transformation of equality from an economic ideal to a social principle is important for understanding what’s wrong with Packer’s second claim. In our time, the stories of greater social equality and economic inequality are far from “unrelated”. Rather, social inclusion has been used to legitimize economic inequality by means of familiar arguments about meritocracy. According to this view, it’s fine that the road from Harvard Yard to Wall Street is paved with gold, so long a few representatives of every religion, color, and sexual permutation manage to complete the journey. Superficial diversity at the top thus provides an moral alibi for the gap between the one percent and the rest. Did it have to be this way? Packer suggests that it does not, noting that social and economic equality progressed together for a while before diverging in the ’70s. But that divergence was not simply an accident. Rather, it was a predictable result of the takeover of Democratic Party by the New Left, which was far more interested in sexual and cultural revolution than in representing unfashionably conservative workers.
This shift on the left drove socially conservative working men out of the Democratic Party, created the "Reagan Democrats," and catapulted economic conservatives into power, where they set about attacking the welfare state and the unions.

This is hardly an original idea -- What's Wrong with Kansas? comes to mind -- and I think there is something to it. The shift of the Democratic Party toward feminism, environmentalism, affirmative action, and now gay rights has alienated many culturally conservative working class people. To the extent that this choice had to be made, I think the Democrats made the right one. Institutionalized racism was a crime that had to be ended. I am not happy with the way feminism has played out, but ending the legal restrictions on what women can do was equally important. Somebody had to stand up against the poisoning of the planet.

But while I do think the choice of the Democratic Party to fight for women's and minority rights rather than unions played a part here, it was far from the only thing happening. Manufacturing employment in the US has collapsed because of technological changes that have nothing to do with government policy. It just takes fewer workers to make a car or a ton of steel. Part of the background to Reagan's victory was the Rust Belt decay of the 70s, the spread of boarded-up factories and abandoned mills, and the sense of decline bred by those images. Globalization has been fed by new technologies, too, from containerized shipping to the internet.

And what about straightforward resistance to the changes the Democrats promoted? Patriarchy was a good deal for men, so of course some of them resist dismantling it. Segregation benefited white people, especially poor white people. Since 1960 the power of white men has decreased a great deal; of course this has driven some toward conservatism. So I think it is cheap to blame liberals for inequality, as if there was some other course they could realistically have pursued that would have led us down a different path. Conservatives didn't have to fight against women's rights, or use their new power to attack workers.

The question I wonder about is the connection between the "do your own thing" individualism of the 60s and the "every man for himself" libertarianism of our time. Goldman thinks this is obvious, and that hippie rebels slid easily into being selfish corporate titans. There certainly are people who did exactly this. But "do your own thing" was only one strand of the counterculture, which also included strong communitarian and anti-materialistic tendencies.

Did the attack on the patriarchal family and other traditional structures have to lead to libertarianism and inequality? Rod Dreher thinks so:
Many of us, both liberals and conservatives, pine for the relative economic equality of the postwar era, but very few of us — not even among us conservatives — would be willing to accept the trade-offs in personal liberty that the era demanded. As Goldman indicates, a lot of the New Deal economic stuff depended on a culture that was far more unified than we are today.
Is is true that only a strongly unified, culturally homogenous society will support a generous welfare state? Will only companies where the executives all wear identical suits and belong to the same country club invest in their communities? That was the model of the 1950s -- can we have the good parts without the bad? David Brooks has been obsessed with this question for years, and he is very pessimistic:
So the story I’d like to tell is this: Over the past half-century, society has become more individualistic. As it has become more individualistic, it has also become less morally aware, because social and moral fabrics are inextricably linked. The atomization and demoralization of society have led to certain forms of social breakdown, which government has tried to address, sometimes successfully and often impotently.

Conservatives sometimes argue that if we could just reduce government to the size it was back in, say, the 1950s, then America would be vibrant and free again. But the underlying sociology and moral culture is just not there anymore. Government could be smaller when the social fabric was more tightly knit, but small government will have different and more cataclysmic effects today when it is not.

Liberals sometimes argue that our main problems come from the top: a self-dealing elite, the oligarchic bankers. But the evidence suggests that individualism and demoralization are pervasive up and down society, and may be even more pervasive at the bottom. Liberals also sometimes talk as if our problems are fundamentally economic, and can be addressed politically, through redistribution. But maybe the root of the problem is also cultural. The social and moral trends swamp the proposed redistributive remedies.
Will only people bound together by strong social structures support each other? Can we do our own thing while still caring how our neighbors are doing?

Can we have freedom and equality, or do we have to choose between them?

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