Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Addressing inequality from the right?

At least since the 2012 presidential campaign, when I periodically discussed the Romney candidacy, I have generally stayed away from partisan politics.  "A plague on both your houses" is my preferred stance, reflecting that I understand the imperatives of politics will lead people (even when of good faith) away from being able to consider consistently adopting analyses or policies based purely on their actual merits.

But my distress over the turn Republicans have often taken since 1994 (although I didn't really get distressed about it until about 2002) risks leading me into rants if I pay too close attention to daily politics, even though I am no more thrilled about the Democrats than, say, Bruce Bartlett is.  This not only strikes the wrong tone but can lead me astray.  I have been told, for example, that sitting here in New York (outside the Washington circle of debate, and also not knowing a whole lot of Republicans in NYC, as there aren't many) I have viewed the party as more monolithic than it actually is.  (Yes, I am aware of the Tea Party vs. the establishment, but if the establishment is Boehner, McConnell, and Ryan, that doesn't do much for me.)

It's of interest, therefore, to see the newfound discussion of inequality - both high-end and low-end, which I regard as distinct phenomena - among Republicans.  Now, when Romney or Ryan does it, I am inclined to dismiss it as just a cynical rhetorical ploy.  I assume that what Romney (like Ryan) wanted to do for the poor, had he graced us with a third presidential campaign, was simply to take away all their benefits, on the theory that this would force them to straighten up and fly right.  And I would assume that both of those individuals are not just unworried by, but fervent supporters of, rising plutocracy.

But then there's Senator Mike Lee.  I really don't know enough about him to comment knowledgeably.  And I note that he is identified with the Tea Party, which I'll admit to not regarding as a recommendation.  But I'm also aware that he recently proposed a tax reform plan that, while surely not perfect - for example, it lost a lot of revenue - offered lots more aid at the bottom and retained a 35 percent rate at the top.

And here are some quotes from Mike Lee, courtesy of a column in today's New York Times by Thomas Edsall:

"Today, the United States is beset by a crisis in inequality .... The underprivileged are trapped in poverty, sometimes for generations ....  At the top of our society, we find political and economic elites increasingly exempted and insulated by law from the rigors of competition and the consequences of their own mistakes."

Joe Stiglitz, I think, would agree.

Likewise, Edsall notes self-styled "reformicons" such as Reihan Salam, who has argued that "a well-designed safety net and high-quality public services are essential parts of making entrepreneurial capitalism work."

I am still extremely skeptical that a post-2016 Republican government (e.g., if they win the White House while keeping both branches of Congress) would follow policies outside of the Romney-Ryan playbook.  But then again, Hillary Clinton, according to Larry Summers, apparently believes that the most important thing, when addressing inequality, is to avoid embracing a "politics of envy."  When you start there, one can kind of guess where you are going to end up.

An interesting fact that became clear to me a couple of years ago, when I wrote an article on Henry Simons, is how free market viewpoints can be consistent with surprisingly egalitarian preferences - at least, when shorn of arrogant and anxious Ayn Randian chest-beating about Success and hatred of those who fail.  Simons, as I discuss in the piece, was a self-proclaimed libertarian and "extreme conservative" - and a close ally of Hayek - who endorsed "drastic progression" in income tax rates because (as I put it) he "viewed concentrated economic and political power as ugly and offensive, and... thought no group, profession, or class should be allowed too much superiority or sway in either realm."

Simons thus took a "horizontal, or even a leveling, vision of both economic and political power. He [did] not like plutocrats rising far above the peasants (even if the latter, as a formal legal matter, are entirely free), any more than he like[d] Washington bureaucrats telling private economic actors what to do."

I further asked: "Is this 'liberal' in the classical sense [and thus conservative in modern terms]? That depends on how one defines the tradition. In any event, however, emotionally no less than intellectually, it is certainly no Ayn Rand or Paul Ryan version of the laissez-faire creed. Simons does not yearn for a world in which the great are permitted to thrive, but for one in which the small do not have anyone too far above them, either politically or economically."

My aim here is not to discuss the merits of Simons' views, but simply to note the existence at one time of a self-styled libertarian, classical liberal, "extreme conservative" viewpoint that could very interestingly mix things up, both politically and ideologically, if it regained any purchase on the right.

1 comment:

Michael Livingston said...

I think the real division now is not left and right, but more or less establishment (Clinton, Bush, Romney) and more or less anti-establishment (Warren, Paul, and some of the people that you're talking about). One has to be careful here, because Republicans who take a position favoring redistribution of any kind will face powerful pressure to conform. But I think this is going to be more of a "change" than a "continuity" election, and whichever party can harness that sentiment has a good shot, regardless of previous labels