Monday, January 25, 2010

Philosophical Foundation of Progressive & Conservative Thought (part I)

A friend of mine routinely e-mails me replies to my posts that presents me with thoughtful counterpoints to my positions. He puts forth some good examples of where state intervention proved to be beneficial on a domestic and international level. What surprises both of us is that given my generally libertarian positions, I agree with most of his points, particularly towards the merits of well thought out government intervention to improve the quality of water and air.

After putting much thought into it, I realized that I am not inherently opposed to progressive end points (position and policies), but rather their starting point (their philosophical foundation). This may seem like an academic argument, but it has very real social, political and economic repercussions on lives of Americans. More importantly, it determines the future trajectory of American life.

Government regulation of industry undoubtedly improved working conditions and the safety of many products, so I do acknowledge there are some instances in which limiting choices available to businesses, workers and consumers are necessary. However, the starting point, the default setting needs to be maximum liberty for individuals and enterprises, which means that the burden of proof must fall on those who seek to limit social & economic liberty, not on those who seek to defend it. Unfortunately, we have experienced a near total philosophical reversal. Rather than believe that individuals should be free to pursue their personal and productive endeavors unless compelling evidence is presented that they harm the public, most Americans implicitly believe that no endeavor can be pursued without the state first granting permission, imposing regulations and imposing substantial taxation.

Take the issue of professional licenses. We can have the philosophical starting point of: individuals should be free to pursue the proffesion of their choice and still arrive at the conclusionthat there are several notable exceptions to this rule. Specifically, the state has a vital interest in regulating proffesions that potentiall involve life-and-death outcomes, like: medicine, psychology, architecture and engineering. However, due to the domination of the progressive philosophical default setting, in most localities, individuals must now seek the permission of the state to engage in any economic activity, even hair braiding, flower arranging, interior design and the sale of caskets. In fact, a salon in Atlanta Georgia was fined $500 for having two unlicensed hair braiders and the said employees were required to obtain a cosmetology license would cost them somewhere between $5,000 - $10,000 in training, tests and license fees. Granted, a bad hair day can be traumatic for some, but no physical harm has ever ensued from poorly braided hair. Many economists look beyond "public welfare" rhetoric and see such regulation for what it is - entrenched and politically connected companies using the state to limit competition. The starting point must be that the burden of proof must fall on those who seek to limit the ability of individuals to freely exchange goods and services, NOT the other way around.

My associate presented me with some fair compelling arguments why some of the bailouts may have been necessary in the face of extraordinary circumstances. However, the philosophical default setting in a free and prosperous society must be that the seizure and redistribution of wealth from one individual, group, enterprise or segment of the economy to another is a harmful aberration. In undemocratic societies the right of redistribution allowed kings and generals to freely and arbitrarily pilfer the wealth of their citizenry. In democratic societies, this allowed for harmful misallocations of resources and market distortions that in the long run lowered the living standards of all, except of course the ruling elite. Every dollar in subsidies that politically connected corporations and industries directly not only equal an added tax burden on the general population, but less potential capital for new creative and productive enterprises. So, the burden of proof must NOT fall on those who oppose bailouts and subsidies, but on those who propose continuing them. In practical terms this means that burdensome subsidies would not be set on auto-pilot; each year their proponents would have to justify the clear and present danger in not continuing them.

When we explore issues of welfare and entitlements, the discussion becomes less clear, because there are many examples of a clear and present danger being posed by not having the state intervene. Take the very example of a single mother with four children; of course we can argue that the public should not bear the burden of her financially disastrous choices. And we can argue that individuals and societies evolve towards sustainable social behavior and social structures only when they face the consequences of their behavior. But, in practical terms if we did not provide her with ample food, medical and housing subsidies, her children would unduly suffer.

So, what good is the conservative default position: pathological choices of individuals must not be subsidized by the state, if we know that we will frequently have to violate it? Why not simple embrace the progressive starting point of the welfare of individuals must be unconditionally guaranteed by the state? Because, the abandonment of the former position by government bureaucracies and society at large has led to the systematic subsidization of unsustainable choices and social structures. If more of our ruling elite had not abandoned the conservative starting point, government bureaucracies would have more carefully guarded against the unintended consequences that their policies have engendered. To start off with they would have encouraged a curriculum that discussed the consequences of single motherhood for individuals and communities. And while applying for government assistance, the social welfare bureaucrat might have said to the expecting single mother "we will fully provide for your 1st child, we will only cover 50% of the cost of maintaining your 2nd choice and after that, you are on your own..."

The issue that most represents a clash of underlying visions is immigration, yet few of its partisans are fully aware their implied philosophical foundations. In the past 20 years, we have substantially shifted towards towards the progressive starting point, which entails that:

1. The burden of proof lies with those who seek to enforce basic immigration law and curtailing the massive flow of legal immigration.

2. Those who seek to curtain legal or illegal immigration are inhumane, anti-immigrants.

Although, I do not support a hard line on immigration enforcement and I am open to a well structured path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, I believe that this philosophical starting point is largely bereft of reason. To start off with, it's obvious that by openly and systematically failing to enforce a law, rather than changing it through the legislative process, we serious erode the rule of law. Second, it sets a very bad precedent to allow the violators of a law to override it by overwhelming the capacity of the system to enforce it. This too, constitutes an erosion of the rule of law. Third, even though I am sympathetic to the plight of undocumented immigrants, there is no argument in the rational universe for allowing non-citizens the right to determine a nation's immigration laws; this constitutes a clear erosion of national sovereignty. Fourth, the implied progressive premise that someone has a right to remain in a country because they were able to cross a border is without any rational foundation. Fifth, contrary to the claims of its authors, the amnesty of 1986 resulted in a surge in undocumented immigration, which makes the claims of today's proponents of amnesty all the more dubious. And last but not least, the burden of proof must fall on those who seek a demographic transformation that entails tremendous economic, social and political ramifications.

So, why embrace the conservative philosophical starting point if I am not willing to follow through to its logical conclusion: a tough and systematic prosecution of those who violate immigration law? And what rational argument do I have for digressing from sound philosophical premises? The answer to the latter question is: there is no rational argument; my progressive digression rests on feelings, on sympathy for good people who were compelled to violate reasonable laws and on an aversion for the immediate suffering that tough enforcement of those laws entails. But, on a rational level I cannot escape the fact that the progressive position will engender long term suffering, most of all for immigrants and their descendants, by further depressing the wages of low skilled workers and by overwhelming our capacity to provide quality public services (schools, hospitals, police) in their communities.

This brings us to an underlying problem in the progressive vision: short term pain is avoided at the cost of long term sickness. Extraordinary circumstances and compassion compels even the most staunch conservatives to accept temporary measures that we know are unwise over the long run. But, we must remain vigilant that temporary measures do not become permanent fixtures in our social, economic and political system that erode the long term welfare of our great republic. FDR's "emergency measures" to assist beleaguered farmers did not end with the Great Depression, rather they have grown and mutated and become the worst examples of corporate welfare. And modest safety nets like social security have ballooned into unsustainable entitlements that will continue to consume more and more of our budget, squeezing out other vital programs and driving us towards financial insolvency. So, those who express reservations about Obama's "modest proposals" for health care reform are neither heartless nor greedy, they are students of history who are aware of the consequences of severing ties to the sound philosophical principles of limited government, economic liberty and rule of law. And perhaps most importantly, they understand that individuals, enterprises and communities only evolve when they face the consequences of their errors and enjoy the fruits of their labor.

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