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For Once, Paul Krugman Is Right: Conservatives and Progressives ARE in Different Intellectual and Moral Universes

March 7, 2010

The New York Times’ resident ‘economist’ and erstwhile Enron advisor Paul Krugman has completely gone off his meds of late.  In the Friday edition of the Times, Krugman imagines that Senator Jim Bunning and the rest of the GOP inhabit a completely different moral and intellectual universe than the Democrats do.  For once, he’s right.

A number of columns in various publications over the last year have addressed the widening chasm between the right and the left, Washington’s gridlock, and the “ungovernability” of America, so Krugman’s observation isn’t perfectly original.  But it is the clearest elucidation of the line of thought that Washington politics is fast turning into trenched warfare.

Krugman’s view of the Bunning “blockade”:

Today, Democrats and Republicans live in different universes, both intellectually and morally.Take the question of helping the unemployed in the middle of a deep slump. What Democrats believe is what textbook economics says: that when the economy is deeply depressed, extending unemployment benefits not only helps those in need, it also reduces unemployment. That’s because the economy’s problem right now is lack of sufficient demand, and cash-strapped unemployed workers are likely to spend their benefits. In fact, the Congressional Budget Office says that aid to the unemployed is one of the most effective forms of economic stimulus, as measured by jobs created per dollar of outlay.

But that’s not how Republicans see it. Here’s what Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, had to say when defending Mr. Bunning’s position (although not joining his blockade): unemployment relief “doesn’t create new jobs. In fact, if anything, continuing to pay people unemployment compensation is a disincentive for them to seek new work.”

Sen. Kyle’s point of view, according to Krugman, is “bizarre”–even though he himself advocated such a point of view in a text book he authored conveniently titled, “Macroeconomics”.  So maybe we’re dealing an evil Krugman here, while in another universe, a good Krugman had this to say about the job creation potential of unemployment benefits:

Public policy designed to help workers who lose their jobs can lead to structural unemployment as an unintended side effect. . . . In other countries, particularly in Europe, benefits are more generous and last longer. The drawback to this generosity is that it reduces a worker’s incentive to quickly find a new job. Generous unemployment benefits in some European countries are widely believed to be one of the main causes of “Eurosclerosis,” the persistent high unemployment that affects a number of European countries

Only progressives insist upon divining the moral intentions of their opponents at every discernible opportunity, often to the utter neglect of reasoned debate.  But since we’re defining intellectual and moral universes, let’s do so accurately.

Progressives like Krugman live in an intellectual universe in which it’s okay to obstruct every initiative a conservative (or, more appropriately, moderate Republican) pursues for eight long years, even when those initiatives are often amenable to progressives (as in the case of No Child Left Behind, for instance)–but now, when conservatives are genuinely opposed to a progressive agenda on principled grounds, it’s  suddenly the insidious influence of rank partisanship.  Progressives inhabit a moral universe where the old adage “give a man a fish, he eats for a day; teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime” suddenly becomes “promise to give a man a fish tomorrow, he’ll stuff the ballot box for you today; suggest teaching him to fish, and you’re a heartless rich bastard”. 

Both sides are increasingly aware that their core principles are wholly anathema to one another, and it is that realization that is being reflected by the behavior of our politicians in Washington.  One side believes that human beings are accountable, capable, and free, while the other thinks appears to believe that election victories are free license to abandon the Constitution in pursuit of nanny state utopia, where men are infantilized and debased; hence, one side ruthlessly seeks to insert a complex web of intrusive government regulation, laws, and bureaucracies into the most mundane aspects of the citizen’s lives.  What chafes so much about Krugman’s ode to the moral superiority of elected Democrats is the complete lack of a moral baseline.  I’m perfectly willing, for the record, to state unequivocally that the vast majority of progressives assume their intentions to be benevolent in nature.  They are well-intentioned, if horribly misguided and ill-informed.  Only conservatives are needlessly and cruelly derided as clubbers of baby seals and eaters of the homeless.  The conservative believes in the morality of property rights, without which the civil society would be thrust into both legal and moral chaos, soon to be destroyed; on the other hand, progressives find property rights to be completely malleable, negotiable, and to be frank, somewhat superfluous.

Krugman therefore laments Bunning’s stubborn insistence that Democrats live up to their newly enacted pay-go laws as some sort of great moral travesty, while treating Republicans’ objections to the morally repugnant estate tax as some sort of money laundering scheme.  Quoth ‘economist’ Krugman:

How can the parties agree on policy when they have utterly different visions of how the economy works, when one party feels for the unemployed, while the other weeps over affluent victims of the “death tax”?

The real question is, why can’t progressives understand that attacks on the property rights of one is an attack on the rights of all?  Why can’t they understand that perhaps the most enduring and sacred thing any man or woman does in this life is accumulate wealth to pass on to their posterity?  Why don’t progressives weep and gnash their teeth at the thought of breaking their backs to pass on some security to the ones they love, only to have the government seize a sizable portion of the fruit of their labor?  Could it perchance be because of their reckless disregard for property rights, or following the Krugman model of thinking, is it just sheer laziness?

On the other hand, there’s unemployment.  Putting aside that the current situation was created in no small part by the government, what great moral crisis is created by a government that doesn’t spend us all in to bankruptcy protecting people from what used to be known as the normal vicissitudes of life?  To insist the government not make the problem worse, or at least waste money not solving the problem (as Krugman seemed to think was what happened at the time he wrote his textbook) is a far cry from wanting the unemployed to starve to death.  Could there be–gasp!–another solution than just reflexively throwing vast quantities of cash at the problem? 

While we wait for Krugman to answer, consider the possibility that conservatives have seen a century of incremental encroachment on the part of statists, and I think we finally got our answer from progressives on the question of drawing some line on the growth of government and entitlement spending when George W. Bush tried to suggest reforming Social Security: they shot us an “(expletive), no”.  So obviously, our principles aren’t compatible.  We see the same problems, generally speaking, but one side wants to empower individuals, time-honored institutions of voluntary associations, and lowest-level government to seek market based solutions to our problems.  The other side wants to hem the people in with an endlessly complex array of laws, regulations, and a culture that worships the power of litigation so that the government can lead us all to Paradise.  If property must be seized via onerous taxation, individuals diminished via decreased capacities to earn, spend, drive, produce, and create, and the Constitution must be shredded or simply ignored to create utopia, so what?

There is the chance that we could inhabit the same intellectual and moral universe again, provided that progressives like Krugman could be a little more honest about their intentions.  If we could get statists to admit that they think the government is capable of ameliorating every real or imagined crisis man faces–if only we would sacrifice our precious liberty and some of our free will–maybe we could have an honest debate.  Maybe then, there wouldn’t be a need for Bunning’s blockade.

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