Bragging Rights

Goodness knows, there are lots of ways that liberals and conservatives manage to annoy each other. Still, one that has struck me recently is an odd sort of bragging rights.

One of the main divisions between these groups at this point in time is over how the less vulnerable in society are best provided with care. The liberal view is generally that comprehensive government programs should be set up to assure that everyone in society has a certain basic level of food, income, medical care, housing, babysitting, rice pudding, etc. The conservative view is generally that guaranteed government handouts create dependency and hurt people in the long run, and that short term help for those in trouble is generally better provided by family, church or private charity.

The problem comes when members of these two groups get together and start arguing about how to help others.

At this point, the liberal may say, “I advocate this particular program currently up before congress, which will provide housing, medical care and rice pudding subsidies to at least ten million suffering people who current lack at least one of these things. How can you possibly be against giving these basic needs to people who don’t even have rice pudding? To pay for this, we will charge a five dollar tax on every large, ugly pair of shoes best suited to stomping on innocent bunnies that is sold. This will not only help those without rice pudding, but create an incentive for people to stop stomping on innocent bunnies.”

What can the conservative reply to this?

He might say, “I really think it’s better if people without rice pudding receive temporary help from their families and communities until they’re back on their feet. And however one may feel about stomping on innocent bunnies, work boots are generally worn by the lower classes and so the tax you are suggesting is regressive. Many of the people wearing bunny-stomping boots themselves have trouble affording rice pudding.”

He might well say that, but in some senses it’s an unsatisfying answer. The liberal may rest assured that he is personally doing something both to help those without rice pudding and to remove the means to stomp bunnies, while the conservative is vaguely suggesting that someone-or-other (who may or may not actually step up to the plate) ought to do the helping instead of the government.

In other words, the liberal gets to sound like he is personally doing something about the issue by supporting legislation which will in turn tax everyone and help large numbers of people. The conservative says he supports more local/charitable efforts, but while it’s considered polite to talk up the legislation you support, it’s not considered polite to brag about recent charitable donations you have made. It may be that the conservative just wrote several large checks to rice pudding-providing charities, and perhaps even takes potentially stompable bunnies into his home, but if he brings this up in conversation, he sounds like a jerk. Plus, no matter how much he’s doing at a local level, it can be assured that these local efforts are not helping all ten million children currently without rice pudding who would be helped by nationwide legislation.

This, in turn, makes the conservative growl inside and gnash his teeth, since he knows that he’s coming out sounding like he doesn’t help anyone (and doesn’t want anyone helped). It doesn’t help when the liberal then announces something along the lines of, “You conservatives only care about making sure the rich have rice pudding,” or “You conservatives care plenty about the unborn, but once they’re old enough to eat rice pudding you walk away.”

So the conservative thinks that the liberal is a hopeless bragger who doesn’t do anything to help the poor himself but is happy to tax others; the liberal thinks the conservative is a heartless skinflint who doesn’t lift a finger to help those without rice pudding; and the local rice pudding charities wish that everyone would stop overlooking all the hard work they do just because they don’t have the nationwide scale (and confiscatory authority) to help ten million people at a time.

9 Responses to Bragging Rights

  • There’s probably an entire book that could be written about this topic. One way I’ve often thought about it is to describe it as first order vs. second order thinking. Taking the cue from math, you can take the first order derivative of something, and it can tell you one thing. But you have to take the second order derivative to know where you really are — local maximum or minimum. It’s that second order condition that completes the picture and gives you a fuller sense of where you are.

    I would characterize a lot of progressive thought as first order thinking. It often correctly identifies the problem, usually out of a conscience that is rightly ordered toward sympathy and justice, and the emotions they arouse. Unless you dig a little deeper, the immediate temptation is to resort to policy that has coercion as its underpinning. Coercive policy might or might not be warranted, and a technical review of the problem can help find the answer. (And this is true not only of economic policy, but a lot of “progressive” social policy as well).

    Second order thinking isn’t very popular, though. If it takes more than a soundbite to describe a problem and its possible solutions, it won’t get much air time. Hence the corner the conservative is often backed into: not supporting the easy fix, he looks like a curmudgeon at best. The second order inspection often reveals deeper truths that aren’t “convenient,” to coin a phrase.

    In fact, Darwin, one thing you left out from the conservative’s proposed toolkit of solutions that REALLY raises the ire of the Left is morality. Blaming the victim is not what I mean: rather, it’s a general verdict on the nature of mankind’s relationship with God that is at fault. This is a complete non-starter in most cases, and yet – religion aside – how are we ever to cease being moral creatures? We still need the language to talk about morality and rescue it from non-judgmentalism and vapid “tolerance.” There needs to be a way to salvage that tool from the kit, because so many of our economic and social ills have moral causes at their root. (Not entirely, of course, but enough to warrant at least a discussion.)

    We have to move beyond ideologies and soundbites to solve our problems. Serious, sustained thought is necessary to get at the root of the issues. The solutions will not always fit neatly into our worldviews — which is why, even as a conservative, I readily admit that there is a strong role for government to play in many areas of public policy. What the Left also needs to admit is that there are valid arguments to be made for charity, local solutions, market-based approaches, and (yes) “cultural” change on morality. I don’t think these two worldviews are mutually exclusive, yet our rhetoric almost always treats them that way.

  • There’s probably an entire book that could be written about this topic.

    There already is one.

  • Arthur Brooks and I went to the same graduate school, but I doubt that’s why we share some opinions.

  • I think that American conservatives get into trouble when ideology seeps into their solutions, because ideology implies totality – in effect, a denial of the trade-offs that do and will always dominate life. This is to say that policy gets mixed up with ideological principle (Bush’s idea that all kids can be above average in school, and that Wilsonian adventurism made up as spreading democracy to grateful peoples is a-ok). What policy should be mixed up with, instead, is conservative sentiment – against utopia, realizing that trade-offs exist, against ideology. The solutions should be flexible, and we should not be “running people out” of any center-right coalition, which is always shifting and always full of contradiction.

  • I enjoyed this piece for many reasons, not the least of which was the authors frank discussion of the obvious flaws in both viewpoints. I can see agreement with both sides but can’t help remember the frustration I felt trying to help an 18 year old with no medical insurance having an allergic reaction but not wanting an ambulance because he knew he couldn’t pay the bill. Some things may not be rights according to conservatives but how do you explain that to a self reliant 18 who in just another minute or two may not be able to breathe? In other words, theoretical discussions are nice but don’t help many people if they need help right now. Ideaologies are nice but don’t solve many problems, progressives may use coercion, but there solutions to help people.

  • “I felt trying to help an 18 year old with no medical insurance having an allergic reaction but not wanting an ambulance because he knew he couldn’t pay the bill. ”

    You call the ambulance and the 18 year old worries about the bill later. With Universal “free” Government Health Care the thrifty 18 year old will soon find that his paycheck has a lot more to worry about than an ambulance bill.

  • You missed my point. I was on the ambulance and he needed to be transported and didn’t want to go. I understand that he would have more to worry about from taxes but conservative ideology is very easy to advocate in the abstract and sometimes very difficult to advocate in the specific. The progressive ideology is just the opposite, very easy to advocate in that kind of a situation but very difficult to advocate in the abstract. This is why most people can’t answer the “what about” type arguments of most progressives.

  • “This is why most people can’t answer the “what about” type arguments of most progressives.”

    I think that’s right. It has struck me in arguments related to the automobile bail-out. Progressives are arguing ‘what about all of the people that will be out of a job?’ And conservatives are responding ‘what about the larger number of people you can’t see who will lose their jobs because the bailout involves making a terrible investment with scarce resources?’ The conservative argument is perfectly sound, and, in my view, is superior on policy grounds. But it does have the disadvantage of being more abstract (like the argument about mediating institutions and health care).

  • Micah,

    Good point.

    Another element, tying specifically into the point you make about the ambulance, is the inability of many people to think longer term.

    There was a point back in college when I specifically skipped paying health insurance for a year, on the theory that the student plan was a thousand dollars in spending that I never got anything for. It figured that that would be the year I managed to injure myself — and so spend six hundred dollars out of pocket on some doctors visits in town. It took me several weeks of kicking myself over this to realize that:
    a) I’d still actually spent less than the 1000 for the insurance
    b) I would have been able to spend much less if I’d shelled out the $120 for a doctors visit right away when I injured myself, instead of walking on it for a couple weeks and showing up when I had a badly healed wound and a tenacious infection.

    That’s one of the things that often strikes me when people talk about the, “By not having health insurance, you force people to get treated in an emergency room for the flu,” argument. It’s certainly true that what many people end up doing without insurance is waiting until things get so bad they end up having to be taken to the ER — but its a self defeating behavior.

    And yet people naturally want to avoid spending the smaller amount of money to get treated when its not an emergency yet.

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