Sometimes I like to play a little game with my liberal friends. Let us suppose, I say to them, that you have one hundred dollars with which you plan to purchase food for your family at a local grocery. Now let us suppose that I come along and rob you while you are on your way to the store, taking half of your one hundred dollars.
At this point I ask my friend: Is the robbery good or bad for you economically? “Bad,” they invariable answer, for “I now have less money for groceries.” Then I ask them: Is my robbing you good or bad for the grocer? “Bad,” they again answer, for “now he, too, has less money for his family.” Next question: Was it morally right or wrong for me to rob you? “Wrong, of course,” they answer, for “the money did not belong to you.”
Then, the coup de grace: What if I planned to give your money to someone else, I ask, someone whom I felt was more worthy or deserving of your money?
At this point, many liberals begin to suspect they have been led into a rhetorical cul de sac, and cognitive dissonance sets in as they realize that an honest answer necessitated by their answer to the previous questions will conflict with their stated political principles and past voting habits. Some will nevertheless admit, “Well, it isn’t really for you to decide who gets my money….”
An alternate hypothetical: Ask any liberal friend whether it would be morally sound or economically advantageous for an individual to rack up mountains of debt, until the gap between what is taken in and what goes out can never be rebalanced, with the fiscal burden passed onto their children and their children’s children, who likewise have little hope of living debt free.
An honest answer is that such behavior, like the hypothetical robbery, is both morally wrong and economically deleterious. Yet the same liberals who can see the fault in such behaviors for individuals support exactly those behaviors on the part of governments; confiscatory taxation and unsustainable deficits and debt are, after all, the inevitable consequences of liberal governance.
It is not hard to understand why. Liberals rarely see individuals except in the abstract aggregate, and so often fail to see the trees for the forest. Some are cognizant of this blind spot in their liberal world view: Margaret Carlson recently admitted, by way of explaining the president’s inability to connect with individual voters going through tough economic times:
It’s a long time now since Obama was a community organizer. Even then, he might have been more comfortable dealing with communities than with individuals. Democrats are best with groups. If I break down on the side of the road, I hope a Republican stops — he’ll fix my flat and offer me a drink. A Democrat will get busy forming a Committee to Protect Women Who Own Vulnerable Cars.
Quite. And it is precisely this feature of liberalism that has led to the economic and spiritual wasteland it leaves whenever and wherever it is put at the controls of government. For the truth is there are no such thing as “groups” — there are only individuals. To say, for example, that this or that policy is good for blacks, or for women, is to overlook the vast differences that exist between individuals — differences in needs, wants, ambitions, life-experiences, temperament, etc., even if they may share skin color or gender in common.
To smooth out such differences, which are in fact the manifestations of the uniqueness of each soul, is to suffer from a tragic myopia that can only lead to destruction — of rights, of property. After all, these are things that “individuals” possess. To see only groups is to necessarily dehumanize; to dehumanize in theory is to oppress in practice.
On a practical level, liberal policies don’t work — conservatives have long known and decried this. Take the infamous “War on Poverty,” instigated by that very liberal president, Lyndon Johnson, in his 1964 State of the Union address. In the name of waging his “moral equivalency of war,” Johnson ushered in a golden age of government social spending (read: confiscation and redistribution of wealth) of a size and scope unseen since the New Deal heyday. And many of the programs created under the War on Poverty umbrella are still with us today.
And where are we now, 46 years later? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, these days one in seven — or around 44 million — Americans live below the poverty line. As the Washington Post prosaically put it, “That is the largest number of people since the census began tracking poverty 51 years ago.” Twenty-five years ago, President Reagan liked to tweak his liberal critics by saying, “some years ago, the federal government declared war on poverty, and poverty won.” And yes, in 2010, it’s more true than ever: more people are poor today than before Johnson started his war.
The technical reason for the failure of Johnson’s War on Poverty, of course, pace Keynes, is that government spending — even if done with the best of intentions — stifles economic growth, which is the only thing that has ever lifted substantial numbers of people out of poverty. When Johnson robbed a taxpayer, who might have been on his way to buy groceries for his family, and gave that money to someone else, whatever temporary benefit was derived from those funds by the third party did not make up for the fact that both the taxpayer and the grocer were now poorer (the economic hardship has not vanished; it has just been “redistributed”). Nor does it disguise the fact that such robbery was — and is — ethically reprehensible.
And that is the rub: Liberal policies fail practically because they are morally defective — they discourage the recognition of individuals qua individuals, and therefore encourage the adoption of policies that hurt individuals. One might say in fact that it is the moral bankruptcy of liberal ideology that leads directly to the economic bankruptcy of states and nations that liberals govern.
Conservatives who relish pointing out the disastrous track record of liberal policies ought to take greater pains to point out the moral dimensions of the debate. It has long been widely observed that Americans are a practical people; less often noted however, save by some astute commentators like Tocqueville, is that Americans have also always been a deeply moral people, and have always welcomed discussions of ethics in public policy. Many Americans could, I think, be made to see the tremendous moral lapses that lay in the very foundations of liberal thought — if conservatives are wise and capable enough to press the case.
When you see a person, not as an individual, who might have worked for and earned whatever money they have, but as a mere cog in a group (“the rich” for example) then it is easy to say, as Obama did, “I do think at a certain point you’ve made enough money.” And if you see a person not as an individual who might have made some bad choices and is perfectly responsible for the consequences, but as a member of a group (the “disadvantaged” for example), then you have all the justification you need to rob from the one and give to the other, and you will have lost the capacity to see the injustice you have done to both, or care about the economic and social wreckage that follows.
Nearly half a century of the welfare state has made us poorer both individually and as a nation — our national debt now officially tops $13.4 trillion, or 92 percent of GDP, though the real number, according to some analysts who accuse the U.S. government of hiding how deep it’s really in the hole, could range as a high as $60-200 trillion. This despicable and debased condition is a direct result of the moral exhaustion of the modern liberal order, which treats humans as mere collections of similar skins and genitals — not as people.