November 25, 2010

Enlightened self-interest

As long as redistribution is conceived as a form of charity or compassion (and the Bleeding Left appears to buy this conception every bit as much as the Heartless Right), then the whole debate centers on utility—“Does Welfare help poor people get on their feet or does it foster passive dependence?” “Is government’s bloated social-services bureaucracy an effective way to dispense charity?” and so on—and both camps have their arguments and preferred statistics, and the whole thing goes around and around.…

The mistake here lies in both sides’ assumption that the real motives for redistributing wealth are charitable or unselfish. The conservatives’ mistake (if it is a mistake) is wholly conceptual, but for the Left the assumption is also a serious tactical error. Progressive liberals seem incapable of stating the obvious truth: that we who are well off should be willing to share more of what we have with poor people not for the poor people’s sake but for our own; i.e., we should share what we have in order to become less narrow and frightened and lonely and self-centered people. No one ever seems willing to acknowledge aloud the thoroughgoing self-interest that underlies all impulses toward economic equality—especially not US progressives, who seem so invested in an image of themselves as Uniquely Generous and Compassionate and Not Like Those Selfish Conservatives Over There that they allow the conservatives to frame the debate in terms of charity and utility, terms under which redistribution seems far less obviously a good thing.

I’m talking about this example in such a general, simplistic way because it helps show why the type of leftist vanity that informs PCE is actually inimical to the Left’s own causes. For in refusing to abandon the idea of themselves as Uniquely Generous and Compassionate (i.e., as morally superior), progressives lose the chance to frame their redistributive arguments in terms that are both realistic and realpolitikal. One such argument would involve a complex, sophisticated analysis of what we really mean by
self-interest, particularly the distinctions between short-term financial self-interest and longer-term moral or social self-interest. As it is, though, liberals’ vanity tends to grant conservatives a monopoly on appeals to self-interest, enabling the conservatives to depict progressives as pie-in-the-sky idealists and themselves as real-world back-pocket pragmatists. In short, leftists’ big mistake here is not conceptual or ideological but spiritual and rhetorical—their narcissistic attachment to assumptions that maximize their own appearance of virtue tends to cost them both the theater and the war.

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