Liberalism and the Failure to Recognize Human Limitations

1 Comment

2009 Five Presidents, President George W. Bush...

Image by Beverly & Pack via Flickr

Do you remember your mother or father telling you the old saw, “Money doesn’t grow on trees.” You were a child and wanted something your parents could not afford. You may have thrown a fit, but if your parents were responsible, they would not give in in order to teach you a valuable lesson about human limitation. Human beings can only buy as much as their resources allow. Any responsible parent knows that going into unnecessary debt can harm the entire family. A family receives a finite income every year. A family whose income is $50,000 a year should not buy a $40,000 car or a $1,000,000 home.

Businesses also realize that they can overreach–when a business overspends beyond the benefits and loses money, that one failure can sometimes destroy, or at the very least weaken–that business. The same thing is true with local governments and most state governments. California, with its past history of profligate spending, is an important exception–and an important lesson on recognizing that resources have limits.

The federal government has not learned these lessons. George W. Bush began the current spending spree, with the mainstream Republicans in Congress, wanting to gain votes, appropriating the money. When the banking crisis occurred, Mr. Bush and Congress spend billions on a massive bail out. But what Mr. Bush did is child’s play compared to Mr. Obama’s free spending ways. What was billions in debt quickly became trillions, to the point that there seems no end to the massive debt of the United States. China holds us over a more precarious pit than was present in the Bush administration. Problems with the Euro have helped the dollar to survive as a viable currency despite massive supply due to the government printing more money–but eventually supply and demand will catch up with the dollar. The threat of hyperinflation looms over the United States to a greater degree than in any recent decade except the 1970s.

The American people’s desire for a utopia on earth has driven massive spending. Unlike Europe, which spent freely due to people wanting la dolce vita after seven years of brutal war, American’s desire to benefit from government had already begun in the 1930s with the Roosevelt administration‘s rapid expansion of federal programs in response to the Great Depression. Americans, no longer disciplined by hardship and war, turned to government to solve social problems and to provide benefits for the middle class. The idea was that only government had the massive resources to fight poverty (Lyndon Johnson‘s “Great Society“)  and protect the middle class through social security, unemployment insurance, and Medicaid. Now government has been used by Mr. Obama to solve another financial crisis and to expand social welfare benefits. Cuts in defense spending are not nearly enough to make up for massive social programs. Thus the problem of debt is just as unsolvable in the United States as it is in Western Europe. Mother was right–money does not grow on trees–and the worth of money is not guaranteed by the government’s printing more bills.  Currency traders will not ignore economic reality forever. The United States, like Western Europe, will be driven to recognize its limitations if it must be driven kicking and screaming.

Classical liberalism is superior to social democratic liberalism, but it still has an overly optimistic view of human nature and often does not recognize human limitations. Many classical liberals believe that science and the private sector will create an ideal society, and such a belief can clash with economic and other human limitations. Adam Smith believed that a society made up primarily of virtuous people, civilized by Christianity and Western culture, would make the “invisible hand” work. With the breakdown of key virtues such as taking responsibility for one’s behavior and integrity, the capitalist system will be corrupted. Even if it were not corrupted, resources for the well-being of people are finite, not infinite. Science and the market can substitute for God just as much as “the People” substitute for God in Marxism.

The truth is that there is no ideal world that any economic system can make. The world will always be a mixed bag of good and bad. People can do what they can to alleviate the negative and “accentuate the positive” (as my late colleague Parker Wilson used to say). To do so with massive government aid programs or social engineering programs creates programs that almost always fail, and the government spends more money and goes deeper into debt. Because social democratic liberals cannot follow a mother’s or father’s aphorism that “Money does not grow on trees,” the country in which I was born and reared may become unrecognizable sooner rather than later.

The Sin of the Poor

1 Comment

Bolshevik Party Meeting. Lenin is seen at right.

Image via Wikipedia

No person is immune to moral evil. Whether moral evil entered human nature at some specific point in human evolution in some updated doctrine of the Fall in Genesis or whether it has always been infecting human character, “all have sinned.” Now the Liberation Theologians have noted that there is a bias toward the poor in the Bible–and that is true. But there is also a tendency in Marxist and liberal democratic circles to place the poor in a special category of people who are somehow immune to the Fall. In that category, the poor join women and racial minorities. Somehow the people in these special groups are immune to the evil of wealthy Eurocentric Americans.

But this view is false. Both rich, middle-class, and poor are morally flawed. If the sin of the rich is arrogance and lack of charity, and of the middle classes a worship of financial stability to the exclusion of higher goods, the great sin of the poor is envy.

Not all poor people envy the rich. But many do. They resent the fact that someone has more than they. I understand the impulse–as a child growing up in a lower middle-class, working class home I was frustrated at not having all the things the “city kids” had. Few feelings make a person more miserable–and more filled with hatred–than envy. I would rather be in rage with jealously any day than be filled with envy.

Thus there is a subset of the poor who want to take the hard-earned goods of the middle class and the rich for themselves without putting in the necessary effort. Either they break in and steal, or they steal by other means, becoming dependent on government to get them the “good things of life.” Sometimes envy results in a combination of the two ways of gaining property.

As a teacher, I have students from all socioeconomic classes. Students from wealthier families tend to be materialistic and desire to keep their lifestyle–I grant that. And some of the middle class students would prefer to be like the richer students in socioeconomic status. But, to my surprise, it is oftentimes the students from less prosperous backgrounds who are the most materialistic. I tell them I only want a car that gets me from point A to point B, and these poor students respond that I should desire the nicer things of life, including a luxury car. Those poor have bought into the lie that American society tells them, that true worth comes from wealth and status. Plato and Aristotle recognized long ago that true worth comes from a virtuous life, not from the accumulation of wealth, but my students of all classes do not see it that way. When envy leads to a sense of entitlement, trouble begins, either by the poor robbing people on the streets or engaging in illegal activities for a quick source of income, or by their robbing the taxpayers by refusing to take the time and effort to work their way up the socioeconomic ladder.

There are many, many poor people who do try to work their way up the socioeconomic ladder, and some do quite well for themselves when it comes to material goods. And there are poor people on small family farms who would not trade their lives for the world. But those who are envious are dangerous, for they hate those who have more, and it does n0t matter to them whether those who have more worked hard for their possessions. The envious want what they want NOW. Envy and resentment led the Bolsheviks into power in post-Czarist Russia, and such envy and resentment can destroy the freedom that we Americans enjoy. When the Left puts the poor on a pedestal and pampers their envy, they pave the way for a ruinous pathway for America’s future. Only by recognizing that all people are part of the basic human condition, including moral faults, can envy and other sins be, at least in some small part, overcome.