A New Culture War?

 

E.D. Kain takes issue with Arthur Brooks:

Turning a debate over economics into a cultural question only serves to obfuscate. As [Brink] Lindsey notes, we’re sure to blur “issues of regulation and redistribution” in ways that make the topic almost useless and indecipherable. That’s fine for the purposes of populism, but for the purposes of governance […] it’s trouble brewing.

[…] If you take a look at the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom, you’ll notice that a number of countries with much more redistributive economies nonetheless make the list and seven rank above the United States, including Ireland, Switzerland and Canada. This despite social-democratic programs such as universal health care! Whether the social programs in these countries are sustainable is another question altogether, but they in no way reflect attitudes toward markets or free trade.

But E.D. makes a revealing concession:

Cultural attitudes will influence economic decisions, and economic policy and prosperity will influence cultural outcomes. If anything this makes it all the more vital that we avoid igniting a culture war in this sphere.

Alas, the cultural conflict is already blazing. Some people think a federal tax on tanning is a legitimate tool of economic policy. Some don’t. Some think the President is entitled to bestow a $400 million guaranteed loan on a single company because he favors their product. Some don’t. Disagreements like these are not the result of idle preferences. Whole worldviews are at stake. A whole worldview is revealed in the idea that taxing and spending should be freed from the burden of the equal protection of the law, on the theory that taxing and spending are the primary tools a government may use to shape, sculpt, promote, and punish behavior. But this strange understanding of policy is not a mere preference either. It follows directly from the coronation of economics as the master science, the form of knowledge that explains everything. When economics rules, knowledge is generated from top-down, ‘large-n’ statistical studies, wherein not individuals but ‘statistically significant groups’ are the units of analysis.

And what causes a person to treat economics as the master science, if not their cultural commitments and convictions — which hold that the purpose of politics is to change behavior, on a national scale, so as to make it more social. E.D.’s insinuation that social democracy merely reflects some peoples’ preferences simply begs the question. But economics takes preferences as it finds them. Its refusal to look deeper — and it refuses because its refusal makes its behavioral leverage possible — reveals the truth: statism is a cultural project, a vision of the highest, that conflicts at the level of first principles with the culture of free enterprise. Arthur Brooks is right, like it or not: there already is “a struggle between two competing visions of America’s future.” It’s been underway for at least a hundred years. Obama knows which side he is on. Do you?

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There are 3 comments.

  1. Jerry Carroll Inactive

    Given the political makeup of the nation — 40% conservative, 20% liberal and everybody else in play — I don’t understand why the Republican Party doesn’t do better. I would hate to think the Stupid Party label is accurate, but what other explanation is there? Take John McCain, a man actively detested by large parts of the party, who got the presidential nomination basically because “it’s his turn.” The same process of reasoning or its lack gave us Robert Dole, who enjoyed a similar degree of success.

    • #1
    • July 7, 2010, at 6:51 AM PDT
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  2. Profile Photo Member

    I too would like to see a public figure engage with Obama on this very subject without making me cringe. Someone on the right needs to stop speaking to the base and try speaking to the middle… or maybe we have to wait until after mid-terms for that *sigh*.

    • #2
    • July 7, 2010, at 7:38 AM PDT
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  3. Scott R Member

    Consider two bumper stickers, both of which I’ve recently seen: “Obamanomics: Punishing Success, Rewarding Failure” and “Compassion” (with the “Obama O” in place of the two o’s). Two concise and competing commentaries on the same economic policies, both reflecting competing cultural outlooks. The purchasers of those stickers needn’t have taken a single Econ. course to know where they stand.

    • #3
    • July 7, 2010, at 8:21 AM PDT
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