Thursday, February 2, 2012

Nice right-wingers


Chatting with a friend last weekend, he remarked that he could forgive and understand communists even if communism fared poorly in practice, because at least they were acting out of a good impulse. They saw poverty and injustice and wanted to improve it. But he saw no redeeming features for right-wingers who seemed, he said, 'just mean'.

I have come across those 'mean' right-wingers over the years. Some were proud hybrids of Ayn Rand and Ebeneezer Scrooge, who presumed the worst in all others and thought any charitable act was a cynical bid for attention. These were suspicious people who feared outsiders and were eager to resort to war as an early response to every international challenge. Aggressive, rude and cruel: mean.

But they were a minority and lots of the right-wingers I would come across held subtle and complex perspectives. Many were polite, friendly and introspective, some more willing to admit uncertainty and reconsider their opinions than their left-wing equivalents. The very first blog post on The Harvest explored some of those right-wing perspectives, especially paleoconservatism and libertarianism.

So here I'll say something about the nice and well-intentioned libertarians I've come across, their views and attitudes.

On War
Here is libertarian economist Bryan Caplan, arguing against war. Not any specific war, all war. Caplan believes that even 'defensive' war is morally unjustifiable, and he defends this argument on pragmatic grounds:
1) The immediate costs of war are clearly awful.
2) The long-run benefits of war are highly uncertain.
3) For a war to be morally justified, its long-run benefits have to be substantially larger than its short-run costs.
Caplan is a pacifist. He thinks war is never acceptable. And here he is, strongly supporting the arguments of the 'far left' on Christopher Colombus, who he denounces as 'a brutal slaver' and 'a pioneer of slavery'. He sounds like a hippie.

Am I cheating with Caplan? Surely this is a half-hearted right-winger, still keen on public health and welfare for the poor? Absolutely not, Caplan is about as far to the right as possible, deeply opposed to any government interventions to help the poor.

On Poverty
Sometimes right-wingers are seen as lacking in compassion for the poor, blaming them for their own poverty and making little of that poverty. Caplan seems guilty here:
It may seem strange, but when leftist social scientists actually talk to and observe the poor, they confirm the stereotypes of the harshest Victorian. Poverty isn't about money; it's a state of mind. That state of mind is low conscientiousness.
Mean! Caplan blaming the poor for their own poverty! Well yes, he does explain some modern First World poverty by looking at the behaviour of the poor, and he uses the controversial concept of 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor:
If I sound harsh, notice: by my standards, many of the poor are clearly deserving: low-skilled workers in the Third World, children of poor or irresponsible parents, the severely handicapped.... Starving Haitian children really do deserve your help more than almost any American.
On Immigration
But Caplan isn't without compassion for those deserving poor. He thinks the government has a role to help them, not in what it should do, but what it shouldn't. Governments shouldn't control immigration:
The Third World contains hundreds of millions of deserving poor: desperate people who would love to work as a janitor for $25,000 a year. If we owe charity to anyone, we owe it to people who struggle to earn a dollar a day. But when First World governments hand out charity, the deserving poor in the Third World get next to nothing. Foreign aid's about 1% of the budget. Indeed, First World governments actively prevent the world's deserving poor from helping themselves: They make it illegal for them to move to the First World and accept a job from a willing employer. Even if we owe charity to no one, the least we can do is stop kicking the world's deserving poor while they're down.
Not mean! Caplan wants open borders, to give the absolute poor of the world the same chance at climbing out of material poverty that people in the First World enjoy already.

It's about freedom
So why the collage of judgement and compassion? How do we make sense of this? At the heart of it is the libertarian belief that taxation, because it is involuntary, is oppressive. Some argue that taxation is simply armed robbery, even if the tax-collector is empowered by a democratic state. The state in this narrative becomes a Mafia gang, offering 'protection' to its people and sending aggressive agents (police) out to anyone who refuses to buy into the racket. So there are libertarians (and some other right-wingers) who think that forcing other people to give up their money is unacceptable. There is no generosity in putting a gun to one's neighbour's head and demanding that they surrender some of their income to help someone else.

So taxation is out. Wealth redistribution is out. No social welfare, no housing projects, no public health or public schools.

But giving, voluntarily, is good. Caplan's colleague at Econlog, Arnold Kling, explains:
From a libertarian perspective, your generosity is reflected in what you do with your own money, not in what you do with other people's money. If I give a lot of money to charity, then I am generous. If you give a smaller fraction of your money to charity, then you are less generous. But if you want to tax me in order to give my money to charity, that does not make you generous.... But being libertarian does not mean you have to have a cold heart. You can be a bleeding heart, but you show it by what you do, not what you advocate forcing other people to do.
Are the libertarians correct in this moral opposition to taxation? I don't know, but at least see that for many of them their opposition to social welfare systems isn't about cold, cruel hardness, but about gentle opposition to coersion.

This is a very simple beginning. There are other shades of right, with other justifications and explanations of their views, pragmatic or principled. Plenty of them are nice, caring people who worry about poverty and the environment and fairness. Some have argued passionately with me that free market capitalism is better at reducing poverty than other economic systems, and that government regulations and welfare that is intended to help the poor only creates economic drag and hurts them in the long run.

There are a few real dickheads, sure. But there are dickhead hypocrites in any movement, like the occasional socialist I see publicly wringing hands over the poverty of the working classes and privately complaining about scumbags and skangers, and deriding the popular culture of the people they claim to represent. Not all the right-wingers are mean. They're just not always very good at pointing that out.

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