I like Michael Barone’s column today on “earned success” (an Arthur Brooks term). This is the idea that Americans don’t want to be given money as much as they want the opportunity to earn success. This is why Wall Street bailouts to people who fleeced investors while bearing no risk themselves or programs to support people with mortgages they never should have been taken out in the first place generate so much anger.
I think this hits the nail on the head. I would add to this that Americans are also charitable. They value safety net programs that catch people who, through no fault of their own, need help. I would argue that most of those programs should be private efforts, not government ones, but there is a strong sentiment to help those who need help in either case. Pundits cry that Tea Partiers want to shred the safety net, which is silly. I think what they want to shred is a system that rewards those with political power at the expense of those without much power.
The left fundamentally misunderstands these sentiments. They think that people want government to guarantee outcomes—you get a house, you get a job, you get health care, you get to send your kids to college, etc., etc. This is partly the fault of economists who emphasize material outcomes above all else, but more the fault of ideologies rooted in fault premises about human values.
The biggest culprits promoting these values are the philosopher John Rawls and his followers. Rawls argued that put behind a veil of ignorance where we do not know our situation of birth, a reasonable person (by which he means a person who agrees with him) would freely choose a regime that redistributed resources to the least well off. In the Rawlsian world, effort and responsibility, as well as talents, result from the circumstances of birth and, hence, are owned by the collective, not the individual. Indeed, the only real self-ownership Rawls recognizes is the right to agree with Rawls.
The political left doesn’t speak of Rawls the way the academic left does, but they are infused with the Rawlsian worldview. By this I mean not only the desire for redistribution and egalitarian outcomes, but the idea that only economic outcomes matter, not effort or responsibility. A man’s home becomes his castle when he earns that home. Generations of immigrants came to this country and often lived, for a time, in terrible, squalid environments. And generations of immigrant families worked their way out of those conditions. It was only when government started providing housing and made able-bodied people wards of the state that the social fabric disintegrated and we institutionalized the underclass. To divorce effort from reward is to debase an important aspect of what makes us human.