In the last 20 years, conservative ideas, including the value of all work, which binds us to each other through the strange beauty of commerce and voluntary exchange, have done more to turn around American cities than four decades and hundreds of billions of dollars of welfare entitlements, social programs, and public housing ever did. More than 10,000 minority males are alive in New York City today who would have been dead, had New York’s homicide rate remained at its early 1990s level. A policy triumph doesn’t get any more concrete than that.
Heather McDonald, “Restoring the Social Order,” City
A friend’s daughter sent this link – I’ve always admired City Magazine but been less diligent lately; I appreciate the prod. Commentary, too, has been looking back at Moynihan’s prescience and the drubbing he took.
We brought a politically eclectic group together for New Year’s Eve; one of my husband’s friends explained that he believed keeping the Bush tax cuts was a bad idea because he “cared for the poor,” I coldly observed that he thought he did. He’s retiring in his mid-seventies from a position as distinguished professor in accounting, having long argued for the VAT as well. He acknowledged that part of the charm of a variety of methods of taxation was that intertwined throughout the system they become more difficult to distinguish. His chief answer to social security is raising the age; my extremely conservative friend argued with him that works well for the people there (retiring at various stages in life), but not so well for manual laborers. She has drawn me to see this as a more complicated problem than I’d thought. (Those retiring at 70 and 75 at this gathering were quite healthy and likely to spend more years in retirement than people both she and he knew who did heavier work. I, too, thought raising the age was a good idea – and it is for people like us.) Conservatives are less likely to see such workers as the oppressed “other” but as colleagues & neighbors & employees. This leads to respect for individuals rather than sympathy for classes but it also encourages a better understanding. (As one of the women at church observed, you have to chat and even gossip a little – she seems incapable of critical gossip but is quite aware of others’ physical and spiritual pains – to really know how to help.) It will not surprise that almost everyone there was an academic. While I respect the accountant (he is knowledgeable, gave quite useful counsel when I had my business, and is a good man in many ways), his assurance can drive a listener wild.
I think it is best to grant people their intentions – they want children (not just their own floating in their twenties) but also poor children covered by health insurance, believe widows and orphans are the larger community’s responsibility (a belief that their policies made anachronistic). But such assumptions concede a high ground not truly theirs. I was drawn back to conservative principles in part because I was no longer able to keep cognitive dissonance at bay. Let’s be honest. These policies meant to do good haven’t just accidentally or as a by-product done bad – they arrive from flawed assumptions about society, capitalism, human nature, and of how respect for others is demonstrated. These assumptions assumed a house will stand in a hurricane even without rebar in its walls (or its levees). The rebar is, of course, self-reliance & strong families, transparent government & the rule of law. Rebar is gut-level respect for individual choices – not deciding out of some strange sympathy for the “people” that rebar is not necessary in their houses. The rebar is built of traditional, conventional, conservative, bourgeois values. It is built on the assumption that we are flawed people, likely to take the easy and sometimes the wrong way. But also that we have a warm spark within us that prompts us toward the transcendent, the warm, the loving & the productive. And we are happiest when we can express that spark and unhappiest when we give in to that darkness. A society in which we can accept – generally without thinking about it – the assurance of rebar leaves us free to become better people. If we are uncertain whether the walls will crumble around us, we aren’t protected from the elements within and without. We aren’t free.
Of course, narrow sympathies also forget who kills who, who rapes who, whose childhood is one of abuse when society falls apart. A modicum of sympathy for the victims brings home the power of McDonald’s point to the sympathetic heart as well as the rational head – the heart truly open.