What Makes Us Tick

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.

10 thoughts on “What Makes Us Tick”

  1. You’ve probably heard the saying “A man who is not a liberal at 25 has no heart; a man who is not a conservative at 35 has no head”…often credited to Churchill, but I believe it actually goes back earlier.

    Today, though, many of our “progressives” seem to have neither heart *nor* head. A person with a heart would not blindly sacrifice generation after generation of kids to the Moloch that so much of public education has become. A person with a heart would not seize her son’s beloved toy gun to be crushed so that she can conform to the other “progessive” mommies. A person with a heart would not order all residents of a public housing project to give up their dogs (conveniently providing a phone number to call to have the pets picked up and killed) because he lacks the guts to deal with the real problem of drug dealers with vicious dogs. (As happened somewhere–I think NYC–several years ago)

    It is true that there are many self-identified liberals and “progressives” who are well-meaning people and who just haven’t had adequate information or heard adequate arguments, and it is these we should focus on…but there is a substantial set of these people who are not well-meaning at all, but are truly awful people.

  2. I wonder how many of those progressives really know working class blacks and Hispanics. In the days of welfare reform, some progressives (The were liberals then) were shocked to find that the minority poor were every bit as upset about welfare chiselers as the white middle class. Maybe more so.

    I remember a black OR tech when I was an intern. Her name was Richie and she worked in the orthopedic surgery OR suite. She was always good humored and competent. A couple of year later, when I was a resident in surgery, she was an RN working nights. We got to know each other pretty well. She was working on her bachelor’s degree at Cal State LA, near the county hospital. I used to do her homework on Saturday night while she got the rooms set up and going. By the time I finished my residency, she was the OR supervisor. One of her stories was that, during a Black Students’ Union disturbance at Cal State, a group of agitators burst into a classroom to force the class to adjourn. She laughed at the thought. The classroom they had invaded was holding a class on law enforcement and two thirds of the students were cops. The BSU agitators beat a quick retreat.

    The more you know about real people, the less the conventional wisdom of the left seems to apply.

  3. Progressivism looks more and more like a character disorder. The chief motive is to feel good about oneself by trashing those who pay the freight.

  4. I know it’s a small point but as someone who was laid off from within the imploding publishing industry at 62 with 25 years of design management experience, I am amused by calls to raise the retirement age.

    What if you don’t have a job to retire from? Your 401K tanked, new contributions hadn’t been matched by your employer for three years, and company-wide incomes before layoff hadn’t increased by more than 2% in five years?

    Calls to raise the retirement age mean that someone in my position would not be able to apply for early social. There are some who think that is good. But I’ve been working and paying into social security
    since 1963. Would it really be good for the community if I were to be destitute ans homeless?

  5. I personally think existing social security commitments for those who are at or near retirement age need to be honored. Courts have ruled that no one has an enforceable right the get anything from SS, but the fact is the program was represented as and sold as an insurance program, and surely there is a moral duty to those who relied on those representations. (If similar verbal promises had been made by a private investment company, the odds are high that they would be ruled to be enforceable.) And unlike many pension schemes for government employees, the effective rates of return being paid to most people are pretty low.

    Different issue for those who are younger and still have time to do some alternative planning.

  6. Ginny – I ordered a subscription to City Journal after Michael Totten mentioned at Commentary/Contentions that is was one of the most physically appealing journals he had ever seen.

    He’s right. The content is interesting and it is stunningly beautiful The artwork, the layouts, the print, the paper quality.

    Work of art, right there.

    – Madhu

  7. Gina, there were provisions for early application for SS which would reduce the amount of benefit but allow you to take it. I don’t know if those rules have changed. You might look into it if you haven’t.

  8. 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.

    You can’t care for the poor and at the same time support the VAT. The poor have to spend a much greater share of their income on food, heating, electricity ect. Accordingly, the VAT has a disproportionate impact on them, compared to everybody else.

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