Sunday, December 08, 2019

What Compassionate Conservatism Could Be

The old conservative ideology held that low taxes on the rich were essential for economic growth, the benefits would "trickle down" to help everyone, and private charity could step in to help should any of the "deserving poor" somehow be left by the wayside.  But trickle-down economics is now widely discredited, and the extraordinary levels of inequality found in the US are becoming harder to defend. One option for economic conservatives is to just change the subject: ramp up racial animus and other cultural tensions to distract from one's continued attempts to rework the economy in ways that serve only the wealthiest individuals.  That seems pretty evil to me, but it sadly seems to be the way that many are going these days.  Sad realities aside, though, I'm interested in whether there's logical space for a more intellectually and morally ambitious form of conservatism that could provide a worthwhile counterpoint to (e.g.) Elizabeth Warren's ambitious liberalism.

I think there could be, though it would look very different from what conservatives defend today.  I think there could be a worthwhile form of (genuinely) compassionate conservatism that began by appreciating liberal critiques of radical wealth inequality, and the need for redistributive taxation, but that responds by offering an alternative -- "small government" -- solution of what to do with the raised funds. Rather than tasking untrustworthy politicians with solving society's problems, and creating high-stakes political conflicts over the form taken by the big-government "solution", compassionate conservatives could decentralize public spending by disbursing philanthropic vouchers back to voters, who then each direct their own share of the public purse to whatever non-profit organization(s) they deemed best.

This proposal has many virtues that I think should appeal to (genuinely) compassionate conservatives.  It would revitalize civil society and the non-profit sector, utilizing the ingenuity of private actors to promote the general good.  While depending upon redistributive taxation, it is nonetheless genuinely "small government": the role of the state here is merely to set up the economic framework for a flourishing society, but not to "pick winners" nor to itself implement new social programmes.  The more we decentralize the budget, subsequent political contests have lower stakes, resulting in less polarization and partisan animosity.  Citizens who disagree with you are no longer "civic enemies" who threaten to wrest control from you in a winner-takes-all political dispute; they're simply fellow citizens who can direct their vouchers as they see fit, just as you can direct yours, and neither essentially threatens the other (though you may, of course, try to reach out and persuade each other to rethink things).  No one is forced to fund organizations they morally object to, further easing political tensions and reducing the risk of involuntary complicity with injustice.

There's a broader lesson here, which is that one can reject heavy-handed central planning without having to fall back on an unpalatably callous laissez-faire approach.  Again, the key is just to accept the liberal's redistributive step, but then place control of the purse strings back in the hands of citizens.  For another example of this philosophy at work, consider how compassionate conservatives could powerfully respond to Warren's claim that (before considering any kind of universal basic income) we should "[s]tart with universal childcare."  Supporting families is important, but what is the justification for excluding families that opt to have a stay-at-home parent providing the necessary childcare?  A better, more appropriately neutral government policy would be to expand the child tax credit or otherwise (e.g. through a basic income scheme) ensure that parents have the infusion of cash on hand needed to either purchase childcare or substitute for a second income so that they can afford to provide more childcare themselves (if they so wish).

I think there's a lot to be said for this kind of "small government" approach, where you get the benefits of redistribution without the costs of having politicians making decisions that would be better left up to private individuals.  Rather than big-government liberalism that seeks to make our decisions for us (undermining freedom), or worse, a callous conservatism that deprives too much of the population of decent life opportunities, the kind of decentralized redistributive approach outlined here offers an appealing combination of both freedom and opportunity.  At any rate, it'd seem a worthwhile perspective to have better represented in public debate, to establish that the left wing of the Democratic party needn't have a monopoly on economic justice (the way that they currently appear to, given the paucity of morally serious competing ideas).

3 comments:

  1. “Again, the key is just to accept the liberal's re-distributive step, but then place control of the purse strings back in the hands of citizens.”

    Depending on what you mean by “redistribution” it seems to me that many conservatives do accept something very much like this. The natural law tradition which many conservatives stand in for example has pretty much always retained that there is a moral duty for the wealthy to give money to the poor, and that when it comes to need property is held in common in some sense, the problem is that it was viewed as an imperfect duty. So that no particular individual could claim it against that particular individual (outside cases of necessity). That leaves room in principle for the kind of policy your suggesting, the duty to give is publicly upheld but the decision of which charity to give to is left up to the individuals discretion.
    In fact the religious traditions which inform a lot of US conservatives and also some of the sociological data on charitable giving tends to support the idea that many conservatives believe in and take seriously the idea that the wealthy have a serious moral duty to set aside a portion of there income to assist the poor. The issue is whether this assistance should be given through institutions like families, churches, and Mosques, and various private charities or whether it should be run by the state.

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    1. By "redistribution" here I mean taxing the rich and distributing the money in a more equal fashion (one form this may take is using the funds to provide philanthropic vouchers to individual citizens, who in turn pass on the funds to charities that they deem worthy).

      I agree that there are obvious principled reasons why conservatives should be open to this idea. (Sadly, few in politics are genuinely principled.) I certainly haven't seen any advocacy for anything like this from the current Republican party or its base, but I would be very pleasantly surprised if they decided to promote such a policy in future.

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  2. "By "redistribution" here I mean taxing the rich and distributing the money in a more equal fashion (one form this may take is using the funds to provide philanthropic vouchers to individual citizens, who in turn pass on the funds to charities that they deem worthy)."

    Right, here is why I asked, there is a difference between saying you should tax the rich to redistribute wealth in a more equal fashion. And saying that the poor have a right to a share of the surplus of the rich if they need it to survive and live a decent standard of living. One suggests inequality per se is a problem, the other suggests the problem is some people lacking the necessary resources for a dignified life.

    I agree that there are obvious principled reasons why conservatives should be open to this idea. (Sadly, few in politics are genuinely principled.) I certainly haven't seen any advocacy for anything like this from the current Republican party or its base, but I would be very pleasantly surprised if they decided to promote such a policy in future.

    Regarding the Republican base, there are some studies discussed in the literature on God and Morality which suggest a correlation between religious conservatism and support of private chartable institutions. Prima facie, these studies found that “secular liberals” showed higher support for government welfare, but were less likely to donate to private charities which assist the poor, whereas with “religious conservatives” the opposite was observed they tended to be much less supportive of state welfare but were more active in giving private donations and support to private charities which help the poor. There are of course various different reasons hypothesised for why this correlation is there. They are suggestive however of the idea that a significant number of conservatives do believe that wealth should, be redistributed from the wealthy to the poor, and do take this idea seriously the question is how much state involvement is involved.

    Btw I think something the idea your suggesting was actually suggested by William Paley who I am sure you are aware was a politically conservative utilitarian as an alternative to an established state church. Paley suggested instead of the state paying taxes directly to the state church.

    It also has similarities to the medieval practice of tithing, where it was a legal requirement that every land owner give 10 percent of his income to the churches, which in the middle ages ran schools hospitals, universities, and much of the poor relief.

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