Tyler Cowen is professor of economics at George Mason. A self-professed conservative and libertarian, he writes in today’s Business Section of the New York Times (Entitled: Whatever Happened to Discipline and Hard work?).
American culture has always had a high regard for those able to rise from rags to riches. It has had a strong work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit, attracting ambitious immigrants drawn here by the possibility of acquiring wealth. The best approach to fighting poverty is to stress achievement and the pursuit of excellence. But this traditional, pro-wealth cultural admission, he acknowledges, is showing some wear and tear. First, the relevant question about wealth is not how much do you have but how you have earned it. Earning money through manipulating government subsidies (agribusiness is one example he provides; corporate welfare is another) is not all that admirable. Predatory capitalism is what he calls it. There’s a second problem. Despite evidence that the Bush era tax cuts didn’t show much of an economic payoff, the wealthy have attached themselves to the idea that lower taxes for them is THE answer to our economic decline. A bit self-serving, it might seem. And a third problem also has appeared. Can, he asks, the pro-wealth cultural vision actually be spread among the populace? Can lighter taxation and pro-business policies have the desired effect of shifting popular culture, a culture that does not fully embrace the ideals of discipline and hard work? Not really is his answer. In states where conservatives have dominated for a long time, divorce rates are higher and educational systems weaker. Turns out less generous social welfare policy has not ended up promoting individual responsibility. That’s been the rallying cry of conservatives — if we just stopped making it easy for people to be poor, they would decide to be rich. Maybe not.
Cowen ends with this thought. Complaints about the growing inequality of wealth are likely to grow and conservatives are not likely to have all the answers. Nonetheless, higher income equality increases the appeal of traditional mores — of discipline and hard work — and that’s a good thing. Boy, he had me until then. I’m a huge fan of traditional mores, at least those of discipline and hard work. Every day in my job, I see the impact that these values can have on individuals who come from circumstances that would cripple most of us. But the truth is that such circumstances do cripple most children and social mobility in America has slowed to a drip. All I want is for children to be given as even a platform as we can give them to begin their life. That’s a near impossible task, I know, as children of the wealthy will always have a virtually insurmountable advantage over those that are born into poverty, homelessness and hunger. But it is not an impossible desire and social policy begins with a dream, with a vision of what might be. I don’t think American needs increasing income inequality to reinforce the American Dream. Even if one believes the disparity to be a good thing, we don’t need more of that particular good thing. Do we?