Highlighting Philosophical Differences

Yet another thing that Katrina has done this week is to highlight some stark differences in what people believe about the world and the appropriate role for government.

That’s because Katrina has grimly reminded us of this fact of life: sometimes bad things happen to good people, through no fault of their own. Sometimes people just get unlucky.

Liberal versus Conservative Beliefs About the World

Liberals like me tend to believe that when that happens, our society as a whole will be better off if the rest of us try to help out those individuals who have suffered from circumstance. This doesn’t mean that we think that we can elimninate suffering, or ensure that nothing bad ever happens, or that we should insulate individuals from the consequences of their own actions. But when things outside of an individual’s control devastates their life, we think that it is compassionate and good and just – and even in our own enlightened self-interest – to help out.

Most conservatives, on the other hand, tend to believe that society should play a relatively small role in helping people when they’re down – the primary responsibility for recovery from bad times rests with the individual and his or her family, not with society in a broader sense. Perhaps this difference largely springs from the presumption of many conservatives that if an individual is experiencing bad times, it is probably largely a consequence of their own actions, and that they should have to bear full responsibility for their poor choices.

So if I had to encapsulate in a few words why I describe myself as a liberal, I would simply say this: I believe in bad luck. I think that a huge number of the forces that affect most people’s lives are outside of their control – the parents that they were born to, the quality of their local educational opportunities, the management of the company that they happen to work for, the fortunes of the city or town in which they happen to live, or the industry in which they happen to find work – and that individuals who suffer from a bad family, poor education, being laid off, or a hurricaine, should not be left to live with the consequences of their plain bad luck without help from society at large.

Why Government?

If you believe society should help out those who’ve drawn a bad lot, one might still wonder why the responsibility for giving them a helping hand should belong to the government, rather than private individuals.

The reason for this actually goes back to economic theory. One powerful insight that every first-year economics microeconomics student learns is that when something has a positive externality, or is a public good, the provision of that public good by private individuals will be less than each of those individuals would like. The problem is that such goods suffer from the free-rider problem. In such cases, society is unambiguously better off if the government provides the public good.

Taking care of society’s hard-luck cases is just such a public good. If you help out someone who’s suffering through no fault of their own, then I benefit, even if I haven’t contributed toward helping that person in any way. Our society is made more fair and just and more stable, and I will be able to rest slightly more easy knowing that if it is my turn to suffer the bad luck next time, you have demonstrated that you will help me out. In fact, everyone in society will benefit from your good works, even though they didn’t contribute. And so each of us, even those of us who think that it’s a good idea to help society’s bad-luck individuals, will have a strong incentive to be a free-rider. The result will be an under-provision of good deeds.

The solution is simple, however: let the government take over that responsibility. That way none of us will free-ride, the provision of help will be increased to its appropriate level, and we will all be better off.

In Practice

So what does this mean in practice? It means that liberals support government policies that provide help to those who have suffered from the powerful forces that buffet each of our lives but are outside of our control. As I said, that doesn’t mean that liberals want to try to completely insulate everyone from anything bad ever happening… just that when bad stuff happens that individuals have no control over, we think the government should help out a bit.

Most policy differences between Conservatives and Liberals can be seen in this light. This difference explains why:

  • Liberals believe in a strong and well-run national government that has the resources and organization to provide effective help to the victims of disasters such as Katrina. Conservatives have planned and executed the down-sizing of such federal government responsibilities.
  • Liberals disagree with the new bankruptcy law, which has made it financially much harder on individuals who go bankrupt, since we recognize that the vast majority of bankruptcies are due to plain bad luck – job loss or medical emergencies, in particular. Thus we think that individuals who face these personal disasters should receive some shelter from the corporations to whom they owe money. Conservatives apparently believe that the corporations need more financial protection than the hard-luck individual.
  • Liberals think that government provision of a good education to all people is an important way to help take care of those individuals who happen to be born to the wrong parents or in the wrong part of town. Conservatives tend to believe that education should be more up to the private sector and the private choices of parents, regardless of the fact that many parents do not have the means or inclination to provide a good education for their children.
  • Liberals think that the government has an important responsibility in assuring access to health care for all people, whether they are rich or poor, as a way of assuring that all of us will receive the medical help that we need when tragedy strikes. Conservatives tend to think that the government should have a minimal role in health care – if you are faced with medical bad luck, you should deal with it on your own.
  • Liberals believe strongly in progressive taxation, which provides a subtle redistribution of income toward those members of society who have suffered from a bad draw in life. Conservatives tend to advocate flat taxes, or minimal taxes, both of which minimize the progressive nature of the tax system.
  • Liberals believe in helping people who are laid off from their job, recognizing that this is typically due to mismanagement or broader industry trends, not due to the failings of the individual worker. Conservatives tend to believe that when a family suffers financially from a job loss, nearly all of the burden of coping with that loss should fall on that family.
  • Liberals believe in the social safety net more generally, for example to provide a guaranteed income to the elderly in the form of a stable and sure Social Security system, so that all of our senior citizens can count on a certain income level regardless of the luck that they face. Conservatives want to have the welfare of the elderly depend more on their good or bad choices, and – more realistically – their good or bad luck.

I could go on with this list, but I’m sure that you can fill in additional items yourself. My point is that nearly all policy divides between liberals and conservatives contain a strong element of the philosophical divide that I described above: that liberals tend to believe that people often suffer due to forces outside of their control, and that when that happens the government should help out; while conservatives think that the government should play a minimal role in helping those who have fallen on hard times.

Katrina provides a horrible but effective illustration of this difference in action.