A few weeks ago I wrote about how Charles Murray’s analysis of growing cultural inequality failed to account for the role both government and non government institutions can play in reversing growing inequality. Since then, Murray’s new book has become a major discussion point on blogs and in newspapers. Paul Krugman gives what I’ll call the typical liberal response, arguing that it is money and not morals that is driving the breakdown of social norms and the increase in cultural inequality.
When it comes to social analysis conservatives tend to focus on individual choices while liberals tend to focus on systemic analysis. In fairness to Murray he does avoid placing the blame solely on behavioral choices of the lower class by offering suggestions for the upper class. And in fairness to Krugman his job is to look at how systems put in place by the government impact individuals. However, as long as each respective side ignores each other, nothing meaningful will be done on either front.
I don’t want to participate in a false equivalency in which splitting the difference between the two sides is the solution. While conservatives will frequently claim that the government cannot (not just should not, but can not) help the poor. Murray is a good example (more moderate conservatives like Douthat disagree). I can not think of a prominent liberal who has claimed that poor people never make bad choices. In fact, many argue that although poor people have made bad choices they deserve a system that offers them a second chance. Sure, liberal pundits may gloss over behavioral causes of poverty and overemphasize systemic ones, but this is still different than simply denying the existence of structural causes.
Moderates who are able to acknowledge both are often able to come up with reasonable policy solutions. There is actually significant overlap between the policy suggestions of Kristof and Douthat. Both call for:
– Increased access to early childhood education
– Reform of the incarceration system (Douthat looks at length of sentencing and Kristof at workforce reentry)
– Making low-education work pay (Douthat looks at immigration and Kristof at the decline of union jobs).
It’s unfortunate that liberals aren’t willing to start off the conversation by acknowledging that poor choices are being made and then asking conservatives what behavioral incentives can be changed by public policy in order to minimize the appeal of those choices. But it’s even more of a shame that conservatives are unwilling to acknowledge that government has the ability to alter incentives and improve the lives of millions in the process. As Douthat persuasively concludes of his proposed policy agenda:
This agenda would not require the kind of radical (and implausible) transformations of government that both libertarians and liberals often pine for. Neither, admittedly, would it radically transform the lives of the people it aims to help. But it would do good at the margins of a large and growing problem, and that is no small thing.