Nov 18, 2011 12:40 AM GMT
One basic idea is that hard work should be rewarded. Obvious, right? I mean, we're supposed to be economists here! People respond to incentives, and they are risk averse. A winner-take-all society is not very conducive to hard work; I'm not going to bust my butt for 30 years for a 1% shot at getting into The 1%. But I am going to bust my butt for 30 years if I think this gives me a 90% chance of having a decent house, a family, some security, a reasonably pleasant job, a dog, and a couple of cars in my garage. An ideal middle-class society is one in which everyone, not just anyone, can get ahead via hard work.
Liberals have tried hard to construct such a middle-class society. They came up with worker health and safety regulations, weekends, Social Security, labor unions, public schools, living wages, government-subsidized housing loans, grants and loans for college, earned-income tax credits, job retraining, and tax breaks for health care. Some of those ideas worked spectacularly, some failed. Many had mixed results. But the basic idea was sound: not just to give people handouts, but to make them feel as if they deserved what they were getting because of hard work.
Conservatives, meanwhile, are all too often divided on whether they actually believe that hard work works. Plenty of conservatives have undermined Cowen's hard-work-and-discipline bloc by saying that success in life is all due to natural differences in ability. These "I.Q. conservatives" see inequality as the natural order of things. They have focused on getting people to accept their place in society and learn to live with what they have, rather than strive to move up in the world. This is a very Old British sort of conservatism, a nobility-and-peasants ethos dressed up in the faux modernism of psychometric testing.
Conservatives need to look in the mirror and ask themselves: "Do we really want people to work hard and be disciplined? Or do we just say that in order to keep the peasants from getting restless, when deep down we believe that it's all about good genes?" Because if it's the former, conservatives should do some hard thinking about what actually gets people to work hard. And they should think about how to respond to those among their colleagues for whom it is simply the latter.
I might add that for social conservatives, it's not hard work that really matters, but Calvinist predestination and outward manifestation of being part of the elect that seals your superiority in society.