And this is where liberalism has a very important choice to make. It’s possible to defend Obamacare’s overall goals while also recognizing its potentially perverse effects, and conceding that we should try to minimize the number of low-skilled workers exiting the labor market.
But it’s also possible to argue that as a rich, post-scarcity society, we shouldn’t really care that much about whether the poor choose to work. The important thing is just making sure they have a decent standard of living, full stop, and if they choose Keynesian leisure over a low-paying job, that’s their business.
No it is not possible to argue any such thing. Nor have any arguments been produced. They simply preach and pretend they make sense. If there was no scarcity then, by definition, everyone would have a luxurious standard of living.
When we all thought unemployment was bad and goods were too scarce it was the government’s job to fix things by taking control of the economy, and now, suddenly, we live in “a rich, post-scarcity society” so the government must respond by taking control of the economy to fix it. No matter what story gets told the ending is always the same. Opposite arguments somehow lead to the same conclusion: government activity in the marketplace.
This has been going on for decades at least. The free-market economist Murray Rothbard talked about the same strategy a generation ago:
The intellectual world has fashions and one of the few good things about my advanced age is that I’ve seen fashions come and go. Every five years, some new nutty new theory comes along and everyone adopts it, then forgets it five years later. One nutty theory came in about 1970 and claimed that there was no more scarcity. Microeconomics might have been correct about there being scarcity in the old days but we now live in a post-scarcity world. What does that mean? What it means is that we are back in the Garden of Eden where nobody has to work. Obviously we are not in that situation.
I remember a debate I had with an economist who maintained that we lived in a post-scarcity world and, therefore, we didn’t have to work and, therefore, we should all be socialists. I don’t know why that was his conclusion because if no one has to work, it’s deuces wild. My question to him was, “If this is really true, if Professor SoandSo lives in a post-scarcity world, why doesn’t he tear up his paycheck?” His answer was interesting. He said, “it is because I, too, have been sucked into the capitalist ethos.” In other words, he admitted there was scarcity that he was trying to alleviate like everyone else.
From 1975 to 1980, the same economists who said we were living in a post-scarcity world adopted a nutty new theory and said all resources were running out — energy, oil, forests, etc., therefore, we should have socialism. The conclusion is always the same, you understand, we should have socialism.
So Douthat is singing a very old song. And it hasn’t started making any more sense than it ever did. But he gets worse:
On the left, there’s a growing tendency toward both pessimism and utopianism — with doubts about the compatibility of capitalism and democracy, and skepticism about the possibility for true equality of opportunity, feeding a renewed interest in 1970s-era ideas like a universal basic income.
On the conservative side, things are somewhat clearer. There are libertarians who like the basic income idea, but only as a substitute for the existing welfare state, not as a new expansion. Both “rugged individualist” right-wingers and more communitarian conservatives tend to see work as essential to dignity, mobility and social equality, and see its decline as something to be fiercely resisted.
The question is whether tomorrow’s liberals will be our allies in that fight.
The question is whether conservatives are going to keep treating Douthat as a fellow conservative rather than a delusional liberal. Libertarians “like the basic income idea”? Libertarians by definition repudiate all income redistribution. Why is Douthat making stuff up?
It doesn’t matter if work is “essential to dignity, mobility, and social equality.” That is entirely beside the point. I wish everyone I knew had more leisure. I never tell my teen children they need jobs for their dignity. I tell them they need extra income and there is only one way to get it.
People work to live. If people stop working they consume what has been saved and then either resume working or die. Rational people, whether or not they are “right-wingers” or “conservatives” see the “decline” of work as the path to poverty and death.
You think we live in a post-scarcity society. Just wait. By 2020 or sooner Douthat will be talking about how the Federal Government must ration goods because of our increasing poverty.
He will assure readers that even Libertarians agree with this.