I haven’t been blogging much lately, because I haven’t had many thoughts that haven’t been better expressed elsewhere. But I have to draw attention to a remark of Glenn Reynolds, which seems to me to express an important and little-noticed point:
The government decides to try to increase the middle class by subsidizing things that middle class people have: If middle-class people go to college and own homes, then surely if more people go to college and own homes, we’ll have more middle-class people. But homeownership and college aren’t causes of middle-class status, they’re markers for possessing the kinds of traits — self-discipline, the ability to defer gratification, etc. — that let you enter, and stay, in the middle class. Subsidizing the markers doesn’t produce the traits; if anything, it undermines them.
I dub this Reynolds’ Law: “Subsidizing the markers of status doesn’t produce the character traits that result in that status; it undermines them.” It’s easy to see why. If people don’t need to defer gratification, work hard, etc., in order to achieve the status they desire, they’ll be less inclined to do those things. The greater the government subsidy, the greater the effect, and the more net harm produced.
This law is thus a relative to Murray’s third law in Losing Ground, the Law of Net Harm: “The less likely it is that the unwanted behavior will change voluntarily, the more likely it is that a program to induce change will cause net harm.” But Reynolds’ Law rests on a different and more secure foundation. It focuses on character as fundamental.
Since the time of Woodrow Wilson, Democrats—but not only Democrats—have fretted that the middle class is shrinking due to the power of large corporations, and that only government action to “level the playing field” can save the middle class. The “middle class is being more and more squeezed out by the processes which we have been taught to call processes of prosperity.” Obama? Hillary? No, that’s Woodrow Wilson in 1913 (The New Freedom). It’s striking to realize that progressives have been playing the same tune for a century, no matter what’s actually taking place in the economy—indeed, in the midst of the greatest expansion of affluence in the history of the world—with the same set of proffered solutions: greater government power, regulations, higher taxes, and subsidies for the markers of affluence.
Reynolds’ Law thus strikes at the heart of progressivism as a political ideology. Progressivism can’t deliver on its central promise. In fact, it’s guaranteed to make things worse in exactly that respect. It’s not that it sacrifices some degree of one good (liberty or prosperity, say) to achieve a greater degree of another (equality). That suggests that the choice between conservatism and progressivism is a matter of tradeoffs, balances, and maybe even taste. Reynolds’ Law implies that progressivism sacrifices some (actually considerable) degrees of liberty and prosperity to move us away from equality by undermining the characters and thus behavior patterns of those they promise to help.
Not coincidentally, progressives accumulate power for themselves, not only by seizing it as a necessary means to their goals but by aggravating the very social problems they promise to address, thus creating an ever more powerful argument that something has to be done.
UPDATE: Welcome, Instapundit readers! Thanks for looking around! And thank you, Glenn!