Crippling Poverty is Not Service to Family

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I agree, broadly speaking, with Ross Douthat’s point that the grand economic argument between left and right is not something that you can “resolve” with “proof” or better empirical results. But I think this conclusion is garbage:

How much do you prize equality and ease of life? The more you do, the more you’ll favor a European approach to the relationship between state and society. How much do you prize voluntarism, entrepreneurship, and the value of lives oriented around service to one’s family, and to God? The more you do, the more you’ll find to like in the American arrangement. Where this debate is concerned, I’m proud to stand with Charles Murray – but I don’t think that we should labor under the false hope that scientific advances are going to tilt the argument dramatically in our direction.

Left out of here is what the right always loves to leave out of discussions of economic policy choices: interest. If you’re poor in the United States and you live in a neighborhood where poor people can afford to live, you will almost certainly be living in a neighborhood that’s much more dangerous than the neighborhoods in which poor Dutch people live. You’ll also find yourself living in a country that’s much less friendly to the interests of people who can’t afford a car than is the Netherlands. Conversely, if a European executive meets an American executive and feels a twinge of jealousy, it’s not for the American’s greater level of “entrepreneurship” it’s for the fact that the U.S. social model leaves top executives much richer than European executives. In Finland, low-end wages are higher than they are in the United States. This is great for relatively low-skill Finnish people. But it also means that there are many fewer mid-price restaurants in Helsinki than in a typical American city, which is bad for the sort of upper middle class professionals (or Americans on a trip) who are likely to patronize such restaurants.

In the US and in Europe, income level is fairly predictive of voting behavior and this is neither a coincidence nor the reflection of an abstract disagreement about the value of “voluntarism.” It reflects the fact that politics is, among other things, a concrete contest over concrete economic interests. In a broad sense, both the American and European models work quite well compared to living standards enjoyed in other parts of the world. But in comparison, the models work differently for different kinds of people because different people have different interests. I don’t think, for example, that America’s high child poverty rate reflects American preference for “service to one’s family” over “ease of life.”