This review of The Great Risk Shift, and this extremely long-winged blog post on David Frum’s Dead Right re: the meaning of risk are quite good and touch on a bunch of topics discussed here lately.
(3) Risk and conservatism. Hacker’s arguments suggest that the language of personal responsibility had its beginnings in economic thinking about insurance (see esp. pp. 47-53). I think that this is only partly true. There’s a second, quite independent line of thinking about personal responsibility that doesn’t have much at all to do with incentive problems, and a lot to do with ideas about individual character. Take, as a paradigmatic example, David Frum’s arguments in Dead Right. Frum is dismissive about arguments from economic incentives, claiming that they offer too much succour to those who would increase government spending. Instead, he focuses on the purportedly negative impact of the welfare state on personal character.
[INDENT]If the old American culture and the old American character were rational responses to the riskiness of life, you cannot alleviate that riskiness and expect the old character and the old character to persist. The children of a self-made man are different from their father: more optimistic, often more generous, more sensitive, and more tolerant, but less careful, less hard-working, less self-controlled. In the same way, the citizens of a socially-insured America will act and think differently from the citizens of self-reliant America. If you prefer the old character, it is wishful thinking to duck out of the struggle to return to the older way of life that brought that character into being.[/INDENT] Now, when stated as baldly as that, this is a remarkably unattractive and not especially coherent philosophy. We need more risk, and lots of it to build character! But something like this claim drives a lot of conservative writing about the evils of the welfare state – not that it offers the wrong incentives, but that it deforms personal character. While this may not be an especially persuasive argument to non-conservatives, I’d have liked to have seen Hacker’s book address it. It’s an important strain of current arguments against the welfare state. It’s also a big, fat target.
The thing that makes capitalism good, apparently, is not that it generates wealth more efficiently than other known economic engines. No, the thing that makes capitalism good is that, by forcing people to live precarious lives, it causes them to live in fear of losing everything and therefore to adopt – as fearful people will – a cowed and subservient posture: in a word, they behave ‘conservatively’. Of course, crouching to protect themselves and their loved ones from the eternal lash of risk precisely won’t preserve these workers from risk. But the point isn’t to induce a society-wide conformist crouch by way of making the workers safe and happy. The point is to induce a society-wide conformist crouch. Period. A solid foundaton is hereby laid for a desirable social order.[/quote]
John Holbo seems to be missing David Frum’s point completely (or I am). It seems like Frum is arguing that by making it possible to go lower, people will work harder and wind up going higher. There’s no mention of a society-wide conformist crouch, rather the opposite.
Hmmm… I tend to agree with Frum’s sentiments, but his arguments appear weak, and based on a very subjective viewpoint.
The children of a self-made man are different from their father: more optimistic, often more generous, more sensitive, and more tolerant, but less careful, less hard-working, less self-controlled. In the same way, the citizens of a socially-insured America will act and think differently from the citizens of self-reliant America.
Germany is a socially-insured nation, and yet its people are seen to be all the characteristics that he claims are for a self-reliant nation: hard-working, careful and self-controlled. I think it might be that culture and upbringing govern attitudes far more than economic policies.
I kind of scanned Charles Murray’s recent big AEI speech expecting to read something interesting, since I’d seen quite a few conservatives offer it lavish praise. As best I could tell, though, his argument is that the problem with a social democratic model is that it makes people too fat and happy, thus depriving them of the higher contentment offered by suffering and misery. Damon Linker has a good summary:
[INDENT]But that’s not all. Because genuine happiness, for Murray, requires spending one’s life striving to overcome an endless series of challenges and obstacles, the lavish European safety net ensures that individual Europeans will never experience spiritual contentment or satisfaction. The assumption seems to be that a life of leisure — or at least a life with open access to health care, quality child care, generous unemployment insurance, and 4 - 6 weeks of guaranteed vacation time a year — will be an unhappy one. (It doesn’t sound half-bad to me, but I’m a Euro-loving liberal.)
Luckily, though, there is the American alternative (at least until Barack Obama gets through with us). Unlike coddled Europeans, Americans face the constant possibility of personal economic catastrophe. They work their lives away just to make ends meet, never knowing if they’ll be rewarded for their efforts by being fired by their employer or impoverished by medical bills after a life-threatening illness. And that constant insecurity is what opens up the possibility of genuine happiness for them, because if they manage to survive, let alone thrive, they’ll know that they did it on their own, without the help of the state, through heroic acts of self-reliance. This ideology — equal parts Christian masochism, Emersonian individualism, and Nietzschean striving — forms the core of American exceptionalism, according to Murray.
[/INDENT] It’s really that weird, and as Linker notes has important similarities with the Donner Party conservatism that John Holbo found in David Frum’s Dead Right.
Inherent in the idea that risk builds character is the question: what about the ones who don’t make it? If it’s true that overcoming threats and obstacles is the key to being truly happy, doesn’t it follow that misery is in store for those who don’t overcome them? I suppose if that’s your philosophy, then you also think that those who fail were the ones who deserved to fail. But if they deserved to fail, isn’t character predetermined? Why are bothering to try to build it?
This seems to me like the idea that manhood is dependent on being tested in war - if you assume that’s true, it’s great for the ones who make it, but not so good for the ones who die.
I just love how risk made all these banking institutions more conservative. They may have destroyed our financial system, but oh did they experience spiritual enlightenment when they left their jobs with all that bonus money. Boy, they must feel like Gandhi, or something.
Generally no. I’ve always preferred to build in Australia and then strike out across India to Africa. Once you secure Africa and South America, it’s simply a matter of holding North Africa and smashing up through Central America for a two-prong assault on Asia. Europe is treated as an annoyance until it becomes necessary to move through Iceland.
Social security, student loans, and other government programs make it far less catastrophic than it used to be for middle-class people to dissolve their families. Without welfare and food stamps, poor people would cling harder to working-class respectability than they do not.
More ridiculous Social Darwinism.
The lack of some sort of social safety net decreases the flexibility of the labor market and therefore makes the economy less efficient and effective. Social safety nets have the additional advantages of acting as automatic countercyclical spending in the event of a recession and generally smoothing consumption throughout the economic cycle.
Excessively generous social welfare systems increase structural unemployment above equilibrium levels, and can have adverse affects on the labor market when tied to stringent regulations on the hiring and firing of personnel.
The problems inherent in excessive welfare are dwarfed by the problems created by – and the loss of efficiency caused by – a lack of any welfare system. Anyone who doesn’t see that, like this Frum fucker, is an whore gagging idiot poopy head.
Isn’t this directly opposed to what Frum wants? I mean, he then mentions breaking up of marriages, but isn’t a better parallel to be made with investment? Without a safety net, people won’t aim that high because of the fear of falling.
Well, yeah, but that’s the point. It’s about separating the best from the worst. The idea is that this allows us to have more exceptional people. To some extent, I agree. Forced equality tends toward mediocrity. But this particular argument is focusing on the wrong issues and ignores the arbitrary nature of much of capitalist practice. In theory, the best rise to the top and the indolent/talentless fall to the bottom. But in practice, far too many other factors are involved. Take what happened to Jeff Lackey recently. He’s a great employee (from his own reports!). But in a bad economy like this one, the best often get cut first because they cost more. So the risk here isn’t confined to merit based scales.
Also, there are many ways to self-actualize beyond just working. That’s just as critical a flaw, IMO.
Inherited wealth/children of wealthy parents distorts this massively. If a given person who is born is not given the same good schooling & parenting opportunities as another how is it sperating the best from the rest?
To have meritocracy you need to have equality of opportunity and that requires equality of wealth from birth.
I think you’re correct that this is the ultimate goal of this philosophy. How many of the people who espouse an idea like this ever consider that they might not be exceptional? Would they still believe what they do if they knew they were going to be among those who didn’t make it? My guess is you pretty much have to already consider yourself one of the “winners” to have this as your outlook on life.
If you knew how to write in devanagari, you’d see how obvious a mistake that is. The letters for gha and ga and dhi and di are totally different. I don’t think I can type in devanagari on Qt3 (or my computer, tbh) but it’s worth checking out on wikipedia.