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Divisive Politics and Public Philosophy

Spring 2014 - Vol. 56, No. 2

 

This editor's note appears in the Spring 2014 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.


 

When I was a teenager, I had a job over the course of several summers as an unskilled laborer with a metal construction company in the little town on the west coast of Florida where I grew up. It was my way of earning spending money for boarding school and later for college. When I started, I was making a dollar an hour. If my memory is not playing tricks on me, the welders were mostly making about two dollars an hour. Remember, this was fifty years ago in the nonunionized South. Eventually, the Johnson administration caught up with the owner of the company and he had to start paying minimum wage and time-and-a-half for overtime. I think that bumped me up to $1.69 per hour with plentiful overtime—the company was flourishing.

There was, to be sure, a good deal of grumbling about the low wages, both among the other teenagers and the older men, and the turnover among employees was high. Under the influence of this whispered complaining, I told my father during that first summer that it was unfair that I should be making only a dollar an hour. “If he had to pay you more,” my father replied, “you wouldn’t have a job: you’re not worth more than a dollar an hour.” This stung, but then my father was less concerned about boosting his son’s self-esteem than most contemporary parents. And he was perfectly correct: making good grades in school in no way contributed to the erection of metal buildings. I was young and strong and could carry heavy objects around in the summer heat all day, but then a great many young fellows could do the same.

This incident from my boyhood came back to me recently when I read a Christmas Day editorial in my local newspaper, the Tampa Bay Times. (One of the great disappointments in moving to a new city is that “local” newspapers, like shopping malls, are the same everywhere: they all aspire to be the New York Times.) “Taxpayers foot bill on low pay,” the headline proclaims. “It’s long been clear,” the editorial asserts, “that American taxpayers are subsidizing the fast food industry because so many of its low-paid workers end up needing some form of public assistance.” Worse still, the piece continues, banks are also being “subsidized” by taxpayers. “They pay top executives huge sums. Why is it that nearly a third of bank tellers rely on government benefits of one kind or another to keep their families afloat?”

While the editorial explicitly endorses a proposal by Democratic congressmen with support from the president to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour, it also maintains that the policy “should appeal to conservatives as well.” The rationale is that increasing the pay of working parents will enable them to support their families (and also “gain pride”) without relying on a “government safety net and entitlement programs.” “The low pay in too many areas of the private sector essentially transfers responsibility and costs to the public sector that are paid by taxpayers instead of business.” Taxpayers must therefore demand, the editorial concludes, “that government stop subsidizing private enterprise.”

Now I can understand why conservatives may be concerned about income inequality (although I cannot see that the compensation of CEOs is more “obscene” than that of pop singers, movie stars, and professional athletes, who never seem to draw much wrath from progressive scolds). I can even envisage a set of circumstances in which a conservative may find a minimum wage useful social policy. But the economic arguments for such a policy, at the present at least, seem altogether spurious. My job of many years ago survived the advent of the minimum wage, but that was because I had by then been around two or three summers and had proven my reliability and picked up some modest skills. The company had, however, generally stopped hiring teenagers at that point.

A syndicated column by David Brooks, also published, to its credit, by the Tampa Bay Times about three weeks later (January 19, 2014), points out that raising the minimum wage is unlikely to lower poverty rates:

That’s because raises in the minimum wage are not targeted at the right people. Only 11 percent of the workers affected by such an increase come from poor households. Nearly two-thirds of such workers are the second or third earners living in households at twice the poverty line or above.

If Brooks is to be believed, the Tampa Bay Times editorial skews the statistics by selectively focusing on fast-food workers and bank tellers; a raise in the minimum wage would not apply merely to these two categories.

A nagging inner voice of prudence reminds me that I must not allow myself to begin floundering about in economic details. When George H. W. Bush accused Ronald Reagan of practicing “voodoo economics” during the 1980 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, my response was, “Is there any other kind?” I am hardly the man to ask for economic analysis. Besides, Modern Age avoids a preoccupation with immediate policy issues. What is pertinent to our mission is what the logic, the tone, and the unstated assumptions of the Tampa Bay Times editorial tell us about the public philosophy of progressive politics, of which it is so typical.

Taxpayers are subsidizing business because the wages of many workers are too low. The first notable unstated premise is that the “taxpayer”—that is, the government by means of taxes—has the ultimate responsibility of caring for adult men and women. The effect of this is to put the government in loco parentis, thus treating the people as the children. But they are not children; rather than living as independent citizens, they are reduced to a state of servility. Lest I be thought a cynical mouthpiece of the rich bent on exploiting the poor, please observe that I am simply recalling the arguments of G. K. Chesterton (see “The Gardener and the Guinea” from A Miscellany of Men) and Hilaire Belloc (The Servile State). Neither of these men could be identified as an advocate of laissez-faire capitalism.

While it is doubtful whether most voters who claim to support a minimum-wage law have actually considered its implications, hardcore progressives, if cornered, might acknowledge their acceptance of the logic of this premise. The second premise lying behind the progressive enthymeme is, however, simply illogical, not to say absurd; that is, the dichotomy necessarily erected by this argument between taxpayers (mysteriously incorporated into the “public sector”) and “business” may be advanced only by the ignorant or the cynical. Business—this hypostatized abstraction turned one part irresponsible wastrel, one part menacing ogre—is, in actual fact, a great many men and women engaged in business, from the owner of the corner store to the CEO of, let’s say, the local newspaper. And all these individuals are . . . taxpayers. Indeed, “business” is itself a “taxpayer” by means of corporate taxes—in America about the highest in the world among developed nations, according to what I read.

The assertion “taxpayers are subsidizing business” is thus a kind of tautology: business is subsidizing business, or taxpayers are subsidizing taxpayers. Innocent as I am of the muddy, roiled waters of current political controversy, even I, alas, have not failed to notice widespread alarm over “incivility” and “divisiveness” in public discourse. Usually such epithets are applied in high dudgeon by progressive idealists, bent upon protecting the poor and disadvantaged from ruthless “Tea Party” extremists. Yet the argument in the Tampa Bay Times editorial is literally divisive, not only dividing certain “taxpayers” from, well, other taxpayers, but splitting hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of our fellow citizens into a “taxpayer” self and a “business” self completely at odds.

The purpose of these remarks is not to offer a definitive solution to the problem of income inequality or even an assessment of the extent to which it ought to be regarded as a problem; much less do I propose a finely calibrated disquisition on the minimum wage. Rather, I wish to suggest that these are complex problems involving manifold factors that are very difficult to fit together in a conceptual scheme. No useful purpose is served by purporting to “solve” them with heedlessly manipulated statistics, obscure and defective premises illogically developed, and a belligerent tone.

More important still, the Tampa Bay Times offers a dismaying example of what L. Scott Smith, in the lead article of this issue, perceives as a gradual but telling alteration of “America’s public philosophy.” Following Tocqueville, Smith observes that while America has a “way of life,” Americans have for the most part been unaware of the philosophical principles upon which it has rested. Over the course of time, this obliviousness has proven deleterious. “Liberalism,” in the classical sense, with emphasis on small government and individual freedom, has proved an equivocal term. Virtually absorbed by government-oriented progressivism during the twentieth century, “liberalism” is now used to undermine the social norms that make the American way of life possible. The ambiguity of the term spawns the kind of political incoherence manifest in the Tampa Bay Times editorial on the minimum wage.

Professor Smith’s article directly addresses one of the principal goals of Modern Age: not to solve a specific policy issue but to provide a framework for confronting such issues in a knowledgeable and rational manner. The other essays in this issue, while less overtly involved with political philosophy, nonetheless contribute to the health of our polity by reflecting on matters of culture and morality; for healthy political discourse relies upon sound moral and cultural norms. Glenn C. Arbery explores the correspondence between two of the more important American poets of the twentieth century, highlighting their disagreement over the role of the poet in public affairs. Steven D. Ealy provides a detailed interpretation of Robert Penn Warren’s poetic treatment of some of the tensions and contradictions in the “liberal” public philosophy identified by Smith, and John Caiazza assesses the strengths and weaknesses of Alasdair MacIntyre’s virtue ethics, an account of ethics much discussed in conservative circles over the past few decades.

Finally, it is a special privilege to be able to publish Donald Kagan’s “Why We Should Study the History of Western Civilization,” an address delivered at ISI’s Dinner for Western Civilization last October. In urging us not to abandon the specific study of Western civilization, Professor Kagan reminds us, in the face of multicultural platitudes, not only of the uniqueness of the culture that originated in Athens and Jerusalem but also of its superiority in so many respects. Its loss would be a tragedy not only for the West but for all mankind. Among the greatest losses would be the thoughtful and measured public philosophy that we see neglected and even contemned in an endless stream of progressive editorials and commentaries that dominate our mass media.

I cannot close without mentioning the recent passing away of Stephen Tonsor. Professor Tonsor was a longtime member of the editorial board of Modern Age and a stalwart supporter of both this journal and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. We offer our condolences to his surviving family and friends; he shall also be greatly missed in the wider academic and conservative circles to which he contributed so much. We anticipate offering a fitting tribute to his life and work in a subsequent issue. —RVY