Friday, January 04, 2008

On Populism

With an increasing danger of our electing a populist of some sort, perhaps I should spend a little time explaining the positions of a populist, and why I cannot support one.

It is easy to identify a populist, as they are always going on and on about "the elite" and how they are terrible and how "the people" need a representative (them, of course). John Edwards, of course, preaches populism. But so too does Mike Huckabee. In his latest appearance on the Tonight Show, he told Jay Leno that he appealed to people because he seemed like someone they worked with rather than someone who laid them off. That is populist rhetoric.

Populist ideology is typically social conservatism with fiscal liberalism. Populists revel in their anti-economic thinking, and use it and the fact that most people do not think economically to appeal to people's basest economic understandings and rives, particularly envy and covetousness.

When we envy someone, we do not so much want to do as well as them as we want them to do worse, to be brought down to our low level.

When we covet, we do not want the kinds of things another has -- we want the exact things that other person has.

Populism feeds on and off of these drives in people. Never mind the fact that one of the Ten Commandments makes it clear that "Thou Shall Not Covet." Populists like Huckabee (ironic that he was a Baptist preacher, and he's exploiting the fact that too many people are violating the 10 Commandments here) use the covetousness of others to argue for government control in the economy. Populists (and socialists, for that matter) do not understand that the economy is not a pie we divide up, and if I get more, you get less, but is rather more like a growing sour dough mix, that can grow and grow and grow if you just keep adding ingredients. Huckabee and all the Democratic candidates believe that it's not fair that you have a sour dough batch, and so force you to bake it all into bread to hand out to those without sour dough. The end result is that nobody will have any once the dough is all baked.

Unlike with Edwards, I don't think Huckabee's beliefs come from a bad place. I think he is sincere. He is just sincerely wrong. He thinks that economic populism will help people, that those on welfare are all hard on their luck, and they just need some help. My wife reports that in regards to those on welfare, most are not hard on their luck, that they are cynically using the system when they are perfectly capable of finding a job and working. Welfare just discourages most of them. In her opinion, maybe 10% of those on welfare really need the help -- help that is supposed to be temporary. I understand Huckabee's desire to help, but he's naive about how the world works, and about the realities of what too many on welfare are like. Like Huckabee, I would like to help as many people who actually need help as possible. Where we differ is how to help. He believes that government should directly help people. I am with the apostle Paul: "He who does not work shall not eat." The basic economic insight here is that if you take away peoples incentives to work, they won't work. It took the Puritans a while to figure out that and get rid of collective property to make sure that everyone would in fact work. The free riders almost caused the starvation of the entire group. And these were the strict, hardworking, moralist Puritans! More, they were in a hostile environment where they would almost certainly die if they didn't participate. And yet, they too had the free rider problem. With all the charities in the U.S., nobody is in danger of starving to death. People are generous here, and will feed just about everyone if they can. Which is why too many buy into populism -- they want to help. But are you really helping if you use my money to do so? It is immoral to rob Peter to give to Paul. Give your own money, and let me give mine.

People also look to populists because they want someone to take care of them. They do not have the confidence in themselves that I have for them. If people would understand that as adults they no longer need anyone to take care of them, that they are now big enough to take care of themselves, there wouldn't be a populist candidate for anything ever again. Unfortunately, too many aren't convinced of this fact, even though they should have sufficient evidence from their own lives that it is true. Instead of seeing the Hillary Christmas ad where she is putting government programs under a Christmas tree as presents as being despicable -- which it most certainly was -- too many likely thought, Finally! Someone who is going to take care of me!" Clinton, Obama, Edwards, and Huckabee all are promising that we don't have to grow up, that we don't have to be responsible, that they will take good care of us. But all they are really offering us are bread and circuses. In the meantime, the barbarians are at the gate . . .

"Hush little baby, don't say a word . . . President's going to buy you a mockingbird . . ."
Post a Comment