Monday, September 18, 2006

The Lemonade Stand Approach to Politics

Conservatives have always been skeptical of George W. Bush and his "compassionate conservatism", because it suggests conservatives are not naturally compassionate. And we Reagan conservatives well remember W's dad calling for a "kinder, gentler" approach to domestic policy.

What both Bushes meant by that is that they essentially put their faith in big government's ability to solve problems rather than the private sector, or families working, living and volunteering in their local communities. George W leavened this by opening up support for faith-based programs, recognizing their success in turning lost people's lives around, and by calling for an "ownership society" backed up by tax cuts.

Runaway congressional spending and the lack of a Bush veto has exacerbated conservatives' distrust, tempered only by the knowledge that the war on Islamofascists has required increases in defense and homeland security spending.

There is discussion of economic conservatives or libertarians bolting from the Republican party, unraveling the alliance with social conservatives which brought us to a majority. There are, admittedly, social conservatives who would like big government social engineering in their mold. I would only say there that I think more family-friendly policies are a necessity for a healthy society. (This common sense is recognized by most Americans, though eludes elitist liberals. Note the last few paragraphs of George Will's column here. ) And a National Review conservative writes an op-ed piece in the NY Times that a Democrat win in November might not be so bad and might chasten porky Republicans and expose the Democrats as bankrupt of ideas and craven in our defense.

To me, national security trumps all other considerations right now, so I am not leaving the Republican party anytime soon. It's too important to fool around. We need more statesmen and fewer politicians.

But the Defense Dept. is one of the few areas of government that would not benefit from being privatized. Our government sometimes seems to forget that respect for private property goes hand in hand with individual liberty and democracy, and that government is "by the people".

Yet there is another ongoing problem with the private sector, specifically American big business. Too often big corporations try to buy off professional liberal activists by donating to their pet causes. You might call them appeasers. And while it might make for good PR in the short term, in the long run it gains them nothing. For a long time McDonald's was demonized, here and abroad, (and still is), now it's Wal-Mart (tho they are at least engaging their union-backed critics) and Starbucks and Coke. Pretty soon a Clinton Justice Dept. (Microsoft) or a politically opportunistic Democrat like Eliot Spitzer will come after them. After all, they are evil personified, everyone knows that.

Tierney's column, "Capitalism with a Heart" highlights the efforts of a new wave of American capitalists to engage in "philanthropy for profit" with their "socially conscious" companies, using compassion as a marketing tool. Some are liberals, some call themselves libertarians. Here's Mr. Whole Foods:
Mackey is a passionate environmentalist, an advocate of animal rights, a promoter of sustainable development — and a self-proclaimed libertarian. Call him a bleeding-heart libertarian. He wants to spread the free-market gospel, but he sees an obstacle.

“Corporations are lifting billions of people out of poverty,” he says. “Why are they so hated?”

You might call these guys the talk right, act-left bunch (a variation on talk-left, act-right). They may have their heart in the right place, but many of their causes are wrong-headed and will increase human misery. And many of them seem clueless about the unintended consequences of liberal policies. Certainly environmentalist excess has caused millions of acres of forest, including parkland, to be wasted by wildfires, killing wildlife as well as robbing people of their livelihood, (whose incentive would have been to conserve the land so the trees could be harvested, then replanted---more wood for "affordable" housing, cheaper paper for books and newsprint.)

But conservatives could learn something from this---let's not let the left take capitalism or compassion away from us. Maybe there is some merit to packaging together free enterprise and good works, but is it necessary, or even redundant?

One of the inherent virtues of capitalism is the necessity of individual liberty to make it work. Google might well have remembered this before it caved in to China, using its search engine to block free speech and, intentionally or not, aid the communist state's dragnet for dissidents. Tierney himself cautions that too many lost causes will cause the market to walk away from a company, that it may better serve people by sticking to its core business. I would add, let the widows and orphans benefit from the dividends, and let other stockholders make their own charitable choices.

But capitalism itself is inherently virtuous, if grounded in the Golden Rule that sustains democracies as well. One of the best explicators of this is Rev. Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute, who has written a book, "Toward a Free and Virtuous Society". I first heard Rev. Sirico speak at a National Review conference in Chicago. It was the early days of the Clinton administration, when I was so disgusted I was spurred to political activism. The seminar was on a Saturday and while I was absorbing the message, my husband did his bit by helping our kids set up a lemonade stand.

Father Sirico recently spoke in Chicago on "Capitalism and the Common Good: the Ten Pillars of a Moral Society". One of the pillars is profit. One of the reasons capitalism gets a bad rap is, of course, that liberals think profit is a dirty word. Father Sirico:
Are losses ethically preferable?
No one wants a rerun of the company losses in the 90's, whose dishonesty the market eventually disciplined in the most brutal way, or even the garden variety losses that Ford is sustaining now. People incur real hardship.

Of course, liberals also think government is the solution. Father Sirico:
[They] forget that bureaucrats are not immaculately conceived,
and goes on to say that they can cause greater harm by socializing practices destructive to society. (Welfare and the breakdown of the family come to my mind.)
Liberals will then say the most virtuous organization is a non-profit. Hmm.....but then who would pay the taxes that sustain their big government programs? Liberals would say, "the rich", but of course the very rich may not pay taxes either---some of them buy government bonds, which do finance government, or make donations. Liberals want to label as rich and heavily tax, among others, American entrepreneurs, the backbone of our economy, many of them women, some single moms and minorities who worked their way up.

The fruits of capitalism extend beyond capitalists providing for their families, employment for others, and choice of goods for consumers. As Father Sirico also pointed out, literacy, leisure and education must be provided for out of a store of capital, which is the product of an advanced civilization---"rarely is the market credited for this creation".

As well, I would say the competition for a finite amount of resources to produce the best product at the lowest price, can offer a virtuous, yes virtuous, model for public policy, certainly in the area of schools, as school choice is being debated around the country. And after all, what better way to diffuse the power of the state, its bureaucrats, and its schools, too often unaccountable and sometimes indifferent to the point of inhumanity.

Recently there was a story in Chicago about a gravely ill child in a public school who was shunted around and essentially abandoned to die alone. Why does this tragedy surprise no one, if they're honest? Everyone was responsible, but no one was accountable, so no one was. No one cared enough.

There is no monopoly on virtue by any group in society, in the public or private sector. But Americans who practice capitalism in our democracy, grounded in the Golden Rule, come close. And the market, made up of each of us, helps keep them honest.

So I would suggest to libertarians who want to bolt the Republican party, to social conservatives who are impatient for a more moral society, and to porky Republican politicians who are dragging us down, we have a positive force that works and unites us all, if we would only recognize it.

And let's see a few more lemonade stands on a few more corners.

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