With all the ink that’s been shed about the rhetorical battle between conservatives and progressives, a structural advantage of the latter seems to have eluded detection. Clichés abound — the Right talks logic, while the Left leverages emotion; if you’re not a teenage liberal, you have no heart, but if you’re not a middle-aged conservatives, you have no brain; and so on — but they don’t quite hit the key disparity.
Having controlled cultural institutions for so long, progressives have shifted the ideological battlefield in their favor to leave conservatives no satisfactory answer to a simple, straightforward, and important question: What is your solution? They’ll point to people suffering and claim government must act because we have to do something. However, the only somethings they’ll accept as legitimate alternatives are those that have government acting. One can’t simply reply that other social institutions are better suited to address a problem.
Indeed, the very thing that makes those other institutions preferable for addressing various social problems is the thing progressives insist disqualifies them: They are voluntary. To progressives, any real solution must be mandatory, implicitly because they feel that people are bad and won’t do things to help others. You can maybe bully a bare majority — through exaggerated warnings, false promises, and the threat of social ostracism — to impose restrictions on themselves and everybody else, but leave things to choice, and only a handful of the truly righteous will respond as you’d prefer.
And of course, solutions that involve voluntary action through cultural institutions are more difficult to trace from cause to effect. If you know Jennifer struggled to afford college, it’s straightforward to say that government must take money from other people to give it to future Jennifers. It’s much less direct to suggest that we (1) avoid direct subsidies so as to keep prices down and (2) encourage strong, nuclear families to increase the likelihood that future Jennifers will have family members who are able to help them cover the costs.
John DePetro and I touched on this principle during our conversation earlier this week when we talked about teenagers scheduling fights at Providence Place Mall. We can impose direct rules to try to prevent this sort of thing; the mall has, I believe, banned some of the participants for life. That won’t solve the problem, though, but just move it around. We can take taxpayer dollars and create programs that might (maybe) draw some of the kids away from the fighting scene to a more-productive activity (like basketball), but that will mainly serve kids who are already inclined toward productivity.
Instead, we’ve got to fix the culture that has made a brawl at the mall seem like a thing worth doing. In this, I don’t mean to suggest banning violent video games or social media or anything like that. Rather, we have to change our attitude toward bad behavior.
For example, the recent Johns Hopkins report on Providence Schools mentioned that students have no fear of discipline. As I noted in July, that’s a problem created (at least in part) by a state government that insisted on dictating suspension policies for the entire state. The City of Providence added to this atmosphere when it developed the Community Safety Act, which I called the “Gangland Security Act.”
The overall message is that kids won’t face consequences and, moreover, that they’ll have the high ground if they do — that there is something wrong with a society that would discipline them.
Thus, from the perspective of a society trained to believe that government should do something, the conservative solution looks like a whole series of refusals to address problems. Removing restrictions on schools’ ability to determine their own discipline policies looks like a refusal to address racial disparities in suspensions. Eliminating the incentives that contribute to single-parent families looks like a refusal to address untold social problems, from spousal abuse to poverty, while pressuring people into stultifying old-fashioned families.
So, instead, the default wins: Add one more top-down government policy… and try to ignore the unintended consequences.
Featured image: Eugene Delacroix’s The Good Samaritan (1849).