Virginia Tech® home

Another Turn of the Wheel



Authors as Published

As the 2016 Presidential campaign begins in earnest, it is clear that it will be waged along now familiar fault lines in so far as its candidates address the question of income inequality in the country. For many conservatives the issue is not income inequality, but hypothesized deficiencies, either of character or of educational-market “mismatch” or both, among the poor and those individuals suffering long-term unemployment. These lawmakers and candidates are vociferously against any attempted governmental redress of income inequality, such as raising the wealthiest citizens’ tax rates or providing assistance or other support to the poor or long unemployed. Politicians of this cast of mind are content to live with rising levels of income inequality and wealth concentration in the nation on the grounds that those advantaged by this continuing shift are “job creators” and public interventions would only prevent them from working their employment-related magic by reallocating resources these individuals otherwise could utilize far more efficiently. In any case, these officials and candidates suggest, “we all know” that government efforts to assist the poor or to redress market failures have always disappointed in the past. When these arguments are challenged, conservatives turn to a now recurring refrain that government is growing and in tyrannical ways, as evidenced by the often- pilloried Affordable Care Act or by President Barack Obama’s efforts to stimulate the economy when it was mired in deep recession. Alongside these claims, and as evidence for their negative orientation regarding any public effort to redress growing income inequality or poverty and want specifically, these individuals criticize those citizens who accept such services as “dependent,” “users” or lazy. In sum, proponents of continuing upward redistribution of income and wealth in society first argue that concern about this trend is misplaced, and next suggest that government is ill equipped to address it and is itself the agent of far worse in social terms. When these contentions are challenged in turn, proponents assert that the impoverished or hungry individuals themselves are alone to blame for their situations, and for that reason they are undeserving of the support of their fellow citizens. According to this view, people in such situations should confront the conditions besetting them and overcome their circumstances by dint of their own efforts and, failing that, they should be content to live in the state their initiative permits, as they surely “deserve” that outcome.

These arguments merit at least brief comment. On the issue of recent government interventions to assist citizens as being per se deeply problematic, empirical evidence suggests that these claims are at best miscast. Despite continuing conservative allegations, such as declaring that improving health care access for those who could not afford it would find government “taking over” that market or would raise prices unsustainably and prove bankrupting to program participants, none of these supposed “certainties” have occurred. Instead, experience to date suggests that insurance premiums and health care costs are now rising more slowly than they did before the Act’s passage, that the effort is not costing even what was originally envisaged and millions of people are obtaining access to medical care without “bankrupting” the nation in the process. Moreover, there is no evidence that government has “taken anyone’s freedom” from them in this initiative, despite dire warnings to the contrary from those pressing such arguments. Nonetheless, this program remains a favorite target of criticism among conservative leaders and officials.

On the related claim that the federal government was wrong—under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, although only the latter is criticized on these grounds by GOP candidates and officials, for perhaps obvious partisan reasons—to intervene to steady the nation’s fiscal ship, virtually all economists disagree. Most well-regarded analysts, in fact, argue the nation should have spent more and faster to stimulate the economy in the face of very high unemployment in the recent Great Recession, but such was not possible due to implacable and impassioned GOP opposition on the grounds the country “could not afford” to undertake such efforts. It is plain in retrospect that this stance was profoundly mistaken and caused millions of citizens to endure unnecessary suffering. In this domain, too, the officials trumpeting these arguments have not acknowledged their error or suggested that perhaps an alternate and less dogmatic course was appropriate. Instead, most have heaped disdain on President Obama as the architect of so wasteful and unneeded an initiative while also blaming him, and by extension, government, for any continuing unemployment and wage stagnation. In fact, both joblessness and wage levels would have been worse had these critics successfully prevented countercyclical action by the national government.

The story is the same when considering how conservatives regard assistance to the poor and unemployed. At least since President Ronald Reagan, GOP leaders have argued that the nation’s effort, begun under President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 to address widespread poverty, failed. Indeed, Reagan often quipped that the nation had sought to eliminate poverty and poverty had won. In that former governor’s view, this was so in no small part because government could never be the agent of effective amelioration of poverty; only the market could do that. But as it happens, this statement is also empirically false. A recent exhaustive and dispassionate analysis of The War on Poverty[1] found that, while hardly perfect—Johnson rightly warned it could not be at its launch, since the effort was unprecedented—the campaign improved the lives of millions of people across the nation. Far from being the agent of wasteful immiseration and character destruction conservatives so often purport these programs to be, public efforts have ameliorated the suffering of large numbers of Americans. Nonetheless, many in the GOP today tar all programs to assist citizens in distress as wasteful handouts that breed laziness, dependency and misuse. Importantly, this argument rests principally on a misguided and too often spiteful, ideological certainty.

The broader point is that when today’s conservative certitudes are subjected to careful analysis they dissolve into

  • Attacks on self-governance as unnecessary, as it can be replaced by a market that somehow can make democracy itself obsolete
  • Unsubstantiated claims that government intervention will always result in pernicious, wasteful or worse results
  • Criticisms of specific groups of citizens as somehow lacking because they are poor or unemployed or otherwise “unproductive” when measured against an economic calculus, laying aside all other causal factors and circumstances as irrelevant.

As I have remarked in prior commentaries, these are not arguments about more or less government action, or what form of public effort might prove most effective to address a specific social challenge, or about which level of government should undertake a responsibility. Instead they represent far broader and deeper ideological claims that Americans need not assume responsibility to govern themselves as a people or care about the circumstances of anyone but themselves. That is, as this national campaign begins, the central issue the polity is increasingly being asked to confront is whether it is prepared to believe, against readily available empirical evidence to the contrary, in a myth that a people need not govern itself and likewise may not acknowledge the fact it is one nation.

Put differently, for many ardent ideologues on the right, the coming presidential election is not about reality, but about an imaginary scenario created by a continuing fusillade of rhetoric and belief that find them willing to excoriate millions of people for their supposed lassitude and to allow and even encourage still greater levels of wealth and income inequality, all in the hope it will yield the magic bullet of economic growth. Never mind that there is very little evidence for this assertion in the decades in which it has been the regnant ideal of the conservative movement and that it risks destroying the social fabric on which freedom itself depends. These advocates have no doubt that governance itself is the nation’s greatest villain. Somehow, these proponents seem to contend, one can break the bonds joining citizens, persistently denigrate self-governance and delegitimate its only commonly shared instrument and nonetheless expect the people so inclined to remain vigorous and free. In my view, this is not a partisan question. It is rather an issue of whether a people will countenance the continued degradation of the ties that unite them and the only agent that can act legitimately on their behalf. As this new campaign begins, the central democratic question is whether the populace will once more begin to take responsibility for its governance or continue instead to take solace in fantasies that it can foreswear that obligation.


[1] Bailey, Martha J. and Sheldon Danziger (2013), Legacies of the War on Poverty, New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Publication Date

May 11, 2015