Monday, September 15, 2014
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La crisi di idee del conservatorismo americano

BERKELEY – Sul lato sinistro della mia scrivania ci sono, al momento, tre volumi di recente pubblicazione: The Battle di Arthur Brooks, Coming Apart di Charles Murray e A Nation of Takers di Nicholas Eberstadt. Insieme, essi formano un importante filone intellettuale che, in gran parte, spiega anche il motivo per cui oggi il conservatorismo americano ha ben poco di costruttivo da dire sulla gestione dell'economia, nonché scarsa presa sul centro dell'elettorato americano. 

Ma andiamo un po' a ritroso nel tempo, fino alla nascita di quello che potremmo definire il conservatorismo moderno in Gran Bretagna e Francia all'inizio Ottocento. Allora, c'era chi, come Frédéric Bastiat e Jean-Baptiste Say, credeva che lo Stato dovesse utilizzare le persone senza lavoro per costruire infrastrutture, qualora l'attività dei mercati o la produzione fossero temporaneamente sospese. A questi, però, facevano da contrappeso coloro che, come Nassau Senior, si opponevano persino agli aiuti alimentari: nonostante un milione di persone avesse perso la vita durante la carestia delle patate in Irlanda, per lui "era una cifra a malapena sufficiente".

L'essenza del conservatorismo nella sua fase iniziale prevedeva la totale opposizione a qualunque forma di assicurazione sociale: rendere i poveri più ricchi li avrebbe fatti diventare più prolifici, e ciò avrebbe avuto come conseguenza la riduzione delle dimensioni delle aziende agricole (poiché la terra sarebbe stata divisa tra più eredi), la diminuzione della produttività della forza lavoro, e un ulteriore impoverimento della gente. La previdenza sociale non era considerata solo inutile, bensì anche controproducente.

Una corretta politica economica doveva insegnare alle persone a onorare il trono (per proteggere la proprietà), la casa paterna (per evitare che si sposassero troppo giovani) e l'altare religioso (per prevenire i rapporti prematrimoniali). A quel punto, forse, restando le donne caste per circa metà della loro vita feconda, si sarebbe ridotto il surplus di popolazione e le condizioni dei poveri sarebbero state più che accettabili.

Con un balzo in avanti di 150 anni arriviamo all'America post Seconda guerra mondiale e all'originale critica mossa dalla Chicago School alla previdenza sociale versione New Deal, secondo cui essa generava dei "gradini" che snaturavano gli incentivi economici. Il messaggio che dava lo Stato ai poveri, per Milton Friedman e altri, era: se guadagnate di più, vi verranno tolti gli alloggi gratuiti, i buoni alimentari e il sostegno al reddito. Friedman sosteneva che difficilmente la gente avrebbe continuato a lavorare senza ricevere niente, o quasi, in cambio.

L'enorme differenza tra i conservatori malthusiani che criticavano le assicurazioni sociali all'inizio del XIX secolo e gli esponenti della Chicago School degli anni Settanta è che questi ultimi non avevano tutti i torti: fornire aiuti statali ai poveri "meritevoli" per poi sospenderli non appena questi cominciavano a reggersi sulle proprie gambe significava stravolgere il senso degli incentivi e avere scarse probabilità di ottenere buoni risultati.

E così, tra il 1970 e il 2000, un'ampia coalizione formata da conservatori (che volevano vedere il governo prendere posizione contro l'immoralità), centristi (che volevano che i soldi pubblici fossero spesi bene) ed esponenti della sinistra (che spingevano per alleviare la povertà) ha eliminato questi "gradini" dal sistema delle assicurazioni sociali. I presidenti Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton e persino George W. Bush, insieme ai loro sostenitori, hanno dato vita al sistema attuale, in cui le aliquote fiscali e le soglie di ammissibilità non costituiscono disincentivi punitivi per le imprese.

Qual è, allora, il problema per la nuova generazione di conservatori americani, detrattori delle assicurazioni sociali? Non certo il timore che migliorare il tenore di vita dei meno abbienti oltre la mera sussistenza generi una catastrofe malthusiana, né la convinzione che le tasse e la revoca dei sussidi sociali bastino a convincere gli emarginati a lavorare.

Per Eberstadt, il problema è che la dipendenza dallo Stato risulta castrante, e che troppe persone vivono in tale condizione. Per Brooks, è che l'idea che i programmi statali facilitino la vita spinge la gente a votare per candidati non repubblicani. Per Murray, infine, è che le assicurazioni sociali sottintendono che il cattivo comportamento non porta alla catastrofe, mentre noi abbiamo bisogno di emanare il messaggio contrario, proprio per impedire alla gente di comportarsi male.

Il punto è che le élite conservatrici americane credono a Brooks, Eberstadt e Murray. Mitt Romney è tuttora convinto di aver perso le elezioni nel 2012 perché Barack Obama ha ingiustamente concesso l'assistenza sanitaria pubblica ai latino-americani, quella sanitaria gratuita nell'ambito della salute riproduttiva alle donne (tranne che per l'aborto), e altri "regali" simili ad altrettanti gruppi sociali. Secondo loro, Obama non riuscirebbe mai a "convincerli ad assumersi la piena responsabilità della propria vita".

Di fatto, sarebbe arduo per qualunque candidato convincere gli americani che ricevono sussidi statali di essere soggetti a carico, anziché responsabilizzati, o che è male votare per i politici che migliorano la vita delle persone, o ancora che una buona politica pubblica ha per scopo quello di produrre una catastrofe umana, invece fare il possibile per evitarla. Il problema dei conservatori americani non è la scelta dei candidati o i toni della retorica che usano, bensì che le loro idee non sono sostenibili a livello politico.

Traduzione di Federica Frasca

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  1. CommentedFrederick Hastings

    A column from an economist, not a polemicist, on the historic intellectual debate on the role of government in human action and no references to rent-seeking, regulatory capture, induced dependency, pork-barrel spending, moral hazard, animal spirits?

  2. CommentedJ St. Clair

    http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/from-war-to-welfare-595/

    lets add this article onto this one and compare subject regarding welfare "states"

  3. CommentedAndré Rebentisch

    Apparently conservatism in the United States is a unique brand dedicated to undermine cohesion in society. I would expect a conservative personality to esteem assistance for persons who do less well. The actual unresolved crisis lies in US federalism balancing, not ideology.

  4. CommentedG. A. Pakela

    In response to Mr. O'Callaghan's comments below, "the nonsense that the rich are so greedy that they will refuse to invest efficiently if they are required to pay their fair share of progressive taxation..." is indeed worthy of comment. Investors will decide among an array of opportunities on a risk and tax adjusted basis. If the tax on capital income is set at too high a level, investors will reject those risky opportunities whose after-tax return falls below what they are willing risk. A business owner will not reinvest in the business if she believes that the upside return is subject to confiscatory taxes, but she still has to absorb all of the losses if the investment fails.

    This is a decision process that affects millions of small businesses that are the backbone of employment opportunities for many if not most Americans. Thus, the real losers are not business owners, but those prospective job-seekers who cannot find work.

      CommentedAnthony Juan Bautista

      Indeed, Animal Spirits require that projected returns exceed cost of capital. The Fed is doing everything possible to lower the discount rate on new venture; and the White House is doing everything possible to raise it. All the while our projected returns are revised downward in serial fashion, as the consumer deleverages.

      At least this is how I explain the world to myself over coffee and toast.

  5. CommentedFrank O'Callaghan

    J Bradford DeLong is right but does not go far enough, (Perhaps this is courtly academic elegance) but he could point out that most right wing orthodoxy has failed to deliver on it's promises. Conservative "ideas" are a thin veil for a lootocracy. It is not a coincidence that those who vote most loyally for the 'red state' side have been most disadvantaged by their representatives.

    The nonsense that the rich are so greedy that they will refuse to invest efficiently if they are required to pay their fair share of progressive taxation is absurd beyond comment. That has not prevented this theory from being the central plank of conservatism for decades.

    The conservative (liberal economic) attitude to the potato famine in Ireland bears examination. The view was taken that one or two million deaths of the Irish poor were a 'necessity' for the 'greater good' was argued. The amount of resource released by the removal of these desperately poor and deprived was relatively small. Had a similar number been 'liquidated' at the OPPOSITE extreme of the social/economic scale in the British Isles at the time it would have released a much greater quantity of resources. Indeed it would have required a much smaller casualty toll to produce a much greater social 'good'.

    There are those who see a similar argument today with the 99% vs the 1%

      Portrait of J. Bradford DeLong

      CommentedJ. Bradford DeLong

      I do wish they would give me a link at the bottom to which I can attach a longer, extended version of the argument...

  6. CommentedProcyon Mukherjee

    The debate is shifting to empowerment versus dependence, and America is equally divided on the road to be taken; the illusion of clarity and the binding rationale to take on a particular path as opposed to the other is seen in the weakness of the current incumbent to take on a decisive stance on either taxation, fiscal or in transfers of all forms. The ‘majority view’, if it is muddled to give a clear direction and if the ‘less than majority view’ is straddled in the legacies of the past, we have a polity that reflects not only in the lack of vision but also in the lagging ‘bias for action’.

  7. CommentedSharon Curran

    Reading the article, I wonder how people construe economics practiced conservatively with what is happening now. I think, Prof. DeLong, the problem is viewed as a debate between those who earn and those who need help rather than the morality of some people who have a lot of money--undeservedly and so much--compared to everyone else. I don't know how to reconcile a fellow working hard to make his business function or a woman employed for a particular reason with people, like those who caused the banking crisis with greedy behaviour and are still rewarded. Neither types of the conservatism you discuss take issue with this sort of reality. I think that is why a lot of people are so angry--there is a moral crisis at hand, I just don't think that people, particularly the undeserved rich, want to take responsibility for it. It is very easy to criticize the poor or unemployed, even the working poor, rather than recognize that unearned wealth (and I know that means more taxes, but perhaps a fairer distribution of wealth) is currently determining how society functions. And regardless of what type of conservatism one favours that particular issue is the problem.

  8. CommentedJohn Médaille

    I should point out that Bastiat, Senior, and Say were economic *Liberals*; the meanings of "liberal" and "conservative" have changed places in the last 100 years, so that today a "conservative" is one who believes in the crudest form of economic liberalism.

      Portrait of J. Bradford DeLong

      CommentedJ. Bradford DeLong

      I would disagree: Say and Bastiat, at least, believed in expanding government spending to put people to work when the number of unemployed was unusually large...

  9. CommentedPaul Ross

    As a layman reading the article the last paragraph hits home, the current Conservative platform is in essence telling the American People, "Vote for us, we'll make your life harder."

    As a voter, I am highly unlikely to vote for you, if that is what you offer.

    An exception being a stand on single red button issues I feel strongly about. (Personally I don't have many those; and the ones I do; would have me not vote for anyone, which is not a great way to run a country.)

      Portrait of J. Bradford DeLong

      CommentedJ. Bradford DeLong

      Complexity theory is supposed to give us a map between microfoundational characteristics and emergent macro properties. Unfortunately, complexity theory cannot do this for us yet. So as a result macroeconomists are trapped into either (a) writing down microfoundations they know are wrong and using them to construct models that say what they want them to say (and then falsely claiming that they have "scientifically derived" their results), and (b) waving their hands in the air and talking about reduced forms. (If you hadn't noticed, I favor (b) as more honest...)

      CommentedAnthony Juan Bautista

      REPLY to Ashok:

      Well we agree, mostly. I'm all-for drastically different paradigms as to understanding the macro economy. But these paradigms will have to be modeled. And the "truths" yielded, will be constrained by usefulness. And the most useful thing in the world, is a reasonably good forecast. (I'll even go so far as to say that all true things can be modeled, with various precision, depending on how "good" the truth is.)

      I just want people to realize exactly who in society is talking to them, when the macro-economist claims: "This is what we should do, and I KNOW it." It's not a scientist talking to them, and it's likely not even a truth-seeker. (Again, this applies to all political persuasions.)

      CommentedAshok Rao

      But nothing significant happened over the past 70 years that would force a complete haul of an economist's priors.

      I don't want to compare the work of macroeconomics to Einstein, I mean he's truly a mind-blowing guy, but even Einstein had his doubts about quantum mech (famously, "God does not play his dice on us").

      There's also a rich, and thriving, field of computational economics based on complexity theory that will be promising (I think) in the next era.

      Economics might be a flawed discipline, and it is certainly not 'scientific' in the physics sense of the word – but how can it be? How can you create a controlled experiment in all but the smallest interventions (a la Poor Economics)?

  10. CommentedAnthony Juan Bautista

    "American conservatism today has little that is constructive to say about managing the economy"

    Sadly, JBD continues the sullied tradition of economist as political partisan.

    When I read pieces like this I simply remind myself: these men are not scientists, and these men are not truth-seekers. And their role in society must be framed as such; meaning, it's important to understand what these people are NOT. What they ARE--exactly where they bring value--is an open question.

    We must likewise remind ourselves that the same men now making claim to a corpus of good knowledge (asserting that they now "know" what's best), are the same people who 5 years ago didn't "know" we were headed for the greatest global economic turmoil in 80 years (70 years after Keynes gave them a running start). What credible scientific discipline studies phenomena for 70 years, and still can't make modestly useful predictions based on modeled theory? (And this applies to econo-partisans of all religions.)

    So when men like JBD assert they now "know", simply think to yourself: just 5 years ago, they DIDN'T KNOW. And this marginalizes the case for them currently knowing, or currently knowing who doesn't know!

    But perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps someone can pass-on one of JBD's peer-reviewed, published works (the hard science) wherein his econometric models predicted (or implied) the Great Recession; or in timely/usable fashion, warned as to the depth or duration of the recession/output gap/unemployment, etc. This would certainly bolster the case for credibility (explaining why we should listen now).

    Yes, a formalized and (reasonably) prescient modeling and understanding from 5-plus years ago would definitely help to distinguish JBD from those frauds and ignoramuses who at present, really DON'T know.

    Help us separate the frauds from those who really know--those who are constructive versus those who are destructive.



      CommentedAnthony Juan Bautista

      Reply to CHARLES:

      Ha yes! I read "Genius" many years ago; perhaps it made an impression.

      And this is indeed a quotation that rightly frames the issue:

      "Religion is a culture of faith; science is a culture of doubt." RP Feynman

      However I feel the much needed cynicism toward the pundit-econo class (JBD, Krugman, and on and on) has a tradition predating RPF by 2K yrs or so:

      http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-causality/

      CommentedCharles Travis

      Interesting that I was just watching a documentary on Richard Feynman and he seemed to have the same basic premise - expertise that isn't being tested and evaluated is of little value.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bgaw9qe7DEE

      CommentedAnthony Juan Bautista

      REPLY to ASHOK (why no reply button?):

      I'm sorry to say, but resumes DO matter. Hence, it's extremely reasonable to ask a person who's making a claim to current knowledge: "How well have you understood the subject phenomena in the past?".

      Macro-economists have had 70 yrs to update their priors. A truly Bayesian algorithm/process gets more accurate at t+n! This has not been the case with macro econ--meaning, normative calculations are NOT Bayesian.

      And Newton was indeed no idiot--but let's remember, his models still apply to a VERY useful approximation. And Einstein was actually a Founding Father of QM; he got it!--another non-idiot! Heisenberg merely discovered another important constraint.

      You have helped me make a case that the statements of macroeconomists who claim they "know", should be weighted in-accordance with the historical precision and usefulness of their models. Truth is actually a model (Newton mentioned):

      https://dl.dropbox.com/s/445qya8ba7ugqyw/truth%20is%20a%20model.jpg



      CommentedAshok Rao

      Thinking that it was coming five years ago doesn't make your argument today any more appropriate and, conversely, not knowing that it was coming doesn't make what you say today irrelevant.

      Actually, all that matters is how one updates his/her priors after the event. There's an article here at Syndicate itself where JBD remarks how much the financial crisis has changed the way he thinks, noting a speech Larry Summers gave at Bretton Woods.

      Newton wasn't an idiot for not seeing relativity come, and Einstein wasn't an idiot for not seeing quantum mechanics come.

      It's kind of odd to expect economics to be as "scientific" as the study of nature. You can't form a controlled experiment. Which is why arguments from Rogoff and the like treating the 90% mark as some sort of natural, intrinsic, "threshold" don't hold water.

      The real problem is that conservatives seem to be allergic to Mr. Bayes.

  11. Portrait of J. Bradford DeLong

    CommentedJ. Bradford DeLong

    Let me note three things:

    (1) Most of what I have to say is highly, highly derivative from Mike Konczal and Mark Schmitt (and others); (2)
    The problem is not just that today's crop of AEI-conservative ideas is not politically sustainable, but that it is simply wrong--Cahn and Carbone's Red Families, Blue Families has convinced me that contra Murray America's (Blue) families are actually in pretty good shape (Red families that try to keep their daughters ignorant about family planning not so much), my take on Eberstadt is coming out in Democracy Journal later this month; and
    (3) Arthur Brooks seems to me at bottom simply lamenting that Democratic policies work and make people's lives better--that Republicans are losing their campaign to try to make America a worse-off place does not strike me as a minus.

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