To me, the essence of liberalism is open-mindedness. In modern America, that is what differentiates a liberal from a conservative. I’ve written about this a lot around here. Conservatives start discussing any problem with a long list of things they just can’t do. Liberals on the other hand are more than willing to use free market solutions to problems, if they work. But as we saw with Obamacare, when liberals accept free market solutions, two things happen. First, liberals get weaker solutions. Second, conservatives turn against the free market solutions that they once pushed.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that conservatives don’t actually want to solve any problems and just bring up the “free market” approaches as a delaying tactic. But I think among the punditry and think tank workers, there are a number who are actually interested in solving problems. These are the Reformish Republicans. And that is sad. The most open-minded conservatives are still 90% closed-minded. And then there is George Will whose mind is 100% closed.
The purpose of Will’s newest column should be clear enough based upon its title, Democrats Are Making Income Inequality Worse. It ends with, “And [this is] why the loudest complaints about inequality are coming from those whose policies worsen it.” Dean Baker took on Will’s column, George Will Is Badly Confused on Economic Issues, Again. He tore it to pieces, in fact—showing that Will was doing what he usually does: making up numbers and distorting others. Go take a look for all the bloody details.
I want to focus on one thing that Will talked about: food stamps. It is particularly disingenuous. He wrote, “Between 2000, when 17 million received food stamps, and 2006, food stamp spending doubled, even though unemployment averaged just 5.1 percent.” Note the framing here: he starts in 2000, when the economy was overheated and the unemployment rate was below 4%. Baker noted that in 2006, there were 3.4 million fewer people with jobs. That probably explains half the increase given that most people support children.
In addition to this, food prices rose by 16% during that period. What’s more, according to Will’s own source, the number of people on food stamps in 2006 was still lower than it had been in 1995. This is despite a major push to get qualifying people to get welfare. So we aren’t seeing a huge explosion of “takers.” But note how Will is eager to distort the data to make his point. He starts with a conclusion: aid to the poor is bad. And then he shoehorns the data in a spectacularly distorted way to justify his predefined conclusion.
On a deeper level, Will is making the same old conservative argument, “Giving poor people food hasn’t eliminated poverty, so we shouldn’t give them food!” We got this from Paul Ryan who was arguing that aid to the poor hadn’t worked because if you didn’t count aid to the poor, there were as many poor as ever. That’s a damned strange argument to make against aid to the poor. The real argument is the Ayn Rand argument, which at least she was honest about: the poor shouldn’t be helped because they’re losers. But George Will can’t make that argument. He’s got to maintain his reputation as the modern William F Buckley.
The bottom line of all of this is that conservatives claim to be for a small government as a good in itself. In fact, this isn’t really true. Conservatives are for small government when it comes to the poorer classes. When it comes to welfare for the rich, they want to spend ever more. This is the same as their approach to taxes where they really don’t matter when applied to the poor and middle classes. Remember when Fox News went through a period of pushing for the poor to at least pay some taxes? Tax increases are always wrong, unless they are on the poor! But conservatives like the idea of a smaller government.
Liberals, on the other hand, don’t want a larger government. Social goods they want may require a larger government. But there is nothing about a larger government as such that they are looking for. This sums up how liberals are focused on practical matters and conservatives on ideological matters. And that is why problems come second (if at all), only after ideological purity. George Will wants to spend less on the poor, he doesn’t want to fix the problem of poverty—except in the one ideologically pure way: by spending less on the poor.