What is a Bootstrap, Anyway?

     Tyler Cowen is a professor of economics at George Mason University and frequent blogger over at Marginal Revolution. A column of his appeared in Sunday’s edition of the New York Times, titled “Whatever Happened to Discipline and Hard Work?

THE Occupy Wall Street movement has raised important questions about the respect paid to wealth in our society. There is a good deal of unfairness in the American economy, and by deliberately targeting the “top 1 percent,” the demonstrators have opened up a dialogue that is quite useful.

Nonetheless, as someone from a conservative and libertarian background, I find that I am hearing too much talk about riches and not enough about values. It’s worth recalling why so many Americans have respected the wealthy in the first place.

     He then recites (though quite eloquently) the usual case for honor our country’s history of valuing meritocratic virtue and entrepreneurial spirit. However, he does see three problems with this typically conservative vision of America:

In short, the traditional, pro-wealth cultural vision has a great appeal for me. But I must admit that it is showing some wear and tear, which may partly be why the criticisms made by the demonstrators at Zuccotti Park have so much resonance.

The first problem is that higher status for the wealthy can easily lead to crony capitalism. In public discourse social status judgments are often crude….

The second problem is that many conservatives have become so attached to their cultural vision that they have ceded sound, technocratic reasoning to the left and center…

The third problem is that the pro-wealth cultural vision may be overly optimistic about human willingness to embrace the idea of responsibility.

     And Mr. Cowen ends with this point:

In the future, complaints about income inequality are likely to grow and conservatives and libertarians won’t have all the answers. Nonetheless, higher income inequality will increase the appeal of traditional mores — of discipline and hard work — because they bolster one’s chances of advancing economically. That means more people and especially more parents will yearn for a tough, pro-discipline and pro-wealth cultural revolution. And so they should.

It remains to be seen how many of us are up to its demands.

     It really is worth reading the whole thing. Indeed I encourage to do so now. Now for Kevin Drum’s response, one I would consider typical for left-leaning individuals. He contends that contrary to popular conservative mainstream rhetoric, it simply isn’t the case that large swaths of the lower income brackets are “hard work” adverse. Lots of people work hard, and lots of people aren’t wealthy. What is upsetting those in various Occupy movements, and on the left in general, is that the boot-strap method isn’t working all that well. Mr. Drum even goes so far as to call it a myth:

None of this is easy. But the truth is that it’s increasingly impossible to sell people transparently self-promoting fairy tales that plainly don’t reflect how the real world works. If you want them to believe that hard work and discipline are important, then hard work and discipline have to really be important. Not just modestly helpful. Not mere drops compared to the obviously undeserved piles of so many of the super rich. If we want people to believe, we have to believe too. We have to believe that America should be a country where everyone prospers, not just the cognitive elite and the super lucky. Until we all believe this — until conservatives believe this — the notions of responsibility and discipline that conservatives talk about so much are probably going to continue fading. In recent decades they’ve simply dedicated too much of their lives and too much of their energy to patent unfairness to be surprised any longer that belief in being fairly rewarded is on the wane.

     And finally, from Mark Thoma over at the Economist’s View:

I am not a sure as he is that as inequality continues to increase, people will adopt conservative values rather than wondering why the playing field needed for those conservative values to express themselves has become increasingly unfair. And if they do conclude it’s unfairness rather than values that is at the root of the growth in inequality, their reaction may be different.

     Hence, OWS.


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