I first read this op-ed late Saturday night, and had something of a mixed reaction. Content-wise, I found it repulsive – more on that in a minute. I also felt a bit of optimism based on the first paragraph:
This is not the culture war of the 1990s. It is not a fight over guns, gays or abortion. Those old battles have been eclipsed by a new struggle between two competing visions of the country’s future. In one, America will continue to be an exceptional nation organized around the principles of free enterprise — limited government, a reliance on entrepreneurship and rewards determined by market forces. In the other, America will move toward European-style statism grounded in expanding bureaucracies, a managed economy and large-scale income redistribution.
Forget the framing for a minute and the fact that the writer can only imagine two economic scenarios: radical capitalism vs. statism. The idea that the new culture war will take us away from “guns, gays, or abortion” (issues that always trap the Left in alliance with the upper-middle class) to economic issues (where, despite the misleading figures used in this piece, the Left is more in touch with working class Americans) would be a welcome change.
As for some of the content that I found disturbing:
Earned success is the creation of value in our lives or in the lives of others…
Money is not the same as earned success but is rather a symbol, important not for what it can buy but for what it says about how people are contributing and what kind of difference they are making. Money corresponds to happiness only through earned success.
This is the kind of shorthand – the application of economic principles to values that go beyond economic measurement – that should bother social traditionalists as well as critics of free market capitalism. After all, if happiness is achieved through Earned Success, and Earned Success is measurable in dollar amounts, then all rational people would follow the path that would bring them the greatest career satisfaction. No pregnant teenager (or partner of the teenager) would allow the birth of a child to interfere with furthering his or her education or career opportunities. No family would opt for one parent to raise their children instead of pursuing a career and earning the success that produces happiness. To argue that money is a reward for success assumes a very limited definition of success.
But there’s another troubling assumption about American values that is at work here:
Now, as then, entrepreneurship can flourish only in a culture where individuals are willing to innovate and exert leadership; where people enjoy the rewards and face the consequences of their decisions; and where we can gamble the security of the status quo for a chance of future success.
Again, economic decisions don’t exist in a bubble. The principle outlined here – that Americans are rightly never satisfied with the status quo and always looking for an upgrade – is the principle that has undermined so much of the social capital we have lost in this country. We change jobs frequently, change addresses frequently, get in and out of marriages based on the fulfillment of our personal needs. We have fully applied the economic to the civic. There’s no need for loyalty if a better opportunity exists.
I don’t think any of these arguments are accidental. There is a strong ideological current that runs through both the Left and the Right that argues that human potential is unlimited, that every individual is – without obligation – able to capitalize on every opportunity and concern themselves only with their own happiness. Sort of an “all’s fair in love and war and everything else” kind of mentality.
This often gets tangled up in tales of American optimism, ingenuity, and can-do spirit, and maybe that’s fair. There is a good argument to be made that getting an edge – whether economically or otherwise – is just in our cultural DNA, passed down from the classical liberal thinkers who inspired the Founders. But in the past, that “can-do” spirit has been applied to efforts not always of personal economic value, and sometimes in complete contradiction to risking security for the possibility of future success.
The obvious example here would be of basic duty, such as service to country. I would also argue that the person who forgoes a lucrative business career to take over a family establishment that will never be as economically successful is engaging in a form of ingenuity that cannot be measured financially. Working on a troubled marriage when a more appealing option is available would directly counter the virtue of risking security for the possibility of future success, but it’s tough to argue that it’s not in keeping with American values, or that it doesn’t require a healthy dose of can-do optimism applied to sticking it out.
All of these violate the market principles outlined by the author, but each represents a more complete definition of success.
So, if money doesn’t measure Earned Success, then it is just a commodity. People need money to pay for necessities and want money to pay for luxuries. Government policies on taxation and the funding of social programs can be debated based on effectiveness, scope, and unintended consequences, but not on incentive/disincentive. Incentivizing money is not the same as incentivizing success, and a government policy that does the former (as in, a laissez faire system) could hinder the latter.