Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Modern Liberal Goal

A while ago, I tried to answer a simple question as a thought experiment: “what is the goal of the ‘modern liberal’ philosophy?”

I believe the answer is “everyone only has to work as much as they want to”.
Why do I believe that?
In the United States, we have had a history of creating social welfare programs, and they tend to stick around. Welfare, Medicaid, WIC (the modern food stamps), unemployment, and disability are generally targeted at the poor and disadvantaged. Medicare and Social Security are targeted at the old, who often become poor as a combination of reduced earning ability and increasing health costs. Unemployment, in particular, simply gives money to people who aren't earning any. It's stated purpose is to help people "get back on their feet", but for practical purposes, it can be collected for a year (at least in Texas) without having to do anything in particular.

These welfare programs spring out of a philosophy of "need". I think there's a certain level of guilt that comes from rightfully earning the things we need, and continuing onward to earn things we want, while other people fail to even meet their own basic needs. Governments then codify this guilt into programs to take money from those who've earned it and give it, in varying forms, to those who haven't.

In a republic, these programs have a fair amount of stickiness due to taking money from a few voters and giving it to many voters.

Why do I think it is likely to happen?
Technology has given the most intelligent a massive lever with which to move the world and create value. A rich person today wields more power than nations of the past. Thanks to these forces, there is more marginal wealth per person at the top. Bill Gates easily met his own needs many years and many dollars ago. If we take 99% of his money, we can provide for probably tens or even hundreds of thousands of people. I think there is social pressure to do this.

Along with amplifying the top tier's ability to create wealth, technology also lowers the bar for the poor to meet their basic needs. Food is cheap compared to any time in human history. It becomes easier and easier for one person to meet their own needs.

Marshall Brain's Manna provides in interesting guess as to two alternative futures, one ruled by the tyranny of the rich, who provide for the poor, but restrict their freedom to virtually nothing, and a more communist society where everyone is "rich" by pooling resources.

If the liberal goal is achieved, what is there to do for someone seeking to become wealthy? What can we do with an army of people who don't ever have to work for a living?

I'll tell you tomorrow.

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