Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Noble Mansion

I've been thinking about poverty and inequality lately. I'll write a series of posts discussing the issue. I might even bring in a guest blogger or two.

We are all social engineers. This thought is both exhilirating and scary, but in a democracy like ours it's a fact of life. Where we part ways is the degree to which different institutions should participate in the engineering process. Liberals traditionally rely more on the government, while conservatives rely heavily on the church, the market, and the family. I don't mean that conservatives are family-friendly, merely that they rely on families to do a lot of the work of society. Universal public education, provided by the government, is something more highly valued by liberals than by conservatives. Very few people are at the extremes: conservatives acknowledge some core government functions, and liberals want to preserve some private orderings (in fact, in some respects the two ideologies trade places when security is the issue).

In deciding on the mix of institutions that we rely on, we have to consider their respective areas of competence. Unfortunately, we face difficult tradeoffs. In all likelihood, families have the most competence at child-rearing. If we leave this entirely up to families, though, we condemn at least half the population (traditionally the female half) to housework and in all likelihood we exacerbate social and economic inequality. More on this topic later.

We also have to decide how to divide the tasks of production and distribution of goods and services (the traditional economic questions). Again, conservatives and liberals differ. Conservatives almost pathologically hate government control, while liberals can be equally paranoid about corporate power. Once again, though, the relevant question is the competence of each of these institutions in different areas.

So my first goal is to identify the characteristics of these institutions and examine the consequences of the balance we strike. After that I'll turn to more specific questions about poverty and economic policy.


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