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Listening to the Other Side

Updated: Apr 22, 2021

Martin Cox is the Director of the John Locke Institute.

The general trend of history leans towards globalism. Over time differences in our identities and interests come to matter less and our common causes matter more. But from time to time the current backs up, and we pay too much heed to what divides us. We live in such a time.

Economic nationalism and so-called protectionism are on the rise. Tribalism is on the rise too, as identity politics makes our disagreements personal, and fosters resentment and suspicion of people who do not share our background or our interests. Politics, by its nature, tends to focus our attention on our differences and we seem to be getting worse and worse at talking and listening to each other. So, in the spirit of rapprochement, I propose an exchange of ideas, inviting the right and the left to borrow the best from each other.

The left has always been concerned with inequality, not just its existence but especially the deep structural causes of it. For this reason they are critical of free market economics, and supportive of government intervention to redistribute income and wealth and to dismantle institutional obstacles that poorer, disenfranchised people face. The right are typically more amenable to markets, which they believe have enormous power to generate wealth for millions of people around the world. They fear that too much government regulation will strangle wealth creation, high taxes will blunt the incentives of innovators and risk takers, and a too-generous welfare state will create complacency and trap people in dependency.

"But what would happen if each side listened, really listened, to the other?"

At a deeper level their disagreements are more visceral, and they are mostly about fairness. How is it fair, the left will argue, that two children born in the same country, on the same day, can start their lives with such different prospects? One will be rich and privileged, the other poor and vulnerable, through no merit or fault of their own. Those on the right will ask how it is fair that somebody who studies hard, and then works long hours at the office, and saves and invests, should have the fruits of her labour snatched away to subsidise the lifestyle of idle strangers. The left will tell you that it's about time the fat cats paid their fair share of taxes. The right will answer that, in many countries, the richest one-fifth already pays more income tax than the other four-fifths combined. If five people go out to dinner and one of them pays half the total bill, it is simply nonsense, they will say, to criticise him for not paying his fair share.

But what would happen if each side listened, really listened, to the other? First, some people on the right would become more compassionate. They might try hard to imagine what life would be like under other, less fortunate, circumstances and squarely face the fact that life is just harder for some people. And they might notice, for the first time, the valuable privileges and opportunities that they have taken for granted. The left would begin to see the capitalist system not merely as the source of the problem, but also as the best hope for a solution. Yes, markets can exacerbate inequality, but the problem of the poor is not how rich the rich are, but how poor the poor are. And the best solution to poverty the world has ever known is undoubtedly capitalism. Be careful if you try to improve it; you might kill it. The left would also take a fresh, sober look at the limitations of government, and its tendency to generate unintentional consequences, which so often make government solutions worse than the problems they are trying to fix.

"The problem of the poor is not how rich the rich are, but how poor the poor are."

Right now we have the worst of both worlds. Many on the right are telling the poor to stop complaining and get a job. Many on the left are telling the poor that their poverty is not their own fault, and that the system is to blame. Neither message is much use to the poor and both are, in their own ways, deeply discouraging. The lives of our poorest citizens are precarious, and there really are institutional impediments that won't vanish by being ignored. But to be told that you are a helpless victim of implacable impersonal forces is an invitation to give up trying. Not all successful people were born rich, and not all of them possess rare talents. What they do nearly all seem to have is optimism and perseverance.

Abundant opportunities await those with enough self-belief to search for them. We should be compassionate. We should dismantle the obstacles that trap people in poverty (particularly when those obstacles are of the government's own making, as they often are). But we must not allow our compassion to stifle optimism, or perpetuate a narrative of social determinism.

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