The Peristaltic Testator (peristaltor) wrote in liberal,
The Peristaltic Testator

Reasons to Revive Actual Liberalism

Ever since the "New Democrats" have installed themselves in the political scene, many of the standard rallying calls of the Progressive Movement have been sidelined into being mere tropes and tall tales. The problem, as I see it, is that these New Dems are, rather than the raging bull liberals of our past, merely steers who mewl rather than snort with rage and charge into the breeches. They have adopted meek standards, weak tea compared with the heady strong stuff of former years, and have in pursuing these standards continued to survive the increasingly competitive political environment forced upon all potential candidates.

Let's explore some of these weak standards briefly, comparing them to observations finding them wanting in the extreme. Further, let me note that the source refutation comes from a book first published in 1879.


To many from the conservative realm, the poor are poor largely because they lack the skills of conservation and thrift, choosing instead to squander what earnings they gather on frivolities and gimcracks. If only they could learn to muster thrift, they could save and then, once the savings were prudently invested, move on to riches! The New Dems, the New Left have embraced this trope, sadly, though of course not with the vehemence of the reactionaries.

Here's where they are all dead wrong. Once thrift becomes the primary solution to poverty, the practices of thrift cause a race to the bottom. Here's Henry George's take on this race from his book, Progress And Poverty*. "One individual may save money from his wages by living . . . ; and many poor families might be made more comfortable by being taught to prepare the cheap dishes. . . ." (Henry George, Progress And Poverty, Book VI, Chapter I, Paragraph 14.). From there, though, these practices of thrift become the new normal.

. . . but if the working classes generally came to live in that way, wages would ultimately fall in proportion, and whoever wished to get ahead by the practice of economy, or to mitigate poverty by teaching it, would be compelled to devise some still cheaper mode of keeping soul and body together.

(George, ibid.)

Consider some examples of this.

If, under existing conditions, American mechanics would come down to the Chinese standard of living, they would ultimately have to come down to the Chinese standard of wages; or if English laborers would content themselves with the rice diet and scanty clothing of the Bengalee, labor would soon be as ill paid in England as in Bengal. The introduction of the potato into Ireland was expected to improve the condition of the poorer classes, by increasing the difference between the wages they received and the cost of their living. The consequences that did ensue were . . . a lowering of wages, and, with the potato blight, the ravages of famine among a population that had already reduced its standard of comfort so low that the next step was starvation.


Why would wages fall? I've removed the reason from the above block with the ellipsis, just to remove the spoiler. To understand, we need to read the paragraph just above this one in P&P:

For, as soon as land acquires a value, wages, as we have seen, do not depend upon the real earnings or product of labor, but upon what is left to labor after rent is taken out; and when land is all monopolized, as it is everywhere except in the newest communities, rent must drive wages down to the point at which the poorest paid class will be just able to live and reproduce, and thus wages are forced to a minimum fixed by what is called the standard of comfort—that is, the amount of necessaries and comforts which habit leads the working classes to demand as the lowest on which they will consent to maintain their numbers. This being the case, industry, skill, frugality, and intelligence can avail the individual only in so far as they are superior to the general level—just as in a race speed can avail the runner only in so far as it exceeds that of his competitors.

(Ibid, Book VI, Chapter I, Paragraph 13.)

Meaning that as workers get thriftier, their rents increase and destroy the savings they once created through that thrift. If there is money a landlord can extract, the competitive nature of land owners will maintain the pressures of extraction to the point of failure; if tenants can pay the rent, then there is more rent to be collected, and so rent will increase.

That same reasoning also affects the next accusation of blame:

Industry Verses Laziness

You can't have a good political discussion/dust-up without the reactionary forces declaring that the poor don't work as hard as the rich. Hell, there is even a rage-inducing ad around here showing two very, very well dressed pricks posing alongside the motto, "Effort is back in style." Never mind that no one in their right mind believes for one second that someone who can afford thousand-dollar silk blazers actually works harder than someone forced to haunt discount racks; that is not, however, the mindset of those who, forced to face this congitive dissonance, create the Myth of the Hard Worker and ascribe their desk-riding asses to its ranks.

Productivity is, though, just the flip-side of the same coin as thrift. Someone can get a surplus through either means. One can save effectively, or one can work a bit more. Same result. And George shoots this trope down as well:

If one man work harder . . . he will get ahead; but if the average of industry . . . be brought up to the higher point, the increased intensity of application will secure but the old rate of wages, and he who would get ahead must work harder still.

(Ibid, I ellipses-removed further spoilers.)

Which brings us to the last, and most embraced, trope the forces of reaction have imposed on the mindset of otherwise good progressive types today:


Around here right now, the billboards are rife with ads suggesting all one need do to get ahead is enroll, enroll, enroll! All one needs is to leverage your existing skills with a diploma that will crack the doors of opportunity! "From coder to consultant" reads one ad; others implore the readers to smooth out the path to career-building MBAs and other advanced Parchments of Opportunity™.

And this has become the marching orders not from the Reactionary Right, but from the other side of the aisle as well. "Get a good education!" is the only encouragement heard from leaders, shouted loudly enough to drown out the return chorus suggesting this is hardly a path everyone can tread.

Just like increasing thrift and effort, though, this path, if embraced by enough, will simply increase the bargaining power of those who actually hire those with advanced degrees, and will as a consequence lower the incomes of the newer graduates with their hands full of PoO™.

"As to the effects of education," notes George, "it may be worth while to say a few words specially, for there is a prevailing disposition to attribute to it something like a magical influence. (VI.I.17) Sounds just like those ads, don't it? Don't get too excited, though.

Now, education is only education in so far as it enables a man more effectively to use his natural powers, and this is something that what we call education in very great part fails to do. I remember a little girl, pretty well along in her school geography and astronomy, who was much astonished to find that the ground in her mother's back yard was really the surface of the earth, and, if you talk with them, you will find that a good deal of the knowledge of many college graduates is much like that of the little girl. They seldom think any better, and sometimes not so well as men who have never been to college.


I included that because we need a bit of levity in any discussion so dire with doom. Let's continue, now, to the bit of the argument that jives so well with the above observations concerning Thrift and Industry.

Be this as it may, it is evident that intelligence, which is or should be the aim of education . . . can operate upon wages only by increasing the effective power of labor. It has the same effect as increased skill or industry. And it can raise the wages of the individual only in so far as it renders him superior to others. When to read and write were rare accomplishments, a clerk commanded high respect and large wages, but now the ability to read and write has become so nearly universal as to give no advantage.

(VI.I.19, with me emboldening)

And as this march of increasing labor effectiveness plods along, the increases to rent continues to sap each group of increasingly effective laborers just a short time after they manage to gain an advantage over others competing for labor. Once the increases become nearer to universal, gone is the advantage. "The growth of knowledge and the progress of invention have multiplied the effective power of labor over and over again without increasing wages." (Ibid, my bold.)

I will part with George over one note: I don't believe that rent increases are the only way the working souls get screwed. Employers, even those without landed holdings, can likewise leverage increases in thrift, industry and education into ways to shove more of the profit pie in their own pie holes.

Why pay $X+extra when enough qualified applicants are fighting over the available jobs to undermine each other, bringing the effective salary to $X? All wages are a negotiation, after all, not a fixed and absolute quantity as many—even those on the supposed Left—maintain. And why should that savings in wages be brought to the shareholders when an intrepid leader can simply shrug his shoulders and note that inflation means the leader must be paid more for his, er, effort?

No, we need to figure out ways to divert money away from the massively accumulating fortunes and toward the working base of industry that has taken the recent hit to their wages. Most of all, we need to find some politicians on the Left who don't sound so much like their supposed opponents, but rather resemble Progressive from our past who actually acknowledged the weak arguments being flung from the choir of New Left apologists.

And a good source for those new arguments might just be the old books, filled with insight relevant in any age, the past has relegated to obscurity.

*Instead of quoting a book and giving all that publication jargon and such, I've linked to this online copy and will be quoting Book, Chapter and Paragraph to make referencing that much easier and more consistent.
Tags: conservatism, economics
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