There’s a long-running argument between the left and right about whether economic policy should focus more on efficiency questions or distributional questions. At the risk of oversimplifying, progressives tend to focus on inequalities of income and wealth, and they worry that unfettered free markets will funnel too much money to the wealthy few and leave the rest of us behind. Conservatives counter that the economic pie is not fixed. Leaving people free to innovate will expand the pie and ultimately benefit everyone. And conversely, government interventions in the economy designed to to make peoples’ slices more equal in size will shrink the pie and leave everyone worse off.
And conservatives have another powerful argument against the government picking winners and losers. Like Jefferson, they believe that our rights come from God, and are only recognized, not granted, by governments. They reject progressive theorists like Cass Sunstein who argue to the contrary. This is why they’re so vehemently against progressive taxation; they believe that everyone is entitled to the fruits of their own labor, and that it’s unjust for the government to take from some to give to others in the name of fairness.
Now, consider the following passage from conservatism’s flagship magazine:
Punishing a minor by removing him from the culture he’s adopted as his own, for the crimes of his parents, does strike me as fundamentally unfair. But what liberals leave out of this story, time and again, is a competing — and in my view overriding — unfairness. Reihan has argued repeatedly, and effectively, that we should treat access to the U.S. economy, not to mention its extensive welfare state, as a scarce resource. We can debate and debate the best way of distributing this resource– from “not at all” to “come one, come all” and everywhere in between. But distributing it based on who manages most successfully to violate the law, at the expense of would-be immigrants who are honoring the process, is surely not a valid option.
Apparently, when the topic turns to people born outside the United States, all that stuff about expanding pies and inalienable rights goes out the windows. Now the pie is fixed—a “scarce resource”—and it’s up to the government to decide who is eligible for a slice. People are no longer endowed by their Creator with the right to keep the fruits of their labor. Rather, the freedom to earn a living must be carefully “distributed” by the government only to those it deems worthy.
Liberals like my friend Matt Yglesias like to argue that conservative rhetoric about freedom and individual rights is a cynical cover for policies that serve the interests of the rich and powerful. I think he’s wrong, but passages like this one do give his argument a certain plausibility.