Wednesday, December 29, 2010

My Conversation With Irving Kristol on Welfare and Wages

A CULTURE OF DEFIANCE: History of the Reform-Conservative Party of Canada

The late Irving Kristol (d. 2009) was a self-proclaimed Straussian and by his own labelling, the "Godfather of Neoconversation". He wrote a series of essays and books that became the basis for the movement.

In one he discusses "welfare" or "relief" and why he finds the concept absurd. I would like to challenge Mr. Kristol, because I find his arguments absurd.

Leo Strauss often had "conversations" with Plato, or at least at times his challenges and insights read like conversations, so I would like to converse with and challenge Irving Kristol.

I realize that he was an intellectual and certainly out of my league, but I'm going to invoke Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition. "What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing."

There is too much compliance to what we are told is good for us, and not enough thinking. Because when you break it down, it's pretty simple.

We are continually transferring huge amounts of money to a government who is supposed to be using that money for the betterment of all citizens, and instead are using the money for the betterment of a chosen few.

And that is something, I "think" about often.

Essay on Pauperism
"In terms of the unemployed, of which we have over a million-and-a-half, don't feel particularly bad for many of these people. They don't feel bad about it themselves, as long as they're receiving generous social assistance and unemployment insurance. " - Stephen Harper (1)
Irving Kristol begins his musings on welfare by invoking Alexis de Tocqueville's, 1835 Essay on Pauperism. Tocqueville asks why, in the most "opulent" nation in the world [England], was there such an extraordinary problem of "pauperism". (The "problem" of pauperism, not necessarily a solution to.)

Concluding that too much public assistance can create idleness, he and Kristol also see a problem with the definition of poverty or pauperism. To the peasant, the ultimate goal was to have enough to eat. There was no desire to accumulate wealth. The only concern was survival.

However, in a modern city, the standards were different.

... in an "opulent" society, the idea of poverty itself undergoes a continual redefinition. The poor experience not only the need for a guaranteed minimum; they also suffer from what a modern sociologist would call "relative deprivation." Tocqueville puts the matter this way: "Among civilized peoples, the lack of a multitude of things causes poverty... In a country where the majority is ill-clothed, ill-housed, ill-fed, who thinks of giving clean clothes, healthy food, comfortable quarters to the poor? The majority of the English, having all these things, regard their absence as a frightful misfortune; society believes itself bound to come to the aid of those who lack them.... In England, the average standard of living a man can hope for in the course of his life is higher than in any other country of the world. This greatly facilitates the extension of pauperism in that kingdom." (2)

So the definition of poverty in the city, is different than that in the country.

The reasons for that, at least when this was written almost two centuries ago, was first off that those living in poverty in the city, had no land to work for food. But also their impoverishment was visible to those who took so much for granted.

How can you live conscience free, in a society with so much disparity?

The Welfare Explosion

The next body of work that Kristol critiqued was Regulating the Poor: The Function of Public Welfare by Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward. He calls their book "simpleminded", and "so crude in a quasi-Marxist way, that one is embarrassed to summarize it."

He scoffs at the notion from Piven and Cloward, that "Relief arrangements [under capitalism] are not shaped by the impulse to charity ... [they are] created and sustained to help deal with the malfunctions inherent in market economies."

Poverty in a modern society is often created by unemployment, and unemployment is often created when the "market economy" is in turmoil. The first to be cut by the corporate sector, during hard times, is the labour force, which creates a downward spiral.

The misguided notion that by giving more money to the corporate sector, jobs will be saved or created, has been proven over and over to be a myth. When companies were bailed out at the beginning of the latest "downturn", much of the money was used to give bonuses to executives and to buy up other companies that had gone bust.

Unemployment is still high, yet headlines in financial sections of newspapers, repeatedly include the words "record profits".

Piven and Cloward also wrote:
Relief arrangements are usually initiated or expanded in response to the political disorders that sometimes follow from the sharp economic downturns or dislocations that periodically beset market systems. The purpose of relief-giving at such times is not to ease hunger and want but to deal with civil disorder among the unemployed. (2)
Revolutions are often ignited by the lack of bread, real and metaphorical. And since Canada's crime rate is now at the lowest in our history, could this be why Stephen Harper is so intent on building more prisons?
"Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?" - Ebenezer Scrooge
So My Dear Mr. Kristol. This is What I "Think"
“These proposals included cries for billions of new money for social assistance in the name of “child poverty” and for more business subsidies in the name of “cultural identity”. In both cases I was sought out as a rare public figure to oppose such projects.” - Stephen Harper, (The Bulldog, National Citizens Coalition, February 1997)
Tocqueville also wrote that "There are two incentives to work: the need to live and the desire to improve the conditions of life." The basis of Neoconservatism or Libertarianism, is that everyone should look after themselves. But how can you find work when you have no clothing to wear, no food to eat, or no roof over your head?

Maybe if we take care of the first incentive, the second one will have a better chance of prevailing. We can always find money to give to Big Business or war, so there is no excuse not to channel a bit to our nation's disadvantaged, who might actually want to get out of the cycle of poverty.

Apparently the NDP and Conservatives are negotiating terms for the acceptance of the January budget. NDP finance critic, Thomas Mulcair, wants "future corporate cuts to be more targeted to ensure companies are investing in jobs and productivity."

"Future corporate tax cuts"? What happened to the NDP? Those terms should have been compulsory 50 billion dollars ago. From the day that Stephen Harper invited his corporate backers to slurp from the public trough. That is our money and we don't want "corporate tax cuts" that promise so much and give so little.

That money could have gone, and should be going, to actual job creation. If the NDP buy into this, they are going to lose most of their base.

Maybe they need to read Linda McQuaig's column: The growth of extreme inequality in Canada
The massive upward flow of income has largely been invisible to the public, even though it may well amount to the most significant change in Canadian society in decades. The impact on Canada's social fabric is huge and likely to grow. Recent research -- particularly the work of British epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett -- shows that less equal societies almost always have more violence, more disease, more mental health problems, higher infant mortality rates, reduced life expectancies, as well as less social cohesion. The effects are most pronounced at the bottom, but are evident throughout the society.
Or John Grace's review of the new book, Spirit Level, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, that he wrote for the UK Guardian.
They say, it's not just the deprived underclass that loses out in an unequal society: everyone does, even the better off. Because it's not absolute levels of poverty that create the social problems, but the differentials in income between rich and poor.
That is the only issue that the NDP should be raising. Not what to do with "future corporate tax cuts".

Irving Kristol speaks of the fact that welfare payments were based on the poverty level, which means that they are at the same as the lowest wage earner's income. But the problem is not the amount of "relief" but the fact that wages are so low. There's no reason for it.

And if he felt that this meant that people wouldn't work, as a result, he might want to think about a national childcare plan, because often those on assistance are single parents, who can't work for poverty level wages, and pay someone else to look after their children while they work.

He also felt that welfare took away a man's masculinity: "... welfare robs the head of the household of his economic function, and tends to make of him a "superfluous man." And he suggests that if single mothers are paid to raise their children, they will stay single or get rid of their male partner.

Notwithstanding the inequality of that notion, the problem again relates not only to unemployment, but the ability of people to work. Food, healthcare, clothing, shelter and childcare. Those needs must first be met.

And jobs paying higher than the poverty level, provide revenue from income tax, that can go to helping others to abandon their pauperism.

Yes, there will always be cheats, just as there will always be Big Business demanding more and more of our tax dollars, in some perverse sense of entitlement.

So my dear Mr. Kristol. Neoconservatism is failing society, but thanks for playing. And to my dear Mr. Mulcair. Give your head a shake.
"Courage, my friends; 'tis not too late to build a better world." - Tommy Douglas


1. My Conversation with Irving Kristol on the Welfare State


1. Full text of Stephen Harper's 1997 speech, Canadian Press, December 14, 2005

2. Neo-Conservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea, By Irving Kristol, The Free Press, 1995, ISBN: 0-02-874021-1, Pg. 43-49


  1. Good one Emily. I'd like to see you have had this discussion for real. He wouldn't have a leg to stand on. There is a good article in the Star today on Layton and the need for the NDP to remain loyal to their core beliefs especially in light of the failure of free-market policies and the successes of societies which embrace social democratic policies.

  2. ---And he suggests if single mothers are paid to raise their children, they will stay single or get rid of their male partner.

    And that truly is their biggest fear. If not for desperate single mothers, who would provide lap dances and be sex slaves to the world? Who would take the abuse from husbands? It's a huge problem for the rich male elite actually. They are very worried about it.