Spreading the Wealth by mattsteinglass
October 30, 2008, 9:30 am
Filed under: Economics, United States, Vietnam

There is widespread agreement among US, European and Asian aid agencies in Vietnam that while the country’s economic growth over the past 15 years has lifted huge numbers out of poverty and created unprecedented wealth in educated urban classes, it is also creating an increasing wealth gap and leaving some parts of society behind. The poverty, everyone agrees, is concentrated in rural and mountainous areas, and particularly among ethnic minorities such as the Hmong. Everyone, US aid agencies included, agrees that they should cooperate with the Vietnamese government to focus development efforts on isolated areas and ethnic minorities.

It’s utterly predictable that those left behind by economic growth in Vietnam should be ethnic minorities. The minorities are the groups that lost out to the conquering Viet (also known as Kinh) as they expanded southwards from the Red River delta from the 2nd through the 18th centuries; they have lower literacy rates, fewer commercial skills and connections. Until recently many spoke no Vietnamese. Anyway, like Native Americans, indigenous ethnic minorities are generally poorer than majorities everywhere in the world. (Immigrant minorities are more mixed; those imported for cheap or slave labor are generally poorer, but commercial wealth-seekers like Chinese, Indians, Armenians and Jews are richer.)

But while the US backs aid for disadvantaged ethnic minorities abroad, inside the US, such efforts are a wedge issue. As the Civil Rights movement reshaped American politics in the 1960s, a libertarian-rightist ideology which opposed all government economic aid to groups of any kind became congenial to whites fearful of black demands for compensation for slavery and subsequent segregation and discrimination. The radical individualism of Goldwater Republicanism, with its Ayn Randian antecedents, provided an acceptable non-racial framework for justifying white resistance to black demands for government-led development efforts to extend the country’s economic prosperity to its most discriminated-against indigenous racial minority. The libertarian argument was strengthened by Cold War anti-communism, such that resisting economic and educational development programs for historically disadvantaged minorities was couched as a “defense of liberty.”

This is the context in which to understand this exchange cited by Matthew Yglesias between John Judis and Ross Douthat. Judis says John McCain’s last-ditch effort to tar Obama as a “socialist” intent on “spreading the wealth” is a coded racial appeal. Douthat says if that’s a coded racial appeal, it is hard to imagine anything a conservative could say that couldn’t be interpreted as a coded racial appeal.

Douthat has a point, but it’s a point Republicans are going to have to live with. The basic question here is about economic and social fairness. Libertarian-conservative ideology has assumed that the US is a fair society in which individuals are responsible for their own welfare. The ethnic group best able to see the flaws in this assumption has been African-Americans, for obvious reasons. Democrats and social progressives in general make the understanding that society is not fair a part of their basic ideology. And at this moment in history, Americans are very conscious of how economically unfair American society really is. As in Vietnam, many people and groups in the US are isolated from the engines of economic growth, and they need government action to, well, spread the wealth. To the extent that poor white Americans reject such efforts, it is mainly because they can be pitted politically against other poor groups, chiefly ethnic minorities.


4 Comments so far
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1) Government spending in the USA is something like 40% of GDP and that doesn’t include massive regulations that essentially are an added tax on doing business. This is hardly a libertarian form of government.

2) Goldwater lost in a landslide to Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Johnson had far more power to exert negative policies on the USA than Goldwater ever did. Goldwater had almost no clout whatsoever except maybe in debate shops like this one. Johnson’s – representing your ideology – policies reined supreme.

3) A “Wedge Issue” is liberal terminology for a side issue liberals get hammered on in the political arena because the majority of public opinion is against them on that particular issue. Abortion is a similar such issue, yet it is never called a “Wedge Issue” because public opinion is on the side of the liberals.

What matters is that everyone has opportunity. You are never going to have “Equal Opportunity” and you are never going to have “Equal Outcomes” from that supposed “Equal Opportunity”. Furthermore, in most semi-capitalist countries, you will not have an equal distribution of wealth. And, by the way, name one country other than Malaysia that has as deeply an embedded system of hiring quotas for minorities. Can you name one?

Again, for the third time, you are in a region of the world where income distribution is far worse than anything in the USA, yet you are choosing to live there rather than some place else. Actions speak louder than words.

Comment by Frank

Steven Waldman: “A few years ago it looked like opposition to gay marriage was going to equal or surpass abortion as the ultimate wedge issue…”

“Once Again, Abortion Proves to Be Wedge Issue for Catholics”

“Abortion resurfaces as wedge issue
By Linda Feldmann, CSMonitor”

…and so on.

Comment by mattsteinglass

Your links prove my point. When abortion is used by conservatives as a club, it’s a “Wedge Issue”. When liberals use abortion as a club, it is something else. Now find me some links associating the term “Wedge Issue” with liberals who bash conservatives over the issue of abortion. If you could, I would prefer non-blog sources such as The New York Times, CNN, NBC, LA Times, etc.

Comment by Frank

wohh exactly what I was searching for, thanks for putting up.

Comment by Candi Handon

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