Institutional Injustice: Michael Tanner's Inclusive Economy
By Rachel Ferguson
We’re not living in a political moment that encourages much nuance or subtlety. And more than ever, one’s compatriots vilify any concession to one’s ideological opponents as aiding and abetting the enemy. A tour through America’s abject failure to effectively address intergenerational poverty – the hollowed out, addiction-addled rural towns; the violent chaos of the inner-cities; the failing schools; and an imprisoned generation – drowns out such hyper-partisan nonsense.
As it turns out, some of what progressives have emphasized – systemic injustice against minorities and women, for instance – turns out to be all too true as a real cause of our troubles, right up to our current moment. At the same time, conservative critiques of progressive solutions turn out to be accurate as well. While no longer willing to promote a blame-the-victim, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps account of poverty, Michael Tanner is also unwilling to endorse a set of short-sighted government interventions that only serve to disempower and trap the poor. In The Inclusive Economy, he calls both conservatives and progressives to face the facts: institutional injustice is a huge part of why a certain population is stuck below the poverty level, and institutional solutions have only made things worse. Tanner identifies a set of policy prescriptions that will give the poor a fighting chance of escape, less by micromanaging them and more by removing the obstacles that hold them back.
Opening with a review of historical attitudes toward the poor, Tanner reminds us of our roots. We believe that every human person has dignity and value; caring for the poor is an important and elevated part of the moral life; and the struggle to care for people in a way that doesn’t enable self-destructive behavior is neither new nor straightforward. He doesn’t spend time arguing for these things. Rather, he takes them for granted as the underlying assumptions of his entire project. On the other hand, the modern era has introduced a new solution not available to earlier generations: economic growth as a driver of wealth, especially for normal, everyday people. Tanner backs this claim up with numbers. Not only does he appeal to the famous ‘hockey stick’ of economic growth post 1800, but he points out that an annual economic growth for America just 1% lower than we have experienced, over the course of about 150 years, leaves us in the same economic condition as Mexico (page
5). The devastating effect on the least well-off among us in such circumstances is clear.
Tanner goes on to engage two other controversial tropes between progressives and conservatives: the role of culture in poverty, and the role of minority, gender, and class oppression. He hopes to affirm what truth he can of the progressive view, without giving up the notion of individual self-determination. He does so by reviewing some of the most prominent work on culture and poverty, such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s and Charles Murray’s. Following Murray’s lead, he argues that the poor are not bad people promoting a self-destructive culture. Rather, the poor are rational people responding to the incentives in front of them, just as you or I would do. Concentrated housing projects, wildly high effective tax rates for work, and punitive policies toward marriage, all conspire to create a downward pressure on the development and maintenance of middle-class habits. There’s good evidence that poor women, for instance, desire to marry and do marry when the financial burden of doing so is removed. Tanner does chide the left for making it almost impossible to talk about the reality of self-destructive cultural practices. It behooves us to acknowledge the way that culture responds to political structures, but this requires us to acknowledge that these negative tendencies exist so that the structures can be changed accordingly. The progressive left, Tanner complains, so fears anything that might sound like blaming the victim, or even favoring certain cultural practices over others, that they’re unwilling to discuss how these downward cultural spirals perpetuate the problem. Tanner’s account elegantly incorporates the insights of both sides: many poor do embrace self-destructive cultural habits, but only because the structures the state has put into place make those short-term choices the only rational ones, creating long-term losses.
Appealing to America’s history of racial injustice, Tanner reminds his conservative readers that blacks have faced a constant and uninterrupted barrage of obstacles to economic well-being. He reviews the racialization of slavery, the ideologies of biological racism, the social humiliation that bred a sense of helplessness, the purposeful disruption of “social customs, family formation, and childrearing practices” under slavery through rape, mandated mating, family separation, and refusal to educate (page 73). Under Jim Crow, violence against blacks may have increased, and was especially virulent toward successful blacks, such as “teachers, ministers, landowners, and politicians” (74). Entire black towns were slaughtered as recently as the 1920’s. FHA red-lining policies shut out blacks from profitable home ownership and racial discrimination in hiring kept them in low-paying jobs. Low levels of black wealth make abuse by the criminal justice system inevitable, perpetuating more family and neighborhood breakdown and loss of income. Tanner reviews the struggle of women as well, although the economic status of women is more quickly recoverable following changes in discriminatory attitudes, since women tend to marry and reproduce with men, and daughters can benefit from their father’s privilege.
Tanner opens The Inclusive Economy with these chapters, I believe, to show that there is nothing inherent in the libertarian critique of the welfare state and economic regulation that makes it incompatible with the insights of progressives on structural injustice. If anything, the two views coalesce. It’s only the strange bundling of ideas by our current political tribes that make this less obvious than it ought to be.
Tanner’s deep familiarity with the literature truly shines in his chapters on the policy program he recommends. After laying out the failure of redistributive policies, Tanner suggests criminal justice reform and ending the war on drugs; education choice; elimination of zoning and land-use regulation and reduction of property taxes to bring housing costs down; the removal of asset tests for public assistance, excessive banking regulations, and barriers to non-banks to encourage saving; and reduction of taxes and regulations to stimulate economic growth (page 125). The chapters on each of these groups of policy recommendations are deep dives into the economic literature that will prove valuable to students and scholars alike. The bibliography alone is a treasure. Tanner does an excellent job of differentiating between those policies that will be the most effective and those that are popular but will only make a dent. The information presented here will be familiar to scholars concerned with poverty, but even they will discover new gems from Tanner’s comprehensive grasp of the debates. For instance, the emphasis on encouraging small amounts of savings among the poor incorporates more recent research with which some may be unfamiliar, and Tanner’s libertarian emphasis on deregulation adds a fundamental insight to what might otherwise turn into yet another government-run savings program.
Rachel Ferguson is Professor of Managerial Philosophy and the Director of the Liberty and Ethics Center at Linwood University.