March 19, 2013

Makes and Takers vs. Burkean Communitarianism

Matt Lewis at the Daily Caller asks a very valid question:

Should the Republican nominee follow a model that talks about the “makers and takers” – or instead, stress a more inclusive message about building strong communities?

I’ve written a lot lately about how conservatives should stress a more communitarian (not selfish individualism) message as an electoral response to Obama’s collectivism.

So I was delighted to pick up the latest copy of The American Conservative and see Carl T. Bogus’ essay, “Burke Not Buckley” (subscription required.)

Here’s an excerpt that jumped out at me:

“For the Burkeans of the 1950s, emphasis on community was at the heart of a properly conceived conservatism. [Russell] Kirk wrote: ‘True conservatism … rises at the antipodes from individualism. Individualism is social atomism; conservatism is community of spirit.”

There is a rise in the libertarian wing of the Republican Party that presents danger an opportunity: an opportunity to make government more accountable and responsive to new demands of modern society. The danger is letting that wing grow too powerful to the point that it does away with the government as a social safety net for the less fortunate, as I see some more willing than ever to do.

Also, in that libertarian wing are the ones who feel corporations have no responsibility except to shareholders and that all costs - especially costs related to employees - should be minimized, which I believe has led to stagnant wages. These are the same ones who believe government workers are largely overpaid (many are and I do feel no government employee should have job protection, but the vast majority are hard working and underpaid). Or that it's alright to slash wages and benefits while the economy is down but haven't taken the initiative to restore them.

But, I do hold out hope that the communitarian spirt spoken of by Mr. Lewis pervades at least some sectors and that higher wages, from the aspect of community, are indeed an investment.

From the National Journal:

Companies who invest in higher salaries for low-level employees find success in a competitive market.

The average American cashier makes $20,230 a year, which in a single-earner household would leave a family of four living under the poverty line. But if he works the cash registers at QuikTrip, it’s an entirely different story. The convenience store and gas station chain offers entry-level employees an annual salary of around $40,000, plus benefits. Those high wages didn’t stop QuikTrip from prospering in a hostile economic climate. While other low-cost retailers spent the recession laying off staff and shuttering stores, QuikTrip expanded to its current 645 locations across 11 states.

Many employers believe that one of the best ways to raise their profit margin is to cut labor costs. But companies like QuikTrip, the grocery store chain Trader Joe’s, and Costco Wholesale are proving that the decision to offer low wages is a choice, not an economic necessity. All three are low-cost retailers, a sector that is traditionally known for relying on part-time, low-paid employees. Yet these companies have all found that the act of valuing workers can pay off in the form of increased sales and productivity.

“Retailers start with this philosophy of seeing employees as a cost to be minimized,” says Zaynep Ton of MIT’s Sloan School of Management. That can lead companies into a vicious cycle. Underinvestment in workers can result in operational problems in stores, which decrease sales. And low sales often lead companies to slash labor costs even further. Middle-income jobs have declined recently as a share of total employment, as many employers have turned full-time jobs into part-time positions with no benefits and unpredictable schedules.

QuikTrip, Trader Joe’s, and Costco operate on a different model, says Ton. “They start with the mentality of seeing employees as assets to be maximized,” she says. As a result, their stores boast better operational efficiency and customer service, and those result in better sales. QuikTrip sales per labor hour are two-thirds higher than the average convenience store chain, Ton found, and sales per square foot are over fifty percent higher.

These ideas are neither liberal nor progressive. It's essentially recognizing what older business leaders recognize from years ago: find good people and pay them well, instead of pay them as little as you can get away with.

Matt Lewis further writes:

This Randian impulse, of course, is not nearly as pervasive as some in the media would have us believe. Many conservatives are quietly very charitable (in fact more charitable than liberals). But too often, harsh rhetoric about "makers and takers" and the "47 percent" belies this.

Conservatives are frequently complicit in this misrepresentation. We stress that government shouldn't mandate certain things, but too seldom acknowledge that our own consciences should have required us to privately provide these very things in the first place. If you employ someone, you should feel a self-imposed responsibility to them that transcends whatever the minimum wage law is.

This is not to say free-market conservatives should accede to the redistributionists who misunderstand human nature, competition, and incentives. Conservatives must preach capitalism and the importance of free markets. But in teaching the yin, we should not ignore the yang.

Most educated Americans know Adam Smith wrote Wealth of Nations, expounding on the virtues of self-interest in free markets. But how many Americans know Smith's first (and only other) book was called The Theory of Moral Sentiments — and that it was about the virtues of personal benevolence? Indeed, Smith developed a theory of an "impartial spectator" (a sort of conscience) as a standard for moral judgment.

Smith believed that in both instances, an "invisible hand" unintentionally changes things to benefit others. The "greed is good" saying is a simplistic perversion of Smith's philosophy.

I focused more on the economic and wage aspect of communitarianism, admittedly narrow, but I submit that what amounts to supporting a thriving middle class supports community in ways that aren't easily quantifiable or measurable but can be seen and felt by those living in the community.

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