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Conservatives aren't unwilling, just can't let go

BY DANIEL TAIBLESON | MARCH 23, 2012 6:30 AM

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Liberals regularly contend that conservatives are either unwilling, or unable, to acknowledge empirical evidence that exposes core conservative arguments to be patently false. However, two recent arguments that appeared in the Wall Street Journal reveal this to be untrue.

The problem is not that conservatives lack the mental furniture on which contrary evidence can sit, but rather that conservatives are too ideologically rigid to abandon core tenets. This holds true even after contrary information has forced them to abandon the principal arguments in which those tenets were founded.

As consequence, many conservative thinkers have turned to increasingly novel arguments to support ideologically founded conclusions.

One rigid conservative conclusion can be found in the recent article by conservative economist and Carnegie Mellon University Professor Allan Meltzer, who argued the fundamentally conservative claim that countries cannot address the issue of income inequality by changing tax policy.

He supported this conclusion with a single study showing that income growth among the top 1 percent of earners across Western democracies follow a similar trend line. Meltzer, armed with this small amount of data, concluded that "domestic policy can't be the principal reason for the current spread between high earners and others."

But, blinded by his stubborn conservative values, it appears that Meltzer missed an important implication of the research on which his entire argument pivots.

If the wealthy are going to keep getting wealthier regardless of tax rates, then clearly taxes are not as much of a disincentive as conservatives have long asserted. This conclusion strikes a rather brutal blow to the fundamental conservative argument that high tax rates run the risk of pushing the wealthy to withdraw from taking part in economic activity — as they so famously did in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.

A similarly misguided argument appeared on the Journal's website this past week concerning the minimum wage.

Rather than admit that an increase in the minimum wage poses no demonstrable threat to economic growth, Christopher Shea distracts from the frail conservative argument in opposition to increasing the minimum wage by directing readers to "a different downside," purportedly identified in a forthcoming study that will appear in the Review of Economics and Statistic, is that "a higher minimum wage leads to more [teenage] drunken-driving accidents:"

However, Shea totally ignores the fact that the study has almost nothing to do with the relationship between the minimum wage and drunk driving specifically, but everything to do with the fact that alcohol consumption among teens is highly sensitive to small changes in incomes and prices.

That in mind, if we were to carry this information and the argument laid out by the study to its logical conclusion, Shea is actually making a rather compelling argument for a higher alcohol tax.

A conclusion supported by another study conducted in Canada which found that a 10 percent increase in minimum alcohol prices reduced alcohol consumption by 3.6 percent.

Now, I do not know about you, but a new or higher tax sounds like the last thing that a conservative would want.

So, in an ideal world in which the conservative arguments put forth by Meltzer and Shea dictated policy decisions, the 4.4 million Americans who earn no more than the minimum wage, many of whom attend such colleges as the University of Iowa, would experience the rapid evaporation of what little income they have. Furthermore, because the wealthy would pull in a larger proportion of total income and pay lower taxes, governments would experience dramatic decreases in revenues.

This would inevitably lead to decreased public funding for institutions of higher learning, further pressuring colleges such as the UI to increase tuition to compensate for the loss of funding.

As time and growing bodies of research further erode the rhetorical and empirical pillars supporting conservative ideological tenets, right-wing thinkers have turned to increasingly shaky arguments. Liberals, however, are wrong to contend that conservatives are immune to new information. They are not — they are simply unwilling to confront it and instead work around it.


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