Philo contends that Professor Reynolds’ aperÃ§u ought to be awarded the status of a law.
The government decides to try to increase the middle class by subsidizing things that middle class people have: If middle-class people go to college and own homes, then surely if more people go to college and own homes, weâ€™ll have more middle-class people. But homeownership and college arenâ€™t causes of middle-class status, theyâ€™re markers for possessing the kinds of traits â€” self-discipline, the ability to defer gratification, etc. â€” that let you enter, and stay, in the middle class. Subsidizing the markers doesnâ€™t produce the traits; if anything, it undermines them.
I dub this Reynoldsâ€™ Law: â€œSubsidizing the markers of status doesnâ€™t produce the character traits that result in that status; it undermines them.â€ Itâ€™s easy to see why. If people donâ€™t need to defer gratification, work hard, etc., in order to achieve the status they desire, theyâ€™ll be less inclined to do those things. The greater the government subsidy, the greater the effect, and the more net harm produced.
This law is thus a relative to Murrayâ€™s third law in Losing Ground, the Law of Net Harm: â€œThe less likely it is that the unwanted behavior will change voluntarily, the more likely it is that a program to induce change will cause net harm.â€ But Reynoldsâ€™ Law rests on a different and more secure foundation. It focuses on character as fundamental.
Since the time of Woodrow Wilson, Democratsâ€”but not only Democratsâ€”have fretted that the middle class is shrinking due to the power of large corporations, and that only government action to â€œlevel the playing fieldâ€ can save the middle class. The â€œmiddle class is being more and more squeezed out by the processes which we have been taught to call processes of prosperity.â€ Obama? Hillary? No, thatâ€™s Woodrow Wilson in 1913 (The New Freedom). Itâ€™s striking to realize that progressives have been playing the same tune for a century, no matter whatâ€™s actually taking place in the economyâ€”indeed, in the midst of the greatest expansion of affluence in the history of the worldâ€”with the same set of proffered solutions: greater government power, regulations, higher taxes, and subsidies for the markers of affluence.
Reynoldsâ€™ Law thus strikes at the heart of progressivism as a political ideology. Progressivism canâ€™t deliver on its central promise. In fact, itâ€™s guaranteed to make things worse in exactly that respect.