Finding the middle way


Last updated 5/24/2022 at Noon

According to the Pew Research Center, social trust is a belief in the honesty, integrity, and reliability of others — a “faith in people.”

“Levels of social trust, averaged across a country, predict national economic growth as powerfully as financial and physical capital, and more powerfully than skill levels…” Social trust is positively associated with life satisfaction and negatively associated with suicide.

But social trust has eroded in the United States, due in part to a change in our body politic. Rather than governing in a spirit of bipartisanship, today liberals and conservatives square off in the spirit of winner take all.

Campaigns meanwhile whip up the party faithful, imploring them for contributions to defeat those dirty scoundrels on the other side.

As long as we believe only one approach to governance works, we will struggle as a nation to listen to each other, find common ground, and rebuild social trust.

In his book, “The Righteous Mind,” Johnathan Haidt illustrates differences between liberals and conservatives and where each governance structure falls short.

Haidt believes that each of us comes pre-wired for a sense of “fairness,” a moral foundation that enabled our ancestors to reap the rewards of cooperative relationships.

But liberal and conservative ideas of fairness differ significantly.

Liberals, Haidt says, think of fairness in terms of equitable outcomes. Taxation is used as a tool to more evenly distribute wealth. However this approach may disincentivize people to work hard, launch their own businesses, create new technologies, innovate.

Conservatives think of fairness in terms of proportionality — the harder you work, the more you will prosper. If you fail to acquire wealth, it is due to laziness. Tax policies support the view that we should keep the wealth we have created through hard work.

The conservative position fails to take into account that due to poverty, racism, gender discrimination, etc. Americans don’t compete on a level playing field. In today’s economy one can work two or three part-time jobs and still not be able to pay all of their bills.

The middle approach would be to use tax policies to create a more level playing field for opportunity so that all people who work hard have a fair chance to build wealth. As more people ascend to the middle class, and their purchasing power grows, our economy will thrive.

The special problem of the free-rider.

Communities prosper when its members work together to create resources that benefit everyone. But throughout human history there has existed “free-riders” who try to siphon off a community’s resources without lending a helping hand.

Evolutionary psychologists tell us that the way to respond to free-riders is to deprive them of communal resources, and then when their general welfare suffers, provide incentives to work for the welfare of everyone in the community.

Failing to acknowledge the problem of the free-rider and treating everyone the same, liberals may enable free-riders to take advantage of communities. Conservatives believe that everyone needing government assistance is a free-rider who should be able to make it on their own.

The free-rider dilemma can be illustrated by how liberal and conservative cities approach tenant/landlord relationships.

Liberal cities try to protect tenants from bad landlords, with laws and rules that favor the rights of renters. Liberal cities fail to account for free-riders who will squat, rent-free until evicted. This places an undue burden on landlords, driving them out of the rental market, which exacerbates the lack of affordable housing.

The five most tenant-friendly states are Vermont, Delaware, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Nevada.

Conservative cities try to protect landlords from unscrupulous tenants, i.e. free-riders, by not imposing a cap on the size of late fees or damage deposits, and making it easier to evict tenants who fall behind on rent payments or damage property. Lower property taxes may attract investors.

Evicting a tenant for a late rent payment—viewing them as a free-rider—when they made all of their previous rent payments on time, may push them further into poverty and toward living on the street.

The most landlord-friendly states are Indiana, Georgia, Kentucky, Texas, Arizona, and Florida.

Somewhere in the middle between liberal and conservative approaches to rental law lies a balance point where tenants are protected from bad landlords and landlords are protected from bad tenants, i.e., free-riders.

If we can find the middle way between conservative and liberal approaches to governance we may rebuild social trust, increasing our prosperity.


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