Of Little Red-Headed Girls And Redistribution

Of Little Red-Headed Girls And Redistribution July 9, 2014

In the course of this excellent Mark Shea post on opposing abortion and supporting a social safety net, he quotes GK Chesterton.

It’s a wonderful quote:

I begin with a little girl’s hair. That I know is a good thing at any rate. Whatever else is evil, the pride of a good mother in the beauty of her daughter is good. It is one of those adamantine tendernesses which are the touchstones of every age and race. If other things are against it, other things must go down. If landlords and laws and sciences are against it, landlords and laws and sciences must go down. With the red hair of one she-urchin in the gutter I will set fire to all modern civilization.


The quote goes on:

Because a girl should have long hair, she should have clean hair; because she should have clean hair, she should not have an unclean home; because she should not have an unclean home, she should have a free and leisured mother; because she should have a free mother, she should not have an usurious landlord; because there should not be an usurious landlord, there should be a redistribution of property; because there should be a redistribution of property, there shall be a revolution.

Here’s another version I’d like to suggest:

Because a girl should have long hair, she should have clean hair; because she should have clean hair, she should not have an unclean home; because she should not have an unclean home, she should have a free and leisured mother; because she should have a free mother, she should not have an usurious landlord; because there should not be an usurious landlord, there should be a free market in housing so that supply is plentiful, prices are low and competition weeds away the bad landlords.

The point is that much of what appears as theological or philosophical or ideological disagreement, inside Catholic-world as well as outside is actually an empirical discussion about means rather than an abstract discussion about ends. (Take it away, Sane Paul Krugman)

Here’s another version:

Because a girl should have long hair, she should have clean hair; because she should have clean hair, she should not have an unclean home; because she should not have an unclean home, she should have a free and leisured mother; because she should have a free mother, she should not have an usurious landlord; because there should not be an usurious landlord, all housing should be owned by the government and distributed to each according to their need.

(I am well aware that the “redistribution of property” that Chesterton talks about is a, well, distributist redistribution, which has nothing to do with either technocratic social-democratic or communist redistribution. This is just for the sake of argument.)

The problem with this version is that when the government does own the housing, everyone gets the most usurious of landlords, and the “homes” end up being very unclean on every possible dimension. (I write here as one who spent some time living in public housing as a child, btw. (I even once lived in public housing, literally, IN SOVIET RUSSIA.))

This is something that, in re: housing, almost everyone now agrees with, but this was not the case at all for many decades, even in the face of overwhelming evidence.

The problem that someone who opposes this version is often taken to oppose “a girl should have clean hair” rather than, you know, housing socialism. (And in the American political context for decades, as well as in the French political context nowadays, opposition to public housing was written off as inherently racist.)

Again, Chesterton is right, and Shea is right. But I did want to make this point.


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  • Speaking exclusively from an empirical standpoint, I think there is broadly shared instinct that when the Right suggests that we can have Nice Things (as defined by the little red haired girl going without serious want) but that less government is the only way to get it, they really just want less government and the Nice Things are an unexamined post-hoc justification.I think this wide distrust is on the part of not only the professionally Left, but the wide array of not-Right aligned persons, including mainstream Republican voters. After all, when the same technical solution is displayed regardless of the problem, it seems less like a sober reflection on the best solution and more like ideology.

    I was just thinking about this when it comes to libertarians who wish to go back to Ye (g)Olde Age of freer markets and freer men. Aside from the actual contemporaneous injustices, there was also a much stronger sense of civic duty. Perhaps the government didn’t had the ability to tap your phone lines freely, but you could expect society to snoop, snitch, and shun with an efficacy that would make the NSA blush. Libertarians, as a whole, don’t talk much about civic duty, at least not in positive terms.

    Which I think is a long way of saying, that the Right/pro-market movement has earned the distrust of the public that it doesn’t care that much about the social welfare of the red-headed little girl, and that if it would like to be trusted, it needs to talk a lot more, and more genuinely about the red-headed little girl. And it needs to stop appending “yes, but”

    • BTP

      One day when you’re really bored or really drunk, try inverting one of these responses. So, “When the Left suggests that Nice Things are only possible if we have bigger government…” etc. If it turns out to make about the same sense after inversion, take another shot.

      • If PEG was interested in the Left project, perhaps that mode of analysis would be relevant. He’s evinced no such interest, but rather has written them off. There’s nothing quite like “both sides are stupid” to waste time and dishonestly build credibility.

        As it happens, this example doesn’t work flipped. I’m not aware of anyone who seriously disbelieves in the notion that the Left wants good things when it comes to social welfare. The argument is over whether or not Left good intentions are enough to resist the flaws and corruptions of government.

        Oh. I suppose there is that faction that believes that the compassion of the Left is made wholly of cynical bribery. I suppose I should take them at least a little seriously, but I don’t. I’m observing that there is actually a lot of disagreement over whether or not the Right’s objection as to method is sincere when it comes to broad social welfare, a credibility gap that is not mirrored on this issue. But please, if you object to that observation, let me know who you’ve been talking to.

        To put it another way, I’m saying the Right has a particular credibility problem when it comes to general social welfare, especially of the poor, that is comparable to the credibility problem that the Left has with religious conscience rights.

        • BTP

          So you don’t think there is a broadly shared instinct that when the Left comes up with some happiness-enhancing policy idea the real aim is to increase government power, with the happiness-enhancing benefits working merely as the stalking horse to achieve that goal?

          Where to begin? How about Bismarck? How about everything ever said about the Affordable Care Act — which the Congressional Budget Office has insisted will provide net new coverage for approximately zero people?

          Etc., & etc.

          It is a pretty standard idea on the mainstream Right that government is interested in increasing its own power and that the means of doing so is a cynical exploitation of the general welfare (education, support for the poor, the environment, etc.). This is not merely the view of the Right-wing fever swamps.

          • Not really, no. Take the ACA. The criticisms from the right have more or less come down to “why should I have to buy health care?” “this is a stupid idea and it won’t work” “this is a really stupid idea and will make health care work” and “this is a secret plan to get government run health care.” Also that thing about “death panels” and other fear of rule-by-experts. I have seen criticism that amounts to the ACA is a bad idea and Obama/the Democrats know it, but they’re keeping it going to save face, but that criticism usually takes the narrative that Obama wanted substantive healthcare reform, but was too weak to get it.

            There isn’t really a doubt that increased access healthcare is and has been a specific and substantive policy goal of the Left for generations. That the government is increasing its power through exploiting this issues suggests that the Left is full of patsies, not cynics.

            My analysis isn’t exactly a new idea, even if I’ve casted it unflattering terms. The Left and Right have always been more or less credible in particular zones, so much so that we tend to define Left and Right by those issues. If one thinks these stereotypes are unfair, one should do their best to change them. That doesn’t mean pretending they don’t exist.

          • BTP

            Guess I’m surprised to see someone who doesn’t know that the Right is very suspicious of things like the ACA because it seems like a government power grab masquerading as compassion. Shocking, really, since a cursory review of mainstream conservative web sites would provide an exhaustive list of programs the Right thinks are exactly that.

            But, you disagree…

          • I’m aware of the suspicion, but I generally don’t find it coupled in the main with a belief that Leftists don’t also want universal healthcare in its own right. I mean, certainly, you’ll see partisans trotting out whatever line tickles their fancy at the moment, but generally within the mix there is a continuing theme of Lefties are softies.

          • It just occurred to me, that we may be talking about slightly different groups of people. I certainly have observed wide cynicism about professional partisans, but less so about the wider panoply of aligned persons. Which is to say that I think there is plenty on the right who simultaneously think that Barack Obama is a power hungry mad dictator cynically peddling false compassion while thinking that the Democrat-in-the-street really does want healthcare everyone.

            At any rate, if we still disagree, then it may be just two very different sets of inputs.

  • Small world- I just read that quote in Joseph Pearce’s autobiography two hours ago.

  • Mark Shea’s conclusion is based on the erroneous supposition that a safety doesn’t exist. A safety net does already exist and there is no one advocating it being taken away. It is crass political rhetoric that tries to define political factions by absolute terms. Anyone that follows this line of arguing is a simpleton. The safety net for the poor in the US pretty much consists of food allowance, housing allowance, medical care, and free education, to varying degrees depending on which state you live in.