LETTER: Lipton’s DA is a straw man
The public intellectual should at least be well versed in the opposition’s arguments
The worst kind of debate is one in which you have to spend time rearticulating what it is you said, instead of debating the merits and substance of your proposals. In response to Merle Lipton’s letter, I must engage in precisely that kind of unsatisfactory rebuttal because what she understands of the DA’s position on addressing class inequality is wrong (“Liberalism should not just be about individual rights”, January 17).
Lipton writes that “it is disappointing that the DA, in urging a shift from SA’s racially based affirmative action policy, does not confront the need to accompany this by a shift towards class-based policies aimed at reducing our continuing extreme economic inequality”. It is a responsibility of the public intellectual, and I do consider Lipton to be that, to be well versed on the subject matter they critique. And if we are to imagine a public intellectual par excellence, then not only would they have a sound understanding of the argument of their “opponent”, but they would understand it better than they do. Why? Because it does not satisfy intellectual curiosity or debate to rebut the weakest and most ungenerous interpretation of an argument.
What does the DA’s economic justice policy say? It says specifically that which Lipton believes it does not say. It proposes a shift from race-based affirmative action to class-based policy to reduce economic inequality. Right from the beginning, on page one, we frame the challenge thus: “If we wish to create an economically inclusive and nonracial SA, we must address inequalities of opportunity to complement our hard-won political freedoms.”
And because many people do not read long documents, still on the first page we made sure that we were clear about the areas we see as priorities in the fight against socioeconomic equality; namely:
- Unemployment, particularly long-term unemployment;
- Low duration of time spent in education and low quality of educational outcomes;
- Wealth inequality caused by low savings and investments, as well as the fact that the majority of South Africans were prevented from accumulating intergenerational wealth;
- The breakdown of the family;
- Inequalities in health;
- Childhood stunting; and
- Spatial inequalities caused by apartheid spatial design and perpetuated by failed land reform.
The entire DA economic justice policy is dedicated to describing and proposing solutions to these class inequalities. This makes it difficult, one might say impossible, to argue that the DA does not propose a shift to class-based policy in tackling extreme inequality.
One may not agree with some or all of the proposals we make, but that is different to arguing they do not exist, or that we are unconcerned about extreme inequality. We propose wide-ranging interventions such as raising the child grant to the food poverty line in the fight against childhood stunting, putting in place early detection mechanisms in schools for pupils at risk of dropping out — a strategy that has enjoyed success in other parts of the world — and interventions based on behavioural economics to increase savings, which are crucial to intergenerational wealth and mobility.
In addition, among a variety of other proposals we reiterate the economic reforms we have long advocated, which are essential to get the country on a growth path and without which redistributive measures (including those we propose) are not possible. For obvious reasons, we do argue economic growth is essential to addressing inequality, but by no means is it argued that it is sufficient. And certainly our position is a far cry from what Lipton describes as “the mantra of ‘trickle-down from faster economic growth’, which so many politicians routinely iterate”.
It is a caricature of a liberal position, which makes for a fun straw man to attack but does not describe that of the DA today, nor even really of more right-leaning parties — see the Tories’ interventions, beyond pure economic growth advocacy.
There is not enough policy discussion in SA. Therefore, debate on party positions on issues, as opposed to the politics of personality, is most welcome when it happens. However, there is an obligation to do so in good faith. And I can think of no better example of arguing in bad faith than ignoring what is written in black and white.
Gwen Ngwenya, DA head of policy
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