Wiring the Wonky Left’s Moral Compass

Thanks in no small part to Andrew Sullivan and Rod Dreher, my post last week on the “Wonky” American Left has generated some interesting discussion. Given that I’ve been unsuccessfully pushing this argument for a few years, I couldn’t be happier with the response. Debate beats quietude every day of the week.

Here’s a modest attempt to respond to some of the most common complaints and questions I received (Thanks to those who provided feedback!):

1. A lot of readers thought that I didn’t (and don’t) understand that leftists are not progressives, who are not neo-liberals, who are not Kennedy’s “Brain Trust,” who are not Marxists, who are not real activist leftists…etc.

I’m using the term “leftist” in a capacious sense, along the lines that Richard Rorty uses it in Achieving Our Country. U.S. leftists are those folks who occupy the left wing of American politics. While the dead ideological center of American politics is obviously impossible to conclusively define, at this level of analysis a certain fuzziness will suffice. “Leftists” refers to the whole of the Left—not just a radical slice at the fringe and not just the ones who attend hip music festivals.

Whether you accept the definition or not, at least notice that the degree of confusion over what to call members of the Left goes right to my point. How can a movement that can’t settle on its own moniker be expected to explain what it stands for?

(For what it’s worth, I self-describe as a progressive. If you’re interested, I’ve written [with John Halpin] several essays about what I take this to mean (here and here). It’s all over my own site as well.)

2. A number of people liked the stuff I had to say about wonks, but found my provisional solution incomplete.

Rousseau’s answer (from The Social Contract) is still best: Toutes mes idées se tiennent, mais je ne saurais les exposer toutes à la fois—“My ideas fit together, but I can’t present them all at once.” This is a big topic, and I’m trying to be as clear and consistent as I can—but it can’t all go in one post, ok? Get me a book contract and I’ll burn hundreds of pages on a Grand Unified Theory of left-wing wonks…but until then, it’s going to come in bite-sized chunks.

Incidentally, this is one of the things I find most irritating about the speed and structure of writing online. The truncation of our news cycle and attention span fosters a corresponding loss of patience. “Why didn’t you take the effects of new media into account?” “Why didn’t you include an analysis of the effects of economic trends?” “Why didn’t you address Marxism, guy? Huh? What about that?” Why not? Because I was tilling other goddamned fields. Give me a minute. Ha-rumph.

3. Other readers simply found my proposed solution unnecessary or unconvincing.

In the original post, I argued that leftists ought to “reverse the Reaganomics equation” by explicitly defending reliable government institutions as prerequisites for vibrant economic life. That way, leftists can dispense with conservative canards about the naturalness of “free” markets. The Center for Economic and Policy Research co-director Dean Baker explained this especially well last year in The End of Loser Liberalism:

For the most part, progressives accept the right’s framing of economic debates. They accept the notions that the right is devoted to the unfettered workings of the market and, by contrast, that liberals and progressives are the ones who want the government to intervene to protect the interests of the poor and disadvantaged.

However else leftists can improve their argument, there’s no doubt that they’ve got to get off the right’s home turf. This is going to require rethinking government’s relation to economic forces—whether it’s specifically along the lines I spelled out or not.

4. This suggests a related challenge. Part of the Left’s problem—as several commenters pointed out—could be more substantive than rhetorical.

What if leftists have a hard time coherently articulating their moral vision because their policy goals are actually incoherent? Are the Left’s troubles due to confused beliefs or ineffective rhetoric? Are leftists’ problems a matter of appearance or being?

It’s probably a bit of both. Obviously, any modern political movement always lives with a certain degree of inconsistency at its core. Pluralist politics require mental flexibility; no single political principle can reduce and resolve every problem. There’s little evidence that the American Left’s platform is uniquely incoherent, but Rorty’s “cultural” and “reformist” lefts could certainly be brought into better substantive harmony.

But the path to more coherent convictions runs through a serious rethinking of the Left’s moral vision. Anyone who’s ever tried in earnest to persuade knows that discourse can sharpen and clarify beliefs. As leftists get better at talking about their view of America’s future, they’ll also see new ways of making their policy objectives more coherent. It’ll be great, I promise. The cultural leftists will sit down with the reformists. The neo-liberals will break bread with the progressives. The wonks will swap ideas with the philosophers.

5. This brings us to the most interesting question—some readers worried that a clear moral vision isn’t as desirable as I suggested.

Fair enough. Though the Right’s crisp, radical rhetoric plays well in public debates, it severely limits the breadth of ideas they bring to the governing table. Rick Santorum pays for his coherence with sacrifices at the altar of narrow-mindedness.

In other words: Wouldn’t a more coherent Left emulate the very worst traits of their opponents? Wouldn’t they, in sharpening their moral rhetoric, surrender to the sort of radical simplicity that so hamstrings the American Right? Aren’t flexibility and nuance the hallmarks of a mature, adult approach to politics? Most importantly, wouldn’t leftists also have a harder time clowning conservatives for their love of purity? Would they—horrors—have to give up Jon Stewart?

Yikes. Something is rotten in the state of American conservatism. Right-wing elites sell a limited bill of goods to a base hungry for easy answers, only to later discover that they lose significant political flexibility in the transaction. They’re stuck trying to convince the country that tax cuts for the wealthy are the lapis philosophorum of American politics—because their base will tolerate nothing else. That’s why it’s nonsense to pretend that the conservative “establishment” somehow stands over, above, or against their “conservative base.” Elites staffing the establishment’s ranks created the grassroots tiger they can no longer tame. When their base questions Barack Obama’s citizenship, parentage, religion, and patriotism; when their base boos gay soldiers and cheers the deaths of the uninsured—conservative elites generally look the other way and hope no one notices.

Should leftists really aspire to radical intransigence? No. Of course not. Fortunately, Santorum’s isn’t the only rhetorical model available. There’s no necessary connection between a strong, clearly-defined moral vision and political juvenility. In other words, not all clarity is created equal. For example, the contemporary conservative view of the world is tightly delineated by its policy content. Conservatives have narrowed their raison d’être to specific tax reforms and cultural touchstones. Their “political religion,” to use Lincoln’s term, is deeply literal and fundamentalist.

Earlier leftist narratives provide ample proof that this need not be the case (Michael Kazin’s work is far and away the best on this point). Leftists from the original progressives to the New Left organized around broad political ideals—not specific policies. For example, the labor movement coalesced behind calls for unity between all working, productive citizens. They organized around general notions of “fraternity,” not particular theories of political economy, à la Reaganomics. Progressives like Herbert Croly and John Dewey argued that American individual freedom was under attack in an age of newly corporate economic forces. Like the unions, the progressives used these general ideals as the foundational support for various specific policies. In other words, modern leftists should be able to speak more coherently about what they believe without sacrificing their empirical honesty and nuanced view of politics. Their “political religion” (at its best) should be hermeneutic and ecumenical.

If nothing else, I’m glad to see the conversation going in earnest. As I wrote in the original post, many leftists don’t see a problem with their rhetoric. The resulting self-certainty is far less productive than the arguments I’ve had in the days since my original post. Though I’m confident about the core critique of wonkiness, there’s undoubtedly still a lot of room for improvement.

Conor Williams is a freelance writer and a Doctoral Candidate in Georgetown University’s Government Department. Past work published by Dissent, The Washington Post, The Center for American Progress, and elsewhere. See more at http://www.conorpwilliams.com, on Facebook, or on Twitter: @conorpwilliams.

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56 thoughts on “Wiring the Wonky Left’s Moral Compass

  1. “In the original post, I argued that leftists ought to “reverse the Reaganomics equation” by explicitly defending reliable government institutions as prerequisites for vibrant economic life. That way, leftists can dispense with conservative canards about the naturalness of “free” markets. The Center for Economic and Policy Research co-director Dean Baker explained this especially well last year in The End of Loser Liberalism:

    For the most part, progressives accept the right’s framing of economic debates. They accept the notions that the right is devoted to the unfettered workings of the market and, by contrast, that liberals and progressives are the ones who want the government to intervene to protect the interests of the poor and disadvantaged.

    However else leftists can improve their argument, there’s no doubt that they’ve got to get off the right’s home turf. This is going to require rethinking government’s relation to economic forces—whether it’s specifically along the lines I spelled out or not.”

    This is part of the incoherence. Obama and every other spokesperson for modern liberalism has said that unfettered capitalism has brought us to this point, that the policies of the past, the trickle down economics, etc, have failed, so what are you talking about? Then when Leftists refuse to be labeled as Leftists, it adds to the incoherence — they are not what we think they are, and they are everything we think they aren’t. It’s all really cool, complex and mysterious and stuff, but incoherent nonetheless.

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    • Heh.   What passes for Conservative rhetoric, present company excluded, sounds an awful lot like Useful Idiocy of a remarkably un-Conservative sort.   Once Conservatives stood for preserving useful legislation and our constitutional liberties.   This is no longer true.   In this, the Right has become a sock puppet, the greasy arm of assorted well-heeled shysters shoved so far up its fundament the Conservative mandible is now wagged by those who bear no allegiance to Conservative principles and causes.   Examples Given:   the entire Bush administration and the HR under Boehner.

      Conservative?   I think not.   The Conservative home turf is a little putting green in the middle of a howling desert.

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    • “However else leftists can improve their argument, there’s no doubt that they’ve got to get off the right’s home turf. ”

      Which is something like saying that however else homeopathy advocates can improve their argument, there’s no doubt that they’ve got to get off traditional medicine’s home turf.

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  2. I’m sure you’re aware of Jonathan Haidt’s work on this topic.  Without endorsing moral / evolutionary psychology, I think his research could add towards an answer for this question..  If a characteristic of liberals is a focus on individualistic foundations to the exclusion of all others, while conservatives also weigh binding foundations, then liberals really will have less interest and fewer tools when arguing principles or morals. At the same time, conservatives will have to balance conflicting moral foundations and, I would think, be much more persuaded by moral/principle based messages.

    The following quote is from:   faculty dot virginia dot edu /haidtlab/articles/manuscripts/graham.nosek.submitted.moral-stereotypes-of-libs-and-cons.pub601.pdf

    “The first two foundations are Harm/care (involving intuitions of sympathy, compassion, and nurturance) and Fairness/reciprocity (including notions of rights, justice, and what people owe to each other). These two foundations are generally concerned with the protection and fair treatment of individuals; they are therefore called the two  “individualizing” foundations. The other three foundations, in contrast, are called the “binding”  foundations because they underlie moral systems in which people are bound into larger groups and institutions.  These foundations are Ingroup/loyalty (supporting moral obligations of patriotism and “us vs. them” thinking); Authority/respect (including concerns about social order and the importance of traditions and role-based duties in maintaining that order) and Purity/sanctity (including concerns about treating the body as a temple and living in a higher, more “divine” way, versus a baser, more carnal way).”

    “Graham, Haidt, and Nosek (2009) found that liberals endorsed the individualizing foundations (Harm, Fairness) more than conservatives did, whereas conservatives endorsed the binding foundations (Ingroup, Authority, Purity) more than liberals did. ”

    I am more persuaded by this than I like to admit.   I have noticed that, for  me,  appeals to patriotism, authority, or purity are particularly unmoving.  I consider myself level headed, but it’s hard for me not to make dismissive remarks talking about these particular moral/principle debate topics – the kind for which I am called out regularly.  I am a morally stunted liberal through and through I suppose. Bring on the wonkiness!

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  3. Rorty says:

    When young intellectuals watch John Wayne war movies after reading Heidegger, Foucault, Stephenson or Silko, they often become convinced they live in a violent, inhuman, corrupt country.  They begin to think of themselves as a saving remnant — as the happy few who have the insight to see see though nationalist rhetoric to the ghastly reality of contemporary America.  But this insight does not move them to formulate a legislative program, to join a political movement or to share in a national hope.

    Such is Rorty’s vision of those of us who reach these conclusions and not all of us are young.

    I am not sure Rousseau is worth the trouble:  his conclusions about freedom and chains and suchlike have not lost any of their appeal over the years, but he was never at a loss for a point, however silly.

    Le premier qui, ayant enclos un terrain, s’avisa de dire: Ceci est à moi, et trouva des gens assez simples pour le croire, fut le vrai fondateur de la société civile. Que de crimes, de guerres, de meurtres, que de misères et d’horreurs n’eût point épargnés au genre humain celui qui, arrachant les pieux ou comblant le fossé, eût crié à ses semblables: Gardez-vous d’écouter cet imposteur; vous êtes perdus, si vous oubliez que les fruits sont à tous, et que la terre n’est à personne.

    The first guy who fenced in a piece of ground said “This is mine”, and found out people were gullible enough to  believe him, this guy was the real founder of civil society.  From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and calamities might someone have saved mankind, if he’d only pulled up those stakes, or filled in the moat, and yelled to his peers: Beware of listening to this imposter; you are lost souls if you ever forget the fruits of the earth belong to all of us, and the earth itself belongs to nobody.

    There is no reversing the Reaganomics equation.   Enough power is now concentrated in few enough persons to table the entire debate over Free Markets.  Free markets don’t exist outside regulated markets and shall never shall, not while the soi-disant Conservatives and the Useful Idiot Libertarians continue to preach otherwise.

    I’ve been making this point around here for some while with irritating frequency.  What passes for Conservatism and Libertarianism in these parts knows regulation is all true and necessary, the very definition of a working market:  they just pretend the argument isn’t being made.  Libertarian candidates want to abolish the SEC and other regulatory agencies of this sort.   To their credit, neither the Conservatives nor the Libertarians hereabouts actually second the abolishment, it’s just an embarrassing subject.  The crispness of the Right’s radical rhetoric has become a bit soggy, confronted by economic realities and become positively marinated in Moral Hazard.

    By my lights, the spectrum of American politics varies between some centrist viewpoint and a squishy-right viewpoint which cannot decide if it is populist or elitist.   There is no genuine Left in the USA:  if it ever existed, it’s long since drifted toward the middle.

    Therefore, I must question all this Hamlet-ing about, calling yourself a progressive, unaware of how cohesive the progressive viewpoint has lately become.  Despite pointing you to CAP’s website, you continue to maunder on about how the spotlight of Left requires recollimation.   It does not.  We have made our agenda clear enough for the present.  Our certainty is not self-certainty.   Our certainty arises from Rousseau’s Gardez-vous.  The fruits of this earth and the earth itself have become the property of the few, who would tell us we lack a vision.  Our vision is encapsulated in the plight of the prisoner, the alien, the mentally ill, the special needs child, the child in an inferior public school, the hungry and needy.  We do not condescend to such as these.   We of the Left see these people and know they exist.  We do not need a better argument.  We do not wage class warfare:  we ask only for our vision to be considered.  If their cause is not cause enough, what might be?

    Your vision of the American Left is mostly a mirage.   The old-style Leftists running around these days are few and far between, a pitiful remnant and certainly not a saving remnant.   They are Eliot’s Straw Men,

    Shape without form, shade without colour,
    Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

    There’s an old joke about how to terrorise an Agnostic:   burn a question mark on his lawn.  There are a few Leftists still around.   You might do worse than to ask us what we believe.  Perhaps a few critiques on something beside the Wrongness of our Rhetoric would be welcomed.

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    • It is entirely obvious that there are markets without governments.  Have you never paid for anything under the table?  In all your various travels?

      That said, it’s beyond dispute that markets work better under a system of law, and that commercial regulations are a part of that.  But market behavior, as a strategy, will be tried anywhere and everywhere, with or without a government.  Or even when the government opposes it.

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      • Heh, heh.   Jason, all my travels have taught me not to pay bribes.   Three generations of missionaries, everyone who does travel abroad eventually learns he who starts paying them can’t stop.   We have a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

        Let me tell you a little bit about how black markets really work.  There’s the little problem of quality in the black markets.   Heroin is sold in various fractions of purity and it’s not clearly labelled.   But even black markets rely on governments:  transactions are paid in the coin of some realm.   Somehow all that money has to make its way back into the financial system.   In some circles, especially in the Russian mafias, where some transactions are conducted in treasure and art, value is in the eye of the beholder.

        No, Jason, if you want a working market, even a black market, read your Hayek.   He’ll tell you how this works.   Markets expose prices.   Prices are denominated in currency.    Violence is the only enforcement mechanism in black markets.   Therefore, we can safely conclude a black market isn’t really a market at all, it’s an un-market.  Devoid of regulation, even if reduced to large caliber pistols, not even black markets can exist.

         

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        • Violence is the only enforcement mechanism in black markets.

          I’m not sure this refutes Jason’s point. Black markets are the creation of government, and are -at least from one pov – the result of governmental violence (coercion) against free exchange. Now, I’m not saying that I would want to eliminate all prohibitions. But I don’t think Jason is saying that either.

          His point is that trading stuff is what people do. And that government can help or hinder in that process. On those two points I think you both agree.

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          • Black markets are a symptom of something gone wrong in government, but as you say, they are the creation of government, its little bastard children, operating in the dark, beyond regulation.   Prohibitions always create black markets.

            The Libertarians are completely wrong about markets, lost to any lessons history might teach about how markets actually developed.  The Vikings seem instructive in this matter:  where they could, they simply plundered.   Where they were opposed by enough force, they traded.   The Kievan Rus came to power, brought in by feuding tribes to rule over them according to their own customs.   These tribes were already paying tribute to the Varangians/Vikings:  it seemed prudent enough to bring in government to put an end to their constant feuding among themselves.

            People only trade when they can’t plunder.   End of story.   Want trade and not plunder and endless feuding?   Institute good government.

             

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            • “Black markets are a symptom of something gone wrong in government, but as you say, they are the creation of government, its little bastard children, operating in the dark, beyond regulation.”

              I would argue that at least some black markets are a symptom of something gone wrong in people, too.  Unless you come from the perspective that ALL government is wrong.  “Cash discounts” are often offered simply because both people want to save a few bucks… a bit of greed.  Hard to blame that one on government  in places where tax rates are reasonable (again, conceding that some folks think any tax rate above 0 is unreasonable).

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            • “The Vikings seem instructive in this matter:  where they could, they simply plundered.   Where they were opposed by enough force, they traded.”

              And that was an economic decision, although I can see how that would confuse the simplistic types who think that “economics” means “dollars”.

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            • Here’s my take on it.

              The libertarian says let’s impose the barest minimum of coercive regulation necessary to maximize free trading (I coined a new term here!). The liberal says let’s impose the maximum necessary to minimize pillaging. On the one side, government is so small that pillaging might slip thru the cracks (uh oh!). On the other, government is so large it limits free trading (uh oh!).

              On any single issue, it’s possible that libertarians and liberals agree on the exact same prohibitions, but that they do so for entirely different reasons. It’s the different reasons that make this argument go round, it seems to me, and not disagreements about the particulars of the policy itself or even (often enough) differing conceptions of the facts on the ground.

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              • If only we could get the Libertarians to quit whinging about coercion.   All regulation requires some form of coercion.   Insofar as they push back against such hugely beneficial entities as the SEC, they remain in the camp of the deluded.

                Only when government itself becomes an player and not an umpire in the market space does it become an impediment to markets.   When this is pointed out to the Libertarians, they firmly declare for the pillagers and not for those who might act in restraint of pillaging.   Or there’s the rubbish Regulatory Capture argument on file if that doesn’t work.

                As with black markets and bribes and such, it starts with crooks corrupting cops who then become crooks themselves.    The need for impartial umpires and the fact that not all umpires are impartial does not lead any rational person to believe markets can exist without governments and regulators.

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                • If only we could get the left to stop whinging about fairness. Life is unfair.

                  I’d also appreciate it if they’d stop confusing “justice” with “fairness”.

                  Too few of them know how to cook as well. And they have no sense of humor!

                  The need for impartial umpires and the fact that not all umpires are impartial does not lead any rational person to believe markets can exist without governments and regulators.

                  There is a point at which umpires are crooked to the point where one could honestly ask the question whether no umpires would be better than having crooked umpires. If you cannot agree that there would ever be such a point, then we’ve hammered out one of the main differences between Liberals and Libertarians right there.

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                  • Jaybird –

                    There is a point at which umpires are crooked to the point where one could honestly ask the question whether no umpires would be better than having crooked umpires. If you cannot agree that there would ever be such a point, then we’ve hammered out one of the main differences between Liberals and Libertarians right there.

                    Thanks for this statement. It was quite clarifying for me. Care to flesh it out a bit?

                    If I agree that there is a point at which the umpires are so crooked that they do more damage than good, but I can not conceive of a situation where no umpires would lead to a “better” outcome, where does that leave me?  Not to belabor the analogy, but who do you think is most likely to win in a game with no umpires?

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                    • Not to belabor the analogy, but who do you think is most likely to win in a game with no umpires?

                      I played outside way back when parents let kids play outside. The neighborhood kids would do stuff like put together baseball games, football games, soccer games… all without referees. Games were won and lost. We had times where kids would play board games. No referees, mind, just people reading the rules and then agreeing to play by them.

                      Now, if there’s a rub, that last part is it. What are the rules? Has everyone agreed to play by them? If you can pull that off, you won’t *NEED* a ref.

                      The problem, of course, is that the kids most likely to cheat are the ones most likely to game/bribe/capture the refs when refs are established… which brings us back to the question of the necessity of referees.

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                    • Not what I’m saying, Jesse. I’m asking if there is ever a point at which you’d be willing to say that the umpires have been captured and corrupted to the point where maybe we’d be better off without them.

                      If you don’t think that that point exists, even in theory, then we’ve hammered out a major difference between Liberals and Libertarians.

                      If you think that that point could exist, in theory… well, now we’re haggling.

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                    • “Not to belabor the analogy, but who do you think is most likely to win in a game with no umpires?”

                      Perhaps the analogy only applies to amateurs.  I fence.  I don’t want to win the bout because I cheated, or because the strip director made every questionable decision in my favor.  I want to win — when I’m competing — because I’m better at strategy/tactics/skills than the other person. If I cheat consistently, or if the directors always decide in my favor, the long-term outcome is that I won’t get to fence at all, because the other fencers won’t play with me.  But that’s an argument only an amateur can make.

                      Although even in that case there are “umpires”; the other players are acting in that role, just not in the context of the immediate competition.

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                    • I’m sure it could exist, it just hasn’t happened yet since the modern regulatory state came into existence.

                      Plus, as Michael said, it’s easy to have no refs when nothing is on the line. A lot harder when trillions are on the line. The EPA and such have issues, but it’d be a far worse nation than if Dow Chemical and Exxon had only to follow their own internal conscience.

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                    • I suspect most liberals would concede the point.  Regulatory capture is real – it occurs both because the government has too much authority and because  the market itself,  represented by incumbent business interests,  encourages the government to grow in a corrupt fashion.  This is one of the more corrosive effects of vast inequality.

                       

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                    • The problem, of course, is that the kids most likely to cheat are the ones most likely to game/bribe/capture the refs when refs are established… which brings us back to the question of the necessity of referees.

                      You’ve hit on the rub of it for me, Jaybird. There likely will be “kids most likely to cheat” and as those above have noted, the likelihood increases the more that is at stake. (Sandlot baseball can get by without umpires, but Little League…not so much. MLB…not at all.)  In the absence of referees, can we assume the cheaters won’t quit because there’s nothing in it for them anymore?  I think so.  But, now the cheating can be much more direct. There are no obstacles, not even nominal ones.

                      In a game with no umpires, the dominant ones (the cheaters, the bullies) will ALWAYS win, regardless of how well anyone else plays.

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                    • What MaxL said. In addition, I don’t doubt the EPA has been “captured” to a certain extent over the past 40 years depending on the administration. OTOH, a partially captured EPA is still better than no EPA at all. Even the totally corrupt MMS still did some good work that would not have happened without a regulator.

                      Yeah, capture is bad and should be minimized. But, to throw your hands up and say, “unless we eliminate capture completely, it’s not worth it at all,” is to be blunt, part of the reason why libertarians are small lot in the greater populace.

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                  • “If only we could get the left to stop whinging about fairness. Life is unfair.”

                    Still, if life is too unfair for too many — or over in the market argument, if too many receive too little of society’s productive output — the whole thing falls apart.  The richer a society is, the higher the floor under material outcomes for all must be.  I don’t think that position is either liberal or conservative, it’s simply pragmatic.  Let things get too bad and the torches and pitchforks come out, with bad results for all.  The argument applies to liberty and to material goods and services: there needs to be a floor under my freedom from government coercion as well as my medical care.  Linkages between the two spaces, of course: Bill Gates and Warren Buffett will be “freer” from expanded police surveillance powers than I will be, and have greater access to medical care.

                    I’m always willing to listen to arguments about how high/low the floors should be, or how those floors ought to be guaranteed.  But history suggests that floors are required.  Oh, and in case it’s important, then yes, I also believe that the existence of floors implies the existence of ceilings.

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                    • It seems to me that the existence of ceilings results in discussions of where the floors need to be. If someone has access to a particular medical technology, the general assumption is that this medical technology needs to be available to absolutely everyone. That is, if there is a medical process available to Bill Gates, we have a moral obligation to provide this exact process to a child on medicaid.

                      The more medical technology we create, the more cures we discover, the more things we find ourselves capable of doing results in *MORE* obligations to this child on medicaid… while not making them available (or discovered) at all in the first place creates no such moral obligation.

                      I find that troubling.

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                    • “The more medical technology we create, the more cures we discover, the more things we find ourselves capable of doing results in *MORE* obligations to this child on medicaid… while not making them available (or discovered) at all in the first place creates no such moral obligation.”

                      No one ever said it would be easy.  A policy that says that all medical treatments, regardless of expense, probability of success, status of the patient, etc, must be made available to all is easy; also likely to lead to less-than-optimal social outcomes.  A policy that says medical treatments are available only if the patient (or someone with an interest in the patient) is willing to pay is also easy; also likely to lead to something less than optimal.  I claim that there’s many points in between that are reasonable, but that settling on one of them, while balancing all of the considerations, is difficult.  Even harder because those reasonable points are going to change over time.  Dynamic systems are always a pain.  Perhaps more so for politicians, since it requires that they keep revisiting decisions that they have already made.

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                • A liberal whining about others whining is like like a liberal whining about others whining. It’s all Bush’s fault, and the disaster in Japan, and headwinds and other stuff. 

                  This is one of the weakest arguments — there is always some coercion! Uh, libertarians are mainly concerned about coercion that leads to loss of freedom that should not be lost if we want to maintain independence and dignity and control over our government — in other words, coercion that is based on powers the State is not allowed under our Constitution. Going to extremes with libertarian ideas to make them appear absurd is juvenile.

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              • The libertarian says let’s impose the barest minimum of coercive regulation necessary to maximize free trading (I coined a new term here!). The liberal says let’s impose the maximum necessary to minimize pillaging.”

                This makes for a neat dualism and rolls nicely off the tongue, but wouldn’t it be more accurate and generous to say, “The liberal says let’s impose the minimum necessary to minimize pillaging.”

                No matter how much better it would be for debating politics if it were true. there is no reflexive liberal position such that “more government is better.”   The liberal position, as far as I have ever understood it,  is that the size of the government is or the amount of regulation is incidental.  It is whatever works for the issue at hand.

                Markets, governments and private enterprises can become burdened with regulation and processes over time, but the growth of complexity in a system is a separate issue, yes?

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                • but wouldn’t it be more accurate and generous to say, “The liberal says let’s impose the minimum necessary to minimize pillaging.”

                  Yes! I actually agree with that take on it. When liberals argue for regulation R which libertarians are skeptical about, it’s because liberals think R is part of the smallest set of regulations sufficient to prevent/mitigate against pillaging (or whatever). On that score, both groups think they’re advocating for the smallest practical and feasible size of government necessary to maximize social utility.

                  Of course, liberals could be wrong in thinking that R is justified. Same with libertarians in thinking that it isn’t. How that argument gets resolved requires going deep into the weeds of values, conceptual schemes, evidence, first principles, goals, etc., etc.

                   

                   

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                  • Agreed.

                    I think this is why I have long felt that there is a lot of common ground between liberals in the US and libertarians, maybe more than there is between conservatives in the US and libertarians.  This line between our formulations strikes me as a straightforward issue to resolve.  As noted elsewhere, we really are just haggling over how to do it.

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      • But market behavior, as a strategy, will be tried anywhere and everywhere, with or without a government.

        And it’s powerful within almost any reasonably capacious space that’s created for it – i.e. it’s durable even in the presence of significant government shaping of the market space. This is why I’ve always felt comfortable calling myself pro-market while feeling that that needn’t dictate being an advocate of “free markets.”  I think free-market advocates actually overstate the fragility of markets and understate the power of markets to adapt to structures that shape the space in which they operate.

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          • Agreed entirely.  But there’s a class of people, both anti- and (I guess) pro-market, who are taking the ugly shape for granted.

            The anti-market people among them say:  Look how ugly it is. Maybe a twistier, bumpier glass would help.

            The pro-market people say:  See, it’s still wet.  So it doesn’t matter if the glass looks nice.

            To drop this overwrought metaphor for a moment…  While people will attempt to use market strategies even under Maoism, this doesn’t justify Maoism.  The same is true of any regulatory regime.  The fact that people still sometimes buy, sell, and barter does not justify the conditions under which it takes place.  Much, much more is needed.  Perhaps it can be supplied, but what we have here is far from enough.

            As to the other side, often the most successful regulations are those that cause people to behave according to market discipline, even when (as Blaise rightly notes) their natural inclinations may be to plunder.

             

             

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            • Clearly I was attempting to justify Maoism and/or other particular regimes of market restrictions, not assert the durability, power, and efficacy of market forces even in less than perfectly unconstrained economic spaces.

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          • If I pour water out on the table rather than in a glass, I blame myself for it being the shape it is rather than glass-shaped.  Of course, markets don’t take the shape of their containers as well as water.  But they do to some extent.

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        • I think free-market advocates actually overstate the fragility of markets and understate the power of markets to adapt to structures that shape the space in which they operate.

          To say that markets adapt is to miss the point entirely, the point being that the adaptations are often undesirable. You may have heard one or two libertarians referring to the law of unintended consequences at some point.

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          • That point wasn’t actually “the” point made by the libertarian I was responding.  And I’m not   making a general point that doesn’t arrive at the desirability of all those adaptations is to miss the point you make now.  But if it makes you feel better, I acknowledge that many people, not just libertarians, feel that way about many such adaptations – including me.  But “often” is not always, and desirability is defined by particular desirers.  And the broader point, that markets still increase utility even under restricted conditions and will be enacted by agents with any minimal degree of freedom to do so, stands.  I’m not entirely sure how that misses the point that undesirable market adaptations to undesirable restrictions are undesirable, especially since that particular point was not being made in the discussion, nor was it denied in what I said.

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  4. That Baker quote has always struck me as a bit confused as to what it is to accept a frame.  He seems to be saying, ‘Liberals shouldn’t accept a frame in which they get painted as anti-market, because in fact conservatives are also interventionist.  Liberals should actually challenge the Right for the claim to be the more market-friendly of the two, because they are, or in any case their interests are better served by being!’  Now, this argument might be many good things among which possibly well-based in fact and strategically astute.  But it doesn’t seem to me to be a challenge to the basic frame of ‘free markets as the path to shared prosperity,’ (i.e. “liberal” in the neo- sense of the term) which simply as a factual matter is one that has been owned and pushed by conservatives more than liberals in recent decade in American politics.  Again, this doesn’t mean it’s not substantively and tactically good advice to left-liberals.  But it’s a bit of a stretch to say it’s a challenge to the frame to try to simply out-claim the other group in fealty to the policy principle.  It’s like saying Obama has challenged the frame of using military actions in fighting terrorism to signal national security strength by switching from a concentration on regime change of (putatively) terrorist-associated governments to a massively expanded campaign of targeted missile strikes against suspected individual terrorists.

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    • The Right has never made its points from the facts.   Like all good advertisers, the Right doesn’t try to sell us a product on the basis of what it is but what we desire, which is never the thing itself.  Buy into our rhetoric, they say, thus think the successful, the warriors, the beautiful and handsome, the worthy, the chosen, the beloved of God.

      Liberals have been challenging the assertions of the Right and of the Libertarians for many years now.   Mankind forgets the consequences of the tragedies and crimes which led the Left to believe what it does about human nature and threats to civil society.  All these lessons require periodic re-learning for mankind is endlessly self-deluding.

      If the Liberals wanted to win the debate, they would retreat from the facts as the Right and as the Libertarians have done.   As you say, mankind will not be sold a bill of goods on a factual basis.

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