The Non-Wonky Institutional Left?


Conor P. Williams

Conor Williams on Twitter. More background here.

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214 Responses

  1. Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

    Woodiwiss and Scheeler puff John Ryan as poetry, decry Paul Ryan via wonkage. Apples and oranges, incoherent and dishonest, but worth a try.

    But there’s nothing new here, the same old fog and libel: Social gospelists love the poor [with other people’s money], draconian Republicans want to push grandma down the stairs [to give the rich tax cuts].

    But the response of these two Ryans to inequality could not be more different. Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposals are so diametrically opposed to the just and supportive America envisioned by John Ryan that, were the latter alive today, he would be shocked at the religious and moral justifications being used to undermine the very causes to which he devoted his academic, spiritual, and political life.

    Very good demagoguery. Jesus hates Paul Ryan.Report

  2. Avatar James Hanley says:

    Conor, I had only vaguely noticed the prior post you linked to, since I instinctively recoil from the word “philosophy.” But I should have looked more closely, because this touches on a discussion I’ve had with a couple of valuable commenters here at the League, about what principles underlie contemporary liberalism. Stillwater seems very doubtful that there is a set of principles–I wonder if that puts him in your wonky left. Pierre Cornielle yesterday elucidated some principles he thinks underlie the left’s policy vision, but seemed doubtful they add up to a consistent “system” (not his word, but mine, for lack of a better one).

    Despite that horrifying word “philosophy,” I’m wondering how much the discussion I’ve had with them overlaps with your concerns.Report

    • Avatar Roger in reply to James Hanley says:

      Pierre’s principles may not add up to a coherent philosophical system, but they did reflect a coherent path, namely that the tool for social improvement was a good and effective central state.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Roger says:

        I’m working on a comment to address some of James’ worries expressed in the above comment. (Well, not address but concede that they’re valid. Last time I tried to concede that they’re valid we ended up arguing that my conception of liberalism couldn’t be correct because it conceded that his criticisms were valid!!)

        But I want to address your comment first Roger. Contemporary US liberalism isn’t – as you often suggest – closely aligned with an a priori, first principle-based conception that the state is a good in and of itself. The US liberal’s belief in and acceptance of state power is justified on causal, empirical grounds: that the state is an effective tool (a means to an end, not an end in itself) to remedy existing (empirically verifiable!) social and economic power imbalances that are unjust or unfair, where those words can be defined in terms of harm. So the point I’d emphasize is that the liberal’s belief in state power is aposteriori derived, and aposteriori justified. I think that’s an important distinction, and certainly one that’s at odds with your understanding of things.Report

        • Avatar Roger in reply to Stillwater says:

          I accept that.

          And just to clarify, I think some things are done better by a good central state. Obviously my list is a lot narrower than yours.Report

        • Avatar Roger in reply to Stillwater says:

          BTW, what are your favorite empirical examples of effective state accomplishments?Report

          • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Roger says:

            I think there’s a host of them, which all sorta work together. Liberal successes in achieving things like New Deal and Great Society programs are noteworthy; I think (contra many liberals on this site) that affirmative action was overall a success (but which may have lived on too long to be obviously regarded as one); environmental protections: occupational safety standards are a good thing (tho criticisms of over-reach are valid and conceded); etc etc., down to small things like the recently passed bill revising credit card billing procedures.

            I mean, all the things libertarians think of as monstrous corruptions I tend to think of as having lots of utility. That’s not to say that I think they ought to be viewed as fixed and immutable.Report

            • Avatar wardsmith in reply to Stillwater says:

              “environmental protections” via the EPA founded by that noted liberal and leftist Richard M. NixonReport

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to wardsmith says:

                Zackly. For all their much blethering about the Pernicious Effect of Big Gummint, no sooner does this nation elect a Conservative than we got Even More Big Gummint. They simply cannot be trusted to do as they say, these so-called Conservatives.

                Look at Bush43’s response to 9/11: yet another bureaucracy.Report

              • Avatar wardsmith in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Is government the symptom or the disease?Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to wardsmith says:

                Depends on who you ask, I suppose, heh.

                My take? A law without an enforcing bureaucracy is moot. Quickest way to “repeal” a law is not to enforce it. Most effective tactic: cut budgets for law enforcement.

                But all bureaucracies become engaged in turf wars, happens in business, too, they eventually spend more time and effort and money on self-justification than anything else. Some of that effort is justified: the regulated would very much like to see less law enforcement and whine plaintively to their elected officials about those Bad Old Regulators. Oliver Wendell Holmes’ Bad Men ought to be afraid of the consequences of lawbreaking.

                Summation: bureaucracies ought to be constantly engaged in justifying their existence to hard-nosed critics. If they’re needed, if the task they’re doing is keeping the Bad Men from Being Bad, the bureaucrats will succeed in getting their critics to agree. The key is to keep the bureaucrats on task.

                Maybe we do need a Department of Homeland Security. I don’t think so. Every time a problem comes along, it’s more bureaucracy: interstate crime -> FBI. Cold War -> CIA. Space Race -> NSA. 9/11 -> DHS. It’s just madness.Report

              • Avatar wardsmith in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Here’s the rub. You rightly point out that regulation without enforcement is moot and then point to bureaucracies (public and private) wasting all their time in self-justification. Your solution? Justification. Hopefully you see the quandary here.

                The disease is power, government bureaucracy is the symptom. Wealthy people who have everything else go into politics for access to that raw power they couldn’t really wield in the private sector. Even captains of industry are accountable to /someone/ their shareholders, customers and yes regulators. Public “servants” show no such accountability.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Power isn’t a disease any more than a welding torch is destructive. In the hands of a competent welder, that torch can also create. When Edison wanted to attack Westinghouse’s power grid, he electrocuted elephants: AC power is dangerous.

                I’ve been thinking about this a while, a long while. Those who would prove worthy of holding power must constantly justify their mandate. The quandary is defined by the inefficiency of this justification business. We are best served by the fewest, but no fewer. Yes, that’s a cliche but accountabiity as good a solution as I’ve ever come up with for managing power.Report

              • Avatar Jesse Ewiak in reply to wardsmith says:

                Also, there’s some evidence that Nixon and Congress made a deal. Back what I do in foreign policy and I’ll sign whatever you get to my desk.

                Plus, Nixon was a conservative for the time period, but he couldn’t win a primary today among modern conservatives.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to wardsmith says:

                “environmental protections” via the EPA founded by that noted liberal and leftist Richard M. Nixon

                Yup. Way back when conservatives were willing to advance issues on the merits instead of reflexively opposing them because they’re supported by “libruls.”Report

              • Avatar Murali in reply to Stillwater says:

                If I remember correctly, Nixon also introduced price controls and increased tarriffs. With watergate, southern strategy etc I’m not sure if Nixon did any good ever. (from a libertarian POV)Report

              • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Murali says:

                I’m not sure if Nixon did any good ever. (from a libertarian POV)

                Not true. He inspired a lot of mistrust towards government. That should count for something, no?Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Will Truman says:


              • Avatar James K in reply to Murali says:

                It may be the case that he was one of the most anti-libertarian presidents and that’s saying something.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Murali says:

                Nixon began the process of limiting the growth of nuclear weaponry. He didn’t get real far, but I still think that counts for something.Report

        • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Stillwater says:

          Stillwater, that’s because I didn’t believe my criticisms. They were about what I think is a superficial view of liberalism, and seem to me cheap ones used by dishonest critics. That’s why I struggle so much to accept them as an accurate statement about liberalism. It sounds like an admission that your nastiest critics are in fact right.

          And in your own comment here you mention injustice and unfairness. I don’t understand how those don’t count as principles that underlie liberalism.Report

          • Avatar Stillwater in reply to James Hanley says:

            Not that the nastiest critics are right, but that there is no a priori guidance – fully general, context independent rules – of the kind you want from a political theory.Report

            • Avatar Murali in reply to Stillwater says:

              but that there is no a priori guidance – fully general, context independent rules – of the kind you want from a political theory.

              Stillwater, this doesn’t seem to match up with the literature in political philosophy. To hear you describe it, there are no sustained and systematic defences of liberal philosophy. Rawls, was a liberal philosopher. For all that he has been appropriated by libertarians and classical liberals, a lot of Rawlsians are still liberals. There are still many like Gerald Dworkin and Thomas Nagel and Roger Cohen who are modern liberal, not to mention others like Will kimlycka. Then, there are all sorts of egalitarians who range from liberals to outright socialists like Gerald Cohen.

              At least in academia, there is no shortage of apriori arguments that justify or play a significant role in justifying liberalism. This makes the studied denial of the apriority of liberalism to ring false.

              What does seem to be the case is that liberals outside academia rarely invoke the arguments. Something similar could be said for conservatism except there are very few of those guys around. Libertarians are far more numerous in academia than conservatives, but the actual arguments used by libertarians often gets a decent showing outside academia. For example, the arguments offered by the likes of Roger and James Hanley and K are on a number of major details, a lot like those offered by Davidt Schmidtz. Other libertarians have more Nozickean justificatory frameworks.

              What is disappointing about the linked (Ryan vs Ryan) article is that it is sophomoric. It barely offers any arguments. I have come across better arguments for liberalism.Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to Murali says:

                I could make them meself, except for the trillion+ deficits. A trillion here, a trillion there, etc.Report

              • Avatar Murali in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

                Tom, I am not talking about whether modern left-liberalism is ultimately the right view, but about the quality of arguments. We can have arguments that are ultmiately unsuccessful, but still good. If an argument waded into tall weeds and rested on distinctions which could either turn out to be a careful and subtle distinction or one without a difference, then it would require quite a bit of expertise to evaluate the argument. A person who ordinarily is quie good at evaluating arguments might still find such questions difficult to answer without coming out as stupid or particularly uncritical. Of course, that also means that we should become a lot more cautious and reserved about our judgements about particularly difficult matters.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Murali says:


                Lots of good points here. First, it is interesting that libertarians seem more fascinated and attracted to Rawls than his fellow liberals. You are one such example, and Schmidtz is another. Even Jason has written on him, though in a dismissive way, if memory serves.

                Why do you think it is that liberal academic arguments rarely get built into policy proposals? I suspect it is because the entire effort is intellectually bankrupt. The actual liberal agenda is based upon good intentions regardless of actual results. Reality is complex, but liberal solutions are sophomoric. They rarely stand up to intellectual scrutiny. See the kerfuffle on minimum wage below. The fact that minimum wages probably don’t work is just inconvenient to the actual policy agenda of liberals. But it doesn’t matter. we will just relabel them as “living wages” and try again. This is pathetically dishonest.

                The liberal coalition is a loose group of people who :
                1) want to gain power by appearing to do good, whether they actually do or not
                2) intellectuals who want to justify liberalism, but basically get in the way
                3) special interest groups that get goodies or are delegated power by those in 1
                4) the average person who is simply incapable of understanding that in a complex world, good intentions can actually lead to bad results. Thus they line up for good intentions.

                I am exaggerating my case a bit, but I suspect there is some truth to the above.Report

              • Avatar Murali in reply to Roger says:

                The liberal coalition is a loose group of people who :
                1) want to gain power by appearing to do good, whether they actually do or not
                2) intellectuals who want to justify liberalism, but basically get in the way
                3) special interest groups that get goodies or are delegated power by those in 1
                4) the average person who is simply incapable of understanding that in a complex world, good intentions can actually lead to bad results. Thus they line up for good intentions

                Roger, I often tend to agree with you on lots of things, but I don’t think the above is called for. Moral and political philosophy is a sufficiently difficult subject that people who are honestly searching for the truth can make mistakes. One of the things that keeps libertarianism relatively (though far from entirely) free from the above influences is our lack of power. If Libertarianism were a sufficiently popular philosophy, all sorts of unsavoury characters would attach themselves to it for personal gain. If people like Wayne Allan Root can be the libertarian candidate, or if for that matter the paleo-crowd over at Mises Institute can call themselves libertarians, we have more than our own fair share of unsavoury characters, extremists and bad arguments attached to the libertarian label.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Murali says:

                What Muralist said.Report

              • Avatar Will H. in reply to Murali says:

                Although you make a pertinent point, I don’t think it’s proper to be dismissive of Roger’s claim. I would have phrased it somewhat differently myself.

                The modern Left is defined by identity politics, and it didn’t happen overnight.
                A brief timeline: 60’s – student movements; 70’s – institutionalization; 80’s – radicalization; 90’s – coming to power; 21st c. – fragmented identity groups.

                There’s a lot more behind that, such as the idea that classes of persons are protected rather than people.
                Although Roger’s criticism of the Left could be roughly applicable to many groups, it is particularly prescient with the Left.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Murali says:

                Thanks for the push back, guys. As my final sentence declared, I was exaggerating the point to get to an underlying issue. I will stand behind it though in less exaggerated form.

                First, I agree completely that similar criticism could be aimed at any political party. I think it is broadly true for the right as well, and the libertarian party. This is probably one of the reasons almost none of the libertarian minded people actually belongs to the party. If your push back is that this is true in modified firm for all parties, then I agree completely.

                Let me be specific. I believe the democratic party in the US is a coalition of 1) Those in power that are promising to solve social problems whether they can or not. 2) intellectuals that rationalize these plans 3) special interest groups that are benefitted by the programs and transfers and 4) the average person who is swayed by the good intentions and rhetoric.

                Do you disagree with this summary? How would you modify it? Am I forgetting anyone?Report

              • Avatar Koz in reply to Murali says:

                “Moral and political philosophy is a sufficiently difficult subject that people who are honestly searching for the truth can make mistakes.”

                This is a very important point Murali but I suspect we’d draw very different conclusions as to the meaning of that. Specifically, one problem is we’re not dealing the unknown future consequences of present policies but rather the known present consequences of past policies. That is, real blameworthiness of Demo’s wrt Demo unemployment isn’t that they created it, it’s the fact that they couldn’t or wouldn’t change their thoughts and policies to Demo unemployment after it’s become apparent that it exists.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Murali says:

                Stillwater, this doesn’t seem to match up with the literature in political philosophy.

                I’ll concede that. But I’m not sure that matters. Most people who self-identify as liberals haven’t ever heard of John Rawls let alone read him. And those that have don’t necessarily agree with him anyway. In the above comment, I’m presenting what I think of as a correct (descriptively accurate) account of liberalism as it’s practiced and understood in the US. It’s not an analysis of liberalism. Nor does it contain any normative claims: that liberalism <ought be practiced as I described it.Report

              • Avatar Murali in reply to Stillwater says:

                I’ll concede that. But I’m not sure that matters

                I think it does and it goes to the point of which I think James and you are talking past each other. When James asks after fundamental apriori liberal principles, he is not necessarily asking after what most self identified liberals actually believe, but what you think are the apriori principles that underly the best reasons for liberal policies. Your denial of the existence of any such principles makes you seem like you are endorsing a right-wing caricature of liberalism: as a completely unprincipled grab for power.

                On the other hand, all you seem to be saying is that most actual liberals haven’t actually systematised and synthesised all their moral intuitions into a grand coherent theory yet.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Murali says:

                On the other hand, all you seem to be saying is that most actual liberals haven’t actually systematised and synthesised all their moral intuitions into a grand coherent theory yet.

                I’m saying something a little different: that the liberal project is an open one, defined by increasing equality broadly construed. If it’s open then there are no a priori commitments that can be made – even to something like Rawls difference principle – since if that principle manifested in such a way as to entail (what liberal’s view as) substantive inequalities (something I think liberals to in fact hold, given lots of the discussion during the inequality symposium), then the principle would be rejected. As it should be, in my view.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Stillwater says:

                Is increasing inequality, or more generally, the importance of equality, not a type of a priori principle?

                I ask sincerely. It looks to me like one, but if it’s not, I would think that it’s instrumental, geared toward some end, which must be–it seems to me–based on some a priori principle.

                I emphasize the “it seems to me.” I can’t quite wrap my mind around the idea that there can be motivation without some up front principle. That could be a limit of my own mind, but obviously I’m inclined to think it isn’t.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Stillwater says:

                I don’t think it is an a priori principle. Every person I read discuss inequality gave an aposteriori reason: it creates social instability, it distorts the political process, the mechanisms by which it’s currently being achieved undermines the consumer culture (the middle class) upon which wealth inequality depends…Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Stillwater says:

                That’s not to say there weren’t other arguments being made that I missed. I mean, I didn’t read everything.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Stillwater says:

                Are none of those a priori principles? Is it logically possible for every guiding principle to be a posteriori? I think that’s really the question I’m struggling with.Report

            • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Stillwater says:


              But I think concept like justice and concerns about inequality must count as basic principles. Perhaps a basic distrust of the profit motive as a corrupter of human decency, or something along those lines. Certainly a belief that markets absent strict rules will create perverse results. All those seem like basic guiding principles to me. I just don’t understand how you can claim it’s empirically based unless you have some per-determined standards by which you’re judging outcomes. In a nutshell, I’m just not sure that what you’re claiming is actually possible, not just for liberalism but for any ideology. And if possible, I struggle to see how such a seemingly ad hoc “ideology” could be in any way admirable, since it would apparently not be based on a belief in anything.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to James Hanley says:

                That’s the same dispute we had before. All I can say by way of response is that what I wrote strikes me as the best account of liberal thought I can come up with. You reject that’s it’s descriptively accurate, even tho it concedes the criticisms you’ve leveled at liberals since I began commenting at the LoOG. I’m not exactly sure why you are disputing an account which you also apparently agree with.

                It’s puzzling to me.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Stillwater says:

                I’m puzzled why you think I’ve criticized liberals for lacking principles. As much as I frequently disagree with guys like Jesse E., Ethan G., and Kyle C. (and my apologies to anyone else I should have mentioned here) I’m pretty sure they’re driven by some real principles. That’s why I’ve been puzzled by your argument–it sounds to me like a conservative slap at liberalism, one that is belied by those guys. It just reads to me like you’re selling liberalism short, giving it less than what it is due.

                But I do like your distinction (below, I think–it’s hard to follow the threading with an IPad) between liberal theorists and everyday liberals. One of the things I’ve been waiting for you to call me on is a sort of implicit assumption in my question is that there is “a” liberalism, contra all my rejections of the idea that there is “a” libertarianism. I think I could see an argument that average liberals are less driven by specific principles than average libertarians. I’m not sure that speaks to liberalism as a motivating idea, though, and I’m pretty sure that for some people it is a motivating idea.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to James Hanley says:

                One of the things I’ve been waiting for you to call me on is a sort of implicit assumption in my question is that there is “a” liberalism,

                I wouldn’t call you out on that because it never even occurred to me you would hold such a ridiculous belief, or more importantly, that you would use such an equivocation to score purely rhetorical points.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Stillwater says:

                You’re too kind. In reality I think all liberals are extreme Stalinists marching in lockstep.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Stillwater says:

                Also wild-eyed loonies who let slight doctrinal differences prevent them from co-operating enough to get anything done.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Stillwater says:

                Oh I would never think such an unflattering thing, no matter how strong the empirical evidence for it is.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to James Hanley says:

                I’m pretty sure they’re driven by some real principles.

                I agree. So am I. I think my above comment conceded as much.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Stillwater says:

                You always seemed pretty principled to me.Report

          • Avatar Bad-ass Motherfisher in reply to James Hanley says:

            I wasn’t asked, but I’ll throw in anyway:

            I agree with Stillwater that liberalism is more of a posture than an ideolglogy: look at the world as it exists, and try to fix the things that are obviously wrong. It is clearly informed by an underlying set of values, but doesn’t rely on an ideology-informed model of the way the world works, or is supposed to work.

            Some of the values underlying liberalism include empathy, community, and subjective fairness: but these are notional, and insufficient to built an elaborate worldview on top of. They are used, however, as signposts of how “successful” society is (currently) structured, though.

            The FDR New Deal programs seem an excellent example of liberalism at its best: we have problems–let’s try this. Didn’t work? Let’s try another approach. In the end–and granted, it took a while–we had a set of laws and principles that undergirded American society through one of its most socially challenging times, and ended up with an America that was more prosperous, more stable, and more middle-class that any society that that had ever been seen on the face of the earth.Report

            • Wait, you’re not a comic-relief sockpuppet?

              I’m going to have to recategorize you.Report

            • Avatar Roger in reply to Bad-ass Motherfisher says:


              I could almost sign on to this vision if I agreed with you that it represented the liberal mindset.

              I like your emphasis on experimentation, but my experience is that liberals try something then it becomes a permanent fixture whether it works or not. Eventually it attracts a protected class of left voters and the rationalizes spin elaborate stories which are always economically illiterate about how we need to help these little guys. Eventually it becomes a monument to failure.

              It is better to try to solve those problems that can be solved in a system which allows non coercion and creative destruction. That way bad ideas are weeded out.Report

            • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Bad-ass Motherfisher says:


              Without a vision of the way the world is supposed to work, his can liberals identify what is “obviously wrong”?Report

              • Avatar Bad-ass Motherfisher in reply to James Hanley says:

                I hope you don’t just think I’m trying to elide your point, but it’s time for a bad analogy.

                Go look at a new Ford Taurus: that’s an ugly car. You don’t have to have a clear conception of a “perfect” car–you just know, that’s an ugly car.

                Similarly, I think a traditional (i.e. Roosevelt) can look at the culture, or the political sphere, or the economy and identify things that don’t work, or are dysfunctional. They don’t necessarily have to have a “grand model” that explains how the world works in the same way that a communist–or libertarian–does.

                Of course they are informed by “values.” But I don’t believe that liberalism is an explanatory ideology in the same way that Marxism, or Conservatism, or Libertarianism or Theism is. I think of liberalism as more of an instinct than a platform: the fact that it’s willing to consider goals and means that other ideologies proscribe (like market regulation, secularism, or redistribution of income) leads people with other ideologies to assume that they are tenants of liberalism. They are not.

                The goal of liberalism is “progress” and social improvement. The means are completely open: if you could convince a liberal that eliminating the minimum wage would result for better outcomes for more people, he will support that position. ( I see from this OP that Stillwater is headed in that direction.)Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Bad-ass Motherfisher says:

                BAM, did you previously comment under another name? Your comments match another liberal from last year to a tee. Just asking.Report

              • Avatar Bad-ass Motherfisher in reply to Roger says:

                Naw, LOTS of people think the Taurus is ugly.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Bad-ass Motherfisher says:

                Someone should start an OP in LOOG on the great debate between Crooked Timber folks and the BHL folks on employer abuses of employees.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Bad-ass Motherfisher says:

                Funny, my mom owns a Taurus, and it doesn’t seem that ugly to me.

                How do we know?

                Instinct? There’s a hell of a lot of bad instincts. How does a liberal distinguish the good ones from the bad ones?Report

              • Avatar Bad-ass Motherfisher in reply to James Hanley says:

                Sorry. Sock puppets don’t do epistemology.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Bad-ass Motherfisher says:

                Now you are eliding.Report

              • I think the Taurus is a fine-looking car. I can’t imagine I’ll ever buy a full-size sedan, and am disinclined towards buying Fords in the current market, but I do like the aesthetics.Report

              • Avatar wardsmith in reply to Bad-ass Motherfisher says:

                tenants of liberalism

                Clearly I was always using the wrong term, this one fits reality so much better.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater in reply to James Hanley says:

      “The left”, or “liberal” are words that aren’t easily defined by an objective standard, and tend to include idiosyncratic meanings in any event. As a point of reference, my conception of contemporary US liberalism is probably best captured by pointing at the principles and policies expressed by the Pelosi House of the 109th Congress. There is also a longer history of political thought and policy initiative that could be cited as evidence for what constitutes liberalism which is also useful to makes sense of the term. But that sorta begs your question and worry: I’m pointing a set of actions and beliefs rather than the principles and arguments that justify them.

      I’ve said before that I don’t think Liberalism can be defined by a set of a priori first principles, and certainly not a priori first principles that entail empirical content. I’ve tried, to some extent unsuccessfully, to present liberal “philosophy” as being comprised of the application of a pre-theoretical, common-sense morality – in particular, the concept of fairness – to situations and issues that are highly context dependent. A liberal may advocate P in one context and ~P in another without contradiction, because the causal factors, the institutional norms, the cultural constraints, etc etc, may be radically different in each case. So in that sense, there is no general, a priori derived first principle constraints the liberal accepts, other than the application of common-sense morality to specific situations given the relevant (empirical) evidence.

      I’ve also tried, to an even greater degree of unsuccessfullness, to distinguish this type of thought process and reasoning from approaches which are defined by the application of a priori first principles to empirical states of affairs. Other views of political-economy – conservatism to some extent and libertarianism – rely more on first principles derived from a priori reasoning to establish fixed normative rules which act as (or ought to act as) constraints on the limits of policy. Often this manifests as an a priori derived conception of an idealized form of political economy, one in which cultural and social change exists independently of, and is in some sense constrained by, the fixed (and immutable) normative rules which limit government and its relation to broader society.

      The liberal, I think it’s fair to say, rejects this view. For the liberal, government has an interactive rle to play in society, a dynamic one, the limits of which cannot bea priori determined, and for what I think is a pretty good reason: epistemic limits prevent us from knowing in advance of its realization what corrections and responses to potential problems government might play a useful role in ameliorating. So, the liberal is loath to limit the scope of government based on priori reasons. For the liberal, that gets things backwards. The only a priori commitment a liberal would make on those grounds, it seems to me, is that government ought to have a maximum amount of latitude to act to correct social and economic injustices.

      So, I’m effectively conceding your worry. I just don’t find it as worrisome as you do. Tho, as I’ve also conceded, it is apparent to me that liberals and liberalism generally, need to redefine themselves by paying more attention to analysis, to consistency, and to the mechanisms employed when crafting policy. In those areas, I think libertarians make lots of contributions which liberals can learn from.Report

      • Avatar Roger in reply to Stillwater says:

        Do you think James or I use a priori reasoning to arrive at our conclusions? I am just asking, because like him, I am no philosopher.Report

        • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Roger says:

          Oh yeah. But it’s an interesting distinction to pursue. In some sense, all political theories rest on a priori reasoning, even liberalism. The principle of fairness, for example, is an a priori principle. The difference, it seems to me, is that the liberal conception of fairness exists pre-theoretically: it’s just a part of common-sense morality. Here’s an example: If A and B are permitted to engage in Z, but C is prohibited from engaging in Z, then the principle of fairness requires that there be a non-arbitraryy relevant property justifying C’s exclusion. I think that’s a pre-theoretical concept of fairness which everyone holds, but which plays a central role for liberals. (There’s obviously more to liberalism than just that, of course.)

          But another reason it’s fair to say both you and James hold an a priori view of political economy is that both of you concede that libertarianism has never been tried. If so, then your belief that it’s a normative ideal worth pursuing isn’t based on empirical evidence. It’s a priori justified. On the other hand, your critiques of liberalism and liberal policies are often based on empirical evidence. Sometimes the analysis of those policies is spot on. Often, however, the analysis and subsequent critique of liberal policies are justified, or accounted for, only by invoking the a priori conception of your preferred theory. In a question-begging sort of way. Or at least: in a way the liberals view as question-begging. (That’s why liberals and libertarians are so frequently talking past each other, it seems to me.)Report

          • Avatar Roger in reply to Stillwater says:

            Fascinating discussion…

            I think I come at the issue from a completely different field. I start with biology and evolution and then to human psychology. I then observe that humans do better at accomplishing their goals collectively than separately. To facilitate effective means of interacting, societies (people) experiment with various norms, rules, protocols and institutions. Some of these work well according to those in the society. Others don’t. Over time, cultures can both evolve and progress. In other words they learn.

            History provides us with thousands of societies over thousands of years to test which societies tend to gain in prosperity and human flourishing and when they tend to stagnate of fail. I derive my affinity to libertarian solutions from this rich panoply of experience.

            The keys to social progress involved three key components.

            First, Discovering how to improve the state of affairs. This is accomplished by a process of variation, competition and selection. Lots of things are tried cautiously, better ideas are selected, and lesser ones are rejected in a continuous experimentation process.

            Second, good norms, protocols and cultural solutions are retained, preserved, shared and replicated. Good ideas spread and lesser ideas disappear.

            Third, ideas are combined, ratcheted and built upon. They are fed back into the experimentation process and cumulatively improved. Societies that accomplish this thrive and flourish as do those people within them.

            Societies which progress have tended to value experimentation, healthy competition and positive sum, win win interactions. Liberty, voluntary mutually agreed upon interactions and property rights have been what a geek would call the “killer apps” of cultural progress.

            I think these aspects of libertarianism (property rights, and concensual agreements ie win wins) have been tried billions of times as have the opposite paths. The consensus is crystal clear. One leads consistently to human flourishing. One leads to exploitation, impoverishment and lots of dead people. The middle paths lead somewhere in between.

            But I could be wrong…..Report

            • Avatar North in reply to Roger says:

              With regards to safety nets Roger isn’t the verdict, by your own measurements, in favor of something a lot closer to what we have now than what you’d characterize as a voluntary completely non-coercive libertarian ideal?

              Prior to FDR and the liberals safety nets were a patchwork of voluntary private charities, professional associations and religious organizations. We, of course, know what the outcome of that system was: the systems (which were stopgap and ineffectual even during flush years) crumpled during economic hard times and the poor, sick and unfortunate fell through the cracks and perished in droves. Eventually liberals instituted government funded safety nets which generally have performed much better than their predecessors (indeed it’s important to note that the previous safety net providers were generally enthusiastic proponents of the liberals changes).

              Now I’m no triumphalist myself, it’s blatantly obvious that liberals overshot in numerous ways (plunging into the dependency cycle and of course there were the nutbars who sought to implement the workers’ paradise by expanding socialism into full bore communism) and there’s plenty of credit to go to technological and economic development. But even controlling for the economy and technology the outcomes of statist safety nets seem unambiguously better than the outcomes of their non-state safety net predecessors as far as I can see.Report

              • Avatar Jesse Ewiak in reply to North says:

                Don’t worry. Somehow, Wal-Mart, Exxon, and JP Morgan will run a better safety net than overpaid government leeches.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

                Well I’ve heard the arguement made that we’ve evolved socially, economically and culturally to the point that the old pre new-deal patchwork would be superior now to what we have. But that would appear to be a prime example of Still’s a priori first principles arguing since the historical record says otherwise.Report

              • Avatar Jesse Ewiak in reply to North says:

                Well, my basic response would be, “why hasn’t private charity taken up the slack since the latest Great Recession?” After all, in the last couple of years, we’ve seen massive cuts on the state level in education, health care, etcetera because that’s the majority of state budgets. There has been no massive increase in private charity-based health care services or education aid.

                There’s been the same stuff that has always been there which is fantastic and understandable. After all, if all your patrons are tightening your belts, you can’t exactly expand your efforts during an economic downturn.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

                They’d retort* that there hasn’t been an increase because state based safety nets are sucking up the resources (both financial and moral); “I gave at the office” so to speak. Eliminate the state based safety nets and private donors and organizations would step back in but they won’t do it if they see the government doing it.

                *This is not my own position.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

                What a thoughtful contribution to rescue such a low quality subthread.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to North says:


                I think social safety nets are a fantastic thing, though as you mention they can be built wrong, and in some cases our current ones probably are to some extent.

                I doubt if even BB or Jaybird would be in favor of no social safety nets. ??? I believe the direction we should progress on social safety nets is to introduce more competition, choice and in some cases opt outs.

                Non coercive is not a synonym for charity.

                I won’t bore anyone though by repeating my recipe for non coercive safety nets. My guess is that societies will discover them over time.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Roger says:

                Could you link where you’ve described them before? I fear I may have uncharitably assumed that your non coercive, competitive and choice based charities were just an oblique way of saying “get the government out of safety nets and lets go back to the church and charity system”.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to North says:


                I believe effective social safety nets are essential to healthy societies. Below are various ways I would introduce choice and competition to improve the effectiveness of safety nets:

                1) Insurance is a voluntary safety net. That is how we protect our homes, our cars, and our health. Insurance should be minimally regulated with widespread competition and choice. It can also be extended to such things as temporary unemployment and old age.
                2). Where we wish to subsidize the poor with insurance, it should be done in a straightforward way, not via opaque regulations or price controls. The latter destroy the market. See health insurance and hurricane for examples of this destruction.
                3). Where we choose not to use voluntary insurance and instead use state programs, we should introduce as much competition and choice into the system as possible. Where practical it should be privatized among competing vendors who would be forced to be as efficient and customer focused as possible. There should be choices among programs and within programs to allow people to tailor the program to their needs and values.
                4). People should be allowed to have an exit option from state programs. This exit option should not be something which can be entered into lightly. The presence of an exit option (aka exit voice) would help to prevent the program from being captured by special interest groups and made into something exploitative. Those being exploited would leave.
                5). State programs should be handled at the lowest level practical to introduce further competition and consumer choice at the geographic level.

                Let me provide an example. If we assume Social Security should not be covered by private insurance, I would recommend we set it up with competing programs where people would be free to choose among the most efficient operator offering the plans and terms that were best suited to their needs. Congress of course should have no access to these funds. If the program needed more money to meet obligations, the various competing programs should offer alternatives and allow people to choose. Fo example the current debate on the solvency of SS is silly. We should just allow people to choose whether they want higher premiums or later retirement or whatever other combo they want.

                The point of competition, exit options and choice is to optimize efficiency and utility and to minimize rent seeking, bureaucracy and consumer exploitation. Safety nets are great ideas to libertarians. They allow all people to use excess low utility resources during times of plenty to fund high utility resources during times of scarcity.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Roger says:

                Thanks for the info Roger, some scattershot thoughts:

                1) The use of insurance as a safety net for health strikes me as fundamentally problematic. Insurance for cars and homes, for instance is a gamble. It is entirely possible that nothing significant is going to go wrong with your home and nothing bad is going to happen to your car. To a degree the probability of these things happening to your home and car can be estimated. This makes insuring such things viable business. Health on the other hand has no such element. Something will go wrong with your body. It is not a question of if but when.
                2) Don’t have much to comment on. As a center liberal myself I find federal flood insurance in this country an absolute insane comedy. Why on God(ess?)’s green earth does the American government subsidize people (mostly wealthy people) to live on flood plains, keys and sand banks?? Suffice to say we probably agree on that. That said, insurance companies have an unpleasant reputation for being very prompt on collecting dues but very laggard on paying health benefits. The regulations that land on them are arguably deserved.
                3) This treads awfully close to the dark side of neoliberalalism in my mind (full disclosure, I consider myself probably 80% neoliberal). We’ve observed that private prisons and other such contracted out government roles produce horrible side effects (rent seeking, lobbying, institutionalized inertia, see the War on Drugs for instance). So I suspect this one is a pretty wobbly point.
                4) So do you think people should be allowed to opt out of, say, mandatory treatment laws? Hospitals should check the visitors to the emergency rooms for “I won’t pay” cards and let them die in the waiting room?

                For your example, Social Security is a sad subject. I gather that the government has (bipartisanly) been spending this revenue pretty much since the program began. Now of course there’s a hole and suddenly conservatives and (to a lesser degree libertarians) talk about how the program has to be made to pay for itself. Liberals (and I) would retort that no, we put those IOU’s into the program so we could have lower taxes, higher spending and a lot of entertaining wars; those IOU’s don’t get to just be chucked now that the program is moving out of its surplus phase. Part of the problem as I see it is that all the libertarian proposals seem to presume a virgin field to set up a system from scratch but none of that has any utility for the situation that any given country has today. The past happened, the present exists and barring imminent sea steading or mars colonizing we’re not going to get an opportunity to start something on a blank slate. How do we deal with the situation we’ve got?Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Roger says:


                See my comments on health care. Again it is a blend of state and non state entities with lots of competition and choice.


                Side note, I am not arguing for privatized prisons, and I reject that as a counter to outsourcing to private parties “where practical”. I totally agree it is not always either practical or prudent, just that where it is it can help reduce the inefficiencies and callousness of monopolistic bureaucracies.

                I think your final point is really good. There is an element where it is easier to start anew or start over than it is to fix the crap that accumulates over time. This is actually why I am so suspicious of political solutions in the first place. They are highly resistant to creative destruction.

                On to yourReport

              • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to North says:

                Eventually liberals instituted government funded safety nets which generally have performed much better than their predecessors

                That’s questionable. Prior to Great Society, the poverty rate was declining pretty sharply. Then it stopped. Now, it may just be that it just reached its natural level, that a 10-20% poverty rate is something we’ll always have just because 10-20% of the population can’t do any better.

                But it’s not implausible that anti-poverty programs stopped the decline. They’ve done a good job of making sure the poor have their basic needs met. But they’ve done a piss-poor job of actually reducing poverty.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Brandon Berg says:

                Well yes it depends on what metric you use, sure. But even if we assume the outcomes are the same (which frankly I strongly doubt) even if the metric is only “it doesn’t fold up and collapse during a recession when it’s needed the most” then by that criteria alone state based safety nets have greatly outperformed private safety nets. This isn’t surprising of course, in a recession the need for safety nets goes up even as the private resources available to safety nets is crunched.Report

              • Avatar Jesse Ewiak in reply to Brandon Berg says:

                Actually, from 1963 when the Great Society programs were started to 1970, when the cuts of those programs began under Nixon, the poverty rate dropped from 22.2 to 12.6 percent. Since then, of course, poverty has stayed around this level, largely because the Great Society was supposed to be the beginning, not the end.

                Of course Johnson also learned that worthless wars always screw up domestic budget initiatives and programs were never funded as well as they could have been if he had had ceased that little police action over in Vietnam.

                After that, Nixon did some cuts. Then, came Reagan. Who did things like cut programs for low-income families by 50%, subsidized housing by 80%, and job & training programs by 60% or so. And “surprisingly”, the beautiful laboratories in the states have never taken up the slack.

                So, that’s why I kind of have to laugh when conservatives say we “tried” this program. We did. For about seven years and it was a damn success. Then, it’s knees were cut off and was still asked to win a 100m dash.Report

              • Mr. Ewiak’s correct that the Great Society knocked poverty down by at least a third. Mr. Berg is correct that the remaining 10-20% poverty rate is probably not going to be solved by more LBJism.

                All poverty is not created equal.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:


                Two quibbles.

                1) Great Society programs didn’t begin until 1965. LBJ had to win his landslide over AuH2O and get a huge Demo majority first. 1964 if you count Civil Rights Act, which–as great for society as it was–was substantively different from the other programs.

                2) Cites for your numbers? Matt Yglesias argues that the Great Society was a smashing success, but the chart he uses doesn’t paint such a clear picture. In fact it shows a downward trend in poverty rates running from at least ’59 (when the chart starts) with a slight reduction in the rate of downward trend following ’65. I’m not saying the reduction in the trend rate was caused by GS, but it doesn’t appear that GS increased the trend rate in the decrease of the poverty rate. Nor, despite program cuts, has the poverty rate changed substantially in the past 40 years, bouncing around between about 11% – 15%.Report

              • Avatar Jesse Ewiak in reply to James Hanley says:

                Here’s my source –

                And that lines up basically w/ the chart you linked. Even thought it’s a crappy chart. But, fine, the New Frontier of investment into the economy plus the Great Society helped largely decrease poverty in a short time via massive governmental action. 🙂Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

                Thanks for the link, J.E.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to James Hanley says:

                Here’s what went wrong with the Great Society, fwiw.

                Surprisingly little of the legislation behind the Great Society was new. Almost all of it was retrofitting existing legislation going back to the time of Hoover. FDR used the same legislation during the Depression. It’s all still there in law.

                LBJ didn’t start this initiative. Pruitt-Igoe, that infamous symbol of civic do-gooder-ism gone wrong, was built in the early 1950s. New York City had put a great deal of work into getting rid of its slums in the early 20th century under the Progressives. Every city thought the could follow suit. And for a while, places like Pruitt-Igoe and especially Cabrini-Green were nice places!

                Now we know better: if you’re going to tear down a slum, distribute these “refugees” more widely. You can’t just stack poor people up. Pruitt-Igoe was originally segregated housing, one part for whites, the other for blacks. Once it was desegregated, the whites left and it became a sprawling and increasingly deserted dystopia.

                LBJ’s Great Society was mostly uncontroversial. Much of its focus was on rural poverty. The Conservatives didn’t like the War on Poverty because they thought it destroyed family values and the work ethic. They were just plain wrong. Especially in the case of rural poverty, the War on Poverty worked well.

                We wouldn’t recognise the world before LBJ. Rural America has been electrified. People poop in flush toilets. Bad as things are in the USA, the gulf between the abysmal poverty of the poor of those times and the poverty we see today would astound anyone who didn’t live through those times.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Brandon Berg says:

                Coincimidentally, the people getting out of poverty before then were mostly white. Now the people mostly wealth-poor are colored.


      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Stillwater says:


        Very well stated. Thank you. But I fervently disagree that you conception of fairness is pre-theoretical. It’s far from inherent in human thinking, but is the type of thing that people have to be taught, or argued into via explanation and justification.Report

  3. Avatar Roger says:

    I concur with Tom. This is first class demagoguery.

    First you appeal to people’s ignorance of economics by pitching a minimum living wage, without disclosing that this hurts the very people it pretends to benefit. Then you reposition various ideas to save unsustainable transfer programs as being harmful to the very people you hope to save it for. Finally you substitute good intentions for actual good results and package it as compassion.

    I wonder if the nuns go to confession and say “we lied and misled three hundred million people, father, please forgive us our sins.”

    “Say ten million hail Marys and be sure to get some more government goodies for the church. When the system crumbles we can be back in charge again.”Report

    • Avatar Glyph in reply to Roger says:

      Harsh, but grimly funny. If I wanted to be slightly more charitable I would say this:
      (sorry for my ignorance on how to do the HTML formatting, I promise I will look up how to before I do this again):

      “First you appeal to people’s (AND YOUR OWN) ignorance of economics by pitching a minimum living wage, without (UNDERSTANDING) that this hurts the very people it pretends to benefit. Then you reposition various ideas to save unsustainable transfer programs as being harmful to the very people you hope to save it for. Finally you (CONFUSE) good intentions for actual good results and package it as compassion.”Report

    • Avatar Snarky McSnarkSnark in reply to Roger says:

      Well, relating to the a priori discussion above, you are very much dependent, in your conclusions, on a particular model of the world: that of the “economic man.”

      First you appeal to people’s ignorance of economics by pitching a minimum living wage, without disclosing that this hurts the very people it pretends to benefit.

      First, can we acknowledge that this is not a scientific “fact,” but a belief that proceeds from other beliefs? There have been a number of regression analyses done that find that the simple model of “minimum wage” = “reduced employment” for the poor is not verifiable, nor consistent, nor conclusive.

      Similarly, with the belief that transfer programs “hurt the people they are meant to protect.” I personally believe that sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. But as a categorical statement, that can only be a statement of ideological affiliation.

      I do understand the seduction of the “marketplace.” It seems fair, neutral, dynamic and efficient. It doesn’t care about race or sexual orientation. It is an intrinsic part of every growing economy in the world. And, yet, it’s an abstraction. If you look at markets, their advantages are dependent on a number of pre-conditions:

      1. Unlimited constraints on entry and exit from the marketplace.
      2. A substantial (lets say a dozen or more) number of suppliers.
      3. Equal (or, at least, highly level) access to factors and technology of production.
      4. General transparency; of buyer, seller, and of the marketplace itself.
      5. Level market, information, and political power of all players.
      6. Persistent market presence for the development of reputations.
      7. Sufficient utility / price ratio for the analysis of “optimal” to be worthwhile.
      8. There are no economic externalities associated with any transaction.

      Note, that it is the natural inclination of market players to try to alter the above conditions in their own favor when they can. And that these conditions exist in only a tiny, tiny subset of the general marketplace.

      And what is the ultimate result when you have all of the prerequisites for a perfect market, as above? Economic efficiency, not necessarily prosperity, or fairness, or flourishing, or growth. And if it’s more efficient for a few large players to end up with most of the pie, that’s likely where you’ll end up.

      The assumption that a minimum wage hurts the poor, or that transfer payments harm more then help, or that economic regulation does more long-term harm than good are based more on this mechanistic model of human and economic interaction than on experience: since we’ve never had perfect markets (or perfect socialism, or anything else). But the evidence backing this up is mostly of the a priori type–proceeding from conclusion to evidence.Report

      • Avatar Roger in reply to Snarky McSnarkSnark says:

        I think the data on minimum wages is pretty much overwhelming. It prices the least skilled out of the market. Any economist trying to argue for something else has a strong burden to make his case. It is pretty well proven that increasing the cost of something lessens its demand.

        Actually what I meant was that the elimination of transfer payments when the program collapses would be harmful to the recipients. Paul R is trying to save unsustainable programs.

        Who told you that markets require perfect competition, transparency, control of externalities and opportunity to work? They lied.

        I am aware that market players will always try to use coercion or privilege to play unfairly. That is why I seek to minimize coercion and privilege seeking through clear, simple, consistent rules of good markets.

        I do not think rules always do more harm than good. I think simple consistent transparent rules are essential. I think RULE WRESTLING is harmful. That is what I call a system where people try to win the game via rule manipulation. It is the beginning of the death spiral of society. This converts the positive sum nature of voluntary win win interactions into an arms race of negative sum attack and defense.

        I could go on for hours….Report

        • Avatar Snarky McSnarkSnark in reply to Roger says:

          I could go on for hours….

          I’m sure you could. But let’s understand that your presumptions are built atop a model of the world that is largely abstract, and more theoretical than real.

          The data on minimum wage is far more complicated than you assume. And it’s not very conclusive, and none of it takes the larger perpective of the larger economy as an organic system. If wages of $2/hr were “allowed,” there are all kinds of second-order impacts: will we include these people in our social safety net? And if we do, there are much larger questions of how such subsidation of low wages may be even more market-distorting than was a minimum wage in the first place.

          The “market” is a useful construct, but it is something separate from a model of an optimal society. It is an abstraction: and is built upon the presumptive prerequisites of “perfect” markets. Without the these prerequisites, the predicted outcomes of the economic model are inefficiencies and dislocations.

          I appreciate the libertarian perspective, but tend to think of it as largely utopian. Libertarians want many of the same things for society that I do (with less emphasis, certainly, on the value of distributional “fairness.”). But it rests upon notions that best (or, at least, better) outcomes will result from embracing the Economic Man as a basis for constructing a society and an economy. And it has, at its foundations, many, many untested–and untestable–presumptions about the nature of man, of society, and choice.Report

          • Avatar Roger in reply to Snarky McSnarkSnark says:

            I am quite familiar with the data on minimum wages and am aware that there are a few outlier studies. Reality is messy. But of course theory needs to be tested upon reality. I 100% support the idea of piecemeal learning. We should use states as laboratories. Let’s have half without minimum wages, some with low minimum wages and some with higher ones and see what happens. Then allow states to migrate over time between choices. Over the long haul, I am confident that experimentation backed by theory which accumulates and improves over time is better than ideology.

            Do you accept the offer to experiment?

            “The “market” is a useful construct, but it is something separate from a model of an optimal society. It is an abstraction: and is built upon the presumptive prerequisites of “perfect” markets. Without the these prerequisites, the predicted outcomes of the economic model are inefficiencies and dislocations.”

            I don’t think the market is a model for a perfect society. I think it is a great way to solve a certain set of problems for us all in our role as consumers. Again I believe there is pretty much unanimity among credible economists that there is no better system than less-than-perfect markets for solving the class of problems related to normal scarce resources. Public goods may require other solutions, of course.

            I am totally uninterested in untestable ideas. Consequential libertarianism can be tested any time there is a mutually agreed upon interaction. It occurs millions or billions of times every day by billions of people. It is bottoms up, not top down. It is practical, not idealistic.

            Certainly economics and praxeology deal with man as he is rather than as we would like him to be. But again, theories need to be constantly tested and revised. That is why I desire a bottoms up approach. So we can test and learn as we build.

            In other words, we do not see eye to eye on what libertarianism is.Report

            • Avatar Jesse Ewiak in reply to Roger says:

              I have a better idea. Let’s have every conservative and libertarian person out there on the Internet who thinks a minimum wage cut by half would be a fantastic idea should go out there and find a job at the current minimum wage, send half their paycheck every week into a trust, and report back to us in a year or so on how it’s going.

              That way, the only people hurt are conservative and libertarian commenters on the Internet instead of working class people living in conservative states.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:


                I have an even better idea. Let’s set the minimum wage at $20 per hour for liberals. There will be no “government help” for conservatives and libertarians. Then let’s see how many people choose to be liberals.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Snarky McSnarkSnark says:

        This really isn’t true. Markets need to be perfect in order to produce truly optimal outcomes. But even markets that are far from the idealized model of perfect markets will still work pretty well.

        Leftists often commit the fallacy of asserting that when markets fail to produce anything short of theoretically optimal results, then government must have a superior solution, while ignoring the fact that actual governments fall far short of the ideal model of a fully-informed democracy.

        In reality, low-wage jobs actually come far closer to the idealized model of a perfect labor market than high-paying jobs. From the perspective of an unskilled worker, low-wage jobs are pretty much interchangeable; from the perspective of an employer, unskilled workers are pretty much interchangeable. High-paying jobs, on the other hand, often involve substantial investments on both sides that are not necessarily transferrable.

        But my guess is that most leftists would be far more inclined to say that there’s market failure in the low-wage sector, just because to them, “market failure” means “outcomes I don’t like.”

        The assumption that a minimum wage hurts the poor, or that transfer payments harm more then help, or that economic regulation does more long-term harm than good are based more on this mechanistic model of human and economic interaction than on experience

        The belief that transfer payments harm more than help is based on a behavioristic model. Transfer payments always help Homo economicus.Report

    • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to Roger says:

      First you appeal to people’s ignorance of economics by pitching a minimum living wage, without disclosing that this hurts the very people it pretends to benefit.

      The literature on living wage laws and benefits to the poor are actually rather mixed. The first real comprehensive study that was done about living wage law was through NBER in 2000 by Neumark and Adams and showed that the results were mixed. While there were few contemporaneous impacts, the living wage laws did tend to have a positive and significant correlation with lagged wage growth and urban poverty rates.

      World Bank studies such as those conducted by Murgai and Ravallion have also shown that minimum wage laws (particularly those targeting seasonal variations of employment) tend to dramatically reduce poverty rates, but are comparatively less EFFICIENT than simple cash transfers.

      That said, the economics of this is all up for debate. There’s actually very little empirical data that suggests the theoretical model that implies living wage ordinances will reduce employment to actually bear out over the course of a full economy.Report

      • Avatar cfpete in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

        “There’s actually very little empirical data that suggests the theoretical model that implies living wage ordinances will reduce employment”

        From the linked paper:
        “We estimate lagged effects on the employment rates of low-wage workers, however, that are negative and strongly significant.”Report

        • Avatar James Hanley in reply to cfpete says:

          If liberals are non-ideological and empirical, as Stillwater is arguing (above), that ought to be taken seriously by them.Report

          • Avatar Roger in reply to James Hanley says:

            The party of good intentions.Report

          • Avatar Stillwater in reply to James Hanley says:

            I think your right. Minimum wage laws make sense to me in relatively closed labor and capital markets. If capital has the flexibility to relocate (which it does), and labor is in general pretty flexible (which it is, due immigration as well the lack of stiffening labor unions and other mechanisms) then minimum wage laws aren’t necessarily going to be positively correlated with either increased labor rates or (more contentiously) increased employment. In markets that are more closed, I think you do see those positive correlations.

            I think at this point, the justification for a minimum wage is to establish a wage floor rather than increasing employment. And the merits of that – in actual practice – can be argued either way. It’s an issue that was discussed on various threads and posts during the inequality symposium, and there is general agreement that the way of the future seems to be increasingly open labor and capital markets, without much hope for a stiffening of either to achieve liberal goals.

            So … I agree with you.Report

            • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Stillwater says:

              So why aren’t you a libertarian? 😉Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to James Hanley says:

                Cuz I’m opposed to policies which permit and even encourage capital flight.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Stillwater says:

                Just riffing off your long ago comment that you thought acceptance of some regulation ought to make one a liberal. You’re not a libertarian for essentially the same reason I’m not a liberal; one need not slavishly take the most extreme version of ideology X in order to identify with it rather than,mor more than, with ideology Y.Report

              • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Stillwater says:

                Why? When capital leaves the country, it doesn’t just disappear into the ether. It goes to other countries, very often poorer countries, and raises wages there.

                How do you feel about policies that inhibit capital formation?Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Brandon Berg says:

                While I agree that countries shouldn’t promote capital flight, the idea of preventing capital flight immediately made me think of what happened in Russia in the ’90s. After the collapse of the communist government there was a helluva lot of foreign direct investment. Then the new government started playing games with capital and property ownership, and there was massive capital flight. A rule against capital flight in that case would simply have prevented an effective response to really bad public policy.

                Economist Albert Hirschmann wrote a fine little book about response to decline in organizations, in which he pin-pointed two basic responses, voice and exit. Both have their uses, but when exit is impossible, all that’s left is voice, and its effectiveness is hindered by the impossibility of exit. (E.g., an authoritarian state is far less responsive to voice than your local breakfast joint.)

                It’s unlikely the U.S. will enact any policies that begin to compare to what Russia did, but capital flight still is, in part, a response to public policy. So to ask for a rule against capital flight is to ask for a rule preventing one of the means of democratic response (exit) and constraining the effectiveness of another (voice).

                That’s not actually what Stillwater’s asking for, of course, but it’s the necessary effect of what he’s suggesting.

                Not that I’m particularly worried about whether corporations/the wealthy will have enough influence in our democracy, but there’s still something fundamentally authoritarian about telling people what country they can or cannot invest in.Report

              • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to James Hanley says:

                Right. But I read Stillwater’s comment as meaning that we should lock our wives up better, not that we should stop beating them.Report

      • Avatar Roger in reply to Nob Akimoto says:


        This is totally disingenuous on your part. Unlike many of the liberals on this site, you are informed enough to know the truth.

        The paper you link basically makes my point, it confirms that minimum wages create winners and losers and that it affects employment levels. Indeed the paper is basically a thirty plus page summary that “minimum wage laws are of course bad ideas, but maybe living wage city contract requirements are a better idea.” The data is mixed on this latter idea, and you and I know why.

        The following summary paper covers the economic findings and conclusions of the minimum wage literature.

        This should be required reading for liberals with good intentions that are willing to harm the poor for the benefit of their conscience or their affiliation.

        Adding on to cfpete’s quotes… Just to make this easy for all the liberals, this is a quote from the paper that Nob has presented in your defense….

        “Recent research indicates that past experience with minimum wage increases in the U.S. is at odds with the prediction that raising the minimum will help lift families out of poverty. Rather, raising the minimum wage does not reduce the proportion of families living in poverty, and if anything instead increases it, thus raising the poverty rate (Neumark, et al., 1998).
        In summary, the evidence from standard minimum wages indicates that minimum wage hikes fail to accomplish their principal policy goal of raising incomes of poor or low-income families.”Report

        • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Roger says:

          I don’t dispute the conclusion of that study, Roger, but I think those correlations are the result of an openness in the system that liberals wish weren’t the case. It seems to me one of the holdovers of a “rise-of-the-unions” era thinking, back when capital was relatively fixed. Capital flexibility changed all that (and all on its own is probably positively correlated with labor flexibility), which is one reason why lots of liberals (not all) expressed the worries they have.Report

          • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Stillwater says:

            What do you mean by “an openness in the system that liberals wish easn’t there”? Does that connect up with the idea of closed labor markets, or is it referring to something different?Report

            • Avatar Roger in reply to James Hanley says:

              And knowing what you know, do YOU wish this openness wasn’t there?Report

            • Avatar James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

              I worry that it means liberals don’t want openness in labor markets, which would imply a ver illiberal component in liberalism.Report

            • Avatar Stillwater in reply to James Hanley says:

              James and Roger,

              It refers to closed labor and capital markets. Liberalism’s economic success thru the 50’s and even into the 60s resulted from, it seems to me, a situation where labor rigidity outpaced capital flexibility for quite a while. Labor flexibility due to immigration was always an issue, but unionism took care of that quite effectively. But the facts on the ground have changed drastically since then: capital is highly flexible, so labor has no real leverage; other countries have caught up in manufacturing reducing demand for US manufactures; and bilateral (and sometimes unilateral) trade agreements, which helped create and maintain that demand, no longer exist (open trade policies prevail).

              So the paradigm on which liberal successes of the past are based is no longer practical. And to answer Roger’s question, I do wish there was more rigidity in certain dimensions of the market, namely capital flexibility. But it’s an empty wish, it seems to me, since mechanization and offshoring will prevail just so long as it’s justified on an purely economic calculus. (If your interested in a more lengthy discussion about that, go to Will T’s post “Occupational Identity” at NAPP and click thru the link.) I see this as a positive trend wrt price (tho ultimately self-destructive too (could be wrong about that)); I see this as a negative trend wrt lots of quality of life issues (economic and others) for working people.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Stillwater says:

                I think you may be right, so this response isn’t a rebuttal, just a comment. I think the desire for labor market closeness is perhaps the worst aspect of liberalism. For a political group that claims to care more about the poor than others, it demonstrates a very strict limitation on which of the poor will be cared about.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to James Hanley says:

                I think liberals look at it this way (or a wonky liberal anyway): jobs for the poor at living wages require getting capital back to the states. There have been some proposals at the political level to achieve that, eg., Hillary suggested a repatriation tax on profits derived from US based corporations. I liked the spirit of the idea, of course (I’m a liberal!) but the mechanism wouldn’t be effective (even if could be justified on other grounds).

                The neoliberal solution to this problem (well, it’s not really a solution, is it?) is that physical capital will return to the US when it’s cost effective to do so. So, all other things being equal, that means it’ll return when US labor rates are lower than they currently are.Report

              • Avatar Roger in reply to Stillwater says:

                It seems as if there is an unstated preference difference between our camps. It seems to me libertarians want to see a great, fair game, yet are pretty much ambivalent to which team does the best. The liberals seem to want the underdogs to do better, sometimes even at the expense of the overall game.

                That is the thought that went through my head as I read your responses.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Roger says:

                I think the preference, which is often stated, is that there’s more to political economy than “economy”.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Stillwater says:


                Jobs for the poor require getting money out of the States, no? It’s all about which poor we’re talking about, hence my criticism of liberals claiming to care about the poor even as the want closed markets (labor and capital).Report

        • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to Roger says:

          The NBER paper was primarily intended to illustrate that a living wage law doesn’t actually have that big of an impact on employment vis-a-vis a minimum wage law.

          I’ll add the following caveats to my point.
          1. Most US literature does indicate that in American labor markets, minimum wage laws do have an impact on employment statistics. However, most US literature ALSO indicates that the predominant group most likely to be affected by such laws are teenagers and non-household head earners. Wilson’s paper actually makes note of this, and offers up “societal responses” as teens running to crime as a result of fewer employment opportunities.

          I would also point out here, that some of this data is in dispute.
          To wit regarding the findings of new (2010 – onward) research by Dube, et. al.:

          [V]ariation over the past two decades in minimum wages has been highly selective spatially,and employment trends for low-wage workers vary substantially across states … This has tended to produce a spurious negative relationship between the minimum wage and employment for lowwage workers – be it for sectors such as restaurant and retail or for demographic groups such as teenagers.”

          Moreover as Neumark (one of the biggest proponents of the employment effects claim) notes in a new working paper:

          Dube writes: “Even simple regional controls and trends produce employment effects close to zero, as do more sophisticated approaches such as comparing contiguous counties across policy boundaries – which essentially embeds the “case study”approach within panel data analysis …”

          That is to say, again: The data is mixed. I don’t think I’m being particularly disingenuous here.

          2. The data for non-US countries is decidedly mixed. The national minimum wage law in the UK has had a minimal effect on their employment rate (Metcalf), while a perusal of Labour Economics indicates that there’s a large number of developing economies where there’s a substantial impact on poverty rates for an enforceable minimum wage law. Brazil being an example (Lemos 2008).

          Again, the World Bank paper on rural India is also useful here, because it examines the opportunity costs of actually engaging in lean season labor and suggests the changes in wage opportunity is substantially different than in developed urban economies like the US.

          The empirical data is mixed. I stand by that statement.

          And accusations of bad faith argument are a bit tiresome.

          Also, regarding labor market openness.

          I’ll take the opposite tack of Stillwater.

          The problem isn’t that labor markets are open, it’s that labor (especially un-skilled labor) is particularly immobile compared to capital. It’s much much easier for a Magnate A. to move his operations from California to India, than it is for low-skill worker from Mexico to move to India to take advantage of the movement of A.’s low-skill work.

          In effect, this creates a bit of a monopsony effect within labor markets, where the labor consumers are more able to freely move about than the labor sellers and thus gives them substantially more market power.Report

          • Avatar Roger in reply to Nob Akimoto says:


            Let me be real clear. I believe that you believe that in general artificially high wages will lead to less demand for labor. I know this because you are really bright and well versed in economics. My guess is that you also believe it would reduce overall economic efficiency.Report

          • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

            Good closing point, Nob. And there are multiple reasons for relative labor immobility, a few of which are amenable to policy, many of hitch aren’t.Report

            • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to James Hanley says:

              Hence sometimes the need for things like certification programs so that consumers can make good choices on how labor is impacted by their purchases.

              None of it is perfect.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

                I’m not so sure about that. I’m all for consumers having good info, but that souns to me a lot like helping people feed their prejudice against jobs for the third world poor.Report

              • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to James Hanley says:

                Because clearly, caring about working conditions and environmental impacts of products you consume is a sign you hate poor people.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

                That’s not what I said, and I think you know it. Refer back up to my comment about closed labor markets and caring for the poor.

                For the record, I have no objection to laws mandating “made in…” labels. In fact I’d enjoy cars having comprehensive ones so my brother-in-law would stop boasting about buying American. And I have no objection to independent orgs setting up info systems and standards that businesses can meet if they want that org’s certification.

                But that doesn’t mean gov’t has much of a role there, and let’s not pretend it won’t be used by one as a thin cover for “jobs fear Amurricans, not dirty furriners.”Report

              • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to James Hanley says:

                1. I never implied government has a role in that process.

                2. You were referencing my comment regarding certification systems and went on a riff about how it’d just help people in their prejudice against poor people in foreign places.

                My point was more that the outsized influence of capital versus labor in developing economies allow working conditions that are sometimes on the inhumane end of appalling. And that I’d hope most consumers, if aware of the costs of their cheap goods, would be okay with paying a few cents more on a dollar.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

                Most consumers wouldn’t. When given the choice, most don’t. That’s why liberals who want to accomplish that goal find it necessary to try to mandate it.

                People do use those working conditions as an argument against the jobs themselves.

                People are bastard coated bastards with bastard filling.Report

        • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to Roger says:

          With our mixed wage economy–working poor entitlements, earned income credit, etc., I don’t see how the minimum wage question can even be addressed without the entire private-gov’t context.

          Pretty much we have this with Walmart employees so ill-paid they’re eligible for gov’t programs. But isn’t it better they work for half their daily bread than none of it?Report

  4. Avatar Jaybird says:

    “There are those who say that we cannot turn lead into gold. These are people who want you to be poor! They want you to not have pretty rings or necklaces!”

    The problem with mingling the wonky with the moral is that, sometimes, the moral has merely a loose interest with how things work.

    When I was in 4th Grade, one of my teachers said that the streets of heaven were paved with gold that was SO PURE that it was TRANSPARENT. Apart from the “how in the flying hell do you know this?” questions that arose, there is the fundamental issue of how THAT IS NOT HOW GOLD WORKS. My argument, sadly, is a wonky one. Hers, a moral one.

    Since then? I don’t mind the moral arguments so much… but I am usually reminded of 4th Grade when the arguer doesn’t seem to care much about how stuff works.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Jaybird says:

      Anyone who can’t see that it’s gold doesn’t belong in Heaven, of course.Report

    • Avatar b-psycho in reply to Jaybird says:

      This. Just because something feels good to believe doesn’t make it true.

      BTW: the real problem with Paul Ryan’s emphasis on debt (aside from the fact his plans will do absolutely nothing about it on the gov’t end of the equation, of course) is that he misses the most important part of it. A labor force more capable of living without debt would solve the dignity problem John Ryan spoke of and the economic one of, well, a lot of people lacking money.Report

      • Avatar Roger in reply to b-psycho says:


        You lost me… Why won’t Ryan’s plan reduce the government debt? Are you suggesting the poor are better off without personal debt?

        And I thought we all agreed in the inequality forum that the poor in the US were living pretty well. My guess is that John would be amazed at how much better off the poor are today than the average were in his day. When you add what the poor actually earn to what they get in means tested benefits, I bet the average poor person today makes more in consumption standards than John did at the turn of the century.

        My other question is why is it that sustainability is a bad word when it comes to transfer programs? The way they are today is unsustainable. Paul’s plan may not be perfect, but isn’t it great for trying to preserve a good thing that is in danger of self destructing?Report

        • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Roger says:

          Why won’t Ryan’s plan reduce the government debt?

          From the Drudge Report (so you know it’s true): “By the end of the 10-year budget window, Paul Ryan’s House GOP budget plan would increase the public debt, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. The spending cuts Republicans would realize in the first 10 years would be outpaced by deficit increasing tax cuts in the plan, the CBO found.”Report

          • Avatar Roger in reply to Stillwater says:

            Well then let’s counter with substantially reduced military spending and slightly higher taxes. You guys agree that making our social safety nets sustainable is a good thing right?Report

        • Avatar b-psycho in reply to Roger says:

          I’m suggesting the extent to which current standard of living is propped up by personal debt for many people is masking how deep the hole really is.

          As for Ryan’s plan: what Stillwater said. Also, I agree the current programs are unsustainable. The way they were structured pretty much insured they’d become so with the right systemic shift. I’m more concerned in principle though with the extent to which transfer programs became necessary in the first place.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Jaybird says:

      Although, at sufficient thin-ness, it’s possible to have a transparent gold coating. (This isn’t really a matter of purity though.)Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to DensityDuck says:

        I’m pretty sure that since we’d be talking about streets, we’d have to assume a degree of thickness sufficient for walking upon. Perhaps Heaven is a place where we are so very tiny that we can walk upon gold that is that thin without falling through but that raises other questions.Report

  5. Avatar Koz says:

    “Regular League readers know about my professional hobby horse: leftists usually make thin, wonky arguments instead of explaining the moral principles involved.”

    I think they used to do that, and it’s worth mentioning why. Basically, by making clear the moral prinicples that underlie their policy preference they expose themselves to responses that they don’t want to deal with. Ie,

    1. Those moral principles are wrong.
    2. The libs have no intention of holding themselves to those principles, or
    3. The libs can’t execute the policies downstream from those prinicples.

    In any event, it’s precisely the moral clarity created by this line of argument that makes libs afraid of it. By contrast wonky arguments tend to be much murkier so libs feel more comfortable interacting on that ground.

    Or at least that’s the way it used to be. As it happens now, the Demo unemployment and lack of growth under the Obama Administration are clear enough that the poor long-suffering wonk has nowhere to hide. Poor lib! You don’t understand, he’s forced to talk about mindless pablum and political intrigues.

    If this were a sitcom we could just laugh. In reality, it’s a shame because the way out is simple if not easy: voting Republican and associating with the mainstream Right in America. We are creating the possibility of a polity based engagement between citizens. They created a polity constrained by useless or counterproductive entanglements. They won.

    Can you prove that your employment hiring practices are racially nondiscriminatory? Can you prove that your house doesn’t threaten endangered species? Whatever it is, you can’t do what you want until you satisfy some obligation that a lib entangles you into.

    At this point, our imagination tends to turn to our distaste or these obligations or perhaps the political justifications for them. But what I want to emphasize here is a slightly different point: when a person is caught in perceived trap, whether it’s financial, spiritual, circumstantial or something else, there is a very powerful motivation for him to get out of it.

    That’s to say, his intent is going to be very narrowly focused and directed inward. He’s not going to be thinking about the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere or helping his fellow man. He’s going to be thinking about how to get out of the trap.

    The intellectual failures of liberalism tend to get pretty boring. What I didn’t realize until relatively recently is that those intellectual failures are epiphenomena downstream from lib moral failures. Of course, libs have no intention of actually coming to grips with those moral failures so that’s why they avoid the subject if at all possible.

    That’s a shame really, because they intuit that using other people’s material resources to help the human needs of deprived people is kinda iffy. But that’s the least of their problems. What’s much worse morally is their corrupt advocacy. We could probably do better for the materially deprived if libs would interact honestly with conservatives or apolitical Americans.Report

    • Avatar Roger in reply to Koz says:

      You make it sound like the left is some conspiracy of elites that like the power and prestige that ones from steering the ship, even as they ground it on the rocks.Report

      • Avatar Koz in reply to Roger says:

        That’s a good point. We’ve seen with PPACA that the libs are willing to accept any amount of corruption of the political process, and any amount of rickety engineering, for the sake of being able to claim some important social good, somewhere over the rainbow in a galaxy far, far away.

        What they don’t accept, at least yet, is that it’s also important to create or preserve a client-patron relationship over the polity. And over the passage of time, that client-patron architecture over the polity is at least as important as the social good the libs are supposedly providing.

        Without the patron-client architecture, libs would be forced to advocate for their policies on a good faith basis, which is exactly what they’re unwilling to do.Report

    • Avatar b-psycho in reply to Koz says:

      In reality, it’s a shame because the way out is simple if not easy: voting Republican and associating with the mainstream Right in America. We are creating the possibility of a polity based engagement between citizens.

      How? Engagement between people as equals means a lot of things, I don’t see “vote Republican” as one of them.Report

      • Avatar Koz in reply to b-psycho says:

        You’ve got the direction of causality wrong. We hope that engagement among people as equals tends to lean people toward voting Republican, but the important point is the other way around.

        It is by voting Republican that we create the social fabric that allows people to engage each other that way, because we defeat the capabilities of the libs to interfere with the creation of important social capital for their narrow factional reasons.Report

        • Avatar b-psycho in reply to Koz says:

          What you’re arguing isn’t social fabric vs the lack of one, but your vision of it vs theirs.
          How about letting society decide what it’s made of on its own?Report

          • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to b-psycho says:

            There is an argument in there: politics used as a weapon to coerce society, the Moynihan thing.

            The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.Report

          • Avatar Koz in reply to b-psycho says:

            I think you’re misreading this at a pretty basic level. There is no GOP-social-fabric vs. Demo-social-fabric, that’s just the point. Social fabric is in general created by engagement between persons for this or that purpose.

            It is the result of lib politics and lib policy that such interactions are illegal, or highly discouraged, or the result of some intermediate steps which are illegal or discouraged.

            Therefore “society”, individually and collectively, is prevented from forming useful social capital, that’s the point.Report

            • Avatar b-psycho in reply to Koz says:

              Slight edit:

              It is the result of politics and policy that such interactions are illegal, or highly discouraged, or the result of some intermediate steps which are illegal or discouraged.

              Now do you see what I’m getting at?

              If the issue is social fabric and not merely vision A vs vision B of it, and it is acknowledged that politics interferes, blaming “libs” rather than political power itself in the sense that it can interfere is a misfire.Report

              • Avatar Koz in reply to b-psycho says:

                No. It is not the result of politics and policy in general which interferes with the creation of the social fabric, it the results of lib politics and lib policy.

                GOP politics are premised on limited government, allowing Americans in general to create valuable social capital as they have the desire and opportunity. More than that, the Americans who believe in limited government have a very strong tendency to politically organize as Republicans, so to the extent that we identify as Republicans as well, we empower them.Report

              • Avatar b-psycho in reply to Koz says:

                GOP politics are premised on limited government…

                Sorry, I don’t know whether to laugh or vomit. It’s not like they’re the Libertarian Party or something, sheesh…Report

              • Avatar Koz in reply to b-psycho says:

                Hmmm. Usually, the cause of that sort of response is a too narrow field of vision. There are a lot of Republicans who are ready to unwind a lot of sclerosis underlying our polity. For those outside of politics, when we get the chance we can hope that the polity will create enough social and economic social capital that those in our culture who are trapped can have the opportunity to spring the trap.

                The last time we were in that situation, it was a very fortuitous set of Republicans who got us out of it: Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp, Bill Simon, William F Buckley and the rest of them (and let it be said, a fair number of libertarians who weren’t afraid to be associated with them.)Report

              • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to Koz says:

                The last time we were in that situation, John Yoo was not viewed as a conservative legal hero.Report

              • Avatar Koz in reply to Koz says:

                Who says he is now?Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Koz says:

                Umm conservatives?Report

              • Avatar Koz in reply to Koz says:

                I dunno. Future Supreme Court Justice John Yoo. I’ll believe when I see it.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Koz says:

                I agree, it’s unlikely Yoo will become a supreme court justice. He’ll just have to settle for being lauded and defended by conservatives, getting paying gigs from conservative flagship publications and being assured of protection from prosecution by conservative politicians.Report

              • Avatar Koz in reply to Koz says:

                No, John Yoo is a law professor. He’s published occasionally in the major organs of the conservative press (which doesn’t pay very much if at all). He’s not being prosecuted because they couldn’t find anything he was guilty of.Report

    • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to Koz says:

      This has got to be satire.Report

  6. This is an interesting panoply of comments. I think I’m going to have to write a post clarifying the intersections between facts, data, technical analysis, rhetoric, and what I’ve been calling “moral vision.”

    It’s going to be awhile, though. I need some time to figure out how to make it clear. Stay tuned.Report

    • Avatar Koz in reply to Conor P. Williams says:

      By all means please do. Libs have no moral vision, that’s actually the major substance of my complaint against Erik.

      Specifically, a credible moral vision means that we have to be willing to engage with the reality of the world, and that means things like dealing with cause and effect, premise and conclusion, and so on. It’s perfectly acceptable for Erik to live in his fantasy world where he can create interesting concepts like pity-charity liberalism, benign public sector unions, equitable distribution of income, and the rest of it. But it’s precisely where he is unwilling to take these things and meaningfully engage them with reality that they cease to be credible elements of authentic moral vision.Report

  7. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    You say “wonk” as if this were a pejorative. There’s a simple, obvious route to squaring these two Ryans, without resorting to name-calling or political posturing. It’s called Consequentialism.

    Let’s take what BOTH the Left and Right call their moral values. Now, let’s just unbuckle those packs of values, treat them all as assertions against which we could test a solution. Some of those values will overlap, very likely most of them. I’ll code up each such assertion as a rule, put them all into a ruleset. Think of a ruleset like a set of mouse traps: if a solution is good, the rules remain silent. If a solution is bad by anyone’s definition, a rule will “fire”.

    Rule CON_TAX: Does this solution raise taxes on anyone?
    Rule LIB_TAX: Does this solution raise taxes on the poor and middle class?

    So we trot a potential solution through, provide Benefit A through the use of sin taxes. Both rules will fire.

    You will have already spotted a flaw in this ruleset: LIB_TAX is actually dependent upon CON_TAX and should be implemented as:

    Rule LIB_TAX: IFF CON_TAX does this solution raise taxes on the poor and middle class?

    Thus we could dissect away all the nebulous hooey from this argument. The Liberals must not wish for unfunded solutions and the Conservatives must not implement unfunded mandates.Report

  8. Avatar Steve S. says:

    “First of all, Woodiwiss and Scheeler have a clever angle: since Ryan customarily argues that his budget is inspired by his Catholic faith, they’ve challenged him on those grounds.”

    I don’t find that clever at all, in fact, if I had a dollar for every time I’ve read a lefty blogger use this argument (whether on Ryan or somebody else) I’d be rich.

    If history teaches us anything about Christianity it’s that one can justify practically any viewpoint or policy position using its sacred texts. The left can appeal to the hippie version of Jesus and perhaps change a few minds, fine, whatever, but this is just another wonky argument albeit in another magisterium.

    “the American Left has no coherent or compelling moral vision to justify its policy aims.”

    If you ask lefties why they’re for health care reform the most frequent first response you’ll get is that it extends coverage to millions more people. Lefties take that statement as self-evidently moral and the first principles implicit.Report

  9. Avatar Jeff says:

    I’m through with you all. You’re all sick — when Koz claims that the Left has no morals and that the only remedy is to vote Republican, you shouldn’t nod sagely, but remind him of the harm the Right has done — from stigmatizingwelfare, to advocating for bullying, to campaigning against veterans, to increasing pain and suffering for women, especially poor women.

    You don’t necessarily have to be a sociopath to vote Republican, but it sure helps.

    Fish each and every one of you for not standing up to this crap.

    Ovwer and OUT.Report

    • Avatar Snarky McSnarkSnark in reply to Jeff says:

      I hope this is just a tantrum — I enjoy reading your comments.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Jeff says:

      Err I think you misread it. Koz doesn’t get much response to that stuff because it’s mostly baiting and also because pretty much the entire commentariate has written him off as a bit unhinged on the subject. Hell, last I checked Jaybird is on the record asserting Koz is a liberal character actor.
      There’s only so much one can bother tilting at a windmill, the arms just swing round again.Report

      • Avatar Jesse Ewiak in reply to North says:

        Yup. TVD at least dresses his arguments up in some philosophical writing that don’t sound like talking points from a random National Review or Red State article. Koz and Scott are perfect examples of the conservative movement, which is why I like having them around. Every time some of the moderates around here might not remember the GOP is crazy, Koz or Scott reminds them pretty quick.

        BTW, yes, I know, I’m a horrible and terrible person just as bad as them because I don’t hate the Democratic Party as an institution. 🙂Report

        • Avatar North in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

          Frankly it’d be easier if I could hate the Dems. Then I could just write em off and ignore them. Instead I spend so much time sighing and rolling my eyes, oh me oh my. But then I look at the other party. Oi.Report

        • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

          I’d prefer more original content from them, but those gentlepersons are far outnumbered by their analogues on the other side, whose arguments and slanders are easily as banal and shopworn.

          I see no point in each side reading from their script and passing it off as discussion. But as long as one side does, the other is a needed corrective.

          And you know who you are. ;-O

          Below, Mr. Koz complains about drive-by bile, and rightly. I think it ruins the blog.Report

    • Avatar Koz in reply to Jeff says:

      Geez, this is rich. For the most part I’d rather correspond with libs because they’re the ones who need the most help but some of them are such pure cultural polluters. Drive-by bile is not a good thing.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Jeff says:

      I just got here but you make me so mad that I’m leaving forever!Report

  10. Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

    BTW, I think the reasons why the arguments in favor of ACA became about bending the cost curve and deficit neutral came down to a few things.

    1) As dirty commie-dem liberals, we’ve been arguing over health care internally for about twenty to eighty years, depending on where you start things. As a result, the moral argument is over. Nobody in a liberal vs. liberal arguments even questions the idea that all people in this nation deserve quality medical/health care for themselves and their families. As a result, we move quickly on to the dirty grimy nature of policy. So, I think to a certain extent, those who created the ACA skipped over the “moral” part of the argument and went straight to the “hey, we’ve got to convince people this is the right way to do this, not that it’s the right thing to do.”

    2) For oh, forty years, the Democrats were pretty good at moral arguments. You’ve might have heard about a few guys named Roosevelt, Johnson, and Kennedy. But, what happened was that even though liberals were making moral arguments, we were losing. So, instead of realizing that the reason we were losing were crappy candidates making those moral arguments, it became a settled belief that people didn’t care about moral arguments when it came to economic or foreign policy, they only cared about hard numbers, results, and whether it was financially sustainable. Thus, cost controls, CBO estimates, and the like.

    3) To piggyback on point number two, ACA supporters became obsessed with proving it was financially sustainable because of attacks on other liberal programs for spending too much. “Finally, we’ve got a plan even the CBO says lowers the deficit. Wait, you guys are saying the CBO is biased now? Well, this is a new one.” Instead, in my humble opinion, we should’ve made the moral argument, and basically thrown the financial argument in as basically the parsley on top of the steak. Something like this:

    “This plan will make sure children can stay on their parents insurance until they’re 26, stops insurance companies from throwing you off the rolls for having a pre-existing conditions, mandates that they actually spend their premiums on medical care instead of lavish bonuses and salaries for top executives, and makes sure every single American gets health insurance who can afford it instead of trying to pass the cost on to you and me. Plus, this plan is deficit neutral according to the CBO and in the long-term, even decreases the deficit.”

    Also, once the conservative response of, “the CBO is BAIS and here’s the real number,” I would’ve had a list of conservative-friendly but voter-unfriendly things to cut. “Oh, Bob, you say the real numbers will put is in the hole for $200 billion. Fine, that’s $20 billion a year. Let’s cut sugar subsidies and eliminate the loophole that allows hedge fund managers to pay a 0% tax rate. Are you with me?”Report

    • Avatar Jesse Ewiak in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

      *waves* Anybody? Or should I go back to snarky comments?Report

      • Twas a good comment. Not much to add or critique.Report

      • Anything but driveby bile. Please. I consider you one of the adults here.

        As to yr point, here’s the thing:

        “This plan will make sure children can stay on their parents insurance until they’re 26, stops insurance companies from throwing you off the rolls for having a pre-existing conditions, mandates that they actually spend their premiums on medical care instead of lavish bonuses and salaries for top executives, and makes sure every single American gets health insurance who can afford it instead of trying to pass the cost on to you and me. ”

        You—buy health insurance! You—stop paying your execs so much! You—cover the sub-26s and pre-existing conditions even though you don’t profit from the first and will bleed money from the second!

        Write a bill, tell everybody what to do, voila, problem solved!

        So that’s the problem. this conservative asks why you have to remake if not destroy the whole system to “save” those who fall through the cracks. Fix the cracks. Finance the county hospitals for health care, not health “insurance” that just makes people go to the Dr.’s for the sniffles. Set up a risk pool for the pre-existing condition people, rather than saddle private companies with guaranteed money-losers.

        That’s the objection, not the what, the how. Mandating from on high is “If I were king” thinking—if not “If I were God”—and in the end it is tyranny.Report

        • I read recently that at least some of the insurance companies planned to keep the coverage-to-26 thing even if PPACA had been thrown out. I think that one has proven to be a winner.Report

          • Somebody’s paying, Will. And if Obamacare stumbled onto mandating something that the companies would do even without being ordered to, well, nothing’s 100% bad. They can keep that part after the repeal. ;-PReport

        • Avatar North in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

          Aw come on Tom, the whole point of the PPACA was to not destroy the system. PPACA preserves the whole insurance company, employer insurance ball of wax (which, note is why a significant percentage of opposition to PPACA comes from liberals who think it didn’t change enough). That’s why conservatives proposed it in ’94. They said “don’t flatten it all and set up a single payer system, let’s do this instead!”

          Now we learn, of course, that it was a con. The conservatives proposed mandates only to defeat single payer, now that single payer isn’t on the offing they propose… well demagoguery and nothing… to defeat mandates. Having read about the utter train wreck that they got dealt by this strategy in ’94 it seems unsurprising to me that the Democratic Party declined to play the patsy in a repeat of it in 2008 but it’s mightily amusing how shocked (shocked!) and outraged conservatives were that they weren’t able to pull off the same trick.Report

          • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to North says:

            Yes, Mr. North, I do believe Obamacare is a nose under the tent toward the status quo’s destruction, indeedy I do. Already 70+ of the Fortune 100 stand to benefit from dropping health coverage.


            The House Ways and Means Committee has released a new report that sheds light onto how Obamacare incentivizes companies to dump their workers onto the new law’s subsidized exchanges. As I have written many times, there are fiscal reasons to be concerned about this problem. But employer-sponsored health insurance is one of the most problematic features of the U.S. health-care system, and Republicans who lash themselves to the employer-sponsored mast, for short-term political gain, will undermine long-term efforts at market-oriented reform.

            The Ways and Means report, prepared for chairman Dave Camp (R., Mich.), surveyed companies in the Fortune 100, receiving 71 timely responses. The survey asked Fortune 100 CEOs how many full-time and part-time employees they had, and how much they spend on health insurance for those workers, among other questions. Based on this data, the Ways and Means staff calculated that these 71 companies could save $28.6 billion in 2014, and $422.4 billion between 2014 and 2023, if they paid Obamacare’s fines and dumped all of their workers onto the subsidized exchanges.

            Avik Roy, the author of the piece, seems to think this is a good idea, and asserts many other Republican do as well. But the point is Obamacare is a grenade in the tent, and further was sold that way with a nod and a wink to the Dem left flank.


            • Avatar Bad-ass Motherfisher in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

              I do believe Obamacare is a nose under the tent


              .. the point is Obamacare is a grenade in the tent

              Therefore, a nose is a grenade!


              • Well, Obama’s nose is…Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                Danged mixed metaphors. All I can say is when I started writing it was a nose, then I realized it was really a grenade.


                “To repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and health care-related provisions in the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010.

                President Obama promised the American people that if they liked their current health coverage, they could keep it. But even the Obama Administration admits that tens of millions of Americans are at risk of losing their health care coverage, including as many as 8 in 10 plans offered by small businesses. Despite projected spending of more than two trillion dollars over the next 10 years, cutting Medicare by more than one-half trillion dollars over that period, and increasing taxes by over $800 billion dollars over that period, the law does not lower health care costs. In fact, the law actually makes coverage more expensive for millions of Americans. The average American family already paid a premium increase of approximately $1,200 in the year following passage of the law. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) predicts that health insurance premiums for individuals buying private health coverage on their own will increase by $2,100 in 2016 compared to what the premiums would have been in 2016 if the law had not passed.

                [ . . . ]

                The law imposes 21 new or higher taxes on American families and businesses, including 12 taxes on families making less than $250,000 a year.

                [ . . . ]

                Until enactment of the law, the Federal Government has not sought to impose specific coverage or care requirements that infringe on the rights of conscience of insurers, purchasers of insurance, plan sponsors, beneficiaries, and other stakeholders, such as individual or institutional health care providers. The law creates a new nationwide requirement for health plans to cover ‘‘essential health benefits’’ and ‘‘preventive services’’, but does not allow stakeholders to opt out of covering items or services to which they have a religious or moral objection, in violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

                [ . . . ]

                PPACA.—Effective as of the enactment of Public Law 111–148, such Act (other than subsection (d) of section 1899A of the Social Security Act, as added and amended by sections 3403 and 10320 of such Public Law) is repealed, and the provisions of law amended or repealed by such Act (other than such subsection (d)) are restored or revived as if such Act had not been enacted.

                (b) HEALTH CARE-RELATED PROVISIONS IN THE HEALTH CARE AND EDUCATION RECONCILIATION ACT OF 2010.—Effective as of the enactment of the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010 (Public Law 111–152), title I and subtitle B of title II of such Act are repealed, and the provisions of law amended or repealed by such title or subtitle, respectively, are restored or revived as if such title and subtitle had not been enacted.Report

              • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

                ‘Danged mixed metaphors. All I can say is when I started writing it was a nose, then I realized it was really a grenade.”

                I still think you need to add one last bit about someone peeing from the outside of the tent in rather than the other way around.Report

              • Avatar Tom Van Dyke in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                In for a penny, in for a pint.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

                All of this is well and good Tom but these companies are not making these choices (or threatening to make them or implying they’ll make them) because of a PPACA is requiring them to drop coverage. They’re doing it because they’re calculating that it’d be cheaper for them to pay the fines than it is to cover medical costs; they’re not being legally compelled. Obama promised they wouldn’t be forced to drop coverage, they’re not being forced.

                Also, the way medical costs are escalating that calculation is not surprising. Does this mean they’re undermining the US’s “special” healthcare setup of buying healthcare through one’s employer? Great. Pretty much everyone agrees that the phenomena of buying healthcare through one’s employer is a terrible one; it obscures the actual cost, makes employees indifferent to healthcare costs and massively complicates their ability to calculate their employment compensation (not to mention it plays Cain with calculating their income tax).

                If employer provided coverage is reduced by PPACA I’d submit that’s a massive improvement over the current state of affairs (by any measure, liberal or libertarian). It’s not destroying the current system, if anything insurance companies and businesses would both benefit from removing this particular historically accidental kink.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to North says:

                Well said.Report

            • Avatar b-psycho in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

              So basically a milestone on the way to single-payer would just happen to be a mass corporate cost-dump.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

        OK, Jesse, if you insist. I disagree with the following:
        , instead of realizing that the reason we were losing were crappy candidates

        It’s not as though the GOP was running lots of great candidates. And it’s not as though Clinton was a great candidate, but he won with a very centrist, non-moral, approach.

        I think blaming it on the messengers instead of the message is a way of avoiding coming to grips with the fact that the progressive vision doesn’t move Americans the way progressive want it to. That has no bearing on whether the progressive vision is right or wrong; but being right also has precious little bearing on whether people will accept the message.Report

        • Avatar Jesse Ewiak in reply to James Hanley says:

          Go look back at Clinton’s actual campaign rhethoric. It was actually pretty progressive. Also, look at the first things he did. Gays in the military, a tax hike, the Brady Bill, and HillaryCare.

          He only shifted to the center after the ’94 GOP wave. But, to a large point, I’m ignoring Clinton. I’m more talking about our Murderer’s Row of McGovern, Carter, Mondale, and Dukakis. Which when compared to them, Reagan, HW Bush, and Nixon were far bigger campaigners.

          Also, actual polling shows that when you put forth progressive messaging without couching it in party terms, progressive message polls very well.Report

          • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

            Clinton was DLC before he ran for prez, and he ran as a DLC guy.

            Carter a bad candidate? He won! And he had a lead over Reagan in late summer, until stagflation and an unprecedented hostage crisis caught up with him.

            McGovern? He lost because of his message. Don’t blame McGovern because a majority of the country weren’t peaceniks.

            Mondale? Not a terrible candidate, but whatever your message it’s hard to win against a popular incumbent in a strong economy. Neither he nor his message is to blame for his loss.

            Dukakis? Well, you’ve got a point on that one. But let’s not pretend HW was in any way a good campaigner. That was a dog of a campaign on both sides.

            actual polling shows that when you put forth progressive messaging without couching it in party terms, progressive message polls very well.

            And yet people don’t vote for it. Blame the candidates if you want, but that’s too simplistic. Democrats have done better at the national level when they’ve moderated their progressive vision; not abandoned, just moderated.Report

            • Avatar James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

              Should add, Carter wasn’t a progressive. He would have fit well with the DLC.Report

              • Avatar Jesse Ewiak in reply to James Hanley says:

                Clinton may have run as less than a progressive than Dukakis or Mondale, but he sure as hell didn’t run as Ben Nelson or Evan Bayh either. His campaign pitch was basically a competent liberalism that would run things effectively without raising taxes on the middle class.

                Also, I’d happily note Carter was far more conservative than prior President, but yes, in 1980, he was a bad candidate because of the decision he made. Including the hostage rescue diaster and the policies of the previous four years. Heck, even in 1976, if Ford was a more competent candidate, he could’ve lost despite it only being two years after Watergate.

                So, you’re saying a living RFK in ’72 couldn’t have beaten Nixon or at least came a lot closer than McGovern did. I’d also point out that both Nixon and McGovern ran on peace, Nixon’s just had the word victory in it.

                As for Mondale, we’ll just have to disagree. I’m not saying any Democrat could’ve beaten Reagan in ’84, but I’m sure somebody could’ve managed to win 5 states instead of 1+DC.

                On Dukakis, even if HW was only an all right campaigner, he still had Atwater by his side. Which is sort of like saying, OK, both QB’s are mediocre, but one team has 1995 Emmitt Smith as a running back.

                As for recent history, the Democratic Party has won 4 out of the last 5 popular votes and came within a 100,000 people in Ohio of making it 5 out of 5. Gore’s campaign picked up in 2000 when he went more populist, Kerry didn’t exactly run as a moderate on economic, and as we all know, Barack Obama is a massive socialist Marxist Kenyan (but still, is the most progressive President since LBJ).

                I’d put forth Democrats have been most successful when they actually stand for something. Clinton was left for dead after 1994. How did he get his mojo back? By standing up against Medicare and Medicaid cuts. Obama got back to his current standing, which is far better than right after the debt ceiling by basically arguing, “hey, cutting spending and taxes won’t work. Let’s actually invest in stuff and maybe make rich people a little more. Oh, and women deserve to get birth control covered by their insurance companies as well.”

                How do Democrats lose? By collapsing into a pile of goo anytime a Republican attacks them.Report