Growing Market Demand For the Left’s IDEAS

Conor P. Williams

Conor Williams on Twitter. More background here.

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201 Responses

  1. Matty says:

    I wonder if you aren’t being unfair to yourself by comparing Leftists – everyone left of the median voter to Conservatives – a subset of the right. Conservatives not being the whole right side of the political spectrum are of course going to come out looking more like a coherent cultural group than you’ll get if you try to lump the whole left side together.Report

  2. Michelle says:

    Ineresting post, Conor, and something I’ve wondered about for quite awhile. Why has the right been so much better at finding a common language to express their ideas and appeal to the larger public? I think you’re onto something with your lists of reasons as to why the left cannot seem to get it together to explain and promote their policies in a compelling manner. I’d add another. Unlike conservatives, leftists tend to step away from the language of values and from explaining how their values are consistent with American values. Part of this difficulty stems, I think, from leftists’ unwillingness to foist their values on anybody else. Another part stems from unwillingness to incorporate religious imagery and allusions into their appeals–an unwillingness not evinced by the right.

    The left also seems to lack the set of cohesive institutions the right possesses, which enable them to present a more cohesive message. Right wing think tanks feed into right wing media, which in turn feeds into the Republican party. The left has no comparable set of institutions.Report

    • DensityDuck in reply to Michelle says:

      “Part of this difficulty stems, I think, from leftists’ unwillingness to foist their values on anybody else.”

      Right, because hate-speech legislation is so totally a Republican thing, y’know?Report

      • Chris in reply to DensityDuck says:

        Which hate speech legislation? I assume you mean in the U.S. since you reference Republicans.Report

        • James Hanley in reply to Chris says:

          Chris, perhaps not legislation, but hate speech rules at public universities have been pretty common.Report

          • Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:

            But that’s not really a fair comparison. The function of a university, public or private, is different from that of a government. Or that the purpose of such rules are intended to “foist values”.

            Basically, what DD said is patently false. But, hey, it makes for a good bumper sticker, no?Report

            • James Hanley in reply to Kazzy says:

              Public universities are an arm of the government, so the First Amendment applies to them. And the purpose is to promote open debate, not to shut down unpleasant speech. So I honestly do see it as a fair comparison. And my observation has been that the campus speech codes were very much about trying to ensure “appropriate” values. I happen to share most of those values, like it being wrong to demean women have bigotry toward minorities. But trying to make others abide by them sure seems like “foisting” to me.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:

                You have more and better firsthand knowledge of campus life and laws, so I’m happy to defer. I fully concede that legally public schools are bound by the 1st. My point is that schools are about providing a learning environment. If that goal is compromised, *some* actions could be justified to ensure it. Now, I’m not talking about silencing disagreeable, offensive, or even blatant inflamatory language in the classroom; as you said, open debate is key to learning. But a cross-campus march chanting “Death to fags” and burning rainbow flags? I could see that severely undermining the opportunity to learn for a segment of the population and the limiting or curtailing of such acts/speech being a rightful correction for that. If a speech code targetted the former, I would oppose it. If it targetted the latter, I’d likely support it, thought I would not support the same restrictions for appropriately permitted marches down Broadway.Report

    • Brandon Berg in reply to Michelle says:

      Part of this difficulty stems, I think, from leftists’ unwillingness to foist their values on anybody else.

      I guess, insofar as you define “values” as “things that are important to us but which we don’t want to foist on everybody else.” But that statement is true only insofar as it’s tautological.Report

  3. Kazzy says:

    It seems that, at least recently, the right has won the War for Language. They have turned “liberal” into a dirty epithet, such that many liberal folks often don’t declare themselves as “liberal”. They might call themselves “progressive”, ignoring the historical meaning of that term/ideology/movement or, more often than not, an independent. Many on the right have quite successfully constructed strawmen out of the left’s worst elements, which leads the more reasonable leftists (using the term as you did) to avoid identification with that. This is coupled with a certain cache that now comes with declaring one’s self to be “independent” and leftists, especially young leftists, care a hell of a lot more about cache that righties do. And then you add in a sprinkle of the leftist tendency towards decentralization, towards independence, towards “Free to be me and you”. There is something almost inherent about being truly on the left that makes being part of a broader orthodoxy almost seem antithetical.
    So you’ve got this emerging group of leftists (again, especially young leftists) who have a certain, “I’m not a liberal man. I’m not into all that partisan stuff, man. I’m ME. I do me. These are MY thoughts. I find the best ideas in the middle, son. Don’t tell me I’m a Democrat. Democrats are just as bad as Republicans. It’s all just a game. Ya know what, though? I ain’t playing!” Naturally, this makes the development of a common, thoughtful leftist set of values nigh impossible.Report

    • scott in reply to Kazzy says:

      Speaking of the war on language, did you notice that the poster had to frame his discussion of this issue in terms of “markets?” I don’t know why a leftist guy has to accept the obsessive framing of the other side, but he did.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to scott says:

        Lolcats. Lolfed. LolMcCain.
        There are reasons why the intelligentsia, of all stripes, likes markets.

        I could mention Poor Richard as well — what people find entertaining, they learn from.Report

    • NewDealer in reply to Kazzy says:

      I think a lot of people are trying to reclaim the word liberal. My friends are starting to call themselves liberal again. I have no problem calling myself a bleeding heart liberal or an unreconstructed New Deal-Great Society liberal. There is a facebook group called Being Liberal, etc.

      It will be a long road before recovery happens though.

      Also it is once again time to bring up this famous quote:

      “I am not a member of an organized political party. I’m a Democrat”-Will Rogers.

      The right are very good at having organized protest that covers one issue at a time. When liberals protest, everyone flies their own flag.Report

  4. Koz says:

    In my view it’s pretty simple. Libs have to create an operational framework that gives them the freedom to act, while gliding over their lack of democratic legitimacy (or the intention to be held accountable by it).

    For an interesting train of thought, see me:

    Jason K

    Mickey Kaus

    “We live in a globalized world in which we trade on our commonalities. Toyota trucks work well for American landscapers, they work well for Al Qaeda terrorists. Cookie cutters cut cookies everywhere.”

    Discussing policy in wonky terms allows libs to hide in the details enough to hope that they can implement most of their policy objectives without ever encountering the mainstream political process.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Koz says:

      their lack of democratic legitimacy

      At the risk of running afoul of the comment policy, this is just mind-fuckingly stupid. If the intertoobz were rigged to deliver electric shocks to people who made comments that were 100% ideological and 0% logical, the author of this comment would have been electrocuted.Report

      • Koz in reply to James Hanley says:

        James, it seems pretty comprehensible for me. But in any event, you’ve done this before. Why can’t you make a minimal effort to understand what’s going on before you disparage me (or other commenters you’ve come in contact with for that matter)?Report

        • James Hanley in reply to Koz says:


          Lots of voters in our democraticish system keep voting over and over for liberals, because large portions of the public are liberal and want liberal representatives who pursue liberal policies. Those liberal representatives don’t refuse to face re-election but in fact go out and face the electorate fairly and squarely every time they’re supposed to. That is democratic legitimacy, no matter what you or I think of them or their policies.

          You don’t want me being mean to you? Cut out the pure ideological bullshit. I’ve got no patience for it no matter what direction it comes from.Report

          • Koz in reply to James Hanley says:

            “Lots of voters in our democraticish system keep voting over and over for liberals, because large portions of the public are liberal and want liberal representatives who pursue liberal policies.”

            And then they lose. But they still expect to implement the same policies anyway. Or to put it another way, libs grudgingly accept that their ability to implement their agenda is contingent upon their success in the democratic process but libs rarely if ever accept that its legitimacy is contingent on the democratic process as well. In fact I know very few if any libs who have even considered that as a hypothetical.

            As far as your conduct goes, I want you to read and engage with other participants and what they write, not what you are imagining them to be to make your childish anger more plausible. My guess is that you are imagining your superior understanding of this or that is unfairly burdened by some of your interlocutors. But that just doesn’t fly, James. I’ve read enough from you to know.Report

            • James Hanley in reply to Koz says:

              And then they lose. But they still expect to implement the same policies anyway..

              Oh, you mean like the Republicans who control only one third of the political branches of the federal government, but expect to implement their policies anyway? So exactly why is it they’re not the ones lacking democratic legitimacy? This is what I mean by being purely ideological–you compose a standard that you apply to Team Blue, but you won’t apply the same standard to your favored Team Red.

              libs grudgingly accept that their ability to implement their agenda is contingent upon their success in the democratic process but libs rarely if ever accept that its legitimacy is contingent on the democratic process as well.

              I have no idea what you’re trying to say here. Would you mind fleshing it out?

              As far as your conduct goes, I want you to read and engage with other participants and what they write,

              Yeah, I engaged with your specific words, that liberals lack democratic legitimacy. You want nicer responses from me, don’t say things that are that stupid. And you know damn well I’d say the same thing to a liberal who wrote that about conservatives, because it would be just as mind-fishingly stupid.Report

              • Koz in reply to James Hanley says:

                “I have no idea what you’re trying to say here. Would you mind fleshing it out?”

                Sure. This manifests itself in several different ways and it’s worth checking out the links a couple comments ago if you haven’t already.

                First of all, at least theoretically the self-identification of the Right doesn’t need as much as the Left but nonetheless for prudential reasons the Right tends to invoke it more. The left thinks among themselves for a while about they think should be done and then goes around and tries to do it. They do this without necessarily having the support of those in whose name they are supposedly acting and in many cases in the face of their clear opposition, thus making clear their lack of legitimacy.

                As it relates to the OP, libs could argue that “you didn’t build that” or “nobody got rich on their own” a la the President or Elizabeth Warren. But they rarely speak that way and when they do its widely considered a gaffe because speaking that way carries the possibility that Americans will wake up and decide for themselves what they think about such things and the answer won’t be favorable. Therefore libs tendency to speak in wonkery is substantially motivated by a desire to the deny the American people agency over American public affairs.

                A this applies to hot-button issues it’s mostly apparent in things like homosexuality, abortion, and immigration where the essence of the Left’s playbook is to deny effective decision-making authority to the citizens. And, because they had gotten so used to it, they did the same thing with PPACA too.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to Koz says:

                That’s really just a lot of word salad. It’s a conservative’s biased interpretation of liberals.

                The left thinks among themselves for a while about they think should be done and then goes around and tries to do it. They do this without necessarily having the support of those in whose name they are supposedly acting and in many cases in the face of their clear opposition, thus making clear their lack of legitimacy.

                That doesn’t make for lack of democratic legitimacy. You’re confusing blowing with the prevailing wind as “legitimacy,” and forgetting the role of public opinion leadership (which both parties engage in).

                And when you say “in whose name they are supposedly acting,” who are you referring to? Neither side has the support of the whole American public, so unless you’re saying conservatives are democratically illegitimate, you can’t mean that. So you must mean the constituents of liberals. But again, we’re back to those liberals being re-elected time and again by those they represent, which repeatedly reaffirms their democratic legitimacy. Look, for example, at the Harry Reid v. Sharron Angle race. Angle presented a very clear conservative alternative to the more liberal Reid, but more Nevadans chose Reid, knowing full well where he stood on the issues. That gives him and his support for those issues full democratic legitimacy.

                things like homosexuality, abortion, and immigration where the essence of the Left’s playbook is to deny effective decision-making authority to the citizens.

                We have the courts for a reason. The basic nature of a Constitution is to define the basic structures, required processes, and rights of citizens. If you want to argue that democratic legitimacy has no room for the legal process of interpreting the constitutional limits of democratic decision-making, then you’re arguing for pure majoritarianism. I don’t think for a moment that you are going to do that, but you’ve put yourself in that catch-22.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

                Oh, and I did follow the links. I have no idea what you think the dailybeast link is supposed to demonstrate except more ideological blinders. I enjoyed the complaint about GE’s Jeffrey Imelt’s “creepy” role as CEO and presidential adviser. I can only wonder if the same folks felt the same way about Reagan’s businessmen friends who formed a kitchen cabinet of sorts for him, or the energy industry folks who advised G.W.B. This is my standard complaint–ideology makes folks distinguish among people based not on what they do, but on whether it’s our guys or their guys doing it.

                As to your comment, I know it’s a favorite claim of certain conservatives here, but there was nothing particularly corrupt in the process of passing PPACA. Hey, I’m on record from long ago as opposing it, as well as on record arguing that the mandate is unconstitutional. I’m no friend of PPACA. But I know how the lawmaking process works in D.C., and there was nothing particularly special about how this law passed.

                And if I read the link to Jason K correctly, his post doesn’t provide any support for your position at all. Indeed, given that you bring up immigration, his knock on the “we have to control borders” claim seems to undermine your position as one where “political usefulness… far outruns…policy usefulness.”

                Look, be conservative. I don’t give a damn about that. But don’t simply be ideological, applying standards to the left that you’re not willing to apply to the right. It’s like sports–the rules are the same for each side, and an impartial person applies them impartially. You’re like the homer fan who wants the ref to call the game in favor of his team. Sure, you can be that person, but why on earth would you want to be?Report

              • Koz in reply to James Hanley says:

                “Look, for example, at the Harry Reid v. Sharron Angle race. Angle presented a very clear conservative alternative to the more liberal Reid, but more Nevadans chose Reid, knowing full well where he stood on the issues. That gives him and his support for those issues full democratic legitimacy.”

                No that gives him democratic legitimacy for whatever as it pertains to his vote in Senate and the workings of his Senatorial offices. It doesn’t give him legitimacy at all for him to opportunistically implement whatever outside those things. He has one vote, the same as 99 other Senators. If we had to rely on Harry Reid’s vote as the motive force to implement liberalism in America, we’d be in much better shape today.

                “If you want to argue that democratic legitimacy has no room for the legal process of interpreting the constitutional limits of democratic decision-making, then you’re arguing for pure majoritarianism. I don’t think for a moment that you are going to do that, but you’ve put yourself in that catch-22.”

                I’m not arguing that at all. In fact you’re hitting on a key complementary point that I’ve made before. It’s not just a matter of who holds what office. Our Constitutional structure and cultural norms are (or were) perfectly good enough to defend limited government in America. The reason that they don’t is that the libs bulldozed them on the way to getting better ground to fight the policy battles. For example, the bicameral structure of Congress and the desire of the Congressmen and Senators to avoid excessive government spending is an important structural support for limited government. But that has been mostly destroyed by the libs. Specifically Presidents Clinton and Obama threatened to veto spending that they wanted in order to force Congress to spend money it didn’t want. And as a result, now we have to deal with brinksmanship over CR’s and the debt limit ceiling and the rest of it. We believe in engagement, they believe in entanglement. They won. Shit is entangled.

                “And if I read the link to Jason K correctly, his post doesn’t provide any support for your position at all.”

                Of course not, it wasn’t intended to. The way I’d put it, Jason is defending the obfuscation inherent in the libs’ tendency toward wonkery. Ie, that the libs indulge in these things at least as means to evade democratic accountability for perhaps unpopular policy. Mickey Kaus is the rebuttal (not the part about Jeffrey Immelt, the part about immigration).

                In fact, that corner solutions thing is two years old now, and it’s a frustration of mine that I haven’t been able to get Jason, Mark Thompson, or Erik (IIRC those are the ones I’ve corresponded with about this) to acknowledge, even as a hypothetical, that getting compliance from the political class to the wishes of the polity as a whole is a valuable objective in itself.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

                No that gives him democratic legitimacy for whatever as it pertains to his vote in Senate and the workings of his Senatorial offices. It doesn’t give him legitimacy at all for him to opportunistically implement whatever outside those things. He has one vote, the same as 99 other Senators. If we had to rely on Harry Reid’s vote as the motive force to implement liberalism in America, we’d be in much better shape today.

                What is Harry Reid implementing outside the workings of his position as Senate Majority Leader? This paragraph is incomprehensible.

                Our Constitutional structure and cultural norms are (or were) perfectly good enough to defend limited government in America. The reason that they don’t is that the libs bulldozed them on the way to getting better ground to fight the policy battles.

                Eh? What do you mean? If you’re talking about the Courts again, using them is one of our constitutional structures and norms for defending limited government. If you’re talking more generally about violating constitutional structures and norms to erode limited government, then let’s take a close look at the G.W.B. administration and it’s aggrandizement of executive power, or go back further to Reagan’s Iran-Contra, or Nixon’s Watergate. There’s plenty of conservative erosion of limited government, too, for those willing to notice it.

                the bicameral structure of Congress and the desire of the Congressmen and Senators to avoid excessive government spending is an important structural support for limited government. But that has been mostly destroyed by the libs.

                Really? The vastly increased spending during the GWB administration, or the then-record budget deficits during the Reagan administration…those were liberal driven? Again, you blame only one party for something that each party has done.

                Specifically Presidents Clinton and Obama threatened to veto spending that they wanted in order to force Congress to spend money it didn’t want.

                Of, for pete’s sake, that’s part of the constitutional process. That’s just political hardball. There’s nothing illegitimate about it except in the minds of people eager to find some faint thread from which to hang their opponents. Unfortunately the thread just doesn’t hold the weight.

                This stuff may be persuasive to your like-minded ideologues, but it’s not persuasive to anyone standing outside your ideological framework. It sounds good to you, no doubt, and I’m sure it’s emotionally satisfying, providing that great little endorphin kick we all love to get from rooting against the evil other team. But it’s just fanboyism, not deep thinking. Protest all you want; my original comment stands.Report

              • Koz in reply to James Hanley says:

                No James, this just doesn’t fly. There’s a significant percentage of our governments policies that as a practical matter run on autopilot without any oversight from the ability of the public to correct things through the political process. Contrary to your earlier thoughts, this is a matter of nuts and bolts, not ideological fanboyism. Eg, see here:


                The SWAT Team weapons don’t shoot themselves. There are very important organizational, financial, personnel, political reasons for them to do the things that they do. Dial down the invective for a while and look behind the curtain. And then take an honest look at the machine and see which gear turns which screw. It’s somewhat complicated but not impossibly so.

                When and if you do, you’ll see that there are levers that allow the American people to assert control to change policies they might not want any more. But they are weak from disuse. If we are going to restore limited government in America we are going to have to make those parts of the machine work for us again. Luckily for us, with Mitt Romney we have a candidate who can do just that.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

                There’s a significant percentage of our governments policies that as a practical matter run on autopilot without any oversight from the ability of the public to correct things through the political process.

                Agreed, Koz. 100%. Of course that’s the fault equally of conservatives and liberals. Only someone unwilling to look at each side with equal critical analysis is going to think differently.

                For example there’s our military-industrial complex. There’s the war on drugs. There’s ag subsidies that support primarily large agribusinesses at the expense of poor food consumers. There’s No Child Left Behind. There’s the Medicare Prescription Drug Plan. Conservatives can’t escape responsibility for those. But ignoring–or perhaps trying to argue them away–is what makes you a partisan shill engaging in a persistently dishonest style of argument.

                Luckily for us, with Mitt Romney we have a candidate who can do just that

                Thanks for the laugh. I get being conservative, but I honestly don’t guess believing Mitt’s anything but an establishment figure who’ll just do more of the same. The guy who gave Massachusetts Obamacare, the guy who wants to double Gitmo, is the guy who’s going to make unaccountable government accountable again. I guess this is the conservative version of hopey/changey.

                I guess you really are a fanboy. I was joking a bit with that, but I see it was more applicable than I actually imagined.Report

              • Koz in reply to James Hanley says:

                “Of course that’s the fault equally of conservatives and liberals. Only someone unwilling to look at each side with equal critical analysis is going to think differently.”

                No James, that just doesn’t fly. Not as a matter of partisanship or fanboyism on my part, but a simple matter of nuts-and-bolts empirical reality.

                The only reason to think otherwise is for those who find it difficult or impossible to imagine policy as ultimately an expression of the American people themselves as opposed to the political class. The Republican Party and the mainstream conservative intelligentsia associated with it have been the voice of the American people’s desire for limited government or smaller government. Well guess what? Sometimes and in some circumstances the American people don’t want limited government or smaller government, and the GOP has to adapt appropriately. But when they do, it’s always the viability of the GOP that gives the American people such opportunity as they have to express their sovereignty in that way. It’s been that way for as long as we’ve been alive and for some time before that.

                I hope you can notice something else. Your argument that somehow Team Red and Team Blue are equivalent offenders in this manner is merely a bald assertion. James, it’s not fair to accuse me of fanboyism when I have laid out as nuts-and-bolts, cause and effect, Tab A into Slot B, the precise ways that Team Red is not functionally equivalent to Team Blue. I’ve done so here in this thread, other threads that I’ve linked to on this thread, and other threads here at the League that I’m sure that you’ve read. Therefore, if you still want to believe that Team Red and Team Blue are equally responsible (as I’m sure you do) then at the very least you should come up with plausible reasons why. “They’re the same because I say so” is Popper-unfalsifiable and not a strong argument.

                Finally, there’s something else you might have missed. The political culture is bigger than Team Red and Team Blue. There are other actors involved. Therefore the attempt to regress all the events of the political culture down to some combination of Team Red or Team Blue leads to false parametrization, excessive white noise error, or both. My guess is, that in your personal antagonism against defense spending, Gitmo, or whatever, you lose the ability to care exactly who is responsible for what. That’s a mistake, because those things are still important.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

                Sometimes and in some circumstances the American people don’t want limited government or smaller government, and the GOP has to adapt appropriately. But when they do, it’s always the viability of the GOP that gives the American people such opportunity as they have to express their sovereignty in that way.

                Notice that there’s no attempt to explain why this is unique to the GOP. The Democratic Party also has adapted (e.g., becoming more centrist in the past two decades), and of course they continue to be quite a viable party as well. So you have presented no argument that would prevent rephrasing your claim as “, it’s always the viability of the GOP that gives the American people such opportunity as they have to express their sovereignty in that way.”

                In short, nothing you have argued so far really demonstrates that liberals lack democratic legitimacy. Your arguments to support the claim are vague, and depend on not very clearly stated assumptions about meanings. For example your attempted distinction between electoral legitimacy and democratic legitimacy, a distinction you have not at all clearly made. And ultimately your “focus” on democratic legitimacy–as distinct from electoral legitimacy–depends on a belief in the disconnect between liberals and the public. You present no factual evidence that can’t readily be applied as well to conservatives. It is mere belief, in the realm of faith, rather than empirical knowledge.

                I’m sure you’ll continue to believe so, but it’s worth nothing that you are far more biased in this matter than I am. I am not affiliated very well with either group, so I would actually prefer that neither had democratic legitimacy, yet I can recognize that both in fact do have it. Any time a person has a vested political interest in believing “own party good, other party bad,” their claims along that line have to be regarded with great suspicion as being much to convenient to be merely coincidental.Report

              • Koz in reply to James Hanley says:

                “Notice that there’s no attempt to explain why this is unique to the GOP.”

                Sure there is. “But in any case, it’s very dangerous for lib-Demo’s to decrease the money, authority or manpower of any arm of government because there’s a danger that one of their sacred cows will be gored next. And in fact this fear is especially acute now, it’s essentially dominating their thought process. Therefore there is a proliferation of jurisdictions, statutes, regulations, etc. Then there’s duplication, conflict, and other interactions between them and however they get resolved, it never works to the autonomy of the citizen, who has much less bureaucratic power.”

                This is the essential machinery of the lib funding ratchet (no, Team Red doesn’t do this), mentioned here: (and directly cited about three comments above this one). This isn’t the only systematic illegitimacy of lib advocacy but it’s good enough for now.

                “For example your attempted distinction between electoral legitimacy and democratic legitimacy, a distinction you have not at all clearly made.”

                Really? It seems pretty clear to me. Allowing for a little bit of sloppiness, electoral legitimacy is the right to legitimately occupy a government office. That’s not at all the same thing as the right to implement a particular policy, much less guarantee a particular outcome which we can call democratic legitimacy if you like. And viewed in this way, there’s just no way that PPACA can be viewed in any way analagous to defense spending, the War on Drugs, NCLB, or any other example to might think of.

                If this isn’t clear for you, I think you might have the same problem I mentioned last comment. Even if you view Team Red and Team Blue as the most important players in our political culture, they are not the only ones. You simply can’t regress every thing that happens down to the moves one or the other or both. Things are simply more complicated than that. Therefore, for any legitimate public policy or action by public official in the course of their duties that occurs, there is some political actor with a relationship to it. Therefore it’s a red herring to hope that neither Team Red nor Team Blue will have democratic legitimacy.

                Let’s try this another way. If you order the ribeye at Outback, you can choose to have it medium rare or medium well or whatever. It’s your steak, your personal preference is the only thing that matters. Public policy is always to some extent about the control of public resources. Therefore, any time you hear a lib talking about implementing public policy like they are ordering a ribeye at Outback, you know from the get-go that what they are talking about is illegitimate. There must be some plausible train of thought to illustrate how their public policies actually implement the offices they are intending to speak on behalf of, and whatever that train of thought is, they have to be accountable to it.Report

              • Creon Critic in reply to Koz says:

                Therefore libs tendency to speak in wonkery is substantially motivated by a desire to the deny the American people agency over American public affairs.

                Or there is a much less nefarious explanation for the use of wonkery,

                First of all, a lot of jargon exists for a good reason. All disciplines, professions, and careers have their own [sic] specialzed argot that’s used as a way to economize on communication. If I use the phrases “two-level game,” “credible commitment,” “moral hazard,” or “beggar-thy-neighbor” to people in my profession [political science], they’re going to know what I’m talking/writing about without me having to spend paragraphs explaining the point. […]

                If you spend 90% of your day using one kind of language, it’s actually pretty hard to switch conversational styles to engage the outworlders rest of the public.

                As with the academy, wonkery is a useful means of getting complicated ideas across quickly, particularly when communicating to specialized audiences. As desperately interesting public policy and politics are to some people, there’s a whole world that isn’t as devoted to whether single payer is superior to individual health savings accounts or whether Sunstein & Thaler’s Nudge represent impermissible paternalism or sensible setting of defaults or the fine grained interpretations of constitutional law and precedents that lead to upholding or striking down various rules about “homosexuality, abortion, and immigration”.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to Creon Critic says:

                Of course wonkery can be impenetrable to non-specialized audiences. So if Conor and Koz are correct that Democrats use to much wonkery, that is a political problem. But Conor and Koz see it two different ways: one as a mistake, the other as purposeful attempt to confuse. Conor’s “mistake” hypothesis, is, of course, the most parsimonious one, in line with Hanlon’s Razor; “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”Report

              • Kimmi in reply to James Hanley says:

                except when the malice can aptly cause the stupidity.Report

              • Koz in reply to Creon Critic says:

                Sorry, I missed this earlier. I don’t think it’s a matter of either-or and much as both-and.

                Specifically, this business of wonkery is not just a matter of academic debate but is also the attempt to affect or choose between various course of action relating to public policy. And most of the issue is not so much evasion through jargon (though that does happen) as much as evasion of engagement through bureaucratic intrigue.Report

  5. Jaybird says:

    The early-twentieth century Progressives were enthusiastically wonky, and they’ve passed down their legacy to later leftists.

    While this is true, there was also a hell of a lot of moral language used and moral arguments made by these guys even as their policies were implemented.Report

    • CK MacLeod in reply to Jaybird says:

      Generally, the Progressives were quite hospitable to religion and an appeal to Christian values. The storied 1912 Progressive Convention – which should have had a centenary a week or so ago but somehow appears not to have – was said to have been frequently interrupted by the singing of hymns. It was the first American party convention in which a woman gave a nominating speech – for TR. The woman was Jane Addams, a devotee of the “Social Christian” message and among the most famous Progressives.

      I rather disagree with the notion that there’d be much benefit to the broad “left” adopting the word “leftist” – since the “-ist” in American political contexts tends to connote rigid ideological commitments even before you get to the particular connotations of “leftist.” Americanism or the American Idea properly understood as popular sovereignty is already a revolutionary democratic universalism. It doesn’t have room for or need another. Although “monarchists on the right, republicans on the left” came a bit later in history, it was already a leftism and a progressivism. Capitalism and socialism came later, too, both of them European imports.

      During the Progressive Era, Progressivism approached the status of American consensus, and it allowed for rapid change. According to opinion polling, “progressive” is still the most popular political label in America: 67% of Americans have a positive view of the term. “Conservative” came in second at 62%. In the narrower sense of the Progressive agenda rather than the broader concept of progress, modernity, liberalism, etc., America has been a Progressive nation for arguably more than a century – and most Americans still think of it is a pretty good century for America.

      A bonus from adopting the deeply American and highly popular language of progress is that a lunatic and conspiracist hostility to the term and its historical representatives has infected the far right. Even our new VP candidate was induced to sign up to Glenn Beck’s spittle-flecked eliminationist condemnation of progressivism, agreeing with him that it is a “cancer.” Only among academic post-modernists, who have subjected the concept of “progress” to a systematic but rather esoteric critique, is there any competition for the Beck-Ryan-Goldberg-Pestritto attack.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to CK MacLeod says:

        The Progressives can get people elected but never seem to get them re-elected. That could be a post-hoc fallacy, for TR was elected in his own right after McKinley was assassinated but TR had walked away from a second full term, wrapping his mantle around Taft. Off he sailed to Africa, only to return to find Taft was no Progressive. Well, Taft would end up on the Supreme Court, a job far more suited to him, but by 1912 the damage had been done. The Progressives were in disarray, fighting among themselves over economic policy as Roosevelt had predicted.

        As you say, the “Left” will make no hay using that label in the USA. That’s because there is no Left in the USA, not any more, anyway. “Socialism” is repudiated with equal vigour. The USA isn’t a liberal nation by any definition. The placard for this boxing match features moderate intellectuals versus populist elitists, both contradictions in terms. It’s a schizophrenic country, what can I say….

        Pestrino embodies what I call the Ivory Temple Syndrome, over there at that WASPs’ nest, Hilldale College. Among the most potent of Pestrino’s critics are Alan Wolfe, an atheist with an exquisitely sensitive and empathetic view of what’s going on in Evangelical circles.

        Pestrino’s a great hero in some Evangelical circles. Apropos to nothing, the Evangelicals are deeply depressed these days, what with Pawlenty not getting the Republican nomination. That a Mormon got the nod does not sit well with them. Watch and see, many Evangelicals will sit this election out rather than vote for a Mormon.Report

        • CK MacLeod in reply to BlaiseP says:

          The USA isn’t a liberal nation by any definition.

          M. Pascal, I must tell you that that’s completely incorrect. The USA needs to be understood in serious discussion as the definitional liberal nation, to the extent that what we generally refer to in political contexts as “liberal” and “conservative” are two different versions of liberalism, which remains an ideology of progress.

          The alternative definition of “liberal” you prefer is a parochial political one, and refers to “social liberalism,” “FDR liberalism,” historical or classical liberalism amended to cope with the worldwide crisis of the liberal capitalist order – aka the Depression, World Wars I and II, and socialist revolutionism. The effective and very American strategy of co-opting radical resistance to liberal capitalism and turning it into a capitalism with a human face reached its apex with the Progressives and then with FDR, somewhat less successfully with LBJ and now BHO.

          It’s worth maintaining and carefully observing the distinction for purposes of serious discussion, in part because it is a highly significant one in its own right; in part because it’s necessary to a proper understanding of “neo-liberalism”; in part because social liberals and their fellow travelers on the “progressive left” do generally share the same conceptual horizon with so-called conservatives (“conservative” being another term that has undergone a very specifically American transformation, or set of transformations); and in part because the questions regarding liberalism in this broad sense are very much the question of our times – for us as Americans whether our very national idea can be re-defined and amended, or instead must be allowed to take itself and good part of the world down with it.

          Social liberalism is in effect an argument that liberalism, as a discourse and political practice of pure rights, could not (and should not) be sustained except in conjunction with social values, essentially a return to duties – our duties to each other, to the poor and disadvantaged, to nature and the environment, etc. This content has often been drawn from the social democratic and further left discourse, but it can also draw, as with the capital-P Progressives, upon much that we associate with traditional conservatism, though decisively not with contemporary American conservatism, which is a very confused, self-contradictory entity, but probably easiest to understand as fanatically reactionary. The self-styled “true conservatives” I have known are the ones who in some ways quite rightly believe that we are always on the verge of going irretrievably socialist as they understand it. They further understand that, contrary to your assertion, the U.S. has been governed under a liberal-progressive consensus for generations now: That’s why they want and need to roll us back to the 19th Century in order to disestablish everything that Progressives, Roosevelt Liberals, and progressive Republicans from TR to the former incarnation of Mitt Romney have wrought – and wrought, I will continue to insist, in the best if not always the most typical spirit of the American founding.Report

          • BlaiseP in reply to CK MacLeod says:

            Insofar as it’s a matter of definitions, you’re correct in calling me on the Parochial Definition. Unfortunately, once we’ve dilated the definition to include Classical Liberalism, that is to say Jacksonian Democracy in the door, then we’ve let in the unwashed horde of populists. Yes, I know it sounds a bit like Humpty Dumpty “there’s glory for you” but our American populists all say they hate the Libruls. That said, I’m pleased to stipulate to your conditions. But now you must defend that definition.

            I’ve said it before, any movement which styles itself Neo-Anything might as well cut the crap and call itself Un-Anything.

            Here’s the root of my thesis. Might as well lay it out as clearly as I can. This self-styled Liberal once called himself a Conservative. He watched as America’s Conservatives fought amongst themselves, becoming ever more doctrinaire and extremist until at last they became a cult of prosperity and deregulation. Conservative was once synonymous with Prudent and Circumspect. As this is not longer true, all quibbling about the definition of Liberal is moot, beyond nonsensical. What does Conservatism mean any more? There’s the question before us. American Conservatives don’t stand for anything. All their positions are phrased in the negative.

            America has not been governed by a liberal-progressive government at any time. Teddy Roosevelt might have been Progressive but he wasn’t much of a Liberal. Who qualifies as Liberal? — by your definition, since we’ve stipulated that mine is wrong. That Classical Liberal Andrew Jackson, America’s Hitler, who came to fame by genocidal assaults on the natives of Florida and who ethnically cleansed the Cherokee out of the South? Who destroyed the National Bank and plunged the nation into economic ruin? With every moment, your definition, the academic definition, looks ever-more dodgy.

            America was founded by and for a handful of land-owning planters. How anyone could ever look at the American Constitution and think otherwise puzzles me greatly, especially with the Three-Fifths Compromise written into it. Elitist, undemocratic and profoundly unliberal sentences float around like so many turds in that punch bowl. Lafayette angrily wrote “I never would have drawn my sword in the cause of America if I could have conceived that thereby I was helping to found a nation of slaves”

            I remain a proud American. I am not ashamed of my country: if it sinned greatly, it also suffered greatly. We have become a More Perfect Union, but not by holding to old Traditions. We have evolved, a nation composed from all nations and if we are great, that greatness arose from that diversity, not our unity.Report

            • James Hanley in reply to BlaiseP says:

              Classical Liberalism, that is to say Jacksonian Democracy

              Not even close to being the same thing.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to James Hanley says:

                Your rhetoric suffers from No-ism. From among all the other all-purpose platitudes such as This Too Shall Pass and It Could Be Worse — Your Definition Is Wrong has to take the cake.

                At least McLeod laid out his point. You can’t seem to lay out yours. Meanwhile, I’m operating on his phrase historical or classical liberalism. What your point might be remains something of a mystery.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to BlaiseP says:

                I thought my point was clear–Jacksonian democracy and classical liberalism aren’t the same thing, despite your claim that they are.

                You misunderstood the use of liberal in liberal democracy, thinking it referred to contemporary liberalism, when it really refers to elements from classical liberalism, and now you conflate Jacksonian mass popular democracy with classical liberalism, when–despite common roots so some overlap–they’re distinctly different. Classical liberalism wouldn’t really countenance the mass populism, political patronage, and presidency-focused government of Jackson. It’s more rules/institution-focused.

                As I said, they’re related; the Jacksonians were spawned from the classically liberal tradition, but then so are today’s contemporary American liberals and conservatives, and it would be just as inaccurate to simply identify them as classical liberals, either.Report

            • CK MacLeod in reply to BlaiseP says:

              BlaiseP @

              This strays far from the original topic, which isn’t to say it’s completely irrelevant to it, just that the connections may be difficult to make. Anyway, since you ask – or demand…

              As regards Old Hickory, his peculiar role in American and world history underlines the extent to which genocide is a specialty of liberalism and liberal polities – and not just a specialty, but a product line: It comes in intentional, incidental, and combined intentional and incidental models, with a wide choice of colors, fabrics, and accessories. The Pestritto line, even after Beck, Ryan, and others have turned it into practical politics, gets this half right. What it gets wrong or fails to recognize is that it is also a progressivism whose pure product is also nihilism – is global ecological suicide, industrialized warfare, weapons of mass destruction, the concentration camp, totalitarian consumerism as well as totalitarian communism, Ayn Rand as well as Josef Stalin, Hitler as well as FDR, and Billy Joel. In this sense there was no contradiction between the New Deal and the nuclear bomb, or between the Great Society and Vietnam, or between the Founding and slavery or the Native American genocide. They are two sides of the same coin, and there is no other coin.

              Much of this dual nature of liberalism/progress is inherent in the familiar contradiction between liberal-universal ideas and their always incomplete application, beginning with the inequality between those “on the ins” and everyone else. I think we also have to understand that liberal democracy, as a species of liberalism, defines the regime, not the entirety of the nation-state, of the corporate being “America.” In many ways up to the completion of the settlement of North America, the regime was secondary to an organic process under the logic of hyper-colonial expropriation. The Native American genocide was something we all did together, human beings of all skin colors and diverse creeds and origins, with the help of seeds, microbes, waterways, new technologies wonderfully adapted to new purposes even as they seemed to create them, and whatever else was necessary. In very critical ways, America is a geographical destiny whose discovery and exploitation already required or implied a great historical overturning or “New World.” In this sense 18th Century Liberalism was first a product and only then a facilitator of a radical alteration in global human circumstances. Those usually – so far, always – come at great human cost.

              Most of this is so basic it neither needs to be nor can safely be brought up politically, until and unless a new actual or potential radical alteration puts our assumptions inescapably in question.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to CK MacLeod says:

                Genocide and ethnic cleansing are tribal triumphalism writ large. How you can ascribe them to liberal polities is beyond me. But then, if you insist on putting the US flag in the dictionary where Liberal goes, there really is no arguing this point.

                Old Hickory was by no means unique. The war on the native people had started long before the Revolution. The British settled the French and Indian Wars by telling the colonists to stay on their side of the Allegheny Mountains, ceding the land to the native peoples. The settlers went into the Ohio Territory anyway. Every US president and Congress found ways to screw the native people. Not one treaty with them was ever honoured. Again, more Glory for You. If this sort of behaviour is what defines Liberalism, I am put in mind of that bit from the Pink Panther movies, where Inspector Clouseau is in a mental institution and yells “That man is crazy!” The attendants say “We don’t use that word here.” Clouseau asks “Then what word to you use here?” They respond “Now, now…”

                “Then that man is very Now-Now!”

                My definition of Liberalism ends with the Us v. Them debate. Liberalism is inclusive. John Stuart Mill worked it out this way: paraphrasing from memory. Good government is impossible if the individual only cares about his own selfish interest and doesn’t care about the general interests of society.

                Now I’m sorry to have gotten into a definitional tussle and led this discussion astray, but JSMill is my reference Liberal. From JSMill arise both the modern liberal and the libertarian.Report

              • CK MacLeod in reply to BlaiseP says:

                I certaintly didn’t mean to restrict genocide and ethnic cleansing to liberalism properly understood, but I am reminded of that oft-heard claim of the Islamophobes, that “Islam had bloody borders” – as if the West or before the West Christendom lacked for bloody borders, bloody hinterlands, bloody no-man’s-lands. bloody expeditionary forces, and a bloody fellow on a wooden cross plunked right on the border between here and eternity.

                As you point out against your argumentative interest, and in no way to anyone’s glory, the pure, pre-eminent, and original liberal state undertook genocide – or allowed it to happen “organically” – as a precondition of its expansion to continental and eventually global empire. As you also pointed out earlier, it was founded by slavers (although I do think you have the 3/5 compromise a bit over-simplified, since the point of the compromise was to reduce the relative power of slave states, not fractionally de-humanize the slaves – even if another way it seemed to do so). Understanding nihilism as the end state of instrumental reason, and the genocidal potential to be inherent in the conception of the liberal self, is a complicated discussion, but there have been, up to now, only two nation-states that have ever been willing and able to hold the fate of the Earth itself at risk, for the sake of their national ideals, and they were pure products of the Enlightenment. I’ve seen you share your belief that we’re on the way to ruining the Earth – a pure result of a”self-regulating free market” under advanced capitalist relations, expressive of the same realized nihilism.

                I really didn’t and don’t mean this line of observation as an indictment, which might seem like a strange thing to say at this point. What’s funny is I started out trying to say optimistic things about the Progressives and progressivism. But once you get started along this line of thinking, it seems like a betrayal to interrupt “the gaze fixed squarely on consummate negativity.”Report

              • James Hanley in reply to CK MacLeod says:

                I certaintly didn’t mean to restrict genocide and ethnic cleansing to liberalism properly understood

                Could have fooled me. After all, you did write:
                genocide is a specialty of liberalism and liberal polities – and not just a specialty, but a product line:

                I guess that doesn’t specifically say it’s only a liberal specialty, but it sure does seem to imply it.Report

              • Well, if I say my specialty is ratatouille, that doesn’t imply ain’t no one else can fix it up. It’s just a claim that I’ve worked on developing my ratatouille skills. On reflection, it seems odd to me to imagine that anyone would assume I was attempting a restrictive definition.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

                “a specialty of liberalism” seems to exclude by non-mention. If you’re deciding whether to go to Dave’s Bakery or Rob’s Bakery, and I say “Blueberry scones are a specialty of Dave’s Bakery,” would you not think I was implying that Rob’s Bakery didn’t specialize in it?

                As to, “the point of the [3/5] compromise was to reduce the relative power of slave states, ” that’s not accurate. The point was to increase their relative power. Minus the 3/5 compromise slaves were not going to be counted for purposes of representation.Report

              • The 3/5 compromise was a compromise. From the point of view of the slave states, it increased their representation by 3/5 of the population of slaves. The slavers would have preferred 5/5. If the non-slave states had achieved their desired level, if would have been 0/5, which would not have been a pro-slavery result, or, by the logic of “3/5 = relative de-humanization,” total de-humanization. The point is that the Compromise DID imply an accommodation with slavery, but the “3/5 of a person” charge does not reflect the actual point of the Compromise in the minds of the Compromisers.

                Specialty doesn’t exclude by non-mention. It DOES imply an interest well above average. If you tell me that Blueberry Scones are a specialty of Dave’s Bakery, that does not tell me in fact that they are not also a specialty of Rob’s. It does imply that you have no reason to believe that Rob’s does make a specialty of Blueberry Scones, but, if it turned out that Rob’s did also make or seek to make a specialty of them, it wouldn’t make you a liar. Nor would it necessarily imply that Dave’s Blueberry Scones actually were better than Rob’s, or even less that Dave’s served many more Blueberry Scones than Rob’s, or Starbucks’, or Ye Olde Scones Shoppe. What it absolutely would not imply is that Dave’s had the only B-Scones. If Dave’s was the only place in town to get B-Scones, you’d then “specialty” would be the wrong word for Dave’s B-Scone interest.

                Now why you’re seizing on the 3/5 C and the B-Scones when my original statements about liberalism are much more difficult to support (not completely unsupportable, but overall sloppy and overstated on my part) I don’t know, but thanks anyway!Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to CK MacLeod says:

                “There’s Glory for You” is from Alice in Wonderland

                The bloody guy hanging between Earth and Heaven was the result of a collection of statist hangers-on who threatened a Roman procurator saying “You are no friend of Caesar”. Let’s get that straight.

                I politely refuse to characterise the United States as a Liberal country, however “properly” your definition works and mine doesn’t. Mine conforms to the lineage of Bentham, Mill, HLA Hart. Rawls and Krugman. If we must go ilk hunting in Liberalstan, that’s where to start.Report

              • CK MacLeod in reply to BlaiseP says:

                I politely refuse to characterise the United States as a Liberal country, however “properly” your definition works and mine doesn’t. Mine conforms to the lineage of Bentham, Mill, HLA Hart. Rawls and Krugman. If we must go ilk hunting in Liberalstan, that’s where to start.

                Suture self.

                Just FYI, here’s how a pointy-headed dude at Yale describes our definitional issue in his 2008 book on liberalism – I have it on my Kindle so can cut and paste:

                Liberalism has at least three different senses. First, it refers to a family of political theories. These extend across a wide range bounded by libertarianism, on one side, and social-welfare theories on the other. Second, liberalism refers to a partisan political practice. In this sense, we contrast liberals with conservatives. Opponents at this level may find their disagreements actually stem from their support of different liberal philosophies. Even conservative politicians may support a liberal political theory. Third, liberalism refers to a political culture that has neither the sophistication of a theory nor the partisanship of a political party. This is the sense in which we speak of American political culture—or, more generally, of the West—as liberal. Liberalism in this third sense characterizes values and institutions both private and public; this liberalism provides the context within which both liberal theory and liberal partisanship operate.

                from Putting Liberalism in Its Place by Paul W. Kahn

                In Knowledge and Politics (1975), Robert Unger insists

                Liberalism must be seen as all of a piece, not just as a set of doctrines about the opposition of power and wealth, but as a metaphysical conception of the mind and society.

                Using Kahn’s definitions 1 and 3, and having no difficulty including classical and neo-liberalism along with the, um, liberal liberalism, John Gray (recently rec’d to me by a LOOG liberal) made the following summary observation from Britain, in his book Enlightenment’s Wake (1994):

                In the United States, liberal universalism is an ideology of undiminished strength, expressed in a legalist discourse of fundamental rights and in a commitment to multiculturalism which have no counterparts in any other modern state; profound popular Christianity and an Enlightenment commitment to world-improvement coexist and strengthen one another; and there is no tradition of thought or reflection, in the academy or in public life, that is not liberal.

                Krugman’s parochial/political liberalism, by contrast, is rather resignedly a minority perspective in the U.S. at this moment. In historical terms, the U.S. may indeed never have been a Krugman country.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Paul W. Kahn’s capacious and nebulous definitions drift into tautology. I’ve already laid out the genealogy of Liberalism, saying JSMill was the father of every liberal movement from Libertarianism to Social Welfare. As for his sniffishness, sophistication of a theory nor the partisanship of a political party, I have previously said Conservatives eventually embrace Liberal concepts about the time society starts calling them boors and bigots.

                Liberalism passes laws to bring these concepts into law, abolishing previously abusive practices. Naturally, the Conservatives don’t like this. I previously said Liberalism was more intellectually difficult but I wonder if being a Conservative isn’t more embarrassing, what with having to defend financial criminals and institutionalised abuses of power.

                The USA has become a Krugman country, that is to say all his prophecies came true. I’ve often said I love the word “disillusioned”. It’s a word only used by the stupid becoming wise against their will. The illusion of success is only perpetuated by ignoring the costs of that success.

                Eventually the illusion fades and the reality takes over. Sinatra once joked the cure for hangovers was to stay drunk. Having stayed drunk for long enough to run the experiment, I can say it’s possible to be both drunk and hung over. That’s where the USA is at the moment, with the Conservative movement in complete denial, aided and abetted by a host of now-disgraced Greenspan Glibertarians, now badly embarrassed by how the gods answered their deregulatory prayers.Report

        • NewDealer in reply to BlaiseP says:

          If I remember my history correctly, Taft never wanted to be President but his wife wanted him to be President. The only job Taft ever wanted was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.Report

          • BlaiseP in reply to NewDealer says:

            I believe you’re right. Teddy Roosevelt sorta bullied Taft into holding down the fort for him and Taft came in for a good deal of ridicule for it at the time. His temperament was suited more to being a judge than a politician.Report

  6. aaron david says:

    I would say it is a means vs. ends problem. I would say that the left has specific goals that they would like to see achieved, and are interested in using any and all methods to get there. That doesn’t lend itself to specific philosophy’s.Report

  7. Roger says:


    You describe this (these) beliefs as astonishingly wrong: “Leftists hate markets and almost always have a command-and-control bureaucratic cast of mind.”

    I would separate these into two. The first I would call anti market bias. The second I would call the Big Kahuna bias. I believe the left DOES fall hook, line and sinker for both.

    The anti market bias isn’t that they hate markets, it is that they do not understand markets. They do not understand how complex adaptive systems can solve problems and advance living standards. They do not grasp the effect of prices, wages and profits as signalling and feedback mechanisms. They have consistently naive, pre modern beliefs on economics that closely mirrors mercantilism (believe in protectionism, trade surpluses, jobs over productivity,etc). They misunderstand the role of constructive cooperation, they totally miss the role of the consumer in directing the process, and they take the current levels of prosperity for granted. The left also falls for the zero sum market fallacy and ignores secondary and unseen effects. I could go on for hours. For examples, just read the comments section of any LoOG discussion on economics. I suggest everyone start with Nobs recent post on Aetna and Progressive. Just read the comments from the left and compare them to those from Tom and the libertarians.

    That said, it is not true that the intellectuals such as Krugman (and various intellectuals — you know who you are — on this site) are ignorant on markets. They understand them extremely well. However, they also understand the biases of their audience, and they play to the ignorance like master musicians. They manipulate the anti market biases of their base to accomplish their desired goals.

    In past discussions, when pointing this out I’ve always gotten a kick at the bifurcated response I get from the far left. The intellectuals that know what they are talking about will deny what I say. “We do not believe that!” as the non intellectual left will argue vociferously that not only do they believe this, but it is True!

    As for the Big Kahuna bias, this is related to the anti market bias. In brief, the left believes in the power of top down, intentional master planning. Leaving something to a decentralized, market or other institutional process is a non solution to them. It is the equivalent of doing nothing or “magical thinking.” Relatedto this is the evaluation of actions based upon intentions. As long as you mean well, it is good. Of course in a complex world with unintended and often opaque side effects, this is a naive mistake. Minimum wage laws, trade barriers, regulations and so forth are good because the intentions are good — more, higher paying jobs and less bad activity!

    For the record, I believe the far right falls for similar but different versions of the anti market and Big Kahuna fallacies. That would be a separate post though.Report

    • BlaiseP in reply to Roger says:

      How can you say Liberals don’t understand markets? We understand markets rather better than you think, well enough to realise Big Kahunas have damned near wrecked capitalism. Let’s face a few facts here: the Libertarian market ideology is bankrupt. There sat Alan Greenspan, wriggling like a snake in a fire, to admit as much to the world.

      And where were the Conservatives in all this? When the doo-doo hit the whirling blades of fate in the Depression, when Nixon imposed Wage and Price Controls, when the Savings and Loan disaster befell us, when Enron failed, when the credit default swap debacle went down, they always resort to Big Government solutions. Why. Because there are no other solutions to deregulatory failures of this sort.Report

      • DensityDuck in reply to BlaiseP says:

        You keep talking as though libertarians look at TARP and say “good idea! We need more of that!”Report

        • BlaiseP in reply to DensityDuck says:

          When I talk, Duck, I put one word after another, rearranging them, assembling sentences and paragraphs, attempting, however feebly, to put forth my own position. If you wish to put things in quotes, please utilise the cut and paste functionality provided by your browser and operating system, confining yourself to what I’ve actually said.

          The Libertarian market ideology is bankrupt. You had Greenspan the Libertarian and his solution to every problem from measles to menstrual cramps was Moah Deregulation. You Libertarians had your turn. You fucked it up.Report

          • DensityDuck in reply to BlaiseP says:

            I think I’m completely confused at this point because you’re saying that everything was deregulated and that deregulation was a big-government solution to problems, both of which are the exact opposite of true.

            Go back to telling war stories. You’ll still be an odious blowhard, but at least you’ll make more sense.Report

          • Brandon Berg in reply to BlaiseP says:

            The Libertarian market ideology is bankrupt.

            In point of fact, we tried to declare ideological bankruptcy, but couldn’t due to the bankruptcy reform law we rammed through several years back.

            Being hoisted by your own petard sucks.Report

            • BlaiseP in reply to Brandon Berg says:

              Yes, it all comes into focus now, the vistas of the Libertarian paradise hove into view

              Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
              When a new planet swims into his ken;

              Are you saying Wall Street should have simply declared bankruptcy? Seriously? This Libertarian paradise you envision would have closed every bank in the world. Every credit card would have died immediately. Christ Jesus, Libertarians are Marxists, I always suspected as much but now, dangling from my own petard, my viewpoint has changed. Seen from above, that’s exactly what you are. A bunch of Maoists, to be more precise.Report

              • Kimmi in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Nah, they’re just blind. You need to actually have watched people practically pssing their pants. Smart people — the best of the best.

                Some people are still out on the farms they bought back in 2009, god bless them.Report

            • Kimmi in reply to Brandon Berg says:

              Yes, letting the credit card companies write that one was a poor idea. Ideologically and practically speaking.Report

      • Roger in reply to BlaiseP says:

        Like I said, I left conservatives out of the narrative as it was off topic and my comment was already too long.

        Read my comments again though. I understand left intellectuals understand markets, and that there are quite a few of them in the League. I’m not even sure I would peg you as left, though you certainly are an intellectual. You are … Eclectic.

        Here is a related quote from economist Bryan Caplan on the topic of naive anti capitalistic populism…

        “Every teacher and book I ever encountered treated naive populism like the Law of Gravitation.  Evil businesses aren’t paying workers enough?  Raise the minimum wage; problem solved.  The elderly are poor?  Increase Social Security payments; problem solved.  Evil businesses are selling people bad drugs?  Impose more government regulation; problem solved.  

        If you favor these programs, you can call these arguments straw men.  But I assure you: These “straw men” were never presented by opponents of these policies.  On the contrary, these “straw men” were invariably presented by people who favored these policies.  How is that possible?  Because during my first 17 years of life, I never encountered an opponent of any of these policies!  You might assume I was grew up in a weird Berkeley-esque leftist enclave, but bland Northridge, California hardly qualifies.  

        What was going on?  The best explanation is pretty simple: I only heard straw man arguments in favor of populist policies because virtually everyone finds these straw man arguments pleasantly convincing.  Regardless of the merits of the minimum wage, Social Security, and the FDA, economic illiteracy is the reason for their popularity.  If someone like Bastiat convinced people that the pleasantly convincing arguments are inane, proponents would have to fall back on arguments that are intellectually better yet rhetorically inferior.

        Take the minimum wage.  Normal people like it because the government waves a magic wand and makes mean employers give helpless workers extra money, with zero blowback.  So inane, yet so convincing to a psychologically normal human.  An intellectually serious argument, in contrast, begins by conceding the theoretical possibility of a disemployment effect, then defends low estimates of labor demand elasticity.  This is a huge improvement in intellectual substance, yet persuades only wonks.”Report

        • clawback in reply to Roger says:

          So you concede left-leaning economic arguments are at least arguable, yet elsewhere you ascribe bad faith to those making them. Nice.Report

          • Roger in reply to clawback says:

            I believe I argued that those that understand the economic arguments are pandering to the anti market bias of their base in order to accomplish their goals. I would never intentionally argue that economics can’t lead to outcomes which would please the left. If anything I wrote implied otherwise then i apologizeReport

            • Kimmi in reply to Roger says:

              One can have a reasonable debate as to the relative political value of the American System versus the English System — Tariffs or Not, as you’d probably put it. Kos had a reasonable post up a whole back on the whole joint.

              I don’t think it is fair to characterize people who are pro-American System as pandering to their base. It is quite possible to have such values, though they are quite a bit more selfish than the alternative.Report

        • BlaiseP in reply to Roger says:

          Heh. Bryan Caplan. I like Caplan. I think of him as a Post-Libertarian.

          Here’s the deal. Capitalism works, rather too well. Everyone grasps the idea of money. It’s the greatest invention in the history of the world and it’s never been improved upon. My son, considerably more mathematical, says capitalism has never been properly harnessed to the plow. There’s no excuse for poverty anywhere in the world he says. He hates the Libertarians, thinks I’m wasting my time over here, says none of them will ever come to terms with the corrupting influence of unregulated capitalism.

          Here’s his deal: capitalism proceeds in stages. When people become property owners, they have a vested interest in improving things around them. They farm the land, their lot in life improves, marketplaces evolve, then the financial industry appears to facilitate larger operations. Capitalism enters its industrial phase, specialists appear, banks rise to handle investments.

          When people work in factories they don’t own, they’re right back where they were as serfs and peasants. The struggle has to begin again. In cooperatives, these problems don’t appear. Now neither of us are socialists, we believe there’s something about ownership which makes the whole proposition of society work. Without ownership, capitalism fails.

          But when capitalism enters a post-industrial phase, some odd phenomena begin to appear. The old factory model which once supported millions of workers dies back. Nobody gets paid for doing stuff, they’re paid for knowing stuff. Those who control the financial industry get in trouble when it starts cannibalising, creating more debt than the economy can handle.

          As wealth concentrates into ever-fewer hands, speculation, not investment, becomes the name of the game. Competition for the few remaining worker bee jobs gets intense and populism arises, the sort Caplan’s going on about. It’s like frostbite: as the extremities can’t get enough warm blood, the blood freezes, setting in motion what will eventually become gangrene if it isn’t amputated. The entire organism gets in trouble at that point.

          In a post-industrial world, the seeds of revolution mature and the cycle begins again. The specialists become too specialised. The rabble rousers gain credence. Then it’s all over but the crying. If the populists are stupidly anti-capitalistic, the rich are historical illiterates. Right up to the last minute, the rich refuse to believe a revolution is arising.

          There is a way to stop or at least slow this cycle. The rich used to fear the poor and ran police states to control them, knocking down and imprisoning the rabble rousers. There’s another approach, the Bismarck-ian top-down approach which staved off the revolution by removing the arguments of the communists, granting socialistic rights to the workers and the dispossessed.

          We often hear the phrase “Bread and Circuses”used as a description of buying off the masses. Anyone who’s gotten farther into Roman history and economics knows this was a thoroughly capitalistic move. The bread and circuses were a right of Roman citizens. Everyone, rich and poor, got a ration of wheat. Kept them in town. Do you realise most Romans ate food they bought, not cooked? Fire hazard, you couldn’t cook in your apartment. Rome knew how to run a city. The rich would put on great spectacles at their own expense, but we see their motivation in how corporations buy naming rights to stadiums today. It was publicity and status. Everything was paid for, had to be at the time. The logistics of hauling a live African lion to Rome required more than some contract for payment: those were well-funded expeditions.

          Populism is the politics of grievance. Keeping grievance to a minimum is a delicate process. The reforms under FDR (actually, they’d started under Hoover, but again, I’ve come to accept that most people will never read the actual history of the Depression or learn anything from how society reacted to it) were mostly common sense reforms to the second phase of capitalism, the industrial phase.

          As the USA entered its post-industrial phase, it’s not so much that the old lessons were ignored, though they were. The old lessons were rejected by the erosive force of a financial system which had never evolved since the first phase of capitalism, where property was the name of the game. The reason Caplan makes so much sense in this context is because populism believes it can turn back the clock and give us back the industrial age, where anyone can get a job down at the mill. But the Libertarians, effing idiots, seem intent upon bringing on the revolution, returning us to the simple virtues of property, a world with less government and fewer laws, where we’ll have to reinvent every wheel.Report

    • James K in reply to Roger says:

      For the record, I believe the far right falls for similar but different versions of the anti market and Big Kahuna fallacies. That would be a separate post though.

      This is worth emphasizing, the fact most of the left don’t understand markets is simply because most people don’t understand markets. Market mechanisms defy human intuition because they are based on the collision of impersonal forces, rather than conscious decisions of specific agents.Report

      • Roger in reply to James K says:

        Agreed, James. I think the leadership and intellectuals of the left are especially good at playing to the anti market bias as it serves their needs, it sets up the need for the Big Kahuna, which is of course the leadership of the left themselves.Report

      • MikeSchilling in reply to James K says:

        Market mechanisms defy human intuition because they are based on the collision of impersonal forces, rather than conscious decisions of specific agents.

        Sure, that’s why the right favors both markets and Intelligent Design.Report

        • Roger in reply to MikeSchilling says:

          I agree Mike

          The Big Kahuna for the left is intelligent design by a benevolent all powerful state. For the right it is benevolent design by a benevolent god. Different denominations of the same religion.Report

      • Rod in reply to James K says:

        What are these “impersonal forces,” James? Aren’t you just talking about emergent properties of the intersection of countless conscious decisions of specific agents? You make it sound as if “market forces” are totally outside of the realm of human action, like the weather or something.

        I decide to purchase something at the price offered, or I decline. The seller decides what price he’s willing to offer and later makes adjustments depending on the reaction of potential buyers. These are all conscious decisions by specific agents. The only appear to be impersonal forces when aggregated. But that assumes a specific structure of the market, one in which all participants–both buying and selling–are price takers and no one is in a position to unilaterally affect the aggregate outcome.

        So, I’m on the left. What the fuck is it I supposedly don’t understand?Report

        • Roger in reply to Rod says:


          The thread clarifies that there are intellectuals such as you who rationally lean anti market as per the Creon quote. I find it refreshing when someone on the left actually corrects the non intellectuals for their naive anti market views. North does this from time to time.Report

    • Creon Critic in reply to Roger says:

      Roger, so the left is either ignorant or preying on the ignorance of others. Not the most charitable reading to say the least.

      I’d go for a Greg Mankiw post – not a leftist I might add – describing the perspective of the left. The short version is differing assessments about the reliability, outcomes, and trustworthiness of markets to achieve certain aims are chiefly responsible for the differences in prescriptions. Mankiw’s post of the longer version:

      The right sees large deadweight losses associated with taxation and, therefore, is worried about the growth of government as a share in the economy. The left sees smaller elasticities of supply and demand and, therefore, is less worried about the distortionary effect of taxes.
      The right sees externalities as an occasional market failure that calls for government intervention, but sees this as relatively rare exception to the general rule that markets lead to efficient allocations. The left sees externalities as more pervasive.
      The right sees competition as a pervasive feature of the economy and market power as typically limited both in magnitude and duration. The left sees large corporations with substantial degrees of monopoly power that need to be checked by active antitrust policy.
      The right sees people as largely rational, doing the best the can given the constraints they face. The left sees people making systematic errors and believe that it is the government role’s to protect people from their own mistakes.
      The right sees government as a terribly inefficient mechanism for allocating resources, subject to special-interest politics at best and rampant corruption at worst. The left sees government as the main institution that can counterbalance the effects of the all-too-powerful marketplace.
      There is one last issue that divides the right and the left—perhaps the most important one. That concerns the issue of income distribution. Is the market-based distribution of income fair or unfair, and if unfair, what should the government do about it?



      • Roger in reply to Creon Critic says:

        Hi Creon,

        Before answering this let me clarify that this conversation is skewed by the fact that we are only talking about biases on the left, not the right. I would love to get into the biases of the right and how they are pandered to, but on this site that basically comes down to picking on Tom. Conor brought up the left, and that is all I addressed.

        That said, note that in every case Mankiw lists above, the intellectual left leans against markets and toward a larger role for top down Big Kahuna involvement. Every one.

        I said up front that the intellectuals of the left understand the complexities of markets. Mankiw does much better than any of us. When they pitch their policy recommendations though to the masses, it becomes virulent, anti market populism that plays to their base’s ignorance.

        Suddenly the message becomes:
        they didn’t build it,
        they aren’t paying their share,
        they got most of the cuts,
        they got more than their share of the income gains,
        they are greedy,
        evil companies,
        we need to save our jobs,
        buy American,
        only care about the bottom line,
        trade imbalance
        women, minorities, other left leaning group makes x percent of y,
        its a living wage,
        food miles,
        should be affordable,
        profit caps,
        protecting jobs,
        creating jobs,
        protecting from cheap imports,
        sweatshop labor,
        slave wages….

        In other words, it is “let’s pander to and exploit our base’s anti market bias and ignorance to accomplish our anti market and pro Big Kahuna agenda.”Report

        • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Roger says:

          Yes, liberal believe in a market, that has to be somewhat controlled so it doesn’t destroy society.

          To steal from John Rogers,

          “A corporation’s job is to make money, and if necessary fuck you in the process. Just like a tiger’s job is to eat, and if necessary kill you in the process. I’m okay with that. I like capitalism. A lot. I like tigers. A lot. That doesn’t mean I trust corporations not to try to screw me and everyone next to me when negotiating. Nor would I trust a tiger not to attack me in the wild. Nor am I personally offended when they try.”Report

          • James Hanley in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

            But I think there’s no wilderness-based incentive against the tiger’s trying to eat you.

            Do you think there is no market-based incentive for the corporation not to fuck you?Report

            • MikeSchilling in reply to James Hanley says:

              One that’s stronger than fuck everybody real hard right now because that makes money now and not fucking them makes money later? I thought 2008 answered that one.Report

            • Kimmi in reply to James Hanley says:

              Depends on the corporation. There are both corporations that have incentives not to fuck with you, and those that have massive incentives to fuck with you.

              Even where we put disincentives to fucking with people (FDA, etc…), you still have the ad companies that just salt away half their profits for legal…Report

            • Do you think there is no market-based incentive for the corporation not to fuck you?

              These are pretty categorical terms, so of course there are incentives for corporations to deliver useful products to consumers, especially if they’re hoping to establish an ongoing relationship. But there are a number of instances where incentives work against corporations behaving in, shall we say, a socially constructive manner. Corporate behavior towards consumers, employees, and the general public can all fall into the profits over people category.

              Unfortunately, for instances abound in this area: A pattern of paying employees under the minimum wage to underbid competitors (BBC), covering up, or at least, slow walking negative evidence about pharmaceuticals and medical devices (Why No Voice? Sickening Meds Parts I – VII*), laundering money for dubious governments and organized criminals (in one instance in the face of internal compliance officers warning of “catastrophic reputational damage”) (HSBC, Standard Chartered), submitting false information to authorities to fix LIBOR (BBC Seven banks face US questioning), or improperly disposing of hazardous materials (Trafigura) – all instances of corporations behaving in fairly carnivorous tiger fashion and all in service of profits. Even in the instances where these examples ended up with multi-million dollar settlements, sometimes multi-billion dollar settlements, it doesn’t change the fact of the decisions the corporations in question made in the moment of having a choice.

              Where I’d differ from the John Rogers quote is that I do think we should expect more of corporations and hold them even more aggressively to that higher standard (see John Ruggie’s Business and Human Rights work).

              * – full disclosure, I helped conduct research for that series.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to Creon Critic says:

                Would these business’s actions have “destroyed society?”

                (Hey, I didn’t choose the categorical terms. Jesse did, and I’m just working with his categorical framework.)Report

              • Uninhibited, doesn’t the tragedy of the commons result in the destruction of the commons? Similarly (and I think there are wholly legitimate differences of assessment here) from my perspective, corporations without the watchful eye of the state would get up to all sorts of destructive mischief.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to Creon Critic says:

                Let’s set the commons aside, because that’s a case where the market isn’t even theoretically expected to work well. And while we’re at it, let’s set aside all those things like fraud, which are not contained within the realm of what free-market supporters define as legitimate parts of the free market (e.g., the article about paying maids for only half the hours they worked; that’s fraud and free market advocates wouldn’t argue that it’s acceptable).

                The questions really are, is it possible for there to be market responses to corporate mischief, and would a lack of government regulation result in the “destruction” of society. You don’t have to answer that last one, particularly, since you aren’t the one who made that claim.

                For my own part, I think the last claim is silly, even taken as hyperbole. As to the former, I’m unclear on whether “real true liberals” have lower estimates of the effectiveness of market responses to corporate mischief or believe real market responses don’t actually exist. And I wonder if when we make a practice of automatically turning to government for a regulatory response we don’t start forgetting about effective market responses.Report

              • Roger in reply to James Hanley says:


                Companies cheat just like individuals and politicians if they can get away with it Markets punish cheating. Regulations punish cheating. Companies cheat less. Some regulations go too far. Some don’t go far enough. Cheating companies can cheat legally by manipulating regulations in their favor. Once this occurs the market and the regulator no longer punish cheating they reward it. We get lots of cheating.


              • Kimmi in reply to James Hanley says:

                What regs let GE cheat?
                *talk about a softball*Report

              • Roger in reply to James Hanley says:

                Home run.Report

              • Kimmi in reply to James Hanley says:

                …? How is home run a regulation?
                or am I missing something?Report

        • Creon Critic in reply to Roger says:

          Roger, I agree that during campaigns complicated ideas get simplified into sound bites and 30 second ads. So what could be a thesis on balancing the values and economic interests get turned into slogans and fear-mongering. And good luck discussing minimum wage in these terms on the campaign trail:

          An intellectually serious argument, in contrast, begins by conceding the theoretical possibility of a disemployment effect, then defends low estimates of labor demand elasticity.

          That said, I think you set a pretty low bar for “virulent anti-market populism”, the US – many on the left lament – has not had a sizable, forceful (Old) Labour-Socialist-Marxist-Communist push. Moves to establish large scale social insurance have come in fits and starts, and decades after peer nations have done so. Compare the UK founding the NHS in post-WWII austerity to the US just now taking the steps towards universal coverage. Things like the Labour Party’s Clause IV* (now defunct) have not been as prominent in US politics overall. What you identify as virulent anti-market populism, I’d call – especially as represented by the Democrats – accommodation to markets and the possibilities they present while wanting to keep an eye on the prospects for the powerful (read: corporations) taking advantage of the vulnerable. Even if the rhetoric gets heated at times – re-negotiate NAFTA, for instance – the actual behavior of presidents (e.g. Clinton, Obama) has been pretty gentle towards market mechanisms (in the form of new free trade agreements, granting MFN status to China, etc.).

          This may be a gratuitous shot at libertarianism, but I suspect if libertarians were better represented in the ranks of elected officials I’d have plenty to complain about in terms of oversimplifications and pandering to not wholly informed perspectives of complicated issues – Ron Paul’s “Why don’t we mind our own business” wasn’t the most sophisticated analysis of US foreign policy. Almost by definition, part of building a coalition in a country as large and diverse as the US is making compromises and de-emphasizing the ideal in favor of what can be accomplished this term, this legislative session, or this markup (speaking of politicians anyway, the public is free to call upon politicians to do better by a particular ideology).

          And yet, I also want to say that the intuitions of the public are animated by broad amorphous notions about fairness, justice, and social responsibility. Advocacy about sweatshops and living wages wouldn’t gain traction without being anchored in some underlying public values about the (mis)treatment of workers. The economics of a given situation have to contend with the fact that providing information on tradeoffs hardly ends a discussion of public policy – there’s a whole normative/values discussion to be had, of which economics-grounded contributions are only one part.

          * – Clause IV “To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”Report

          • Roger in reply to Creon Critic says:


            I pretty much agree with you. I certainly do not mean to insinuate that the left panders more than the right. Just in a particular direction that is less market focused and more centralized government interference than the right. Libertarians are only innocent because they have nobody to pander to. Some defense!Report

  8. Nob Akimoto says:

    I think I might do a post on this at some point, but this reminds me of a discussion a bunch of my colleagues and I had recently: Specifically to what extent have policy professionals internalized positivism as a moral and epistemic framework compared to fields like ethnic studies where we’re seeing a substantial pushback against normative language often associated with positivism. The result is that there’s a pretty big gap between where the moral language is today (particularly when you look at critical racial and gender theories) versus where much of the emphasis on finding policy relevant solutions are.

    This isn’t helped by the fact that leftism has traditionally been about supporting those with less power, and that we’re moving into an era where epistemic power is increasingly going to be the critical area to pick at. See our recent discussion on normative language, for an example where things might start to get awkward.Report

    • BlaiseP in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

      The ethnic and gender studies folks have lost their way. They’re still lost in the fun house of mirrors, allowing their enemies’ definitions to stand. Simple proof question: who’s black? How black do you have to be to qualify? That’s a question the slavery culture defined with far more precision than our current definitions. Mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, haute jaune, they had words for all these fractions. In a practical sense, the ethnic and gender studies people are their own worst enemies, philosophically. This stupidity is resident in Congress, e.g. the Congressional Black Caucus, which won’t allow non-blacks to caucus with them, even though those congressmen represent majority-black districts.

      Epistemology always gets its foot in the bear trap when it attempts to define. Epistemology is normative. Dennis Whitcomb has an interesting paper up (pdf) which goes into some of this:

      Most contemporary epistemologists organize their theorizing around two standard questions:
      “What is knowledge?” and “How much of it do we have?”. Subsidiary questions arise in the
      course of trying to answer and clarify these. But these organizing questions themselves, the
      questions from which all the subsidiary questions get their significance, are the questions of what
      knowledge is and how much of it we have.

      Now imagine epistemology as organized by different questions, these focused on epistemic
      value. What is epistemic value? How is it related to other sorts of value, for instance moral and
      prudential value? What is the best structural vocabulary for describing it – deontological talk of
      duties and rights, consequentialist talk of ends and means, virtue-theoretic talk of character traits
      and persons, some combination of these, or something else entirely?

      Epistemologists are beginning to sometimes take these questions as theoretically central. When
      they do so, they are engaged in epistemic value theory. This branch of the value turn is a more
      radical break from tradition than is value-driven epistemology; it focuses on epistemic value for
      its own theoretical sake, whereas value driven epistemology focuses on epistemic value for the
      sake of uncovering the nature and extent of knowledge and similar states like justified belief.
      The published work in epistemic value theory can be roughly categorized into three branches:
      truth consequentialism, thick virtue theory, and credit theory.

    • CK MacLeod in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

      How is the difference you’re referring to different from the standard philosophical liberalism v. multiculturalism and prior liberalism v. communitarianism debates? The second side of each opposition tends to support the real aspirations of particular race and gender theorists, activists, etc. The first side will tend to seem more centrist and traditional, and more open to points of view (color-blind society, individual rights above all, etc.) characteristic of today’s conservatives.

      In the meantime, there’s a difference between “pushing back” against particular normative usages and arguing out of a critique of positivism itself. In many cases individuals seem to be deploying ideas within an institutional setting that was itself the main target of those ideas – “How can we use this radical deconstruction of all of our assumptions to reach this quarter’s targets?”Report

      • Nob Akimoto in reply to CK MacLeod says:

        The main difference, so far as I can articulate it, is that I think the continually expanding scope of leftward social inclusion has made it more difficult to reconcile the views of the critiques within the framework of the possible. Simply put, classical liberalism very much developed out of a European enlightenment milieu, which itself was an evolution of reformation tendencies. Pietists for example were still working within a predominantly white and male land-owners perspective when they started working their philosophical teachings into the existing corporatist structure of the time. As time goes on, we’ll be less and less able to do so, to the point where, I think we’re having trouble actually reconciling the theoretical with the practical.Report

    • Roger in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

      “…leftism has traditionally been about supporting those with less power, and that we’re moving into an era where epistemic power is increasingly going to be the critical area to pick at.”

      Two comments.

      It seems the first half of this statement works out to… Give us more power to support those less power. Am I the only one that sees this as the folly of the left in a nutshell?

      Second, does picking at epistemic power mean what I think it does? Is this the rejection of knowledge itself? No wonder the left cant put forth a rational narrative.Report

      • Nob Akimoto in reply to Roger says:

        On your first comment. No, it works out to more: “Power differentials are important. We can’t discuss society without them.” It’s no more folly than pretending that power differentials don’t actually impact things like preferences or choice structures.

        As for the second… Uncharitable readings aside, it’s not a rejection of knowledge, rather a questioning of whether the terms of debate are actually applicable to all parties being discussed. In a lot of respects this is Constructivism in the International Relations sense. “Anarchy may shape state behavior, but anarchy is what states make of it.”

        Rational narratives when describing incredible complex systems usually means you’re missing some data. A unified theory of everything is great, but there’s no social sciences version of the LHC that lets us test models to see if we can reconcile critical race theory on one hand, and the empirical results we see coming out of microeconomics.Report

  9. BlaiseP says:

    The Liberals are doing just fine on the rhetorical front. The Liberals have always been there, to pick up the pieces after the Conservatives break the china. Nor have the Conservatives put up a particularly united front: let the rise of the sansculottes of the Tea Parties and their domination of the Conservative debate show this is not so.

    It is a dreary and often-repeated refrain, how Liberalism has abandoned the War of Ideas. It’s all so much loathsome and self-pitying cant, usually emitted by Contrarians Without a Cause.

    Liberalism is a much tougher position to take, intellectually: liberal causes are embodied in manifestly horrible persons. Convicts languishing in federal and state prisons who might be exonerated if only someone would do the DNA testing. Offshore detainees lost in the legal twilight, often terribly dangerous people – but we won’t trust our own justice system to deal with them. The poor, the mentally ill, the homeless, refugees, the list of horrible people is very long and I do not see anyone else giving a damn about them but the Liberals.

    Yes, we are often mocked, shrill voices calling out “Think of the children!” every time these issues arise. If we point out, every iota of statistical information on our side, that the wealth of this nation is accumulating in ever-fewer hands, that our politicians have become prostitutes, that we can afford a health care system for everyone, that the deregulated marketplace has become a den of iniquity — I’m tired of iterating over this list. I am hardly alone in saying these things. When Occupy appeared, it was mocked. How did Gandhi put it?

    First they ignore you,
    then they laugh at you,
    then they fight you,
    then you win.

    Liberals do celebrate diversity for it is the hallmark of a democracy. Some while back I observed everyone’s a Liberal Democrat right up to the point where some “Them” appears, whereupon we see the rise of Us versus Them. There is no common ideological heritage. Anyone who would say such a thing is an idiot and ought to have Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass rammed down his throat, page by page. Perhaps digestion can achieve what education has not:

    I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear;

    Varied carols. Not some Hallelujah Chorus of Liberalism on the March.

    We are the sum of all that has happened to us. We cannot share a common heritage for we are unique. Ayn Rand once said an important thing, a bit of a truism to be sure but the phrase “I love you” starts with “I”. Only those willing to be unique can truly celebrate diversity.

    Common intellectual heritage, my ass.

    The Left does not lack for thinkers, writers or even think tanks. The Center for American Progress still stands, still emitting papers. The Progressives have always had the last word: today’s revolutionary idea about the human condition, economics, science and ethical consideration has always come to pass and eventually passed into the common tradition. Here is how it works: when any form of bigotry and stupidity becomes bad manners, the Conservatives abandon it and will lie to your face if you accuse them of ever believing such a thing. The word “tradition” has always been a dog whistle, a fig leaf for perpetuating every sort of unscientific and immoral nonsense. The wonk is a prophet without honour in his own country.Report

  10. Tod Kelly says:

    For a long while I’ve thought of the difference as this: The Left is largely made up of Problem Solvers, and the Right is largely made up of Story Tellers.

    When I think of what made Reagan so successful at bringing so many people together, it was his ability to take complex issues and break them down into stories that held Truths. Mondale might have blathered on about this or that statistic, but Reagan told simple stories about real (and sometimes, it turned out, fictional) people that resonated with people.

    I think this is just a byproduct of the nature of conservatism and progressivism.

    Conservatives fall back on mythos quite a bit, as they should – they are trying to protect a past that they see as sacred. Find a conservative speech, website or book and the odds are good that it will reference the wisdom of the Founding Fathers. The Storytellers can be powerful because they speak in ways that truly inspire us to act in ways that are positive for the Republic – but they can just as easily use that power fro eeeevil.

    Progressives are always trying to ask, “How can we make things better?” and are therefore Problem Solvers. They don’t rely on Stories nearly as much as they rely on wonky stats as they ever-tinker with the car we’re all driving. They too are necessary for their actual problem solving, but – since everything doesn’t actually need solving, and not all well-meaning solutions are good solutions, they too can use that power for eeeevil.

    Which is all to say that while I agree that the Left doesn’t have the ability to strike the same chords as the Right, I think that that’s good and proper and a sign that everything is working in balance as it should.Report

    • Morat20 in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      At this point, I’m unsure as to what part of the past the Conservatives are trying to protect — or see as sacred.

      They’re rather unfond of the New Deal, which has been around 70 years now, for one. At what point does “sacred past” lose meaning? Conservatives these days seem to be longing for a past that never existed, and even the bits that did ended long before they were born.

      Honestly, 90% of political bickering these days seems to be liberals defending the status quo of the last several decades while the GOP mounts massive assaults aimed at overwhelming change of the “way things have worked” for the past several decades.

      You’d think the EPA was a socialistic new program, rather than a decades old creation of a Republican.

      Although I do agree — liberals are problem solvers and technocrats, these days, and Republicans are story-tellers. It’s just the GOP is telling stories about things that never existed, and the liberals are so constrained that the “problems” they allow themselves to tackle (and the solutions they allow themselves to consider) are nothing more than tinkering at the edges. (Obamacare as the 1994 GOP plan, rather than socialized medicine or Medicare-for-All or even a public option, DADT repeal rather than sweeping CRA sized changes towards discrimination).Report

      • wardsmith in reply to Morat20 says:

        Morat, there were certainly issues with many elements of the New Deal at the time and a switch in time that saved nine – similar to the recent SCOTUS decision was political rather than judicial. So what the conservatives are talking about is the same thing that was talked about at the time, the ever-expansive reach of the Federal gov’t beyond what was originally intended. Yes, we can point to specific instances of success around the New Deal but for every success, I can point to a failure. Not to mention failures that didn’t get to become bigger failures.

        The FDR era is always excellent fodder for discussion and analysis PRECISELY because it represents the most wonkish (for the time) intrusion by the federal gov’t into commerce. Supposedly the goal was to solve the Great Depression but the results were abysmal at best and every economist worth their salt recognizes that the policies contributed to both the depth and breadth of the Depression.

        As usual (and contra to Blaise’s contention) the liberals say, “Let us drive and we PROMISE to behave this time”. Unfortunately after the wreck the conservatives have to pick up the broken pieces, pay the bar tab and put the house back in order. Adding to the misery is the fact that once created, government agencies get a life of their own and in my memory only ONE has ever been dismantled – and it was the wrong one. I’ve already posted how jobs with the feds are lifelong appointments, little work and great benefits if you can stand the politics. The perfect storm of crony anti-capitalism. The thinkers are the ones who say, “When everyone works for the government, who is left to pay the bills”?Report

        • Koz in reply to wardsmith says:

          “As usual (and contra to Blaise’s contention) the liberals say, “Let us drive and we PROMISE to behave this time”.”

          Really? I guess you could look at the libs’ position wrt recent budget battles that way but in general I think that’s giving way to much credit for libs’ self-awareness.

          And the New Deal, etc., is a case in point. As I see the lib imagination, libs like to think that the New Deal prevented lots of human privation, preserved the social order, saved the USA from Communism, etc. Therefore more is better. Whereas you or I might tend to appreciate that we are living in a world where the New Deal already exists, therefore whatever we do now wrt federal government policy has to bear in mind what we’ve already done wrt government policy.Report

        • BlaiseP in reply to wardsmith says:

          I think that’s a stitch in time which saves nine. FDR put in the nine stitches which the Gilded Age had torn out.

          Please don’t play I’m Rubber and You’re Glue with me, Ward. The so-called Conservatives have always been pulling out those stitches. Who deregulated the financial industries? All this crapola about how government agencies take on a life of their own: look, seriously, the Conservatives have been pulling out the props in the coal mine for years. That’s beyond argument.

          But I will make one amendment to the statement about how Liberals get to clean up the broken crockery. Reagan said “the government is the enemy” but it was Bush the Wiser who had to clean up Reagan’s mess.Report

        • Morat20 in reply to wardsmith says:

          It’s been 70 years.

          You’re still fighting this, tooth and nail. 70 years. It’s been this way my entire life. It’s been this way my father’s entire life. Heck, I’m pretty sure it’s been this way my grandfather’s entire life.

          Three full generations, and the “New Deal” has been the status quo.

          I think at this point, wanting to overturn — not modify, but pretty much rip out root and branch — something that has been in place for three generations is “radical” whereas defending it and tinkering at the edges is “conservative”.

          So why are the conservatives the radicals and the liberals the conservatives on this one?Report

        • MikeSchilling in reply to wardsmith says:

          and every economist worth their salt recognizes that the policies contributed to both the depth and breadth of the Depression.

          We call that Tobacco Institue economics.Report

    • Koz in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      “For a long while I’ve thought of the difference as this: The Left is largely made up of Problem Solvers, and the Right is largely made up of Story Tellers.”

      The might be something to this, but when it gets to the point where the Problem-Solvers can’t solve any problems, can’t we get rid of them for the benefit of all concerned?Report

      • Scott Fields in reply to Koz says:

        And once we get rid of the Problem Solvers, we’ll all sit around while the Story Tellers enchant us with fictions that we’re all benefiting in the status quo.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to Koz says:

        you funny, mon. We fix what you gonna break. Dat sea’s gonna rise, even if you bid it stay at your feet.

        You drive the problem-solvers out, you drive out what makes America great. What has always made America great — her inventors.Report

    • NewDealer in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      So would you say that the liberal solution is to find someone with a past or current problem and then say “we need to make things better for Sam or Mary”? These are real people with real problems and we need to find solutions that work.

      I am all for this. We can use some Arthur Miller: “Attention must be paid!”Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      Damn. I was going to weigh in on this yesterday morning, but decided to ruminate about it for a little while before commenting. Then I got to work and got sidetracked and lost my train of thought. Then I come back the next morning, and find that Tod has succinctly and articulately occupied the field for what I was thinking.

      A verbose way of saying, +1.Report

  11. Scott Fields says:

    Conor –

    You cite Beverly Gage here:

    But one of the movement’s most lasting successes has been in developing a common intellectual heritage… What conservatives have developed is what the left used to describe as a “movement culture”: a shared set of ideas and texts that bind activists together in common cause.

    Before I’d be convinced that Leftists should emulate the Conservative model , I’d want to see some evidence that the “common intellectual heritage” Conservatives have developed has actually been a success for the movement. Could you define “success” in this instance. Because, I just don’t see it.

    Granted the Republicans now control the House and there is a possibility they could control both chambers of the Legislative and the Executive branch in the coming months, but I’d say this is would be due to the electorate reacting to the current state of the economy much more than to some ascendancy of conservative ideology. Republicans have controlled the House and the Presidency for 8 of the last 12 years and the Senate for 4. But, what can you point to in that time that would count as conservative ideological success? Tax cuts and deregulation leading to great economic growth and stability? (I don’t think reality matched up too well with ideology there, do you?)

    I’d also defy anyone to prove this coalescence into a common intellectual heritage is working out to be a winning strategy for creating a long-term conservative majority – a strategy which Kazin claims the Left really needs. The conservative movement is currently purging all RINOs and alienating the demographics, such as the Hispanics, that are actually growing in this country. Conservatism is a tent that is getting smaller, isn’t it?Report

  12. DensityDuck says:

    I’d argue that the perception of a Single Conservative Message comes more from the portrayal of non-liberals than from any sort of reality.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to DensityDuck says:

      Yeah, the Single Conservative Message may have existed during the Cold War (“Communism Bad”) but the Social Conservatives who aren’t particularly interested in Fiscal concerns and the Fiscal Conservatives who aren’t particularly interested in Social issues (or worse: liberal on them)… these two groups dislike each other.


    • MikeSchilling in reply to DensityDuck says:

      The Single Conservative Message: Non-conservatives are evil. All else follows from that.Report

  13. NewDealer says:

    “Leftists (still) haven’t found a way to break through the populist formula developed by George Wallace in the 1960s (now soundly captured by the Republican Party), and thus struggle to craft moral rhetoric with broad appeal.”

    I think this is a very good point (along with all the others) but I want to take it one step further and say that many people on the left are highly distrustful on inflammed rhetoric and emotional speech thanks to most of the socio-political history of the post-WWI era.

    There is plenty of very good lefty rhetoric. Two examples would be Eugene V. Deb’s declaring “As long as there is an underclass”, and Hubert Humphry’s speech about stepping into the sunlight of human rights at the 1948 Democratic convention. Also FDR and JFK and MLK.

    That being said, I think many on the left look at the type of speechmaking done by the Wallaces, Limbaughs, and Palins of the world with horror and don’t want to be guilty of the same excess. We look at the red-meat dangling as leading to nothing but divisions and war-mongering and go for more muted terms.

    There is also the fact that you said the left likes people with professional policy degrees, not degrees in rhetoric (interestingly Rahm Emmanuel has a degree in rhetoric I believe). The modern American center-left is currently not very good at producing people who want to run for office and do the nitty-gritty of retail politics. We are very good at producing people like Matt Y, Alyssa Rosenberg, Ezra Klein, and Adam Sewer who would rather be journalists or write white papers than run for office sadly*. Perhaps the most ambitious of these people will become staffers and advisers. The Republican Party seems much better at finding young guns who are willing to run for office. She might be a completely joke candidate who is going to lose (she is running in a super-blue area) but there is a young 23-year old woman running as a Republican in Queens for state legislature. She got briefly famous for having a rather in your face and trollish website. The fact that she is not going to win is besides the point. The fact is that the Republicans seem more willing to have their wunderkinds run for office instead of writing white papers. The Democrats need to get people into office younger.

    I am also reminded of a photo I see on the internet from time to time. It is a sign that says “What do we want? Gradual change! When do we want it? After peer review.” This is what the Democratic base has largely become, more cautious and looking not for bold policies but stuff that works and is not going to lead to disaster. In this way, we are the more conservative party. The Democratic Party is currently trying to keep alive policies that work: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, Headstart from being gutted by a radical group who manage to combine Robspierre with the Ancien Regime.

    I read the slate article as well. What works would you propose for a liberal canon? Ayn Rand took her philosophy and put it in novels. I suppose the left can use George Orwell and Brecht for this. But in terms of other works: we have philosophers who wrote very difficult books like John Rawls and Hannah Arendt. I love the Origins of Totalitarianism but it is not an easy read.
    Then we would have the people who would include nuts like Pete Singer of Animal Liberation infamy and even more horrible ideas.

    That being said, I think the wonkiness is slowly drifting away. Yes we produce many wonks like Matt Y but some liberals are learning how to use moral language again like Paul Krugman. I’ve noticed that many of my friends are starting to call themselves liberal again and to make it a positive term. There is also a facebook group called “Being Liberal” that uses a portrait of FDR as their icon. I suppose this group is trying to revive the mantle of Roosevelt and turn him into our Ronnie again.

    *Considering how horrible American electioneering is, I don’t blame anyone for not wanting to run except in very safe districts whether red or blue. You need a very tough skin in order to run for office in the U.S. Tougher than most people have.Report

    • Koz in reply to NewDealer says:

      “*Considering how horrible American electioneering is, I don’t blame anyone for not wanting to run except in very safe districts whether red or blue. You need a very tough skin in order to run for office in the U.S. Tougher than most people have.”

      Good point, for me yet another argument in favor of W. Mitt Romney, and for that matter answer to all the Bain attacks. Romney could simply do his work at creating effective organizations for himself and his own benefit, and you could even argue that he should. But for whatever reason he’s not. He’s willing to deploy his expertise for our benefit as well, for which we should be thanking him.Report

      • NewDealer in reply to Koz says:

        You think it is good for someone to run the Presidency for their own benefit?

        Also, I doubt whether a CEO would make a good President. Congress are not employees of the President. Romney can’t sack them for not doing his bidding.Report

        • Koz in reply to NewDealer says:

          Fortunately Mitt Romney is more than a CEO. He is also the former Governor of Massachusetts and leader of the Salt Lake Olympics as well. In fact, for me at least Mitt Romney is the most qualified Presidential candidate in memory.

          The subterranean anger you see against Romney is just completely irrational. Let’s suppose President Obama wins reelection for a moment. Then Mitt Romney goes back to his postcard family, his nine figure net worth, his estates, and his fancy horses. And we go back to double-digit unemployment. We really showed him, didn’t we?Report

          • Kazzy in reply to Koz says:

            The problem is, Romney can’t or won’t run on his experience as a governor. Truth be told, if he said he would run his Presidency like he ran his Governorship, I’d be much more inclined to vote for him.Report

  14. Roger says:


    After reading some of the comments from the left, I have another suggestion on explaining the lefts “rhetorical ineptitude.”

    The intellectuals went wading into the la Brea tar pits of post modernism. They have not been heard from since.Report

  15. James Hanley says:


    I’m intrigued by your perspective because of an on-going discussion Stillwater and I have had about principles v. pragmatis. Whereas liberatarians frequently operate from a priori principles, he claims liberals don’t operate off such principles, but are pragmatists.

    Do you see him as wrong, and think that liberals really do have a priori principles fom which thy operate (but are apparently not good at presenting), or do you think he’s right (for at least a substantial portion of liberalism), but wish it was otherwise?Report

    • NewDealer in reply to James Hanley says:

      I’m not Conor but can provide my own answers (I can also play Conor on TV for a somewhat reasonable rate):

      I think a lot of people do go overboard in this country with their concept of “First Principals” and having everything being based on “original intent”, or a lot of concern over what the Founders would say. There does seem to me to be a bigger concern about First Principals among libertarians as compared to liberals.

      This is not to say I am a completely pragmatic with everything. My non-pragmatism is more civil liberties and due process oriented.

      When it comes to issues on economics and social safety net benefits, and commerce clause stuff I am more pragmatic. I don’t really care about the Freedom of Contract. I do care about non-exploitation. Yes it might limit freedom to say that a person can’t sell their organs for profit or work for less than a certain wage but these are going to be produced by duress likely. I’d rather live in a world where people are not reduced to needing to sell their organs in order to survive.

      The same with universal health care and other safety net issues. I don’t really care whether the Founders would approve or not. We don’t live in the pre-Industrial world of the Founders.

      Hm, I am not sure if this answers your question or not.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to NewDealer says:


        I respect your position. My position vis a vis Stillwater is that he hasn’t persuaded me that liberals are wholly pragmatic. One reason is that people like you and Conor don’t seem to fit the claim. The second is that I think I see principle even where it’s not being claimed. For example, your concern about exploitation–what else could that be based on? Isn’t the wrongness of exploitation either a first principle or based on some first principle such as the intrinsic worth of every human, or something along those lines?

        I agree libertarians use the language of first principles much more, but I’m not sure thy actually use first principles more. Here in this three, for example, we see libertarians being critiqued for not simply being absolutist, but being opposed to workplace sexual harassment even if–by some interpretations–it ought not be against their principles. I think libertarians apply first principles a little less than the talk about them (they’re just a starting point, after all, not an end point), while liberals apply them more than they talk about them (because like anyone they need a starting point as well).

        I should emphasize that I’m not attacking Stillwater here. I have great respect for him, and this just happens to be an argument of his that’s stuck in my head and I’m still struggling with. (Had I less respect for him the issue wouldn’t stick with me.)Report

        • Though I think that libertarians do use first principles more than liberals generally (a product of being a smaller and more dedicated subset of the population as much as anything), I agree entirely about communication styles. Different groups put different hands forward, but they’d still got two of them and they are used on a regular basis.

          (Also, add in here the bit about political affiliation being a social in addition to an ideological thing. Yada-yada.)Report

        • NewDealer in reply to James Hanley says:

          You are right that non-exploitation is certainly a principle. So it is perhaps that as a liberal, my set of principles is different.

          And I will concede that most libertarians probably talk more about first principles than act upon them.Report

        • Kimmi in reply to James Hanley says:

          liberals tend to be more incremental. and to that end, they point towards “people they know” rather than principles, a lot of the time.

          My ABSOLUTE opposition to torture is based on first-hand evidence, not “principles” in some vague abstractness.Report

      • Fine, but if you’re going to play me on TV, you’ll need to grow unruly hair and develop a ludicrous interest in boring books.Report

    • NewDealer in reply to James Hanley says:

      Rather, I would say that my principals as a liberal as perhaps somewhat differently oriented.

      I believe that we should strive to create a life of dignity and decency for all people regardless of circumstance.

      There are 45 or so million people in the United States without Health care and many more with inadequate healthcare. This is a problem and something needs to be done about it. Universal, single-payer health care seems to be a good solution and I don’t really care whether this will expand the size or scope of government or lead down to big brother.

      A lot of times when I heard conservative or libertarian leaning people (usually conservative) talking about “American Exceptionalism” it seems to mean that we can’t have the things that other developed first-world nations have. Why does universal health care work in every other organized, developed economy but would fail in the US? I am not saying that those programs are not without problems but I have never known a Canadian or British person who said they would trade their system for the American one.

      I would gladly get rid of some “Cowboy Capitalism” as Judge Janice Brown called for if it meant more fairness and equality. I don’t believe in the myth of rugged individualism.Report

      • Roger in reply to NewDealer says:

        I agree single payer is inevitable in The US ( even if you are incorrectly confusing health insurance with health care)

        I wonder what the engine will be of medical research in the future when there are no markets, or more aptly whether there will even be one. Not that we haven’t pretty much killed it already. More specifically, are we selfishly sacrificing future progress in medicine and health care for our immediate needs?

        I can envision those who profess to be caring liberals in the future bemoaning how lifespans and treatments improved every year for two centuries until the jerks in the 21st century dismantled the system that delivered the greatest gifts to mankind ever. Selfish bastards!Report

        • NewDealer in reply to Roger says:

          I am pretty sure that there are still a lot of huge pharma companies in socialized medicine filled Europe like Roche and Bayer. Genetech can exist in a world with socialized medicine.

          Also a lot of medical research is still done via the NIH and non-profit universities.Report

          • Roger in reply to NewDealer says:

            Yes, I agree with the science angle. Science will continue to progress. It operates via a different invisible hand based upon reputation. Science will continue to feed in to our health care system.

            On health care, as the markets are increaingly socialized, I fail to see how they will operate. Today, the vast majority of Pharma occurs in the US, and non US firms can sell here, and use our pricing system for feedback similar to how the soviet Union did.

            Perhaps we can come up with non market innovation alternatives? My guess is Hayek would be skeptical.Report

            • Scott Fields in reply to Roger says:

              I think you need to consider that the customer for pharma in most instances, especially innovative medicine, is the doctor. (Most Pharma advertising is for doctors only, and even the TV commercials targeted to the general public have you ask your doctor about…) Doctors are most interested in efficacy of the treatment and pharmaceuticals will continue to be incentivized to innovate toward greater effectiveness.

              Governments and insurance companies come into play with the reimbursement payments. Innovation would be inhibited only by an unwillingness to reimburse, wouldn’t it? Why would you think an insurance company bean counter watching the bottom line would be more inclined to reimburse than an government bureaucrat? If Medicare is any indication, I’d think government is more likely to pay.Report

              • Roger in reply to Scott Fields says:


                Thanks, but this will only work if there is a profit motive. I need to clarify that the system is already fubar, so I am not saying it works well now. It doesn’t and that is why our costs are spinning out of control.

                My experience with government bureaucracies is that they are extremely retarded in their ability to innovate and allocate resources absent the signals of profit and loss. Absent markets, I have absolutely no idea how the market would determine if treatment is more efficient. In addition, R&D becomes political rather than customer driven. I believe government monopolies are decent at playing catch up by stealing ideas invented elsewhere, but my study of history reveals that the growth rate in command economies absent catch up is pretty much zero.

                I could be wrong though.Report

              • Scott Fields in reply to Roger says:


                Once again, I don’t see where you get the idea that there will no longer be a profit motive for pharmaceutical companies in a single-payer system. No one in the US is talking about a completely state-run system where doctors, hospitals and R&D facilities are government run, so the government’s ability to innovate is irrelevant. Pharmaceutical companies will continue to seek medical treatments that are more effective than those currently on the market or that target unmet medical needs, so that doctor’s will prescribe their products instead of the other guys. Doctors are the market for medical treatment and they will determine if a treatment is more efficacious.

                I think this is roughly analogous to defense contractors. Their only customer is the US government, but I don’t think there has been a lack of innovation in that industry. The companies that produce the better bombs will get the customer’s business, so innovation remains critical to success.Report

            • Mark Thompson in reply to Roger says:

              Today, the vast majority of Pharma occurs in the US

              I’m not at all certain this is true any more. Of the 12 largest pharma companies, 6 are European-based:

              Although the biggest is by far Central Jersey’s own Johnson & Johnson, that gets a giant asterisk because so much of J&J is in its consumer products divisions. Notably, the Euro-based companies on that list have only very limited operations in the US. For instance, Sanofi only has about 5000 of its 110,000+ employees in the US, and the majority of its R&D facilities are in France.

              So at this point, I’m just not at all certain that it is accurate to say that the majority, much less the overwhelming majority, of Pharma, nor Pharma research specifically, occurs in the US.Report

              • Roger in reply to Mark Thompson says:


                I spent a half hour looking for the report I read on percent of patents generated by US and then sorted by major innovation as opposed to incremental. The numbers were astounding. I could not find it.Report

            • Kimmi in reply to Roger says:

              market alternatives do ya? stem cells! stem cells! stem cells!Report

        • greginak in reply to Roger says:

          Even with single payer scientists will do science stuff and for profit companies will still exist. Insurance companies can even exist in a uni care system as in Germany. There can still be plenty of profit motive in a uni care environment along with the drive of scientists.Report

        • Kimmi in reply to Roger says:

          The engine of medical researchw ill be what it always ahs been .US GOVERNMENT RUN>
          NSF does a grand job.Report

    • NewDealer in reply to James Hanley says:

      Another issue is that having too many a priori principles causes political gridlock and an unnecessary waste of resources and possibly unnecessary pain.

      On some issues there is obviously no compromise.

      On many others, there is plenty of room for compromise. If you get hidebound to first principles than you are not going to be very good at working with the opposition that is always going to be around.Report

    • This is a great question, which is another way of saying that I can’t answer it in anywhere near the time and space currently available. If you’ll indulge me, I’m going to be as concise as possible—but that’s going to require some unexplained use of jargon. There’s a lot missing and unexplored in the following, I know. I have a one-year-old son. Forgive me.

      First of all: there’s little unanimity amongst leftists on whether to use a priori principles or not. The original progressives were highly suspicious of them (as am I). Liberals are often more comfortable referencing them (same goes for neo-liberals). Post-modern emotivist leftists (a bigger subset than you’d think) don’t much care for them either. SO: if the Left’s going to cooperate at all, they’ll probably have to downplay any strong positions on the epistemological foundations of their principles. Are they a priori? Pre-political? Strictly conventional? Absent any agreement on such questions, leftists usually avoid them altogether…which feeds their wonkiness. And yeah, that makes them (occasionally) more pragmatic than conservatives—who are largely unified on the existence of a priori political principles, if not on their specific content.

      But that’s less important than the caveat: not all guiding principles are a priori principles. I think that the progressives were right to ground their political principles in American political commitments, rather than pre-political thought experiments, etc. For guys like Herbert Croly and John Dewey, this meant that Americans ought to defend their community’s guiding ideals as historical wagers (i.e.: “We’ve always cared about individuals determining the course of their own lives, so it’s un-American to permit the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory to operate a sweatshop in NYC…supposed pre-political principles be damned.”). Here’s the REAL getaway line I’ve been hiding until now: we can accept principles as transcendent without believing them to be pre-political. Peace! And I’m OUT!

      So many millions more things to say! The great thing about hobby horses, though, is that I’ll hit this again sometime soon. Maybe it’s time to write a post making the case for more John Dewey?Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Conor P. Williams says:

        Maybe I’m not quite clear on what constitutes an “a priori” principal, per se.

        Thanks much for the response.Report

        • Happy to oblige. I admit that I use the term interchangeably with “pre-political” or “first principles.” I think that this is largely defensible, at least for the purposes of arguments that are worth having. It may be that there are deep theoretical differences, though I suspect not.Report

          • James Hanley in reply to Conor P. Williams says:

            I don’t know. I’ll have to brush up on my philosophy, perhaps (a painful thought). And perhaps confusion on that lies at the heart of my discussion with Stillwater (who regrettably seems to be off-line today).Report

            • I’ll think some more about it also. The social contract thinkers are relevant, for sure. Here’s a possible framework for distinguishing and clarifying:

              1) a priori principles: those which we set down as part of a founding contract as part of a system of governance. Metaphysical status undetermined, but they’re potentially contingent upon human decisions (i.e. “Which principles are we using to structure our community? Which things are we holding as beyond future questioning, so long as the regime lasts?”)

              2) pre-political principles: those which precede the establishment of a political community…but usually are grounded in one of the big metaphysical foundations (Nature, Reason, Revelation, etc). These are more often theorized at the epistemological, not ontological, level.

              3) first principles: those which precede politics but ALSO precede human consciousness. These possess an unmistakable metaphysical gold star—they’re woven into the ontological fabric of existence.

              God, this comment is as brutal as it is unhelpful. Sorry. I’m closing my comments tab for the night.Report

  16. Michael Cain says:

    I grossly oversimplify the positions by a single metric: Leftists believe that a society has to put a floor under outcomes for all members; non-Leftists don’t. The reasons Leftists look like such a disorganized bunch is that (a) they can’t agree on why society should impose such floors, (b) they can’t agree on where the floor should be, and (c) they can’t agree on the means to implement the floor. Myself, I ignore the various religious, moral, and philosophical arguments for why the floor should exist. I believe because I’m pragmatic and history suggests that if too many are too poor (relatively, and by whatever measure is appropriate for a particular society) for too long, Bad Things happen.

    By the mid-1960s, in the aftermath of the Depression and WWII, the where and how in the US were pretty well settled. Jobs with benefits and a largely living wage in the private sector (reinforced by unions and relatively high minimum wage); SS and private pensions; Medicare; Medicaid and various forms of welfare for the disabled or otherwise unable/disinclined to hold a job; civil rights; public universities; and a few other bits and pieces (eg, urban subsidies of rural telephone service). Given those in place, the Leftists began pushing into finer and finer detail on the nature of the floor. The non-Leftists, having “lost” for the time being, were forced to develop new arguments and techniques for attacking the floor that had been established.Report

    • Roger in reply to Michael Cain says:


      Have you ever asked yourself why the others are attacking the floor? Is it because they are evil? Are they less good than you? More selfish?

      Have you ever considered that they believe you built your floor by tearing out pieces of their escalator? That you sacrificed the future for current constituents?Report

      • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Roger says:

        Happily, actual evidence such as the time period of 30’s-70’s and Western European countries show that the escalator does work best where there is a floor. So, we can happily ascribe to people wanting to destroy the floor to being horribly misinformed or simply bad people.Report

        • Roger in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:


          Pure catch up GDP. Interestingly as they socialized more they reduced their growth rate and increased unemployment compared to US. A one percent lower growth rate reduces standard of living in half over ones lifetime. And the standard of living is what established the height of our floor.

          Reducing the growth rate is very selfish and shortsighted assuming Liberals “love their children too.”Report

      • Michael Cain in reply to Roger says:

        Let’s put it this way — I acknowledge that the existence of a floor almost certainly implies that there is a limit on how high the escalators can go. For a reasonable floor, implemented in efficient ways, in a rich high-tech society, that limit will still be up there above “more money than they have time to spend.” Or to invest wisely.

        Every time the peasants revolt (and even in the age of elections, it seems to come down to violence so often), there are wealthy/powerful people who are taken by surprise. And when that happens, those people lose not just the upper parts of the escalator, they lose it all. The few at the top of the heap should take a much greater interest in maintaining the stability of the base of the pyramid than they usually do — they have so much more to lose if the base crumbles.Report

        • Cf. Conrad Black’s (of all people) take on FDR.Report

          • When I was young (this in the early 1960s) my Iowa grandfather used to tell “Tales of the Depression” when I would visit in the summers. He was fond of telling about the warm (in the non-cynical sense of the word) welcome that both the Communists and the Fascists got when they had meetings down at the grange hall. Grandpa was firmly of the opinion that sans FDR’s policies, the country was looking at an armed rebellion all across the Prairie and northern Great Plains states.Report

        • Roger in reply to Michael Cain says:


          I agree in many ways with some caveats…

          First. We already provide a floor of close to a trillion dollars a year in aid to the poor. If we add this to their disclosed wages and any side market activity, the average poor family becomes middle class, with medical insurance and a standard of living in the top tier worldwide! I doubt they will need to storm the Bastille.  I say let them eat Hostess Ding Dongs. 

          Second, if the poor’s concern is the growth rate in living standards, then the solution is a better escalator. As I believe you clarify, if the floor is poorly designed it becomes the problem. (I am not arguing for no floor either btw).  

          Third, economists overwhelmingly agree that the problem with stagnation in lower skilled wages is due to the effects of technology and globalization of markets. Our lower skilled workers used to be “privileged” to not have to compete with humans in India and China. Now they do. They lost their privileged position. Who gained? The true poor and undernourished people of the world.  The last decade was the best ever for humanity rising out of poverty.  The cost was wage stagnation for people like us or our friends and family.Report

    • “Given those in place, the Leftists began pushing into finer and finer detail on the nature of the floor.”

      Looking back, this sentence doesn’t convey what all that I actually intended. Essentially, pushing into finer and finer detail gets the Leftists in trouble. The policies become ever more intrusive; the regulatory burden becomes greater at a faster pace. Overall, the Leftists would be better served by doing the floor broadly, and accepting that they can’t enforce the idea down to the picky little details.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to Michael Cain says:

        the picky little details MUST be there. They just gotta be fluid. Murali wants technocrats? let ’em fix the incentives. tweak tweak tweak. Broad guidelines by legislators.Report

  17. One blanket comment: a few people asking about MY view of who ought to be part of the leftist canon. I’d go with John Dewey, Monseigneur John Ryan, Walter Rauschenbusch, and Herbert Croly. Dewey, by the way, is unquestionably the only recent leftist political thinker who’s comprehensive and thoughtful enough to serve as a singular rallying point, à la Rand…but he’s a really strenuous read.

    Obviously there’s a case to be made for Jefferson, A. Jackson, and even Abraham Lincoln (so long as the anti-federal-government mania possesses the U.S. Right), but I suspect that we get a decent grounding in those guys already.Report

    • Not John Rawls? A Theory of Justice still serves as a clarion call to morally justify progressive political policies in my mind.Report

    • NewDealer in reply to Conor P. Williams says:

      I think you are falling into a bit of the same trap as your cri de coeur.

      Your picks are all philosophers and not really storytellers. All the talk about the right and Rand is basically because of her novels. They are absolutely horrible novels and poorly written but they seem to attract a certain kind of teenager and some of these teenagers go on to become rich and powerful. Paul Ryan, the Koch brothers, Alan Greenspan, the guy who founded Lululemon all do a lot to promote the cult of Rand.

      I suppose the right also likes Hayek but I think more people probably talk about the Road to Serfdom than have actually read the work.

      There is no liberal variant of Ayn Rand. A person who sells his or her political philosophy via novels. There are certainly many writers whose writings are imbued with leftist ideas and ideals like Arthur Miller, Harper Lee, Tony Kushner, Octavia Butler, John Irving but most of these authors are associated with English class in high school especially Miller. Kushner is too political, too current, and too homosexual for all but the most progressive and probably private high schools ironically enough. Arthur Miller probably strikes most people as old-fashioned except for the theatre kids. John Irving’s liberalism is often just incidental except in The Cider House Rules. And none of these writers really have any kind developed philosophy that can be ismed.Report

      • Well, yeah, but Rand is at least as terrible a writer as Dewey. (zing!)

        What about Vonnegut + Sandburg + Upton Sinclair?Report

          • NewDealer in reply to Conor P. Williams says:


            Perhaps. He seems popular enough but he has a more-broad base appeal than Ayn Rand. There are plenty of conservatives who love him. I can’t think of anyone on the left who loves Rand novels.

            Sanburg? Possibly. I would need to read more.

            Upton Sinclair was writing too much for the hot events of his day. I studied Sinclair in my school history classes along with Jacob Riis, not in English class. Ayn Rand’s books seem not to be connected to specific issues of when they were published. This is not to go against Sinclair.

            Steinbeck might be better but has a bit of the historical problem that Sinclair has, he is writing for his day.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to NewDealer says:

        Good grief. George Orwell. Dostoyevsky. Theodore Dreiser. Sinclair Lewis. Faulkner.Report

        • clawback in reply to BlaiseP says:

          Good grief indeed. Pretty much the whole body of Western literature and thought. The right has gone so extreme they’re left with nothing but Ayn Rand and some Austrian economists.Report

        • NewDealer in reply to BlaiseP says:

          Orwell’s journalism like the Road to Wigen Pier and Homage to Catalonia is much better liberalism than his novels especially 1984 and Animal Farm. Both of those are great but too connected to their times and have been sort of co-opted by all ideologies because everyone likes to speak in the language of “freedom”.

          For Russians? I love Dostoyevsky but he supported the Czars during his time. The Devils is an indictment against the anti-Czarist students. While Chekov was not as explicitly political as the Communists made him to be, he at least understood that the gig was up for the Czars and Russian nobles. Herzen and Gorki are better Russian left writers.

          All the writers you mention are very good and much better than Ayn Rand (not that this is very hard) but they were writing for the hot button issues of their day. Sinclair Lewis is probably less dated than Dreiser especially in the Zenith novels and his portrait of Midwestern pompousity.

          Rand’s novels have a vague quality that places them in any age. Lewis was very much writing for his time and Babbit can only take place in the 1920s. It is a great novel and many teenagers and young adults will love it but I can’t see a rising liberal political star talking about their love for Sinclair Lewis like many on the right talk about their love for Ayn Rand.Report

          • MikeSchilling in reply to NewDealer says:

            Sinclair Lewis was a terrible writer: prose that’s at best undistinguished and books that meander and repeat themselves endlessly. Babbitt and Elmer Gantry would be great rants at about half the length. He’s one of those guys who’s remembered for what he had to say, but not at all for how he said it.

            The one Lewis book I’d recommend is The Man who Knew Coolidge . It’s the first-person reminiscences of a blowhard whose only claim to fame is that he once met Calvin Coolidge, in which every word unwittingly reveals what a waste of space he is.Report

  18. M.A. says:

    I may thicken this out and write a full attempt at a guest post to submit at some point, but much of the bowel “movement” of conservatism has to do with their success at identity politics and especially dog-whistle politics.

    They don’t say “we want to implement creationism and forced prayer in schools.” They whinge on about “local control of schools” over and over, as if the big bad evil guvmint is destroying their kids’ education, then the moment they take over it’s in with the creationists on the school board.

    They don’t say “we want the right to discriminate against gays, women, blacks, religious minorities, and anyone else who disagrees with us in the workplace.” They don’t say “we want the right to sexually harass women.” They say “we want right to work laws” and “employers’ right to fire without government getting in the way.”

    They scream about “liberal media liberal media” while the media they get their so-called “news” from – especially the interconnected, incestuous talk radio circuit – regularly launches downright racist attacks and perpetrates known falsehoods, repeating the lies over and over again in a manner Goebbels would have been proud of. Great example from this week: they started dragging old audio out from a speech from the last campaign, which they take a tiny piece out of and insist Obama wants to create some sort of force to wipe out white people.

    (Link to, which thoroughly debunks the nonsense, though the worst example I can think of comes from the radio show of that disgrace to the uniform “Mack Machowicz” and on Tuesday listened to him arrogantly tell a caller who tried to point out the FactCheck debunking he was “full of shit”, followed by a parade of right wing callers calling the nonconformist things like “retard” and “homo.” I was forwarded the link by a gun-nut friend of mine recently who worships Machowicz, and I’m both embarrassed and appalled that this kind of white supremacist kook got out of the military. With people like him in our military culture it’s no surprise where the sikh temple shooter, also US military, got his ideas from.)Report

  19. Rufus F. says:

    I like this post too. It’s interesting- I remember when I was a kid, it was supposed to be the left that was “ideological” and the right that was “pragmatic.” I don’t know if either was true, but it seems like right no longer uses “ideology” as en epithet, while the right does. One of the best books I’ve ever read about culture war is still L’ Éducation sentimentale, which has (I think it’s there) the line, “You don’t need doctrine to clean a street.”Report