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A matter of principle

Picking up on Jonathan Chait's argument from last week that conservatives are ideologues and liberals are pragmatists, Matthew Yglesias weighs in in the American Prospect:

On economic matters, in particular, conservative policies are drawn together by a broad principle: Small government is good, regulation should be light, and taxes should be low. Liberals don't really accept the reverse of those propositions. While the right thinks taxes should be as low as possible, liberals don't think they should be as high as possible. We think that should be high enough. But high enough for what? High enough to pay for spending on programs that work well. But work well at doing what?

There's the rub. Liberalism's pragmatic, empirical orientation -- it's focus on producing good outcomes rather than conformity with abstract principles -- is a source of strength.

Do liberals not have "broad principles" on economic matters? Of course they do. Those principles may not be "the reverse of those propositions," but they nonetheless exist. The idea that just because liberals "don't think [taxes] should be as high as possible" they don't have ideological beliefs on taxes is absurd on its face. Liberals think that government has an important role to play in managing the economy; that taxes should be strongly "progressive"; that government can and should create opportunities for the "less fortunate";" that there should be a strong, broad safety net provided by the government; that inequality is bad; that corporations generally can't be trusted to do what's right and that the market is incapable of solving that problem. Are these not all "broad principles"?

Second, even focusing on those specific propositions, Yglesias is right only in the abstract. No, there's no liberal platform plank saying, "Raise taxes, increase regulation, and make government big." But in practice, liberals do have such a dogma. Try this experiment: say the words "unregulated industry" to a liberal. See him flee like a vampire faced with a cross. Read the pages of major newspapers and watch the news -- "unregulated" is regularly used as a pejorative, to describe a situation which is out of control. Any problem in the industry is attributed to the lack of government oversight. People calling for more regulation are always described as "consumer advocates"; people calling for less regulation never are. How about spending? Do liberals want spending to be "as high as possible"? Not in so many words, no. But to a liberal, a politician's commitment to a particular program, problem, policy, or issue is measured by how much he proposes to increase spending on it. In practical terms, this is an ideology of spending as much as possible. (Have you ever heard a liberal argue that any problem, with the possible exception of the military, had "enough" money and that it was time to stop giving it more?)

As for liberals' alleged "pragmatic, empirical orientation," this is a risible argument. Has Yglesias ever engaged in a debate over school vouchers with a hard-core opponent? A "focus on producing good outcomes?" (Is there a government program less focused on "good outcomes" than public schools?) Has he never heard a liberal explain that private charity is actually undesirable because it lessens the need for, and hence lessens the support for, government programs? I know I have.

This doesn't even touch the issue of non-economic principles that liberals hold -- on issues like abortion, for instance, or civil liberties. Is the focus on the rights of criminal defendants a "pragmatic, empirical" one, or an "abstract principle"? How about the issue of gay marriage? Principle? What about Affirmative Action? Pragmatic, or principle? (Note: I'm not addressing whether these principles are good or not; I'm addressing only whether liberals in fact have them.) Liberal principles may, overall, be less useful, less well-thought out, more shallow. But they exist. To argue that liberals are pragmatists and conservatives are ideologues is wildly off the mark.

My best guess, is that this debate is another example of the phenomenon of liberal cocooning that Mickey Kaus always talks about. Liberals believe that their underlying assumptions are so widely shared that they're not really ideologically-based at all, but just common sense. Hence, "smaller government good" is an ideology; "there oughta be a law" is just pragmatism.


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Comments (2)


I haven't read Yglesias' full column yet, but I think both liberals and conservatives are more pragmatic and empirical than, say, libertarians. I think much of liberalism is founded in some form of utilitarianism (at least mine is). So while that is the guiding principle, the policy implications of that, even on a very broad scale, are not immutable and can change as circumstances and information change. Whereas I've known some libertarians to explicitly claim they are not utilitarian, or that they simply care about ideals like freedom and property rights. (I support both on a pragmatic basis, but also recognize that there are inherent limitations that necessitate some government intervention in both cases.)

No political group is really consistent enough, though, to call itself purely pragmatic, empirical, or ideological, IMO.

In response to some of your questions:

Is the focus on the rights of criminal defendants a "pragmatic, empirical" one, or an "abstract principle"?

I think you will find people who view it both ways on both sides of the political aisle. I'm sure that you can understand the practical reasons why I wouldn't want to live in a society in which criminal defendants had no defined rights or where those rights weren't defended.

How about the issue of gay marriage?

Seems fairly pragmatic to me. Gay couples will be happier if you let them get married, they will be materially better off if you give them the legal benefits of marriage, and they will form stronger families if you give those relationsips some legal standing. Heck, there's a reason why conservatives think marriage is such a great, important thing for straights, isn't there?

What I would love to understand is why so many conservatives want to prevent gays from marrying. That seems to me the stance that is more based purely on "principle."


Actually, I always figure that my liberal views are NOT widely shared. In the 1950s and earlier, common sense agreed with "that upitty nigger oughta know his place." Liberals took a different view that was not widely shared, but was thought (by them) to simply be RIGHT. Nowadays, the widely shared belief seems to be "those damn faggots oughta know their place."

On the issue of gay marriage, it seems to me that both sides are attempting to legislate morality. As a heterosexual married man, I just don't see gay marriage a threat to anything. My marriage will be healthy or unhealthy only because of my actions and those of my wife. No other married couple, gay or straight, will ever have an appreciable influence on our marriage. And if two dudes decide they want to be married, I think they have every right to be as happy and miserable as the rest of us.

I certainly don't personally agree with some of the classic liberal beliefs. I've always kind of defined myself as a social liberal, fiscal conservative.

The current administration seems to be good at cutting taxes but horrible at controlling spending. They are an extremely poor champion of conservative values, in the fiscal and political arenas. But they sure have found a good way to get the fundamentalists on their side with their campaigns against gay marriage and for the "right-to-live" for a brain-dead vegetable woman. Then they can borrow and spend, and let someone else in the future figure out how to clean up the mess.

As a small business owner, I HATE paying taxes. But I consider them a necessary evil. It's much easier to jump on the bandwagon to say "Let's cut taxes" rather than being thoughtful about "we need to fund these programs."

I think the reality of politics is that many people have chosen a political party like they root for the home team. They'd rather be dead than cheer on the Raiders, because they're diehard Broncos fans! And since George W. Bush seems like such a likable (Christian) guy, they're willing to go along with all the dumb policies that come with him, rather than thinking. I know that if I managed my own finances the way the Bush's administration has managed the U.S. budget, I'd be long since bankrupt.

Enjoyed your writing.


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