Arnold Kling  

In Which Ezra Shows Why He is not Close to Conversion

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In which Max discovers a tic... Boo for Applause...

Ezra Klein writes,


Michael Cannon and I would build very different systems, to be sure, but at base, we both believe the employer tie to be awful, and the insurers to suck, and the hospitals to be performing below expectations, and on, and on. The obstacles to reform are not intellectual disagreement or policy uncertainties -- they're interest groups trying to protect a system that benefits them.

To which Michael Cannon responds,

I’m ready to predict it: Ezra Klein will die a libertarian. And it won’t be a deathbed conversion, either.

I know where Michael is coming from. He is thinking, "if you believe that government is controlled by special interests, then sooner or later you have to come around to a belief in limited government."

But in fact, Ezra is expressing the core belief of those on the left--that "we" know what's right, but we are thwarted by "they" (they being special interests). If democracy just worked better, all would be well.

The role that conservatives or libertarians play in this drama is as allies of "they." Some on the left, including Ezra, will concede that we are intellectually sincere. Others think that we are mere stooges, of the Thank You for Smoking ilk.

The fault, dear Ezra, lies not in our interest groups but in ourselves. That is, the irrational beliefs of the voting public shape our institutions and policies. In this regard, my latest essay and Bryan's new book are aligned. Bryan and I draw different implications for political reform, but that's another story.

The core belief of progressives is that if "we" were in charge, then policy and outcomes would be good. Bad policy outcomes can always be rationalized by saying that the people in charge are not "we." Hence, the core belief of progressives is non-falsifiable. Hence, I don't think Ezra's conversion is inevitable, much less close.


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (14 to date)
Mike writes:

Reading this post, I'm put in mind of Lawrence Lessig's recent decision to give up his battle against the corruption of government mandated monopolies (intellectual property laws), and instead focus on fighting the "corruption" of special interests in our political system. I think his essay captures perfectly your categorization of the left.

David Thomson writes:

The road to hell is often paved with good intentions. Ezra Klein perceives himself as a benevolent and educated individual. He is confident that he and his altruistic buddies should be running things. I can easily imagine Klein becoming something of a benevolent dictator.

Marc Resnick writes:

I think it is a difference of expected probability. No one thinks government can NEVER do it right or ALWAYS do it right. But progressives think the probability is decent so we should keep trying. Libertarians think it is low so we should stop trying.

Personally, I am a realist. I try to find the areas where government is likely to do something well and put my eggs (and tax dollars) in those baskets. For the other areas, I am pure libertarian. Unfortunately with the way government has been trending, I am more and more libertarian every year, despite my idealistic preferences.

Jim writes:

"That is, the irrational beliefs of the voting public shape our institutions and policies."

I think your argument could benefit from a comparative dimension. Not all democratic systems are as (apparently) dominated by special interests as the US. Our political system here in the UK, for example, is far from perfect but not, from my observations and those of many others, quite as fundamentally screwed up as yours. If this dysfunction is, as you say, entirely caused not by special interests but by public irrationality, then please tell me why you think Americans are so much stupider than us. And why people in, say, the Phillipines (which has even more corrupt and dysfunctional political institutions, *apparently*) are stupider still.

Oh, and while you're at it, please explain why so many people and companies donate so much money to politicians when it must, by your account, do them no good whatsoever. Myth of The Rational Donor, perhaps?

Ian writes:

Has no one read this? http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/la-op-klein13may13,0,3813755.story

It's the job of libertarians to combat this kind of idiocy. If Klein ever does want to convert, libertarians should think long and hard about accepting him.

Michael E Sullivan writes:

Oh please, the core belief of this "progressive" is that if we have little or no choice but to have a massive government complex, let's at least *attempt* to use it to address poverty, inequality and market failures, rather than stocking jails with victimless "criminals" and killing random brown people around the world in a vain effort to make racists and xenophobes feel safer.

I don't think you can reliably discern where Ezra stands on the question of libertarian politics in the current climate if he's a pragmatist. There is no credible candidate for national office, or movement within either major party that is significantly libertarian in aim.

The fight to be fought is over which version of big government we get. Ezra, like me, chooses as the lesser evil package, one in which that big government is, at least in theory, working to ameliorate the lot of the less fortunate. It's certainly true that some of these policies have unintended consequences that can make the cure as bad as the disease. That said, government programs are not universally pure failures, and the attempt to portray them as such is disingenuous. When the only alternative to working (poorly) against poverty is working (poorly) on putting immigrants and drug-users in jail, working (poorly) on empire building and warmaking, and with the current crop of GOP candidates working rather effectively to gut the constitution and founding principles of this republic, I choose the former.

Within the frame of the tug-of-war, I believe that's a reasonable libertarian choice, even if it means being wholly against the party that somehow contains the few identified libertarians outside of LP and independents.

Lets be serious, there hasn't been a GOP politician on the national stage who *actually* wanted to shrink government's size and range in decades (I'm referring to Goldwater, *not* Reagan). What the current crop want is to use libertarian-ish rhetoric to shrink the (already few and small) programs they don't like, while expanding others, and to change the way we fund that giant government to be less progressive (more payroll tax and debt, less income tax, even less investment income tax).

I might have been able to hold my nose and vote for Goldwater despite starting the odious "southern strategy" of appealing to outright racists, because he appears to have actually advanced a real small government agenda. But since then "small government", at least in the GOP, has generally been code for "cut services for the poor, but expand the police and imperial states while leaving in place or even expanding middle class or corporate entitlements and subsidies"

IMO, libertarians who align with the current GOP are either bullshitting about their libertarian principles or completely deluded, but if they (you?) are serious, then more power to them. If actual small-government people ever look like getting control of that party, I might start supporting republicans.

Nico writes:

I'm about as hardcore a libertarian as they come, but I have to say I find Mr. Kling's attempt to pin the entirely progressive philosophy on a kind of pathology is a bit dishonest and intellectually lazy.

I've heard Ezra Klein speak a few times and have read him a bit as well, and I sincerely doubt that he is so naive as to think once that his side is in power there'll be no corruption or influence by special interests.

I think the question behind this debate, and the libertarian-progressive debate at large, comes down to this: Given that there are problems with government intervention AND free markets (even most libertarians seem to agree that there are in some cases), is government intervention more likely to result in a better or worse outcome than non-intervention? Libertarians have got to admit that, even given public-choice problems and other corrupting effects on government policy, it may still be worth it- at least by some cogent criterion. After all, how many libertarians really think we ought to, say, get government out of the business of regulating the manufacture and sale of nuclear weapons because of unintended consequences and public choice problems?

The progressives may still be wrong- I think they are, but we've got to go a little deeper if we want to demonstrate it.

Barbar writes:

Libertarianism in practical terms is often just another politics of resentment -- damn those elites who want to run the country and think they're smarter than you and know what is best but in reality are compromised and imperfect despite their professed ideals.

Instead, much better to put in charge of government people who claim that government cannot do any good. Somehow these people never actually dismantle the government, but when the government performs poorly under their leadership you certainly cannot accuse them of dreaded hypocrisy, so it's OK.

TGGP writes:

Jim: I've never before heard anyone make the claim that the UK is less dominated by "special interests". I'm not saying it's not true (although I don't care much for the term "special interests", which generally implies that some "us" has legitimate interests but those of some "them" are illegitimate, and Caplan has shown the public tends to be supportive anyway) but that it's not obvious. Please provide some statistics (farm subsidies were the classic Public Choice example, other corporate welfare would be good). If you merely want to get into an across-the-pond-pissing-contest I'd add in a jab about the rather absurd and somewhat 1984/Brave New World direction the UK has taken under Blair. However, that's not what I'm really interested in, so I have no problem in noting that the average IQ in the United States is lower (not by a lot though) than that of the UK. The Phillipines does not exactly have a history of good government (which I would say the anglosphere except pre-recent Ireland does).

Michael E Sullivan: The best "lesser of two evils" piece limiting itself to mainstream American politics was this from (what used to be) Catallarchy. My thought process is similar, but I don't vote.

Barbar: I agree with you that libertarianism can be another "politics of resentment". But I am curious as to who you think was put in charge of government after saying it can't do anything. I hope you are not saying W, who had never even pretended to be a libertarian. Are you talking about the Gingrich congress? Reagan? Please specify.

Barbar writes:

Strictly speaking, libertarians haven't decided any elections, simply because they are such a small part of the population. But I'm sure that someone like David Thomson above, who is apparently terrified of potential benevolent dictator Ezra Klein, had no problem voting for Bush in 2000 and 2004.

Stan writes:

Perhaps it is just the ghost of Ayn Rand scaring me, but from this post and comments, it seems that the only thing separating liberals and libertarians is knowledge of government failure. For years I had assumed that the difference was entirely philosophical.... At least I'd hoped....

TGGP writes:

Barbar, your last post was quite good, at least considerings its brevity. However, I feel left out and ignored. I asked you a direct question at the bottom of my previous post which appears right before yours. So, how about it?

Nico writes:

Stan,
I take it what you're referring to is the absence of natural rights arguments against government intervention. Perhaps I should have mentioned something about this in my last post.

While I'm sympathetic to the natural rights libertarian position, I have yet to encounter an argument for natural rights that I found really convincing. I'm interested in looking into the issue more, because I think there are some interesting arguments that can be made.

That said, at this point I still err on the side of thinking that the best sort of arguments you can make are those that adopt the assumptions of your opponent. In most policy the debates, the most obvious path for the libertarian to take is to argue that a policy fails on the terms of its proponents.

Also, it seems to me the natural rights position seems to lead very quickly to denouncing those who disagree with you as immoral or somehow deluded (see the Lew Rockwell folks and, of course, Randians). I think this is both counterproductive and contrary to the enlightenment spirit that, I think, ought to drive true liberalism.

Floccina writes:

There is an interesting that some of progressives are in power seeing how things really work. Incumbent politicians should less be less biased and more for small government than anyone because they know how things really work. It must be some other bias or dishonesty that keeps them in the camp. Clinton may be a great example of this he ran promising to mend NAFTA and to institute national healthcare but he did neither and I always thought that it was because he was conservative politically why would he not sign NAFTA knowing the benefits and knowing that the republicans where more pro NAFTA than he was. He ran to win lying like a rug but governed not to hurt the economy. Maybe that is the best that we can hope for.

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