Arnold Kling  

Inequality of Political Power

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It's hard to decide what to excerpt from Will Wilkinson's article.


A fresh-faced 31-year-old, Deese dropped out of Yale Law School last year to work for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. When Clinton sank, Deese skipped over to the winning ship, impressed everybody who counts, and landed a desk in the White House. The big guns like Larry Summers and Christina Romer are busy cooking up hilariously sunny budget projections while trying to look like they're keeping the economy from collapsing. So Deese, armed with an undergrad degree in political science, finds the GM portfolio and the fate of millions in his hands.

Read the whole thing. It spells out the absurdity of concentrated political power.

The issue of concentrated political power is the theme of one of the two books that I have coming out this year.


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (11 to date)
fenn writes:

Please, no Cowenesque teasers.

What is the other book?

I'm bound to buy 'em (and suggest my libraries do so as well)

fundamentalist writes:

The Bush administration hired similar young, inexperienced cult followers to manage the redestruction of Iraq. Look at Iraq and see our future.

Eric H writes:

I know what you mean Arnold. It is difficult to know what to excerpt from Will's piece.

His points about media influence and the creepiness of Brian Deese's influence are well taken.

Some of his other points confuse me, though.

He praises a social safety net, claiming that it isn't a ceiling on growth. Of course it isn't; it's a floor, of sorts, which happens to be a ceiling for someone else. I'm not able to raise my "ceiling" by an amount precisely equal to the payroll tax.

He then says:

"The best liberal argument for limiting inequalities in wealth through redistribution is that otherwise it will be impossible to limit unequal concentrations of political power."

He proceeds to state that a concentration of political power is what is needed to create a properly redistributive policy, namely by allowing people to get wealthy enough until their voting preferences converge.

In other words, wealth and progress are functional only when harnessed to produce a predetermined idea of a "good" society, e.g. one with a safety net.

The last point he makes, and one that should be particularly repugnant to free-thinkers and skeptics, is his categorical dismissal of "the tyranny of local prejudice." The local-est prejudice is the sovereignty of one's mind. The right to conscientiously object, the right to opt out, the right to "seastead"--these are all the results of tyrannical local prejudice. Tyrannical local prejudice might allow the wealthy of one state or city to create their own social safety net, or forego one entirely, or figure out a novel way to provide for one without having to convince us all that our wealth ceiling should be just a few inches lower.


muirgeo writes:

I excerpted these two things....


This

"However, this argument assumes that the wealthy have relatively uniform political aims, and will coordinate their resources to achieve their aims. "

and this

Will Wilkinson is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and editor of Cato Unbound.


Because together they make the article difficult to take seriously coming from a hired gun representing a front group of the wealthy with specific aims of influencing favorable policy making decisions.

chappy writes:

Oh, please. While I agree that the subject in question might have limited credentials, he is essentially a research assistant for the real players. Concentrated polical power may still be a problem, but I think you're pointing to the wrong symptom.

eccdogg writes:

muriego

WOW

First lets jus assume that Cato is a "front group of the wealthy with specific aims of influencing favorable policy making decisions" something I would strongly disagree with.

It still does not follow that what Will said is wrong.

Since groups like MoveOn.org, Center for American Progress, and America Coming Together are also front groups funded by the wealthy (George Soros) with specific aims of influencing favorable policy.

Will's main point (that you totally missed) is that the wealthy in no way have a uniform set of opinions. Some are liberals, libertarians, conservatives, statist, progressives, etc. And to the extent that they all give their money to groups that promote their ideals they tend to cancel each other out.

In fact the super rich (those making more than 10 million) tend to support Democrats.

http://blogs.wsj.com/wealth/2008/10/13/the-rich-support-mccain-the-super-rich-support-obama/

Will Wilkinson writes:

Muirgeo,

Let's set aside the fact that you've diminished yourself by insulting my independence of mind and intellectual integrity without basis.

Here's the idea that many people, such as yourself, have a hard time getting their heads around: money donated to places like Cato has influence only if the people it supports have influence. If you have a ton of money, but there are no intellectuals or communicators who share your politics, there's no way to buy a voice in the public debate. Influence attracts money from likeminded people, but money cannot easily create it.

Second, VERY FEW wealthy people choose to try to influence public debate by giving to libertarian organizations. For example, the Center for American Progress, which has existed only since 2003, already has a larger budget than the Cato Institute, much of which comes from billionaires and undisclosed corporate donors.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Center_for_American_Progress#Funding

And that's just a drop in the bucket. The amount of money wealthy Americans donate each year to support the research of left-leaning university research centers dwarfs donations to free-market think tanks by many, many orders of magnitude. Doesn't this tend to support my claim, which you quote, and then dismiss, that the wealthy have diverse political aims?

Objectively, CAP has more big money behind it than Cato. How could this be true if the wealthy generally coordinate to protect their narrow self-interest through donations? Either you need to accept that CAP's stated aim to "deliver universal health care" is part of a scheme of the self-serving wealthy or you need to drop your simple conception of self-interested politics and admit that people generally give to causes that reflect their honest values.

Eric H writes:

Will--

I enjoyed your piece, but I'm having trouble understanding how you are (re)reading it.

You wrote:

"The best liberal argument for limiting inequalities in wealth through redistribution is that otherwise it will be impossible to limit unequal concentrations of political power. Redistribution is required to keep liberal democracy from devolving into plutocracy. However, this argument assumes that the wealthy have relatively uniform political aims, and will coordinate their resources to achieve their aims. Yet, as political scientists have shown, the wealthier voters get, the more likely they are to vote their consciences rather than their wallets. Wealthy voters have become more supportive of reducing income inequality through redistribution, not less—even as levels of income inequality have increased."

And then today you write:

"And that's just a drop in the bucket. The amount of money wealthy Americans donate each year to support the research of left-leaning university research centers dwarfs donations to free-market think tanks by many, many orders of magnitude. Doesn't this tend to support my claim, which you quote, and then dismiss, that the wealthy have diverse political aims?"

How diverse are the political aims of the wealthy if their contributions to left-leaning research institutions dwarf those to free market think tanks by many orders of magnitude?

Haven't they coordinated their resources to achieve those aims? Your post above seems to say that they have, and that they've aimed those resources en masse at left-leaning institutions.

I am sure there are factors I'm not taking into account. Perhaps the communities of think-tank supporters, whether left-leaning, right-leaning or in between, are themselves smaller subsets of communities who could care less. Perhaps a sizable portion of funding for left-leaning think tanks is derived from trust funds established by long dead Republicans or libertarians, whose progeny no longer know or care how those funds were created or about the political motivations of their creators.

I'll add a token swipe at liberaltarianism: isn't the creation of wealth, and the subsequent democratically created welfare systems of which the wealthy conscience approves, something liberaltarians are interested in?

Anyway, what's a heavy like you doing, stooping down and appeasing Muirgeo by giving him attention?

David C writes:

I find Will Wilkinson is good at describing the philosophy of libertarianism, but frequently fails to understand the liberal position.

He summed up the Obama administration's policy on GM by pointing out that some 31-year old who was fairly new to politics had some unspecified level of influence on GM's decisions. He then spends several paragraphs complaining about possibilities that might not actually exist. I assume the New York Times was more thorough, but I can't know for sure since no link is provided.

"There's a respectable liberal argument that individuals can be truly free and equal only if they command resources sufficient to develop their capacities and enjoy the exercise of their basic rights. But this is an argument for a government-provided social safety net—for making sure everyone starts on a decent footing. It is not an argument for putting a ceiling on income and wealth."

No matter how you slice it, you can't provide for the needy without drawing from the resources of the wealthy.

"The best liberal argument for limiting inequalities in wealth through redistribution is that otherwise it will be impossible to limit unequal concentrations of political power. Redistribution is required to keep liberal democracy from devolving into plutocracy. However, this argument assumes that the wealthy have relatively uniform political aims, and will coordinate their resources to achieve their aims."

No, it assumes the wealthy have different aims than the poor, even if those aims are not entirely uniform.

"Objectively, CAP has more big money behind it than Cato. How could this be true if the wealthy generally coordinate to protect their narrow self-interest through donations?"

It is because the Heritage Institute and the American Enterprise Institute also believe in limited government control in the free market. They don't argue for it to the extent that CATO does, but they also have more influence, being conservative think tanks and not libertarian think tanks. If an individual wants lots of government involvement in the economy, he/she has only the Center for American Progress to represent the Democrats. The Democrats have only one to the Republican party's two, and there are no major Communist think tanks of consequence to balance out the CATO Institute.

eccdogg writes:

David have you ever heard of Brookings (center-left) or the Urban Institute (Left)?

There are plenty of liberal think tanks and orgainizations to counter "free market policies" control. And they ALL get most of their funding from the wealthy. All think tanks do.

However I do agree that the wealthy do have some uniform goals. Primarily to maintain thier social status. That is why there is no Communist think tank. However, neither Democrats nor Republicans are going to do anything to threaten the wealthy's relative position in our society and that is why the wealth donate to them in roughly equal amounts and support them roughly equally with split of the super rich supporting democrats and the minor rich supporting republicans.

David C writes:

^^ If Brookings is center-left, then the Council on Foreign Relations is center-right. If the Urban Institute, which represents the interests of the poor, is liberal, then the Institute for Energy Research, which represents fossil fuel companies, is conservative. Certainly there are more than just four think tanks, but those four I named are the only major four that deliberately work within partisan boundaries across all issues. My main point was that a head-to-head comparison of CATO and CAP is not an all-inclusive representation.

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