Arnold Kling  

Yuval Levin on Capitalism

Go Quietly, Old People... EMH and Bubbles...

Now that it is on the web, I listened to Yuval Levin's lecture . Basically, Levin does not think that capitalism has any enemies. However, he thinks that it has many misguided and/or unreliable friends.

1. Liberals are misguided/unreliable because they believe in an impossibly perfectionist version of capitalism that they think is achievable with strong technocratic management.

2. Libertarians are misguided/unreliable because they do not understand that capitalism is part of a larger moral project, one which emphasizes self-discipline. Watch for his citations of Adam Smith.

3. Populist conservatives are misguided/unreliable because they depend on anger and resentment of elites, and this anger and resentment could easily be turned against capitalism.

By process of elimination, that leaves as true friends of capitalism only those who, like Levin, have an intellectual social conservative outlook. There is a problem with Levin's thesis, which came up during the Q&A (this is a rare case where the Q&A is at least as worthwhile to watch as the lecture itself). The Bush Administration's version of social conservatism expanded the welfare state (the prescription drug benefit, No Child Left Behind) and crony capitalism (the bank bailouts), thereby discrediting social conservatives as reliable friends of capitalism. One either has to say that Bush did a poor job of executing or he got unlucky (Levin might say it was a little of both), but that "compassionate conservatism" deserves another chance. It seems to me that James Manzi is headed in the same direction.

The view that I have been headed toward over the past couple years is that I am no longer content with the second worst form of government. Democracy, which gives us the choice between social conservatives and progressive technocrats, is too dysfunctional. The powers that have accrued to government officials simply make a mockery of the concept of democracy or equal rights.

I could go on at length, but I have already done so, in Unchecked and Unbalanced. I wonder if the ideas there are too far out on the fringe, or whether there are too many problems with the way I structured the book. In any case, so far it is not getting much in terms of reaction.

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COMMENTS (12 to date)
Ryan Vann writes:

Weird conclussion he comes to about Libertarians and morals. I always hear terms like "civil society" in conjunction with markets from libertarians (though they might be of a certain, perhaps Rothbardian, spectrum).

Jeff writes:

I can't watch the lecture because I'm at work, but it sounds like what Levin is really trying to say is that if libertarians only understood conservative ideology better, they wouldn't be libertarians.

On the contrary, I think most libertarians fully understand the type of society that movement conservatives like Levin would like to construct (call it a "moral project" if you want), they simply don't share that vision. I'd also agree with the first comment that libertarianism is its own "moral project," just one with a different emphasis.

Quite frankly, this sounds like a bit of self-flattery on Levin's part.

drobviousso writes:

I also don't have time to watch, but I'm bookmarking.

I think he misses the target on 1 and 3. I personally know more than a few liberals who just flat out don't think capitalism works. The fact that they use health care as their best argument is lost on them. On 3, I wonder if he confuses capitolism with corporatism. Populists conservatives love small business owners and 'Main Street America' which is generally populated with shops, dinners and other forms of commerce.

Granite26 writes:

Some whacko on the internet may be poor consolation, but I share your discontent.

Zdeno writes:

I don't have the patience for podcasts, but if Arnold's summary is a fair one, I can find much to disagree with.

1) Anyone who has ever spoken to or read anything written by a Progressive knows that they do not believe in unrealistically perfectable capitalism.

2) Libertarians are misguided from a tactical standpoint, not a moral one. It's time we took stock and admitted that our efforts to incrementally influence the current power structure have failed, and resign ourselves to coming up with discontinuous strategie, i.e. secession, seasteading, formalism. As a previous post on health care mentioned, innovation rarely comes from incumbents. The Cato Institute is a dead end. A Libertarian nation state only requires strong moral fiber in the context of the modern social democratic state. Remove the ability of the people to vote themselves largesse, and we will not need to induce their self-restraint.

3) Populist conservatism is indeed something we should be very afraid of. The masses are fickle, and the eloquent are opportunistic. Tea party resentment of governing elites is peaceful - for now. History reminds us though how quickly and unpredictably stable, prosperous states can descend into war and anarchy.

We may be living in dangerous times, or we may not. Dauntingly, I think our best hope is an elitist Libertarian movement that can articulate an alternative to both the current ruling class and Glenn Beck.



Ted Craig writes:

I'm not sure how socially conservative Bush really was. Much of his domestic agenda seemed motivated by classic rich white guy guilt.

fundamentalist writes:

Hayek addressed this issue in 1938. People become fed up with democracy because the government seems broken and impotent. But it's broken and impotent because the people have insisted that it go beyond general rules that apply to everyone to specific goals that pit groups of people against each other. Here's an excerpt from "What Price a Planned Economy" available at

"Planning must be understood here in the wide sense of any deliberate attempt at central direction of economic activity which goes beyond mere general rules that apply equally to all persons, and which tells different people individually what to do and what not to do. The demand for such planning arises because people are promised a greater measure of welfare if industry is consciously organized on rational lines and because it seems obvious that those particular ends which each individual most desires can be achieved by means of planning. But the agreement about the ends of planning is, in the first instance, necessarily confined to some blanket formula like the general welfare, greater equality or justice, etc."

"Agreement on such a general formula is, however, not sufficient to determine a concrete plan, even if we take all the technical means as given. Planning always involves a sacrifice of some ends in favor of others, a balancing of costs and results, and this presupposes a complete ranging of the different ends in the order of their importance. To agree on a particular plan requires much more than agreement on some general ethical rule; it requires much more than general adherence to any of the ethical codes which have ever existed; it requires that sort of complete quantitative scale of values which manifests itself in the actual decisions of every individual but on which, in an individualist society, agreement is neither necessary nor present."

xfiend writes:

why are leftists/marxists missing in Yuvals enumeration of the enemies of capitalism?

Matt C writes:

. . .I am no longer content with the second worst form of government. Democracy, which gives us the choice between social conservatives and progressive technocrats, is too dysfunctional . . .

A bit disturbing. I understand your nausea. I share it myself, and I worry a lot about the future of the U.S..

That said, what good alternative to democracy do we have? Most of the nice places in the world today are democracies. The really awful places in the world are not (perhaps having fake elections that no one believes).

Democracy doesn't lead to optimal results, but its failures don't usually involve gulags and killing fields. I think there are a lot of ways for the "ditch democracy" project to go wrong. Be careful what you wish for.

fundamentalist writes:

MattC, I'm disgusted with democracy as well. I realize that most people refer to our system as democracy when they know it is a republic, but the differences between and republic and a democracy are not trivial.

When our government was a republic, the Constitution restrained the state and the will of the majority could not violate the principles in the constitution. Property rights were held in high esteem.

But the Constitution proved too restricting to the will of the majority, which most people began to worship as sacred. So we have drifted toward a democracy in which nothing restrains the will of the majority and the state can ignore the Constitution with impunity.

Ryan Singer writes:

U&U is hardcover only? I don't have that much space at home, much less the expense.

I very much enjoyed reading From Poverty to Prosperity on my Kindle. Is U&U coming out for the Kindle?

Fenn writes:

I 2nd Ryan. Hope Unchecked comes out in a paperback. Not available through any libraries or brick and mortar stores where I could read it. My book budget is blown and my requests for the L.A. libraries to pick it up were shot down for lack of reviews.

Gonna have to settle for the Sowell, but curious about Arnold's proposed solutions.

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