Bryan Caplan  

In Defense of Extreme Meliorism

Morning Disturbances... Financial Crisis, Phase Two...
When Tyler accused my critique of Eggers and O'Leary (E&O) of being "surprisingly meliorist," I felt a sudden need to check the definition of the word:
Pronunciation: \ˈmēl-yə-ˌri-zəm, ˈmē-lē-ə-\
Function: noun
Date: 1877

: the belief that the world tends to improve and that humans can aid its betterment

Guilty as charged!  The only mystery is why Tyler imagined I might be anything else.  He's seen my meliorism on a near-daily basis for the last thirteen years.   He should know better than to say, "I once read a book that suggested voters were doomed to irrationality (albeit to varying degrees)."  We were together at the 2009 Mont Pelerin Society meetings when I presented an entire paper attacking this misinterpretation of my book.

But what about Tyler's substantive point?
If voters can be taught the correct sophisticated mix of cynicism and pro-liberty sentiment, can they not be taught to support good policies, thus making democracy a well-functioning system of government?
The answer, of course, is that I favor teaching the public (a) that the logical response to cynicism about government is support for smaller government, and (b) what policies are good.  Neither is easily taught.  But there's nothing in the definition of meliorism that says that improving the world is easy.

In any case, E&O's lesson plan is more challenging than mine, and less true.  Like me, they want to educate people about what policies are good.  The difference: Instead of teaching people that cynicism about government is an argument for liberty, they want to teach people to stop being so cynical about government.  While we're both fighting uphill battles, I'm starting on higher ground.  At least I can build upon the public's justified cynicism.  E&O have to somehow trick the public into trusting the typical politician.

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COMMENTS (5 to date)
Kurbla writes:

Bryan The answer, of course, is that I favor teaching the public that the logical response to cynicism about government is support for smaller government...

Yes, you said that, but there is no logical conclusion here. How it is that logical response to cynicism about government is support for smaller government, and logical response on cynism about human rationality, integrity, honesty, sense of fair play, culture etc ... is support for more of rationality, honesty etc?

It might be that the notion of "cynicism" is misleading.

Gabriel Weil writes:

I think you're dodging the deeper issue here. Libertarians aoften argue that one of the reasons for smaller government is then there's less for the special interests to fight over, and therefore less incentive to engage in rent-seeking behavior, expending resources to get some kind of favorable treatment from the government - whether that's a subsidy or protection against competition or whatever. In your story, the centerpiece is the irrationality of voters rather than public choice, but the underlying argument is similar. In both, you are positing some kind of force that is capable of keeping government from growing, but not capable of keeping special interests from manipulating a large government. Each special interest's efforts to gain favorable treatment may be proportional to the likelihood of success, but it's not clear why that likelihood has much relationship to the overall size of government.

In other words, it libertarian arguments that use public choice or the irrationality of voters to push for smaller government assume they are capable of imposing something against the very mechanisms they say are the cause of bad government policies. That doesn't mean libertarianism is wrong, but it does suggest that that the libertarian ideal is no easier to achieve than a more statist arrangement with rational government policy. Both are difficult, for reasons of public choice and voter irrationality, but the end you seek must be determined by which you think represents better policy, because neither one has a magic way to get around these problems.

Matt writes:

Personally, I think we're doomed as far as forming a libertarian society. Fortunately things tend to get better even when governments take more power. Society may be less free, but we still tend to enjoy a higher standard of living than previous generations. Though it would be nice to have both...

Loof writes:

While no expert in etymology, L recall meliorism being used against absolute idealism, mainly with the pragmatisms of James and Dewey to argue against the Hegelian renaissance in their day.

“Isms” refers to belief systems and their movement towards an extreme, at times with an absolute aim. This is different in kind from an ameliorating movement with a relative aim: a progressive movement trying to make bads better, like liberal democracy and human rights.

As such, meliorism becomes fixed belief in absolute “progress” for society relative to nature, exemplified by a movement to virtual immorality for moneyed elites on Earth to extend their lives with technology. The belief system that defends extreme meliorism dovetails with Fukuyama’s bioethical stance as a “perfectly horrible example”.

Chris D writes:

I think you're fundamentally misinterpreting American "cynicism about government". In general, there seem to be two camps:

1. People like me who think that government is incompetently run, but can and should take on a variety of projects for the general good; and

2. People who think government has been overreaching since it was created, still resent the Sixteenth Amendment, think that markets will provide good roads and public libraries, and want to make sure the government keeps its filthy hands off of their Medicare and Social Security.

Americans who are the most "cynical about government" tend to view government as some parasitic alien creature that somehow represents a wholesale abandonment of the Constitution. Even assuming you could dislodge this view with a year of basic civics classes, the results don't necessarily lead to libertarianism. Likely quite the opposite: while you and Tyler have the intellectual honesty to think things through, most of the libertarians I know, while being otherwise very intelligent, live in a "let the market decide, why is the government stealing my salary" fairyland.

Ultimately, I think you're trying to encourage reasoning in a domain overwhelmingly dominated by ideology at best, and nuttery at worst.

Come to think of it, I wish you the best of luck. =)

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