Thursday, September 14, 2006

Is Liberalism A More Pragmatic Approach?

In the comments to CA’s post about the relative qualities of moonbats and wingnuts, DB argued the common liberal refrain that liberals are more open to empirical evidence than conservatives. This argument was made famous in an article by Jonathan Chait in the New Republic, which led to a debate between Chait and National Review’s Jonah Goldberg on opinionduel.com (no longer available). Chait contended that liberalism is more pragmatic, while conservativism is more dogmatic.

As a theoretical matter, Chait is probably right. Modern liberalism, which is basically progressivism, is by definition more open to policies that would change society for the better. Conservativism is primarily interested in preserving our current practices and traditions, while progressives propose making changes that would allow society to progress in a favorable direction. They support experimenting via government (top-down) and analyzing the outcomes to see if the programs are effective.

Conservatives (I’m parroting Hayek here) oppose this ideology because they presume that traditions that have lasted this long have a presumption of correctness and changes could have unforeseen deleterious effects that are not easily reversed. They therefore support allowing changes to be made organically (bottom-up), without imposition from the government.

So in fact conservatives are certainly are less open to empirical evidence that might point to favorable government programs because they are not willing to risk forcing adverse effects on society. Liberals, on the other hand, tend to look at the evidence and ignore possible, but unforeseen, negative effects.

Nevertheless I believe DB and Chait are wrong for two reasons. First, the argument ignores the evolution of conservative doctrine over the last 30 years – partly spurred by the influence of neoconservative doctrine – from an ideological movement to a more pragmatic governing philosophy. While fifty years ago most conservatives might have opposed high taxes on ideological grounds (that people should be allowed to keep their own money), today conservatives generally oppose high taxation for pragmatic reasons. Supply side economics and the Laffer curve are in vogue in the conservative movement not because they provide justification for low taxation, but because they provide the reasoning behind the idea that high taxation harms our economy. Conservatives oppose high taxes because it negatively affects the economy, and if the evidence would show that high taxes were beneficial, many conservatives would shift their policy preferences accordingly.

Other examples abound. Irving Kristol strongly opposes welfare because it creates a sense of dependence and generates disincentives for work. Many conservatives oppose SSM because they believe it harms families. They oppose rent control and stabilization because it decreases available housing on the market. They support moral legislation because they believe it makes a better society.

Obviously not all conservatives are pragmatists. The religious right and the paleoconservatives are far less likely to allow empirical evidence to change their mind. They usually have ideological positions, and are not going to change because of evidence. The religious right is not going to support SSM no matter how much evidence shows that gay couples are just as likely to have stable families as straights. Paleos are going to support isolationism even if the preponderance of the evidence points to the conclusion that staying out of world politics harms our national interest.

But that just gets me to my second reason: the assumption that liberals are more pragmatic only makes sense from the liberal perspective. The proposition is only sustainable once one assumes that liberal ideology is correct. Let me explain.

Chait’s argument presumes that both liberals and conservatives have ideological positions that are not subject to empirical analysis, but liberals are more willing to subject the methods used to further those positions to empirical analysis. For example, liberals support wealth distribution because it makes society as a whole better off. Conservatives, however, oppose it even if the evidence shows that wealth distribution improves society.

But this analysis begs the question. Conservatives disagree over what constitutes a better society. To better frame the issue, liberals presume that a more equal society is a better society. Conservatives assume that a society that allows people to keep the proceeds of their hard work is a more fair society. When liberals “prove” that wealth distribution makes society better, they mean more equal. Conservatives might agree that wealth distribution makes society more equal, but not that it makes society better. Basically the disagreement is over values, not methods.

Affirmative action is another example that might better shine light on my argument. Liberals argue that society should act affirmatively to ensure that everyone has equal access to society. This argument by nature is an argument for equality. Conservatives disagree. One source of disagreement is that the evidence does not show that affirmative action works (i.e., that it affords disenfranchised minorities equal access to society). But even if the evidence showed that affirmative action was successful to the extent that it fulfilled its objections, conservatives would still oppose it because they believe a better society is one that rewards people for hard work.

Basically conservatives are willing to subject the methods to reach their ideological objectives to empirical testing, but not their ideology itself. In that way liberals and conservatives are no different.

28 Comments:

Blogger Izzy said...

If, for the moment, we accept the dichotomy you have proposed, then we run into another axis that muddles the argument. I would submit that people are also separated by whether their primary method of considering an argument is rational or emotional.

Thus, an emotional liberal might be upset by the current distribution of wealth in a society, and might work to redistribute that wealth in order to "feel" better. Their counterpart, the emotional conservative, would be upset by the "dangerous" redistribution.

Their counterparts, the rational liberal and rational conservative, would have different arguments. The rational liberal might look to economic theories that support redistribution (such as marxism or socialism), and argue for their correctness through rational economic arguments. The rational conservative might counter by pointing out from historical sources that such redistribution through progressive means have never worked.

Thus, I think that the dichotomy is false. I think that modern rational conservatives and modern rational liberals cannot be compared. They think about things differently. One looking at what theoretically "should" be and the other looking at what pragmatically has been. Therefore, I believe that the true difference is one of utopianism vs. pragmatism.

9/14/2006 6:49 PM  
Blogger Charlie Hall said...

'traditions that have lasted this long have a presumption of correctness '

This is not an argument that flies. Slavery lasted a long time. So did divine right of kings. So did restricting voting to male property owners.

'they provide the reasoning behind the idea that high taxation harms our economy'

The empirical evidence from some European countries is that it is possible to have a very well-off society with much higher individual tax rates than the US. But conservatives in the US ignore these data.

'if the evidence would show that high taxes were beneficial, many conservatives would shift their policy preferences accordingly'

I have yet to see any US conservative support the kinds of policies metioned above. Interestingly, though, those higher tax rates in the successful European economies only apply to individuals; they typically have very low taxes on businesses.

'opposes welfare because it creates a sense of dependence and generates disincentives for work'

There is *some* evidence for this, but there is also a lot more disincentive for proper economic behavior in the wide array of subsidies to politically well-connected businesses. And the European countries that have adopted the high tax on individuals/low tax on businesses model also have a much more generous welfare system than the US, which is evidence *against* this argument.


'conservatives oppose SSM because they believe it harms families'

There is not a shred of evidence for this.

'They oppose rent control and stabilization because it decreases available housing on the market.'

This is pure ideology not backed up by empirical vidence. Ending rent control and rent stabilization will add very few homes to the New York Real Estate market. Why? Zoning! There isn't really any significant undeveloped parcel of land left in New York City with residential zoning -- and much of the existing residential areas are getting downzoned (including my own neighborhood). Ending rent control and rent stabilzation will only free up the market if substantial amounts of land are rezoned from other uses to residential.

'a better society is one that rewards people for hard work'

However, the persistence of race and sex discrimination, and, even more common, simple nepotism and cronyism, distorts this. In addition, the one thing that really does seem to result in reward is access to low cost (preferably free) high quality education -- hard work at a low skill job results in, well, another low skill low paying job. Again, most European countries I allude to provide that (I think postsecondary education in Ireland is actually tuition free.) We have actually been moving away from that model in the US.

9/14/2006 8:27 PM  
Blogger Ezzie said...

Great post, Nephtuli.

Therefore, I believe that the true difference is one of utopianism vs. pragmatism.

To some extent, I agree with that. The question is, which one is a more realistic and practical way of approaching the issues? The pragmatic by a wide margin.

The empirical evidence from some European countries is that it is possible to have a very well-off society with much higher individual tax rates than the US. But conservatives in the US ignore these data.

From some. From most, however, that's simply not true... and it ignores progress and innovation, which are much more highly encouraged (and carried out) here in the US than in Europe.

I have yet to see any US conservative support the kinds of policies metioned above. Interestingly, though, those higher tax rates in the successful European economies only apply to individuals; they typically have very low taxes on businesses.

A) You haven't seen it here because nobody's proved that it could/would work here.

B) The proposals here are always to raise BOTH individual AND corporate rates. One of the big "complaints" was that Bush was giving money away to corporations.

And the European countries that have adopted the high tax on individuals/low tax on businesses model also have a much more generous welfare system than the US, which is evidence *against* this argument.

How? Their unemployment rates are - by and large - worse than the US, particularly among the young. (Think France.)

Ending rent control and rent stabilzation will only free up the market if substantial amounts of land are rezoned from other uses to residential.

That's not true. People would actually start moving out of New York, realizing they can't afford it... and for once, housing here might be forced to lower itself to an affordable level. The messing around with the market here has led to higher prices in general, not lower.

However, the persistence of race and sex discrimination, and, even more common, simple nepotism and cronyism, distorts this.

I'm pretty sure that the effects of any of these are by and large exaggerated, and the effect affirmative action and quotas have had on it is almost nil, though it may lead to sexism and racism from bitter people who were shunt out of jobs.

9/14/2006 9:02 PM  
Blogger Nephtuli said...

Izzy,

I agree that rational conservatives and liberals apply different arguments, but I disagree that liberal arguments are utopian by nature merely because they refuse to consider previous examples dispositive. One cannot conclusively argue that socialism is a failure (although to paraphrase Irving Kristol, at some point if something has failed enough it's time to recognize that isn't going to work in the future). Liberals argue that past examples are muddled because every country has a distinct national circumstance. Moreover they might note that the goals of the socialist enterprise are different in that socialism is designed to foster equality, even at the cost of economic efficiency overall. The latter is a value judgment, while the former is empirical. I do believe that the liberals who make the empirical argument are wrong and less empirical, but not necessarily utopian or irrational.

Charlie,

This is the post to argue about economics or moral policy. My argument was simply that conservatives make good-faith arguments for many policies based on cost-benefit analysis and not just ideology. With the exception of the SSM issue I mention, are you really arguing that there are no reasonable arguments against welfare, rent control and high taxes?

And about the presumption: that's why it's a rebuttable presumption. If the practice is intolerably cruel, then I'd agree. The difference between Hayek's view of the world and the standard liberal framework is that Hayek would only support changes when the evidence for change is far greater than simply 50-50. Liberals would be fine with making a change because the evidence slightly points in favor of the new policy. That's a major point of contention between the two.

Ezzie,

Thanks.

9/15/2006 10:58 AM  
Blogger Charlie Hall said...

'The messing around with the market here has led to higher prices in general, not lower.'

I agree. I just argue that it has more to do with government actions that restrict supply rather than government actions to limit return on investment.

'are you really arguing that there are no reasonable arguments against welfare, rent control and high taxes?'

No. But I do argue that a lot of the arguments are based on theory rather than empirical evidence. Economic theory is notoriously difficult to test empirically. A conservative should be hesitant to implement policies that have inadequate empirical support.

9/15/2006 11:56 AM  
Blogger Nephtuli said...

No. But I do argue that a lot of the arguments are based on theory rather than empirical evidence. Economic theory is notoriously difficult to test empirically.

I agree.

A conservative should be hesitant to implement policies that have inadequate empirical support.

Well if economics are very difficut to prove empircally and conservatives shouln't implement policies that do have empirical support, then under that logic conservatives are unable to get involved in economics at all. The natural position would then be to stay out of the market totally, which cutting taxes is the first step to acheiving.

But very few conservatives would call for that today. Practically economics is a field that is theory-laden, but the market cannot remain completely unregulated. So conservatives must try to implement policies that are the best supported empircally and in theory.

But remember the point of this post was to respond to the idea that liberals are more pragmatic. If there's inadequate empirical evidence for any economic policy, then on basis are the pragmatic liberals implementing economic policy?

9/15/2006 12:28 PM  
Blogger Charlie Hall said...

'If there's inadequate empirical evidence for any economic policy, then on basis are the pragmatic liberals implementing economic policy? '

There IS empirical evidence for a log of economic theory. For example, markets are more efficient at allocating resources than command economies (compare the US to the former Soviet bloc), but command economies work well in times of extreme stress where survival itself is at stake (such as in the US during World War I and World War II). Some public goods -- schools, parks, transportation facilities -- clearly add value to the economy even though their value can not be captured in a market. (Compare the parts of the US that made major investments in such during the 19th century to those that did not.) A corollary is that there are some "public bads" such as environmental pollution that damage economic prosperity but aren't captured in markets, either. (Plenty of evidence for this, too.) Barriers to trade often impede economic growth. (The evidence for this is overwhelming.)

I don't think most economists would argue with any of these points.

As far as to whether the left or the right is the most pragmatic, I think that is arguable. I would probably argue for the left because they don't place economic prosperity as their only goal. And it should not be the only goal.

9/15/2006 2:43 PM  
Blogger Ezzie said...

I just argue that it has more to do with government actions that restrict supply rather than government actions to limit return on investment.

Agreed.

I don't think most economists would argue with any of these points.

Nope - I'd agree with all of those, too.

I would probably argue for the left because they don't place economic prosperity as their only goal. And it should not be the only goal.

Woah. Why would you claim that the right feels this way? It's *not* about economic prosperity, though that plays a large role, but in what way the most can be produced which help the entire world.

9/15/2006 3:21 PM  
Blogger Nephtuli said...

I don't think most economists would argue with any of these points.

Then there's little evidence that either conservatives or liberals are more prone to base economic decisions on ideology instead of evidence.

As far as to whether the left or the right is the most pragmatic, I think that is arguable. I would probably argue for the left because they don't place economic prosperity as their only goal. And it should not be the only goal.

I disagree but even if that were true, it's simply a value judgment that isn't subject to empirical testing anymore than the question of whether a fair society is a better society.

9/16/2006 7:48 PM  
Blogger Charlie Hall said...

'It's *not* about economic prosperity, though that plays a large role, but in what way the most can be produced which help the entire world. '

I don't argue with you except to point out that there are some conservative ideologues who seem to worship lassez-faire economics almost as a religion.

9/17/2006 9:08 AM  
Blogger Jak Black said...

Ahh, I've found a new home.

Naphtuli, good post. A couple of small points.

First, although you are correct that conservatives give tradition the presumption of truth, they also believe that change is necessary. Kirk, in Prospects for Conservatives, explains this position well. In summation he writes, "So the intelligent conservative endeavors to reconcile or balance the claims of Permanence and the claims of Progression. He believes that innovators, blind to the just claims of Permanence, would endanger the patrimony of civilization in a rash endeavor to break through into an imagined future of universal happiness. The conservative, in short, favors a reasoned and temperate progress; he opposes the abstract cult of Progress, which cult assumes that everything new necessarily is better than everything old."

Second, the neoconservatives do share some characteristics of the Old Right, but are hardly considered "conservative" in many areas. You write, "partly spurred by the influence of neoconservative docrine," but in fact some of the moves of the Old Right have been despite, or as a reaction to, the neocons, rather than by influence.

At any rate, I'm betting that the neocons are going to suffer some serious political reversals in the near future.

9/20/2006 12:10 PM  
Blogger Nephtuli said...

Jak,

I agree. Hayek supported changes if the policy is, as Jonathan Rauch put it, "scaldingly inhumane." No conservative requires society to remain static.

I would argue that the neocon influence on conservatism shaped the movement, by being absorbed into the Republican party, and moved it in a different direction. Reagan had all the trappings of a neocon, from positive feelings toward FDR to strong support for suppy-side economics, which was a policy strongly pushed by the neocons.

The conservative support for the Iraq war is strongly neocon. Their strong allegiance to Israel, a decade and a half after the cold war is neo-con as well.

9/20/2006 2:50 PM  
Blogger Nephtuli said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9/20/2006 2:50 PM  
Blogger Jak Black said...

Reagan had all the trappings of a neocon, from positive feelings toward FDR to strong support for suppy-side economics, which was a policy strongly pushed by the neocons.

Oy, that my eyes should not have to read such heresy! :)

Reagan was a conservative, period. I'm not sure where you're making the mistake (misunderstanding of Reagan or neocons), so I'm not sure how to answer. Again, as I stated before, some neocon positions are in fact conservative. That doesn't make all conservatives neocons!

9/20/2006 2:57 PM  
Blogger Nephtuli said...

Jak,

Here's a good short article on Reagan (full disclosure: AEI is a neo-conservative think-tank). Key point:

"Reagan said it was liberalism, not himself, that had changed...."

That's exactly what Irving Kristol believes.

It's hard to describe a "New Deal Republican" as anything more than a neo-conservative.

9/20/2006 8:40 PM  
Blogger Charlie Hall said...

'It's hard to describe a "New Deal Republican" as anything more than a neo-conservative.'

Fiorello LaGuardia was a neocon?

9/20/2006 11:54 PM  
Blogger Jak Black said...

More heresy.

Basically, you're bringing proofs from neocons that Reagan was a neocon. The writer seems to have forgotten the many statements Reagan made against big government.

Reagan didn't activly try to shrink government (though he did, as the article admits, put certain breaks in place, and lower taxes) because he had bigger fish to fry - communism. Even much of the Old Right (Buckley, for example) understood that the government might have to get "big" to defeat communism, then shrunken afterward. Additionally, Reagan was hobbled (unlike Bush) by a hostile Congress. Like Burke, he understood that politics is the art of the possible - he accomplished what he could with the tools at his disposal.

But to suggest that Reagan was the forerunner of neoconservatism is simply untrue.

You do understand, I assume, that neocons are very much liberals at heart, right?

9/21/2006 12:32 AM  
Blogger Charlie Hall said...

'The writer seems to have forgotten the many statements Reagan made against big government.'

He talked the talk, but did not walk the walk.

Not only as President did the size of the government increase, but also as governor of California -- and he didn't have the excuse of fighting communism. And the congress was not as hostile as you make out during the first six years of his Presidency: Republicans controlled the Senate, and ad hoc coalitions of Republicans and conservative Democrats (there used to be such an animal) allowed him to get most of what he wanted in the House. What Reagan did not do, (which, ironically, Jimmy Carter had tried and largely failed to do), was to control pork-barrel spending. Either his heart wasn't in the fight, or he didn't want to jeopardize higher priorities by alienating powerful congressmen with defense contractors or water projects in their districts.

Whichever is true, the US will be paying the debts incurred from large Reagan budget deficits for a long time.

9/21/2006 9:39 AM  
Blogger Nephtuli said...

Jak,

Reagan's support for tax cuts was precisely the biggest issue that neo-cons have supported for the past 30 years. The fact that he supported tax cuts certainly does show ideological opposition to neo-con thought.

Moreover, neo-cons are not in favor of big government is all cases. Neo-con identity is amorphous, Kristol has argued that neo-cons are "at home in today's America" and do not have an aversion to big government. Reagan might have railed against big government but he did push to end it. Reagan did not oppose the New Deal and the myriad independent and executive agencies that were spawned from that era.

Honesly I don't think it's fair to say that Reagan was a neo-con, but I certainly feel is accurate to say that he shared many of their ideals and opposed very few.

That said, the "neoconservative persuasion" is well-embedded in the Republican party and conservativism today. The neoconservative movement certainly had the effect of making the Republican Party more forward looking and less nostalgic.

Kristol's explaination of neoconservative thought can be found here.

9/21/2006 11:30 AM  
Blogger Nephtuli said...

The fact that he supported tax cuts certainly does show ideological opposition to neo-con thought. should read "does not show...."

Reagan might have railed against big government but he did push to end it. should say "he did not push...."

9/21/2006 11:32 AM  
Blogger Jak Black said...

That said, the "neoconservative persuasion" is well-embedded in the Republican party and conservativism today. The neoconservative movement certainly had the effect of making the Republican Party more forward looking and less nostalgic.

While I agree that neoconservatism has become embedded in the Republican party, I strongly disagree with your idea that it has done the same with conservativism. Conservatives of many stripes - the Old Right (also known as the paleos), the New Right (possibly to a lesser degree), the Nationalists and certainly libertarians all hold them in virtual contempt. As they control many of the important foundations, their opinions are sometimes confused with the broad conservative consensus. But that simply isn't so.

I do agree that the neocon movement forced many conservatives to look forward, and to form more realistic strategies for capturing political clout. Samuel Francis's Revolution from the Middle is typical of one such attempt. But this was basically as a reaction to the highjacking of the movement by the neocons, not the influence per se.

9/21/2006 11:47 AM  
Blogger Nephtuli said...

Jak,

Of course there are ideologies within the broader conservative movement that are hostile to neoconservativism (although I would disagree with lumping libertarians with conservatives). I'd never expect the hard-right to agree with the neoconservatives as their ideologies are disparate on many issues. But my point is that if all these submovements are part of the greater conservative movement, neoconservatism has become part of that movement and has changed it in different ways via influence.

If you're telling me that the American Conservative isn't becoming neoconservative, then, sure, I agree.

I'm not sure I understand your distinction in your last paragraph. If changing how one approaches problems because of other actors is not responding to their influence, I'm not sure what is.

9/21/2006 12:13 PM  
Blogger Jak Black said...

My distinction was between responding to the influence, versus being influenced by.

I did not mean to lump in the libertarians with the conservatives, but traditionally (until quite recently), they have been part of the broad conservative coalition. Certainly many libertarians had a profound influence on the movement - Nock, Chodorov, the economists, and many others. I actually find it very sad that their recent efforts have been devoted to little more than homosexual rights. Nock is probably turning in his grave.

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