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a priori Politics
Posted by: Jon Henke on Thursday, March 03, 2005

Jonathan Chait claims Liberals are empiricists and Conservatives are dogmatists. [advantage: Liberals!]



Will Wilkinson claims Chait is "blinkered" by his own ideology.



I'm gonna split the difference and agree to some extent with both Jonathan Chait and Will Wilkinson, though I think Wilkinson really gets closer to the root of the issue. In Chait's defense, this is remarkably accurate, as far as it goes...
We're accustomed to thinking of liberalism and conservatism as parallel ideologies, with conservatives preferring less government and liberals preferring more. The equivalency breaks down, though, when you consider that liberals never claim that increasing the size of government is an end in itself. Liberals only support larger government if they have some reason to believe that it will lead to material improvement in people's lives. Conservatives also want material improvement in people's lives, of course, but proving that their policies can produce such an outcome is a luxury, not a necessity.
Chait's worthwhile point is that liberalism has a substantively different value system than conservatism. Conservatives -- really, he's referring to free-marketers...fiscal conservatives/libertarians, or what we'll call "The Right" -- believe that 1) individual liberty -- "positive rights" -- is an end in itself, and that 2) a free market is the best coordinating mechanism to achieve (whatever basket of goods a society wants at any given point in time). As such, the policy proposals from The Right will place highest value on individual economic liberty first, with individual outcomes, as Chait says, "a luxury, not a necessity".

Liberalism, on the other hand, values a form of utilitarianism -- moderated by what John Rawls described as "justice as fairness" -- in which social policy seeks the greatest collective good, so long as inequality doesn't harm the collective. (i.e., the Difference Principle) This may be the "organizing principle of liberalism" about which I'd written earlier.

The problem, of course, is that "good" is a pretty vague measurement, so it's hard for various factions within liberalism to agree on the precise nature of this "common good". So, Liberalism ends up consisting of "overlapping consensus" -- a negotiated settlement of special interests.

Chait is correct, insofar as he points to an important component of political discourse, as opposed to political ideology. The Right, as Chait notes, doesn't "always dwell on their [ideological] principles because those principles have little use in converting unbelievers". Unfortunately for the Right, most economic political discourse occurs in the realm of outcomes (a chicken in every pot), rather than the realm of principles (the State is subservient to the individual). That puts the Right at a decided disadvantage, since their ideology places individual economic benefit as a secondary value to freedom.

But Chait doesn't seem to understand that this is a problem of political rhetoric and not a flaw in ideology on The Right. (except insofar as it puts us at a political disadvantage) Wilkinson explains this vital misunderstanding:



At its very heart, Jonathan Chait's article is an argument that Liberalism is a more efficient means of accomplishing specified outputs than Conservatism. Unfortunately, this belies a basic misunderstanding of efficiency. In The Economic Way of Thinking, Paul Heyne pointed out that efficiency depends entirely upon values...
Efficiency is essentially a evaluative term. It always has to do with the ratio of the value of output to the value of input. ... Value of output divided by value of input is the only way to measure efficiency.
The Left and the Right have a fundamentally different highest value. So long as that is the case, pointing out that liberalism is better at achieving the values of liberalism is akin to pointing out that football teams are better than baseball teams...at football.
 
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As an engineer I see the words "liberal" and "conservative" differently, and thouroughly abused in the context of political discourse.

A "liberal" values liberty, specifically personal liberty. This is not the opposite of "conservative"; it’s the opposite of "totalitarian". But "liberal" has become such a emotion-laden term as to be useless, and we now say "libertarian" instead. Heck, "libertarian" has gained enough emotional baggage for people to start calling themselve "neo-libertarian" to distinguish themselves.

A "conservative" is skeptical of proposed changes, wanting real-world proof that an idea is good regarldess of how good it looks on paper. All good engineers are conservative engineers (because so few people proposing changes are as smart as they think they are, and something vital is always overlooked). This is not the opposite of "liberal", it’s the opposite of "moonbat".

This blog seems to me to be both liberal, in the sense of "neo-libertarian" and conservative, in the sense of looking at new ideas critically (see the "and then what happens" discussion on Social Security for a perfect example of an engineer’s conservatism). That’s pretty cool, but it also shows that there are values associated with "liberal" and "conservative" that should be embraced by both parties.
 
Written By: Skorj
URL: http://
So, let me understand this.
Chait thinks Conservatives are dogmatists, wlkinson responds by suggesting that Chait is "blinkered" by his own dogmatism, in essense.

Have i missed anything, here?

 
Written By: Bithead
URL: http://bitheads.blogspot.com
"there are values associated with "liberal" and "conservative" that should be embraced by both parties."

Here Here! I think a good number of people on both sides of the "aisle" need to realise this. We should start focusing on commons instead of differences. It’d make things go a lot easier rather than people screaming at each other all the time. We don’t have to all be the same, we just all need to accept that we’re not the same and allow it. I’d have to say I don’t see a lot of screaming and name calling on this blog. IThat’s one of the main reasons I read here. Maybe I just haven’t read the right threads yet, hehe.
 
Written By: Losing Faith
URL: http://
As a "street liberal" I have a slightly different take on the differences between liberals and conservatives. I feel that we liberals utilize secular knowledge and logic to arrive at many of our axioms. We end up with a view of the world in which people are very interconnected and that there are multiple causes for most everything that happens.

Conservatives that I hear on talk radio, on the other hand, seem to advance single causes, such as Hillary Clinton is responsible for every bad thing that happens, and simultaneously in many instances advance what I call "magical" causes, such as character by itself determines success. The idea that Hillary is the cause of every bad thing is, of course, also "magical thinking."

But the basic magical thinking used by conservatives is that people acting in their own self interest in a free market produces positive outcomes rather than negative or indifferent or random outcomes.
 
Written By: ProudLiberal
URL: http://
Conservatives that I hear on talk radio, on the other hand, seem to advance single causes, such as Hillary Clinton is responsible for every bad thing that happens, and simultaneously in many instances advance what I call "magical" causes, such as character by itself determines success. The idea that Hillary is the cause of every bad thing is, of course, also "magical thinking."

What you seem to be saying here is conservatives see everything in black and white while liberals see multi shades of gray.

I’d suggest that all you have to do is listen to the Howard Dean road show to know that’s probably not true on either side.

But the basic magical thinking used by conservatives is that people acting in their own self interest in a free market produces positive outcomes rather than negative or indifferent or random outcomes.

Well, when you look around at the wealth of the US which has a history of people acting in their own self interest in a relatively free market and compare that with other countries which have not allowed such action by people nor had very free markets, it seems a bit more than magic, doesn’t it?
 
Written By: McQ
URL: http://www.qando.net/
... Hillary Clinton is responsible for every bad thing that happens.

She can’t possibly be responsible for every bad thing that happens, George Bush is. And anything good that happens that he’s responsible for either A) isn’t really good, or B) can’t possibly be his responsibility. Didn’t you get the MoveOn memo?

Seriously, though, PL, what you seem to have done is decided to take the qualities you admire and label them ’liberal’ and the ones you don’t and call them ’conservative.’ Sorry, but no. You can find reasoned thinking discourse on the right, just as you can ’magical thinking’ (not to mention froth-mouthed rantings) on the left -- pay a visit to Democratic Underground sometime.
 
Written By: Achillea
URL: http://
Well, when you look around at the wealth of the US which has a history of people acting in their own self interest in a relatively free market and compare that with other countries which have not allowed such action by people nor had very free markets, it seems a bit more than magic, doesn’t it?

I agree with, except to point out that wealth is not the sole determenant of value. I’m a life-long liberal, raised by liberals in a fairly liberal town. And I’ll be the first to admit that, within limits, free markets work.

But that’s the catch. Within limits. Right in economics 101 you’re taught about externalities, things that *aren’t* covered by the market. Things like, say, the environment.

I have three main issures with the more free-marketers out there. First, They insist on reducing all things to a value that can be traded for. Those things that fall outside the market, the externalities, don’t factor into their thinking. Things that aren’t obvious, immediate costs aren’t costs at all. But they are. There’s a cost to pollution, a cost to gridlock, a cost to undereducated children and uninsured workers. But when it’s not paid for directly, it’s not seen at all. (As a side note, I think the idea of ’pollution trading’ is a great one, because it reembeds what would be externalities in the economic system) The free market is excellent at allocating resources to solve short-term problems. The long term it doesn’t handle so well.

Second, the dogmatic free-marketers to equate market failure with personal failure. Those who do not succeed have definitionally failed, and they have failed because of personal shortcoming, be it stupidity, laziness, or some other vice. This is decidedly *not* how leftists see things. Those who fail, quite often, fail through no fault of their own. The economic system, left to itself, tends to reward those already ahead, and punish those already behind. It takes a good education, involved parents, and host of other factors to succeed, and you’re far likely to have that if your family already has the means to provide it.

Third, I take great issue with the idea that we should trust corporations and their operators implicitly. All of us, most especially the dogmatic free-marketers, want to believe that the rich, those in the highest social strata, are their because they are exception: exceptionally intelligence, exceptionally industrious, exceptionally inspired. This is true, but it’s not always true. In fact, often those people are crooks, shysters, and outright criminals. The rich are not supermen, nor does being rich grant one with an extra helping of ethics.
 
Written By: Distantantennas
URL: http://
I’m a bit puzzled by this notion of being tied to a specific value (such as "freedom") as an end in itself. It seems to me somehow incoherent to say that we value an abstraction as an end in itself --- every value comes from some sort of association or background in experience. We value freedom, it seems to me, because we associate "good things" with it --- we despite tyranny because we associate bad things with it. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that "freedom" led to everybody dying horrible and painful deaths? Clearly, we don’t value freedom only because of some abstract a priori faith.

Another thing which I have never understood nor agreed with is the notion that liberals in general prefer "more government" and conservatives prefer "less". This seems to me to be a gross overgeneralization which doesn’t really conform to reality. It seems to me that liberals are quite concerned with human freedom, they simply construe this value in a more general fashion than conservatives seem to do. Conservatives seem to define freedom as "freedom from government regulation" --- liberals, on the other hand, identify freedom as "maximal liberty from impositions by the powers that be" --- where "power" could be government as well as large corporations or other organizations. For example, liberals are very concerned about governmental intrusions on freedom of speech, or abuses of power by police, or abuses of power by large corporations, etc. They don’t want government telling people what religion they ought to practice or that they ought to practice a religion, or telling them what they ought to do in their bedrooms, etc. Conservatives, on the other hand, seem to be much more comfortable with these sorts of incursions on human freedom. Thus, the extent to which liberals favor government power is only the extent to which it can be used to check or balance other power centers. They are quite concerned about keeping government power restrained in other ways.

Similarly, liberals (perhaps not leftists, but liberals) tend to be quite in favor of free markets, but they also believe that some government regulation can increase the efficiency of those markets. It seems fairly odd to me that conservatives who supposedly favor free markets seem to see no contradiction in resisting enforcement of, say, antitrust laws, because they see that as interfering with the operation of a market. But what sort of "market" is involved when you have a monopoly in an industry with a high barrier to entry? Or when you have collusion between competitors to fix prices? And I think it’s kind of strange that conservatives rarely notice the fact that within a corporation, you have no market forces whatsoever --- a corporation is, internally, a command economy, much like a little Soviet state. Resources are not allocated within a company on the basis of free market decisions --- they are allocated by fiat from the top down. Liberals are concerned about this sort of concentration of power --- conservatives seem to be rather blind to it.
 
Written By: synthetic zero
URL: http://www.syntheticzero.com
I believe in the concept of a free markets so:

I agree with, except to point out that wealth is not the sole determenant of value.

I would point out that this has never been what I considered a "sole determanent of value". There are certainly many more esoteric determanents of value. Believing in free markets does not necessarily make you a believer that all value derives from the market. There is indeed value in clean water, clean air, etc. In fact I remember a Reason magazine article which pointed out the only nations which made the environment a priority were the rich nations because they could afford to do so.

Second, the dogmatic free-marketers to equate market failure with personal failure.

Well I guess that would take me out of the "dogmatic free-marketer" realm since that’s not how I feel at all. Methinks you may be talking about a very small circle within a very large circle with these black and white characterizations.

Third, I take great issue with the idea that we should trust corporations and their operators implicitly.

So do I. So does anyone with a brain, to include free-marketeers. The fact that corporations work toward their best interests does not guarantee those will coincide with my best interests. That’s a given. On the other side of that, it should be also noted that corporations are in business to make a profit and the market is very unforgiving to corporations which do things which piss of their customers. So there is a mechanism within the system which rewards those who work both in the best interest of the corporation and the best interest of the corporations customers (which are us) and punishes those which don’t.
 
Written By: McQ
URL: http://www.qando.net/
On magical thinking: I look at most groups I can think of. The team that won the National Basketball Association title last year was lauded as a team that cooperated, rather than each individual acting in his own self interest. I look at families and the need for families to help each other, cooperate. I look at businesses and see a need for the members to cooperate, rather than act in their own self interest - though I recognize that happens quite a bit, i.e., politics within corporations. I look at all these things and wonder why anyone could think that in the real world people acting in their own self interest will produce positive results by some sort of magic theorem.

In reality "The Market" does not exist. It does not have a brain, nor a soul, nor a purpose, nor does it act. What happens is that people isolate a consequence and retrospectively attribute the consequence to the will of a ghost in the machine. Conservatives, I think, end up abdicating responsibility for their own actions by saying, "I didn’t do it. The market did it."
 
Written By: ProudLiberal
URL: http://

 
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