Thursday, March 12, 2009

Broader Fusionism, in All Directions


One week ago, I attended that America’s Future Foundation panel on the future (if any) of capitalism, and one thing I like about that group is that it is thoroughly fusionist.

It was a roomful of young libertarians and conservatives that night, all on the same anti-government-spending page, as we’ll have to be in the days ahead, despite all the talk of a conservative crack-up. We need libertarians and conservatives to set aside and downplay their differences and focus on opposing the apocalyptic levels of government spending we’re now seeing (and likely accompanying upsurge in regulation), in much the same way Grover Norquist previously tried to keep them focused on tax cuts. They have to stay focused as though the final battle has arrived. And perhaps it has.

But don’t get me wrong: I’m OK with incorporating the “liberaltarian” project into this one, if the liberaltarians are willing to drop the whole idea that the conservatives are the real enemy. Anyone focused on cutting spending and stopping regulation is the coalition, regardless of what they call themselves or how they intuited their way there philosophically, right? Whether Jesus or Rawls or even Ganesh told them to reduce government and favor commerce, we’re then headed in the right direction — and we can’t really afford to be too picky at this point.

I think that demands, though, a sort of truce based not on looking for apparent foundational-philosophical commonalities but on seeing who puts their money where their mouth is and really opposes spending and regulation.


So, what about this Obama guy? Well, the same thing that makes him likely the embodiment of our imminent doom also offers some hope, I’ll admit, of recruiting from the Democrats and the left (to the extent they aren’t too terribly wedded to their identity as members of those factions — so I’m talking more about ordinary voters and miscellaneous almost-moderates than committed ideologues): his empty blandness. Because, let’s face it, the shocking thing about Obama’s first big presidential speech wasn’t its radicalism nor its reasonable moderation but the rather disturbing fact that it was pretty much just Bill-Clintonian boilerplate: take a bunch of stuff that sounds like it’d be useful to the general population (instead of obvious interest groups or radicals), such as education and wind turbines, and try to leave everyone feeling that government can be trusted to spend in harmless, responsible ways.

But it’s too late in the day for that sort of thing — a speech that could as easily have been written back in 1996, when we didn’t as urgently need really tough, frugal decisions to be made. There are worse things than Clintonian custodial mercantilism, I know, and, yes, sometimes those worse things have been on the right, but that’s not really the relevant standard of comparison right now (especially with the right out of power and not in imminent danger of coming back). We really, really need something far, far better right now, not just one of the two familiar options.

That better thing will, as suggested above, have to be a much broader fusionism, almost indifferent to right and left except to the extent either is focused (like a laser, if you will) on improving the economic situation by reducing government. Is there any face-saving way at all that Obama or Obamaphiles could ever be part of that necessary effort (despite the fact that the man himself is rapidly becoming the world’s chief engine of socialism, given his pressure on leaders in Europe and elsewhere to try spending their way out of the financial crisis, against their better judgment)? The one route there that would make it look, to quote the insightful Pee-wee Herman, like “I meant to do that” would probably be to really push farther with Obama’s admirable campaign theme of “transparency” (as part of which he has favored making all government expenditures traceable online and putting all major spending items in the regular budget so they get counted — albeit while engaging in other budget shenanigans less straightforward than that).

If he were to suggest a combined plan of radical government downsizing/accountability and comparable transparency rules for currently untrusted and untrustworthy financial institutions, I think the entire planet, across the (old) political spectrum, would heave a great sigh of relief that would enable them to overlook transgressions against (old) ideological fault lines.

But that’s not likely to happen, so in the meantime, I would at least hope that all center, right, and libertarian forces (and maybe even some Clintonian Democratic Leadership Council types) would focus on resisting the massive tide of government spending. Conservatives in particular, though, must set a good, principled example by saying “no” from now on to every imaginable form of government spending, no matter how conservative-sounding its inspiration. Whether it’s Bibles for soldiers overseas or more guards for our southern border, the correct answer is and must always be “no,” just as if the project were subsidized wind turbines for hippies. Call it whatever ism you damn well please, just find the backbone to stop the Joker-like burning-up of all our money.

Otherwise, we’re really, really screwed, not just dissatisfied in an armchair 1990s way that our own pet philosophies are out of favor or not being fully realized.


While my emphasis above (and henceforth) is on concrete, materialistic policy positions instead of fuzzy philosophical abstractions, I think it’s worth noting that the relationship of a political philosophy to the mushy, middle-of-the-road politicians who occasionally pay it lip service is not the same as say, the relationship between hypothesized natural laws in physics and subsequent experiments that refute them. It’s become rather common lately for people, especially left-leaning critics of the right, to suggest that free market principles are somehow debunked if politicians who don’t adhere to them (but at some point said something nice about them) cause bad outcomes.

That makes no sense at all, and it doesn’t matter how many times people like Paul Krugman, Alan Wolfe, Thomas Frank, or Naomi Klein do it (and they all do). And just to show I’m consistent, let me note that I’ve always been fairly sympathetic to, for example, Marxist left-anarchists who say you can’t disprove their philosophy simply by pointing to, say, Stalin. They may be wrong for other reasons, but it would be juvenile to say “They got exactly what they wanted in the USSR, proving their ideas are bad.” Statist Leninst types got what they wanted in the USSR, more or less, and can be judged accordingly, but not, say, nineteenth-century anti-statist leftists who dreamt of voluntary, local, democratic, communal farming.

Meanwhile, in our own boring mixed economy, having two rival groups of mostly middle-of-the-road politicians is not a good way to tease out which of the two philosophies they nominally represent is superior — a sort of bogus reverse-engineering that seems to be getting more and more common in the wonky set, including among some libertarians.

I think philosophy, unlike politicians, can more or less be taken at its word and judged accordingly (albeit with countless unintended consequences as footnotes). If, say, Republicans spend 5% more than Democrats during some small slice of time, it hardly proves that conservatism’s insistence that government be kept small and unobtrusive is, presto change-o, somehow less philosophically simpatico with free markets than modern liberalism’s insistence on government-enforced equality, welfare, restraining of market forces, etc.

Two sets of politicians who ignore principle may require us to be electorally indifferent — or even occasionally require voting for politicians from “the other team” — but surely cannot offer much guidance to which principles are right. And the long-term hope, of course, is that eventually we’ll see some politicians or legally-relevant activists arise who do adhere to principle, otherwise why even bother worrying about it all?

But reasoning backwards from, say, Jimmy Carter doing more to deregulate than Richard Nixon to the conclusion that small-government conservatism is, it turns out, a greater menace to liberty than a philosophy of leftist social democracy (and that libertarians should retool their philosophies accordingly) is like saying that because once a man who offered you free food tried to poison you, whereas a drunk man who claimed he was going to kick your ass passed out and caused you no harm, you should henceforth prefer violent threats to offers of food.


Jacob T. Levy said...

Must… resist… round 9,000… of… old.. argument…

“There are worse things than Clintonian custodial mercantilism, I know, and, yes, sometimes those worse things have been on the right, but that’s not really the relevant standard of comparison right now”

And, when, exactly, have you ever conceded that it *was* the relevant standard? If the current crisis is somehow a distinctive moment in time that happens to require extra-special attention to what you’ve all along thought were the really important issues, whathave been the moments in time when you thought other issues would rightly be prioritized?

And, as always, evidence, evidence. The *open commitment* to unfalsifiability continues to surprise me.

You say that the actions of really-existing political parties can’t tell us anything about the merits of the underlying principles. But maybe they can tell us *whether the correct underlying principles are being attributed to the actors.* I deny that “the philosophy of leftist social democracy” is the animating philosophy of the Democratic Party as it’s existed in our lifetimes– or that “small-government conservatism” has been the animating philosophy of more than a small faction of the Republican Party. As far as I can tell, you continue to take the existence of “small-government conservatism” on faith no matter what really-existing self-described conservatives do– and continue to deny on faith that there’s a difference between social democracy and American left-liberalism.

Todd Seavey said...

The commenter can be forgiven for knowing little about politics, but I _am_ a small-government conservative (that’s empirical, or at least Cartesian, right there) and deal with thousands of small-government conservatives in the course of my intellectual career. They are fighting, with little thanks from the likes of the commenter, the good fight year after year to nudge an ideologically amorphous Republican Party closer to its stated principles.

A similar cadre of ideologues who desire something akin to social democracy — and have never been the least bit ashamed to tell me so the countless times I’ve encountered them — work as ceaselessly to nudge an ideologically amorphous Democratic Party ever leftward toward socialism, with slightly more success, since _all_ government tends to grow, as we know.

There is, as you seem to have difficulty grasping, an admitted difference between the tiny band of ideologues in each party and the broader, sloppier, more moderate _party itself_ that each band is trying to steer. But the ideologues have never been shy about saying where it is they _want_ to steer things — you can find them in countless magazines, op-ed pages, and thinktanks (and hear them faintly echoed in politicians’ speeches and still more faintly in rarer actual policy tweaks).

You wouldn’t gauge whether Nietzsche was “really” an atheist by doing a statistical analysis of whether Germany became less church-going after he lived (though that might be standard methodology in the detached and eggheaded world of polisci classes for all I know), you wouldn’t call someone faith-based or un-empirical for saying Nietzsche was an atheist, and you don’t gauge the intentions of ideologues by what the idiot politicians who usually aren’t listening to them spend most of their time doing.

The hope, Leninist as it may sound, is for the correct ideologues to win eventually and grow more influential. We shall see, though we shall not hold our breath even while working toward that end. If we tried to hold our breath that long, we’d pass out and the voice of a writer from _The Nation_ would be heard instead, and — though you may not have noticed — he would not be praising Milton Friedman or free markets.

David said...

My question isn’t whether Todd accurately ascribes the right underlying philosophies to the parties, but rather whether the supposed underlying philosophies have any practical relevance to the behavior of the parties at all. Todd, you may interact with people on both sides who work hard in pursuit of specific philosophies, but it seems to me that “understanding politics” involves recognizing how far, far away those people are from bills, budgets, hearings, bargaining between legislative committees, etc.

Todd Seavey said...

And the goal is to ever more closely coordinate the ideologues’ efforts with actual, impending, tweakable legislation. As I’ll explain in different terms on Sunday, what I am most opposed to is not “giving up” — which may be perfectly reasonable — but saying “I’m frustrated, so I’ll behave as if _the other side are my real friends_.”

Until then, a nice reminder that the ideologues do also have the job of nudging the _culture_ (and thus the context in which legislation arises) will occur tomorrow night at 10pm on ABC — but more about that tomorrow.

Blogging Politics 3 said...

[...] And Todd Seavey addresses the libertarians: … despite all the talk of a conservative crack-up. We need libertarians and conservatives to set aside and downplay their differences and focus on opposing the apocalyptic levels of government spending we’re now seeing (and likely accompanying upsurge in regulation), in much the same way Grover Norquist previously tried to keep them focused on tax cuts. They have to stay focused as though the final battle has arrived. And perhaps it has. [...]