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Saturday, June 24, 2006

In a Coconut Shell

Can you summarize Democratic ideology succinctly, Republican-like even?:

Democrats, don't put it in writing It's the party of case-by-case, not sweeping dogmas, by Jonathan Chait , Commentary, LA Times: After the 2004 presidential election, some of us liberals came away with the conclusion that it's awfully hard to defeat an incumbent president during wartime. And some of us came away with the conclusion that John Kerry is a really awful politician.

Other liberals, though, decided that what this country needs are some good policy journals. It is because of liberals like these that so many Americans think we're all a bunch of weenies. One of those weenies is my friend Kenneth Baer, who, along with Andrei Cherney, has founded a center-left journal called Democracy. The premise of Democracy is that conservatives have taken power in large part because of their intellectual journals — and that liberals can reclaim that power by fighting back likewise.

"Conservative policy journals," writes Baer, "helped take a marginal movement in American life that was thumped at the polls (Goldwater in 1964) and, over four decades, turn it into a dominant force." ... Democracy's editors believe that the central purpose of this journal-led restoration is to Think Big. No policy papers, please. ... Their role is to formulate sweeping principles.

Alas, this is inherently a losing game for liberals. Here is the problem: Conservatism and liberalism are not really mirror images of each other. Conservatives venerate the free market and see smaller government as an end in itself. Liberals do not venerate government in the same way, and we do not see larger government as an end in and of itself. For us, everything works on a case-by-case basis. Should government provide everybody's education? Yes. Should government manufacture everybody's blue jeans? No. And so on. ...

Everybody knows what [Republicans] stand for. They're for lower taxes, strong defense and less spending — even if they habitually fail at the spending part and have royally screwed up the defense portion of late.

But nobody knows what Democrats stand for because you cannot, and should not, formulate sweeping dogmas when you're operating on a case-by-case basis.

Consider the Clinton administration. What did it stand for on, say, economic policy? Well, progressive taxation, reducing the deficit (but not at the expense of Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment), expanding health coverage, investing in technology, and … you see? We're long past the point where it can be described by a single overarching theory...

Some liberals see this problem and conclude that Democrats got too wishy-washy under President Clinton. If we'd just held firm to strong liberal, pro-government principles, they say, the public would know where we're coming from.

Well, that's probably true. But it wouldn't win any elections. Why not? Because, as social psychologists Lloyd A. Free and Hadley Cantril concluded in 1964, Americans are ideological conservatives and operational liberals. Everybody's for less spending and regulation in the abstract. When you try to translate that into specifics — say, lower Medicare benefits or looser standards on pollution — voters run screaming in the other direction.

Any debate that takes place at the level of ideological generality, then, inherently favors the right. Liberals can try to come up with slogans of their own. ... But that brings you back to the problem of nobody understanding what you believe in. ...

The editors of Democracy scorn this pragmatic interpretation. "Progressives too often have come to eschew bold ambition," they write, "preferring to take shelter in the safe harbor of 'realism' and 'competence.' "

Realism and competence may not make for a stirring theme, but when you've had eight years of the alternative, they look pretty good.

"For us, everything works on a case-by-case basis." That makes it sound ad hoc, random, without any underlying principles. For me it's not, or I hope it isn't. I try to use two main principles to decide if the government should intervene, but make no claim this is a mainstream Democratic position. First, will the private market provide adequate quantities of the good, or are there significant market failures? Since no market is perfect, are the market failures substantial enough so that government, even with it's own inherent inefficiencies, still does a better job of providing the goods? If so, the government should intervene by providing the appropriate incentives to the marketplace (which can be as simple as full disclosure requirements on sales, or as complex as pricing rules for telecommunications), or providing the good itself when market incentives are insufficient. Second, does the policy overcome social or economic problems and equalize opportunity? Of course people shouldn't starve or go without housing, healthcare, schooling, legal defense, etc., but I'm not much for equalizing outcomes. However, I do believe in equalizing opportunity and that can involve redistributive policies as it does in the provision of universal education. In any case, it's not hard to boil things down to simple slogans:

Making markets work for all of America,
Equalizing  opportunity, and
Protecting our future.

Something along those lines would work for me. What would you add/subtract, or do you agree that "[Y]ou cannot ... formulate sweeping dogmas... We're long past the point where it can be described by a single overarching theory"?

    Posted by on Saturday, June 24, 2006 at 10:12 PM in Economics, Income Distribution, Market Failure, Policy, Politics, Regulation | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (75)


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