The Rise of the Wonky Left

~by Conor P. Williams

I. What’s wrong?

Remember back, if you can, to January 2009. It seemed to be a completely untainted transformational moment. To hear the Beltway chatter, this was the final unraveling of the Reagan Era and the dawning of a new progressive movement that could redeem the Bush Administration’s multifarious failures. Four years on, and those memories are sepia-stained by an infusion of Tea Party vitriol. Indeed, for all that 2009 resembles the Left’s current situation, it could be a story from the original American progressives a century ago.

American leftists are divided on what caused the collapse. Yes, our current national challenges are vast. Yes, the Bush Administration left the economy and our global standing in even worse repair than most realized. Yes, American politics is pendular—it usually repays a list to the left with an ensuing roll to the right. All of these are facts, though there’s little that progressives of the electoral class of 2008 could have done to avoid or alter them.

But if the eclipse of the new progressive era has many causes, one stands out: the American Left has no coherent or compelling moral vision to justify its policy aims. It frequently can’t articulate why it is it believes what it does. Leftists are philosophically adrift. To a substantial degree, this is because American liberalism has become a haven for wonks. Many prominent leftists seem to believe that political debates are won and lost by econometric analysis. This undercuts their willingness (and their capacity) to justify their projects.

Take President Obama’s various defenses of health care reform, for example. He only emphasized the justice of the effort after first emphasizing that it would save the country money (and that many prior presidents had failed to fix the health care system). By the time he got around to defending its moral worth, his opponents had conclusively painted health care reform as a dictatorial power grab. Even though conservative rhetoric about “state socialism” and “death panels” was egregiously untrue, it was still a powerful moral indictment of the president’s (alleged) goals. The president explained that health care reform would work, and his opponents replied that it was unjust. Obama carried the votes and still lost the public debate.

Of course, wonks are sometimes essential. Once everyone’s on board with a political objective—developing green jobs, say—wonks assess the efficiency of the available policy options. But they have little to say to someone who doubts that the given objective is worth pursuing. They’re more or less out of ammunition. “Coal is the energy of the past! What about our natural resources?” the wonks splutter. “Ethanol is an emerging market!” Without any principled explanation of why Americans ought to sacrifice their dollars or short-term comfort, it’s a rhetorically toothless position.

Why? Political arguments are always about both means and ends, but wonks think almost exclusively about means. Though there are plenty of efficient policy proposals out there, we can’t choose one unless we’ve settled the ends we want to pursue. For example, eliminating the Department of Education would reduce federal paper consumption, but most of us would argue that this is a wrongheaded approach to fiscal and education policy. However, if we’re trying to support the American logging industry, a ban on federal workers’ email usage might do the trick. We can’t really measure a proposal’s effectiveness unless we’ve settled the end we’re pursuing.

Even if we have a clearly-defined goal, the most efficient policies aren’t always the right policies. For example, if we want to promote economic growth for our ethnic community, it might be “effective” to slaughter or expel other ethnic groups, but most of us realize that efficacy is irrelevant when it leads to injustice. When a political fight boils down to a choice between “efficacy” and “freedom” (or “life,” or “dignity,” etc), the argument’s over. That’s because we always consider the ends we’re pursuing in terms of other powerful moral considerations.

We don’t pursue goals in a simple sequence or in isolation; when we choose a path, we consider (for example) whether it is just, compassionate, and efficient. We make political choices by weighing any number of incommensurable, competing goods against one another. For example, we balance mutual prosperity against individual freedom, the rule of law, human dignity, and much more. We evaluate our actual options in terms of our various moral ideals—“our moral vision.” Without a comprehensive, coherent moral vision, these sorts of arguments are easily overlooked. Contemporary leftists rarely reflect on their moral vision.

For comparison’s sake, take a gander at the conservative rhetorical armory. Many decry the last three years of right-wing foot-dragging, but few notice the rhetorical discipline sustaining it. Conservatives have spent many decades explaining that the federal government threatens freedom—this is a project that dates back at least to Barry Goldwater, if not before. The Right reaps the rewards of this discipline every day (while the country reaps the ugly economic consequences). They win public debates because they work exceptionally hard at setting the ethical parameters of discussion within the confines of their moral vision. This means that leftists usually start from a rhetorical deficit. Whatever else they think of conservatives’ anti-tax, anti-regulation, anti-government rhetoric, they can’t deny its appeal to a broad swath of the American population. This isn’t some stroke of conservative good fortune—it’s the product of decades of coordinated effort.

His own struggles notwithstanding, the president’s rhetoric is actually better organized than most left-wing leaders. Few leftists do this well—especially after Anthony Weiner’s self-incapacitation. That’s why exceptions like Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren attract so much attention. No one loves Warren because of her sophisticated understanding of the technical intricacies of federal regulation. On the contrary, they love that she is uniquely willing to make a strong moral case for liberalism.

The breakdown in the blogosphere is similar: from Ezra Klein to Matthew Yglesias to Mike Konczal and beyond, nearly all of the most prominent leftists are concerned with the technical details of public policy. Mainstream media pundits are no different: Paul Krugman occasionally ventures into justifying a left-wing vision for the future, but he is usually content to demonstrate the empirical debility of various conservative canards. E.J. Dionne’s communitarianism stands out as a lonely example of left-wing commentary with a vision.

Still not convinced that leftists have a justification problem? Take a gander at the resources that conservatives invest in developing a compelling moral vision to justify their objectives. The list of right-wing think tanks working these fields is long and diverse: the Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, Hoover Institution, Claremont Institute, Liberty Fund, Intercollegiate Studies Institute, American Enterprise Institute, and many other organizations all work on justifying why conservative policies are the moral answer to America’s troubles. Call it a vast right-wing conspiracy, call it the “Kochtopus,” call it whatever you’d like—but rest assured that it’s real. Conservatives take moral arguments seriously.

The left-wing response? Mostly crickets. There’s not much beyond the Progressive Studies Program (PSP) at the Center for American Progress (disclosure: I’ve co-authored several PSP essays with John Halpin). Most left-leaning think tanks spend their time on policy development and analysis. Scan their websites: you’ll see a rainbow of policy ideas with precious few moral arguments behind them. Check the event listings: you’ll see a panoply of roundtables on social media’s effects on elections, new strategies for improving federal foreign aid programs, comprehensive studies on teacher efficacy, and so on and so forth. You won’t find many events exploring why political leaders or voters ought to care.

 II. How did this happen?

 When (and why?) did leftists get so uncomfortable with mounting a moral defense of their vision for the country? It’s partly due to a division within the American Left—one which philosopher Richard Rorty spelled out in Achieving Our Country. Some leftists are concerned with addressing public exclusion or bigotry. Rorty called them the “cultural left.” Other leftists are more concerned with preventing economic exploitation, defending collective bargaining rights, and defending progressive taxation. Rorty termed them the “reformist left.”

Each of these projects requires a different approach. The contemporary cultural left often aims to limit the scope of government. Those facing public intolerance fundamentally want to be left alone. Whatever else they support, cultural leftists want government out of their bedrooms and medical dispensaries. But hands-off government doesn’t fit the reformist left’s project. Reformists are concerned with protecting the American middle class from wealthy rapaciousness. They argue that democracy needs a baseline of economic justice to survive. As we’ve learned over the last few decades, even minimal levels of equality disappear without government regulation.

The reformist left has always aimed to rehabilitate the American tradition, while the cultural left hopes to redeem and supercede its blemishes. Reformist leftists generally frame their arguments in terms of restoring the American democratic wager. They often take American archetypes as their guiding lights, from Jefferson’s “yeoman farmers” to the blue-collar middle class. Meanwhile, the cultural left’s focus on sadism led naturally into cultural criticism. By exposing and delegitimizing sadistic treatment of African-Americans, women, immigrants, and other marginalized groups of human beings, the cultural left highlighted the American tradition’s sins.

It’s hard to develop a compelling moral vision with this disagreement at the core. Should government be vilified? Defended? Does it empower us? Does it limit freedom? It’s no wonder that the answer is muddled: “All of the above, but not all of the time!” Since leftists can’t agree on these questions, they’ve stopped trying to answer them.

This is hardly all. Many leftists also suffer from victors’ complacency. Whatever else divides the cultural and reformist wings, most agree that history is progressing (hence the resuscitation of the term “progressive”) towards leftist goals. Why waste time explaining your objectives when history’s on your side? After all, cultural leftists can proudly point to a long-running American trend towards broader tolerance of humans of all races, genders, and sexual orientations. Meanwhile, reform leftists could (until the 1980s) proudly celebrate decades of increasing social mobility. Leftists won big chunks of the twentieth century—and promptly forgot that victories don’t come cheap. Leftists of all stripes are only just waking up to the fact that history doesn’t move in a single direction.

There’s undoubtedly more behind left-wing discomfort with moral arguments. Here are a few other possibilities:

• Perhaps it’s the legacy of the original American progressives’ enthusiasm for political science. John Dewey, progressivism’s leading intellectual, argued that Americans could save democracy from the nineteenth century’s ills simply by applying the scientific method to politics (and ethics).

• Perhaps it’s due to the proliferation of technical policy degrees and jobs requiring these credentials. In the professional political world, an M.P.P. (Masters in Public Policy) usually trumps a liberal arts degree.

• Finally, perhaps it reflects neo-liberalism’s enormous influence on recent American politics. Neo-liberals accept conservative accounts of political economy, which makes alternative conceptions of political economy both unnecessary and unconvincing.

The list of possible causes is endless, but the wonky left is clearly here to stay. Fortunately, its technical work is necessary to political success. Unfortunately, it is not sufficient on its own. Political success requires both facts and persuasion. These reinforce one another. So—how do leftists rejuvenate their moral rhetoric?

III. What’s the lesson?

Leftists of all stripes need to put more thought and resources into defending their moral vision from increasingly radical conservative arguments. If they don’t, political irrelevance will be the rule, not the exception. But how?

Here’s an obvious first step: leftists need to reverse the Reaganomics equation. For thirty years, conservatives have argued that politics preys upon individual freedom—which they usually view in economic terms. They view humans as primarily economic beings, which permits them to denigrate politics. Most American conservatives believe that government hovers parasitically above humans’ natural producing, trading, and consuming activity. That’s why they believe that every political problem is best abandoned to market forces. If leftists have the argument within these confines, they’ll win only by default—when conservatives are hamstrung by catastrophic baggage like the Bush Administration’s compulsive mismanagement or wholesale candidate ineptitude (Cf. O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, etc).

Instead, leftists should remind Americans that politics is a primary human activity. The politics we have affects the economic activity that we get. In other words, actual liberty rests upon public institutions. Life isn’t freer without government—it’s chaotic. Markets only work in the presence of public goods like social peace, a working infrastructure, untainted common resources like air and water, and much more. Stable and effective political institutions make modern economic life possible. Absent government, markets cannot function, develop, or grow. From Aristotle to the original American Progressives, numerous political philosophers have argued that political institutions are a prerequisite for meaningful individual liberty and robust economic activity.

Fortunately, leftists have made this argument before (and lonely exemplars like Elizabeth Warren and E.J. Dionne still do). For example, the Left had to justify a public safety net before it could be built. When energy companies resisted regulation of leaded gasoline in the name of free markets, leftists argued that public health was a collective and individual good worth protecting. Leftists explained how government action was linked to moral principles like freedom, justice, equality, and prosperity.

Such arguments have huge potential. They allow leftists to shift the ground of political arguments by refusing to define government in opposition to individual liberty. This reveals debates over the size of government to really be debates over the type of community life we want. Cultural leftists are often most interested—and justly so—in establishing a decent society where differences are tolerated. While this often requires less government, that’s not always the case. Civil rights legislation is proof positive that properly configured public institutions can actually encourage cultural pluralism. Put simply, if leftists effectively explain how public institutions make freedom possible, they can focus on arguments about the quality of these institutions instead of getting bogged down in arguments over the quantity of regulation.

But in the post-Citizens United world, it’s not enough for an idea to be good. Only ideas with organizational backing get a public hearing. Leftists must build a counterweight to balance conservative investment in developing strong moral arguments. This sort of energy isn’t spontaneous. It takes committed resources. When prominent conservatives—from the Heritage Foundation to Glenn Beck to The National Review—launch wild-eyed attacks equating the American Left with Marxism, fascism, elitist technocracy, support for eugenics, etc, the Left needs to defend its history and its moral vision (to say nothing of its backbone). This requires progressive institutions that can balance the slate of conservative think tanks doing this work.

It all boils down to a simple problem: leftists need to think harder about why they believe what they do. Elected leftists and left-wing pundits should be prepared to creatively (and repeatedly) explain why their political goals are worthwhile—rather than solely trotting out novel policy tools for pursuing them. As the world clambers from the ruins of recent economic troubles, this case is easier than ever to make. It’s time to re-explain liberalism to a country that’s frustrated and ripe for its message. Otherwise leftists will be doomed (or damned?) to have the 2012 argument on conservatives’ turf.


Conor Williams is a freelance writer and a Doctoral Candidate in Georgetown University’s Government Department. Past work published by Dissent, The Washington Post, The Center for American Progress, and elsewhere. See more at or on Twitter: @conorpwilliams.

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278 thoughts on “The Rise of the Wonky Left

  1. The answer to Mr. Williams question is in the article.  All the examples of “leftists” Mr. Williams cites to are, in fact, neo-liberals.  Mr. Williams thesis might be true or it might not be true, but it falls upon its own sword when the only examples of “leftists” are not actually leftists, but rather neo-liberals.


  2. The systematic neutering of the leftists on the written page is not echoed in other media. Devilstower, Grannydoc — there’s strong voices all around, making moral arguments. Granted, they don’t get much play on the television — but who needs to be on the television, when you can go down to the dump and talk to your neighbors?


  3. Pingback: The Wonky Left « Thought News

  4. Is the Left all that wonky?   Does it lack a compelling moral vision?   Does the data matter in practical terms?

    Let’s examine the policy aims of the Left.   The American Left is all over the map, politically, so to avoid the bankrupt rhetoric of saying things like “The Left doesn’t believe that” or more specifically, “I am a Leftie and I don’t believe that”, let’s just use CAP for a yardstick for the moment so we have somewhere to start.   You mentioned them but clearly haven’t been reading the site.

    When we examine Obama’s health care reforms, again, where should we start?   With his original proposals or the Bismarck Brand sausage which resulted from the legislative process?   I won’t blame you for failing to make the distinction but there are plenty of Lefties like me who think the current incarnation of ACA is a botch.  We particularly object to the Byron Dorgan Secret Spices which went into that sausage.   If there is a Moral Indictment in the criticisms of ACA, those of the Left seem the most relevant to the discussion:  as you point out, his opponents indulged in the most rabid and mendacious campaign of smears and lies — well — since the last time someone tried to reform health care, Bill Clinton.

    Your use of Straw Man Quotes weakens your case considerably.  Quotes need citations.  You wouldn’t put such quotes in a paper.

    Liberals aren’t as dead-set against Coal as all that:  we want improvements and efficiencies applied to its use, especially in cleaning up the products of its incomplete combustion in the antique power plants, puffing out mercury and acid, all completely unnecessary with modern flue technology.   The vast piles of mine tailings leach all sorts of crap into the watershed.  Mountaintop removal is a monstrosity.  These are considerations you might put into evidence ere you construct arguments about our natural resources.   Even now, trucks full of crushed limestone are being dumped into every fishing lake in the Northeast so the tourists can take pictures of their catches.

    You may thank Joe Barton (R-TX) for the US government’s involvement in the ethanol market.   Energy Policy Act of 2005  Ascribing that market distortion to the left takes some chutzpah.  It should embarrass you to have put it in the mouths of your Straw Man Lefties.

    Scrollscroll… it’s all Straw Men, all the way down.  Weighing mutual prosperity against individual freedom, gosh, I thought you were arguing the Left lacked a compelling moral vision.   We Lefties are not as anti-freedom as you might suppose.   We’re dead set against government intrusion into your life.  We don’t like the PATRIOT Act.   We don’t like the NSA spying on us.  We don’t like the patdowns at the airport.  We had to fight like hell for habeas corpus rights for the prisoners at Gitmo.   It’s darkly amusing to this old Leftie to read this litany of lies and half-truths about us.   We do have a moral vision, guided by the principles embodied in the Amendments to the Constitution.   If the Right has convinced you otherwise, maybe you ought to talk to a few of us.  We’re perfectly capable of defending ourselves, without you repeating the Right’s shibboleths about us.


  5. Leftists will always have problems as long as they continue to believe in the untenable notion that government can ever be purged of nefarious private interests.  Regulatory architectures are inherently captured.  Every couple years, there’s enough disgust in the polity to boot out the interest groups du jour, but because most ordinary citizens don’t have the time or the money to lobby their government, a slimy film of lobbyists inevitably grows back.  Liberals will always face this problem as long as they rely on government to effect their desired change.

    Take our current failure to recover from the 2008 economic crisis.  We tried to use Keynesian economics to boost demand.  But modern Keynesian economics is ensconced in the same paradigm of economics as its Chicago-school opponents.  In order to figure out how much cash to pump into the economy, the Keynesians had to use neoclassical tools of measurement.  When these tools (perhaps inevitably) underestimated the economic shrinkage, we found ourselves in continued economic malaise.  Liberals need to be more creative with their economics.  This will require bracing ourselves against the ridicule of mainstream economics for a few years.  Trust me, it’ll be worth it.

    I think you’re right to place the blame on “wonkishness,” but I think a more accurate and elegant characterization would be against elites in general.  Liberals have latched on to the old feudalist lies about the possibility of managing an economy from the top-down.  They’ve forgotten the inherent illiberality of paternalism, and the vast benefits that local self-organization can bring.  Big-government liberals have been resistant to ideas of spontaneous order in recent years because right-wingers have co-opted that language by insisting that it’s inseparable from capital and its attendant privileges.  It isn’t.  Liberals are just too afraid to lose their own place in the economic hierarchy.  Liberals think that the economic playing field gets leveled because government steps in and fixes everything.  But if you look at the history, government has always been a lagging indicator, and the true drivers of the great progressive economic changes was actually a great delegitimization of government in the first place, which worried the established economic order so much that it felt it had to appease the mobs.  LBJ and FDR didn’t beneficently bestow the Great Society or the New Deal upon the public; the politically disobedient cultural revolutionaries forced their hands.  When liberals think that all they need is another Great Leader to usher in a progressive era, they’re misunderstanding the chain of causation.


    • Krugman ran the numbers, wanted double what Obama got. Figure that would have worked? It’s one thing to say that the economists are seeing through colored glasses… but… what we got wasn’t what any leftist economist was pleading for.


      • I don’t think it really rehabilitates the pro-regulatory view to point out that the economists who were close to being right are treated as pariahs by the field’s establishment.  Besides, a big-enough stimulus would have been completely unworkable politically.  Yet again, liberals are trying to make arguments resting on the premise of what government should be, as opposed to what it unavoidably is.

        Our economy’s demand problems stem from its historic inequalities, and it’s foolish to hope that it will be resolved by the class of people benefiting from the current system.  Political disobedience and organized delegitimation of legalized corruption are the only sensible paths forward.


    • Leftists will always have problems as long as they continue to believe in the untenable notion that government can ever be purged of nefarious private interests.  

      I don’t know that there are many people left on either side of the political spectrum that believe this is a real possibility.  Are there?

      Regulatory architectures are inherently captured.

      This is true, but…

      Liberals will always face this problem as long as they rely on government to effect their desired change.

      You’ve got something of a false dichotomy in there.

      Look, every power structure, be it a governmental one or a private organization, is subject to capture.  Because people with nefarious ends gravitate towards power structures, for obvious security reasons.  “That’s where the money is”.

      You’re confusing “it will never work perfectly” for “it will never work with some degree of effectiveness”.  Liberals believe that there are certain problems that are of a scope that private organizations can’t scale up to cover.  Hey, Conservatives believe this too, they just have a different set of problems that they regard as important enough to hand over to the federales.

      If the only way to solve the problem is the government, some degree of waste and capture may be acceptable to either side of the political spectrum, if the problem is actually solved.


      • The Right’s argument of Regulatory Capture is pretty much crap.   They remind me of several abominable parents I used to know, (and often the mothers were the worst about this) who used to come to the Little League games and scream at the umpires.   Finally, I think Elgin passed some municipal ordinance where such people could be ejected from the game.

        If we want a fair game with a meaningful strike zone, we need a dispassionate umpire.   Without such an umpire, there’s really no point in playing the game at all.   Sure, someone could attempt to pay off the umpire, big problem in cricket, a game I’ve followed all my life.   But more commonly, the punters corrupt the players.   One of my favourite batsmen of all time, a guy name of Hansie Cronje , was caught out match-fixing.

        We’re not Communists.  We don’t want the State to run the corporations.   We argue that time hath shewn in great detail what unregulated capitalism does.  It cheats the customer, often endangers his life.   There’s a practical difference, one which this sort of argument fails to observe.


        • “If we want a fair game with a meaningful strike zone, we need a dispassionate umpire.”

          Or maybe we’re really playing Calvinball and we don’t actually need an umpire at all.


        • Find me a dispassionate economic umpire who is mainstream enough to be elected in a politically adversarial environment but whose economic schema hasn’t been corrupted by the perversity of the profession.  Barack Obama’s pick for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau couldn’t get past the Senate even though he was an editor-in-chief of the UChicago Law Review and clerked for Robert Fucking Bork.

          The simple fact is that nobody will just up and give power to the consumers; if history is a guide, they’ll have to take it for themselves.


          • Damned straight.   Regulation is an existential problem:  if nobody saw the crime committed and nobody’s there to find out about it, well, the crime didn’t occur.

            <snark> Heh.  Of course, this had nothing (rolls eyes to heaven like Sgt. Schultz of Hogan’s Heroes)  no-THING to do with the banks and credit card industry and the insurance industry doing the full court press against this otherwise blameless individual.  It’s those darned old Liberals who think that the economic playing field gets leveled because government steps in and fixes everything, they simply must be stopped.  Never mind that fixing, in this case, means prosecuting the biggest crooks in the nation and sending ’em to jail.  Fixing things, in this case, means Repressin’ Free Ennerprize in the Land of the Freel</snark>



            • I thought we’d had enough interaction that you wouldn’t take me for a right-wing apologist, Blaise.  I don’t even believe in private capital for Christ’s sake.

              Of course the banks and credit card and insurance industries scuttled Cordray’s chances in the Senate.  That’s my point: that it’s just how governments operate.  The moneyed interests have held down the football and promised that if we just participate in the legitimate system, we can get what we want.  Liberals have whiffed that pigskin more times than I care to enumerate.  All I’m saying is, I think it’s time to play a different game.


      • I agree that there are times when government can work to the benefit of people who aren’t advantaged.  I’ve argued repeatedly in this forum with people who would use the above arguments as an excuse to slash redistributionary programs.  But if liberals are to get out of their intellectual rut, they’ll have to be completely honest with themselves about the tendencies of their favored distributionary methods.  As it stands, they keep making the same mistake over and over and then sit around wondering what went wrong.  I’m sick of that.

        And yes, power is the problem.


      • Just FW(ever)I(might be)W, I absolutely adore every word of this PC 3:04 pm comment.  I’m considering printing out asix hundred copies and wallpapering my padded cell, I mean bedroom with it.


  6. Leftists also have to do one more thing (IMHO), they have to admit that government can & does over-reach & discuss how to prevent it from doing more harm than good.  I grow weary of leftists who answer every call for regulation reform with accusations of free market chaos & the rule of Robber Barons.  Examples of over-reach like the EPA rules on wetlands (that the SCOTUS just slapped down), or the TSA, or the Dept of Labor proposed rules on child labor on family farms, all strike at the heart of the little guy, who then listen to the person who tells them that the problem is “liberal big government”.


    • Because 14 hour days spent running amusement park rides, without overtime pay, are suddenly NOT ALLOWED???

      (they run under the same “seasonal labor” that farms get, and they’re running with minors (aka child labor)).


      • I lived & worked on farms from the age of 5 until I left home for the Navy (grew up in rural WI).  90% of my peers did the same.  I can count on one hand the number of kids I knew or heard about who were seriously injured or killed in farm accidents.

        Drinking & other teenage shenanigans did more harm than farm work.

        Family farms could not exist without being able to pay the notoriously low wages for the low skill, hard work they need done, they don’t have the profit margin.


          • What chores should parents legally be prevented from telling their children to do?

            If we want to prevent slavery, we should have some sort of guideline, at the very least.

            (And isn’t procreative sex the ultimate form of human trafficking? Perhaps we should have limits on that as well.)


            • I don’t know. We can work on drawing the line. I’m not the one who said we have to have the children participate in our family business because they’re the only people we’re still legally allowed to force into work without adequate payment.

              Again, it’s always bewildering to me when we watch libertarianism and family collide. It’s like ultimate tyranny is permissible just as long as the person you’re tyrranizing came from your loins and isn’t 18 yet.

              My take, which may also be strange to you, is that if your business is so pathetic that you can’t run it profitably without forcing your children to do the work for below-market wages, your business is probably better off dead.


              • Again, it’s always bewildering to me when we watch libertarianism and family collide.

                The scenarios that I keep dreaming up that involve the government becoming much more intimately involved with raising a family must not be as rosy as the ones that come up when you imagine it.


                  • “Banning child labor is the road to serfdom!”

                    Good evening, I’m here from the Department of Inspection Department.  It’s time for us to inspect your house top-to-bottom to ensure that you aren’t benefiting from any child labor.  Sorry, you don’t think we should have that power?  Clearly you hate children.  No no, don’t bother running, the police will be here shortly, you disgusting exploiter.


                  • My thoughts about government involvement with parental decision making all involved imposition of values.

                    I probably grew up in a different era, though.

                    What opinion do *YOU* think the government ought to have on gay couples raising their kids and making the kids mow the lawn or vacuum the living room? How about African-American parents making kids do the dishes?

                    How often do you think folks should show up to make sure the law is being followed?

                    How often do you think that these folks would show up for straight white folks with 2.3 kids and a dog?

                    Do you think that, oh, how the law is enforced and the groups its most often enforced against would be an accurate representation of society?

                    To bring us back to my original (yet unanswered!) questions:

                    What chores should parents legally be prevented from telling their children to do?

                    If we want to prevent slavery, we should have some sort of guideline, at the very least.

                    (For the record: I don’t think mocking me as if I were invoking Hayek will work a second time. Mock me as if I were invoking Solzhenitsyn.)


                    • A) I don’t think we’re particularly far apart in age, are we?

                      B) Why do I have to draw a bright line right now on this blog post? I don’t believe the only two choices we have are “parents can literally force their kids to do anything for free” and “government tyranny and boots on necks for all!”. Running a business and making your kids work for below-market wages because no one else will strikes me as a lot closer to “child labor” as it’s traditionally understood than “im in ur family raisin ur d00dz”. James had some very helpful comments that attempted to sort out the difference, and Nob suggested a policy idea that might be a good place to start talking.


                    • A) I dunno. I assume you’re younger but that’s a function of your word choice more than anything else.

                      B) I don’t necessarily need a bright line. A fuzzy one would do.

                      C) Do you really think that the people charged with law enforcement will be impartial when it comes to which doorbells they ring (whether or not they effectively enforce the laws once the door opens)?


                    • I don’t believe the only two choices we have are “parents can literally force their kids to do anything for free” and “government tyranny and boots on necks for all!”.

                      Dude, there are no other choices.  All that “fallacy of the excluded middle” business? Unadulterated bullshit.  ;)


                    • What chores should children be prevented from doing?   Let’s see.   Would you agree they shouldn’t be working alone on bandsaws and drill presses?   What really cheezes me off about this whole dishonest line of argumentation is the fact that there really are children in this world who are chained to looms, making carpets for upscale little shops right here in the USA.   Those children are in Iran and Afghanistan and Pakistan and India.

                      What separates us from them?    You’re all up in arms about governments getting involved in parent-child relationships.   What the hell do you think society should do if a child was chained to a loom here in the USA?


                    • “Why do I have to draw a bright line right now on this blog post?”

                      So when you said “Making children work should be a crime. Full stop.” that wasn’t a bright line?


                    • Do you really think that the people charged with law enforcement will be impartial when it comes to which doorbells they ring (whether or not they effectively enforce the laws once the door opens)?

                      See, that’s where I think things get blurry. Conceptually. And actually acts to undermine the libertarian argument to some extent. To say that the people invested with the responsibility to enforce or compel compliance with principles A1…An (cops, in other words) will as a matter of fact act in a different way than intended is to say too much for the argument you’re trying to make. As another example, libertarians are very keen on the idea of courts, and in that case we entrust people to act according to principles B1…Bn as a matter of course. But in that case as well, the libertarian objects to the ways courts decide things.

                      If not courts or cops, then what is the libertarian left with? That’s the minimal state, and it’s failing you guys!


                    • Dude, there are no other choices.  All that “fallacy of the excluded middle” business? Unadulterated bullshit.  ;)

                      I humbly submit that this statement is evidence that you are libertarianish, not libertarian. I agree with Ryan that the dichotomy is legitimate according to standard interpretations of libertarianism.

                      Not so for the libertarianish.


                    • If not courts or cops, then what is the libertarian left with? That’s the minimal state, and it’s failing you guys!

                      Oh, cops and courts we’re stuck with. Doesn’t mean we actually think they’ll do real good, just that in some cases they’re the best of a set of bad alternatives. But only in the more extreme cases, so we rarely find them to be the best.

                      I don’t think that thinking they’ll inevitably suck even when they’re necessary is really much of a knock.  It’s like having a dog turd in one hand and a pile of worms in the other when you’re starving. The worms are your best choice, but that doesn’t mean you think very highly of them, and it’s a bit of a stretch to say your anti-worm philosophy is failing you.

                      FWIW, I don’t know that I agree with Jaybird’s specific application in this case.  I’m pretty sure black-owned businesses have been working their children for years, every bit as much as white-owned businesses, and I’ve never heard of discriminatory enforcement in this particular case.  But he’s right to have a general concern that, at least in our current society, we shouldn’t be sanguine about assuming laws will be enforced equally.  I mean, it’s not like we don’t have a history on that.


                    • When I was a kid, I had a bookshelf with several shelves dedicated to books and several shelves dedicated to dinosaur and GI Joe action figures.

                      I was made to dust these shelves. This was the most tortuous job that I could have possibly imagined. They’re dinosaurs! They’re going to get dusty! It’s my room! I don’t care if the dinosaurs have dust on them! I spent a lot of time making this diorama of GI Joes! I just got it the way I want it with everybody balanced! Now you want me to remove them from the shelf just to get rid of some silly dust???

                      Of course, I did dust. I was made to.

                      Looking back, I don’t think that I was treated immorally. I still don’t… but I’m willing to entertain arguments that I was.

                      I certainly don’t think it would have been appropriate for the government to intervene.


                    • I think “the state is corrupt” is a fairly libertarian complaint.

                      It’s an everyone’s complaint. The difference is this: classical libertarian think that the remedy is to go with a nightwatchman’s state. But in this thread, libertarians (like you) are saying that cops are fundamentally corrupt.



                    • We can have the “fundamentally” discussion at a later date but I think the argument, in this case, is over whether or not changing policy would result in more harm than good (despite the best intentions in the world) and I think that the corruption inherent in the system is a weight on the libertarian’s side.

                      Whether or not it indicates hypocrisy on the part of the Night Watchmen liberts.


                    • It’s like having a dog turd in one hand and a pile of worms in the other when you’re starving.

                      Heh. I’ll agree with that in general. But to get down to specifics: what if the worms are only there due to government intervention???


                    • Stillwater,

                      Seriously not trying just to be argumentative, but I’m not following where you think the contradiction is.  I think of it as like chemotherapy–sometimes you need it, but it’s dangerous so you use as little as possible, but even then it’s damned hard on your body.


                    • But to get down to specifics: what if the worms are only there due to government intervention???

                      ?? I really have no idea how to apply this.  In my analogy, the worms equate to the government. I suppose we could talk about government existing only due to government intervention, but I’m not really sure what it would mean.


                    • Alright…

                      Back in the day, the minimal threshold of government intervention for libertarians was cops and courts, and let society proceed. Let it evolve. The goodies were just around the corner. Liberals objected by citing externalities, and (non-economic) structural discrimination, and rights violations, and safety/working conditions, and CAPs, and poverty-welfare, and … etc.

                      Now libertarians want to say that externalities, and discrimination, and rights violations, and working conditions, and CAPs, and poverty-welfare, are part of the libertarian conception of government. ‘If those things don’t obtain, the my all means use government as a remedy!’

                      Just mentioning. Not chiding.


                    • I think it’s more that if you set up an open-ended Milgram experiment, you shouldn’t be surprised to see the guards act like guards and the prisoners act like prisoners.

                      (Were things better in the 60’s or 70’s? Was the constant chiding about how we shouldn’t be like “The Communists” do a good job of mitigating the worst police corruption?)


                    • I really don’t follow what you’re getting at. I mean, I’ve spent months trying to persuade you that a person doesn’t actually have to be super-dogmatic to be a libertarian, and now you’re pointing out that libertarianism isn’t necessarily super-dogmatic?

                      I kind of feel like I’ve been successful, except that somehow I feel like you’re being a bit disdainful about non-super-dogmatic libertarianism. Like you’re making some kind of meaningful point about pointing out what I’ve been saying all along.



                    • The 1960s were their own problem.  The dividing line is really Kent State.

                      The cops weren’t as corrupt as you might suppose.   For one, there was a lot less drugs money on the street so it was harder to corrupt them.   Oh sure, police corruption has been an ongoing issue but that’s generally solved by the Trusty Quis-es of quis custodiet ipsos custodes, press exposure.

                      The 1970s, especially the later 70s featured an tsunami of cocaine hitting our shores.   Now that’s when it got interesting, especially in the larger cities.   Drugs money got rich enough to where cops were being corrupted left and right.   That’s part of the reason the Feds got so involved in the Knapp Commission and eventually the War on Drugs picked up steam:  the local and state cops were completely overwhelmed.

                      Look at Mexico, same story.   Weak Federal system means the local cops are either corrupt or dead.

                      Want a cleaned-up police force?   Put a brave reporter on the story.   It seems important to note it takes a lot of money to bribe a cop but it takes a lot less when there’s nobody to report the story.   It doesn’t start with the cops.   It starts with the bad guys.   All this clamouring and shouting about corrupt federales is pretty much bullshit.   They’re corrupted by the crooks and these Libertarians just don’t want to talk about that part of the story.


                    • Heh.  Do you want me to create a sock puppet, Stereotypical Leftist and start posting under that?   Now, if you want my opinion, you might have the decency to ask me, Ol’ BlaiseP, he who answers questions according to his own lights and not badger me with the same old tiresome shibboleths from which I have long since retreated.


                    • I’ve spent months trying to persuade you that a person doesn’t actually have to be super-dogmatic to be a libertarian, and now you’re pointing out that libertarianism isn’t necessarily super-dogmatic?

                      No. In that comment, I’m pointing out that libertarianism has moved back in the other direction. I’m not saying that as a criticism, I’m saying that that movement (to the let? if it my characterization is correct?) creates ambiguities and confusions which liberals – like me – get confused by. And given that confusion, you then tell non-libertarians what the term means as if it’s a settled matter, as if there was univocality amongst libertarians about that. And to repeat, I’m just observing, not judging here.

                      I kind of feel like I’ve been successful, except that somehow I feel like you’re being a bit disdainful about non-super-dogmatic libertarianism. Like you’re making some kind of meaningful point about pointing out what I’ve been saying all along.

                      Well, that’s a little more slippery. I’m not saying that you haven’t been successful. On the contrary. I think you, in particular, have been very successful. Especially about the conceptual stuff. And JB about the moral stuff, and Roger about the market stuff, and Jason K about the policy stuff.

                      So that leaves me in a predicament. You’ve been influential – very influential –  in (at least) my thinking about all these issues, yet I still don’t identify as a libertarian. Maybe the short answer to this quandary is that I don’t have as hostile a view of government as ya’ll do. Jesse said something the other day (yesterday?) that struck me: that the coercive power of government in certain situations just isn’t that big a deal to him. I read that, and I have to say that I agreed. It’s just not that big a deal to me, in the US, in 2012. Most of the time, I think the coercive power of government is the least of our problems. The ways we act towards one another are much more important, and just so long as people feel justified in prioritizing their own self-interest above the rights and values of others (for whatever reason!), and do so on the premise (or excuse) that government ought has no right to stop them (!), then I’m not a libertarian. On that score, I reject libertarianism.

                      But to answer the implied question here: you, and all the others mentioned, have definitely changed the way I view politics and the political economy. No doubt about that.



                    • Then I’m going to need you to unpack the following for me:

                      They’re corrupted by the crooks and these Libertarians just don’t want to talk about that part of the story.

                      I’m under the impression that Libertarians love to talk about how the drug war has ruined everything including the relationship between the average citizen and the police. (Comparisons to Prohibition 1.0 are really big in the Libertarian circle when it comes to discussions of “that part of the story”.)


                    • I’m saying that that movement (to the let? if it my characterization is correct?) creates ambiguities and confusions which liberals – like me – get confused by.

                      Of course it does. Any broad-ranging ideology does.  Look at my “Testing Ideology” thread and all the “I’m not a liberal, I’m a leftist,” “I’m not a leftist, I’m a liberal,” I’m not a liberal or a leftist, I’m a progressive anarcho-socialist with communitarian leanings” comments.

                      I sincerely think the only reason the ambiguities in libertarianism are surprising is because there’s such a common assumption–among many very strict libertarians, as well as among non-libertarians–that libertarian is monolithic.  I don’t think it’s really “movement” to the left, as much as becoming aware that libertarianism has a left-leaning wing, and naturally that left-leaning wing isn’t as sharply distinct from liberalism as libertarianism’s right-leaning wing.  But that’s really no different than liberalism’s more right-leaning (or at least centrist) wing being less sharply distinct from conservatism as liberalism’s left-leaning wing is.

                      And given that confusion, you then tell non-libertarians what the term means as if it’s a settled matter, as if there was univocality amongst libertarians about that.  

                      I thought I had repeatedly pointed out that some libertarians do indeed take the more extreme view, but that not all libertarians do, which necessarily implies that there is equivocality among libertarians.  My consistent point through has been that the term doesn’t mean just one single thing, and that both liberals and extreme libertarians who think so are wrong.  I don’t think that’s quite the same thing as “telling people what the term means as if it’s a settled matter.”

                      My consistent claim is that to the extent libertarian has a core, and to the extent liberalism has a core, there are real differences between those cores, but that neither is wholly or satisfactorily defined only by that core, so that on the margin between the two–their joint frontier if you will–there’s going to be more similarity than just focusing on the extreme version would suggest.  Liberal-leaning libertarians and libertarian-leaning liberals may be very hard to distinguish from each other, but that doesn’t mean they’re the same, or that one isn’t a “real” liberal/libertarian.

                      Are we looking at the forest or the trees–the one constitutes the other, but we’re going to see and understand them differently.  But neither one gives us the complete view–we need both views to fully understand.


                    • Yes, let’s unpack.   The Libertarians will not like where this unpacking goes, not even a little bit.  Now, if you’d been paying attention, I said police were hard to corrupt in a country with a free press.   But everyone has his price and risk equals profit and with enough money, we start to see corruption when the price is right.

                      Now let’s suppose we decriminalized drugs, as we’ve decriminalized booze by repealing the 18th Amendment.   We should logically see a great deal less corruption, nu?   Police could go back to arresting burglars and financial crooks…. oh wait, financial crooks have as much money as the drug dealers and we know they don’t even bother to corrupt the SEC and CFTC and the Fed, they’re part and parcel of the enforcement operation.   One such crook is the goddamn Secretary of the Treasury.   They’re putting his signature on our money!   That skeevy little bastard doesn’t even pay his taxes and still he’s at Treasury.

                      A fine kettle of fish, this is.   And still the Libertarians would tell us of Regulatory Capture.   It’s so hard to tell who’s the regulated and who’s the regulator any more.   One thing is for damned sure, in the same way the drug dealers can corrupt the street cops, the financial industry has completely coopted the regulatory bodies.

                      And still, despite the obviousness of this argument, the Libertarians would tell us to fear the government coopting the private sector, when it’s perfectly obvious the sum of vectors goes the other way, especially the money.   Where will it all end?   Will the Libertarians finally get a clue?   Stay tuned.


                    • You’ve been influential – very influential –  in (at least) my thinking about all these issues, yet I still don’t identify as a libertarian.

                      Friend, I am not trying to get you to identify as a libertarian!


                    • So Libertarians won’t like it because cops won’t have anything to do except go after real criminals (and they won’t even do that)?

                      Uhm (barely suppressing laughter) … No.   When real Force and Fraud appear in the financial system, the Libertarians can be relied on to oppose any efforts to contain either.   Now this does run contrary to their rhetoric, which leads me to conclude they do not understand the nature of markets, especially when it comes to Market Forces or how crimes of Fiduciary Fraud might be prevented or detected.

                      My question is this:  does Fiduciary Fraud constitute a Real Crime?   Or should we abolish the SEC as Ron Paul, (stereotypical Libertarian) proposes?


                    • Really, Mr. P?  You’ve never heard any Libertarians rant about any combination of the Federal Reserve System, Fiat Money, and Fractional Reserve Banking?  Really?

                      (n.b. I am not one of them)


                    • *I* don’t care whether you call yourself one. I just want you to become one.

                      Paraphrase: The smallest unit of morality is personal choice.

                      Stuff like that certainly helps me along the path.


                    • So, so, so…

                      So answer the question.   Should we abolish the SEC and the Fed?   Quit tap dancing around the obviousness of the problem:  the market makers have corrupted the regulators, rather contrary to the Libertarian assertions wherein it’s the wicked government seizing control of the markets.   This fact is the turd in the punchbowl of this discussion and you simply not address it.   The Libertarians have it completely bass-ackwards, crooks corrupt cops and if they have enough money, they corrupt entire governments.    In the Libertarian Paradise of Free and Unregulated Markets, the crooks would rule the planet, just like the Marxist Paradise of the previous century.


                    • Blaise, at some point you just have to take people at their word. And what I’m mean by that is ask yourself the following question: what do the professed libertarians on this site have to gain from reducing penalties on force and fraud? I mean, maybe Wardsmith does, but he’s not a libertarian so far as I know. Who else gains?


                    • Uh, isn’t “Crooks corrupting the Cops” what “Regulatory Capture” essentially means?  We’re not disagreeing!

                      (btw the SEC nor the FED should be abolished)

                      (I think you also have a too high notion on the effectiveness of a ‘free press’.  People are going to look at who and what they want to look at, and honest journalism is a hard sell.  Look how many hate on Radley Balko from all sides.  And how few people in any random population sample would be able to identify that name)


                    • Yes!  Indeed I have heard just such Libertarian rants about any combination of the Federal Reserve System, Fiat Money, and Fractional Reserve Banking.  For real and for true.   You see, there was a day when the Marxists were proposing the mirror image of the Libertarian Utopia, where men and women would rise up strong and free and the shortages would be divided amongst the peasants and we should all eat as much Delicious Air Pudding with Special Sauce as we could hold.

                      I am put in mind of the story of Pinocchio and the Field of Miracles, in which that naive (but exceedingly free!)  little boy was almost convinced by the Fox and the Cat to plant the gold coins which should have been given to Geppetto.   Come to think of it, that whole sad story reminds me of what comes of people who want freedom but have no clear idea of how to get it.   Somehow, in their confused little minds, Force and Fraud are something other than their manifestations in the real world.   In their minds, only the regulators are the Bad Guys.   Off to Pleasure Island, one and all!


                    • Here’s where it gets terribly confusing, Stillwater.   The Libertarians, like all those Marxists I knew back in the day, are earnest, well-meaning people.  They just haven’t resolved the obvious contradictions between their doctrines and what they actually propose to do in the real world.    Read the Marxists and you’ll see exactly what I mean.

                      You ask what the professed libertarians on this site have to gain from reducing penalties on force and fraud.   Clearly, nothing.   The money in their bank accounts, their investments, the food in their refrigerators, the planes they fly in — all protected by regulations written in blood.  They’re like the hobbits of Bree, suspicious of the Rangers who guard them, though they know it not.   Even when the forces of evil come riding through the town, they’re still in denial.   Just leave us alone, we’ll work this all out.  We don’t need no steenking badges and we don’t want anyone else to wear one either.

                      Just like the Marxists, I’m telling you.  As the Communists were deluded into thinking the State would wither away, the Libertarians are singing exactly the same song.   Well, I used to shoot Communists.   Really down on any utopian scheme which promises Liberty and Freedom, especially when they’re tearing out the support beams of this society.



                    • Jaybird, you’d best hope Jehovah God isn’t your witness, for you’d get zapped with roughly a trillion amps worth of refreshing retribution from the Mark V Celestial Smite-o-tron for dancing before idols.

                      I thought we were talking about how the drug war corrupted the police.  Yes we were.   Now we’re talking about who corrupted the market regulators and how.

                      So…. (rubs hands together)  should we abolish the SEC like we abolished the 18th Amendment and as the Libertarians propose, abolish the laws against heroin and cocaine and the like?  Enquiring minds want to know.


                    • Just like the Marxists, I’m telling you.

                      No, I don’t think that’s right. For one thing, most of the commenters here (as I’m learning!) eschew first principles in the arguments. James K, Simon, James H, JB, Jason K, Roger (terrorist fist jab fist bump!) and lots of others aren’t arguing from a first principle position. The way I understand them is that they’re arguing from a ‘where were at’ starting point, to a ‘where we’d like to go, or end up’ finishing point. First principles aren’t part of this communities prescriptions. Or at least, they aren’t any more a part of their prescriptions than a liberals!

                      Look at it this way: this collection of libertarians challenges us liberals to defend policy X given the situationally relavant evidence. That’s a fair question. I don’t think that is similar to a Marxist-ish apriori inexorable-process type of position.


                    • Given the revolving door between the regulators and the regulated and the government bailouters and the corporate bailoutees, I don’t know that an SECless Wall Street would necessarily be *MORE* corrupt.

                      Then again, I’m one of those people who doesn’t believe that we came *THIS* close to the world ending 4-5 years ago.


                    • To be sure, this collection of libertarians challenges us liberals to defend policy X given the situationally relevant evidence.

                      And when they’re asked point blank questions about market regulation, they whinge and beg off any questions, especially ones where the evidence contradicts their conclusions.   I remember the Marxists doing that, too.


                    • Blaise:

                      Quit tap dancing around the obviousness of the problem: the market makers have corrupted the regulators, rather contrary to the Libertarian assertions wherein it’s the wicked government seizing control of the markets.

                      The idea that if only intervention stopped as of…NOW! everything would be A-OK is one spot where I can’t help but shake my head at the popular face of libertarianism. Contrary to their assumption, big business does not want a free market, they want their costs subsidized, their workers mindless cattle, and potential competitors crushed. They have been in cahoots all along with the state — which means that a decent chunk of their gains are effectively stolen property.

                      That said…how exactly do you UN-corrupt the regulators? Even further, how do you KEEP them UN-corrupt? Basically, how do you regulate the regulators?

                      This is why representative democracy is a myth.

                      BTW: fat lot of good the SEC does, considering the blatant fraud that still goes on.  As for the Fed, I suspect if it weren’t for the association with Ron Paul & goldbuggery the Left would be much more inclined towards abolishing it.  When you’re talking about how best to regulate massive concentrations of financial power, you’ve actually missed the real problem — that they exist in the first place.


                    • Contrary to their assumption, big business does not want a free market

                      I’m sure there are libertarians that naive, but I really don’t know any of them (thank god).  I remember asking John Baden, founder of the libertarian environmentalist think tank FREE, which has lots of wealthy businessmen on its board, if he knew any businessmen who really wanted a free market.  Without hesitation he blurted out, “No!”  Then he paused and said, “Well, I do know one, but just one.”

                      To the extent any libertarians do believe businesses want markets, we other libertarians need to disabuse them of the notion.

                      And as I always like to say to my conservative friends, “conservatives aren’t really pro-market, they’re pro-business, which isn’t the same thing at all.”


                    • B,

                      you keep the regulators honest through SUNLIGHT. Anonymous and folks like that are pretty good at finding frauds — and if you shout loud enough, the guvmint gotta act.


                    • Jaybird: “I thought we were talking about how the drug war corrupted the police.”

                      BlaiseP: “Yes we were.   Now we’re talking about–”

                      So is it a settled matter that your original statement–that Libertarians somehow are hypocritical in their attitudes towards the War On Drugs–was actually bunk?


                    • Duck, quit embarrassing yourself.   We’ve long since come to terms with the order of things, that crooks corrupt cops, not the other way round.   Yes, Libertarians want to repeal laws against drugs.   That might be a good idea, considering how much money is sloshing around.   Back in the days of the 18th Amendment, the gangsters bribed the cops with exactly this sort of money.   Gambling too.   Now half the states run numbers rackets.  Ah, me, to remember when Dick Tracy used to be chasin’ gamblers around.

                      So, if the Libertarians want the government to act against Force ‘n Fraud ‘n Protectin’ People’s Property Rights, worthy goals all, when it comes to this Fraud and Property Rights stuff, we ought to understand how the Forces of the Market operate.  Gambling, drugs, that sort of thing, some folks think they’re not really crimes.   Fair enough.

                      But when it comes to regulating the securities market, where other people’s money is involved, I think we should ensure those transactions take place on regulated exchanges.   That’s something we could do, immediately.   It’s not like I haven’t said this before at least a thousand times already.

                      I’m not accusing anyone of hypocrisy.   The Libertarians are absolutely right, when we try to impose morality through law, as with the 18th Amendment, all we get is gangsters making big profits on bathtub gin.   A lot of people died of bad booze during Prohibition.   A lot of people are dying of adulterated drugs now.   I really don’t have an opinion on legalising drugs, but I sure as hell do about welchers defaulting on trillions of dollars worth of bets on other people’s mortgages.   If the Libertarians were true to their own rhetoric about Force and Fraud, they’d be for more honest markets and that means more regulation.


                • James, the way you talk about it I’d think that there is not nor could there be a legitimate criticism of libertarianism because a) it’s all good, and b) everyone who criticizes it exposes themselves as an ignorant ignoramus because, well, it’s all good.

                  Question: How much ground are you willing to give the other side in terms of legitimate disagreement? Cuz it seems like you’re not willing to give any.


                  • Stillwater,

                    No, I just didn’t follow because I was seeing the issue as family choice vs. federal regulations, not as parental coercion of kids, which is where Ryan was focusing.  Down below I caught on. I’m puzzled that you took this approach, as I simply admitted I wasn’t following and asked him to explain.  I made no argument in that comment.

                    As to legitimate criticism of libertarianism, I’ve frequently admitted that libertarianism is very problematic when it comes to kids and the mentally incompetent.  So while I’m not fully persuaded by Ryan here, I think he’s right at least at the margins. Parents certainly can exploit their children, and the question is where that line is drawn.  I’m sure we’d all agree that a mother pimping out her pre-teen is undoubtedly on the wrong side of the line.  I having your 14 year old bail hay or drive a farm truck at 0.2 mph alongside the combine on the wrong side?  It’s at least more reasonably debatable, I think.


                    • (Did you challenge him on it downthread?)

                      Not on the concept.  It’s a valid point on which to push us libertarians, because I really don’t think we have any easy answers on that issue.  All I can do is fudge and say the state shouldn’t intervene in the family too much, but should protect children from parental harm–which is something I’m not sure any liberal or conservative would disagree with, because it’s safely vague.

                      And then we’ll all fight over the specific application of that vague rule, and probably without any of us being able to come up with good clear bright lines.  But, without claiming to really know one way or the other, I suppose it’s possible liberals might be able to draw a more consistent and applicable line on it.


              • What my own experiences showed me, was that most “family farms” suck at being a business.  The most successful “family farms” I knew were the ones who incorporated the farm at some level & started running it like an actual business.  BlaiseP’s example below is probably one of those types, as was quite a few other farmers I knew.  It was a family owned business, with profit & loss & the family took a salary, with the rest going to run & expand the business.  I knew a lot of farmers who spent a lot of time in classrooms learning how to do this so they could survive, and they do pretty well.  Others are small, almost hobby farms, who don’t need the extra hands.

                They don’t need to hire kids.

                But they aren’t the “family farms” that a lot of people go on about.  They aren’t the ones objecting.  It’s the disturbingly large number who can’t be bothered to learn the business side of it, who still squeak by, who need all those ag subsidies & protections to stay afloat.

                I say let ’em fail.


                • Those poorly-run farms are long gone.   They got taken out in the 80s, most of them.   Maybe there are some dumbasses still hanging on by the seat of their pants, but not even subsidies can keep them afloat for long.

                  Around here, in 2005 while the GOP was meddling with ethanol subsidies, all in the worthy cause of Energy Independence, the farmers would plant every inch in hi-starch corn.   They couldn’t afford not to, unless they were already in dairy, in which case they were in feed corn, a slightly different variety.   I was trading grains, well, I still do, and watched the corn futures go sideways.   The price of tortillas went crazy.   That might not sound like a big deal, but edible corn prices went absolutely nuts.   If anyone ever needs an object lesson in why the government should stay out of demand markets of that sort, they need go no farther than the corn futures charts from 2005 to 2008.   A whole lot of those guys who were trapped in the ethanol corn business went broke:  they couldn’t get financing for their next crop and — kaboom.


          • Conscription?  What conscription?  My family did not own a farm, working on one was a way to make money (granted, not a lot, but I’d rather be on my feet milking cows for minimum wage than washing dishes or busing tables in some dive bar or restaurant).  And since when is having your kids participate in the family business conscription?  I mean, if that is the case, then asking your kids to vacuum the floors, do the dishes, rake the leaves, mow the lawn, & shovel the walk are all conscription.



              • Don’t most small businessmen do this to their kids?

                My husband routinely got off school to go work at Ollies (unpaid) during sales…

                My father routinely had to work after school at his dad’s shop.



              • Forcing your children to do work for your own profit without paying them a market wage,

                OK, now I follow you on “libertarianism v. family.”  But I have to ask, whose profit?  That money goes to pay for the kids’ food, housing, clothing, tuition, band camp, etc.  It’s difficult to divvy out who’s profiting when we’re talking about household income.  If dad pays someone to do that work instead of the kid, there may not be money for band camp.  If dad pays the kid, dad can say, “you’re paying for band camp out of your own earnings,” and it works out pretty much the same.

                I get where you’re coming from, and I fully admit that kids in general are a problem for libertarianism, a philosophy based on the concept of mentally competent adults.  But I think the issue of benefit is less clear than you’re making it.

                And frankly, I’ve never met anyone who was particularly upset about having to help out with the family business.  No doubt there are some, but I’ve known more than I can remember, and they were almost all proud of their effort; proud of being able to contribute to the family income.


                • Nah.  Want your kids to work for you?  Pay them a reasonable wage.  Teaches them the value of money.   Oh, you don’t have to pay them much, but my kiddoes would do some work for me, I’d make them fill in a time sheet and a little invoice for services, wasn’t hard on them and taught them how Wicked Old Dad made money, by filling out invoices.

                  Sure, you’re right, the money you don’t pay them might go back into clothes and food and band camp.   That’s not the way I was raised and I didn’t raise my own kids that way.

                  Happiness starts by doing the invoicing.  Nobody will write you a check otherwise.  Of course, you’re one of those tree huggers, poor trusting saps, who think the only way to make money is to get a paycheck, then it stands to reason you wouldn’t raise your kids to be hungry for money and learn the fine art of invoicing and getting paid.


                • This is an area where, as a lefty left leftist with a shade of leftism in my blood, I feel it’s morally wrong, but probably not practical for government intervention. Or at least prohibition. You could probably make incentives to not have the kid work and keep sending them to school or some other equivalent by providing refundable tax credits for various things.

                  For example, if you’re a family farm and you have 3 children, your first 3 farm hands are 100% exempt from all taxation (of course you’d still have to pay them minimum wage, but I digress) or something along those lines.


                • I don’t see it as that much of an issue for libertarianism.
                  Two ways of looking at it: Either the family unit is communist or it’s a partnership.
                  Then the whole idea of chores, work, etc. becomes ‘material participation.’


            • So you were a farm worker.  This qualifies you to opine on the finances and profit margins of family farms — how, exactly?   Up here, margins are pretty thin but they’re not all that thin.   D, my sorta bro-in-law, does a milk operation, he’s got a contract with the state to produce for the schools, but the other three produce cheese.   They’re doing pretty well, oh there aren’t many vacation days in their lives, dairy sorta does that to a family, but they’re all doing reasonably well.   I’m doing some stats for their milk production as a favour.

              Now, across the hall from me are two illegal aliens who work 12 hour shifts down at one of the local dairy operations.   They get more than minimum wage, I know, I take them up to the bank to cash their checks.

              The strangest part is, this makes four dairy operations I know reasonably well and nobody’s using children.   Which isn’t to say the kids aren’t doing chores, if you’ve read the regs on child labour, no operating heavy equipment, working in country grain elevators, grain bins, silos, feed lots, stockyards, livestock exchanges and livestock auctions.  All sounds pretty reasonable to me.  Do you really want a little kid running around in a stockyard?   Are you crazy or something?   Sure, kids work on farms, nobody says they can’t do reasonably safe chores.   I don’t want to see any kid wrestling around with a grain auger in the back of a truck.   You and I both know what comes of that.


              • See, the rules I read basically ban kids from 90% of the kind of work they can do, so the only “chores” they’ll be able to do are the ones you’d give to a 7 year old, even if they are 17.

                The rules make no distinction for age (that I saw), and they eliminate the educational programs that groups like the 4-H & the FFA conduct so kids know how to be safe on a farm (and put in it’s place a 90 hour government course).

                Most of the farmers I knew growing up were pretty good at making sure kids weren’t doing work that was not appropriate for their age or skill level, which helped to minimize the dangers (so why was a 14 year old working close enough to a turning auger that his arm got caught in it, where were the adults?).  Most of those farmers were also family or family friends, so yeah, I got to hear a lot about the business side of it, so yes, I can comment.

                And yes, I knew farms that never employed kids (except their own) & did just fine.  It took a lot of education & investment to get to that point, but they did it.  Of course, while they worked to get to that point, they employed teenagers.  Ask your bro-in-law when he stopped hiring kids.



                • Nah.   Read the regs for yourself.   Nobody up here is complaining about them.   Farming is a whole lot more mechanised than it used to be, even the small family operations.     The laws weren’t updated since 1970.

                  Really, don’t bother throwing foofoo dust around about how most of the farmers were great guys and they made sure of this ‘n that.   I’m sure they were.   But farmers are no different than anyone else, they’re in business.   This guy whose kid’s arm got caught in the auger was standing right there watching it happen, not six feet away.   That’s why the kid’s alive to tell the story, the Dad took off his belt and made a tourniquet and they pulled him out of that auger fully conscious.   Shit happens around machinery.   I don’t want little kids around something that dangerous.

                  Fact is, out here, it’s pretty remote.   The townie kids don’t want to work on the farms and increasingly, neither do the farm kids.   The Amish are here in a big way, they’re buying out those little family operations.   They have a lot of young men who want a farm in the worst way:  no farm means no horse and no wife.   And the Amish do put their kids to work on the farm and they do get hurt.   Teachers in Amish schools were surveyed about their experiences with accidents/injuries among children on the farm. Seventy percent of the teachers reported a childhood farm injury in their family, with the majority attributing this to farm animals.


        • feh. so now we’re supposed to pay you to be unprofitable? I’m sorry, but just because rural farmers wanna run some sort of hippie commune, doesnt’ mean I gotta support it…

          (Does mean I’ll happily pay for some of that delicious WI milk — the sweet stuff up north, mind.)


        • Family farms?   That’s sorta funny.   I’m up here in Augusta Wisconsin , came up here for a girl from Cadott, a large extended family, all of them dairy farmers.  Don’t tell me little war stories about teenage shenanigans and drinking.   This kid got his arm chewed off in a grain auger and you’re telling me about how farms need small children to operate?   Maybe that’s just the price we have to pay for dairy, little kids getting their arms ground up and tossed into the silo.

          You’re really a piece of work, really you are.   Notorious, almost.   Curiously, the same argument was always made for chattel slavery, can’t get workers to pick that cotton.



    • Um, is there why I actually point out the Department of Labor child regs weren’t to stop children of the owners of family farms, but instead is to stop the the kids of migrant workers to be doing work on farms, right? I mean, did everybody else completely miss that part of the regulation?


      • Please. Don’t let facts get in the way!

        We all know Obama wants to stomp down on real Americans by preventing them from making their kids do dishes! It’s all part of a Commie-Pinko-Muslim-Kenyan-Socialist plot to destroy American by weakening the moral fibre of children, a fibre strengthened only by 14 hour days in 100+ degree heat picking playing tag through heavy machinery while juggling chainsaws.

        Or something.

        Frankly, I think a lot of people should invest in a better BS detector. hearing things like “This law will end 4H” (or whatever that program is. I had friends in it, but can’t recall it. It’s where you, you know, raise livestock and stuff. It’s kinda a big deal here near Rodeo time).

        Anyways, hearing things like “OMFG, you guys, Obama’s new regs on child care mean 4H and making your kids weed the garden is illegal and you can go to jail!” just makes me roll my eyes.

        Hint: Democrats don’t actually twirl mustaches before tying women to railroad tracks. Keep this in mind. Neither do Republicans. Well, except Karl Rove. He’s kinda shifty-eyed, and with a nickname like Turdblossom — given to him by his boss, no less — you figure he’s just dying for some sort of evil villianry.

        Not sure I could blame him. Turd blossom. *shakes head*. It’s just cruel, you know?


      • Actually, I did miss that.  Part of the problem of skimming the news first thing in the morning.

        My original comment was not meant to start a huge discussion over farm or labor regulations (& I shouldn’t have let BlaiseP pull me into such), it was a point that the left has a hard time these days selling regulation in general to the public, & not because the right has a better counter message.  They don’t, they have no message beyond, “Look, lefties slipping regulation under the radar, made by un-elected bureaucrats, gonna interfere with your life & freedom!”.  That’s all they need to do to get the outrage flowing & put the government & the left who support the regs on the defensive.

        And the left has been utterly horrible about getting the same level of outrage mustered up every time the right wants to tack on another police/security power.

        Poll after poll show trust in the efficacy of government is at an all time low in this country (and not just the approval of congress, but at almost every level).  IMHO, this loss of trust was started with Bush the Lesser, but the left has been ineffective about getting that trust back, partly because they cave to the GOP scare tactics every damn time.

        This is where I think the author is correct.  The left may have the best intentions & some really good ideas, but they can’t seem to sell those ideas to anyone but their core, and I think that is because they can’t get together a moral argument strong enough to overcome the Harum-Scarum of the right.  They focus too much on the how, & not enough on the why (& when libertarians try to help out by adding in supporting moral arguments, they get booed off the stage).  It’s a marketing failure.

        It’s like the auto companies trying to sell a car to the public based upon it’s performance numbers alone, without any of the emotional trappings of an advertisement.  The only people who care enough about the performance numbers to be sold on those alone are the auto enthusiasts/gear heads.  Everyone else needs a reason to pay attention, and the competition is hitting back with “That car will destroy your life!”.


        • First of all, I think most people have a low opinion of government because they only thing they see is, “Department X did Horrible Thing Y to this One Person.” Nobody ever has an interview with the single mom who has heat in her home because of LIHEAP or the elderly couple who can pay their rent thanks to Social Security. Or to put it bluntly, there’s never a headline, “group of people walkthrough bad area of town with zero problems.”

          Plus, I think like most things, if you polled Americans, I’m sure they’d say we’re overregulated as a country. By the same token though, if you listed off some of the regulations that conservatives want to get off, I’m sure most people would want to keep those regulations. Plus, like those studies that seem stupid in a single line in a newspaper, but have worth for a variety of reasons, plenty of regulations seem silly in a vacuum.

          Because here’s the thing. Yes, there are some regulations that are pointless. But, by the same token, conservatives over the past 30 years have largely only gone after regulations that happen to actually help people.


          • thing they see is, “Department X did Horrible Thing Y to this One Person.”

            That right there is a HUGE part of the problem, abuses make good press, success stories, not so much.  So why can’t the left (whom the media is supposed to be in the pocket of) get those stories out?

            And, as I stated before, when “Dept. X does Horrible Thing Y”, nothing changes.  No one is punished, changes never happen, just lots of words & empty promises until the next news cycle & everyone forgets.  Thus the erosion of trust continues.


            • Well, first, the media is in the pocket of advertisers, not the left. Second, because that’s not how news works. You can argue that the left has fallen down on the success of government, but by the same token, violent crime as fallen for something like 25 years straight. Yet, poll after poll shows between 40% to 50% of the population believes that crime is higher than it was last year. So, if the left has failed, so have the police. Why? Because if it bleeds, it leads.

              Plus, there’s no real follow-up to a “good” news story. It’s good or one cycle. A murder, scandal, or shooting? You’ve got the investigation, the trial, and everything connected to it.


              • We need a “facetious” tag.  I don’t believe the media is in the pocket of the left except insofar as a large number of people in the media are left of center, & their biases bleed through the narrative.


          • “conservatives over the past 30 years have largely only gone after regulations that happen to actually help people.”

            You mean like the way the CPSIA destroyed the concept of youth ATVs, and nearly did for thrift stores until people actually genuinely did convince them to not do that?


        • Note, and note well: the democratic base is not liberal. This is why there is not a huge hubub about police powers. Much of the Democratic base spanks their kids, and believes that torture for terrorists is probably okay (even if they’re skeptical that it’ll be applied well).


  7. I’m not sure I agree with everything here, but you’ve expanded a great deal on a thought I expressed earlier in a different thread, that we can’t do everything using the concepts of economics, and we shouldn’t want to. So thanks for that.


  8. I take the post as a bit of friendly advice, not concern trolling.

    I think there is merit in posing a challenge to us Liberals in terms of things we can do to change, rather than things we can’t. Bitching about the ginormous tilt of the media chorus or the limitless deep pockets of ALEC might be true, but it isn’t something we can actually affect.

    Sharpening our message, we can.

    I tend to agree with the thesis- I have said before that I can be in the next room, and barely hear the drone of the tv, and still can tell instantly whether a liberal or conservative is speaking.

    Liberals speak in the muted cadence of an NPR announcer, droning on about statistics and figures and this and that; Conservatives speak in bold clear tones of moral imperatives, without gradation or nuance.

    Yeah, that moral certitude can lead to disastrous results, but is potent in measured doses.

    I am working with a Social Justice committee at my church, and we are hosting a series of forums where we discuss political issues, through the lens of Christian theology; the underlying premise is that there is a moral dimension to even the most wonkish of issues.


  9. You were doing good until you wrote – “Life isn’t freer without government—it’s chaotic.”

    This is a strawman. No conservatives I know of or libertarians, except the anarchists who aren’t influential, advocate the abolition of government. Both limited government conservatives and libertarians promote stable government to allow the market to work without coercion. I also don’t agree with the premise that the Right is against Justice — it’s simply a matter of whether one believes a powerful, interventionist government can achieve justice, or whether free people working within an open market protected by rule of law is a social order more amenable to just outcomes.


    • limited government conservatives

      Honestly, what does that even mean?  If someone says “limit this, but ramp up like crazy THAT”, their issue isn’t with the power of government, it’s that the power isn’t used enough for what they want.


      • I have criticized conservatives who practice statism/intervention from the Right, but there is a small faction of conservatives influenced by libertarian thought who want to truly limit power. I want to help this faction grow.


        • I would be a lot more amenable to the limited government argument if libertarians would acknowledge that there are some commodites/services for which we have never been able to design a functional market.   If libertarians can’t concede that there are a handful of broken markets,  the left will fall right back into the trap of talking economics inside a moral debate framework.  Lets use energy delivery, health care, and  water as examples.  The same problem always happens: when those markets are managed (because they are easily broken) by communities, an outrageously large top line revenue number will show up on a government balance sheet.  “They just took over 1/6th of the Economy!!!”   That top line number is then used to demonstrate  our clear moral drift into Big Government.  But it really only shows that there are some needs so basic that there is inelastic demand.  Until right libertarians can come honestly to the table conceding that, this debate will play out like every current one.



          • Max. So, allow the private sector to do everything that’s not absolutely necessary for the government to do. The problem is that government is the default solution. If we only gave government the responsibilities that simply can’t be handled in the private sector, we’d be okay. But we’re far from that.

            Yeah, Liberty60, of course, the world is populated with statists and there’s nothing to be done. I get it. Thanks.


            • I think “allow the private sector to do everything that’s not absolutely necessary for the government to do” is the baseline position for left, right and center.  Is that a statment that implies any moral clarity at all? It looks to me like the sort of common sense axiom that all of us agree with.

              That said, I am sure we disagree on what the private sector is capable of doing more efficiently (better) than the the public (government) could.   Because of my  left wing tic,  I instictively framed the debate as an economic one with a measurable objective.  I am a little skeptical that a libertarian, especially a right leaning one, could answer the following question as an agnostic, though:

              Which markets do you think the public (communities/government), rather than the private sector, handle better?   Would the private sector and free markets deliver education more efficiently?  Infrastructure? Water?  Power?  Health Care?  Pension security?   Would the government providing these services on a not for profit basis fall within the boundaries of  “allow the private sector to do everything that’s not absolutely necessary for the government to do” ?



              • MaxL, I can’t agree.  The only way to enforce the left’s Holy Grail, “fairness,” is with the power of politics.  Devolution of power to “society” or God forbid, free enterprise, is the cause of “unfairness,” not its cure.





                • Tom, I think you are right about fairness being the most highly valued principle to the left.  I also submit that defending the status quo is the single most important principle of the right.

                  But,  I would gladly accept the fairness argument as settled once and for all if my short list of broken markets above could be conceded as such by the right.  Those things are simply too critical to our society and to each individual to be gamed and rigged for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many.  I think this would satisfy 99% of all left leaning Americans.

                  My own suspicion has always been that the reason many of those markets rigged is to protect the current winners, to keep the status quo intact by placing various barriers to entry in front of new competitors.  That is doubly true for education.


                  • Thx, Max. I don’t see any way around “fairness” being coerced.  Of conservatives’ defense of the status quo is not so much the “power” explanation favored by their critics as much as valuing stability and order very highly [as we saw here]

                    For much of the history of political philosophy, anarchy was feared more than tyranny as the worst of all worlds.

                    And then of course there are the Jacobins who not only reinvented government, but even the calendar, and the modern notion that human nature itself can be molded by ‘education” and by political systems.

                    Now “fairness” might be inculcated by non-coercive means, by education and societal change, and I’m all for it.  But as a politics, “fairness” is more easily and most often achieved via the leveling effect, that is, to punish excellence, not by raising the mean, to gear to the average rather than the exceptional.


                    • Now if only this “Free” Enterprise were actually free, things might be a bit different.   For now, it’s brutally apparent the way things get done is to hire in a powerful lobbying firm.   Excellence doesn’t matter.   It never did.

                      The Jacobins had a unique advantage in their own times:  while all around them society fell into disorder, they alone were organised.    They were all rich men, though they had a good deal of influence over the mob.   They were not very large, at most a few thousand men under their direct control.

                      For all the evil they did, the Jacobins eliminated serfdom in France.  The Jacobins were still an improvement on the rascals of Thermidor.   The Jacobins were deposed and murdered, France went off looting and pillaging abroad under Napoleon, who would eventually install his own police state to keep the intellectuals in check.

                      That’s the problem with violent revolutions concentrated in the hands of the few.   Lenin comes to power, only to produce a Stalin.   Robespierre comes to power, only to produce a Napoleon.   We sorta forget just how nasty Napoleon really was.  His secret police became the model for the Gestapo.


                    • The conservative notion of social order relies on obedience, doesn’t it?

                      Obedience to family authority, obedience to religious dogma,obedience to community norms and mores,  obedience to state law;

                      In the conservative ideal, people are surrounded and regulated heavily by these overlapping and interlocking networks of authority.

                      In the world of Burke, “virtue” was every bit as coerced as “fairness”. Tithing, attendance at church, proclamations of faith- these things were and are still compulsory in societies that follow the conservative path.


                    • Yes, I’ve watched you go round and round with the rest of LoOG on this “free” markets thing, Blaise.  Regardless of how “free” our markets are [or aren’t], there’s a difference between that and no market atall.  It’s my position that liquidity equals liberty, and even the most corrupt of markets provides liquidity.   Where there is no market, when all prices are set by fiat rather than intrinsic value, there is no liberty, only politics.

                      As for Revolutionary France mutating into the Napoleonic Empire, it rather illustrates the relative desirability of tyranny over anarchy, and why even tyrants enjoy some level of consent of the governed.  Of course, the 20th century tyrannies [Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, the Norks], which took repression and murder to the level and efficiency of mass production, rather lost touch with the governed, even a nominal one.

                      I realize I’m getting abstract speaking of anarchy here; the West isn’t in any imminent danger of it.  But I’m not sanguine about the modern Eurowienie state, where the only values are built around having no values—“tolerance,” the multiculti chimera that respects every culture and value system except for its own.

                      “Universalistic egalitarianism, from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk.” (Jürgen Habermas – “Time of Transitions“, Polity Press, 2006, pp. 150-151, translation of an interview from 1999).


                    • Lib60, I feel you’re a bit hostile here, and not stating the other side’s case charitably, esp Edmund Burke’s.  And it’s too much work to wade through the sarcasm thing and do sincere exchange at the same time.  So let’s continue with lighter hearts and gooder faith—

                      The conservative notion of social order relies on obedience, doesn’t it?

                      Not “obedience” as such.  Genuine liberty relies on individual self-governance, precisely that we may avoid authoritarianism.  Surely you’re familiar with the passel of quotes from the American Founders along these lines.  The anarchists think they’re onto some new concept, but when the Founders were inventing liberty as we know it today, they had it in mind that the free society depends on each man voluntarily governing himself.

                      In the world of Burke, “virtue” was every bit as coerced as “fairness”. Tithing, attendance at church, proclamations of faith- these things were and are still compulsory in societies that follow the conservative path.

                      These must be voluntary!  That’s the whole point!

                      Kimmi actually brought up a powerful and beautiful thing today


                      I reject it as a coerced politics, but the one area of agreement you & I have had is that conservatives and liberals are each communitarian in their own way.  There’s much there:

                      Tzedakah or ?’daqah in Classical Hebrew(Hebrew: ?????; Arabic: ?????) is a Hebrewword literally meaning righteousness but commonly used to signify charity.[1] It is based on the Hebrew word (???, tzadik) meaning righteousnessfairness or justice. InJudaism, tzedakah refers to the religious obligation to do what is right and just, which Judaism emphasises are important parts of living a spiritual life. Maimonides says that, while the second highest form of tzedakah is to anonymously give donations to unknown recipients, the highest form is to give a gift, loan, or partnership that will result in the recipient supporting himself instead of living upon others.


                    • Well, there’s a distinct difference between paying a toll to cross a bridge, and having the attendant come out and mug you for your wallet.
                      What Lib refers to as ‘obedience’ can also be seen as ‘courtesy;’ a gratuity.
                      Measuring miles by inches might look good on paper, but it makes for a long walk.


                  • I just want to note for the record that this is the third time in this thread I have asked for a conservative or libertarian to concede that some markets (any markets???) are broken and we have never been able to design them well enough to work.   Unfortunately, they are usually the ones with inelastic demand that hurt everyone when they are gamed.  Whether I frame this request for a single concession as a proposition, a trade, or a polite request,  we end up discussing some first principle or other instead.

                    This, in a nutshell, is why one side talks about “morals’ and “principles” and the other side is left talking about policy.



                    • I think that most Libertarians, anyway, would point out that trying to “design” the market is likely to create distortions which will, of course, cause you to double-down on your “design” which will make distortions even worse. When this fails catastrophically, the Libertarian is likely to point out that you’re most likely to blame wreckers and Libertarians.

                      But that’s just off the top of my head.


                    • Jaybird, that is absolutely true of, say, a pencil market or a washing machine market.  But I was thinking more along the lines of markets that don’t really obey laws of supply and demand well at all, like water and electricity distribution, infrastructure in general, health care, and education.   Those markets are very much “designed” in all kinds of ways because they act so oddly on their own.   I don’t want to get bogged down in en econ discussion (because that would be too ironic considering the original post), but what libertarians and even mainline conservatives are asking for in the US these days is a radical departure from both the recent past and all of our modern competitor nations.



                    • So would you say that the problems (and we are, in fact, having problems) we’re having with water and electricity distribution, infrastructure in general, health care, and education are due to too many Libertarians making sure that there isn’t enough design for the market to work properly?

                      I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that you think that the solution is to double down.


                    • Nevermind.  Please see my post two layers up in this…is it called a discussion subthread? I thought we were still discussing that.  All I am sayining is: If not one single market can be called into question (on the grounds that, apparently, liquidity = liberty?) on the grounds that it doesn’t work then the left will always be stuck arguing about top line budget numbers and economics while the law and order right will counter with cries of “freedom.”

                      Also, too, I am now completely satisfied that this is the case and it the dynamic will never, ever change.



                  • Actually, I wasn’t being hostile, because I don’t believe that “coercion” per se is a bad thing.”Coercion” and “Obedience” are actually good things, within reasonable limits.

                    This is what happens when you make a taboo of the word “coercion”; when it is rightfully called for, such as at a toll booth, you end up having to tie yourself in knots pretending that paying tolls is somehow uncoercive and voluntary.

                    I agree that the highest ideal is to have citizens voluntarily self-police themselves.

                    But we still have a police force, don’t we? As far as Will’s analogy of the toll booth, you can say it is voluntary, but notice how if you drive through without paying, eventually men with guns will make you pay, voluntarily or not.

                    So saying that conforming to the laws and rules of a society is not “coercive” is  bit like what I accused the Valve company of doing in their employee manual; presenting a set of norms and pretending that conflict and discord and ultimately coercion to conform doesn’t exist.

                    In order for any society to call itself such, there has to be some semblence of order and structure; even if that order is democratically decided, and agreed to by 90% of the citizens, ultimately compliance with the rules is not voluntary and obedience is called for.



                    • The question I always find interesting is “Do you identify with the coercer or with the coerced?”

                      I tend to identify with the latter.

                      Do you identify with the guy saying “obey” or with the person being told to “obey”?

                      I tend to identify with the latter.


                    • Yeah, I’m with you on that, Lib60.
                      Probably at least half of all this ‘coercion’ is rather trivial and trite, and amounts to ‘rules of engagement’ of society.
                      For example, observe this very sentence which I wrote, and how the words are ordered. I could well rearrange those words to prevent any form of coercion, but the value of communication would be lessened in doing so.
                      Or, you could say that there’s a bit of a difference between being individualistic and being outright cantankerous. You sort of know it when you see it.


                    • This is what happens when you make a taboo of the word “coercion”; when it is rightfully called for, such as at a toll booth, you end up having to tie yourself in knots pretending that paying tolls is somehow uncoercive and voluntary.

                      I don’t agree at all. Using the toll road is optional.  There’s a huge difference between saying “you must pay for service X if you want to use it,” and “you must pay for service X, even if you don’t want it, or don’t want as much as we’re requiring you to pay for.”

                      If you want to use coercion so broadly that it includes payments that result from voluntary choices, then you’ve made the word so broad it’s no longer meaningful.  No wonder, then, that you object to people who use it the way it was intended. But you’ve gamed the definition.



                    • James, wouldn’t you agree that there is a set of rules and laws that are and should be voluntary, that we are free to conform to, or ignore; but there is another set that is and should be compulsory, and must be complied with, even if one disagrees with them?

                      We can certainly argue about the boundaryline between them, but we can at least agree on the exitance of the second set.


                    • Liberty,

                      Your question doesn’t even get at the point I was making.  Nothing in my comment suggested there wasn’t such a distinction–in fact my comment assumes the existence of such a distinction, and objects to using coercion to describe both sets.  If coercion describes each of them equally well, then the distinction you posit in your question doesn’t exist.

                      So the answer to your question is, “yes, and coercion is aptly applied only to the second set, not the first one.”


                • Clarification: The markets in question: Energy distribution (public utilities, not nationalized Exxon),  water and sewer, health care, pension security, and education.  Except for places with a lot of hydroelectric power, none of those goods/services seem to have benefited much from private enterprise or free market efficiency where it’s been tried.  And the risk of having them gamed simply has too much downside risk without any proven upside.  All risk, no reward.



                  • none of those goods/services seem to have benefited much from private enterprise or free market efficiency where it’s been tried. 

                    [Citation required]


                    • I believe I was asking for the citation coming from the other direction first, but.  I can explain myself better.   Please bear in mind that it is libertarians and conservatives who are making the sweeping assertion that free enterprise will always be more efficient in every circumstance.   I continue to have zero illusions that any concession on this point, no matter what I say below, will ever be forthcoming from them.

                      Energy distribution:  See Enron and California, 1999 to 2001.  If you know of a successful case of a fully “free market”, unsubsidized electricity distribution system anywhere, let me know.  It kind of works like that in Norway, but, like  I said, hydro power is unique.  This market doesn’t  work because 1) inelastic demand without any any possibility of substitution, yet.   2) there is no way to store the energy (ie: build up supply because of slack demand – and this is where hydro shines, btw) so there is never a need to reduce prices to clear inventory.  3) barriers to entry lead to monopolies.

                      Health care:  It is not a stretch to say that there is no such thing as a free market health care system in the developed world.  The US has the worst possible hybrid – inefficient, complicated, rent seeking, expensive and resulting in comparatively poor outcomes.

                      Infrastructure:  I don’t think there is any good example of free market infrastructure beyond a handful of toll roads.  Even then,  they only work as a functional market where the public has already paid for an alternate, slower,  “free” route so that supply, demand and scarcity can function without a monopoly.

                      Water:  i know of only one place where the water utility was handed over in full to private enterprise.  That was in Ecuador in the early aughts and it resulted in large price increases and riots.    The problem with water is somewhat similar to power in that there is inelastic demand, no substitution product,  and significant, expensive up front infrastructure investments.    Additionally,  any price increase that put the cost outside the ability of the poorest people to pay would be far more  unworkable than living in the dark.

                      Pensions;  The admin cost of SSI is 3%.  That would barely cover C level executive salaries for a private enterprise financial services firm, let alone marketing, trade fees etc…

                      Education:  This is a problem of defining the actual product.  For universities,  institutions base their price on “prestige”, which is only indirectly related to education.   And I haven’t seen any evidence that turning elementary or secondary schools over to private firms has resulted in noteworthy results.  There probably is a way to have a market based solution here, but would it really be any more efficient than what we have?  Meh.


                    • libertarians and conservatives who are making the sweeping assertion that free enterprise will always be more efficient in every circumstance.  

                      Ah, so you’re going to start with a strawman.  What strawman should I use about liberals in response?  Hmm, you all believe government regulation will always be more efficient in every circumstance; that should do.  And now that we’ve gotten exactly nowhere except for a bit of dick-waving and spouting of platitudinous bullshit, let’s get serious.

                      My response should have been a bit clearer.  I was focusing on the energy market, and I’ll just grant you much of the rest. (In fact I have some quibbles with some of it, but not enough to want to alter my focus here).

                      This [energy] market doesn’t  work because 1) inelastic demand without any any possibility of substitution, yet.   2) there is no way to store the energy (ie: build up supply because of slack demand – and this is where hydro shines, btw) so there is never a need to reduce prices to clear inventory.  3) barriers to entry lead to monopolies.

                      Inelasticity of demand? So people never adjust their thermostats in response to energy costs, invest in triple-paned inert-gas windows, insulate their houses, buy energy efficient appliances?  Don’t mistake inability to instantly respond in large ways with inelasticity.

                      It is indeed difficult to store up energy (not impossible, we do have things called batteries, but they’re not a really efficient solution), but we do have the ability to adjust supply to demand.  Many energy production facilities do not have to run at full capacity all the time, and particularly with natural gas can bring units on-line and take them off-line in response to predictable demand.  I don’t know why you think “never needing to produce prices to clear inventory” demonstrates a market failure. It could certainly demonstrate a producer that’s fine-tuned their supply through using historical data to predict future demand that they don’t over-produce significantly.  Anyway, congestion pricing would be easy to implement and I’d be surprised if it eventually isn’t.

                      As to monopolies, yes, we all know that utilities are natural monopolies.  Not necessarily at the producer end, but at the grid end.  But grid is just delivery, not supply. So we can regulate the grid-operator, requiring them to accept all suppliers who can find a customer, and then letting the suppliers compete among themselves. Is it a perfectly free market? No, but that’s not really the relevant question, except for people intent on being ideologues (whether those ideologues are libertarian, liberal, conservative, or whatever).  The real question is whether you’ve created competition that can benefit the customer.

                      As to Enron, 99.9% of the population knows diddly about that except what they read in the paper.  But rather than get into a long-disquisition about it, let’s just note that a single failed experiment does not prove the impossibility of anything.  Every new policy is an experiment, and the intelligent response to a failure is to figure out what you can learn from it–sometimes we learn that we need to abandon the project, but frequently we learn how to better achieve the project.

                      If you know of a successful case of a fully “free market”, unsubsidized electricity distribution system anywhere, let me know.

                      As to whether As I’ve noted before at this blog, my brother in Nevada keeps trying to sell me natural gas in Michigan.  There’s some company I can buy it from other than my current provider.  I’ve also received offers in the mail to buy wind-generated energy. And in general the energy grid in the U.S. is being progressively hooked up inter-regionally, precisely because we are in an on-going, although little remarked upon, process of increasing the competitiveness of the energy market.

                      Oh, wait, you said “fully” free market, so any little regulation that exists you can use as a blow against my argument.  Except that you’re setting a dishonest standard; it’s just a strawman.   This is not a binary issue of “fully free market” or “not at all free market.”  It’s  a continuous variable; how much competition and how much regulation is there in the market–the goal is to push it as far toward the competition side as we can, and find out where the line is beyond which market failures create greater inefficiencies than regulations do.

                      But as to the strawman; if you want to have a thoughtful discussion, just drop that crap.  If all you want is the masturbatory pleasure of ideological diatribe, then by all means keep it up.


                    • James, I appreciate the response.  I didn’t set out to make a straw man argument ( though I may have), but considering that the only response I got from anyone regarding the possiblity of any non-functioning market was “citation needed” ,  it did seem to boost my argument that no concession was ever forthcoming.  I have no idea where you stand on the spectrum, but I am willing to bet that no conservative has conceded this point still,

                      Having a conservative or or right leaning libertarian agree that  any one of the markets I listed are broken is critical to the larger debate, I think.   That’s because having a community/government step in to manage distribution of any of these goods leads to a growing  top line government budget number.  That leads to complaints of creeping socialism and leaves lefties talking about econ while the right talks about principle – and reduces the debate to defining the size of government as percent of GDP. Wonkiness ensues.

                      Regarding energy, my perspective on that market is going to be shaded by experience.  I am in California and got my first good lesson in free market energy policy at the hands of Enron.  I am still very skeptical, jaded even, when it comes to this debate.  Ten years later,  I think that there is still no good way to manage simple supply and demand issues.  Gas plants,at least the ones we have here in CA, can’t be ramped up and down as easily as I believe you suggest.  Making things slightly worse,.in Summer  CA operates close enough to peak output when we are at peak demand times that there isn’t any practical way to shut plants down off-peak.  The grid itself creates north-south bottlenecks, although I believe the ’09 stimulus included funds for updating that.

                      Yes, consumers can dial back their individual  electricity and water usage, but only within a range.  That is a very fair description and instance of inelastic demand.  Californians have a number of programs and policies in place for exactly this.  We use Smart metering and there will be water rationing this summer, for sure.  But there is a lower boundary to it, and, there is no way to substitute another product.   Since electricity can’t be stored except in small amounts in batteries or behind dams and the generators can’t be tuned up and down to match the daily use pattern, supply of electricity just dissipates in the lines and wont build up  to force  prices to come down.  I know that oversimplifies econ to 101A, but it’ gets to the root of the problem.

                      There really is a possibility to have a more functional market with the rise of cheap solar.  Individuals can take themselves off the grid, so to speak, and that is definitely a form of substitution and storage.

                      I am looking for honest debate on this but my frustration in the thread and our object lesson in free market energy here in CA makes me cynical on this score.   Considering that the programs that have led to a better functioning market (grid update, small scale solar) are derided by the right as big government coercion, I think this is another good example of where the left has been boxed out by message and “principle”.




                    • considering that the only response I got from anyone regarding the possiblity of any non-functioning market was “citation needed”

                      You implied that in all that list you gave, no such markets were possible.  That was a pretty strong claim.  That’s why I said [citation needed]

                      As to the strawman, it is in the claim that libertarians and conservatives think “free enterprise will always be more efficient in every circumstance.”  That’s another absolute claim, and it’s false.  Conservatives are regularly willing to override markets, so they can regulate recreational drugs, prostitution, pornography, and often to promote particular business interests over market competition.  Libertarians tend toward more consistency in their pro-market position, but “every” doesn’t allow for libertarians to ever agree with any regulation of any kind regardless of the situation.  They may seem like market ideologues to you (and perhaps they are, at least comparatively), but but it’s hard to find a libertarian who doesn’t have some particular government regulation of which they approve.  Say they go  too far, by all means, but define them correctly.

                      As to California, the problem isn’t that gas plants can’t be ramped up and down quickly enough, but that regulatory obstacles and NIMBYism have made it impossible to build new plants or expand older plants to provide the capacity needed.  And, yes, the grid is not fully developed yet–infrastructure takes time, often lots of time. But what’s the solution; create more infrastructure and keep competition between suppliers going, or create one single monopoly for the state, or go back to all local monopolies, or what?  You’re critical of the market here, but you haven’t really suggested what a non-competitive system is going to look like or how it’s going to work better.


  10.  What this analysis leaves out, it seems to me, is that during the last century; in addition to achieving victories; the left also discovered the upper limits of its ambitions. The stagflation of the 70’s and the backlash against regulatory kudzu of the 80’s both identified areas where when leftist principles were taken too far the results were illiberal and unproductive (and unappealing to the electorate). The collapse of centrally planned economies, also, represented a flat out indictment of the idea of post market societies. This is reflected, I submit, in the rise of neo-liberals and the wonky left. This is a consequence of a general understanding on the left that the world that the left in general would like to see will look a lot like this one. A market, yes, but more egalitarian with less corporate misbehavior; a society, yes, but one with less racism and moral crusading; a government, yes, but one that functions better and produces less objectively bad outcomes.

    The right, on the other hand, still imagines an ideal society that looks utterly unlike the one we live in whether that is a tiny government libertopia, a post government anarchy; a hyper governmental theocracy or a neo-con military crusading state. Unlike the left the right still has their ambitious dreams because they haven’t seen their dreams crash and sink against the shoals of reality (or in some cases it’s impossible for such a thing to happen to some right wingers dreams).


  11. Stable and effective political institutions make modern economic life possible.

    If we can agree that public* sector unions are destructive to this end, we can have a strong and valuable alliance, you and I.

    (bolded and italicized, for emphasis)


    • In an ideal world the public sector would employ people at some sort of indexed rate of employment commensurate to their private sector counterparts (like say in Singapore). If you’re for that, then I’ll hand over public sector unions in a heart beat. I find it rather terrible that my earning potential varies from 38k/year to 120k/year all depending on the sector I choose to work in despite doing the exact same work.


  12. As a wonkish leftish person, I see where you’re coming from.

    I’ll ponder  a response to this, I know that I tend toward policy debates than moral debates.

    What I’ve always found infuriating is that policy debates don’t seem to matter to a lot of right-leaning think tanks. Heritage, AEI, et. al don’t give a shit no matter how much data you bring against a problem. It’s all about first principles.

    I think there’s a fear (and I have it myself) of coming off the same way. It makes us better manager, but terrible evangelists. And to some extent policy arguments in the US have turned into a religious conflict.


  13. My word, those Tea Party people are certainly powerful.  They can ruin the entire country even though none of them are actually involved in running it.


  14. It all boils down to a simple problem: leftists need to think harder about why they believe what they do.

    Conor, not sure if you’re saying the left’s problem is an inability to articulate its moral vision, or that it’s incoherent in the first place.

    The first problem of course, as you see in the comments, is the No True Scotsman Problem, that to try to pin down what the left believes, or what its values actually are, is like thumbwrestling in jello.

    Me, I think our modern American leftism is an ad hoc collection of sentiments and interests, and is reactionary in its own way, defined only by a reflexive opposition to the status quo regardless of the area or issue.



    • Me, I think our modern American leftism is an ad hoc collection of sentiments and interests, and is reactionary in its own way, defined only by a reflexive opposition to the status quo regardless of the area or issue.

      It’s certainly a fairly ad hoc collection of sentiments and interests.  It’s also wildly incoherent.

      If you define American leftism as “liberalism as practiced by most Americans”, then I think it’s fair to say that it’s roughly equivalent to Brando.

      “What are you rebelling against?”

      “Whaddya got?”

      Change “rebelling against” to “want to change” and you get contemporary American liberalism.  The flip side to that is contemporary American conservativism is about as nuanced:

      “What do you not want to change?”

      “What are you proposing to change?”

      Contemporary American conservatism certainly appears to be as wildly incoherent (to me) as contemporary American liberalism.

      Most of the present company in the commentariat excluded.  Here we have a lot of ad hoc sentiments, but I give just about everyone here credit for attempting coherence.


      • Huh?  This isn’t right.

        Are “liberals” (in quotes for my own reasons) rebelling against Medicare?  No, the knock is that they don’t even want to change it enough, while conservatives do.

        Do “liberals” tilt against the educational establishment? No, the charge is that they protect its entrenched interests, while conservatives want to change the model, offer options that don’t currently exist, and introduce new accountability tools that liberals resist.

        Et cetera.

        Unless you’re operating at a higher altitude than this with respect to liberalism (and if you are, there is still higher to go from where you are), then I think this assessment is mistakenly conceived.



      • Aye PatC, when the conservatism is Burkean, a caution about changing what’s working, it’s grounded.  Defending the status quo for its own sake is of course “reactionary” as well.

        The problem with Jacobinism, of course, is tearing down a flawed X and substituting an untried Y.  [But life being imperfect where humans are involved, X is always flawed to some degree, so the Jacobins are always in business.]


        • Micheal, I think you illustrated the problem of the inability of the Left to define its values.

          For the record, I delineate between left and liberal, as you do here.  Liberals I might gently accuse of a certain naive fuzzy-headedness; the left I believe believes in the omnipotence of politics, that for every problem there is a political solution.

          This scares the bejesus out of me.

          The further problem arises when the Left, without a cohesive system of values as a foundation, begins to declare what the problems are, like “income inequality,” or in the case of the sick and hungry, not simply the end that their needs are met, but that the means, that food stamps and health insurance are a right, not an act of charity by their fellow citizens.

          And the question of who owns the fruits of ones labor, and what is owed to the government, or society.  And so on.

          I’m not sure if the Left could articulate its case better that it wouldn’t repulse more people than it attracts.  Which is why I’m not a leftist although on some days I’d be vulnerable to the charge of liberalism.


            • Kimmi, I think religion in public life is great, whether or not it votes the way I do.  I had thought of the Catholic Worker movement as well, which is very left but whose foundations are not the foundations of modern leftism.

              In a theological discussion, whether Tzedakah as a politics is the Will of God is another question.  But I certainly hold that like social Gospel leftism, it’s an entirely valid political theology.

              See also Murray Rothbard, still a hero in some libertarian circles, on charity and capitalism



              • I bring it up not to assert that it is the “word of god” but simply to suggest a different framework to talk about the issue. Charity to me “looks down upon” the person in need. It implies a hierarchy of “who is better” and who is worse”.

                A christian would put helping someone else under the category of Love, not Justice. Either of those, in my opinion, creates a better framework for discussion — not necessarily advantageous to the left or the right, but it definitely says “this gotta be there.”


    • It’s definitely true that “to try to pin down what the left believes, or what its values actually are, is like thumbwrestling in jello.”  But it is not the True Scotsman problem if the thing is actually poorly defined in the world.  Then it’s just working out what a term means when, in the world, its intended referent is actually only fuzzily a discreet, defined thing.  Scotsmen are men from Scotland.  Not that fuzzy (though, where it’s fuzzy, it’s fuzzy.  And Scots do tend to be fuzzy.)  The problem in Flew’s parable is that McDonald tries to write out of the ranks of Scots people who would do certain things, when in fact those actions have nothing to do with what defines whether the person is a Scotsman.  Really, it’s just fancy word for denial of the truth that one’s generalization about the members of a category has been disproved by a counterexample that is indisputably a member of the category in question.  (Heads-up warning to people interested in trying to “pin down” what is believed by a particular group of people.)  (Also a note the NTSF is one of the most overused faux-checkmate, lame argument-enders to ever come down the pike.  It’s only actually a fallacy if the counterexample in question really is indisputably a member of the category in question.  If, otoh, there actually is room to legitimately dispute whether the example is a category member, then it’s completely legitimate to do that disputing!  What other path is a discussion about a claim that all X are Y in which an example that seems to be X and is clearly Y has been produced going to take??  if there’s any doubt about whether “X” is really X, it’s going to be and ought to be addressed!)

      So, if a person were to claim, “No Republican would ever lie to the American people in order to get the U.S. involved in a foreign war that did not advance American security interests,” then live through the years 2001-2004, and then attempt to define a new category, “true Republican,” and reassert that that, “No true Republican would ever lie to the American people in order to get the U.S. involved in a foreign war that did not advance America’s security interests,” that would be a case of the No True Scotsman fallacy.

      However if there is difference of opinion among people who call themselves “liberals” about, say, whether in normal times it would be a policy in furtherance of liberalism to nationalize the oil industry, then that is simply legitimate non-resolution as to the meaning of the word (and indeed simply as to what their shared view should be where they are attempting to forge a shared view, whatever name they might then give to it), where the substance of the disagreement is actually material to how we decide what in the world it rightly applies to.

      Who is a liberal – is someone who believes in nationalization of the oil industry a liberal?  Well, that depends on what it is to be a liberal, which might very well be defined in part in terms of whether being a liberal might advocate nationalization of major industries in normal times.  That’s an example of actual irresolution around the definition of the term in question pertaining to the attribute of the referent that is being inquired about.

      Now, who is a Republican – is someone who would ever lie to the American people in order to get the U.S. involved in a foreign war that did not advance America’s security interests be Republican?  Well, that too depends on what it is to be a Republican – but that, on the contrary, is not defined in any way by whether being a Republican might ever mean lying to the American people in order to get the U.S. involved in a foreign war that did not advance America’s security interests.  Everyone would acknowledge that that that is an inquiry completely unrelated to the definition of what it is to be a Republican: any Republican could do that or not do that, and remain just as much a Republican as he was before doing it.  Whether a person is a Republican rather depends on whether he is registered as a member of that party, or received its nomination for a political office.

      Even a RINO is Republican in all the senses that actually go into defining what the thing is, just as a Scotsman who does things that are worse than the Brighton Sex Maniac is still indubitably a Scotsman, whatever McDonald has to say about it.  (Indeed, the term RINO is just a barely fig-leafed version of precisely the No True Scotsman move.) These categories (Scotsman, New York Yankee, Republican, Democrat) are defined by things unrelated to the attributes of their members most often inquired into, and the things that define these categories are relatively clear-cut (which is why they are less often inquired into – they’re pretty clear on their face.  I.e. people wouldn’t go around inquiring as to whether someone who goes out into a field position in the top of the first inning at Yankee Stadium is a New York Yankee). The No True Scotsman fallacy is to deny that members of such clear-cut categories in fact are members, because of a desire to dissociate the particular member from the group because of some unflattering (though not category-excluding) attribute.

      LIberal, on the other hand, like, say, conservative, moderate, good kisser, or quack doctor, are categories whose referents have fuzzy borders and in some cases simply unclear definitions in the world.  (I’d actually put “the Left” somewhere between these two categories – or perhaps clearly in the category I just described where the basic thrust of the definition is clear, but the borders are fuzzy). As a result, frequently the attributes that are inquired about with respect to the members of these type of category frequently relate to the very criteria for membership in the category in the first place.  So one might inquire as to whether a quack doctor is capable of performing a successful appendectomy – say, in the form of the statement, “No quack doctor can perform a successful appendectomy.”  Someone could then produce a doctor who has performed a successful appendectomy, and claim that the doctor is a quack (perhaps by producing someone who has had a botched appendectomy from him). Whether that doctor constitutes a disproof of the claim about quacks and appendectomies then becomes a question of whether the doctor indeed belongs to the category of quack.  It’s not at all to engage in the NTSF for the person who made the claim to dispute the doctor’s membership in the category of quack, especially since the ability to perform a successful appendectomy is at least a plausibly a potential part of a legitimate test of whether the label applies in the first place.  IOW, the claim was in the first place a proposal for establishing (part of) an agreed-upon definition for a term that was less-than-fully defined where the two conversants were concerned initially.  This is as opposed to trying to write out of the accepted definition of term a particular instance that doesn’t fit a generalization that has been made about the class that stood as independent from and common among the class in addition to the common traits that were necessary for the members of the category to belong to the category in the first place.


  15. “The Rise of the Wonky Left”

    As a general trend in American politics, that half of the political spectrum has always been associated with ‘wonkiness’.  From FDR’s ‘Brain Trust’ to the 60’s ‘Best and Brightest’ and even including “when Thomas Jefferson dined alone” the ‘liberal’ (‘anti-conservative’?) faction has always been associated with intellect and “brainyness”.  That’s certainly led them to some blind alleys and a few dark holes, but to speak of ‘the rise’ as a recent trend may better be described as a ‘resurgence’ – but really, they never went away.


  16. This was a welcome read.  Point well taken that the right has invested a great deal in fabricating an enveloping moral clarity if not a coherent set of policies.  I think they have done such an excellent job on that score that they have effectively boxed the Left out.

    For example, the right traditionally represents a law and order platform.  They do in the US and have done so especially since 1968, doubling down in 1980 (and yet again after 9/11).  But they are also now the “Freedom from Government” party.   If you cede the Freedom label to the law and order party while 2.5 million American are in prison and the TSA is taking pictures of your underpants and the police can strip search your grandmother for jaywalking, you are hopeless.

    If the pro status quo, pro incumbent business interest party can also call itself the pro free market party unchallenged, you have no message at all.  Just a shared donor pool.  Thanks, Bill and Hillary and all the New Democrats, well played.




    •  Point well taken that the right has invested a great deal in fabricating an enveloping moral clarity if not a coherent set of policies.

      MaxL—I’ve enjoyed our exchanges—I submit that the right’s moral code and worldview is no mere “fabrication.”  Since this is my own area of study and wheelhouse, I’ll defend it and gladly.

      I’ll stipulate that it rests on several presuppositions—“self-evident” they called those “truths”—and I appreciate you allowing that it all has an internal coherence, a “moral clarity.”

      And that Karl Marx and Ayn Rand have a level of clarity as well.  Although I’d rather not defend either except as a friend of the court.

      I still think Conor Williams is onto something about the left’s moral incoherence, but I’m not sure he would like the argument that it’s because the modern left is actually morally incoherent.  I think it’s totally explained by Adam Smith’s first better book, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”

      that we admire only good intentions, not results.  Smith’s better-known second book says, well-knownedly, that

      “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest…”

      Well, 200+ years later, it’s by the benevolence of the food stamp printer that we expect our dinner, eh?  We admire the guy not who grows the corn, who carves the steaks, but the guy who prints the food stamps and the guy who keeps ’em coming.

      Things have gotten backwards.



      • Tom, I have enjoyed the exchanges as well.

        So, you are coming at my point from off to the side a little, so maybe I can just zoom out to try to respond.  I think that the left has a tendency to get bored with dogma in general and places a high value on contrarian, novel arguments and criticism of positions it otherwise agrees with.  This explains, in part, the wonkiness of liberal debate, but may also get at the the cause of your seeing it as vague and incoherent.

        It is incoherent for a very different reason than right wing policy is incoherent, though.  Matt Yglesias, in Slate, 2008, said “if in order to be “interesting” and “provocative” your publication contains some articles in which heterodox liberals challenge liberal conventional wisdom and other articles in which conservatives challenge liberal conventional wisdom, then your publication is mostly publishing conservative content.”

        I submit that that is the root of the “incoherence” of liberal thought, as seen and read by any non-liberal.


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  19. actually, scratch that last sentence.  It is incoherent to liberals, too.

    And in the long liberal tradition, an amazingly novel (to me) and counter-intuitive thought just struck me:

    I believe that I can make the case that it is American conservatives who are actually struggling with broad differences of opinion and motivation within their coalition and that is what drives them to be message/moral centric rather than policy focused.  The conservative coalition (religious right, pro-defense, pro incumbent business) is a lot harder to make a consistent platform for than all the various groups that come under the Democratic party umbrella.  Conservatives wrestle with increasingly strange bedfellows that start to really rub each other wrong without a powerful figurehead.  In that sort of situation, message and a sense of moral clarity is everything.  Control of the executive is mission critical for both the loudspeaker and the all important figurehead that unites the factions.   Liberals live in the ponderous United States of Brussels, but conservatives are living in Yugoslavia without Tito.

    The left is always a splintered, but more in agreement.  I think that’s why they can tolerate a good deal more dissent in the ranks and get all wonky about policy specifics.  The right has a much narrower range of acceptable political conversations, which is usually something I would associate with a more brittle coalition.

    Anyway, I am likely just writing to myself here during a break for lunch, but there it is.


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  21. Kimmi: you keep the regulators honest through SUNLIGHT. Anonymous and folks like that are pretty good at finding frauds — and if you shout loud enough, the guvmint gotta act.

    Of course we can go that route, and I’d welcome more emphasis on whistle-blowing & yanking the veil off of as many institutions and businesses as possible — throw open EVERYTHING, turn the “if you don’t have anything to hide, why worry?” rhetoric back on the ones with actual power instead of tolerating it against us as excuse for eroding our freedom.  Hell, I cheered at several (though not all, I caution) of Anonymous’ hack jobs and info leaks precisely for that reason.

    This brings up a question though: why bother with middle men then?  If you have to go this route to have real accountability, then the modern state as a tool resembles using dial-up to run BitTorrent.


    • Because nobody wants to give Anonymous the power to actually prosecute people.

      Really, that would be a bad idea — a really really bad idea.

      Government works best when it feels like people are paying attention to it. Then it gets off it’s lazy ass and does its damn job, for fear of public mockery.

      Public mockery can actually overcome bribery and blackmail. Honest to god, it can work.


      • Because nobody wants to give Anonymous the power to actually prosecute people.

        Of course not, that’s not what I was calling for, and that’d just install Anonymous as another elite.  What I more intend is the relentless swarm style used by them spreading to the larger public.


  22. Pingback: Wonky Left Reax « Thought News

  23. I think part of the problem is liberals (as the conservatives of the Left) are afraid to consider some unpleasant possibility about American values.  Take the issue of universal health care.  America is the only industrialized democracy that does not have a system of universal health care (UHC).  It is also the only one that practices capital punishment and torture.  It may also be the only one that did not have a vibrant leftist movement during its industrialization.  These observations may say things about fundamental American values, with which the Left is uncomfortable. 

    Let us define as core American values the idea that “people should get what they deserve” coupled with individualism.  The first value supports capital punishment (those that cause death deserve death).  It opposes UHC, those that cannot afford health care (or a nice home or car) do not deserve to have health care (or a nice home or car).  Other countries have different values.  They do not mete out death to those that so richly deserve it, nor do they deny health care to those that do not deserve it (those who could work but do not, yet life very unhealth lifestyles). 

    If fundamental American values are opposed to Leftist goals then these goals cannot be advanced by moral argument.  It may be that any sort of what those of the left might call  “progress” can only happen when society is threatened by forces with which the status quo cannot deal.  This would explain why liberals (who are the “mechanics” or “engineers” of the Left) focuse so much on the How and not the Why. 

    After all, did FDR sell the New Deal as a vision of Progress for America?  No he ran as a conventional politician and only hinted at the need for a restructuring of how America conducts the business of Life, a “new deal” for the American people.  It was very pragmatic. 

    Now I would welcome a test of this idea.  Why not actually articulate the values that underlie opposition to UHC?  Nobody goes there.  I’ve never seen an interviewer ask a candidate who is opposed to UHC whether or not people with treatable serious illness who cannot afford treatment should not get treatment.  And if they say that they should get treatment follow up with and who should pay for this treatment?


      • I think a good argument can be made that America never got the nationwide class consciousness that Europe did because its industrialization happened in fits and starts, and was always counterbalanced by a large mass of rural agrarian workers.  And there’s always the explanation that ethnic divisions unique to America stymied economic solidarity.


        • In his bizarre but possibly brilliant book, The Liberal Tradition in America, Louis Hartz argues it was because we never had a class system to begin with, no ancien regime against which we had to battle.

          I have no idea if Hartz’ argument really holds up, but just throwing out there.

          My own contribution is that whatever the reason for our lack of a class consciousness, I thank god we got so lucky.


            • No doubt (see: Montgomery, Alabama, 1957), but that’s not what Hartz meant, so if that really was in response to my comment, I’m afraid I’ve lost the thread of the argument.


          • I mean, the idea that there was never a class system in the United States shouldn’t even merit serious consideration.  I admit I’ve never read Hartz’s book firsthand, but I think a better characterization of it might be that that there was no history of feudalism in America.  But even that wouldn’t quite be right, because it ignores the racial feudalism of the South.  I don’t see a way to rehabilitate either point, so I’ll stick with my favored explanation: America never developed a class consciousness because class divisions fell along racial boundaries, and the confusion of the two has masked class differences.


            • Feudalism is in large part what Hartz was talking about, and its long-lasting legacy of a rigid class, although not quite caste, system. The U.S. had no such thing in general.

              On slavery, yes, Hartz has been criticized precisely because he ignored slavery as a type of feudalism.  He was entirely white-centric in his argument. But let’s face it, African-Americans are a relatively small proportion of the population and that proportion is declining (not numbers, proportion).  They’re relevant still electorally and because they’re still fighting for real equal rights, but in terms of class they’re too small a group to build big claims of class around.  There’s no doubt a strong sense of class status in relationship to them, but in terms of the future of U.S. politics, that’s a side-pocket issue.

              Stick to the dominant ethnic group, as Hartz did, and he’s right that there was never a class system in the U.S., not by European standards.  If we keep our vision narrow and look just at the U.S., then it sure appears there’s one, but if we broaden our scope to encompass Europe, we see that the concept of a class system there was vastly different.  So we have a vast difference between Europe and the U.S. on the issue of class status, and a vast difference between the two on the issue of class consciousness.  It’s not that easy to wave your hands at the possibility of a causal relationship there.


              • Hartz is a bit dated.   America has a feudal tradition, the Company Town.   Going back to before the Revolution, America’s landowners along the East Coast behaved exactly like feudal lords.   The railroad barons were no different, nor the plantation owners.  If the plantation owners fell from their positions of power during Reconstruction, they quickly regained that power by the mechanism of sharecropping.

                If there’s an argument to be made against feudalism in America, it’s that America’s barons never felt any loyalty to their serfs.


                • I will no longer debate with BP, but I invite any other readers to compare the scope of the company town system in the U.S. to the feudal systems of Russia, Japan, and England.


                  • Shrug.  Your lack of debate is more a matter of complete inability rather than any choice on your part.   Alexander II of Russia freed his serfs in 1861.   Lincoln only freed the slaves within the Confederacy, far fewer and far later.   The struggle for civil rights did not lead to any semblance of economic or educational equality.   Things are worse now than ever.   The trade unions are gone, the public sector unions likewise.

                    The staggering inequalities within American society are a fact of life.   I taken these things as given:  the poor we will always have with us as Jesus said.   Let’s just not pretend otherwise.   America is hugely class conscious, especially within the American Right, fearfully waving its arms and decrying any attempt to raise the poor from poverty, calling it Communism.

                    Numbers don’t lie.   America has always featured an aristocratic class and always will.   The serfs of America are everywhere, the great engine of American prosperity since the dawn of the Republic.


                    • I can’t resist.

                      Alexander II of Russia freed his serfs in 1861.   Lincoln only freed the slaves within the Confederacy, far fewer and far later.

                      We have two systems which both had existed for multiple centuries; around eight centuries in Russia, and over two centuries in the U.S.  One leader acted in 1861, and the other acted in 1863.  So a mere two years is somehow “far later” when we’re talking about a scope of time centuries long?

                      I must be wrong somewhere, since I apparently have an “inability” to debate the gentleman in question.


                    • The aristocracy of the South perpetuated itself in sharecropping.   Until mechanisation drove them off the land entirely, starting in the 1930s and into the 1950s, over 85% of blacks in the South were sharecroppers and most of the whites.   About a third of the South was so farmed.  California had a particularly interesting way of managing it, especially with strawberries.   Around Sacramento, sharecropping was widespread.

                      Don’t play stupid games with me.  America’s only been in business for a few centuries, all of which feature slavery or sharecropping or exploited migrant labour or putting illegal immigrants to work plucking chickens and working the dairy farms and laying sod and washing dishes in restaurants.   Without our serfs, we’d be in serious economic trouble.

                      America has been ruled by an aristocratic system by every possible economic definition, going back at least a century before Jefferson said all men were created equal.   They might be created equal but they sure as fuck don’t stay that way for long.   Not here.


                    • Don’t play stupid games with me.

                      Says the man who said there were many years between 1861 and 1863 and then doesn’t even have the minimal decency it takes to ‘fess up to his own error.

                      It’s that kind of behavior that makes you a boor, and a person wholly unworthy of my time. If you could ever hold yourself to the standards you demand of others, I might find you worth talking to.


                    • Gosh, if only you’d quit saying stupid things like “we never had a class system to begin with”, we could get along fine.   Give it a try.   Stick to things you can prove, make interesting points — you know, things that aren’t stupid.   Of course America has a class system.   Of course it’s got an aristocracy.   It’s always had one.


                  • I’m not talking about whether company towns were nice institutions or not.  I’m talking about whether they constituted a true feudal system sufficient to create real class consciousness on the European scale.

                    What percent of labor did company towns incorporate and how many generations did they last?  Compare to Russia, Japan, or England.


                    • I understand what you’re saying, Hanley; that there’s a huge difference between a feudal system and one sharing some similarities.
                      I was more or less responding to BlaiseP’s statement:
                      America’s barons never felt any loyalty to their serfs.
                      Ludlow would be more likely to fit the feudal model than the Pullman strike. Those were immigrants, many of which never learned English, that were holed up in a tent camp in a canyon out in the middle of nowhere. And the end was much like Tyler’s Revolt.
                      The Pullman strike came to a head in Chicago, because that’s where the switching stations are, and was trans-national. The US Army came in to bust some heads over that one, but Cleveland’s soldiers didn’t kill as many as Rockefeller’s private army.


              • African-Americans are a sizable portion of the population, and what’s more, urban poor white culture has been steadily fusing with African-American culture for a few decades now, and this is bleeding out into the low-income exurbs (cf. white Tupac fans in inland California).  Historically, poor non-rural whites accepted the class structure because their whitification gave them certain advantages in the class system, but these advantages are falling away in the post-industrial economy.  Add that to the fact that rural Americans are being pushed into the metropolitan areas by economic pressures (as has been happening virtually everywhere for the last fifty years), and the potential for the development of a new class consciousness becomes pretty strong.


                • African-Americans are a sizable portion of the population,

                  Under 15% and declining.

                  what’s more, urban poor white culture has been steadily fusing with African-American culture for a few decades now, and this is bleeding out into the low-income exurbs (cf. white Tupac fans in inland California)

                  Robert, there’s almost no way to say this without sounding condescending, but I really really don’t mean it to come out that way.  White people have been adopting elements of black culture since before the Depression, and it really became prominent in the ’50s.  It’s not a new thing.  I knew white upper-middle class kids listening to rap 20 years ago, thinking they’d got some urban cool rubbed off on them.  But it hasn’t created a unified under-class consciousness, and you’d want to be damned careful about suggesting to any poor urban black that he and the poor white boy are really in this together against the rich man.

                  Altogether, way too much class analysis.  We probably shouldn’t discuss this anymore as I have a vast disdain for class analysis as the least useful kind of political theorizing because it strips away the humanity of the individual, treating them as homogenous units of an externally defined group, pushed around by vague social forces and forces of history and denied semblance of autonomy in their thoughts and decision-making.

                  But I won’t convince you, and no doubt you have an equally condemnatory critique of my methodological individualism.  You seem like a nice guy, and I’d rather not fight with you.  Let’s just recognize each other as having irreconcilable differences.


                  • James, it’s fine if you don’t want to discuss this anymore, but let me just clarify a little:

                    I’m talking about something a little more specific than general white appropriation of black culture.  I wasn’t thinking of upper-middle-class Beatniks (or their current instantiation, the prep-students with encyclopedic knowledge of underground hip-hop), but rather the youth cultures in places like Oceanside or Stockton (or some of the poorer parts of Detroit and Chicago), where the lower-class whites who emigrated to the farmland in the 1930s eventually gravitated toward the same population centers that attracted blacks during their Great Migration, and mixed culturally.


                    • Robert,

                      My preference to not discuss it further has no element of the personal in it.  It’s just recognition through experience that when people are coming at something with fundamentally different assumptions, they can’t productively talk about that something.  For lack of a better analogy (due to being mildly drunk from our college honors ceremony (and hooray for college presidents who provide an open bar at such events!)), it’s like the blind men and the elephant.

                      The only productive avenue, and it’s a slow and arduous one with no certainty of payoff, is to discuss the assumptions themselves.  And that takes great forbearance and generosity on both sides to do without acrimony.


                    • I didn’t take it personally, James — don’t worry.  In fact, I’m impressed by the equanimity you’ve displayed in response to my interrogation of your points, which I admit has been fairly cavalier to concerns of tone.

                      I’m not opposed to talking about assumptions, but I’ll also admit that I don’t have the same fervor for that endeavor as some other people.  I tend to think that critical assumptions readily make themselves manifest, and that therefore it’s generally unnecessary to do the Randian “What are your premises?!” inquisition, which strikes this fan of Quine and Feyerabend as brittlely syllogistic.  But if you’re still interested in my assumptions on this topic I’m glad to discuss them.


                    • Robert,

                      I don’t really mean asking what each others’ assumptions are.  I mean critiquing them and trying to disabuse each other of our wretchedly bad understandings of the world.

                      You mentioned on another thread that you don’t like private capital, and now you mention Feyeraband. The general basis of your assumptions is clear enough, and abhorrent, to me.  I’m sure mine are equally abhorrent to you. I took a look at Feyeraband once, on the advice of one of my profs; I was appalled at his ideas.  I’m an empiricist, a methodological individualist, and a student of public choice theory.  I believe in the spontaneous order of individual decisions and the fundamentally problematic logic of aggregating individual preferences into a collective decision.  I would love to persuade you that you are seeing only a superficial aspect of the real world, and not seeing the true complexity underneath.


                    • I think my viewpoint is not as opposed to yours as you think.  I actually got to a Feyerabendian social constructionism through the great classical liberal thinkers, Mill and Hayek, who had sort of proto-relativist views on how knowledge is created, identified, and distributed.  (The SEP article on Mill and social constructivism is first-rate, in my opinion.)  I don’t think individualist libertarians are evil or anything; I just think their worldview is incomplete — again, in the vein of late Mill.  You and I both believe in spontaneous order; it’s just that, as an anarchist, I think it requires even less forceful imposition than do the minarchists.


                    • Hayek, who had sort of proto-relativist view

                      Ugh. I don’t think that’s accurate at all, unless one is trying very hard to find pre-cursors. I think there’s a vast gulf between thinking that people have only bits of overall knowledge and being at all relativist.

                      as an anarchist, I think it requires even less forceful imposition than do the minarchists

                      I’m dubious, but we can get into that later.


                    • I think there’s a vast gulf between thinking that people have only bits of overall knowledge and being at all relativist.

                      Not really.  If you believe people have only bits of overall knowledge, in order to get all the way to relativism, you only need to add a belief that that new bits of knowledge tend to force reexamination of the pre-new-knowledge ontology.  (And Hayek flirted pretty hard with moral relativism regardless, if that’s more what you’re talking about.)  But I’d be satisfied with pointing out that Hayek’s philosophy of science was closely allied with Popper’s, which is widely regarded among epistemologists as being a kind of proto-constructionism.


                    • I hate that abuse of Popper, too.

                      The difference between those guys and the soc cons is that they have no assumption that the truth is relative (except for subjective utility). Social construction of beliefs is all well and good; social construction of truths just ain’t. And if all you’re every saying is that our “beliefs” are socially constructed, then IMO you’re not really saying anything particular interesting.  It’s a warning to methodologists not to get too complacent about their interpretations of their findings, but not a deeply meaningful truth.*  I mean, science has long had the understanding that each person learns from others and tries to add just a bit more to our collective understanding; then a few centuries after the enlightenment some philosophical dilettante “discovers” the social construction of knowledge? Really a day late and a dollar short.  And some are so foolish as to think that it all means that “other ways of knowing” or some claptrap like that is equivalent to empirical research?

                      Sorry, I’m really not a fan, and I think it’s notable that the belief is mostly held by people who’ve never actually done any empirical work themselves, but feel competent to critique it. Grossman and Levitt’s Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science is a good polemic about this kind of nonsense.



                    • (I’m not the only one having problems with loading the site, right?  Anyone else getting repeated “Account suspended” notifications? Anyway.)

                      I don’t think it’s fair to characterize the social constructionists as uniformly in thrall to the premise that truth is relative — in fact, that idea would be absolute anathema to many of the most highly-regarded postmodern thinkers.  Sure, there are second-rate pomos who deserve all they get from the likes of Grossman and Levitt, but that doesn’t negate the eighty+ years of scholarship in the field.

                      Besides, even if Mill and Hayek didn’t accept the premise that truth is relative, their epistemologies may tend toward that conclusion regardless.  Mill didn’t even believe in the universality of geometric truths (!!!) because he applied his radical empiricism so thoroughly to mathematics that he ended up with an antirealism that would gall plenty of the most leftward literary theorists. While Hayek criticized Mill for some of this, he also came pretty close to it with his Hebbian-style cognitive science.  Thomas J. McQuade does a great job of showing how Hayek’s epistemology flirts with a fully social constructionist view but is ultimately hamstrung by dubious individualist assumptions that Hayek doesn’t even consistently hold.

                      I also worry, James, that you hold too narrow a view of “empiricism”: You seem to be operating on the theory that empiricism and postmodernism are in opposition, but the best research I’ve seen in either avenue is highly informed by both.  Math is certainly useful, but it can also obscure dubious assumptions within the models to which it is applied, as Hayek often pointed out in his criticism of the methodologically straight-laced Chicago economists.  This is where the postmodernists are most useful — not to burst in with tedious rehearsals of how “it’s all relative, man!” and play hackeysack on the quad, but rather to examine the cultural assumptions in various empirical models and their interpretations, and in critiquing them, to render them more robust.  


    • That’s not the question to ask, good sir.

      the question to ask is why Republican candidates are so dead-set against a level playing field for American businesses in a global marketplace.

      Fairness first — small business second.


  24. Interesting article. While there are some good points here I think it is important to recognize another element for the left, their experience with Marxism. Marxists were great rhetoricians and had no problem elaborating why they believed what they did. This also allowed for them to establish rule on ideological purity that they constantly tried to enforce. I think the left is in many ways cowering from the fallout of marxism, afraid to state ideological backing in the fear of association. Additionally it is important to point out that when we say the left what we are usually referring to is the democratic party. Unfortunately for democrats, their party’s constituency is fractured in a way that the republican’s are not. Unions usually have little to do with cosmopolitan yuppies and African American communities are usually fairly socially conservative when it come to gay rights. The different elements of the faction make it hard to establish a single coherent ideology for the party. The Republican party on the other hand can espouse an ideology of traditionalism that will usually pick up both the economic elites and the social conservatives. It is not fair to say that the left has a problem elaborating on its ideology, most leftists can tell you exactly why they believe in something. The challenge comes in that the left is much more decentralized and varied in its thought that the democratic party has to tiptoe carefully so as not to create a unifying vision that might anger part of their constituency


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  27. Pingback: Wiring the Wonky Left’s Moral Compass — The League of Ordinary Gentlemen

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  29. Pingback: Why are Democrats bad at persuasion? « Notes from a Small Place

  30. The left has no

    “coherent or compelling moral vision to justify its policy aims”

    because there is no such thing.

    The left loses the debate because they aren’t participating.  They aren’t participating because they see anything that looks like a coherent moral vision is at violent odds with a conception of human liberty coexisting with a functioning republic.

    The right clams a coherent moral vision because they have established the arbitrary expectation that such a thing is required. Conveniently, the coherence of a moral vision requires people who can see it, or see with it.  The only people who can see such a vision are, by definition, prophets. If we all look carefully at the thing the prophet is seeing and see nothing of the sort, and we do that long enough, we lose faith in prophets and coherency in general.  That’s wisdom, if you require also that your republic function.

    This post buys in to the coherent moral vision requirement, as do lots of Americans, because that is the hard-wired hunger of the religious whether they are actively religious or just feel guilty for being no longer actively religious.  Ironically, the right winger claims religion but then adheres to what they claim is a compelling moral vision that is, if you go to cases, likely to be at odds with anyplace the moral vision touches on an earthly problem. Our Christians aren’t Christian; our Catholics aren’t Catholic or catholic. Muslims aren’t Muslim, and Jews may be kosher but they typically fall short of even the most obvious requirements of that most flexible of faiths.  God love ’em, our Mormons aren’t even Mormon–they can’t even conform in spirit to a religion that’s younger than Abe Lincoln.

    There’s one word in that mission statement that you have right:  compelling.  With so many competing moral visions afloat in even the small circuit of American Republican politics, how in the world can we entertain the concept of a “compelling” moral vision?  We can’t.  You don’t mean compelling,  you mean attractive–which is, of course, precisely the opposite of what is intended.  The truth is that, from where we are as a people, what is moral is not attractive.  The right would have it otherwise, or actually backward:  that the attractive is not moral–but that’s good old-fashioned Tent Revival bullshit. The only option for them is to engage whatever measures are handy to compel–the law, or the Bishops, or fear. The idea that those people have access to a moral vision that is superior to no vision at all is ludicrous.

    So Harry Reid does have vision–the compelling  moral vision that there is no vision, and that solving problems and maintaining the comfort and liberty of the people is all.  The negative is hard to argue, I admit, but that’s no excuse for accepting that there is no negative.




      • Ice,

        I kind of agree with both sides and thus neither.

        Problem solving is itself a moral vision. It defines problems as bad and solutions as good.

        If this is what Harry Reid ( is this his porno name?) believes, then I agree with him. I suspect it is not what he believes. I suspect what he really believes in is solving problems for himself by peddling snake oil to the fools. I could be wrong though, as I have a terrible porno name.


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