Sunday, June 9, 2013

Neoliberal Advice to Conservatives: Surrender, Dorothy!

The Recovering Bureaucrat enjoys the various forms of lunacy emanating from the many adherents to the Church of the All Powerful State; it unfortunately keeps him from the comic pages of the daily newspapers but probably provides more robust laughter.

The latest Church lunacy (keeping up with all of it is, of course, an endless task) comes from a 28-year old Harvard psychology major named Josh Barro, who has appointed himself the Savonarola of the Republican Party.  Church acolytes at the Business Insider web site have provided him a soapbox, and eager true believer that he is, he doesn't waste his shot at his 15 minutes of fame.

His most recent side-slapper, entitled “I'm Not A Conservative And You Shouldn't Be One Either,” sets forth the head-scratching but thoroughly unoriginal proposition that conservatives need to become liberals in order for the Republican Party to win elections again.

He claims that he himself used to be conservative philosophically, but “now I'm a neoliberal, and I particularly favor redistributive taxes and transfers to reduce inequality.” 

(The RB notes that the concept of “neoliberalism” is a bit of a mash-up; as the authors of the Wikipedia article on it note,
The meaning of neoliberalism has changed over time and come to mean different things to different groups. As a result, it is very hard to define. This is seen by the fact that authoritative sources on neoliberalism, such as Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, David Harvey, and Noam Chomsky do not agree about the meaning of neoliberalism. This lack of agreement creates major problems in creating an unbiased and unambiguous definition of neoliberalism.
Hayek and Chomsky, fellow neoliberals; now that spices up the stew!  The absurdity of this contributes to the RB's disdain for Mr. Barro’s self-label here.  But he does appreciate his rookie error of immediately clearing up the ambiguity by proclaiming his blind faith in social engineering.  Ah, neoliberalism is just another word for statism.)

Thus the lunacy and non sequiturs begin early.  “All fiscal policy is redistributive,” he writes, “in that it involves collecting taxes from someone and spending money on programs that benefit someone else.”  This preposterous claim ignores that, until the “progressives” invented the Great Society in the Johnson administration, most taxes went to programs that benefited everyone, such as police and fire, highways and defense.  It took the odious combination of the rent-seeking redistributionist policies of the Johnson era with the New Left takeover of the Democratic Party in 1972 to elevate leftist liberal love of other people's money into the tenet of faith propping up the social engineering Mr. Barro is so enamored of.

“And the question of how progressive that redistribution ought to be depends on outside factors, such as the relative economic cost of various kinds of taxes and the level of pre-tax inequality.”  This gobbledygook arrogantly assumes some kind of standard against which these relative costs and “pre-tax inequality” (the RB loves this nugget) can be measured.  In the real world, these are precisely the realm of political wrangling, in large part because they depend on whose taxes are to be raised and by what amount.  But of course, it is a neoliberal progressive shibboleth that “disinterested experts” can develop such standards equitably.  A century of evidence to the contrary never deters Mr. Barro and his fellow utopians.

Then there’s this howler:
Changes in economic conditions should change people's preferences about the level of fiscal progressivity. For example, if returns to economic growth increasingly accrue to people at the top of the income distribution, we should become more favorable to progressive redistribution. If the economy becomes more fragile, with more risk of recessions that lead to years-long spells of high unemployment, that calls for a more robust and progressively-financed safety net. And if top income tax rates are well below the peak of the Laffer Curve, that creates more room for added progressivity.
In other words, every “change in economic conditions” should lead to more progressivity, never less.  Another neoliberal progressive article of faith—a first principle, Mr. Barro’s demurral notwithstanding.  “Conservatives,” our young friend huffs, “are wrong on this issue, and outside conditions have shifted over time in a way that has made them much more wrong than they used to be.” As a conservative, the Recovering Bureaucrat is thrilled to be accused of being wrong on this.

Mystified by Markets

Mr. Barro then asserts yet another neoliberal progressive axiom: “The ability of markets to fix our big economic problems on their own has also declined in recent decades.”  Not surprisingly, this ignores the various regulatory schemes that have distorted the national market place since the Great Society.  The U. S. hasn’t experienced a period of relative benign federal regulatory intervention since the 50s, but Mr. Barro’s ignorant assertion is, of course, designed to argue for more regulation.

While conceding that in various market sectors—he cites trucking, banking, and broadcasting—it is in fact a good idea to “just get out of the way,” there are these other market sectors that are “hugely dysfunctional, either inherently or because of inevitable government intervention.”

Stop and examine what he writes here.  Some market sectors—and here he cites health care, banking, education, and energy—are “inherently” dysfunctional.  To say that something is inherently dysfunctional is to assert that the dysfunction is essential to its existence.  Further, he admits that the dysfunctions occur because of government intrusion.

But markets by their very nature are inherently functional, that is to say, they are simply places where people come to buy and sell goods and services.  To call a market dysfunctional is to call a square ovoid.  It is a logical contradiction.

Markets can contain defects, whenever players within them seek to use power, influence, or deception to gain an advantage or distort the equilibrium.  These defects can become highly distorted and toxic by that government intrusion that Mr. Barro acknowledges.  Usually, however, markets also contain self-correcting mechanisms.

What he should have said is that market sectors like health care, banking, education, and energy offer goods and services in highly complex and complicated ways that often create apparent disequilibrium between buyers and sellers, thus providing openings for defects to arise.  The real social questions are: how susceptible are these defects of self-correction?  For those with long-term or stubborn resistance to those corrective forces, is government intervention on behalf of the self-correcting mechanism(s) likely to achieve the goal of restoring freedom to the market sector?  And if so, exactly what should be the nature and duration of the intervention, and what controls can be enacted to prevent the cure from becoming worse than the disease?

An appropriate level of humility—something regularly and depressingly absent from the mind of statists like Mr. Barro—is always necessary here, because only the market as a whole has the necessary wisdom to discern the best way to operate defect-free.  Since we humans have not evolved to the point where we can tap into the collective awareness, we might remember the limitations of our individual knowledge about such complex systems as markets and climate, and refrain from pontificating accordingly.

“But Republicans have come to view it as inherently un-conservative to develop mixed public-private solutions in these markets,” continues Mr. Barro. “That's another reason that conservatism has to go.”

Another nasty habit of neoliberal progressive “argumentation” is its deliberate conflation of “Republican” and “conservative.”   This is a cheap but effective way of tarring both groups with the same brush.  While it’s true that most Republicans consider themselves conservative, the reverse is less so.  It would be much more accurate to say that “both Republicans and conservatives remain highly suspicious of mixed public-private solutions in these markets,” because in this case their conservatism is more operational than philosophical.  Further, skepticism is not opposition.  (Our young friend would be well advised to learn to develop some skepticism in place of his dogmatism.)

But Mr. Barro is as sloppy with a term like “conservative” as he is with “neoliberal.”  “It seems to me,” he writes, “that conservatism is whatever ideology is shared by most of the people who call themselves conservatives.”  It escapes his sense of irony that such is precisely the state of those who call themselves neoliberals, but we would waste our time pointing out every instance of statist projection.  We can simply stipulate that projection is inherent in “progressive” exposition.

(As an aside, a feature of the amusement of this article is its references to Andrew Sullivan, the hapless philosophical vagabond who has managed to contradict and undermine himself so frequently that he has become just another boring Krugman manqué.)

When Mr. Barro augments his progressive credentials by calling himself a “utilitarian,” he embraces its “first principle [which] is ‘make people better off.’”  We can certainly appreciate his honesty in this pronouncement; it makes it so much easier to refute his ideology.  Utilitarian thought has nothing to do with American founding principles; it is a foreign ideology first enunciated by Jeremy Bentham, a British social reformer famous for his attack on the American revolutionaries.

Bentham proclaimed utilitarianism to be the theory that “the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.”  One can see the threat such an assertion is to America’s natural rights doctrine.  Who gets to say what constitutes this “greatest happiness of the greatest number”? Equally troublesome, as Henrik Ibsen warned so masterfully in An Enemy of the People, how might the majoritarian imposition of this “greatest happiness” imperil the rights of those who derive little or no happiness from it at all?  Further, what kind of society would ride roughshod over its dissenting citizens' natural rights guaranteed by the constitutionally-based rule of law in its haste to seek such self-gratification?

The unholy marriage of the utilitarians and the pragmatists gave birth to the Rosemary’s baby of progressivism, that modern disguise of and apology for paternalism and aristocracy.

Utilitarian Bling

So it comes as no surprise to the Recovering Bureaucrat that Mr. Barro projects his utilitarianism onto his Republican enemies.  “But the justifications we most often hear for conservative economic policies are utilitarian ones—that they foster economic growth, create jobs, and make people wealthier.”  Well, no; those results are the outcome of a promotion of individual liberty and responsibility against the “progressive” ward-of-the-state policies.  Mr. Barro’s ideology apparently blinds him to the conservative loyalty to our founding principles; he assumes that we think like he does.

But Mr. Barro will not abandon his straw man:
Those are empirical claims, and Republicans ought to change their policy prescriptions if they turn out to be false. And my finding is that they have. The economic shock of the last five years showed several ways in which conservative economic policies fail to uplift the middle class. An improperly regulated banking sector leveraged up irresponsibly and then crashed, causing a mini-depression. People can't find jobs. Their wages are not rising robustly.
Shocking, is it not, that his “finding” is that GOP “policy prescriptions” have turned out “to be false”?  Having denounced conservatism for its refusal to applaud ever more progressive tax rates and ever more regulated markets, he can hardly say anything nice about what it actually prescribes—not that he can get that right in the first place.

But the RB is puzzled; when, exactly, have “conservative economic policies” been permitted to be enacted so that their success or failure can be determined?  Certainly not in the last thirty years, the period upon which Mr. Barro has turned his prodigious analytical skills.  (And don’t give the RB that neoliberal progressive blather about Reaganomics; anybody who has read David Stockman’s The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed, knows that Reagan implemented at best a badly mangled version of “conservative economic policies.”)

Mr. Barro’s claims about the recent financial crash are not only wrong but hypocritical.  The “improperly regulated banking sector” that “leveraged up irresponsibly and then crashed” was not a result of “conservative economic policies” but of the neoliberal and rent-seeking policies of the Clinton administration, aided and abetted by such “progressives” as Barney Frank and Christopher Dodd and rent-seekers like former Fannie Mae CEO Franklin Raines.

Since poor Mr. Barro cannot even properly sketch his little straw dog of an argument, the rest of his essay is just polemical maundering. 

In his neoliberal, utilitarian world, “conservatives have two options.”  One, we can admit that our “first principles are not utilitarian and not aimed at benefitting the broad public.”

In the real world, this is a logical contradiction.  We conservatives cheerfully agree that our first principles are not utilitarian—far from it.  But of course we forcefully insist that America's first principles of individual sovereignty, limited government, rule of law, and a republican form of government that constrains unimpeded majoritarianism are not designed for merely “benefiting the broad public,” but constitute the very essence of American citizenship.  Free people pursuing their happiness unsullied by tyranny is what "benefits the broad public."  Only “progressives” fantasize that government's job is to “take care of people,” because theirs is the Hegelian conception of the citizenry being wards of the state, which alone has the authority to bestow benefits.  This is objectively inimical to America's first principles.

So, Mr. Barro continues, if we conservatives are unwilling to promote his precious utilitarianism, we can “come up with a new agenda that aims at today's middle class economic concerns,” which to no one’s surprise will look a lot like the “progressive” agenda.  It “would have to accept greater fiscal progressivity in response to economic changes that have raised pre-tax income inequality,” blah blah blah.

Well, at least he recognizes that this approach “would make Republicans a lot more like Democrats”; but that’s OK because “in most advanced countries [i.e., Europe], right- and left-of-center political parties accept the basic shape of the tax system, the safety net, and the role of government, and they fight over design matters at the margin.  . . . this system works well and we would do well to emulate it.”  (The RB is not making this stuff up.)

Most advanced countries do not recognize the same first principles as does the United States.  In Europe, deriving from Bismarck's version of the Hegelian deification of the state, the state usually is recognized as having an organic primacy over the citizenry.  In America, deriving from the natural rights insights of the Scottish Enlightenment, the state is recognized as the servant of the people, in whom and from whom all power arises.  Mr. Barro is making a typical utilitarian error by putting desired results (as determined, of course, by the “elites” to whose ranks he aspires) ahead of principles.

Thus he is organically incapable of understanding and analyzing conservative revulsion toward the endlessly expanding state.  To him, this is merely “an unhealthy level of objection to the government”—with, as is always the case with the statists, the authority to judge what is healthy arrogated to him and his class.

Conservatism = Socialism?  Really?

Of course, our young friend forthrightly admits that he doesn’t expect his “case to be popular with Republicans and certainly not with conservatives.”  To ensure that it will never be, he ends his polemic by equating conservatism with socialism.  In this unhinged simile, he asserts that “the problem with the Republican Party is similar to that of Britain's Labour party in the 1980s."
Socialism was unpopular because it was a terrible idea. The only way to fix the party was to abandon its core ideology, and obviously its members were not keen on that suggestion. But in time, political necessity forced their hand, and Tony Blair took over, and the party got a substantively better platform and three massive electoral victories.

If it was possible to fix Labour, it's possible to fix the Republicans. The only question is how long it will take.
So, conservatism—that is, commitment to America’s founding principles—is a terrible idea.  If only the GOP could channel its inner Tony Blair, everything would be just fine.  Never mind that the post-Blair Labour Party is careening swiftly back to its socialist ideology, now more disfigured by its insane green utopianism.

The Recovering Bureaucrat recognizes Mr. Barro’s extreme youth; we noted that he is, like so many of his neoliberal progressive fellow travelers, in his late 20s.  The RB, who has lasted so many more decades than his young friend, leans toward the sentiment enunciated in the famous bon mot erroneously attributed to Winston Churchill to the effect of "If you're not liberal when you're young, you have no heart. If you're not conservative when you're older, you have no brain."

The RB certainly recognizes Mr. Barro’s passion, and he hopes that the conservative rejection of his advice will not be too hurtful.  The RB rather looks forward to Mr. Barro developing the maturity of thought to express his passion from a deeper understanding of human history and psychology—including his own.  In the meantime, the nicest thing to say is that his advice to conservatives is pure progressive hokum, an unself-reflective chanting of the horrible paternalism mantra that the Church of the All Powerful State promotes.

Americans appear, fortunately for Mr. Barro but unfortunately for human evolution, on the cusp of swallowing the entire bottle of statist snake oil.  But the RB remains serene, for the counter-counterrevolution is well underway.  The Church of the All Powerful State's ideology comes from an utterly false doctrine of the nature of humanity, God, and evolution.  The statists may win in the short run, but their very victory will come at the price of hastening the day of their defeat.

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