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Liberals and the Free Market

3 Jun

Will Wilkinson wrote a much linked to piece the other day that argues a real “liberaltarianism” wouldn’t look too different than the writings of Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and James Buchanan, which are not too far afield from the political commitments of “welfare liberals” (my term).  He concludes by saying:

So that’s where I’m at. An old-fashioned market liberal who thinks Hayek, Friedman, and Buchanan get it right, and who thinks Rawlsian welfare liberals should be able to recognize themselves in these thinkers.

For the most part, I think this is true, especially since both libertarians and liberals have reached a kind of intellectual rapprochement; liberals have come to accept Hayek’s insights about decentralization (as Matt Zeitlin pointed out) and libertarians like Wilkinson recognize that not every welfare state will descend into totalitarianism, based on the observation that many European countries with large welfare states didn’t actually descend into totalitarianism.

But I think part of what keeps me in the “liberal” column economically (besides particular moral and political commitments) is something this response Larry Summers gave in an interview:

[…]there are two kinds of offsetting errors that in a way lead me to be dismissive of people’s analysis.  One is the motive analysis that assumes that whatever the market produces will be for the best, that denies, if you like, that the phenomenon of a wasteful bank run where a healthy institution is felled by lack of confidence and that somebody needs to do something to coordinate to produce a better outcome.  The kind of analysis that denies that as a possibility and simply believes as an ideological matter that if you interfere in the market it will be worse.  I don’t find those types of analyses helpful.  I suppose the other type of analysis that I don’t find to be helpful are ones that commit the opposite error.  Something bad happened.  Therefore, the government should have a plan to stop it, and if only we had a better government the problem would not have taken place.

I believe markets can and do fail or that they produce outcomes that we’d rather not have (as Tyler Cowen has pointed out, its sometimes sad when we have markets in everything).  But they’re more efficient and often more neutral than any sort of directed institution or order that we could develop, which would come with its own host of attendant problems. But when it comes to policy, I have no a priori feelings about a market or government answer.

Imperfect Adherence

11 Oct

Both Matt Yglesias and Young MZ see Coulter’s comments about “perfecting Jews” as the unsurprising response of a Christian who sees her faith as the one true faith, and that expressing disdain misses the exclusionary nature of sincere religious adherence. In response, I’ll point to djw at Lawyers, Guns, and Money, who accurately sums up my thoughts on the matter:

I think this post exemplifies a problem analytic philosophy types discussing religion. The fact is, squishy liberal religious people, who exist in very large numbers, exhibit an set of beliefs and justifications that wouldn’t stand up in the seminar room. Their epistemology might be described as flabby, lazy, incoherent. But really, that’s ok. Ecumenicalism can be defended on political grounds quite well, but it harder to defend as a coherent and logical worldview.

Ken Pollack’s Biggest Mistake: Not Listening to Ken Pollack

19 Aug

Dan Drezner surveys the current debate about the foreign policy community and adds some important insights. An excerpt:

Does this mean, as Greenwald implies, that there is no debate within the FPC? Hell no. There can and should be vigorous debates over what constitutes a “vital national interest,” whether force should be used multilaterally or unilaterally, what other policy tools should be used, etc. That’s not a small zone of disagreement. Indeed, as Chris Sullentrop pointed out in March 2003, Pollack’s Threatening Storm rebuked an awful lot of the Bush administration’s approach to Iraq.

Pollack comes in for no small amount of criticism in the blogosphere. Some of it is deserved (why he would team up with O’Hanlon to write this op-ed is beyond me¹), but much of it misses the fact that Pollack is a smart military and intelligence expert who, as Ilan Goldenberg points out, actually knows the Middle East (but was wrong about the war). He’s no neocon hack, and as Drezner’s post highlights, his pro regime-change book , The Threatening Storm, had some serious caveats for an Iraq invasion:

In The Threatening Storm, Pollack cautions the United States against behaving as a “rogue superpower” that does whatever it wants, whenever it wants: “If we behave in this fashion, we will alienate our allies and convince much of the rest of the world to band together against us to try to keep us under control. Rather than increasing our security and prosperity, such a development would drastically undermine it.” Continue reading

The American Peace

14 Aug

uberpower.jpgA lot has been made about the foreign policy establishment and national security wisemen (and women) failing us in the lead up to the Iraq War. This is true, and many people (i.e. policy experts) who should have known better were too eager to support Bush administration policy without acknowledging the many risks and long-term consequences. I see much of this as the result of informational cascades (combined with several personal visions of foreign policy idealism), though that explanation may be too simplistic. In response, there has been a sort of anti-Iraq triumphalism, in which war critics continue to scold and dismiss the foreign policy establishment on a host of issues for being wrong about Iraq. But there are limits on how useful this new “We Were Right About Iraq” foreign set can be; in the future, I’ll continue to put my money on the analysis of Matt Yglesias instead of Atrios.

That’s why I think this Matt Zeitlin post nails it:

Michael Cohen and Shadi Hamid are parts of the dreaded “foreign policy community” and they showed judgment on Iraq, as did Lawrence Korb, Zbigniew Brzezinski and many others in the FPC. And until Greenwald and Atrios can show that a policy based around US preeminence, or a foreign policy mindset based around preeminence, necessitates tragic, stupid wars like Iraq and that they have an alternate way to look at foreign policy, or actual alternate proposals on hard issues besides “the War in Iraq was shitty and we shouldn’t invade Iran,” I’ll be sticking with the Foreign Policy Community. Continue reading

On Radicals and Democratic Deficits

9 Aug

Fried Siegel has a fair and enlightening review of Paul Starr’s Freedom’s Power in the latest issue of Democracy. I haven’t read the book, so Starr might disagree, but Siegel seems to honestly wrestle with the arguments in Starr’s book. Siegel’s primary concern is that, by ignoring liberalism’s past dalliances with radicalism, it makes it less likely that modern liberals will learn from those mistakes:

But Starr’s zeal for a purified, ahistorical liberalism makes it impossible for him to come to grips with its past failures and future opportunities, a reckoning necessary for a liberal rebirth.

I’m all for recognition of political and policy failures, but I also think a bit of ahistoricism is a good thing. Like Peter Beinert’s The Good Fight, these sorts of books are less about real historical accounting than creating new narratives for the contemporary political order. Inaccuracies are a problem, but omission is a greater sin for historians. If Starr doesn’t include Republicans in his narrative of Clintonian welfare reform (as Siegel chides him for), well, there might be some honest disagreements.

But part of contructing new narratives is choosing what to highlight and what to downplay. All political parties do this; witness Cameron’s Conservative Party in England, which styles itself more after the New Labor of Tony Blair than the Thatcherism of the 1980s. Today’s liberals already highlight FDR’s social welfare programs and war record, while downplaying his less impressive record on civil rights (with the reverse for LBJ, minus the war). Political traditions being a long and varied thing, you grab which strands you can use for the political moment.

Siegel goes awry, however, when he falls for some of the EU conventional wisdom: Continue reading