July 25, 2011

Harmony of Means and Ends

Attention conservation notice: 1900 dry, pedantic, abstract words about "theory of politics", and why it might matter to bringing about progressive political changes, from someone who is completely ineffective at actual politics, and not notably engaged in it either. None of it is at all original, and much of it is painfully obvious. Plus, it was provoked by a squabble among bloggers, and reading anything responding to a literary controversy flame-war is usually a waste of time.

Some posts by Henry Farrell on "left neoliberalism" and "theory of politics" (1, 2, 3) provoked quite a huge response, which I will not try to catalog. (I will however point to a useful older post by Ben Alpers on the term "neoliberalism", and to Timothy Burke's reaction.) I tried to explain, in the comments at Unfogged, what I thought Henry was trying to say, and for want of other material I'll repost that here, with a few modifications. By way of disclaimer, Henry is a friend and collaborator, and we've spent a lot of time talking about related issues, but what follows is in no way endorsed by him.

With that out of the way: What Henry means when he talks about "a theory of politics" is a theory about how political change (or stasis) happens, not about what political ends are desirable, or just, or legitimate, which is much of what I take "political theory" to be. "What are the processes and mechanisms by which political change happens?" is, at least in part, a separate question from "What would a good polity look like?", and Henry is talking about the former, not the latter. Of course the answer to the first question will tend to be context-dependent, so specialize it to "in contemporary representative democracies", or even "America today" if you like.

The first importance of such a theory is instrumental: if you want to have policies that look like X, a good theory of politics would help you figure out how to achieve X-shaped policies. But the second importance is that the theory might change your evaluation of policies, because it would change your understanding of their effects. The U.S. tax deduction for mortgage interest is arguably economically inefficient, since it promotes buying housing over renting, for no very clear economic rationale. But in so doing it (along with massive government intervention in forming and sustaining the mortgage market, building roads, using zoning to limit the construction of rental property, etc.) helps create a large group of people who are, or think of themselves as, property owners, possessors of substantial capital assets and so with a stake in the system*. If the deduction were, for instance, means-tested, it would not be nearly so effective politically.

Or again, if, for instance, you like material prosperity, you might favor policy X because (you think) it promotes economic efficiency. (Some other time, we can and should have the conversation about "economic efficiency", and the difference between "allocating scarce resources to their most valuable uses" and "allocating resources to meet effective demand", i.e., about the injustice inherent in the market's social welfare function.) But if you are also egalitarian, and policy X would make it easier for a small group of already-privileged people to wield political influence, then you might decide that policy X is not, after all, worth it, because of its inegalitarian political effects. (At a guess, some, but not all**, of Brad DeLong's reaction to Henry's posts is explained by letting X = "Clinton-era financial deregulation".) If you value a certain kind of distribution of political power as such (democracy, aristocracy, the vanguard party, rule by philosopher kings central bankers, etc.), a theory of politics would be an important part of how you gauge the value of different policies, at least ones which you think would tend to change how much power different individuals, or groups of individuals, would have.

If you are more or less egalitarian about economic resources and political power, then you will want to see policies that not only contribute to material prosperity, and to distributing that prosperity, but also to making it easier and more feasible for those who are poorer and of lower social status to make their interests felt politically. (Rich, high-status people typically have little trouble on that score. Also, this presumes that interests are not completely homogeneous, but that's OK, because they're not.) Sometimes these goals will reinforce each other, sometimes they will conflict and one will need to make trade-offs. It is hard to make an intelligent trade-off, however, if you do not have any tools for recognizing they exist, or assessing what they are; this, again, is why Henry thinks achieving progressive goals needs a theory of politics.

Now, if I tried to back out a theory of politics from the practice of left neo-liberals, it would something like this: what matters most to the interest of voters is the over-all growth of the economy; as it grows, they will become more prosperous, and reward the political party which implemented those policies. They will also be willing to support unobtrusive welfare-state measures, especially if they look like they are run efficiently and go to the truly deserving, because prosperous people feel generous. So the most important thing is "the economy, stupid", and making sure the voters know who is responsible for good economic times.

I do not want to discount this completely, but, even if they're right about which policies will promote economic growth, it seems oddly naive about how any sort of representative democracy, yoked to capitalism, is going to work. We do indeed have lots of common interests (to give some innocuous ones: not being turned into smears of radioactive glass, not living amid pandemic or endemic communicable illness, having prosperous neighbors, etc.), but we also have diverging interests. Groups or classes of people often have systematically diverging interests. This is because whenever two or more parties have a positive-sum collaborative interaction, there is inevitably a zero-sum struggle over dividing the gains from cooperation. (Voluntary market exchange may be welfare-enhancing for everyone, but whenever you buy something and would still have done so for a penny more, your consumer surplus is the seller's failure of price discrimination.) In this struggle, as in all bargaining games, there is a natural advantage to the side which is already better off. Beyond and beside interests, there are of course also values, which may be unselfish but also diverge.

Capitalism seems to inevitably produce a small number of people who are extremely rich and command considerable economic power; this gives them very distinctive interests. (Often they will also identify themselves with their business enterprises, and their interests as on-going and growing bureaucracies.) Being human, many of them will try using that power to advance those interests and further enrich themselves, by dominating others and by bending the government to their will. (Capitalism needs a very high degree of internal peace and automatic obedience to uniform legal authority — when the courts decide whom disputed property belongs to, or what contracts require, it must stick — to say nothing of physical infrastructure and human resources, and so it always presumes a very powerful state.) They have the resources, and the incentives, to exert influence and to keep doing so. Rich and powerful people can be wrong about the effects of their actions, but when they are not, one should expect a positive feedback, with economic power being used to enhance political power, which in turn is exercised to enhance economic power.

Against this, there are the vast majority of ordinary people, who have their varying interests, but also pretty uniformly have interests which oppose those of the rich and powerful. (Again, they also have interests in common with the rich and powerful.) They are on the receiving, losing end of the feedback between wealth and political influence. Since they have fewer resources than the rich and powerful, it is simply harder for them to get the government to listen, or even to keep track of what it is doing that might affect them. If we want a society which is even close to equal politically and economically --- if we do not want the majestic equality of the law which forbids the rich and poor equally from stealing bread and sleeping under bridges --- then effective counter-vailing power must be organized, which means institutions for collective action. Of course, on the usual Logic of Collective Action grounds, this will be harder for large groups of people with few resources than for small, already advantaged classes...

I would also add --- and this is something Henry and I have ben thinking about a lot --- that it is often not at all trivial to figure out what your interests are, or how to achieve them, and that (small-d) democrats should try to find ways to help people work that out. Actually having political clout is often going to depend on collective action, but this needs to be complemented by collective cognition, which is how people figure out what to want and how to achieve it. That, however, is part of a much larger and rather different story, for another time.

All of this can be boiled down to something much shorter (and perhaps should have been at the start): "When you tell us that (1) the important thing is to maximize economic growth, and never mind the distributional consequences because (2) we can always redistribute through progressive taxation and welfare payments, you are assuming a miracle in step 2." For where is the political power to enact that taxation and redistribution, and keep it going, going to come from? A sense of noblesse oblige is too much to hope for (especially given how many of our rich people have taken lots of economics courses), and, for better or worse, voluntary concessions will no longer come from fear of revolution***.

There are I think two reasonable defenses left neoliberals could make. One is to say that creating or strengthening any forms of countervailing power under modern American conditions would itself take a miracle. That goal would be futile and idle, but we could increase economic growth, which would at least benefit some people. The other would be to deny that anyone has a reliable theory of politics, in this sense, certainly none which could be used as a guide to action, and no hope of developing one; whereas we do know a bit about economics. I find neither of these convincing, but I've gone on long enough already. Have a cartoon:

Manual trackback: Crooked Timber; The Browser; Uncertain Principles; Three Quarks Daily; Crook Timber (again); Jacobin; Blayne Haggart's Orangespace

Update: See next post for some follow-up.

*: I owe this argument to my father, lo these many years ago.

**: I esteem DeLong's writings very highly, have learned much from them, and think he is on balance very much a force for good, but there are times when I simply cannot understand how his mind works, and do not particularly want to.

***: It would be fascinating to know to what extent the development and decline of the welfare state tracks, not fears of Communism as such, but fears of other people finding Communism attractive. (By 1980, the USSR was a powerful state, but also an obviously unappealing model.) I have no idea how to study this.

The Progressive Forces; Kith and Kin

Posted by crshalizi at July 25, 2011 13:20 | permanent link

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