Monday, July 16, 2007

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The libertarian center cannot hold

This month's Cato Unbound is a debate over Brink Lindsey's Age of Affluence. In the lead essay arguing that the country is more and more libertarian, Lindsey allows the following caveat to his argument:

[A]t best libertarianism exists as a diffuse, inchoate set of impulses that operate, not as an independent force, but as tendencies within the left and right and a check on how far each can stray in illiberal directions. Second, as I conceded in an earlier essay for Cato Unbound, American public opinion is noticeably unlibertarian in many important respects. In particular, economic illiteracy is rife; much of government spending – especially the budget-busting middle-class entitlement programs – remains highly popular; and the weakness for moralistic crusades, long an unfortunate feature of the American character, remains glaring (though today’s temperance movements direct their obsessive zeal toward advancing health and safety rather than virtue).
At which point we flip over to Robin Toner's lead story in today's New York Times:
On Capitol Hill and on the presidential campaign trail, Democrats are increasingly moving toward a full-throated populist critique of the current economy.

Clearly influenced by some of their most successful candidates in last year’s Congressional elections, Democrats are talking more and more about the anemic growth in American wages and the negative effects of trade and a globalized economy on American jobs and communities. They deplore what they call a growing gap between the middle class, which is struggling to adjust to a changing job market, and the affluent elites who have prospered in the new economy....

Even as Mrs. Clinton has sought to associate herself with the economic growth of her husband’s administration, she, like other Democratic presidential candidates, has been expressing a sharp skepticism toward trade and globalization under President Bush. In recent weeks she has announced her opposition to the proposed South Korean Free Trade Agreement and denounced globalization that “is working only for a few of us.” She accepted the endorsement of former Representative Richard A. Gephardt, who spent much of his political career fighting what he asserted were unfair trade agreements.

And Mrs. Clinton has increasingly focused on “rising inequality and rising pessimism in our work force,” and suggested that another progressive era is — and ought to be — at hand.

Former Senator John Edwards, another Democratic candidate, staked out similar positions months ago and regularly notes that in the last 20 years, “about half of America’s economic growth has gone to the top 1 percent.” Mr. Edwards praises recent efforts to raise taxes on private equity and hedge funds. His campaign manager, former Representative David E. Bonior, notes that Mr. Edwards has been sounding these themes since his first presidential campaign in 2004.

“John Edwards was there at the beginning of this,” Mr. Bonior said.

While campaigning in Iowa last week, Senator Barack Obama, Democrat of Illinois, suggested that even those who followed the standard advice for coping with a globalized economy — get more education for higher-skilled jobs — were losing out.

“People were told, you’ve got to be trained for high-tech jobs,” Mr. Obama said, “and then it turned out that some of those high-tech jobs were being outsourced. And people were told, now you need to train for service jobs. And then it turned out the call centers were moving overseas.”....

Representative George Miller, the California Democrat who is chairman of the Committee on Education and Labor, said, “Trade may not be the reason, or the number one reason, they’re losing their jobs, but they think it is.” (emphasis added)

Kudos to Miller for at least being honest that much of the Democrats ire is wildly misplaced.

The Democrats are right to focus on stagnant wages and health care concerns -- those are their bread-and-butter issues. Conjuring up a trade bogeyman as the primary source of all of this.... well, let's just say it fuels Dani Rodrik's barbarians quite nicely.

UPDATE: Kevin Drum asks some questions about this post -- and I provide some answers.

posted by Dan on 07.16.07 at 09:13 AM


Well, people see patterns and make up explanations out of thin air. The phenomena of scapegoating should really be no surprise to anyone with even a modest education.

The issue for y'all on the right, assuming you care to resolve it, is to provide an explanation for the people who are obviously feeling *something* and looking for a way to explain it.

Providing laffer curves drawn on cocktail napkins in the WSJ, or telling them what silly people they are for imagining their pain is probably not going to be met with any kind of rational response and will only lead to more scapegoating and - depending on your POV - more erroneous explanations.

Really. It's kind of funny to see y'all shake your fist and wag your finger, but, as far as I can tell, you don't have any other explanation or advice other than "suck it up and take it like a man", which really is probably about a silly as blaming globalization and such for one's problems.

But I guess it sounds more sophisticated and all educated like.

posted by: Azael on 07.16.07 at 09:13 AM [permalink]

As I posted in a similar thread over on Eugene Volokh's site, I think we're about to make our way through the sixties and seventies again. We're starting to see the first generation that doesn't actually remember the seventies, and sees it through a nostalgic haze of disco balls and bell bottoms. They don't remember stagflation, malaise, inner cities that looked like they'd been bombed out, legalistic union work rules that crushed innovation, federal boards that decide how thick the sandwiches can be on airplanes, or any of the other products of decades of liberal domination of the institutions of society.

I mean, Congress actually seems to be seriously considering re-implementing the Fairness Doctrine. The FAIRNESS DOCTRINE, for crying out loud.

The bottom line is that we, the voters, will always be more inclined to vote for the party that promises to take stuff from other people, who probably don't deserve it anyway, and give it to us, who have really gotten a raw deal from life up to this point, now that I think about it.

Listening to explanations of why this is a bad idea in the long run is boring.

- Alaska Jack

posted by: Alaska Jack on 07.16.07 at 09:13 AM [permalink]

PS Azael -- I know a lot of Southerners. I've never met one that actually TYPED with an accent. Seems kind of, I don't know, precious.

- AJ

posted by: Alaska Jack on 07.16.07 at 09:13 AM [permalink]

It does appear to be true that libertarianism cannot make it in either the two big parties. Libertarian once had somewhat of a place in the Republican Party, but given that the American people seem to be unwilling to part with many of their social entitlement programs, even the Republicans are unwilling to try to stop them. It seems that Giuliani is the closest thing to the old libertarian model of the GOP.


posted by: political forum on 07.16.07 at 09:13 AM [permalink]

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