A more pragmatic ideology

A MORE PRAGMATIC IDEOLOGY…. In a “Daily Dish” item yesterday, Conor Friedersdorf explored the ways in which someone like Matt Yglesias approaches public policy. Friedersdorf emphasized that Matt does not, conservative rhetoric notwithstanding, having a reflexive preference for larger government:

The desired end of Matthew Yglesias isn’t to grow the American state. On some issues, he sees a bigger state as a necessary means to an end he desires (like using subsidies to increase the percentage of Americans covered by some form of health insurance), and on other issues he favors taking power away from the state. It is useful to understand these distinctions, even if you think, as I do, that the federal government should be much smaller than Mr. Yglesias would have it.

It prompted Adam Serwer to note one of my favorite observations.

[T]he idea that conservatives don’t understand that liberals aren’t ideologically committed to the expansion of government the way conservatives are ideologically committed to the shrinking of government is indicative of the fact that conservative conversations about liberals take place in an alternate reality. Liberals believe that government has a responsibility to help people, especially those at the margins, cope with the exigencies of the free market, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to support a local height requirement in Washington, D.C., that artificially inflates the price of living space because it prevents the construction of housing with greater density. The means and outcome of policy matters, rather than the size of the role government ultimately plays. Yglesias is hardly unique in that sense.

On the other hand, I’m not sure I believe that conservatives don’t really understand the difference.

I continue to see this as one of the fundamental differences between the left and right — one considers smaller government an end unto itself, while the other cares infinitely more about policy outcomes than the size of government. Liberals and conservatives don’t only disagree on political goals, they differ on the kinds of goals worth pursuing.

Paul Krugman had an item on this in April: “On the right, people are for smaller government as a matter of principle — smaller government for its own sake. And so they naturally imagine that their opponents must be their mirror image, wanting bigger government as a goal in itself. But it’s not true. I don’t know any progressives who gloat over increases in the federal payroll or the government share of GDP. Progressives have things they want the government to do — like guaranteeing health care. Size per se doesn’t matter. But people on the right apparently can’t get that.”

No, they really don’t. The liberal worldview is not about necessarily increasing the size of government or raising taxes; those mechanisms are only valuable insofar as they reach the desired end-point. For the right, it’s the other way around — the ideological goal is the desired end-point.

I can imagine a scenario in which the president hosts a big meeting with all the congressional leaders, and suggests it’s time to review the economic recovery efforts of the last year and a half, looking closely at what worked and what didn’t, and then working on what to do next. For Dems, the task would be fairly straightforward — let’s do more of what was the most effective, and less of what was the least effective.

For Republicans, it doesn’t work quite that way — they have ideological ideals that outweigh evidence. GOP leaders could be shown incontrovertible evidence that the most effective methods of creating jobs and improving the economy are aid to states, infrastructure investment, unemployment insurance, and food stamps, and they’d still say tax cuts for millionaires is the better way to go. Why? Because their ideology dictates that government spending is bad, government intervention in the economy is bad, and tax cuts are good.

Jon Chait had a terrific piece on this larger dynamic several years ago.

We’re accustomed to thinking of liberalism and conservatism as parallel ideologies, with conservatives preferring less government and liberals preferring more. The equivalency breaks down, though, when you consider that liberals never claim that increasing the size of government is an end in itself. Liberals only support larger government if they have some reason to believe that it will lead to material improvement in people’s lives. Conservatives also want material improvement in people’s lives, of course, but proving that their policies can produce such an outcome is a luxury, not a necessity.

The contrast between economic liberalism and economic conservatism, then, ultimately lies not only in different values or preferences but in different epistemologies. Liberalism is a more deeply pragmatic governing philosophy — more open to change, more receptive to empiricism, and ultimately better at producing policies that improve the human condition — than conservatism.

Now, liberalism’s pragmatic superiority wouldn’t matter to a true ideological conservative any more than news about the medical benefits of pork (to pick an imaginary example) would cause a strictly observant Jew to begin eating ham sandwiches. But, if you have no particular a priori preference about the size of government and care only about tangible outcomes, then liberalism’s aversion to dogma makes it superior as a practical governing philosophy.

Those on the right want to cut taxes, because tax cuts are necessarily good. They want smaller government, because smaller government is necessarily good. They want to privatize public programs because privatization is necessarily good.

The left has no parallel ideological desires (wanting bigger government just for the sake of having bigger government).

The left starts with a policy goal (more people with access to medical care, more students with access to college, less pollution, more Wall Street safeguards) and crafts proposals to try to complete the task. The right starts with an ideological goal (smaller government, more privatization, lower taxes) and works backwards.