The importance of political projection

THE IMPORTANCE OF POLITICAL PROJECTION…. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), railing against progressive politics like any disciple of Ayn Rand novels would, gave a speech recently that condemned Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) for saying, “We are trying to increase the role of government on every front.”

Except, Barney Frank didn’t say that. The progressive lawmaker was talking about bringing some accountability to reckless financial institutions that nearly collapsed the global economy. Frank actually said, “We are trying in every front to increase the role of government in the regulatory area.” The difference, obviously, matters a great deal.

But Paul Ryan’s use of a bogus quote nevertheless has a larger significance. Paul Krugman noted yesterday that Ryan and other far-right Republicans who believe that all Dems necessarily want to “increase the role of government on every front” are engaged in some fairly blatant projection.

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.

I’ve long considered this one of the key observations of American politics, because it’s fundamental to understanding how both sides of the political divide seek to advance their goals — and the nature of the goals themselves.

For the left, the goals relate to policy ends. We want to expand access to quality health care. We want to lower carbon emissions to combat global warming. We want to reform the lending process for student loans so more young people can afford to go to college. There are competing ways to get to where progressives want to go, but the focus is on the policy achievement.

So, to Krugman’s point, 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. Whether the government increases or shrinks in the process is largely irrelevant.

For the right, it’s backwards — the ideological goal is the achievement.

Jon Chait had a terrific piece on this 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.

So, when Paul Ryan uses a bogus quote from Barney Frank about allegedly wanting to “increase the role of government on every front,” it’s very easy for Ryan to accept the premise because he wants to decrease the role of government on every front — not to achieve specific ends, but because decreasing the role of government on every front is the specific end.

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.

As Krugman noted, conservatives tend not to understand that the left has no parallel ideological desires (wanting bigger government just for the sake of having bigger government). It’s why they fell for the bogus Frank quote in the first place.

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.