I Think Like a Leftist
Never Give Up
In response to my post about winning a victory against a well-funded measure to increase property taxes to pay for child care in Monterey County, one commenter wrote:
To me, socializing a lot of child-rearing costs sounds like a ship that has sailed.
I can accept that a ship has sailed. I don’t accept that one can’t reroute the ship or even scuttle it.
Of course, both the commenter and I are using a metaphor. So let’s untangle the metaphor. In this context, to say that a ship has sailed is to typically to say that one should accept the trend and not argue against or fight against the trend. And what I’m saying is that I will continue to fight against bad policies even if they are widely accepted.
In 2009, the Club for Growth invited me to speak at a retreat in Palm Beach, Florida. The topic: newly elected President Obama’s and Congress’s increased federal expenditures on various programs. I accepted. But a few weeks before the event, the measure I was supposed to speak on was voted in by both houses of Congress and Obama had signed it. The person at the Club for Growth contacted me and said that because it had passed, there was no point in discussing it and invited me instead to speak in favor of free trade. I accepted.
But I think the organizers make a mistake. When a bad policy is implemented, it still makes sense to criticize it. On a local radio talk show in Monterey on which I was interviewed every 2 weeks, I made that point at the time. I noted that people on the left are much more strategic. When a policy that they oppose is put into law, they don’t stop criticizing it. I gave as an example the Bush tax cut of 2001, which I thought was largely a good bill. Its major good points were the reductions in marginal tax rates at virtually all income levels.
People on the left didn’t say, “The tax cut passed so I guess will have to take that as given.” No. They kept up an unrelenting attack on it. We can discuss what they got wrong about the bill, which was a lot. But that’s not my point. My point here is that they didn’t give up on overturning it. And during the first term of the Obama administration, they did overturn the cuts in marginal tax rates for the highest-income taxpayers.
When I think about political strategy, I think the way the left thinks: If I regard a policy as bad, I persist in trying to overturn it.
Dec 3 2022 at 11:07pm
This is reminiscent of the old saw about conservatives– they are busy trying to conserve the last progressive victory.
This phenomenon has been noticed for more than a century.
Dec 5 2022 at 9:09am
That’s great! I hadn’t heard that before and it is so right!
Dec 5 2022 at 9:20pm
“The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have two great types — the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins.”
G.K. Chesterton in Illustrated London News (April 19, 1924)
Dec 4 2022 at 10:16am
Good post. Indeed, the idea that a policy being long established should make us less willing to dislodge it is, if anything, a very conservative argument. But I’ve noticed a trend where leftists are willing to invoke this argument, but in a very tendentious way. They seem perfectly willing to use this conservative reasoning when the policy they want to preserve is a left leaning one, even when that policy hasn’t been established all that long. But for some reason, they never seem to find that argument convincing when it’s invoked in favor of even the most long established right leaning policies. It almost makes you suspect they’re starting with the conclusion they want and then looking for an argument to justify it.
Dec 4 2022 at 1:44pm
After 1887, progressives succeeded in getting the federal government to regulate the price of transportation services, beginning with railroads and later trucking and airlines. I imagine that free market advocates felt they’d lost that battle. But in the long run they won, and the regulations were dismantled in the 1970s and 1980s. The lesson is to never give up.
Dec 4 2022 at 4:42pm
Thanks, Scott. Good points. My other favorite example is ending the draft. As I point out in my talks on how economists helped end the draft, even at the height of the Vietnam war, the main objection to the draft was that it was used to fight the war. Few people opposed the draft in general. Among those few, of course, were economists Milton Friedman, Walter Oi, Alan Greenspan, and W. Allen Wallis.
Dec 4 2022 at 7:07pm
Not sure who counts as a progressive here. According to Elizabeth Popp Berman’s Thinking like an Economist (2022), the people who succeeded in deregulating these industries were generally adherents of the HARVARD school of economics, and part of the CARTER Administration.
Dec 5 2022 at 9:16am
Seems to me that we have fallen into the pattern of Northern Europe in which we become more socialist in good times. Then when socialist policies cause stagnation and decline, we roll back a few to get the economy going again. Carter hetting rid of price controls was not him being a classical liberal, but desperation after a decade of trying all the socialist solutions and failing.
The danger in that is that we might become like southern Europe and never roll back socialist policies no matter how bad things get.
Thomas Lee Hutcheson
Dec 4 2022 at 4:15pm
Hopefully you were able to get the tax made progressive and redirected as grants to people with children of the target ages to be used for the child care they best saw fit.
Dec 4 2022 at 4:43pm
I’m not sure if you’re joking. But assuming you’re not, I’ll explain: when people vote on a tax, they vote on whether to implement the tax, not on whether to have a different tax with different uses.
Dec 4 2022 at 7:30pm
Great. To provide some additional context, here’s what I wrote:
I didn’t mean to suggest that Henderson shouldn’t advocate what he believes; I meant to encourage him to be EXPLICIT about what he believes.
1: Does he oppose all publicly funded education?
2: Does he oppose publicly funded education below the college level, and have some as-yet-unarticulated reason for drawing that distinction?
3: Does he oppose publicly funded pre-K education, and have some as-yet-unarticulated reason for drawing that distinction?
If Henderson wants to fight the good fight, clarity might be one way to start.
Knut P. Heen
Dec 5 2022 at 8:19am
Everyone should be more clear. Publicly listed corporations are financed by the public. Public education is financed by taxes.
Anyone who prefers organizations which are voluntarily financed are against tax financed organizations.
Dec 5 2022 at 4:39pm
You need to clarify also.
For example, your #1: Do you mean “public education” or “public schools”?
I think a case can be made (a strong case even) for supporting the funding of public education while opposing the funding of public schools.
Dec 5 2022 at 9:12pm
To provide some ADDITIONAL additional context, here was the discussion that kicked off this entire post:
From this statement, I conclude that Henderson’s concern is the burden on taxpayers–so even education vouchers would apparently not placate him. I’m left to surmise that Henderson wishes to boldly lead into the 1630s.
Dec 7 2022 at 5:37pm
Interesting. I certainly didn’t get from your initial comment that you were trying to get me to be more explicit about what I believe. Is it possible that you should be more explicit about what you want me to address?
That seems to imply that I haven’t started. But you do realize, don’t you, that not only have I started but also, with my allies, have actually won the good fight? So your unsolicited advice is also unnecessary.
Since you’re curious, though, about my views, I’ll take each one question you ask and answer it.
Here are your questions:
Assuming that by “publicly funded” you mean “government funded,” my answers are:
On 2 and 3, I’m not sure which distinction you’re referring to, so I don’t know how to answer the second part of each.
Dec 5 2022 at 9:18am
Reminds me of one point in Hayek’s “Why I am not a conservative.” Conservatives always compromise and never demand compromise from the left.
Dec 7 2022 at 12:23am
I recall addressing this issue back in 2017–when I was hearing the same complaint from liberals and conservatives, each remonstrating about the other:
“1: Why must liberals always be the ones to compromise?
Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for his work on Prospect Theory, an explanation of decision-making under risk. Among other things, he documented that people feel losses greater than they feel gains. This dynamic impedes all negotiations because wherever compromises occur, people feel their own sacrifices (relative to a maximalist position) deeply, and are prone to dismiss the sacrifices made by the other side.
On another blog I rebut conservatives who complain bitterly about the fact that government keeps growing, which they take as iron-clad proof that conservatives are the ones who do all the compromising, whereas those all-powerful liberals are never willing to reciprocate.
(In rejoinder, I reject the idea that “the size of government” reflects a relevant variable. I suggest that people who care about the size of government move to places devoid of any effective government—say, large swaths of Afghanistan, the heart of the Amazon rainforest, the middle of the ocean—and see how they like it. And I suggest that they focus on measures of “freedom” such as per capita discretionary income–a variable that has never been higher.)
2: The larger point: Our inability to appreciate the perspectives of people who differ from us is both natural (according to Kahneman) and threatening to democracy (according to me).
I’d like fundamentalist Christians to have some empathy for the circumstances of gays, and gays to have some sympathy for the circumstances of fundamentalist Christians. And I think I’ve made some real progress … among gay fundamentalist Christians. Otherwise, not so much.”
Dec 7 2022 at 9:28am
Lots of people care about the size of government and express their concerns when they vote, politicians mention it in their campaigns, and empirical researchers find that the size of government is a useful predictor of other variables such as economic growth in and out of sample. The most commonly taught macroeconomic model (IS/LM) treats the size of government as a key determinant of economic conditions.
When you say you reject the size of government as a relevant variable, are you just saying you do not personally care about the size of government? If so, that is up to you, but why should anyone else care?
Dec 7 2022 at 11:19am
I was responding primarily to comments on libertarian blogs (especially Law & Liberty—which, alas, shut down its comment section) regarding autonomy. I often found that I shared people’s enthusiasm for promoting autonomy—but I found the size of government to be a poor proxy for that concern. If anything, larger government seems to correlate with GREATER autonomy. Consider the act of creating a business: People do this all the time without even leaving their homes, thanks to the internet. To suggest that some prior era did a better job of defending autonomy strikes me as counter-factual—at least for most people. Covid notwithstanding, the risks we bear from various medical conditions is vastly less than in prior eras. And Steven Pinker has documented that our chances to experience violent death has declined over time–even as governments have grown.
Of course, perhaps I am failing to give adequate weight to certain risks that may bear a structural relationship to the growth of government–surveillance/artificial intelligence, climate change, war, contagious disease, economic collapse, the rising enthusiasm for totalitarianism, etc. Once answer to the Fermi Paradox (Why don’t we find evidence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe?) is the idea that as societies develop, they inevitably develop the capacity to destroy themselves. So maybe the growth of government is a useful proxy for the growth of this destructive potential?
All that said: Part of my enthusiasm for autonomy extends to my support for freedom of religion. If people want to make the variable “size of government” the center of their worldview, who am I to judge?
Dec 6 2022 at 2:29pm
I don’t find this very convincing.
First. Did the right say “the affordable care act passed so I guess will have to take that as given.”? The right’s obsession of the ACA eclipsed the the left’s harping on the Bush tax cuts. In the end they didn’t overturn the ACA because it is popular, and in my opinion good policy.
Second. The Democrats didn’t overturn the Bush tax cuts. They allowed the unpopular parts of the tax cuts to expire while extending parts that were popular, if I remember correctly.
Third. I don’t think the Left has beat much of a drum on the Trump tax cuts, but I expect they will be overturned, assuming they haven’t already- again they haven’t been discussed much. My recollection is that Republicans wrote the bill so that middle class cuts expire while cuts to the wealthiest do not. I expect when the middle class cuts expire Congress will act to extend them at the expense of the other less popular parts.
Finally, Republicans are talking about a debt ceiling crisis to cause a social security showdown. That’s commitment to a ship that most folks think has sailed.
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