Aug 10, 2009

Double-dog-dare you to define my -ism

Arnold Kling wrote a silly little post about progressivism, or rather an idiot's misconception of progressivism. It makes no sense at all: What are "unfettered free markets"? Who are the "technocrats"? What is "optimal"? Such lazy indulgence in empty words deserves no attention.

But then Tyler Cowen took it a step further. He claims he tried to "cast progressivism in the best possible light". He probably did honestly try; he seems like an honest and often lucid thinker. Certainly one of the most lucid thinker of the "right" blogosphere these days. But is he lucid enough for this task? His points seem lame and inaccurate. For example:
1. There exists a better way and that is shown by the very successful polities of northwestern Europe and near-Europe. We know that way can work, even if it is sometimes hard to implement.

You've got to be kidding me. This is the first point of an ideology you are "trying to cast in the best possible light"? A better way for what? "There's a better way" is not basis for an ideology; depending on how you are disposed to interpret those generic words, it is either a truism (of course there is a better way for everything - we humans are imperfect) or mere nagging. And the rest of the two sentences suggests that progressivism is all about imitating "northwestern Europe" (a geographically-challenged characterization?), so why is it then not called "northwesterneuropeism"? Or how about:
4. The needs of the neediest ought to be our top priority, as variations in the well-being of other individuals are usually small by comparison, at least in the United States.

Um, "the needs of the neediest ought to be our top priority" is utilitarianism, which is compatible with progressivism, but by no means synonymous with it. That's something Tyler ought to know (and does know, but he is either too lazy or unable to come up with more precise wording). Or how about:
9. State and local governments are fundamentally to be mistrusted (recall segregation) and thus we should transfer more power to the federal government, which tends to be bluntly and grossly egalitarian, when it manages to be egalitarian at all. That is OK.

Oh, so progressivism is anti-federalism! ("Anti-federalism" is what the "founding fathers" called "federalism", but never mind.) Except it isn't - it's just that, for as long as the US has existed, anti-progressives have touted their fictional concept of "states' rights" whenever it has suited them, which is whenever the federal government happened to be more progressive than the states, which is probably roughly half the time. Whenever it doesn't suit them, those same people conveniently forget "states' rights". By the fallacy that there have to be two equal sides to each issue, progressives, who have no analogous fictional concept, are perceived as "anti-states' rights", whatever the hell that would mean.

Tristero says this is complete bullshit. That may be a bit too harsh, but, obviously, I agree it is not an intellectual exercise Cowen should be proud of. Tristero is also miffed that Yglesias took the bait, and it does seem that Yglesias bent over backwards to "cast libertarianism in the best possible light":
I think libertarianism is best understood as a kind of esoteric doctrine. There’s strong evidence to believe that people who overestimate their own efficacy in life wind up doing better than those with more accurate perceptions. It follows that it’s strongly desirable for society to be organized so as to bolster myths of meritocracy.

I understand that Yglesias is not necessarily endorsing any of this, but merely ascribing it to libertarianism, but the second sentence is written as a statement of fact, so either Matt agrees that it is true, or he is saying that the foundation of libertarianism is simply false. Now I hope he means the latter, but then, if that is the best possible light in which to cast libertarianism, why even bother? He could have said it more concisely as "garbage in, garbage out". Maybe libertarianism should be called GIGOism? But in case Matt actually believes the factual claim to be true, he may be demonstrating poor deductive reasoning.

As far as I know, there is evidence that the most successful people are more likely than average people to be prone to overestimating their own efficacy. However, that does not mean that the converse holds. People who overestimate their abilities may, in effect, be gambling in life, ending up disproportionately at both ends of the outcomes distribution. They will then tend to be overrepresented among the winners as well as among the losers. By observing that most winners are cocky, we learn nothing about the average effect of cockiness. Concluding that cockiness is useful on average is the same fallacy that critics of Larry Summers use to falsely accuse him of stating that men are smarter than women.

But there is an advantage of Yglesias' writing on any topic: he has smart readers, and some of them contribute sensible comments. Thus Keith M Ellis:
A more accurate version of libertarian theory is that it is based upon an idiosyncratic view of inherent (and arguably metaphysical) individual human rights that is strongly oriented to property rights and is extremely American in historical origin and flavor. Sitting atop this view of individual rights—which itself is sufficient and requires no utilitarian elaboration—is a whole bunch of utilitarian justification for a libertarian sociopolitical organization built around the notions that said organization results in the greatest overall material and psychological benefit.

This theoretical basis has three great weaknesses: first, the notion of inherent individual rights is eminently contestable. Second, the almost exclusive emphasis on individual property rights is idiosyncratic and myopic. Third, the utilitarian arguments for the benefits of the resulting sociopolitical organization are extraordinarily simplistic and are as often as not disproved by empirical fact.

In practice, libertarianism is a political philosophy which emphasizes the notion of virtue in selfishness and has as its historical genesis the exceptional American experience. As such, it appeals mostly to white American males who are moderately above-average in intelligence, economically secure, independently-minded, and prefer simplistic theoretical constructs for making political and moral decisions. It validates their own affluence/privilege not by group affiliation, but by inherent individual merit; and it likewise superficially validates the poverty and lack of privilege of others not on the basis of group affiliation, but inherent fault. In this it mimics a meritocratic view, which allows the libertarian to congratulate himself on his lack of bigotry; but, in fact, it is a facade behind which his true bigotry hides.

Or Duncan Kinder:
The problem with libertarianism is that they tend to conflate liberty with possession of property.

This made sense 200 years ago, when owning a small farm or business meant that you were secure in the means of your livelihood. (...) However, due to economic shifts since then, owning property does not mean you therefore are secure in the means to your livelihood. Indeed, large property holders such as medical insurers are very much in the business of interfering with others’ means to their livelihood.

This means that libertarianism now is, in practice, a misguided and often cranky ideal.

Keith M Ellis also says something that especially resonates with me:
I write as someone who thought of himself as a libertarian in my late teens (a self-identification which quickly ended once I met actual, active libertarians)

I'll give Keith the final word:
American libertarianism could have foregone all its academic intellectuals and it would still be largely what it has become with them. Libertarianism is not an intellectual movement, it is a cultural movement. Libertarianism is essentially: individualism, good; property, good; commerce, good; government, bad. It’s a historically/sociologically related set of sentiments.

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