Tales From Those Non-Ideologues at The Nation

Eric Alterman writes in the 150th anniversary issue of The Nation:

The primary difference between liberalism and conservatism, at least in theory, is that the latter is an ideology and the former isn’t. Conservatism, as Milton Friedman argued, posits that “freedom in economic arrangements is itself a component of freedom broadly understood, so economic freedom is an end in itself.” Liberalism, however, as Lionel Trilling observed, “is a large tendency rather than a concise body of doctrine.” And while John Kenneth Galbraith helpfully pointed out that only those programs and policies that honor “the emancipation of belief” are worthy of the term, liberalism, at bottom, is pragmatism. Conservatives desire low taxes and small government because this is how they define freedom. They like to pretend that liberals prefer the opposite in both cases, but the truth is that liberals are OK with whatever works.

Alterman’s whole column reads like a condenced version of this venerable piece on the same theme from Jonathan Chait. 

As I wrote a whole book largely dealing with the canard that liberals are non-ideological pragmatists who only care about “what works” I don’t have much enthusiasm for going through all that again, particularly in response to Alterman (who was lecturing Joe Scarborough about all this on MSNBC this morning). And if you’re the kind of person who thinks Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi or for that matter the folks at the Nation are just a bunch of clear-eyed non-ideologues and empiricists single-mindedly focused on “what works,” there’s probably very little I — or anyone — could say to change your mind. Some people are so ideologically committed to claims of their rationalistic empiricism that no amount of reason or empirical evidence will suffice. But I’ll give it another try anyway.

Even the standard of “What works” is, on its own terms, an ideological one because it simply begs ideological questions. What works for whom? Ultimately, the standards you bring to bear are ideologically freighted. Single-payer healthcare “works” if your definition of “works” hinges on questions of egalitarianism. Single payer works less well if you prioritize other things, such as, say, innovation, or a desire to keep government limited. Once you agree on the ideological standards, empirical questions of what works take center stage. Ideology helps determine the goal, empiricism lights the path to get there. I have no problem conceding that liberal ideological standards are valid, but I think it is ridiculous to claim that liberals have none.

Moreover, I’m not even sure why liberals are so determined to deny what is so obvious (though not to them, as I think most are sincere in their dogmatic belief in their own anti-dogmatism). We may believe slavery is bad on empirical grounds, but underneath those grounds lies the bedrock of principle, or yes, ideology. The abolitionists were not motivated primarily by green-eyeshade questions of economic efficiency. If I could prove that in some utilitarian sense that slavery was better for most people, but awful for just a few, I sincerely doubt, and would certainly hope, that liberals would not suddenly change their minds on the question. Alterman claims that liberals don’t actually like high taxes. This strikes me as an odd claim, given that so much of contemporary liberalism’s argument for higher taxes is suffused with moralizing language about the greed of the wealthy. Even president Obama has admitted that he would favor higher capital gains taxes even if they generated less revenue, out of a bias towards “fairness” not what works.

Both Chait and Alterman invest a great deal in Milton Friedman’s observation that “freedom in economic arrangements is itself a component of freedom broadly understood, so economic freedom is an end in itself.” First of all, just to set the record straight, Milton Friedman did not consider himself a conservative, even if conservatives revere him. Second, his observation strikes me as obviously true. Saying economic freedom is an end in itself is not a claim that there can be no curtailing of economic freedom. Outside of a few anarcho-capitalists (and even only a few of their number) no one says that all infringements of economic freedom are unacceptable. Rather, the standard conservative and libertarian stand is that economic freedom is important, just like political freedom or freedom of conscience. How important and in what circumstances such freedoms can be limited for the greater good is both an ideological question and an empirical one of the “what works” variety, and conservatives and libertarians are constantly debating such questions. 

But what I think is particularly interesting is the idea that one can reject — with glib scorn and disdain — Friedman’s claim and simultaneously insist one is being non-ideological. Does anyone doubt that Friedman, a Nobel prize-winning economist lacked the ability to empirically support his view that economic freedom is important?

Moreover, if liberals don’t believe that economic freedom is important, that implies it can be erased without much concern. That sounds pretty ideological to me, particularly once you start gaming out what such a belief might entail.

But put that aside. Chait & Co. seem to believe that non-economic freedom is a good in and of itself. What they are objecting to is the inclusion of economic freedom in the list of ideologically cherished freedoms. This is presumably why liberals often believe, or at least say they believe,  in any number of absolute or near-absolute liberties. As do conservatives and libertarians. The Nation, last I checked, believes in free speech (at least outside political campaigns and college campuses). Those are ideological positions and they’re nothing to be ashamed of.

What seems to bother liberals about conservative ideological positions is not that we have them, but that they are in conflict with liberals ideological positions. The difference, ultimately, is that conservatives admit we have ideological principles, liberals pretend they don’t —  preferring to prattle on about their much-vaunted empiricism. 

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