The Corner

Hilzoy’s Bafflement

She is much vexed by my post yesterday on pragmatism, and somewhat fairly.  I was keying off a point made by Will and did not devote the sort of attention I should have to her original post, which Will was keying off of. I should have left her out of it.

That said, I will say that I don’t see much wrong with what I wrote in terms of the substance, even if I was somewhat unfair to her. Pragmatism is something of an abracadabra word for liberal experts. For instance, Hilzoy complains that Wilkinson places too much faith on markets and his defense of markets casts liberals as strawmen since liberals — like her — no longer have absolutist hostility to markets. Rather, they’re merely more likely to find places where markets don’t work well and will “pragmatically” want the government to step in when the costs of these market failures and intolerable externalities outweight the benefits. Okay. But, again, I don’t think even Wilkinson is a market fundamentalist. He doesn’t want the market to solve every problem. He is just much more reluctant to let the government try to fix problems.

But why is she so baffled by riff on experts? Who will make these pragmatic, case-by-case decisions Hilzoy favors? Gnomes? Hobbits?  M5? Here’s my hunch: Government experts. If you look at problems on a pragmatic, case-by-case basis, you aren’t being guided by a general principle. Rather you are empowering specific individuals to decide when and where to intervene. In the name of pragmatism, these individuals –  often called experts but bureaucrats, engineers, social planners, politicians etc. will do as well –  are to be trusted with making these calls about when the market fails. And here’s what I was getting at when I was complaining about the mask of pragmatism. This in itself is an ideological position  because you are taking it on faith that these people have the wisdon and insight to make these decisions. And there is a great amount of evidence that “pragmatism” is often just a rationalization for expanding the size, scope and power of the government.

Of course,  I will concede that to a certain extent there’s no getting around this. Again: even ardent right wing free marketers like myself believe that the government must sometimes intervene in violation of laissez-faire principles, just as ardent liberal statists  — these days — will sometimes concede that the government should not intervene. As I wrote yesterday:

Yes, it’s true that liberals don’t always side with more regulation. But it’s also true that free market folks almost never embrace a zero-regulation position either. The real difference between the two sides resides in the humility, or lack thereof, of the policy-makers. Free market stalwarts are very reluctant to assume they know more than the markets, and so they require a very high burden of proof to intervene. Advocates of a more “pragmatic” approach to regulation, pretty much start from the assumption that they know more than the market at all times, even when they decide to leave the market somewhat unmolested. Still, they require a high burden of proof not to intervene.

My real objection with the interventionists isn’t that they want to intervene in the market as much as they do, it’s that they hide their ideological biases in words like “pragmatism” and mock their opponents as un-empirical ideologues. I have never seen a persuasive argument that mainstream proponents of laissez-faire policies are any less pragmatic or empirical than their mainstream opponents. But we are invariably derided as wild-eyed radicals and dogmatists while the other side claims to be reasonable.


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