Magazine March 23, 2009, Issue

The Pride of the Liberals

(Roman Genn)
‘What don’t you understand? We won.’

Sometimes political movements, as they grow old, become arrogant, insular, and dismissive of criticism. Critics said that the conservative ascendancy of the last few decades succumbed to that disease, and there is more truth in it than conservatives would like to admit. What we are seeing in Washington, D.C., right now is different: President Obama and his supporters are showing early symptoms of this syndrome in the first flush of victory. The liberal ascendancy is already becoming a liberal complacency.

In part this tendency reflects the character of the new president, a preternaturally self-confident man. His ambition to remake American policy and politics is staggering. His agenda for just his first year in office includes a fiscal stimulus unprecedented in size, a push for a new energy economy, and the revamping of American health care. That ambition may wreck his presidency, or it may make him the world-historical figure he aspires to be. But what is more troubling is the unwarranted intellectual self-confidence that liberalism in the age of Obama increasingly exhibits.

The debate over the economic-stimulus plan illustrated the point. When that plan was criticized, President Obama, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senate majority whip Dick Durbin all resorted nearly immediately to the “argument” that they had won the election. It is of course true that a lot of Democrats won their elections and that they will consequently get their way in most policy disputes. Yet they — and liberals generally — seem oddly exercised by the continued resistance to their policies by the small and relatively powerless minority that elected Republicans now constitute.

My favorite liberal magazine, The New Republic, is now regularly running items in which the authors appear scandalized by the fact of dissent from Obama’s agenda. Opinion journalism in D.C. is a small world, and many of these journalists are friendly acquaintances of mine. It is not my intention to portray them as arrogant know-it-alls in any personal respect. But they do seem to assume that they know all kinds of things that nobody knows or can know.

The rightness of the idea that the stimulus would, in fact, stimulate the economy — that there would be more economic activity if it were enacted than if it were not — was taken as inarguable. Thus Noam Scheiber argued that the stimulus debate boiled down to “an engineering question” with an “objectively right answer,” namely Obama’s answer. “There really isn’t much debate about this among economists,” he added. Never mind Robert Barro, Martin Feldstein, Greg Mankiw, Gary Becker, James Buchanan, and Ed Prescott, all of them respected economists who opposed the stimulus, either because they are skeptical of stimulus generally or because they doubt Obama’s stimulus in particular.

The debate featured regular invocations of the alleged consensus of most economists that the stimulus was necessary, although the country has a lot of economists and nobody to my knowledge surveyed them. Not all economists accept the Keynesian theoretical model that underpins the stimulus. Many believe that federal borrowing will crowd out private investment. The libertarian economic journalist Megan McArdle points out that in practice the theory that a massive jolt of federal spending will revive a slumping economy has been tested three times: in the U.S. during the 1930s, in the U.S. again during World War II, and in Japan in the 1990s. These three trials have yielded only one (ambiguous) success.

It is not absurd to think that the stimulus might prove stimulative: Smart economists think that it will, and they have a plausible theory for their view. It is, however, a controvertible view. Those who disagree with it are not necessarily dolts, and its adherents do not prove their case by insisting ever more loudly that they are right. (Which, come to think of it, describes Paul Krugman’s tone on too many days.)

E. J. Dionne Jr., the liberal Washington Post columnist, wrote in January that “being empirical is in the progressive interest,” and not just on the stimulus, because empirical evidence supports progressives’ views. That argument has in recent years been forcefully pressed by Scheiber’s New Republic colleague Jonathan Chait. If it were true, we would have to believe that (for example) opposition to school choice and trade agreements ineluctably follows from any dispassionate review of the relevant evidence rather than from liberal ideology.

It would also be a remarkable testament to liberals’ immunity from the vices that afflict other fallible, limited, and biased human beings. Most liberals who follow the issue closely — notably Obama’s budget director, Peter Orszag — seem to have persuaded themselves that we have no entitlement crisis, but rather a health-cost crisis: If the federal government brings the cost of health care down, it will not face any budgetary crisis. Entitlement reform is thus unnecessary, (liberal) health-care reform vital. This view rests, ultimately, on confidence that experts know how fast health-care costs are going to rise for decades into the future. It seems at least possible that liberals have this confidence because it gives them a license to do what they want to do anyway.

The Obama administration, backed by most liberals, is also unduly confident that its plans will, in fact, restrain health-care spending. Here the assumption is that near-universal health-insurance coverage can be achieved at a cost saving. The federal government need only do research on the most cost-effective practices and use its vast bargaining power to encourage their adoption. Yet we have had several decades of unrelieved failure at the attempt to cut costs in federal health programs through better management. This time we are to believe that the controls will work with no perverse side effects. This time industry lobbying will not get Congress or regulators to back down from efficiency measures. Sure.

Another thing liberals think they know is that government needs to mandate reductions in carbon emissions (or strongly discourage them through taxes). They are confident both that they can at least roughly estimate the appropriate level of carbon emissions and that this level can be achieved in a cost-effective manner. They act as though they believe that the wisdom of carbon-emissions restrictions follows simply and logically from the existence of global warming. It is a faith-based policy, sometimes advanced with religious zeal.

David Brooks, no reflexive foe of government activism, has recently sung the praises of “epistemological modesty” — modesty, that is, about how much we know and how much we can know, particularly about the reverberating effects of government policy on human behavior. The absence of this trait in our current crop of leaders is our most alarming deficit.

As Brooks noted, the need for intellectual humility is a characteristically conservative theme that can be found from Burke onward (not to mention in religious literature). It must of course be admitted that conservatives have not always shown such humility. We are often said, especially these days, to have excessive faith in the market.

Three points should be made about this criticism. The first is that “faith in the market,” even when taken too far, as it can be, is generally not faith that some group of people have all the right answers. It is confidence that trial and error, feedback loops, competition, and decentralized knowledge will come closer and closer to the right answers. Friedrich von Hayek’s Nobel lecture urged policymakers to emulate gardeners rather than engineers, creating the environment for growth rather than trying to bring it about directly.

The second is that the notion that conservatives’ free-market views are now wholly discredited is itself a species of contemporary liberal hubris. When Leon Wieseltier asserts, also in The New Republic, that “the cause of all this misery was the market abandon that [Republicans] promoted so messianically,” or Jacob Weisberg writes in Newsweek that the financial crisis has proven economic libertarianism wrong, they are not saying merely that the conservative analysis of the role of loose monetary policy, credit subsidies, and accounting rules is mistaken. They are saying that this analysis is outside the realm of reasonable discussion. It need not even be considered.

The third and most important point is that when conservatives have abandoned epistemological modesty it has led them to some of their greatest errors. In 1993, conservatives reacted to Bill Clinton’s tax increases not by saying that they would cause economic growth to be moderately lower than it would otherwise have been but by predicting that they would lead to ruin. They thus made themselves look foolish. More consequentially, in this decade conservatives largely failed to foresee the difficulty of stabilizing Iraq. The fact that conservatives have erred in this fashion should be no great comfort to liberals.

Writer Peter Beinart argued in January that his fellow liberals should temper their self-confidence by admitting that they were wrong about the surge. They had been “proven right too many times” for their own good. It says a lot about the current liberal mindset that Beinart’s article must be counted, in context, as a wise bit of caution.

Hubris is supposed to lead to nemesis. When it will come, in what form it will come, and in what proportion the suffering will be borne by liberals and by those whom they govern, are three more of those things that we cannot know.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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