Monday, April 26, 2010

Political Axes

Or "Why I'm Not A Left-Liberal."

There are two interesting posts today I want to comment on. The first is Yglesias's post on what he considers the real I-banking scandal: the brute existence of extremely wealthy people.
It’s greedy, absurd, and morally indefensible for talented people born in favorable circumstances to be dedicating their lives to accumulating huge sums of money in order to engage in lavish consumption.

Never mind how they got the money, he says; there's something basically gross about people being that wealthy, especially if they're sitting around and making that a goal.

I read this post and thought it aptly summarized my major disagreement with Yglesias: inequality bothers him, and I see it as totally morally neutral. Inequality can have bad effects, and sometimes it's generated unjustly, and we should make sure everyone has the minimum to get by semi-comfortably, but I have no problem with the existence of rich people, or even absurdly wealthy people. I sort of consider it a feature of the system.

But this was all crystallized by Noah Millman's excellent post on trying to develop a better way of classifying political viewpoints. He divides political views into three axes:

  • Liberal/Conservative: Conservatives trust and defer to authority; liberals distrust authority and want to give more freedom of maneuver to individuals. Authoritarianism and old-school Papal Infallibility Catholicism are conservative, while hippies and libertarians are liberal.
  • Left/Right: the Right wants to reward success, however that's defined, while the Left wants to protect people who wind up on bottom. If you want to reward businessmen or make sure we retain incentives to create, you're Right; if you want to make sure noone falls too far, you're Left, and the Difference Principle may be the best-encapsulated description of Left politics.
  • Progressive/Reactionary: a Progressive generally thinks things are getting better, a Reactionary thinks they're getting worse. Regan-fetishizing Republicans and Great-Society-fetishizing Democrats are Reactionary, while traditional Marxists and anyone who points to the steady disimpoverishment of Africa is a Progressive.

I think this is really insightful, though certainly not the end-all of political descriptions. In particular, Millman asserts that new-school libertarians like Julian Sanchez and Will Wilkinson, with whom I identify myself, are liberal right-wing progressives, while Yglesias is a liberal mildly left-wing progressive.

We new libertarians, I think, tend to sympathize culturally and philosophically with a lot of the claims of left-liberals in the Yglesias mold. But we worry more about the possibility of cutting off growth than we do of a few more people slipping through the cracks at the bottom. I'd definitely agree with the claim that things like social safety nets are really really important. But I want to make sure to minimize the impact they have on incentives to create and generate economic growth. And I'm willing to sacrifice a lot of safety net strength to preserve that growth.

Wilkinson would respond here, I think, that generating wealth for all of society is the best way of benefiting the folks at the bottom. Which I agree with. And which is, of course, exactly the point: we're worrying more about increasing the upside than minimizing the downside. And Yglesias does the reverse. Which is why inequality and extreme wealth bother him, and not me.


Anonymous TJ said...

But is there any evidence that a thinning of the social safety nets lead to higher growth in general? I would think not. The idea that "lazy welfare queens" are the source of all our problems is pure right-wing propaganda without basis in reality.

And if you care about equal opportunities (meritocracy, fairness, etc.) then surely you would endorse more than a minimal safety net.

I am closer to Yglesias, although probably to the left of him. The US today is grossly unfair in meritocratic terms, as I see it.

April 28, 2010 4:08 AM  

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