Sunday, February 3, 2013

Why Liberalism? Part 2

In part 1, I outlined a view of what liberalism is, and an understanding of what "ideology" is.  In part 2, let's look at some evidence for the views I'm promoting, in summary, the thesis that:
[Liberalism] does not start from a sacred writ that outlines all outcomes and presupposes all solutions.  It attempts to understand how real humans actually behave, and what motivates them and goes from there to find the best available policy options to bring about the desired outcomes in terms of widespread happiness and prosperity, of, as the title of this blog says, autonomy for all.
This piece looks at several issue cases where the liberal, libertarian and conservative dominant positions demonstrate the distinction I am describing.

Money and the Monetary System

The intro to part 1 covers this, but to re-iterate, the general right wing view on "money" is that it is something that should be holy and eternal, of fixed (or even hopefully) growing value and the supply limited by some natural law, like the gold supply.  This post is not the place to get into an extended discussion of why any attempt to make the monetary system work this way is doomed to fail, but I will summarize by saying the most important part:  It has been tried before and failed spectacularly and repeatedly.  The gold standard (or even gold and other precious metals themselves) were the monetary system well up to the early decades of the 20th Century pretty much everywhere.  Frequently gold standard advocates will claim that "fiat" currency is responsible for various economic catastrophes ignoring the myriad of crises, recessions and depressions that plagued the world while under the gold standard.  My favourite of this breed is to remember that the "Great" depression is named such, partly as a means to distinguish it from all the other depressions that had occurred within living memory of the early 1930s, most notably the Long Depression (1873-1879) which predated even the speciously often blamed Federal Reserve as cause for all economic ills.

An infamous moment occurred when Alan Greenspan once apologized to Milton Friedman on behalf of the US Federal Reserve for causing the Great Depression.  While anti-fed gold standard types may think to cheer this admission by a Fed Chair, Friedman's case against the Fed was that it did not create enough money when needed after the 1929 crash.  It stood pat and let the crisis develop.  For awhile, Friedman's view that monetary expansion via an arms length central bank can be employed to allay recessions was nominally accepted by right wing elites, it has never really been accepted by rank and file conservatives and libertarians who mostly want to abolish the Fed, and central banking generally.

The history of the 20th Century shows a progression of iterative steps away from the gold standard in response to the various problems it cause once those problems became acute.  Far from some sweeping liberal ideological statement of opposition to the gold standard issued by John Maynard Keynes from atop some mountain, a variety of hybrid experiments were attempted between the Great Depression, Bretton-Woods and Nixon's eventual full floating of the US dollar as a fully convertible  fiat currency legally mandated only to be usable in paying debts denoted in US dollars.

Right wing ideologues seeking to defend the gold standard or other forms of "hard money" policies often find themselves appealing to literal ancient history (like in Paul Krugman's debate with Ron Paul, with the latter citing Diocletian Rome as if we have anything like reliable records of economic conditions in that period) - this is because more recent economic history provides very little grist for their mills.

Liberalism does not "require" floating fiat currencies.  It does not dictate arms-length independent central banks as the arbiters of a nation's currency.  Instead, we are experimenting to find what works, iteratively and progressively in reaction to the evidence.

Markets and Capitalism Generally

The right wing view on markets amounts to their most salient and powerful infatuation with a simplistic, elegant theory that does not work out as intended when applied to real, living human societies.  There is an old joke about communism that goes "nice theory, wrong species" and this applies very much to the dominant right wing modes of thought about markets being perfect, self-correcting, rational and efficient.

A common right wing illusion is to assume that because liberals and other left wingers differ with their view on markets, that must mean we believe something close to the diametric opposite of them.   They want smaller government, so liberals must want "bigger" government as an end in itself.  They support deregulation so liberals must want endless arbitrary regulations. Hardly so.  Certainly there are such things as bona fide socialists, Marxists and anarchists who actively oppose capitalism and free markets.  Liberalism itself can even allow for these views (if one thinks the evidence supports them).  Yet liberals broadly do not oppose markets and capitalism to the degree that right wing ideologues support them.  Every small-l liberal party in the world, from the US Democrats, Canada's Liberals (and arguably, NDP in my broad definition of liberalism), Australia's Labor, Britain's Labour, and on down the list believe in employing market capitalism to some degree in pursuit of society's aims.  Every economy in the world is some mix of private and public spending, some balance between "socialism" and "capitalism."

Liberals support things like minimum wages and unions precisely because we recognize markets bring certain benefits but wish to limit the evident harms we empirically observed from the periods before such things existed.  There are some on the left who oppose such attempts to ameliorate the harms of capitalism precisely because they wish to see capitalism fail and be rejected by society and liberal harm reduction measures are contrary to that revolutionary goal.

I have written at length on the evolution of liberal thought on capitalism in my piece "One Liberalism Through the Ages" which details the creation of capitalism by liberals like Adam Smith, and the slow liberal realization that while capitalism was better than what it replaced (variations on mercantilism and feudalism) it still needed state intervention in various forms to achieve the real goals of liberalism.  Libertarians (many of whom call themselves "classic liberals" thinking this is some kind of insult to current liberals) have largely (or entirely in many cases) remained fixed on the ideas and form of capitalism liberals developed in the 19th century.  Conservatives too.  Liberalism looks at the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and say "businesses should be required to keep fire exits, extinguishers, etc etc" - right wing thought says "rational actors look at an unsafe work place and find a job somewhere safe, consumers will choose not to buy from businesses that have horrific fires" and so forth.  Their answer to any workplace complaint from wages to safety to harassment is to quit and work "elsewhere" under the assumption that a good alternative exists.  It must, their theory dictates it.  If it somehow does not, the individual is always to blame for not having worked or studied hard enough or having picked the wrong employment skills to pursue (like the cliche and glib assumption often appearing in comment sections that college grads having trouble finding good jobs must have studied "useless" subjects like the arts or humanities).

Taken to their logical conclusion, the right wing view amounts to:  "If you don't succeed in our chosen economic system, that's your problem, and your suffering is no concern to anyone but you."  This is backwards.  The economic system should most broadly serve humanity's needs and wants and if large numbers of people find it impossible to succeed under the chosen system, the system should be changed.  To right wing ideologues, it is humans who should conform to the dictates of the system.

Again and again right wing thought applies capitalism first principles and contrives whatever specious and cherry picked evidence they need to keep face in debates in support of unregulated, minimal (and flat) tax capitalism.  A century and more of experience with the problems such policies cause have not deterred them, as every crisis somehow ends up being the fault of government interference, from the "federal reserve caused the Great Depression" theory to the ones that attribute the 2008 financial collapse to Fannie, Freddie or the Community Re-investment Act.


A social issue to change the tone, and one where libertarians side more closely with liberals, but where conservatives have the holy dogma:  Sex is properly for procreation, not pleasure.  Pleasure from sex is typically incidental, and sometimes even actively sinful (particularly for women).  At best, pleasurable sex may be enjoyed only between married couples and even then contraception is discouraged.  Thus we have a long litany of conservative favoured laws prohibiting forms of non-procreative sex, sex between same-sex couples, and even banning contraception.  Lately conservatives have taken to conflating contraception and abortion and claim that the most effective contraceptives (the pill, IUDs) and the ones that women have the most control over (not requiring consent of a male to employ) are abortifacients and thus morally abhorrent.

In reality, most people want to have sex for pleasure at least sometimes and usually quite often if they can arrange it with partners they find appealing.  They don't however wish to have children nearly as often as biology would dictate and are happy to employ contraceptives to avoid this.

Conservatives evidently prefer that women suffer the consequences of recreative sex in the form of undesired children (and possibly disease).  They expect people to conform to their views of how we should behave sexually and oppose efforts to reduce the risks associated with the behaviours we evidently prefer to engage in.  Liberalism does not mirror conservativism.  It does not seek to enforce, coerce or do more than mildly encourage people to engage in recreative sex.  Liberalism seeks to accept people as they are, and craft policies to support them in their desired modes of action with as little risk and harm as possible.

Libertarians tend to be closer to liberals with respect to adult consensual sex (though I would note at least the last 3 US Libertarian party presidential nominees have been personally anti-abortion, and libertarian hero Ron Paul believed in state restrictions for abortion) but the distinction with liberals can be seen more clearly when it comes to prostitution.  To libertarians, prostitution is permissible so long as the prostitute is there by choice.  The liberal view on prostitution is that there really isn't one, at least not a single dogmatic one.  Liberals see the empirical reality that very few women willingly choose a career in renting their bodies except by harsh economic necessity and thus have complex views from support of prohibition, to various regulated schemes such as what you see in Amsterdam or New Zealand.  Again, rather than dogma there is an effort to maximize autonomy and minimize evident harms like disease, abuse, slavery and pimps.

Climate Change

By now it should surprise no one that conservatives are the least likely to accept the need for concerted action to avoid a climate change catastrophe.  Yet libertarians are generally speaking just as vehemently opposed if not more so.  Why is this so?  The evidence is abundantly clear and grows more compelling day by day.

In part their denial is a part of their denial of problems with free reign market capitalism.  Markets are perfect and should price everything that needs pricing.  The solutions to climate change all require activist government intervention in markets in some form - whether a carbon tax, a regulatory cap and trade system, sheer flat out government imposed limits on industry emissions or even just massive subsidies for otherwise uneconomically viable green energy technologies.   All of these are anathema to right wing economic holy writ.  So the need for them must be a liberal contrivance to implement their desired redistributive and government growing schemes on an unwitting society.

Conservative and libertarian reasons for denial change somewhat.  Religious conservative denialists cite various bible verses and exhibit certitude that God simply wouldn't permit such a thing to happen to us.  Libertarians simply have faith that if there was a problem, markets would have priced it, and if there's a need for a solution, some for-profit technology will be developed in time anyway.  That the people of Easter Island really did run out of resources and thus die off without finding a solution or alternative means of supporting their civilization doesn't seem to worry them.  It won't happen to us.  It can't.  The dogma says it won't.

As for liberalism, acceptance of the need for action on the climate problem is near universal, but the favoured solutions are a subject of considerable debate.  Again, there is no holy writ on how to solve the climate crisis.  In Canada, we somehow ended up at one point with the Liberal party in favour of a carbon tax, and the NDP advocating Cap & Trade.  In other places, Cap & Trade tends to be the favoured approach of the more centrist pro-business liberals.  Still others believe both schemes unworkable and simply want government to engage in a kind of "Manhattan Project" to develop renewable energy technology to the point of being cheaper than carbon based energy sources.  It is true that liberal policies in response to the climate crisis still seek to maintain or broaden economic equality, but this is consistent with my arguments here.  Liberals also, do not broadly seek to "undo" capitalism and seek some kind of revolutionary alternative economic system which does not yield dangerous levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

Here at last in the climate crisis we have right wing ideologues not just seeking to have humans conform to their views of how the world works, but frankly they wish to have the world itself so conform.  This is the ultimate danger of allowing right wing prescriptive and unchanging ideology to dictate human policy reaction to events.  Conservative intransigence on taxes, money or social issues lead to increased human misery, but these miseries end the moment the bad conservative policies are ended.  Humanity can rebound.  The climate crisis is a disaster that cannot be so easily undone.   It will not heal itself the moment we stop contributing to the problem, and adopt policies that react to the physical realities of the world we live in, rather than ignoring and denying them.

As Paul Krugman finished the post I started on with:
The bottom line is that we aren’t really having a rational argument here. Nor can we: rationality has a well-known liberal bias.

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