Economy, Issues

Right, Left, Facts, and Values

3

Since my job is to proselytize on behalf of economic liberty, I’m always trying to figure out what motivates people. To be blunt, I’ll hopefully be more effective if I understand how they decide what policies to support. That’s a challenge when dealing with my friends on the left since some of them seem to be motivated by envy.

Image Credit: David Mulder CC by SA 2.0

Unsurprisingly, there are people on the other side who also contemplate how to convert their opponents.

Harvard Professor Maximilian Kasy wrote a column for the Washington Post that advises folks on the left how they can be more effective when arguing with folks on the right. He starts with an assertion that conservatives are basically impervious to facts.

Worries about…our “post-factual era” impeding political debate in our society have become commonplace. Liberals…are often astonished at the seeming indifference of their opponents toward facts and toward the likely consequences of political decisions. …A common, though apparently ineffective, response to this frustration is to double down by discussing more facts.

This is a remarkable assertion. I’m a libertarian rather than a conservative, so I don’t feel personally insulted. That being said, conservatives generally are my allies on economic issues and I’ve never found them to be oblivious or indifferent to facts (I’m speaking about policy wonks, not politicians, who often are untethered from reality regardless of their ideology).

So let’s see how Mr. Kasy justifies his claim about conservatives. Here’s more of what he wrote.

…maybe the issue is not conservatives’ ignorance of facts, but rather a fundamental difference of values. Taking this point of view seems essential for effective communication across the political divide.

I basically agree that differences in values play a big role, so I’m sort of okay with that part of his analysis (I’ll return to this issue in the conclusion).

But my alarm bells started ringing at this next passage.

Much normative (or value-based) reasoning by liberals (and mainstream economists) is about the consequences of political actions for the welfare of individuals. Statements about the desirability of policies are based on trading off the consequences for different individuals. If good outcomes result from a policy without many negative consequences, then the policy is a good one.

Huh? Since when are liberals (and he’s talking about today’s statists, not the classical liberals of yesteryear) and mainstream economists on the same side?

Though I admit it’s hard to argue about the rule he proposes for policy. He’s basically saying that a change is desirable if “good outcomes” are more prevalent than “negative consequences.”

That’s probably too utilitarian for me, but I suspect most people might agree with that approach.

But he makes a giant and unsubstantiated leap by then claiming it would be wrong to repeal a supposedly good policy like Obamacare.

When Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) remarked on the Affordable Care Act this spring, for example, she said, “…we’re talking about something that would deny those in need with the relief and the help that they need, that they want and deserve…” In other words, if a policy will harm the welfare of individuals in need, it’s a bad policy.

Huh? What happened to his utilitarian formula about “good outcomes” vs “negative consequences”? Sure, some additional people have health insurance coverage, but is he blind to rising premiums, job losses, higher taxes, loss of plans and loss of doctors, dumping people into Medicaid, and other downsides of Obamacare?

If facts are important, shouldn’t he be weighing the costs and benefits?

In other words, Kasy must be in some sort of cocoon if he thinks the Obamacare fight is between Republicans motivated only by values and Democrats motivated by helping individuals.

His analysis of the death tax is similarly off base.

…consider the example of bequest taxes, labeled “estate taxes” by liberals and “death taxes” by conservatives. A liberal might invoke various empirical facts…our empiricist liberal might conclude that bequest taxes are an effective policy instrument, providing public revenue and promoting equality of opportunity. The conservative addressee of these facts might now just shrug her shoulders and say “no thanks.” Our conservative likely believes that everyone has the right to keep the fruits of her labor, and free contracts of exchange between any two parties are nobody else’s business. …Taxing bequests thus means punishing moral behavior, the exact opposite of what the government should do.

Once again, Kasy is deluding himself. Conservatives do think the death tax is morally wrong, so he’s right about that, but they also have very compelling arguments about the levy’s negative economic impact. Simply stated, the death tax exacerbates the tax code’s bias against capital formation and results in all sorts of economically inefficient tax avoidance behavior (with Bill and Hillary Clinton being classic examples).

His column concludes with some suggestions of how folks on the left can be more persuasive. He basically says they should appeal to conservatives with values-based arguments such as these.

We should evaluate the policy based on its effect on individuals, and assign a higher weight to the majority of less wealthy people. …nobody can be said to consume only the products of their own labor. We rely on social institutions including markets and governments to provide us with all the goods we consume, and absent a theory of just prices (which present day conservatives don’t have) there is no sense in which we are entitled to specific terms of exchange.

I’m not the ideal person to speak for conservatives, but I don’t think those arguments will win many converts.

Regarding his first suggestion, Kasy’s problem is that he apparently assumes that people on the right don’t care about the poor. Maybe I’m reading between the lines, but he seems to  think conservatives will automatically favor lots of redistribution if he can convince that it’s good to help the poor.

I think it’s much more accurate to assume that plenty of conservatives have thought about how to help the poor, but they’ve concluded that the welfare state is injurious and that it is more effective to focus on policies such as school choice, economic growth, and occupational licensing.

Indeed, I hope most conservatives would agree with my Bleeding Heart Rule.

And his second idea is even stranger because economic conservatives have a theory of just prices. It’s whatever emerges from competitive markets.

Let’s close with a column by Alberto Mingardi of the Bruno Leoni Institute in Italy. Published by the Foundation for Economic Education, the piece is relevant to today’s topic since it looks at why an unfortunate number of intellectuals are opposed to economic liberty.

…some have replied that the main reason is resentment (intellectuals expect more recognition from the market society than they actually get); some have pointed out that self-interest drives the phenomenon (intellectuals preach government controls and regulation because they’ll be the controllers and regulators); some have taken the charitable view that intellectuals do not understand what the market really is about (as they cherish “projects” and the market is instead an unplanned order).

Alberto then shares Milton Friedman’s answer.

I think a major reason why intellectuals tend to move towards collectivism is that the collectivist answer is a simple one. If there’s something wrong pass a law and do something about it. If there’s something wrong it’s because of some no-good bum, some devil, evil and wicked – that’s a very simple story to tell. You don’t have to be very smart to write it and you don’t have to be very smart to accept it.

My two cents, based on plenty of conversations with well-meaning folks on the left, is that there’s actually a lot of agreement of some big-picture values. We all want less poverty and more prosperity. In other words, I think most people have similar good intentions (I’m obviously excluding communists, Nazis, and others who believe in totalitarianism).

But similar good intentions doesn’t translate into agreement on policy because of secondary values. Especially differences in whether we view “equality of outcomes” as an appropriate goal for government. Some on the left openly are willing to sacrifice growth to achieve more equality (Margaret Thatcher even claimed that they would be willing to hurt the poor if the rich suffered even more). Folks on the right, by contrast, are much more focused on helping the poor with growth rather than redistribution.

This is a guest post by Dan Mitchell “a high priest of light tax small state libertarianism”
  • Zap

    Charities like St Vincent DePaul pass on 100% of donations to the poor. The federal Government passes on 65%. The other 35% goes to make the liberal pontificators and their friends filthy rich. so much for the good of the masses.

  • daves

    I am happy to discuss your disregard for the facts Mr. Kellar. Your beliefs about the Affordable Care Act raising premiums or costing jobs. Your beliefs about the negative effects of the estate tax which was strongly supported by our founding fathers..

  • BonLovesFreedom

    Yep, folks who work must pay for all their own stuff and other people’s stuff as well, while those who suck the government teat as they reproduce every 2-3 years instead of working and providing for their families pay for nothing and are rewarded for it. Bassackwards! So, after taxing us our entire adult working lives, it takes a lot of cojones to then tax us when we die too. Good grief! Some of our greedy politicians would be pleased to leave us with 30% of our paychecks, you know, as they make lots and lots of money making laws and regulations for us to follow (or else!) 8-9 months of every year.

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