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Pundit's Fallacy

Will picks up on the philosophy gap issue and then goes and says a bunch of stuff I think is wrong. Will wonders about "the malaise of American statist liberalism" and then, employing the Pundit's Fallacy, attributes said malaise to those attributes of American statist liberalism he dislikes. I'm going to outsource this to Ramesh Ponnuru's hard to find thanks to technical glitches post on this from this morning. Simply put, American statist liberalism is on its strongest political grounds precisely when it's doing the things Will finds most objectionable on policy terms -- engaging in a knee-jerk defense of existing social welfare programs.

UPDATE: Ah. Will says in comments that's not what he meant, he merely attributes the philosophical incoherence to the above. Nowadays, I took it for granted that "malaise of . . . liberalism" simply had to refer to the fact that Republicans keep winning elections.

February 22, 2005 | Permalink


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Tracked on Feb 22, 2005 10:15:01 PM


Statist liberalism sure seems to be doing fine engaging in a knee-jerk defense of Social Security. Bush seems to be having a few problems on that front.

Posted by: Haggai | Feb 22, 2005 5:17:26 PM

Why does a Hayek fan think defense of existing institutions, which actually work, is inherently less intellectually valid than dreaming up new institutions?

Especially when Will makes arguments that entail:

*Insurance is impossible.

*Risk aversion is irrational.

*Promises-to-pay aren't financial assets.

*It is a good idea to lie to people about how social programs work so that the American people can be socially engineered into a mass investor class.

Posted by: Gareth | Feb 22, 2005 5:20:36 PM

Is it just me, or has Wilkinson become much more of a hack since he left grad school for Cato?

Posted by: Phil | Feb 22, 2005 5:30:13 PM

Matt, You're mixing up the strategy/philosophy issue here. You're saying, as a matter of strategy, The American Society for the Preservation of Historic Welfare Programs works fairly well. I wasn't saying, "If only the left would adopt my politics, they would have strategic success." I was saying, if only the left would adopt my politics, they'd have a coherent philosophy. Whether this philosophy can offer a framework for successful political is an open question, since no one has ever tried it.

It may be the case that American liberalism is strategically strongest in its reactionary, conservationist mode. But I took Tomasky's point to be that this isn't strong enough, because, despite all the feverish strategizing on the left, ya'll keep getting your ass handed to you by folks whose strategy is guided by a clearer, more coherent (even if deeply flawed) philosophy.

Posted by: Will Wilkinson | Feb 22, 2005 5:31:03 PM

Phil, It's you!

Posted by: Will Wilkinson | Feb 22, 2005 5:31:37 PM

Gareth, If such are my entailments, then I thus contradict myself.

* Insurance is possible.
* Risk-aversion can be rational.
* A promise to pay can be an asset as long as it isn't a promise to pay yourself, in which case I'm a bona fide bgooglezillionaire.

You may now use these contradictions to validly derive any proposition you like from my arguments, such as, "There is life on Neptune" or "Jen will always love Brad," etc.

I think we must have some disagreement over the meaning of "actually works."

Posted by: Will Wilkinson | Feb 22, 2005 5:42:15 PM

Is it me, or has the phrase "statist liberalism" become as pathetically cliche as the phrase "red america."

Posted by: fnook | Feb 22, 2005 5:44:55 PM

Fnook, It's you!

(I could do this all day!)

Posted by: Will Wilkinson | Feb 22, 2005 5:50:46 PM

You see the phrase "statist liberalism" used a lot? Do you spend all of your time reading Virginia Postrel?
I would like to see that phrase used much more, at least if it could be opposed to "anti-statist conservatism." I take it that would be anarchy standing athwart the train of history yelling "halt!" Even better, I'd like to see it opposed by "anti-statist illiberalism" which I imagine as the form of anarchy which minimizes freedom. I'm not really sure what "form of anarchy" means. Maybe I should read more Proudhon.

Posted by: washerdreyer | Feb 22, 2005 5:55:04 PM

RE: Update: Matt, Isn't Tomasky's point that losing elections and lacking philosophical coherence are related? The "malaise of liberalism" pertains to strategy via philosophy.

Posted by: Will Wilkinson | Feb 22, 2005 5:59:06 PM

Will may be a punk, but he's smart, and he makes me laugh.

Posted by: cmas | Feb 22, 2005 6:02:46 PM

Matt, any response to Will's original question?

I find the Tomasky article through Matt, who I would love to hear attempt to articulate a philosophy. I know what Matt is for, but I can never really make out why. I know Matt is some kind of utilitarian. That's silly, but, well, utilitarians will always be among us, so what can you do? What I clamor for is the story of how Yglesian liberalism maximizes net utility? Come on Matt! Your people need you!

Posted by: Peter | Feb 22, 2005 6:05:11 PM

I'd love to hear Will tell us why utilitarianism as a political philosophy is silly. It's certainly on better grounds, silliness-wise, than "I've got a moral right to a tax cut."

Posted by: cmas | Feb 22, 2005 6:23:14 PM

washerdreyer, the proper counter-epithet is "Hooverite."

Posted by: praktike | Feb 22, 2005 6:25:11 PM

cmas, It's silly because there are many incommensurable kinds of value, and because it doesn't provide public principles that reasonable people can't reasonably reject.

Posted by: Will Wilkinson | Feb 22, 2005 6:35:00 PM


Hoover was a one of the greatest humanitarians of American history, a great Iowan, and the able Secretary of Commerce for two of America's greatest presidents, Harding and Coolidge.

Unfortunately, as President, he was unnerved by the crash and implemented a tragic tax & spend economic policy. As Wikipedia helpfully tells us:

During the 1932 elections, Franklin Delano Roosevelt blasted the Republican incumbent for spending and taxing too much, increasing national debt, raising tariffs and blocking trade, as well as placing millions on the dole of the government. He attacked Herbert Hoover for "reckless and extravagant" spending, of thinking "that we ought to center control of everything in Washington as rapidly as possible," and of leading "the greatest spending administration in peacetime in all of history." Roosevelt's running mate, John Nance Garner, accused the Republican of "leading the country down the path of socialism".

Oy, too much government for FDR! If only Hoover had remained a Hooverite, I would be proud to be one!

Posted by: Will Wilkinson | Feb 22, 2005 6:41:36 PM

"Matt, You're mixing up the strategy/philosophy issue here. . . . I wasn't saying, "If only the left would adopt my politics, they would have strategic success." I was saying, if only the left would adopt my politics, they'd have a coherent philosophy."

Nice try, Will. You were very clearly attributing the American liberalism's political misfortune's to its alleged lack of intellectual coherence: "[T]he intellectual vacuity of the left allows the conservative juggernaut to pick up speed unimpeded." The fact that defending state programs such as SS--even in the absence of a coherent framework for doing so--is politically popular does, in fact, contradict your argument.

Posted by: AF | Feb 22, 2005 6:58:50 PM

Will, do you have public principles that (a) reasonable people can't reject and (b) are of use in deciding matters of present public controversy? If so, lay them down.

Posted by: Gareth | Feb 22, 2005 7:07:32 PM

"If only Hoover had remained a Hooverite, I would be proud to be one!"

Ha, ha.

Posted by: praktike | Feb 22, 2005 7:16:42 PM

The Right's advantage is that its coalition is more homogenous. This is a function of all the white married Christians out there.

The Right obviously does have philosophical contradictions. But they don't matter too much because the kind of person who likes the Right's economic policies overlaps so well with the kind of person who likes its foreign and cultural policies.

Will is a more consistent thinker than those folks, but I don't see him leading any mass political movement.

The Democrats' natural constituencies are those who have some problem with the Republican base. But these problems come in many varieties.

It's easy to come up with left-of-centre political philosophies (heck, there are whole faculties of people doing nothing else). It's harder to get the kind of person who wants reparations for slavery to see eye-to-eye with the kind of person who wants to keep out Canadian timber. And neither is really going to have much in common with our generous host.

(In Canada, this same problem is felt most by the right. Quebec nationalists and Anglo conservatives have ocasionally united to overthrow the Liberals, but their coalition is so heterogenous that it is hard to keep together.)

Posted by: Gareth | Feb 22, 2005 7:18:28 PM

The Right's advantage is that its coalition is more homogenous.

No way..

Social conservatives are as happy as pig's in shit right now. Fiscal conservatives are beginning to understand that the elected ones have absolutely no intention of actually reducing the size of government, just giving them some market-friendly sort of face (and the honest among them will realize if not admit at a greater cost to the budget than just having people straight on the dole). Their whole ideology is going nowhere and maybe backwards when their party holds all the strings of power. Something has to give, they can only keep putting that Ted Kennedy dummy up and knocking it down for so long before they just give up.

Posted by: Ed Marshall | Feb 22, 2005 7:24:50 PM

Will Wilkinson, a promise to pay yourself is an asset, however it is offset by a corresponding liability.

Posted by: James B. Shearer | Feb 22, 2005 7:26:11 PM

These analogies are stupid.

The U.S. government isn't some guy with a checkbook and thinking of it that way leads absolutely nowhere.

Posted by: Ed Marshall | Feb 22, 2005 7:30:29 PM

"cmas, It's silly because there are many incommensurable kinds of value, and because it doesn't provide public principles that reasonable people can't reasonably reject."

Fortunately we live in a democracy, the full totality of reasonable people don't have to accept public principles - only the majority of them. Whether utilitarianism is "right" is besides the point; whether it can work effectively is the issue. It not only can, but it does.

Posted by: cmas | Feb 22, 2005 7:42:31 PM

This is a huge topic, and one that is close to my heart. My own background is in philosophy, and I have taught it for about 20 years now.

In my view, the contemporary establishment left - the policy wonks, administrators, lawyers, journalists, academics, strategists and bureacrats who appear to be the dominant powers in the Democratic party - are on the whole an intellectually and spiritually impoverished lot. I know that's a harsh and very sweeping judgment, and I'm sure we all personally know many, many individual exceptions. Some of them leave comments here on Matt's blog. But I do think it is true at the general level, at the present time.

That isn't to say they are not very intelligent and clever - even thoughtful - people, but many seem to suffer from a debilitating shallowness. They are like agile, fast-moving skiffs, that are always eventually outmaneuvered and overpowered by neoconservative dreadnoughts, which lie deeper in the water, have a more elevated and commanding view of the field of battle, and more heft. As someone who has been involved in education my whole adult life, I feel a share of the collective burden for this growing imbecility on the left.

Here are some non-very-systematic suggestions about the possible causes of the problem:

* Personally, I think much has to do with the ascendency of "voices" over theory in liberal intellectual life, and the rise of an anti-rational, anti-scientific and incoherent lit-crit approach to understanding the world. The result is an addled and degenerate intellectual style. Although you might be able to score an immediate-term hit on Crossfire with the sort of dilletantism and sophistry this style cultivates, leftists of this stamp are inept in arguments with serious people, due to a combination of logical incapacity, and a dull grasp of history, theory and fundamental human realities.

* An undue emphasis, in those fields of higher education aimed toward preparation for professional life, on technocratic refinement and extensions of existing approaches. This comes at the expense of history, philosophy, science and deep engagement through close reading and critical analysis with a few great minds, and promotes instead a superficial, impulsive and reactive engagement with an abundance of mediocre minds.

* A noisy, information-saturated social environment, which results in certain intellectual deficits: difficulty in sustained Socratic self-examination, in mastering difficult, systematic intellectual achievements, and in achieving states of profound contemplation. Our contemprary culture instead fosters a contrary tendency toward a jittery, distracted, triviality-crammed, impulsive and reactive intellectual life.

* An instititutional dependency on entrenched bureaucracies and established power centers. This leads to a sort of automatism. Prisoners of the established liberal order, having only a dim conception of overall longterm (I mean really LONGterm) goals, feel a perpetual conflict between aimlessly hanging on to established liberal security blankets, or succumbing to the seductions of less routinized right-wing ideological innovations.

* The casualies of modern capitalism - an economic system which pushes people into a dependent, concupiscent consumerist posture in which they race from pleasure to pleasure, and fatalistically accept that all large social change is inherently unpredictable, and driven by the distributed, desire-driven inventiveness of the pimping market. In this view of the world, the role of politics is just pragmatic problem-solving: responding in an ad hoc way to the frictions and difficulties that emerge as the inherently insane and undirected capitalist leviathan rampages through history, fueled by the energy of the short-term satisfaction of impulsive desires and immediately pressing needs. This is dramatically in contrast to much of the liberalism of the early 20th century, which emphasized the capacity of human beings to entertain long-term historical alternatives, and choose their own destiny.

Many on the establishment left today actually strike me as the ultimate conservatives, people who have a comfortable standard of living, face no grave threats to their way of life, and concern themselves only with making extremely modest improvements at the margin to a system of life which is basically OK.

On the other hand, much of the "progressive" left - a label I sometimes apply to myself because it is a struggle to find a better one that means anything to anyone - as opposed to the establishment left, is indeed more passionate and outraged about broad and deep social problems, but is currently theory-impaired and vision-bereft. It is thus left with only a frustrated sense of anger and resentment, justifiably convinced that the other guys are very, very wrong, but without their own vision of what is right - a vision that goes beyond an emotional resistance to some recent right-wing assault. With no clear conception of progress, perhaps a better label for them would be "digressives" or "passive-aggressives", rather than "progressives".

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Feb 22, 2005 7:52:06 PM

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