Liberals, Ideology, and Big Government

Several years ago, in a piece that's long since vanished into The New Republic's world-devouring archives, Jon Chait suggested that liberalism was, by its very nature, more pragmatic and less ideological than conservatism. (As you may remember, this contention was not met with universal agreement from thinkers to his right.) The nub of his argument ran as follows:

We're accustomed to thinking of liberalism and conservatism as parallel ideologies, with conservatives preferring less government and liberals preferring more. The equivalency breaks down, though, when you consider that liberals never claim that increasing the size of government is an end in itself. Liberals only support larger government if they have some reason to believe that it will lead to material improvement in people's lives. Conservatives also want material improvement in people's lives, of course, but proving that their policies can produce such an outcome is a luxury, not a necessity.

The contrast between economic liberalism and economic conservatism, then, ultimately lies not only in different values or preferences but in different epistemologies. Liberalism is a more deeply pragmatic governing philosophy--more open to change, more receptive to empiricism, and ultimately better at producing policies that improve the human condition--than conservatism.

The piece concluded with a bold prediction, which seems worth re-examining now that the Democrats are actually running the government:

Bush's administration gives primacy to political advisers over policy wonks in large part because they have no need to debate their ends, only the means of achieving them ... The next liberal administration, whenever it happens, will not be nearly so certain. Aside from rolling back conservative excesses, its economic agenda will take its cue from external events, and the decisions it arrives at could, in time, be cast aside through experimentation. Ultimately, those policies, whether they move left or right, will be measured against their effect on people's lives, not the degree to which they bring the government closer to some long-ago agreed-upon vision. In time, those policies will be altered yet again to suit a changing world. This is known as progress.

We're only two weeks into the new age of liberalism, but so far, Chait's been utterly vindicated, don't you think? Indeed, the above paragraph strikes me as a near-perfect distillation of the process that has produced the current stimulus package: A clear-eyed, cool-headed, non-ideological pragmatism, untouched by any pre-existing wish lists or biases. 

I'm being sarcastic, obviously. Yet of course there are many, many smart liberals - from Paul Krugman to, well, Barack Obama - who would say that Chait has been vindicated, because whatever its faults the stimulus bill is ultimately non-ideological: Shoveling vast amounts of money out the door is simply what you do in circumstances like these if you want to avoid utter economic calamity. The money-shovelers are empiricists, in other words, and their opponents are know-nothings.

But this is one of the many, many cases where the Chait thesis breaks down, because of course the empirical conclusions that undergird the pell-mell rush to spend as much money as possible are eminently contestable, and the contest tends to break down along, well, ideological lines.So smart liberals are more likely to find the Keynesian model persuasive (and crack jokes about the need for "Keynesian reeducation camps" to get the voting public on board), smart libertarians and conservatives are more likely to raise doubts about its track record - and the question of which comes first, the ideology or the empirical analysis, is essentially unanswerable. Some people are Keynesians because they find the case for stimulus persuasive, presumably; some people find the evidence for Keynesianism persuasive because they're liberals, and thus predisposed to support government spending in general; and many people fall somewhere in between. And the same goes on the other side: I like to think that I'm interested in evidence-based policymaking, but I'm sure that I wouldn't find Tyler Cowen and Greg Mankiw's stimulus skepticism half so persuasive if I weren't already predisposed to tilt against trillion-dollar boosts to big government. In either case, where you place the burden of proof - about the stimulus, or about any government intervention to come - depends on the philosophical premises you start with.

This is not to say that there aren't degrees of ideology and degrees of pragmatism, or that some thinkers and some politicians aren't more empirical than others. And it's certainly possible to imagine - and hope for, from this administration - a liberalism that's more pragmatic and evidence-based than was George W. Bush's conservatism. But the debates that have dominated the first two weeks of the Obama Presidency ought to be an object lesson in why ideological preconceptions always matter, no matter how empirically-minded you aspire to be.

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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