The Triumph of Reality-Based Politics


What a blog spat over barber licensing teaches us about ideological movements

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Matt Yglesias, the progressive blogger, doesn't think that a barber's license should be required to cut hair. "I see breaking up the barber cartel and increasing competition for barbering services as a progressive measure," he writes, "because if you reduce the cost of things that poor people buy, you increase their real living standards."

It's a position that provokes a lot of dissent among his left-leaning readers. Some of them assert that cartels raise wages. But something bigger is going on too, or so Yglesias hypothesizes in an astute item about the undue influence political adversaries exert on progressive policy stances:

I think part of what bugs people about the barber issue is that they've developed the implicit view that for progressive politics to succeed we need to raise the social status of "big government," and that it's counterproductive to this mission to highlight any misguided "big government" initiatives. It's acceptable to criticize excessive spending on the military and on prisons, because the conservative critique of "big government" often exempts those institutions.

But if conservatives attack "regulation," then "regulation" must be defended or, when indefensible, ignored. My view is that this is backwards, and that the public is skeptical about supporting "big government" precisely because they doubt that its advocates are invested in ensuring that higher taxes will lead to quality services. Progressive insouciance about the question of whether or not regulations are, in fact, serving the public interest feeds cynicism about the role of the state.

That's an important insight.

Among insiders, politics may seem like a contest between ideological adversaries who lose ground anytime one side concedes that there is some wisdom in the other's worldview, or even that they're right about a discrete empirical question. But that is a mindset most common among people who argue on political blogs, watch cable news shout fests, or spar over politics during Thursday evening happy hour.

Most people are not like that.

The obstinacy that Yglesias describes isn't unique to progressives. Many conservatives are loath to acknowledge even legitimate complaints of racism because they think it'll disadvantage them in ongoing arguments about its prevalence and the appropriateness of policy responses. Some libertarians are loath to acknowledge the benefits of environmental laws like lead reductions in the 1970s or clean air efforts in California. Other examples abound. 

This fear of giving ground is particularly irrational given how these situations usually play out. If you're conversing with someone who has dissimilar ideological beliefs, and they're willing to make occasional concessions to reality, your reaction, if you're like most people, is to be more open to their ideas and insights, not to take their admission as evidence that their worldview is bankrupt.

Every ideology is prone to absurdity when it becomes too disconnected from reality. In American politics, even small ideological failures are accompanied by self-satisfied people from an opposing camp gloating about how laughably wrong their adversaries are. Admitting error is therefore psychologically harder, but it is no less useful. Best to ignore the gloating and get on with the business of refining your ideas. Real world success isn't just the most valuable boost an ideology can get.

It ought to be the end goal too.

Image credit: Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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