Bloggers Debate Political Philosophy 101

A libertarian and two progressives tackle the big questions in an unusually thoughtful exchange.

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In the past few days, amid the millions screaming health-care slogans past each others’ hunched, screen-lit shoulders, three voices have emerged in an unusually thoughtful discussion about the debate’s broader questions.

How effective are free markets at accomplishing societal goals? If free markets are ineffective, are governments more so? And what goals are we talking about, anyway? Arnold Kling, a libertarian, and Tyler Cowen and Matthew Yglesias, liberals of a progressive persuasion, have been offering their thoughts on the subject.

Libertarians tend to find the tyranny of the free market preferable to the tyranny of the government, and Kling is no exception; while acknowledging the sub-optimal performance of markets, and that an economist who could do better would “deserve a shot,” Kling notes that technocrats in general “know far less than they think they know”--a reasonable point, given the testimony of the recent financial crisis. “Markets fail,” Kling concludes: “Use markets.” Tyler Cowen and Matthew Yglesias have responded with traditional American liberal points about equity. Here is the discussion as it has unfolded thus far:

August 6: Do Progressives Believe This?  Arnold Kling, Econlog libertarian, attempts a five-tenet summary of progressivism. “If as a Progressive," he writes, "you believe (1)-(3) [the sub-optimal outcomes of markets and the superior performance of technocrats] but think (4)[ceding authority to technocrats in many areas] sounds totalitarian, then that is your dilemma, not mine.” He says he welcomes feedback.

August 7: What Is Progressivism?  Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution takes Kling at his word, posting an eleven-point “outsider’s perspective … on what progressives believe or perhaps should believe.” He argues that Europe provides a tried-and-true “better way,” that the security provided by progressivism actually allows for more individualism and freedom, and that “limiting inequality will do more to check bad governance than will the quixotic libertarian attempt to limit the size of government.” He ends by wishing to see a progressive summarize libertarianism.

August 7: America!  Matthew Yglesias responds to Cowen, noting that not all American progressives are trying to make the U.S. “like Europe.” The U.S. does a lot of things better than Europe, he argues, citing immigration policy and American diversity.

August 8: What Is Libertarianism?  Yglesias decides to attempt Cowen’s suggested summary of libertarianism, and comes up with some problems with progressive internationalism along the way. On libertarianism, he delivers a thoughtfully stinging one-liner: “There’s strong evidence to believe that people who overestimate their own efficacy in life wind up doing better than those with more accurate perceptions.”

August 9: Back to U.S.-Europe  Cowen makes an interesting point: “The non-progressive nature of many aspects of America—by encouraging economic dynamism—helps Europe to be as progressive as it is. That’s an argument for American capitalism that both libertarians and progressives ought to feel slightly uncomfortable with, yet in my view it is compelling.”

August 10: Progressivism—My Most Generous Interpretation  Kling, “inspired by Tyler Cowen,” decides to re-do his progressivism post, calling progressives “the proud heirs to a tradition of experiments in public policy that brought about significant social improvements” like abolition, civil rights, women’s rights, and birth control. Still, he writes that “the current progressive agenda” seems headed, in terms of probable immediate success, more towards Prohibition than Civil Rights.

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