Why Statism Is the Wrong Frame, Cont'd

by Conor Friedersdorf

In an item yesterday, I argued that if you're trying to understand someone like Matt Yglesias, whether to effectively argue against his views or to engage him persuasively, the frames of "statism" and "liberty versus tyranny" are almost completely useless. Let's revisit why this is so. Mr. Yglesias favors deregulating various professional cartels, ending the legally proscribed monopoly on buses that some urban public transit agencies enjoy, reforming America's absurd system of agricultural subsidies, and making it easier for developers to build in accordance with the local demand for real estate, rather than government imposed zoning restrictions. (Odds are he subscribes to even more free-market friendly policies that the right embraces. That's just off the top of my head.)

Mr. Yglesias is neither a conservative nor a libertarian, as his approach to more consequential issues like health care policy demonstrates. On all sorts of policy questions, in fact, he favors a much larger federal role in American life than I do, putting us at odds all the time. Nor does he support the free market positions listed above because he has embraced the right's first principles on those issues: he is, after all, one of America's leading progressive bloggers.

Why does he favor some policies that conservatives like? And can we identify more of them for the sake of strategic alliances? We'll never know if, upon learning that he is a liberal, we automatically presume that he is a "statist," or even more absurdly, that he prefers tyranny to liberty. Those are unserious buzz words that sell books, not a realistic portrait of American liberals, a group that encompasses many people farther right than Mr. Yglesias.

In his response to yesterday's item, Mark Levin betrays his ongoing inability to understand any of this. He writes:

Idiot stalker.

This is so pathetic. So a liberal blogger favors regulation in some respect, and this proves to Friedersdork that my characterizing the general left-wing enterprise as statist is unhelpful - to Friedersdork. So, the fact that the liberal blogger isn't advancing big-government arguments ALL THE TIME demonstrates the inaccuracy of referring to his agenda as statist. This is the line that grabs your attention -- "dismantling efforts to use the state to help the privileged has always been on the agenda." Really? So, before we get to this workers' paradise, we need this big state to sort things out. And, of course, at some point it will dissolve itself. Has anyone heard this stupidity before? And how will this occur. Marx does not tell us. His buddy Engels tried, but he failed miserably as well. This is not to say that those who post such things are Marxists. It is to say they are ignorant. Statism is the perfect word to describe them. Liberty and tyranny are the perfect words to explain them.

Let's be perfectly clear about why the "statist" frame is misleading:

The desired end of Matthew Yglesias isn't to grow the American state. On some issues, he sees a bigger state as a necessary means to an end he desires (like using subsidies to increase the percentage of Americans covered by some form of health insurance), and on other issues he favors taking power away from the state. It is useful to understand these distinctions, even if you think, as I do, that the federal government should be much smaller than Mr. Yglesias would have it.

Mr. Levin could mount a better defense of his pet term if his book merely argued that anyone who wants government to grow for any reason is a statist, but if you look at how he actually defines the term, ends are clearly implicated, and the notion that it describes the average American liberal becomes laughable. I'll cite page numbers from the hardcover text, where we learn that the statist “has an insatiable appetite for control… is constantly agitating for government action… speaks in the tongue of the demagogue… veils his pursuits in moral indignation…. and is never circumspect about his own shortcomings” (page 8). Qualities antithetical to the statist include “initiative, self-reliance, and independence” (page 9).  “The Statist often justifies change as conferring new, abstract rights, which is nothing more than a Statist deception intended to empower the state and deny man his real rights” (page 14). “The Statist is dissatisfied with the condition of his own existence… he is angry, resentful, petulant, and jealous.” (page 15) “For the Statist, liberty is not a blessing but the enemy” (page 16). “The Statist urges Americans to view themselves through the lens of those who resent and even hate them… The Statist wants Americans to see themselves as backward” (page 18). “

The book goes on like that, with “The Statist” vexed by the Declaration of Independence in the chapter "On Faith and the Founding," falsely promising utopianism in the chapter "On the Constitution," and in the chapter "On Federalism," taking advantage of the 14th amendment as “a pathway to his precious Utopia where, in the end, all are enslaved in one form or another.” So again, returning to my original point, if you're trying to understand someone like Matt Yglesias, the frame of statism -- as defined by Mark Levin -- is almost completely useless. (Note: In another item on his Facebook page, Mr. Levin implies that he has persuasively rebutted my criticism, echoed in The Weekly Standard, that he argues against straw men in his book, but unless I am missing something, the issue is completely unaddressed in the various links he provides.)