Why Statism Is the Wrong Frame

by Conor Friedersdorf

Matt Yglesias writes:

A colleague mentioned to me the other day that I’m “pretty conservative” on some state and local government issues, with reference to some recent posts on occupational licensing. Someone on twitter asked if I’m trying to score a date with a Cato staffer. I’m not. And I’m not. And I think that whole framing represents a bad way of understanding the whole situation.

I think it’s pretty clear that, as a historical matter of fact, the main thing “the state” has been used to do is to help the wealthy and powerful further enrich and entrench themselves. Think Pharaoh and his pyramids. Or more generally the fancy houses of European nobility, the plantations of Old South slave-owners, or Imelda Marcos’ shoes. The “left-wing” position is to be against this stuffto be on the side of the people and against the forces of privilege. It’s true that some useful egalitarian activism over the past 150 years has consisted of trying to get the state to take affirmative steps to help peoplesocial insurance, the welfare state, infrastructure, schoolsbut dismantling efforts to use the state to help the privileged has always been on the agenda. Don’t think to yourself “we need to regulate carbon emissions therefore regulation is good therefore regulation of barbers is good.” Think to yourself “we can’t let the privileged trample all over everyone, therefore we need to regulate carbon emissions and we need to break the dentists’ cartel.”

Awhile back, when I reviewed Liberty and Tyranny by Mark Levin, I argued that its fatal flaw was its author's insistence on the straw man that today's liberals are fundamentally driven by Statism, whereas actually what motivates most of them is a substantially different project. The passage above is a neat illustration of that point. If you're trying to actually 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. 

This isn't to say that progressives never support unjustified state intervention. That some do is implicit in the excerpted post. So is the fact that despite differences in first principles, a conservative, a libertarian and a progressive might very well come to agreement on certain matters, like the fact that dentists' cartels should be broken.

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Being someone who understands progressives, Mr. Yglesias makes the case for deregulation in terms likely to appeal to his colleagues on the left. What would be nice is if more people on the right could be similarly persuasive. Of course, capitalizing on common ground or winning converts on individual issues requires an accurate understanding of what motivates people with different ideologies, so it isn't surprising that a Yglesias fan invoked Cato in that Tweet. It's a place where several staffers are daily deepening our understanding of where liberals and libertarians can work together. Should a loose left-right alliance succeed in reducing state power in the realm of professional licensing or asset forfeiture or sugar subsidies or surveillance, Mark Levin and his followers will still be insisting that Statism is what motivates the modern liberal. This error could be mitigated if the conservative movement subjected the work of its entertainers to greater intellectual rigor. To its credit, The Weekly Standard published a serious review of Liberty and Tyranny that grappled with its core flaw, whereas too many other outlets -- usually serious ones included -- failed to do so.