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