Russ Roberts

Yuval Levin Postmortem

EconTalk Extra
by Russ Roberts
Continuing Conversation... Yuv... McAfee, McArdle, and Ohanian o...

I want to respond to a number of interesting comments and add some thoughts on the episode with Yuval Levin.

First, Yuval Levin is a superb expositor. His ability to give a nuanced and detailed analysis of the thinking of two great men is rare. I really enjoyed it. I knew little about either man and learned a great deal both from his book and the conversation.

One thing I learned came out in the dynamic of the conversation. It's one of the best things about being the host of EconTalk--things that emerge from the conversation unplanned. In this case it was the idea of being torn between the two thinkers, Paine and Burke. One is more of an idealist and one is more of a realist. We all have both sides in us and the conversation reminded of that tension in my own thinking. I have a utopian side and a side that knows that even good policy can have some very bad unexpected consequences. On paper, the French Revolution looks great. In reality, not so great.

On to the comments. Greg McIsaac makes an excellent point--there are a lot of conservatives today who don't aren't defensive about their views and who act confidently about holding the moral high ground--Cruz, Paul, Norquist, etc. But most (almost all or all?) of these men appeal to the choir. They don't have widespread appeal among in independents or moderates. The so-called conservatives who have wider appeal (Romney for example) are very uneasy being proud of being capitalists or even successful in the case of Romney. I found it fascinating that Romney was pummeled for his wealth and his response, I think, was to just hope people wouldn't notice. My guess is that most Republican candidates for President going back to Bush I oppose increasing the minimum wage. But I also feel (and maybe I am wrong here) that there opposition is apologetic and they are uneasy. It's just one example and maybe not a good one. Greg might counter that these candidates are not conservative and I think that's right. But why aren't they? Why can't they articulate a conservative (or free-market) vision that appeals to the masses? So they move to the center.

Steven said I made three pronouncements:

1) The government should have no involvement in medical care. We should eliminate Medicare and Medicaid, and private charities will "blossom" to address the needs of those who can't afford medical care.

2) Untrammeled capitalism has been a great boon to the poor, and by implication, we should have untrammeled capitalism.

3) The past successes of capitalism doesn't enter the discussion at all. I'm assuming that Russ is referring to discussions among liberals and progressives?

I think I meant by the third point that we treat the present as a sort of blank slate ignoring what allowed us to achieve the prosperity we have now. I think most progressives attribute the incredible availability of widespread prosperity in the second half of the 20th century to so-called progressive legislation--maximum hour laws, minimum wages, labor unions and so on. I've seen that claim made explicitly more than once. I think it's a very hard claim to substantiate. Most of the widespread prosperity of the 20th century was made possible by incredible leaps in productivity via innovation (point 2). Those policies had little or nothing to do with that productivity. And some went in the other direction. The progressives then have to argue that those policies made sure the gains from the productivity were widespread. I think that's still a difficult case to make. Maybe. But it's not obvious to me. For me much of the abolition of poverty and certainly the abolition of subsistence living in the West comes from emergent forces of trade and exchange, investment, risk-taking and so on. That doesn't mean good government had nothing to do with it. Of course it did. Government plays an important role in helping people help each other. But that role is usually much smaller than most progressives favor.

Point 1 is a much longer discussion. You can hear part of it at the very end of the Paul Tough episode which was a real eye-opener for me as to how people feel about top-down vs. bottom-up. I would like to devote an episode to EconTalk to defending the idea of private charity replacing public welfare.

John writes:

This is the second time this week that Russ has said there is no "together" or "we" in government (see the second page of this article: House of Cards )

I don't understand this point of view. Government is not perfect and we (or the government) have made many mistakes, but we (or the government) have many successes too. To claim that there is no together in a democratic government seems to be a silly statement despite our disagreements.

John, the fact that you don't understand this point of view is why I keep repeating it. But obviously it's not as self-evident as I think it is. My problem. Here's my attempt to clarify. You seem to conflate "government is when we work together" with "government does some good stuff. Of course, government does some good stuff. And some bad stuff. My point is that some people tend to romanticize all that government does arguing that government is just us after all, it does what we want.

But that's simply not true. We don't choose to limit foreign sugar coming into the United States in order to enrich a handful of families in Florida (growing sugar cane) and the Dakotas (growing sugar beets.) That isn't our decision in any sense of the word "our" or "decision." We don't decide to keep subsidizing farmers who grow corn with America's policies toward ethanol. We didn't even decide to put a man on the moon, something I enjoyed but can't justify forcing other people to pay for. When we use the shorthand "we decided" to describe political outcomes, we are masking what is really going on and giving it a gloss it does not deserve.

That doesn't mean some things shouldn't go through the political process or that some things the government does lead to much better outcomes than if left them to voluntary bottom-up outcomes. That doesn't follow. But let's not pretend that what comes out of Washington is what "we want." It isn't. The American political system is a complex process involving 536 members of Congress and one President along with thousands of bureaucrats and administrators. It does a great job at some things. But that job comes out of that complex structure and not us working together in any sense of the words "us" and "together."

In contrast, when my wife and I make a meal for a family that has just had a baby, that is working together. When my son's basketball team has a nice comeback, that is five kids working together even though we recognize that some of the five may be more important than the others. I want to reserve the phrase "us working together" for those kind of voluntary activities that involve a group of people working toward a common objective. There is no such thing in the political process like that and we shouldn't pretend that there is.

Comments and Sharing

CATEGORIES: Extras (199)

TWITTER: Follow Russ Roberts @EconTalker

COMMENTS (26 to date)
Miles writes:

Russ - thanks for the clarifications, especially the extended bit on "there is no we in government". It seems to me that you're comparing apples and oranges. When you say that the federal government doesn't do what "we" want, some of that is a function of its size. Virtually any organization, when it reaches a certain size, can not claim to represent completely the wishes of all of its members. There certainly are mechanisms in our public institutions for public input, and these can (at times) change the institutions behavior. There are other problems (coercion, corruption, etc.), but that doesn't mean the public at large can't work together through public organizations.

Regarding public charities replacing public services like Medicare - I would enjoy an EconTalk program on that topic. I'm sceptical that charities would be able to address the needs and would welcome a deeper discussion.

Steven writes:

Some quick responses:

Russ wrote: "I found it fascinating that Romney was pummeled for his wealth"

"Pummeling" wealthy politicians (and others, such as the Koch brothers) is nothing new. In fact, it's so old and common it's a cliché. It's part and parcel of the empty political and economic rhetoric I often refer to. Russ, I'm afraid I don't share your fascination with it. :-) That being said, yes, of course, some wealthy political candidates feel that it's necessary to explain or even apologize for their wealth. There's nothing new about that either. They have to pretend they're "one of us," or, at the very least, that they care about "us" (i.e. the 99%).

Russ wrote: "Why can't they articulate a conservative (or free-market) vision that appeals to the masses? So they move to the center."

I think they have articulated it. Some of it has appealed to the masses and some steps have been taken in the "free-market" direction in past decades. But while we've been experimenting with some of those free-market policies, we've also been dealing with a lot of serious problems.

The thing is, it would be really hard to convince "the masses" that the primary reason we're dealing with such serious economic problems today is because we haven't had enough free-market policies since, say, the 1980s. It could hardly be said that the American labor market hasn't been "flexible" since the 1980s.

Russ wrote: "I think most progressives attribute the incredible availability of widespread prosperity in the second half of the 20th century to so-called progressive legislation--maximum hour laws, minimum wages, labor unions and so on"

I don't agree that "most" progressives think in such a simplistic way. Of course, one hears such rhetoric from some progressives, but one hears a lot of superficial, simplistic rhetoric from all camps, and, more annoyingly, from the mainstream media.

Russ wrote: "Those policies had little or nothing to do with that productivity."

I don't know a single progressive who denies the tremendous economic benefits derived from productivity gains. Russ, perhaps you're listening to the wrong progressives. Maybe each time you have a progressive guest on your program, you can ask about this?

Russ wrote: "Government plays an important role in helping people help each other. But that role is usually much smaller than most progressives favor."

On the topic of helping people in need, the progressives I know are open to discussion and persuasion. I'm not at all sure that progressives favor government solutions over private solutions. If private solutions are available, I think most progressives would favor them. You may disagree with me on that, but again I would encourage you to ask this question when you have a progressive guest.

Russ wrote: "I would like to devote an episode to EconTalk to defending the idea of private charity replacing public welfare."

I can't tell you how much I look forward to that. And if I may be selfish, I'd like to ask if you could make it an extended episode, at least two hours? Or, you could always write a book about it, Russ. :-)

I'm tempted to say something about the "we" in government, but I want to allow John to respond to that before I do.

Thanks, Russ! I tell everyone you've got the best econ program, certainly a lot meatier than Planet Money and Freakonomics (though for what they are, they're decent, entertaining programs).

Greg G writes:

Mitt Romney was not "pummeled for his wealth." He was pummeled for being hopelessly out of touch and showing contempt for those who are not wealthy. After insulting 47% of the country he said explicitly: "My job is not to worry about those people."

Russ, you are quick to point out (and rightly so) that a lot of people move quickly in and out off the top 1% or top 10% of earners in their lifetimes. Romney seemed utterly unaware that even more people move in and out of the 47%.

Another famous example of how out of touch he is happened when he advised young people who need a job to simply borrow money from their parents and start a business. He didn't show any recognition that most parents can't afford to lend their kids enough money to start a business.

The fact is economic success is revered in America. There are few presidential contenders in either party who are not wealthy. Does anyone think that Donald Trump has any talent other than a demonstrated ability to make money that would qualify him to be a presidential nominee? Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are very popular figures. Just about every rap video and television show celebrates wealth and conspicuous consumption. But no one celebrates being hopelessly out of touch with ordinary people.

Greg McIsaac writes:

Dr. Roberts,

thank you for explaining what you meant by your comments about defensiveness. I won't counter by saying that certain people are not conservative because I think these broad labels like conservative, left, right, progressive, cause more misunderstanding than understanding.

I think your question might be more productively framed as follows: "why aren't the non-defensive advocates of free market principles (e.g., Ted Cruz, Rand and Ron Paul, Grover Nordquist, etc.) more popular? I think some well designed surveys might shed some light on this question.

I suspect some of the current unpopularity of free market advocates among independents and moderates might relate to the unpopularity of George W. Bush and the financial collapse that occurred on his watch. The popularity of free market principles seemed much greater during and after Ronald Reagan's presidency, probably because of the economic expansion that occurred from 1982 to 1990. GW Bush employed some of the same rhetoric and policies and the economic results were not the same. Maybe Reagan's rhetoric and policies were not leading causes of the economic expansion from 1982-90. I think many conservatives do not appreciate how much the 1982-90 expansion might have been due to falling energy prices. I wrote about that here

I suspect moderates and independents are more responsive to economic results rather than ideological arguments. But since cause and effect are often unclear in economics, moderates and conservatives tend to favor the party in power during the last expansion, or vote against the party in power during the last recession.

I think the minimum wage debate is a good example of the problems with broad labels like conservative, left and right. Romney recently came out in favor of raising the federal minimum wage, even though he is not running for anything. GW Bush favored raising the minimum wage when he was president and was supported by 58 Republicans in Congress. Both Romney and Bush also have free market sympathies.

I think part of Romney's argument for raising the minimum wage is that it gives employers greater incentives invest in productivity enhancements, and it gives workers more incentive to compete for the jobs that are available.

The part of the discussion with Yuval Levin that I most appreciated was when he described policy debates as mostly occurring within the 40 yard lines, where there is a lot of agreement between opposing sides. In this view the debate is about how much to invest in education, military, health care, etc.

But when the debate is framed in broad categories of "left" vs. "right" then the policy specifics get very blurred if not obliterated and there is a tendency to focus on the fringe characters who stand at the goal lines of the opposing sides who are largely irrelevant to policy choices, at least in the short term.

Mike writes:

Dr. Roberts - I do agree with your point that any meaningful use of 'us' has to involve identifiable, particular, people in our 'circle of sympathy.' However I just wanted to add a historical footnote to the conversation.

In regards to the position that the government is 'us' I think Thomas Hobbes makes the earliest (that I know of) and clearest articulation of this position. While the whole of Leviathan speaks to this idea, this section from Chapter 18, part 4, makes the point most clearly as flowing from the idea of a 'social contract.' Hobbes at least can't be plausibly accused of 'romanticizing' government!

(Italics mine)
4. The Soveraigns Actions Cannot Be Justly Accused By The Subject

Fourthly, because every Subject is by this Institution Author of all the Actions, and Judgements of the Soveraigne Instituted; it followes, that whatsoever he doth, it can be no injury to any of his Subjects; nor ought he to be by any of them accused of Injustice. For he that doth any thing by authority from another, doth therein no injury to him by whose authority he acteth: But by this Institution of a Common-wealth, every particular man is Author of all the Soveraigne doth; and consequently he that complaineth of injury from his Soveraigne, complaineth of that whereof he himselfe is Author; and therefore ought not to accuse any man but himselfe; no nor himselfe of injury; because to do injury to ones selfe, is impossible. It is true that they that have Soveraigne power, may commit Iniquity; but not Injustice, or Injury in the proper signification.

(Thanks to project Gutenberg)

John writes:

Russ, thank you for your thoughtful response. Let me try to take some time to make my case more clearly and hopefully more strongly. However, I think we are discussing some fundamental differences in perspective from which neither of us will be easily persuaded---a point which I will to return to.

It is not my position that because government has done some good things, then we did it together. Nor do I think it is your position that because government has done some bad things then we can't have been working together. The government has done some good things and some bad things. That can be said for any government. In the case of a democracy, I think it goes the other way. In other words, because the government is a reflection of us, we as a society have done some good things and some bad things through our government.

This does create a problem, as you point out. The government often does things that we as individuals disagree with. In the recent farm bill you disagree with the farm subsidies and I disagree with the cuts to SNAP (food stamps). However, I don't think this means that the government is not us working together. Of course, it is not you and I working directly together, I don't mean to imply that at all. I do believe that it is the result of the collective action of the American people, and in that sense it is us working together.

The same is not true for other types of governments. I would not argue that non-representative governments such as monarchies or dictatorships are the people working together. However in a democracy, or in our case a representative democracy, the government is the result of our voting. This is true even if we cast a losing vote. The American people together choose the 536 members of Congress and the President. We also collectively choose our state and local officials too. This is why I say government is what we do together, for good or for bad.

I agree that neighbors helping each other is us working together. (In fact, I just recently enjoyed a week of meals from our friends when my third child was born!) It is true that government is not the same as local communities working together. But I don't think that has any bearing on whether government is also us working together. It is us working together, but in a different sense.

Returning to my first comment about differences in perspective, this discussion is along the lines of what was discussed in the podcast with Kling on the different languages of politics. The right tends to see the government as a separate and often adversarial entity that we must struggle against. In Reagan's words, "the government is the problem," or in Kling's trichotomy, "freedom vs coercion." While the left sees it as an agent for societal change and benefit--- a mechanism to tackle large societal problems that are difficult or impossible to solve with charity alone. Obama's second inaugural address captures that perspective. I think this language difference is at work when try to discuss whether the government is us working together.

I do take issue with the language you have used in this discussion. In the referenced article you say "It is a lie," and in the podcast, "I hate it." Perhaps the left has a romanticized view of government, but it is not a lie. It is a deeply held belief that has been a part of the American tradition from its founding and is enshrined in our constitution: "We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish the Constitution for the United States of America." The idea that our government is the thing we do together is not a new concept. No, it is not the only thing we do together, nor should it be the only thing we do together, but it is a "government of the people, by the people, and for the people."

Thanks again for providing a forum for a thoughtful discussion.

Russ Roberts writes:


Thanks for your thoughtful response. I think we are making some progress. We have a different concept of what it means to work together, that's all. Casting a vote for a potential member of Congress here in Maryland who goes on to represent me and do xyx in concert with other members of Congress doesn't work for me as "working together." I say that for at least two reasons. One is the sometimes unpleasant catering to special interests. The other is that my choice in that election is never someone I enjoy voting for and whether I vote or not as zero outcome on the election. Where we agree is that voting is something we do together. The disconnect between that act and the policies that result is where we part company. We have a different view of what democracy is in reality.

We also agree that there are many problems that voluntary action cannot solve. I don't think that government can solve them either. The question is which is better. That is something reasonable people can disagree over, I hope.

By the way, I don't think government is inherently bad or the problem. It certain areas, certainly. But not everywhere. As I have said before, I'm not an anarchist. There are many things I think the government does well.

Halvard writes:

What is American conservatism? Is it following Burke. If you ask a conservative from UK, or Sweden, Norway and Denmark you will get an answer saying they are following Burke. But the US version of conservatism is not even close to the northern European one.

As a foreigner in the USA, American conservatives really talk a lot about bringing the women back to where they were in the 50s, treat gays like they were in the 70s and look at science as it was in the 1920 (creationism and anti-science). And when they have power they use a lot more money than they bring in. So is that what real conservatism should be.

Looking an GOP and pundits I have a problem understanding what American conservative stands for, other than wanting to bring back the country to the 50s (that is what it sounds like).

So who is following Burke, the conservatives in Scandinavia who balance the budgets or the American ones that runs a deficit when they have power?

John writes:

Thanks Russ. The fact that our votes are so dilute does present a problem for my point of view. That is a good point.

Now I am interested in what Steven has to say!

Steven writes:

Hi John. I think you said it well. I'm still a little confused about the response from Russ. Russ seems to be trying to make some important distinction or point, and I'm missing it.

We have a republic, so of course, in a way, it could be said that we are not "working together." Our representatives will sometimes do "unpleasant" things for all the wrong reasons. But even if we were a pure, true democracy, all the millions of us literally "working together," there would still be unpleasant actions, for all the wrong reasons, that people wouldn't agree with. Indeed, a pure democracy would likely be quite chaotic.

Russ wrote: The disconnect between that act and the policies that result is where we part company."

I don't agree that John and Russ part company on that point. I would guess that John acknowledges the "disconnect" between the intent of voters and some of the actions that our representatives take. In fact, this very disconnect has been a topic of great interest lately. For example, some people think that one of the causes of this disconnect is the corrupting influence of money and special interests in politics. It's a big problem, but it's not as if there is a complete disconnect between the voters and their representatives.

There is a substantial degree of working together. For example, consider some of the so-called "third rail" programs, such as Social Security, Medicare, and public education, programs that most representatives are loathe to touch precisely because they don't want to work against the people.

Russ wrote: "We have a different view of what democracy is in reality."

It's been said that "we" get the government "we" deserve. We have a republic, a representative democracy, and a strange capitalistic economy mixed in with crony capitalism and socialist policies - a certain weird flavor of those things, if you will - and I think any informed and thoughtful person understands the problems we're having with our current systems. Americans seem to be as confused and ambivalent about politics and economics as they do about happiness and sex. :-)

Steven writes:

Russ wrote: "Casting a vote for a potential member of Congress here in Maryland who goes on to represent me and do xyx in concert with other members of Congress doesn't work for me as 'working together.'"

Would the Founding Fathers agree with that statement? When Ben Franklin said we have "a republic, if you can keep it," what did he imagine "keeping it" entailed, if not "working together"?

I'll agree with Russ to a degree: If all most people do is vote - and it's a relatively uninformed vote at that - that doesn't work for me either. It probably doesn't work very well for the country, for that matter. In order for us to "keep" a republic, a sufficient number of informed people need to do a bit more than vote. Does anyone know precisely what Ben Franklin had in mind? I have some ideas about what we need to do, but I'll save those "radical" ideas for another time.

Russ Roberts writes:

John and Steven,

I'm not sure what Ben Franklin meant but when he said "if you can keep it," I assume he was talking about the sustainability of a particular kind of government. I don't see it as relevant for the issue of what that government accomplishes.

This is a semantic disagreement. You want to use the shorthand "work together" to capture whatever feelings--generally positive I assume--that you have about the political process. I see the government in the United States as more of a sausage factory. That doesn't mean we can't agree on lots of policies or legislation. But it does mean we interpret the process differently. And for me "working together" isn't something that describes the process accurately.

The more important point is that outside of a attack on America by a foreign invader, there is no "will of the people." I don't like that phrase either. I understand that we can define it to mean "whatever the political process produces" but I don't think that captures what that phrase actually means. The problem for me isn't attributable to say, too much money in politics. It is a problem inherent in imposing decisions on people from the top down.

I would emphasize that many political outcomes are pleasant, good for me, good for many people, even most people under certain circumstances. For me, the phrase "working together" gives those outcomes an emotional and inspirational content I don't think they deserve.

Jerm writes:

Is it possible to find Barney Frank's statement in context? I tried, but I couldn't even find agreement on the exact wording of the statement. It seems that this utterance of his has been used as a generalized rage statement for many people on the internet.

And unless Barney Frank's definitions of "we" or "together" exactly line up with Russ's, I don't see why it would be a reason for such ire. If he's really describing something completely different than what Russ is describing, then I'm not sure what it is that Russ "hates." Is it that Barney Frank would dare to use a combination of words that hold a specific and special meaning to Russ? Is it that his words were widely heard (and repeated)? Is it that his words were vague enough to represent a range of examples that are made completely of straw (which is what I found when Googling "barney frank 'government is when'")?

Once again, I don't know the specific context for Barney Frank's words. Maybe it's an exact match, and he is extolling the virtues of sugar subsidies. Maybe he's proud of the Dodd-Frank bill, saying that good government comes out of working collaboratively across the aisle.

In any case, it would seem that if a statement is so worthy of hate, it's should be more precisely explained.

Ralph writes:

One important point Levin makes in the book is that Paine always begins his thoughts on any issue with the conception of an isolated individual and reasons from there. It's the same reasoning that often occurs in economics - Robinson Crusoe, and similarly, it can sometimes misrepresent reality.
The important distinction Burke makes is that man doesn't exist as an isolated individual in reality. He comes with a set of relationships, some involuntary and some voluntary, and he has to work from there.
Burke and Paine initially found much to agree on, but their reasoning led to very different conclusions.

Burke thought that a government with no mechanism for change has no means to preserve itself. But that change must be measured to preserve peace and the liberties already gained. Burke says the French Revolution (in which Paine played a major intellectual role) had mistaken lightning for light – was throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

The process goes from Paine's "what's right and what's wrong" to Burke's "what's the best outcome we can achieve given these complications" - a more conservative approach to change than Paine's radical (revolutionary) thought.

Paine's approach simplifies the logical process, but it is ultimately too simplistic. Paine's is a model that doesn't represent reality. The current state of political and economic thought, including Acemoglu, Mancur Olsen, Weingast, Calomaris, Mueller etc. seems more Burkean: Given the basic assumptions, examine the complications that actually exist, rather than formulate an ideal world.

Both strains are present at the Founding - they began with a set of assumptions (the Declaration) and reasoned from there. But recognizing the inevitable complications, the Constitution was crafted to protect us from the over-reaching individuals in government and help guide a “well ordered society” per Washington. It's a balancing act (a checks & balances act).

The crux is how to make the world better: Paine’s approach is valid in stating primary assumptions, but assuming the isolated individual is too simplistic and hinders the application of his subsequent reasoning. Paine’s world is necessarily revolutionary, so it only applies when injustices outweigh the benefits of stability – a subjective evaluation. Burke’s world begins with a more complicated set of assumptions and proceeds more carefully because he doesn’t trust people like Paine to design a better world from scratch.

The English, who killed their king a century before the French Revolution, fell into dictatorship until they reconstructed a constitutional monarchy. The French Revolution began as a more moderate revolution after initial riots, but quickly became the first socialist revolution in history with a goal to expropriate and redistribute everything and rewrite history – to do that, as in all other socialist revolutions, a bloodbath was necessary, and order in France was restored by Napoleon, a dictator who spread the bloodbath across Europe.

Russ Roberts writes:


First, I didn't mention Barney Frank--Yuval Levin did. The line attributed to Frank (and it is all over the internet, though without the context you'd like to see) is "Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.” Not sure that quote need context. It's pretty clear to me--it's a way to disarm critics of government, generally and maybe in a specific context.

President Obama's second inaugural address has a similar theme:

Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.

Through it all, we have never relinquished our skepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone. Our celebration of initiative and enterprise, our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, these are constants in our character.

But we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action. For the American people can no more meet the demands of today’s world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias. No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores. Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation and one people. (Applause.)

Of course no single person can train all the teachers of the future, for example. It will require collective action. But should that collective action be through the government or through private, voluntary efforts? The President wants us to think that political collective action is a form of cooperation. I don't see it that way.

President Obama and Barney Frank want to describe the political process as "working together" or "doing things together." It is literally not true. You and I don't cooperate in any sense of the word when the political process produces its outcomes. Implying the opposite romatizices the political process. A more charitable view is that it is rhetoric--language employed to persuade. It doesn't persuade me for reasons I've tried to make clear.

Greg G writes:


A peaceful decision that government should NOT do certain things is every bit as much a piece of co-operative political decision making as a decision that government should do certain things.

You don't have to romanticize the political process to think that a particular government action is better than the alternatives. Is it romanticizing the political process to think that government should provide military defense, a justice system, a police force or urban water and sewer systems?

I think you are co-operating with the political process in an important and constructive way by offering this forum for political debate. That may well be a different "sense of the word (co-operate)" but it certainly is a sense of the word and one I am happy to defend.

Peaceful persuasion is the most important part of our political process. That fact is not changed by the additional fact that you might well find yourself unpersuaded on any particular issue.

Russ Roberts writes:

Greg G,

I hope I made it clear that how you describe the political process doesn't define whether it does some good things or bad things.

Maybe I would have more romance about government if it did fewer things and did those well. Your list isn't a bad one.

Maybe I would feel that government is actually us working together if it did the few things that actually benefit almost everyone such as a court system or sewers rather than the things that benefit some of us at the expense of others.

In the meanwhile, I am pretty sure that listening to EconTalk and reacting to the ideas is something that you and I (and the rest of the listening and reading audience) do actually do together.

Steven writes:

Russ wrote: "I see the government in the United States as more of a sausage factory."

As do I. But isn't any system of government a sausage factory? The question is, what do we do about it? The answer to that question (and many other questions) involves - you guessed it - working together.

Russ wrote: "This is a semantic disagreement."

Actually, I still don't know enough about the distinction you're trying to make to say that it's semantics. In any large, complex society, it's impossible for people to literally "work together" all the time with their government. By practical necessity we elect representatives. Even with all of the problems you've described (and all of the problems I haven't described), it is still very much "a government of the people, by the people, and for the people." Let's just say that Americans have the opportunity to work together with their government. What we do with that opportunity is another matter.

Russ wrote: "You want to use the shorthand "work together" to capture whatever feelings--generally positive I assume--that you have about the political process."

No, I'm afraid that's incorrect. "Working together" simply means that Americans are not disconnected from their government. Of course, the average American could be more connected to their government than they are now, but that is a matter of choice, not a consequence of the system. And by the way, overall, I feel more generally negative than positive about the ways in which we conduct our current political processes. The average American is too disconnected not only with the process, but also with the issues and the data. But that is a matter of choice.

Russ wrote: "I'm not sure what Ben Franklin meant but when he said "if you can keep it," I assume he was talking about the sustainability of a particular kind of government. I don't see it as relevant for the issue of what that government accomplishes."

I think Franklin wondered about the sustainability of a republic that was accountable to the people. There is no doubt that the Founders dismissed pure democracy (i.e. pure "working together") as dangerous. One of the challenges the Founders faced was to strike a balance between democracy (mob rule) and monarchy (a form of tyranny).

Here is what Madison wrote: "Hence it is that democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and in general have been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths . . . A republic, by which I mean a government in which a scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect and promises the cure for which we are seeking."

Well, perhaps a republic isn't quite a "cure," but it's the best they could come up with. What did Franklin have to say about democracy? Here's a quip: "Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote!"

I think Franklin understood that a republic requires a sufficient number of informed and enlightened people "working together" to sustain it. This is precisely why it is so relevant to this discussion.

Russ wrote: "It is a problem inherent in imposing decisions on people from the top down."

The extreme form of "top down" is tyranny. The extreme form of bottom up is democracy (mob rule). Actually, the extreme form of bottom up is still top down, in which a majority imposes decisions on a minority. There are two kinds of tyrannies: Majority and minority. The best system would seem to involve some type of republic in which both majorities and minorities, as well as groups and individuals, have certain rights and protections, and in which a majority of citizens is informed and involved with their government (i.e. "working together"). That is the only way we can "keep" a republic. If someone has a better or easier idea, I'd love to hear it.

Russ wrote: "For me, the phrase "working together" gives those outcomes an emotional and inspirational content I don't think they deserve."

In the context of politics, for me the phrase "working together" simply evokes the notion of plain old "work." It is nothing more than the work that is necessary to get things done in a proper way. For me, the cigar of "working together" is just a cigar, and quite a smelly one at that. Besides paying taxes, working together (taking the time to be informed and involved) is one of the prices we must pay for civilization. I'm not sure what "outcomes" Russ is referring to, but I certainly think that civilization "deserves" whatever is required to sustain it, considering the alternative.

Russ Roberts writes:


Lots of interesting thoughts but not so related to the question of "working together."

You describe it as "Not being disconnected from the government." Don't know what that means. Well, I do, but I don't see that as "working together. Again, this is just a semantic question.

This has been a busy time in Washington, recently.

An American soldier was swapped for some prisoners at Gitmo.

It was revealed that the VA hospital system has problems with taking care of its clients and measuring its performance honestly.

President Obama imposed restrictions on coal-burning power plants.

I don't consider those outcomes as being accurately described as "us working together." Describing them that way masks rather than reveals. That's all.

Some listeners were puzzled that I felt this way. I've tried to explain it.

You are free to disagree. And yes, we disagree about other things related to government perhaps--what to do about the sausage factory for example. But that's not what this is about.

By the way, I also don't feel it's us working together when there is a recall of a car model even if I drive that model. For the workers in the plant or the designers of the car, that may be a useful description. Or when a great new product comes out of Apple or Google, that isn't us working together. The people who dreamed it up and made it, sure--they're working together. But I wasn't involved even if I love the product and end up buying it. I don't romanticize the market that way. (Other ways, sure. I've got my own romance issues, surely)

Greg G writes:


I did indeed choose that list of possible government actions to be biased in favor of those I thought that you would feel "actually benefit almost everyone...rather than the things that benefit some of us at the expense of others."

But not everyone would agree to the list of things that you want government to do. Pacifists do not want a military defense. Anarcho-capitalists do not want a state supported court system and sewer system. You have the same problem explaining to them why the government actions that you support are justified that anyone else has. Almost everyone really believes that the policies they think are best would be best for everyone else too.

I don't want you to have more romance about government. I want you to have less romance about the kinds of libertarian fantasy (like private charity filling in adequately as a social safety net) that the world has never seen.

Steven writes:

Russ, I truly appreciate your efforts to clarify your point. Perhaps it is semantics.

If the three examples you provide are supposed to demonstrate how "we" are not working with "the government," I'm missing the point. Our representatives can't possibly consult with all of their constituents on every decision they make; they are accountable in other ways. There are different levels of involvement, of working together. The opportunity to vote is just one of many ways. It seems to me that all three examples demonstrate a government that is responding to (working together with) various constituents.

I'm "free to disagree" with you, but I'm still not sure what we're disagreeing about. But that's okay.

Regarding your examples of car manufacturers, Google and Apple, the public did not vote for the people who run those companies, so the comparison is a bit like apples and oranges. Even so, that doesn't mean corporations aren't "working together" with people. Corporations must provide products and services that people want, otherwise they're out of business. I suppose the same can be said for our representatives in government. Would the public have fired Steve Jobs in 1985? :-)

Steven writes:

Greg wrote: "Almost everyone really believes that the policies they think are best would be best for everyone else too."

Yes, that's true, and to that I sing the popular refrain:

You can't always get what you want
You can't always get what you want
You can't always get what you want
But if you try sometimes, well you might find
You get what you need!

Greg wrote: "I want you to have less romance about the kinds of libertarian fantasies . . ."

I must be missing out; everyone except me is feeling romance in the air. Economics is the dismal science, not the erotic science.

All joking aside, Russ has promised to devote an episode (maybe more than one) to his ideas about social welfare. I'd like to see a BOOK, but we can't always get what we want. :-)

Jerm writes:


***First, I didn't mention Barney Frank--Yuval Levin did. The line attributed to Frank (and it is all over the internet, though without the context you'd like to see) is "Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.” Not sure that quote need context. It's pretty clear to me--it's a way to disarm critics of government, generally and maybe in a specific context.***

So now that I have the specific quote, I went off on the internet search to see what I could find. And what I found was confirmation bias.

Of course, you warned me before I even began. The quote you gave is "all over the internet", but without context. It's not even certain where or when these words were said or if this quote actually comes from Barney Frank. But it's all over the internet, used again and again as a straw man argument for the speaker to rail against the political Left.

I'd say that context is actually quite important. If the "we" in that statement refers to elected government officials (or, specifically, Congress), then this statement might just be a platitude about working across party lines. With this context, the statement would have absolutely none of the baggage that you and your guest (and, the rest of the instances "all over the internet") attribute to it.

If "we" refers to individual family units or people, then that seems puzzling. It would literally mean that when I help a friend move in to a new house, we have created government (this interpretation seems dumb, though, and I can't really imagine that it would be widely accepted or useful).

If the "we" refers to the aggregated and homogenized "citizen as worker unit", then I'd say your interpretation comes into play. Still, without context, I don't understand how this could be something worthy of "hate". Why did Barney Frank say this? How has it mattered? None of the instances on the internet (including your response) seems to care about the context of this statement (or even if he is the original speaker of the line), and none of the instances on the internet can point to how this idea attributed to this person has made an ounce of difference. I don't consider myself to be overly romantic about the usefulness of government, but I don't think I'd mind too much if my (100-level) economics students gave that description of the "government" blob in a slightly dressed-up circular flow diagram. I certainly wouldn't "hate" them for it.

As for the excerpt of Obama's Inaugural speech, I didn't get the same message as you did (didn't the guest claim that Obama "literally" said that government should do what individuals can't? I hope that wasn't the relevant excerpt, because it "literally" says none of those words). To me, inauguration speeches are full of lyrical emptiness. And this excerpt (written by a committee of professional speechwriters, pre-screened and rehearsed, and ultimately connected to no real legislation) is no different. I don't think it even rises to the "Barney Frank" level of "government." If that bit of Obama's speech led you to think he was classifying cooperation as political action and also romanticizing the role of the political process, then I think you've read too far into that excerpt. Try to give that excerpt to someone unfamiliar with the speech or its context (I'm sure you see 100 or more of them every fall) and see what they read into it. I think you'll be surprised at how toothless and bland it seems to a disinterested third party.

Steven writes:

"'Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.' It's all over the internet, used again and again as a straw man argument for the speaker to rail against the political Left."

Hi Jerm. I admit to being a little dense on this, because I fail to see how that quote, taken in or out of context, no matter who said it, would serve as an effective argument to rail against the Left.

To me, the quote is just garden-variety political rhetoric, relatively neutral and harmless, meant to evoke a "We the people" kind of sentiment. There has been some recent political rhetoric along those lines; we've all been hearing that even the most successful capitalists and entrepreneurs didn't do it "alone." Of course we all remember how the Right tried to make hay out of Obama's "gaffe": "If you've got a business—you didn't build that." Of course that remark was taken out of context.

If Lincoln were alive today, would he get in trouble for saying that we have a government of the people, by the people, and for the people? :-)

I don't see this quote as a big deal. If there's a fuss about it, I don't know why.

Jerm writes:

Hi Steven,

I would agree with you about the harmlessness of the statement. Especially in an environment free of context, it just seems like a little bit of rah-rah.

But after Russ gave the exact quote, I tried to track down the source and the context. And what I found is that the quote is used almost exclusively as a setup to a straw man argument. Page after page on Google of "conservative" commentary where (like in this episode of EconTalk) the statement is used as a quick setup before a long punchline.

For the most part, EconTalk is a great environment to discuss economics concepts free of an echo chamber or confirmation bias. Truly academic discussion really doesn't conform to the types of pre-packaged narratives that are found "all over the internet". But in this case, it didn't do so well.

Steven writes:

Jerm, it looks like neither one of us regards this rhetorical statement as a big deal, no matter where it originally came from.

Russ seems to have strong feelings about the "romanticizing" of government with these kinds of "working together" statements. I share Russ' concern (cynicism?) about our current political processes and what he calls "sausage making." Even so, I still think "we the people" are "working together" with our government. We just need to get much better at it, otherwise, as Ben Franklin warned, we may not be able to "keep" our republic. I consider working together to be work, not at all romantic. Civilization has many prices.

Participating in the EconTalk discussion forum is work, too, but listening to the program is fun enough. :-)

Comments for this podcast episode have been closed
Return to top