Yuval Levin Postmortem
By Russ Roberts
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.
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.