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Against Ideological Conformity

Once again, reading David Brooks’ column in the New York Times has led me in a productive direction. This time, Brooks, in an opinion piece titled, “A New Center Being Born,” cited a position paper by the Niskanen Center, a think tank of largely former libertarians, which makes a strong argument in favor of empiricism and moderation over ideological orthodoxy in choosing a direction for our country. This is a position I have often championed, so I decided I needed to read the paper, which has the title, “The Center Can Hold: Public Policy for an Age of Extremes.”

The basis of the paper as described by Brooks, is that “People with single all-explaining ideologies have a tendency to let their philosophic blinders distort how they view empirical reality.” Despite voluminous historical evidence that adherence to ideological purity as a guide to politics or governance has resulted in economic and political failures, and often in tyrannies, many people nowadays continue to make such adherence the backbone of their political stances and litmus tests for which programs or politicians they will support. Perhaps at no time in our country’s history has this been more true than today, where not only do conservatives oppose liberals, but reactionary populists oppose radical progressives, the latter two groups being particularly keen on adhering to their own philosophies and punishing anyone who deviates from its orthodoxy.

The Niskanen Centre’s own research has examined, in detail, the idea that knee-jerk (even when the knees are politically well-positioned or scholarly) conservatism and liberalism, the right and the left of today’s mainstream politics, have identified their causes with opposition to or the embrace of “big government.”  Thriving competition and free markets are identified with minimalist government and deregulation, by conservatives, while liberals associate the same factors with accumulation of wealth by small elites and increasing income disparity. When the authors of the paper look at the facts, they find that those countries with the largest tax and expenditures related to social welfare programs also are ranked highest in freedom to enter and compete in business and reward for entrepreneurialism. As they point out, “The freest economies generally feature big welfare states.” 

One simple fact, which the authors point out flies in the face of the views of small government advocates is that “the comparative advantage governments have in pooling risk produces enormous utility for society as a whole.” This makes it more economical and equitable for governments to step in and manage health insurance, disability insurance, unemployment insurance, and programs for the poor and to do it as large-scale programs that serve equally across the country. They make the point that government intervention and spending for social welfare is not the same as government regulation, and the private sector is poor at adequately servicing high-risk or low productivity members of society, who become even more costly when piecemeal regulations try to provide an uncoordinated safety-net for those who are left behind.

But government regulations also aren’t a monolithic entity. The authors say that our current regulatory system  can be “broadly defined as insider domination of the policymaking process resulting in regulation for the benefit of the industry rather than the public. This dynamic has led to badly distorted policies that throttle innovation and growth even as they redistribute income and wealth to a favored elite at the top of the socioeconomic scale.” In other words, most regulatory policies are written to preserve and protect those businesses and people with the most assets. Fewer regulations would actually make our economy more innovative, more open to new players, easier to enter and to exit for good and bad ideas, etc. 

The paper is chock-full of knowledge and insights and is well worth reading. Whether one agrees or disagrees with its examples and recommendations, its central argument rings true: One can take nearly any topic—welfare reform, immigration, Wall Street regulation, global warming, healthcare, criminal justice reform, education—and it will turn out to be true that the degree to which one views these topics through an inflexible ideological lens, whether one that is oriented right or left, determines the degree to which facts are ignored or distorted, and solutions suffer because of that. There is a wide world out there in which lots of social experiments have taken place or are taking place right now, and looking at the information to be gained from these experiments can inform us as to what effects we are likely to receive from different programs and policies. If we try to pick those programs and policies that have worked the best, and also fit in with our democratic values, we are likely to find that they don’t fit neatly into any one ideology, and some may even fit what we ordinarily think of as opposing philosophies. In these cases, we need to go with what an honest appraisal of the facts and their implications tell us, not make decisions based on whether the programs agree with our philosophies. The results we achieve will probably be somewhere in the middle, not at the extremes. But they will be more likely to work.

Reference: https://niskanencenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Niskanen-vision-paper-final-PDF.pdf


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