Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Liberals as pragmatists? Or unaware/unadmitted ideologues?

(Modified from a comment on Volokh:)

Ezra Klein has a brief post on "Government size as philosophy", which seems to argue that government size is only a philosophical concern for (some) conservatives, not for liberals, or at least not for liberals like him:
... like a lot of people, I actually don't have an abstract preference for either bigger government or smaller government. If we made the Defense Department a lot smaller, or reformed the health-care system so that we were getting a deal more akin to European countries, or got the federal government out of farm subsidies, that would be fine with me, even as the government would shrink. A lot of conservatives believe, I think, that their philosophical preference for small government is counterbalanced by other people’s philosophical preference for big government. But that’s not true: Their philosophical preference for small government is counterbalanced by other people’s practical preference for larger government in certain areas where it seems to make sense.
I think he’s right that liberals, at least (as opposed, say, to whatever socialists are calling themselves these days — “progressives”? “anti-capitalists”?) don't generally think in terms of enlarging the government for its own sake -- whereas conservatives, of the more libertarian variety, often do  think in terms of finding ways to shrink it. But is this really because liberals are more "practical" than conservatives, or is it simply because they're either not willing or not able to think deeply enough about their preferences and the consequences thereof? I think the answer is contained in the last clause of the quote above: their preference for larger government "where it seems to make sense". This sort of political impressionism gives away the game -- larger government pretty much always "seems to make sense" for liberals, except mainly for the one department of government thay can be counted on, for ideological reasons, to want to shrink, namely the Defense Department. (Klein mentions health-care and farm subsidies as two other candidates for liberal shrinkage too, but, given that the latter is a common political football for both parties and the former has been the focus of the most massive liberal-fostered government program launched in generations, these look like just head fakes.) So, despite the fact that liberals no doubt like to think of themselves as merely practical, it looks as though their pragmatism is routinely biased, whether they're aware of it or not. And I suspect that Klein at least is aware of it -- which may make his concern to disavow so clear a bias a kind of good news. It's perhaps an indication that, despite the Obama victory and the Democratic control of Congress, he knows Big Government is still a losing proposition for American voters.


  1. I still can't figure out to become a follower of this fine blog.

  2. I'm not sure unless you have a blogger account yourself (then see the dashboard). But you can always include the feed in a feed reader, if that helps.


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