Confessions of a Supply-Side Liberal

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Edmund Burke’s Wisdom


Edmund Burke

Like many, I think highly of Edmund Burke. The introduction to the wikipedia article on Edmund Burke indicates how many want to claim him as one of their guiding lights:

Edmund Burke (12 January 1729 – 9 July 1797) was an Irish statesman, author, orator, political theorist and philosopher who, after moving to England, served for many years in the House of Commons of Great Britain as a member of the Whig party.

He is mainly remembered for his support of the cause of the American Revolutionaries, and for his later opposition to the French Revolution. The latter led to his becoming the leading figure within the conservative faction of the Whig party, which he dubbed the “Old Whigs”, in opposition to the pro–French Revolution “New Whigs”, led by Charles James Fox.

Burke was praised by both conservatives and liberals in the 19th century. Since the 20th century, he has generally been viewed as the philosophical founder of modern conservatism, as well as a representative of classical liberalism.

The website has a beautiful layout of quotations from Edmund Burke. Here are some of my favorites among those I had not seen before.

  • Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.
  • If we command our wealth, we shall be rich and free; if our wealth commands us, we are poor indeed. 
  • Religion is essentially the art and the theory of the remaking of man. Man is not a finished creation.
  • Hypocrisy can afford to be magnificent in its promises, for never intending to go beyond promise, it costs nothing. 
  • Sin has many tools, but a lie is the handle which fits them all. 
  • Never despair, but if you do, work on in despair. 
  • Facts are to the mind what food is to the body. 
  • All human laws are, properly speaking, only declaratory; they have no power over the substance of original justice.
There is one quotation from Edmund Burke that I don’t like:
  • But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. 

Filed under religionhumanitiesscience thought

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Steven Pinker on How the Free Market Makes Us Uneasy

Steven Pinker, in The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature (p. 409), writes:

Fiske’s taxonomy also accomodates a fourth relationship type [in addition to Communal Sharing, Authority Ranking, and Exchange], which he calls Market Pricing. It embraces the entire apparatus of modern market economies: currency, prices, salaries, benefits, rents, interest, credit, options, derivatives, and so on. The medium of communication is symbolic numerals, mathematical operations, digital accounting and transfers, and the language of formal contracts. Unlike the other three relationship types, Market Pricing is nowhere near as universal. A culture with no written language and with a number system that peters out at “3” cannot handle even the rudiments of Market Pricing. And the logic of the market remains cognitively unnatural as well. People all over the world think that every object has an intrinsic fair price (as opposed to being worth whatever people are willing to pay for it at the time), that middlemen are parasites (despite the service they render in gathering goods from distant places and making them conveniently available to buyers), and that charging interest is immoral (despite the fact that money is more valuable to people at some times than at others).[See Thomas Sowell: Knowledge and Decisions.] These fallacies come naturally to an Exchange mindset in which distributions are fair only when equivalent quantities of stuff change hands. The mental model of face-to-face, tit-for-tat exchanges is ill equipped to handle the abstruse apparatus of a market economy, which makes diverse goods and services fungible among a vast number of people over great distances of time and space. 

As far as I can see, this takes Market Pricing out of the realm of human nature, and there seem to be no naturally developing thoughts or emotions tailored to it.

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Holman Jenkins on the Role of Organized Labor in Blocking Policy Initiatives in the Democratic Party


Mancur Olson, an economist who studied The Rise and Decline of Nations

Last Saturday, Holman Jenkins had a very interesting op/ed in the Wall Street Journal: "Hey Mitt, Voters Aren’t the Obstacle." What is the obstacle in Holman’s view? The political influence of organized labor.  The theory Holman bases his analysis on is from the brilliant economist Mancur Olson, who focused on the forces that change institutions over time. Holman:

Mancur Olson, the late and admired social thinker, described the lobbying incentives created by policies that concentrate benefits on the few and disperse the costs to the many. Recipients of federal entitlements aren’t highly motivated to oppose the kind of long-term reforms actually required by our fiscal dilemma. Organized labor is.

I encountered Mancur Olson through his book The Rise and Decline of Nations. Here is wikipedia’s summary of The Rise and Decline of Nations in its article on Mancur Olson:  

In 1982, [Mancur Olson] expanded the scope of his earlier work in an attempt to explain The Rise and Decline of Nations. The idea is that small distributional coalitions tend to form over time in countries. Groups like cotton-farmers, steel-producers, and labor unions will have the incentives to form lobby groups and influence policies in their favor. These policies will tend to be protectionist and anti-technology, and will therefore hurt economic growth; but since the benefits of these policies are selective incentives concentrated amongst the few coalitions members, while the costs are diffused throughout the whole population, the “Logic” dictates that there will be little public resistance to them. Hence as time goes on, and these distributional coalitions accumulate in greater and greater numbers, the nation burdened by them will fall into economic decline. 

The most interesting thing in Holman’s piece is his list of bipartisan and Democratic initiatives that were thwarted by union lobbying. I have added bullets and combined three different quotation blocks here, but the words are Holman’s:

  • When a flurry of bipartisan health-insurance proposals failed in the Nixon and Ford administrations, including a stillborn Kennedy-Nixon compromise and 1974’s promising Long-Ribicoff bill, all were defeated because labor rejected anything that wasn’t single-payer. (Ted Kennedy later called it his greatest legislative regret.)
  • When liberals like Rep. Jerrold Nadler proposed investing the 1990s Social Security surpluses in the stock market so the money wouldn’t be squandered on unrelated federal spending, labor killed the idea.
  • When Dick Gephardt, Tom Daschle and Rick Santorum voiced support for Social Security supplemental accounts, and when President Clinton said a bipartisan reform would be his No. 1 priority in 1999, labor snuffed the burgeoning consensus.
  • When Democrats gathered to nominate Al Gore in 2000, public-employee unions contributed a record number of delegates—at least 20% of the total. One of labor’s biggest aims, according to a lobbyist for the union-backed Fund for Assuring an Independent Retirement, was throwing cold water on any Democratic enthusiasm for Social Security and Medicare reform.
  • Think uninsured voters had any hand in designing ObamaCare? ObamaCare was largely designed by organized labor. Labor beat back attempts to curb the regressive tax subsidy for employer-provided insurance. Labor plumped for the incentives that will soon cause many employers to shift their health-care costs to taxpayers.
  • [Michelle Rhee, a Democrat] was the break-the-crockery D.C. schools chancellor, whose mission came to an end when Mayor Adrian Fenty was booted by a local electorate straight out of the latest Romney gaffe. To put it bluntly, voters in D.C. sided with the teachers union that Ms. Rhee was fighting over the students she was trying to help.

Holman summarizes as follows:

We don’t dismiss the power of AARP, but organized labor dominates the Democratic Party on Capitol Hill. Organized labor has been the force, decade after decade, carefully tending the creation of the many liabilities and excesses that now threaten the Republic.

Let me say this on my own behalf. No one should blithely assume that unions will support liberal policies, if by liberal policies one means policies to help the poor and the suffering. Most unions are middle-class organizations that in their political activities are ready and willing to sacrifice the interests of the poor to benefit their members and their leaders. (Here I am distinguishing the political activities of unions from the wage-and-benefit-raising and worker-voice activities of unions that I discuss in my post "Adam Ozimek on Worker Voice."

Filed under labor thought politics growth laborio

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Jonathan Rauch on Democracy, Capitalism and Liberal Science

Jonathan Rauch’s keynote address at the 2010 Campus Freedom Network Conference

Jonathan Rauch gave a talk at a Campus Freedom Network Conference summarizing the argument in his book "Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought." In addition to the link under the picture of Jonathan above, here is a link to a nice piece by Greg Lukianoff flagging the video: 

Jonathan Rauch on Why Free Speech is Even More Important than You Thought.

I loved Jonathan’s talk. I was struck by the similarities between Jonathan’s arguments for academic freedom in this video and Milton Friedman’s arguments for capitalism in the videos I marshalled in Milton Friedman: Celebrating His 100th Birthday with Videos of Milton.

The key elements of what Jonathan calls “liberal science” are its decentralization (no one in particular is in charge) and its rules. The discipline of criticism is just as necessary for ideas floated in the academy as the discipline of the market is for enterprises. However painful systems of trial and error are, if we interfere with the systems of trial and error, we will be saddled with errors.

Although in this video Jonathan is talking mainly about liberal science and only in passing about capitalism, the parallels made me appreciate the strength of Milton’s arguments even more than I had. And Milton’s arguments in turn, by the parallels, strengthen Jonathan’s case for liberal science. Finally, the arguments for both liberal science and capitalism strengthen the case for democracy; and the arguments for democracy strengthen the case for both liberal science and capitalism.

Postscript: Speaking of decentralization, some government functions (such as taking care of the poor) might be better served if they could be decentralized to nonprofit organizations. In particular, such decentralization allows a trial and error process to work its magic as donations shift away from the least effective nonprofits to more effective nonprofits. Because people love freedom, such decentralization of certain government functions has other advantages as well, as I argue in my post "No Tax Increase Without Recompense." In that post, I propose a way to make sure such nonprofit efforts are adequately funded. 

Filed under science thought religionhumanitiesscience politics growth class