Ideology and Pragmatism

In 2005 Jonathan Chait wrote at article about ideology versus pragmatism at The New Republic,  comparing left versus right:

We’re accustomed to thinking of liberalism and conservatism as parallel ideologies, with conservatives preferring less government and liberals preferring more. The equivalency breaks down, though, when you consider that liberals never claim that increasing the size of government is an end in itself. Liberals only support larger government if they have some reason to believe that it will lead to material improvement in people’s lives. Conservatives also want material improvement in people’s lives, of course, but proving that their policies can produce such an outcome is a luxury, not a necessity.

The contrast between economic liberalism and economic conservatism, then, ultimately lies not only in different values or preferences but in different epistemologies. Liberalism is a more deeply pragmatic governing philosophy–more open to change, more receptive to empiricism, and ultimately better at producing policies that improve the human condition–than conservatism…

Bush’s administration gives primacy to political advisers over policy wonks in large part because they have no need to debate their ends, only the means of achieving them … The next liberal administration, whenever it happens, will not be nearly so certain. Aside from rolling back conservative excesses, its economic agenda will take its cue from external events, and the decisions it arrives at could, in time, be cast aside through experimentation. Ultimately, those policies, whether they move left or right, will be measured against their effect on people’s lives, not the degree to which they bring the government closer to some long-ago agreed-upon vision. In time, those policies will be altered yet again to suit a changing world. This is known as progress.

Ross Douthat responds by using the massive spending in the stimulus bill as an example of the “next liberal administration” following liberal economic ideology. He concludes:

This is not to say that there aren’t degrees of ideology and degrees of pragmatism, or that some thinkers and some politicians aren’t more empirical than others. And it’s certainly possible to imagine – and hope for, from this administration – a liberalism that’s more pragmatic and evidence-based than was George W. Bush’s conservatism. But the debates that have dominated the first two weeks of the Obama Presidency ought to be an object lesson in why ideological preconceptions always matter, no matter how empirically-minded you aspire to be.

Ross is partially correct, but also makes a mistake in using the response to the current economic crisis to compare the reliance on ideology of the Bush administration to the Democratic stimulus package. Jonathan Chait responds:

Is he saying that Democrats would deem the stimulus a success even if they discover that it fails to stimulate economic growth, merely because it has enlarged the size of government and that is a liberal end in and of itself? Does he further believe that the Obama economic team would have implemented something like a $900 billion stimulus plan even if the economy was humming along rather than facing its worst crisis since the Depression?

Brian Beutlers adds:

Imagine an alternate reality in which the economy is in fine shape and Barack Obama’s just been elected president. Perhaps he’d go hog wild and propose a trillion dollars in unfunded spending just to sneak a bunch of liberal wish list items on to the government debt ledger. But I don’t really think so. And I don’t think Ross does either. Maybe I’m crazy, but I think it’s much more likely that under kinder circumstances Obama would carry forward with the plan he campaigned on–to let the Bush tax cuts expire, tackle the energy, climate and health crises and, maybe, give the middle class a tax cut. That, of course, was before the economy started shedding 600,000 jobs a month, but it made some sense at the time. Just as Jon’s analysis suggested it would.

Now imagine Barack Obama is a Republican. He’s just been elected and the economy is in the toilet. What’s his answer? Tax cuts for the rich! What if the economy’s in decent shape? Tax cuts for the rich! What if we’d just been invaded by China, Canada, and Mexico, and alien space craft were hovering over Manhattan, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.? Tax cuts for the rich!

This contrast carries across the board. If burning fossil fuels was harmless, for instance, would Democrats stand behind a politically fraught plan to price carbon just for the fun of it? If the private insurance industry had somehow contained costs and covered 98 percent of the people in the country, would Democrats be demanding major, complicated reforms to the health care system? Obviously not.

As I said, Ross is partially correct, especially in concluding that “ideological preconceptions always matter.” Ideology matters, but liberals realize that facts must be considered when adopting policies while conservatives ignore facts which do not fit into their ideology.

Response to the economic crisis on the part of both the left and right is primarily influenced by ideology. It might be true that large government spending on the infrastructure will create more jobs and strengthen the economy. It is also possible that, as we got into this mess at least partially by overspending and not saving as a society, the best response might actually be decreasing government spending and tax cuts (of course not limited to the rich). There is really no evidence to argue this on pragmatic grounds and I do not believe writers on either the left or right who are convinced that their answer is the right one. We can’t even come to an agreement as to whether the New Deal worked.  Lacking facts it does make sense to consider ideology, as long as one is willing to change the policy if facts prove them wrong.

While Ross is correct in pointing out that ideology affects many decisions, he is incorrect in using this to create an equivalency between the left and right. Obama is responding to a bad situation based upon what his economic advisers, right or wrong, have advised is the best pragmatic course. If he took office during different economic conditions, the influence of his Chicago school economic advisers would likely be more significant and we would probably see more fiscally conservative policies. Obama might be right or wrong, but he is attempting to respond to the economic crisis pragmatically. This is not changed by the fact that many liberals are supporting his policies based upon ideology. Regardless of who is ultimately right, the Republicans are certainly coming out of this looking like they are more interested in playing politics (and are perhaps even crazy as Steve Benen writes).

One major difference between liberals and conservatives is that many (although certainly not all) liberals would abandon the idea of responding to the economic crisis with massive spending if there were to be evidence that this did not work. As Jon wrote in  his 2005 article, “Contemporary economic liberalism is less of an ideology than the absence of one–a rejection both of dogmatic fealty and hostility to the free market.”

Liberals (with some exceptions) generally support the free market and realize that most things are better done by the free market than by government. Liberals, not being blinded by ideology, also realize that there are certain things which the free market does not handle well. Liberals realize that such decisions must be made based upon objective facts, not based upon ideology. Chait used Bill Clinton as an example:

Bill Clinton came to office planning to spur the economy with a Keynesian stimulus, but abandoned those plans after fierce debate among his staff economists. Instead he embraced the novel goal of sparking recovery by slashing the deficit in the hopes that lower interest rates would enable sustainable growth. As that policy seemed to work, moderate liberals continued to embrace the credo of fiscal restraint. But, after the economy slid toward a recession in 2001, liberal economists abandoned short-term restraint in favor of temporary tax cuts to encourage spending.

He also noted how the Republicans have both moved further to the right, and become more ideological, in recent years. He  looked back at Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford:

Eisenhower used the federal government, rather than states and localities, to build the Federal Highway System, and he made no effort to reduce a top tax rate that stood at an absurdly high 91 percent. Nixon declared, “We are all Keynesians now.” He raised Social Security benefits and proposed an ambitious national health care plan. Conservatives have since renounced Nixon’s economic record, and no wonder. Today it would place him on the left edge of the Democratic Party.

It’s not a coincidence that the two most economically liberal Republican presidents–Nixon and his successor, Gerald Ford–also displayed the most serious interest in empiricism. Both required their assistants to produce detailed “Brandeis briefs” outlining the essential arguments on both sides of any policy debate. Ford invited Milton Friedman and John Kenneth Galbraith into the Oval Office for a free-ranging debate on economic policy.

Since the mid-’70s, the GOP has grown steadily more conservative, and therefore less pragmatic.

Taking advice from both Milton Friedman and John Kenneth Galbraith is essentially what Barack Obama is doing. His economic advisers include both Chicago school economists who have been influenced by Milton Friedman and more liberal economics who would fall closer to Galbraith.

While conservatives might attack it as “flip-flopping,” liberals realize that when the facts show that a policy has not worked, or when conditions change, it is necessary to change the policy. In contrast we have repeatedly seen Republicans stick to the same principles based upon ideology regardless of how much evidence there is that their policies have failed. Conservatives have even build extensive defenses against objective evidence, with the most extreme classifying any information source which does not share their ideology as being liberally biased.

Ideological preconceptions do matter. Often there is more than one pragmatic course of action and basing policies based upon one’s principles may be justified. Other times ideology must be set aside to make the best decision. The difference between liberals and conservatives is that liberals can look beyond their ideological preconceptions and consider the facts to develop pragmatic policies. Conservatives in recent years have demonstrated an inability to do this.

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1 Comment

  1. 1
    Barry says:

    A review of Chait’s book … and of modern liberalism:

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