Means vs. ends in American political discourse.

Matt Yglesias rebuts Freddie DeBoer’s anger at the “professional left” for having a weak blogging presence. DeBoer’s post is a tome, but it’s gotten a lot of play since it pretty much calls out every left-leaning blogger. Apparently, a strong neoliberal presence isn’t enough to balance out the wingnuts on the other side.

I’m hardly interested in discussing that, though. I don’t follow many left-leaning blogs and could hardly be upset for the left being “neoliberal.” But Yglesias says something interesting:

But one point that I agree with here, is that while I’ll cop to being a “neoliberal” I don’tacknowledge that I have critics to the “left” of me. On economic policy, here are the main things I’m trying to accomplish:

— More redistribution of money from the top to the bottom.
— A less paternalistic welfare state that puts more money directly in the hands of the recipients of social services.
— Macroeconomic stabilization policy that seriously aims for full employment.
— Curb the regulatory privileges of incumbent landowners.
— Roll back subsidies implicit in our current automobile/housing-oriented industrial policy.
— Break the licensing cartels that deny opportunity to the unskilled.
— Much greater equalization of opportunities in K-12 education.
— Reduction of the rents assembled by privileged intellectual property owners.
— Throughout the public sector, concerted reform aimed at ensuring public services are public services and not jobs programs.
— Taxation of polluters (and resource-extractors more generally) rather than current de facto subsidization of resource extraction.

Well damn. Yglesias goes on to say that he knows many disagree with this agenda. Seriously, though, who would? I see numbers 1 and 10 in this economic program being fairly controversial. But it’s hardly as if the disagreement even there is terribly sharp. Who doesn’t believe in a robust social safety net in this country? Who doesn’t believe that pollution presents social costs that resource extractors escape?

Fundamentally (note: fundamentally, not absolutely) Americans are pretty damn aligned on the goals of our society, especially economically. Yeah, sure, you have the college communists and anarchists. In Congress, you get the occasional Bernie Sanders. But most people in this country want a robust social safety net (and welfare state), a regulated market economy, opportunity for social mobility (including access to education), and government that operates efficiently.

If you ever ask yourself why we have two big tent parties in this country, this seems to me to be as good a reason as any. Parse through the ridiculous rhetoric and you get the truth: both parties are pretty well aligned on where we want America to be. Not entirely, but closely, and much more closely than in many other nations. Where they are not aligned is where rhetorical lines are drawn and trumped up with hyperbolic, disingenuous rhetoric. But I’m hardly convinced that liberals hate America, or that conservatives want endless war and conquest. Chalk it up to successful political socialization from a young age — the inculcation in American youth of a specific ethos embodied in a specific narrative about founders, freedom, liberty, etc. Everyone is regressing to the mean at the end of the day.

Where parties really diverge is not on the end goals, but on the means. Everyone wants a social safety net, but conservatives want to supplant much government for religious and familial institutions. Everyone wants mobility, but liberals think the laborer is someone to be protected from visceral market forces rather than vindicated by them.

This is where all of the substantive debate in politics takes place. And notice that it is regarding the means, not the ends, that debate tends to be centered on policy and gets far less heated and far more technical/sophisticated. Debate on the ends — a largely manufactured debate from perceptions divorced from reality — is where you get the base rhetoric of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin.

Yglesias’ economic program illustrates that well, but I have to ultimately say it’s a weak defense of liberalism per se because he is addressing an assault on his liberal credentials with a presentation of near-universal ends that almost anyone can endorse to some degree rather than a more sophisticated, genuinely “liberal” articulation of how we as a society ought to reach these ends.

Theories are maps. They are a simplified presentation to aid in the interpretation of reality. They beg application — prudent examination, if you will  — to yield meaningful guidance on how to reach a destination. For liberals, the real credentials lie not in knowing where the end is, but in knowing where one currently stands and how to reach that destination.


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