Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Liberalism wins with capitalism, but first, there need to be liberals.

One might have a standard that we should refuse to admit refugees if this will lead to even a single terrorist or criminal incident.

One might also have a standard that we should refuse to mine for coal if this will lead to a single drop of toxic materials in a watershed.

I dream of a country where political factions are divided between those who see these statements both as wrong, in a similar way, opposed by those who see them both as acceptable.

Instead, we have a country where few people seem to see these both as similarly wrong, and there are two larger groups who see one version as correct and the other as wrong.  Their different positions seem to be based on a pre-programmed double-standard.  In both cases, the optimal standard in the world we live in clearly involves compromise.  The optimal amount of refugee acceptance or immigration will, unfortunately, inevitably lead to some instances of crime involving those immigrants.  The optimal amount of electricity will, unfortunately, inevitably lead to some instances of environmental accidents or increases in trace toxins.  We accept these compromises as endogenous when it comes to crimes committed by citizens, or when it comes to toxins we release from our backyard fireplace, or the production of solar panels, or the delivery of some fossil fuels within the status quo.

The differences in these positions seem to come from different forms of sectarianism, who have different suppositions about who are insiders and who are outsiders.  Outsiders don't get compromises.  They get ultimatums.

We will be moving in the right direction if we can somehow break away from sectarianism and move to a political context where the disagreements are between conservativism and liberalism.  The great miracle of markets and capitalism has been capitalism's tendency to deal a winning hand to liberalism, freeing the world's communities from their local status battles, within which the potential of the community is held back in service of the protection of the powerful.  It is difficult for this miracle to play out if there are no liberals to carry the mantle.  Liberals deal in principles, not identities.  Liberals are relativists, not absolutists.


  1. Great thoughts.

    BTW, I wonder: Yes, global free trade is a "good," but should it be absolute?

    What if some nations have ubiquitous property zoning and perennial trade deficits? The Fed said those nations get house price booms.

    I gather most people become self-righteously absolute on perceived principles or pet issues (such a global free trade), but as you say, at some point compromises with reality are sensible.

  2. Well, I maintain that the major political groupings are determined not by differences in principles but by the pragmatic formation of many different interest groups into coalitions necessary to have a chance at winning 50.0001% of the vote and no more (because anypolicy commitment you make to win anything beyond that is effectively a waste). So if you search for a logical reason why a person's opinion on immigration is a great predictor of their opinion on regulation, climate policy, abortion, and other unrelated questions, you are, IMO, searching in vain. Maybe 51% of supporters of deregulation support increased defense spending; that makes it slightly more convenient for a deregulation-defense political alliance; once the alliance is made at the institutional level, both positions get incorporated into the party narrative and the tribal identity, which gradually overrule analytical thinking and before long, nearly everyone who holds one position holds the other.

    If, however, you are intent on finding the unifying principle, in this case, one might speculate that it is because people have a very hard time viewing human beings as having economic value. Regulate a good, and we have fewer of those goods; we don't want that, it's obvious. Regulate immigration, and we have fewer doctors, janitors, stevedores, etc. and therefore fewer of those goods and services. But most people don't think that way about people. The economic loss to fewer people doesn't seem as obvious. Perhaps they avoid it deliberately because they see it as cynical to think of people as 'human capital.' Or maybe it's the moral component: someone dying from an accidental chemical spill maybe doesn't seem as infinitely horrifying as to warrant stifling regulation to prevent it from happening even once compared to, say, a person murdering another person.

    The issue with grasping the concept of 'human capital' seems salient to me though. Notice how almost no progressives seem willing to make the case for fewer immigration restrictions on the basis of a freer labor market increasing output and standard o living for people already here. It's the best case you could make for it, and they don't make it; they instead focus on visceral notions like 'we should be nice to refugees.' Nor can it be explained by fear of seeming like hypocrites on free trade: most Democrats supported a recent bill to allow pharmaceutical imports from Canada.

  3. nice post for Kevin: