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Monday, March 12, 2018

Left vs Right

"Foremost is the conservative skepticism about the ideal of progress itself. Ever since the first modern conservative, Edmund Burke, suggested that humans were too flawed to think up schemes for improving their condition and were better off sticking with traditions and institutions that kept them from the abyss, a major stream of conservative thought has been skeptical about the best—laid plans of mice and men. The reactionary fringe of conservatism, recently disinterred by Trumpists and the European far right (chapter 23), believes that Western civilization has careened out of control since some halcyon century, having abandoned the moral clarity of traditional Christendom for a decadent secular fleshpot that, if left on its current course, will soon implode from terrorism, crime, and anomie.

Well, that’s wrong. Life before the Enlightenment was darkened by starvation, plagues, superstitions, maternal and infant mortality, marauding knight—warlords, sadistic torture—executions, slavery, witch hunts, and genocidal crusades, conquests, and wars of religion? Good riddance. The arcs in figures 5-1 through 18-4 show that as ingenuity and sympathy have been applied to the human condition, life has gotten longer, healthier, richer, safer, happier, freer, smarter, deeper, and more interesting. Problems remain, but problems are inevitable.

The left, too, has missed the boat in its contempt for the market and its romance with Marxism. Industrial capitalism launched the Great Escape from universal poverty in the 19th century and is rescuing the rest of humankind in a Great Convergence in the 21st. Over the same time span, communism brought the world terror-famines, purges, gulags, genocides, Chernobyl, megadeath revolutionary wars, and North Korea—style poverty before collapsing everywhere else of its own internal contradictions. Yet in a recent survey 18 percent of social science professors identified themselves as Marxist, and the words capitalist and free market still stick in the throats of most intellectuals. Partly this is because their brains autocorrect these terms to unbridled, unregulated, unfettered, or untrammeled free markets, perpetuating a false dichotomy: a free market can coexist with regulations on safety, labor, and the environment, just as a free country can coexist with criminal laws. And a free market can coexist with high levels of spending on health, education, and welfare (chapter 9)—indeed, some of the countries with the greatest amount of social spending also have the greatest amount of economic freedom.

To be fair to the left, the libertarian right has embraced the same false dichotomy and seems all too willing to play the left‘s W straw man. Right—wing libertarians (in their 21st—century Republican Party version) have converted the observation that too much regulation can be harmful (by over—empowering bureaucrats, costing more to society than it delivers in benefits, or protecting incumbents against competition rather than consumers against harm) into the dogma that less regulation is always better than more regulation. They have converted the observation that too much social spending can be harmful (by creating perverse incentives against work and undermining the norms and institutions of civil society) into the dogma that any amount of social spending is too much. And they have translated the observation that tax rates can be too high into a hysterical rhetoric of “liberty” in which raising the marginal tax rate for income above $400,000 from 35 to 39.6 percent means turning the country over to jackbooted storm troopers. Often the refusal to seek the optimum level of government is justified by an appeal to Friedrich Hayek’s argument in The Road to Serfdom that regulation and welfare lay out a slippery slope along which a country will slide into penury and tyranny.

The facts of human progress strike me as having been as unkind to right-wing libertarianism as to right-wing conservatism and left-wing Marxism. The totalitarian governments of the 20th century did not emerge from democratic welfare states sliding down a slippery slope, but were imposed by fanatical ideologues and gangs of thugs.And countries that combine free markets with more taxation, social spending, and regulation than the United States (such as Canada, New Zealand, and Western Europe) turn out to be not grim dystopias but rather pleasant places to live, and they trounce the United States in every measure of human flourishing, including crime, life expectancy, infant mortality, education, and happiness. As we saw, no developed country runs on right—wing libertarian principles, nor has any realistic vision of such a country ever been laid out.

It should not be surprising that the facts of human progress confound the major —isms. The ideologies are more than two centuries old and are based on mile—high visions such as whether humans are tragically flawed or infinitely malleable, and whether society is an organic whole or a collection of individuals. A real society comprises hundreds of millions of social beings, each with a trillion-synapse brain, who pursue their well-being while affecting the well—being of others in complex networks with massive positive and negative externalities, many of them historically unprecedented. It is bound to defy any simple narrative of what will happen under a given set of rules. A more rational approach to politics is to treat societies as ongoing experiments and open-mindedly learn the best practices, whichever part of the spectrum they come from. The empirical picture at present suggests that people flourish most in liberal democracies with a mixture of civic norms, guaranteed rights, market freedom, social spending, and judicious regulation. As Pat Paulsen noted, ‘‘If either the right wing or the left wing gained control of the country, it would fly around in circles.”"

--- Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress / Steven Pinker
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