Four Questions: Newsletter #4

Jeff’s Newsletter, Volume 4

Today’s newsletter turned out to be an extended meditation on a theme (maybe it always is). After as many words as I can in good conscience spend, I still have many other links to share but will save for later. If you think a friend would enjoy this, please forward along.


1. Nothing special about special interests
I’ve been on a reading binge about what’s wrong with American government. Jonathan Rauch’s Governments’s End was written in the 90s but has aged very well. Rauch was inspired by one of my all-time favorite political economists, Mancur Olson, and the book is a reverent application of Olson’s ideas about collective action problems to contemporary American politics. The basic idea is that Washington is captured by groups representing narrow interests rather than our collective public interest, and that the cross-cutting, contradictory demands of these groups mechanically produces subsidies and transfer-seeking while blocking off reform in any policy area. Note that Rauch does not speak about “special interests” in the same pejorative tone most of us do: his point is that we’re all represented by interest groups (industry associations, unions, advocacy groups, the AARP), so they’re not very special, and in any case the point of democracy is to give voice to our various interests. The problem is a set of biases (all predictable in Olson’s collective action framework) that tilt legislation in the favor of narrow interests rather than broad ones. It’s easy to form an interest group but hard to dissolve one once the mission has been accomplished; transfers and subsidies baked into legislation are nearly impossible to excise; it’s easy to mobilize for reform in general but even easier to mobilize against any specific reform that threatens a narrow group. The result is a century of legislative crud clogging the system. Any large, coherent policy change will be blocked or compromised against the original intent of its authors (see Dodd-Frank and the Affordable Care Act).

Rauch is a pessimist (or a believer in entropy), and thinks this is basically the end state of American democracy; life will go on but policy mostly won’t. He rejects usual good government reforms e.g. campaign finance, arguing that as long as interests exist, we will find a way to mobilize around them. To the extent that change is possible, liberals need to take the lead. That’s because change necessarily involves removing legislation, which is considered a conservative move. In my view, liberals shouldn’t be ashamed to stand for simple, flexible, if smaller government. Thinking about this opportunity to find common ground with conservatives (if real conservatives exist anymore) over clearing away narrow rent-seeking legislation was motivational at the end of this depressing book.

2. A day to atone for the “curse of bigness”
Jeffrey Rosen’s new biography of Louis D. Brandeis is a not-so-thinly-veiled argument that Brandeis, the “Jewish Jefferson,” gave us the intellectual blueprint for uniting liberals and conservatives against the “curse of bigness” in business and government. Brandeis was perhaps the leading political philosopher and jurist of the Progressive Era, and in Rosen’s view a modern flagbearer of the Jeffersonian tradition of political and economic liberty against monopolies and invasive governments. In regulatory matters, Brandeis preferred to limit firm size through “regulated competition” rather than allow monopolies to form and then regulating them. He tended to dismiss the benefits of economies of scale, rejecting efficient prices for consumers in favor of maximizing the number of citizens civically engaged as producers (see this trade-off concretely in the “Wal-Mart helps poor people get cheap stuff” vs. “small businesses build community, responsibility, and civic engagement” debate). In Whitney, he wrote one of the most profound defenses of free speech, which I will quote at length because it’s so good:

“Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the state was to make men free to develop their faculties, and that in its government, the deliberative forces should prevail over the arbitrary.They valued liberty both as an end and as a means. They believed liberty to be the secret of happiness and courage to be the secret of liberty. They believed the freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that without free speech and assembly discussion would be futile; that, with them, discussion affords ordinarily adequate protection against the dissemination of noxious doctrine; that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty; and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government.”

He was also prescient about some of the thorny legal issues of the digital age: he wanted to give the same privacy protections to electronic communication that the Founders had given to letters, and he (like Jefferson) was skeptical of overly aggressive patent protection of ideas. Rosen sees Brandeis as a clear paragon of anti-corporate, pro-civil liberties ideology fit to unite populist right and populist left today. Brandeis gives us little to resolve the racial tensions between those two groups, but otherwise I strongly agree.

3. From Jeffersonian populism to corporate liberalism
Indeed, an inability to account for race (as you’ll recall, maybe the fundamental division in American political history) seems to plague otherwise insightful populist arguments. This was at the top of my mind while reading Jeff Taylor’s Where Did the Party Go? I came to this book via Brandeis; it’s an encomium to Jeffersonian political philosophy and a history of how the Democratic party abandoned populism. The book is framed as a comparison between William Jennings Bryan, who represents populism, and Hubert Humphrey, whom Taylor scorns as the epitome of the midcentury corporate liberal, at which point “liberalism” was no longer an ideology but an attitude of compassion and niceness, as Humphrey seems to have seen it. The transition from Bryan to Humphrey is dissected as one from ideology to pragmatism, commitment to compromise, populism to elitism, morality to economics, common good to special interests, agrarian to urban, left to center, and radical to respectable. I’m sympathetic to the critique implied by some of these transitions but certainly not all; I think urban society has many advantages and isn’t going away, and Jefferson’s opposition to banking was probably the least timeless of his principles. Thank goodness we’re not all still farmers.

The strange thing about the book is that, while Taylor seems to believe that FDR’s presidency was the turning point at which “liberalism” lost its meaning (“Roosevelt’s twin legacy is centralized government and permanent militarism. You are supposedly “liberal” or “conservative” according to which part of this legacy you prefer”), that time period is only obliquely discussed. I would have rather read about this turning point than about Humphrey, several decades later in full corporate liberal mode. So now I’ll need to read a few FDR books. There are a bunch of very fringe opinions in this book, like the notion that entering World War II was a betrayal of Jefferson’s principle of isolationism. And then there’s race. Taylor writes approvingly of Barry Goldwater and George Wallace (whose states-rightism was, according to Taylor, really about populism and economic liberty) as two of the few legitimately populist candidates in the second half of the 20th century. Trump is less sincere in his populism, but we might add him to the list. Is it a mere coincidence that these campaigns relied, at base, on white ethnic nationalism? Or were economic populism and white nationalism deeply intertwined in the Southern strategy? I think we’ll need to deal with this unsavory relationship before populism can be salvaged.

4. Where to shelve a basket of deplorables
Ezra Klein has been thinking about the above, specifically how to talk productively about “demographic anxiety” and white resistance to multiculturalism without rubber-stamping people as “racist.” He brought this up in recent conversations with Tyler Cowen and Francis Fukuyama (both, especially the former, recommended). We’ve successfully updated the rules of polite society so that racial animus is unacceptable, but I don’t think we’ve figured out what to do with people who apparently hold unacceptable views. You can see how easy it is to overreach with HRC’s “deplorables” comment, which, even if you think was descriptively accurate, surely you don’t think was productive. Jeff Taylor offered something of a template in his book: “Racism and multiculturalism both overemphasize our differences. Ethnic inclusiveness acknowledges differences and respects the right to be different–even when it is seen as incorrect–but stresses what we have in common.” I like that, but it’s still too vague to employ with people who are unhappy that Nevada, Maryland, Georgia, Florida, Arizona, New York, and New Jersey will soon join Hawaii, California, New Mexico, and Texas as majority-minority states (welcome). On the plus side, according to Pew, 47% of American conservatives believe that diversity makes the country better, a greater share than liberals who say the same in most European countries. If you have an idea of how to answer Ezra’s question, please share.

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