Changing the Terms of the Debate on Government

I’m about as frustrated as the rest of the country as I hear about the stalemate in congress over raising the debt ceiling and dealing with our deficit and debt. I think that one of the reasons that the Tea Party and the fiscal conservative strand in the republican party has been able to gain so much traction in the last three years has much to do with the narrative clarity of their story. Government is inefficient. Inefficiency is bad. Therefore, government is bad. Freedom is good. Free markets epitomize freedom. Therefore free markets are good. The political left, meanwhile, seems mired in their arguments, full of piecemeal justifications, and unable to confront head-on the stripped-down logic of their opponents. My goal in this post is to try to point out the inconsistencies of the Tea Party’s logic and re-frame the discussion for the Left.

My arguments will follow this general sequence: Free markets don’t and can’t behave the way the Tea Party says they do. ‘Efficiency’ is a hollow concept as it is currently used and needs to be re-evaluated. Even freedom has been oversimplified and used as an ideological weapon rather than an ideal to work towards in practice. All of this means that the Left needs to challenge the Tea Party on their terms and assumptions and re-insert government into an efficient and freedom-pursuing solution.

Proponents of laissez-faire capitalism claim that the central strengths of free markets are their (theoretical) amorality, transparency, democracy, basis in individual freedom, and efficiency. Ask most economists and they’ll tell you that science and math back these claims up, but they will slip in that parenthetical fine print just as I did. The parentheses are what make free markets so slippery to pin down, but if we analyze what the reality of free markets are we can see that those two punctuations hold back a corrosive truth that, once released, eats through the foundations of the argument against government. Markets are fundamentally different in reality than they appear on paper and in the mathematical models. Here’s why:

Markets cannot be amoral because they are directed and influenced by people, who are fundamentally moral. Markets tend to favor certain outcomes because humans tend to favor certain outcomes. Markets cannot be separated from human systems, and therefore they cannot be considered amoral. Markets are not transparent because, as any economist will reluctantly grumble, there is no such thing as perfect information. Nobody can measure nor organize the information necessary to make perfectly informed decisions and there are myriad examples of individuals or groups warping or hiding information in order to cheat the system. Transparency is a nice idea, but it’s only that. Markets are NOT strictly democratic because democracy means one vote per person whereas markets mean one vote per dollar. Economic votes are cast by the people who control the dollars, so what would be a democracy given zero inequality is really an oligarchy in our current arrangement. The claim that free markets are based on individual freedoms seems to me to be basically true, with some qualifications involving the idea of freedom that I’ll deal with later on. Still, I accept that free markets are the best way to promote individual freedoms.

Now to efficiency. Markets can only be called efficient by a very particular definition of efficiency. If efficiency means that the greatest output is produced by the least input, then by golly markets (theoretically) are efficient. Leaving aside this particular parentheses, however, we can take issue with the definition itself and contrast this production-based definition of efficiency with a broader one: The means which most effectively obtain the desired outcome. All of a sudden we need to define the desired outcome. Implicit in free market economics is that the desired outcome is maximized production, but I propose that there are a few things that are more important than maximum production. Things like economic justice, equality, sustainability, and public goods like education, parks, peace, and security. I’m afraid that each of these things implies an inefficiency according to the production definition. Want justice? It’s simply not efficient to take care of the poor or nonproductive in society. Want equality? It just distorts incentives to produce and invest in order to maximize output. Like nature? It’s only another input that should be used to maximize production. Want public goods? Markets can’t really handle public goods because of the problems of controlling access and policing free-riders. No person that I’ve ever encountered really wants to give up on these important human values, which means that we should take a look at my expanded definition and work backwards.

Okay, so we want justice, public goods, nature, and equality as well as the freedom that comes along with ‘free markets.’ These are our desired outcomes. So what are the most efficient ways to achieve them? Well, it certainly appears that the free market economy is the best way to approach freedom, but how do we balance the benefits of free markets with our other priorities? Well, that’s where history has provided an answer. Societies organize themselves into political systems and make decisions to uphold their desired outcomes. That’s right, we’re talking about government. It turns out that, to go back to my definition, we want certain desired outcomes that cannot be provided by free markets and the most efficient way to achieve them is through government.

Wait a second. That’s the opposite of what the libertarians and fiscal conservatives have been saying.

Exactly. If we broaden our definition of efficiency beyond maximizing production to include the important human values that hopefully we all share, we can conclude that free markets are inefficient and government is the only solution.

Now, this does not settle the debate of ‘how much government is the right amount,’ but it does change the footing of the discussion in important ways. Now that we’ve concluded that government is efficient insofar as it helps us achieve our desired outcomes, we must define more exactly what they should be and how to measure and maintain them. This is where libertarians step in again and demand that we bow down to their god: freedom. Freedom is sacred and inviolable. Try to argue against freedom! Well, how about if I just bring to light the caveats that are often swept aside and ignored?

What is freedom, really? It’s something that’s not questioned much, but if we think about it we all know that freedom is kind of self-contradictory. Individual freedom needs to be curtailed or it will impinge on itself. If individuals are completely free to act as they wish, then they are free to limit the freedoms of others (say, by stealing or killing), thereby negating freedom. Freedom needs constraints to exist universally. True freedom comes from a system wherein individual freedoms are limited to actions that do not conflict with the freedoms of others. This will maximize current freedom, but we also need to consider the past and future if our idea of freedom is to go beyond a shallow abstraction.

I believe freedom needs a concept of justice to ensure that we don’t dismiss past atrocities as irrelevant and a sense of responsibility for the freedom of those to come after us. Because freedom has been violated in the past, we have historical injustices in addition to the current injustices of birth and fate to contend with. In order to pursue freedom generally, we need to limit some current freedoms to compensate for past denials. Policies like a progressive tax system, welfare for the disadvantaged, and restrictions on the power of money to control politics and society are aimed to do this. If we believe that future freedoms should be protected, then we need to make sure that what we do today won’t impinge on the freedom of others later on. We have to limit a bit more freedom to ensure that people don’t take advantage of natural resources for their own benefit, thus depriving others of the freedom to benefit from ecological diversity or clean air and water.

This logical sequence quickly puts the Ayn Rands out there in apoplectic fits because they see no end to the rationalizing away of our precious freedoms. Where will we stop? When the individual is subjected to the collective like an animal slave? When individuality, creativity, and innovation are crushed out of humanity?

Uh, no.

As I said from the start in my definition of efficiency, we only agree to the most efficient means to achieve the desired outcome. Since the desired outcome is not subjugation, we will not design a system that will lead to it. We agreed that our desired outcome included freedom as the central value, but now we can see that freedom in a meaningful sense requires limitations that can best be applied by a government. Additionally we agree that we need government to promote important values like justice, equality, ecological sustainability, and public goods. There is nothing totalitarian about ensuring that our government is strong enough to protect these values. The surprising thing is that by these understandings of efficiency and freedom, the left can turn the right’s argument on it’s head: government is perfectly efficient and is indeed the only efficient solution. To promote freedom we must compromise and limit freedom. More generally we need to clearly define what our desired outcomes are and show that government will be contained to effectively pursuing them.

My hope in this post was to undermine some of the ideological shouting matches that happen when we talk about the role of government so that we can discuss real solutions. There is still plenty to debate about, but let’s agree that both government and free markets are part of the solution and stop accusing the other side of hating either freedom or the poor. Unless we can find ways to talk reasonably about these issues we’re just going to keep filibustering, mudslinging, and wasting time and energy looking for short-term political tactical advantage.

Let me know your thoughts and comments on these ideas. It’s a work in progress. 🙂



Filed under Economics, Politics

3 responses to “Changing the Terms of the Debate on Government

  1. Dear Andrew,

    First of all, let me just say that I hope you’re doing very well in Nicaragua! It seems like a great adventure.

    For the sake of full disclosure I’ll just say that I am Libertarian (and not a Tea Partier!). Now, I’m 99.9% sure that you know the difference but for those who might read this entry who don’t let me just lay out the key differences between Tea Partiers and Libertarians: Tea Partiers are basically Republicans with absolutist views on fiscal conservatism. Libertarians by contrast — for the most part — believe in: a limited government socially, economically, fiscally and geopolitically. If you ask a Tea Partier, should we close Gitmo and legalize Gay Marriage, they will almost certainly say, “No!” If you ask a libertarian those same questions he or she will most certainly say “Yes!” (although, they might say that we should abolish government sponsored marriages for all genders – but you get the idea).

    Now, honestly, I am not going to address most of what you said in your post. You have attempted to lay out a treatise justifying progressivism and denying certain other political movements in an extremely compact format. I don’t think you succeeded not because you argumentation was poor but because your task was too great. There just isn’t enough room in the space you gave yourself to even justify one tenth the claims you made.

    About the debt ceiling debate in general, let me make just a few, slightly less ambitious comments.

    A. The Republicans actually proposed something. The Democrats and particularly Obama neither passed nor proposed any bill which would have actually addressed our debt problem in a substantial manner. Entitlements (and to a lesser extent military spending) are by far the largest contributors to our current and future debt. Congressional Democrats flat out took entitlements off the table. No matter how much you increase taxes you will not solve this problem without entitlement reform or cuts.
    B. What the Republicans proposed was certainly not perfect. They should have given some ground on taxes (as much as I disagree with increased taxes) in return for deeper cuts.
    C. Here’s are my steps to solving the debt problem:

    1.Pull out of Afghanistan/Iraq/Libya right now. Not today, not tomorrow – right now. That’s a minimum of 25 billion a month saved.
    2.Cut the military budget by 50%, minimum. We have no need for military bases in 170+ countries or jets that can take off vertically. That’s obscene.
    3.Revoke all foreign aid.
    4.Raise the retirement age by 8 years.
    5.Increase medicare premiums by 25%.
    6.Increase funding for medicare/medicaid fraud detection (roughly 5-10% of all medicare/medicaid spending is fraudulent).
    7.Means test social security.
    8.Throw out the current tax code. Everyone pays 15% (of their after local/state tax) income in excess of $35,000 to the federal government.

    Honestly though, I agree with you about the general tone in Washington. It is absolutely crazy. That being said, I do think that the media coverage has been really, really unfair. The Democrats basically proposed nothing and the Republicans passed several, reasonable budget cutting bills. The Democrats did not. Furthermore, Obama has shown absolutely, positively no leadership on this or a variety of other issues.

    He is a disgusting president. He has NO job plan (last Friday, Jay Carney couldn’t name one thing the President was doing or proposing to decrease the unemployment rate), he has NO economic plan, he has NO energy plan. Furthermore, he has extended nearly all of Bush’s worst programs.

    Remember how he was going to close Gitmo, make government more transparent, get us out of Iraq within 8 months of being in office, end warrant-less wiretapping, promote LGBTA issues, improve civil liberties? How’s all that working out?

    Hope and change. Right.

    • Thanks, Chris. There’s a reason I asked you to comment and this is it! Thanks for pointing out that I was too thoughtlessly conflating Tea Partiers and Libertarians. You’re right. There does seem to be much more overlap with social conservatives in the Tea Party.
      I’m glad you’ve given some concrete steps for dealing with the fiscal problems and I’m working on a couple of posts (probably equally as ambitious as this one, meaning that I will skate past many a detail) in which I want to give an overview of how government does spend and how I think it should spend. I agree with you, for the most part. I’m coming to consider myself some kind of liberal/libertarian fusion. We’ll see where I keep going with it. I agree with some of the disappointments with Obama, but if I’m honest with myself I’m too emotionally invested in Obama and his message to be able to see him in the light that you portray. I find myself making excuses and blaming others for his inabilities to get things done. Some of these excuses are founded and some aren’t, but the fact that I don’t want to find fault means that I’m biased. Ah, well. That’s why we need dialogue, right?
      Appreciate your comment!

  2. Janet Boddy

    Andrew, I love that you have good friends who will challenge you–and so politely! Keep on writing, son. Love, your liberal Mom

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