Coherence versus Political Reality

Arnold Kling tries to categorize current attitudes towards markets and state intervention as combinations of three points on an ideological triangle; Libertarian, Conservative, and Progressive:

1. Point L, where you believe that markets are effective at processing information and solving problems. This position is to take a radically pro-market view, and to let markets fix their own failures.

2. Point C, where you believe that tradition incorporates the evolved use of information to solve problems. This position is to be very cautious about overthrowing existing institutional arrangements.

3. Point P, where you believe that expert technocrats should be in charge. You are comfortable with throwing out tradition and markets in order to cede power to experts.

I think something like this would be the best framework within which to think about policy, but I think it only works as a descriptive model of actual beliefs for a small subclass of people: those with both a decent knowledge of the social sciences and a broadly consequentialist worldview. Politics as it’s practised on the ground isn’t a competition between alternative coherent worldviews, but competing myths, symbols, and identity groups.

The difference between Arnold’s description and political reality is most obvious in the case of conservatives. Hayekian conservatism is certainly a reasonable argument against the reformist zeal of either libertarians or progressives, but most self-identified conservatives surely don’t base their preference for existing institutions and norms on arguments from institutional evolution. They see existing institutions and norms as right – not merely stable equilibria which it would be unwise to mess with.

Arnold is talking about policy, but politics is an entirely different thing.

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2 Responses

  1. “Politics as it’s practised on the ground isn’t a competition between alternative coherent worldviews, but competing myths, symbols, and identity groups.”
    Economists almost never seem to see this point. I’m with Jeffrey Friedman on this, people don’t know economics and they can’t know the relevant information which would make reasonable judgment between policies even possible. The politics of the nation state is inherently theological, as Carl Schmitt observed long ago.

    • I don’t think it’s that people can’t get the relevant information to make informed policy decisions – I think all but a small proportion of people are smart enough to understand basic economics – but that they don’t have any incentive to become informed. In fact, they have a positive incentive to use politics to signal solidarity, etc.

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