Thursday, February 12, 2009

Does genuine liberalism have a future?

I mostly agree with the tone of this Will Wilkinson post, but I can't help feeling that the prospects for a broadly, genuinely liberal political movement are bleak. At the same time, I'm fairly optimistic about liberalism as a political reality. The following are my highly conjectural claims to back up this point. (This reason post gets at some similar points as mine)

It seems to me that the public choice choice theorists are right. Democratic politics is about the logic of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs. Add to this Caplanite rational irrationality, and you've got policies that pander to the prevailing biases of the electorate, and serve those with an incentive and the means to lobby the government for favors. It's a simple model, but I think it pretty much captures a great deal of what's going on.

Liberalism, or any other coherent ideology, doesn't play much of a role in this picture. People do vote according to certain values, those that do so according to a coherent ideology are few. This is partially because most people don' t really care about ideology, and partially because political values are largely influenced by group affiliation.

Among people who are invested in having a coherent worldview, like folks at think tanks, professors, etc., there may be some hope in forming a broadly liberal movement, one that may have some influence on policy. But I fear that the group affiliation effect is strong among these types as well.

More importantly, though, I doubt many liberal ideologues identify as liberal because of concern for human freedom per se, but rather because they identify with certain issues, like abortion rights. Contemporary American liberalism is largely a product of various social movements, which addressed concerns of specific groups. Many of these struggles may have been justified on liberal grounds, but liberalism wasn't really a motivating factor.

Yet it seems like our society really is becoming more liberal (here meant in the broad sense, in a way that libertarians ought to basically endorse). My guess is that this is because rising material prosperity has freed people to pursue higher order values, and more freedom is largely what people want. The thing is, people mostly don't do this for ideological reasons. They just act according to what they want for themselves. And it turns out that a more liberal order really does satisfy peoples' preferences more fully than the alternatives.

This is great news for liberals of all stripes. But what about ideology? I suspect that any new consensus will emerge more out of gradual social changes than from lots of people being persuaded by theoretical arguments.

I could go on, but I'm going to leave it at these scattered remarks. I wanna build on some of these points later- if I can keep writing regularly...

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