In the June 2011 Freeman I wrote about what strikes me as the simplistic narratives told by too many people on the political right and by too many people on the political left . My column is below the fold.
It’s not too much of a simplification to say that modern American conservatives believe the national government to be ignorant, bumbling, and corrupt when it meddles in the U.S. economy, but sagacious, sure-footed, and righteous when it meddles in foreign-government affairs.
Nor are the boundaries of acceptable simplification breached by saying that modern American “liberals” believe the national government to be sagacious, sure-footed, and righteous when it meddles in the U.S. economy, but ignorant, bumbling, and corrupt when it meddles in foreign-government affairs.
This striking contradiction in political viewpoints has not, of course, gone unnoticed.
I was prompted to ponder this contradiction not long ago after I read an op-ed in the Washington Post by the neoconservative William Kristol calling on Uncle Sam to attempt to influence the outcomes of the recent popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East. My ponderings produced a hypothesis: Modern conservatives and “liberals” are obsessively fixated on bad guys (just different ones).
For both conservatives and “liberals” the world is full of problems caused by bad actors—greedy, heartless, power-hungry autocrats who deploy illegitimately acquired power to trample the rights and livelihoods of the masses. Ordinary men and women seek liberation from these tyrants, but—being ordinary and oppressed—the typical person cannot escape the overlords’ predation without help. Their liberation requires forceful intervention by well-meaning and courageous outsiders.
For “liberals” the oppressed masses consist of workers and the poor, and the oligarchs who do the oppressing are business people and private corporations. What encourages this oppression are free markets and their accompanying doctrine of nonintervention by government into the economy.
However, contrary to the “liberals,” nonintervention rests on at least three truths: First, the complexities of modern economies are so great, and hard to discern, that it is absurdly fanciful to suppose that government officials can intervene without causing more harm than good. Even the most well-meaning government is akin to a bull in a china shop: Out of its natural element, even government’s most careful actions will be so sweeping and awkward that the net result will be unintentionally destructive.
Second, even if economic intervention begins with the best of motives, it degenerates into a process of transferring wealth from the politically powerless to the politically powerful. The interventions continue to sport noble names (such as the “Great Society programs” and the “Fair Labor Standards Act”) and to be marketed as heroic efforts to defend the weak against the strong. But these, however, are nothing more than cynical and disingenuous political marketing efforts aimed at hiding from the general public the actual, unsavory consequences of these interventions.
Third, many situations that appear to well-meaning outsiders to be so undesirable that someone simply must intervene to correct them are understood by many of the people most closely affected by these situations to be superior to likely alternatives.
“Unequal income distribution” is perhaps the foremost such situation. While most “liberals” are obsessed with the “distribution” of income and believe that people of modest means must be especially disturbed by the fact that some other people earn more than they earn, in fact the typical American of modest means is far less bothered by “unequal” income “distribution” than are members of the “liberal” academy and punditry. This latter fact only further confirms to the “liberal” mind that ordinary Americans need third-party intervention to save them from their own naiveté; ordinary Americans just don’t know what glories they are denying themselves by acquiescing in the prevailing economic power structure.
Modern “liberals” dismiss these three objections to economic intervention as being fanciful excuses used by the economically powerful—and, even worse, also by the economically naive free-market faithful—to provide (flimsy) intellectual cover for predations by capitalist bad guys. The realistic assessments by modern “liberals” indicate to them that economic intervention is necessary and righteous.
A nearly identical debate plays out on the foreign-policy front, but with the sides switched.
For modern American conservatives the oppressed masses consist of foreign peoples yearning for American-style freedom and political franchise. But these unfortunate foreigners are oppressed by oligarchs who happen to control their governments. “Liberals” (and liberals) who adhere to a doctrine of U.S. government nonintervention in foreign affairs raise the same three objections that conservatives (and liberals) raise against government intervention in the economy.
First, the complexities of foreign governments’ relationships with their citizens are so great and hard to discern that it is absurdly fanciful to suppose that Uncle Sam can intervene without causing more harm than good. Even the most well-meaning intervention is akin to a bull in a china shop: Out of its natural element, even Uncle Sam’s most careful actions will be so sweeping and awkward that the net result will be unintentionally destructive.
Second, even if foreign intervention begins with the best of motives, it degenerates into a process of transferring wealth from the politically powerless to the politically powerful. The interventions continue to enjoy noble names (such as “Operation Iraqi Freedom”) and to be marketed as heroic efforts to defend the weak against the strong. But these, however, are nothing more than cynical and disingenuous political marketing efforts aimed at hiding from the general public the actual, unsavory consequences of these interventions in which corporations such as Halliburton and Blackwater rake in huge, undeserved profits at the expense of the American taxpayer and the foreign populations ostensibly being helped.
Third, many situations that appear to well-meaning outsiders to be so undesirable that someone simply must intervene are understood by many of the people most closely affected by these situations to be superior to likely alternatives. As oppressive as Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime genuinely was, it’s not at all clear that merely disposing of this particular bad guy has liberated Iraqis from oppression. Saddam’s rule was very much a result—and certainly not the principal cause—of Iraq’s anti-liberal culture and dysfunctional social institutions, not to mention earlier U.S. intervention.
Foreign countries’ political, economic, and social institutions are too complex and too deeply rooted in unique histories to be adequately grasped by American politicians and military leaders. Therefore American intervention—which is inevitably ham-fisted—adds to this mix only confusion and turmoil.
The two kinds of intervention situations aren’t analogous in all details; differences exist. But these differences are small when compared to the similarities. “Liberals’” confidence that domestic markets can be improved by battalions of bureaucrats charged with keeping bad guys in line is surprisingly similar to conservatives’ confidence that the welfare of foreigners can be improved by battalions of U.S. military troops charged with keeping bad guys in line.