Thursday, July 29, 2010

Liberal Self-Consciousness

One of this blog’s recurring themes is that, for all their pretenses of intellectual and moral superiority over conservatives, liberals aren’t much given to self-reflection. That’s why smart liberals can be remarkably oblivious to the state of play in their running ideological battle with conservatives. As I argued here, they're so used to patting themselves on the back for their intellectual credentials and winning day-to-day ideological skirmishes that they forget how much ground they’ve surrendered in their forty-year ideological war with conservatives. We’d move the ideological ball forward more effectively, I suspect, if we had a better sense of where we are on the field. But that would require attaining enough self-consciousness to understand where our core ideological commitments fit into the broader conceptual and historical landscape.

Some of the best evidence of liberal obliviousness is the zeal with which smart liberals advance arguments against conservatives that apply equally to themselves. Consider E.J. Dionne’s latest tirade about how conservative stupidity and cynicism is ruining the country:
“In every other serious democracy, conservative political parties feel at least some obligation to match their tax policies with their spending plans. David Cameron, the new Conservative prime minister in Britain, is a leading example. He recently offered a rather brutal budget that includes severe cutbacks. I have doubts about some of them, but at least Cameron cared enough about reducing his country's deficit that alongside the cuts, he also proposed an increase in the value-added tax from 17.5 percent to 20 percent. Imagine: a fiscal conservative who really is a fiscal conservative.

“That could never happen here because the fairy tale of supply-side economics insists that taxes are always too high, especially on the rich. . . .

“Our discussion of the economic stimulus is another symptom of political irrationality. It's entirely true that the $787 billion recovery package passed last year was not big enough to keep unemployment from rising to over 9 percent.

“But this is not actually an argument against the stimulus. On the contrary, studies showing that the stimulus created or saved up to 3 million jobs are very hard to refute. It's much easier to pretend that all this money was wasted, although the evidence is overwhelming that we should have stimulated more.”
As a preliminary matter, note the gaping inconsistency in Dionne’s treatment of David Cameron. He thinks conservatives should be ashamed of themselves for not following Cameron’s example by raising taxes, but liberals urging more fiscal stimulus shouldn’t be the least bit ashamed for declining to follow Cameron’s example when it comes to public spending. How strange that it seems never to occur to Dionne that he needs to explain why what’s good for the conservative goose isn’t also good for the liberal gander.

But I’m more interested in Dionne’s juxtaposition of his disdain for supply-side economics and his commitment to more fiscal stimulus. What, in his eyes, makes supply-side economics a "fairy tale"? Dionne doesn’t say, but I can only assume that he thinks that conservatives are surrendering to the suspiciously convenient thought that helping a core Republican constituency by cutting marginal rates in the top brackets makes everyone better off through the magic of “trickle down” economics. That’s what gives stigmatizing Bush-era tax policy as “tax cuts for the rich” its rhetorical punch.

Fair enough. But isn’t Dionne’s belief in more fiscal stimulus just as suspiciously convenient? The idea behind it is that stimulating aggregate demand by putting money in the hands of core Democratic constituencies (public employees, unionized private employees, the unemployed, etc.) will make everyone better off through the magic of Keynesian “trickle up” economics.

Now the fact that what conservatives believe about taxes and what liberals believe about public spending are equally convenient politically doesn’t mean that either, or both, beliefs are untrue (although it might mean that the fact that smart people on each side think their beliefs are true doesn’t count as evidence that they really are). Paying Dionne the intellectual compliment of assuming that he knows all this invites the thought that he’s cynically keeping that knowledge to himself for rhetorical effect.

Dionne has never struck me as a cynic.

No comments: