By “statism,” I mean the reflexive presumption that social conditions that can be controlled through state action should be so controlled. Sometimes that’s a matter of deciding whether it’s better for collective action to be undertaken by means of state institutions or the institutions of civil society. A society can make provision for the poor, for example, exclusively through a system of state-enforced legal entitlement, exclusively through a system of private charity, or through some combination of both. Liberals and conservatives argue about whether it’s better to have a system in which the welfare state largely displaces private charity, as in much of Western Europe, or a system like ours that not only leaves ample room for private charity, but subsidizes it through tax deductions and public expenditures to faith-based charitable organizations.
Here, I’m more interested in statism in connection with the political choice between state-sponsored collective action and enjoying (or suffering) the unintended consequences of spontaneous interaction within civil society. That’s what the ideological contest between American liberals and conservatives over the size of government is mostly about. When it comes to the distribution of wealth, risk and social status, liberals are reflexively statist and conservatives are reflexively nonstatist. Liberals presume that there’s something willfully irrational about tolerating the social distribution of benefits and burdens that emerges spontaneously from prevailing market structures when it’s within our power to implement standards of distributive justice. Conservatives reflexively believe not only that state-imposed redistribution is inconsistent with liberty, but that it’s likely to hurt the people it’s designed to help in the long run.
The ideological contest over ObamaCare, for example, conforms to this template. Liberals have been trying to socialize the risks associated with the delivery of healthcare for generations, not because they’ve always agreed among themselves about what distributive standards apply, but because they believe in their bones that it’s crazy not to apply any standard at all. Conservatives think that the state enforcement of any mandatory standard exacts a high cost in lost liberty and threatens to retard medical innovation that benefits the most vulnerable Americans in the long run.
We often forget, however, that there’s such a thing as conservative statism. Tom Schaller’s plausible speculation about why a majority of American voters approve of Arizona’s recent immigration law suggests that the immigration debate is the mirror image of the debate over ObamaCare:
Conservatives reflexively think that it’s intolerable that the federal government won’t take the trouble to secure the border because it’s irrational willfully to leave membership in American society to happenstance. Moreover, it’s unjust to the legal immigrants who’ve played by the rules and the native-born workers whose wages are depressed by competition from the flood of illegal immigrants. Visceral conservative support for the Arizona law doesn’t tell us much about what standard of membership conservatives favor, just that they favor the application of some standard.“What I suspect further polling will reveal is that a significant element of public support derives from a general empathy and encouragement Americans want to express toward Arizonans for doing something--anything--in the face of Washington's continued foot-dragging. This is essentially the point--or, rather, one of the points--the highly-controversial Arizona anti-immigration icon Sheriff Joe Arpaio made this week: If nothing else, Arizona's actions now force Washington's hands. But that does not necessarily mean Americans favor rounding up and/or profiling people for deportation, or that they are xenophobic racists. Instead, some of them surely are tired of and frustrated by inaction on the national level, of more talk than action--and they approve of the fact that Arizona this week sent a shot across Washington's bow, which it undoubtedly did.”
Liberals reflexively think that any effort to enforce standards of membership amounts to an unacceptable infringement of liberty. Moreover, it's likely to hurt the people it’s designed to help by subjecting legal immigrants to discriminatory law enforcement and native-born workers to the lawlessness that results from the immigrant community’s diminishing cooperation with law enforcement personnel.
Ideologies are complicated things.