04 August 2010

Conservatives v. Liberals

[M]any of our modern policy debates boil down to a question of one's view of the capacity of the human mind and the institutions it develops to solve problems. It is a debate about experts versus markets. In one camp, we find those who believe that optimal social policy is something that can be discovered by experts based on an analysis of data and argument. The problem with schools or health care or crime policy, they say, is that the right people aren't in charge, or we don't have enough money to implement the right solutions, or we just need more research on the questions to determine the correct approach. The right answers, the socially optimal answers, are there for the getting. Those holding this vision--what Sowell calls the “unconstrained vision”--believe there are solutions to policy problems that are discernable from the reason and logic of smart people. They believe in experts. Sowell describes the “unconstrained vision” as follows: “the conviction that foolish or immoral choices explain the evils of the world--and that wiser or more moral and humane social policies are the solution.” The French Revolution and the Administrative State are manifestations of the unconstrained vision. So too are the arguments of Ronald Dworkin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thorstein Veblen, and Franklin Roosevelt.

In the other camp, we find those who believe that social problems are not comprehensible by the human mind and that no amount of conferences, policy papers, or deep thinking will find solutions for them. There are no solutions, just tradeoffs. Sowell describes the “constrained vision” as seeing “the evils of the world as deriving from the limited and unhappy choices available, given the inherent moral and intellectual limitations of human beings.” The constrained vision sees natural processes, like competition in free markets, as a superior way of revealing socially efficient answers to policy questions. Unlike those subscribing to the unconstrained vision who believe in solutions passed down by experts, the constrained vision “rel[ies] on the systemic characteristics of certain social processes such as moral traditions, the marketplace, or families.” They believe in the “wisdom of crowds” and evolutionary processes. Perhaps the most succinct summary of the constrained vision is Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes's aphorism that “[t]he life of the law has not been logic: it has been experience.” The American Revolution and faith in Adam Smith's “invisible hand” are manifestations of the constrained vision. So too are the arguments of Edmund Burke, F.A. Hayek, and Ronald Reagan.

From an article by Todd Henderson via this post (footnote numbers omitted).

There is certainly merit in the notion that liberals believe that better policies can solve problems.

Sowell is less accurate, I think, when it comes to conservatives. The reference to faith in "evolutionary process" is odd for a group that often disagrees that evolution is valid and favors an originalist interpretation of the constitution that does not evolve. The Holmes aphorism about preferring experience to logic is likewise is odd for a group of people who routinely reject empirical evidence in favor of traditions, despite the fact that empirical evidence constitutes experience. American conservatism has a strong anti-intellectual bent in general.

I also have doubts about the ideological faith of conservatives in markets. Recall, for instance, that Idaho, one of the most conservative states in the nation, has socialized state owned liquor stores. Conservatives are also just as inclined to support pork-barrel spending by defense contractors, transportation spending, economically manipulative tax breaks, and farm subsidies as liberals.

I think it would be more accurate to state that liberals believe that government policies can craft solutions, while conservative assume that government is a problem unless the government action in question is supported tradition or reduces taxes.

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