Sunday, June 24, 2007

Liberalism, the State, and Free Markets

I promised last week to eventually to get to the discussion of Rorty and Rawls. For various reasons, I've decided I'd rather not. But if anyone wants to read the discussion on their own, it goes something like this: Yglesias, Linker, Yglesias, Linker, Sullivan, Douthat.

Also, before getting to my main topic, and because it tangentially relates to that topic, I'd like to throw this in. Christopher Hayes has a column on the merits of bureaucracy and the fine people who inhabit our federal bureaucracy. If you look into the details of the DoJ scandal, it's hard to be as dismissive as Hayes about the lasting impact of the Bush administration on the bureaucracy, but he makes good points nonetheless. An excerpt:
It's slander with a long pedigree--Cicero called the bureaucrat "the most despicable" of men, "petty, dull, almost witless...a holder of little authority in which he delights, as a boy delights in possessing a vicious dog"--but in the last forty years, conservatives have converted this casual contempt into an ideological fixture. Since as far back as the Goldwater campaign, the American right has generally found that "the government" is too abstract an entity for most people to actively loathe. It's far more effective to demonize the people who execute its daily functions. Bureaucrats are to conservatives what the bourgeoisie was to Marx: an oppressive class of joyless knaves. Milton Friedman quipped that "hell hath no fury like a bureaucrat scorned"; Ronald Reagan said in 1966 that "the best minds are not in government" because if any were, "business would hire them away"; and George Wallace expressed his desire to "take those bearded bureaucrats" in Washington who were in the process of desegregating the South, "and throw them in the Potomac."

But a funny thing has happened over the past six years. At a time when the press failed to check a reactionary Administration, when the opposition party all too often chose timidity, it was the lowly and anonymous bureaucrats, clad in rumpled suits, ID badges dangling from their necks, who, in their own quiet, behind-the-scenes way, took to the ramparts to defend the integrity of the American system of government.


But the moral of the Comey story specifically, and of the failures of the Bush Administration more broadly, is the sublime value of bureaucracy. Not only is governance of any kind impossible without it; so too are the checks and balances of a constitutional republic. Red tape is what binds those in power to the mast of the law, what stands in the way of government by whim. That's why an Administration hostile to any checks and balances has sought to reconstitute the federal civil service as just another lever in its machine.
So, anyway, on to the main course. Harvard economist Dani Rodrik has a blog post excerpting from a lengthy article by Stephen Holmes in the American Prospect (from a few years back) on the views of classic liberals on the role of government. The basic gist of the excerpts is that the liberal ideals of individual rights and free markets are tied inextricably to the existence of a strong state to protect them. It very much reminds me of my previous discussion with Henry on libertarian paternalism and Rawls where I wrote:
This, in fact, has always been my biggest objection to libertarian theory. I simply cannot see how a libertarian state could ever remain so for any appreciable length of time. The initial structure of the government will not bind it in libertarian form, even if you had a constitution without amendment procedures. It was not a constitutional amendment that allowed the development of the administrative state in the US, but judicial interpretation. And it wasn't just uppity judges responsible for that (although I'm not sure it would be significant to my argument even if it were), but intense political pressure placed on them by political branches motivated by quite serious concerns about social stability and unrest (and rising socialist sentiment). Whether it's a Great Depression and populist outrage or rent-seeking businesses and other economically powerful interests, a state will always be subject to pressures (of varying intensities) to do non-libertarian things. The state will always have the power to do those things; it is inherent in being a state. That power cannot be ignored, and there is no structural way to make it go away. It just sits there begging to be used.

I have a strong suspicion that some of the policies necessary to keep those pressures at bay (to the greatest degree possible) are themselves non-libertarian (e.g. some level of redistributive tax policy and regulation of finances and political speech, etc.). In the end, I tend to believe that our rights (which may or may not be limited only to life, liberty, and property) are likely best protected by a state that overtly recognizes the threat of instability and subversion of state power and is structured to best address that threat, even if that structure is not a strictly libertarian one. The state may need to be more powerful and far reaching than a night watchman state in order to be a stable, free-standing system. What good is the night watchman if it ends up being overthrown by communists or turning into a plutocracy?
Tying in to the Hayes column: a robust state can be less prone to abuse and authoritarianism than a more easily captured minimal state.

One of the fundamental premises of Rawls's political liberalism is that the point of a liberal state is to create a platform for social cooperation that is the prerequisite for everyone to share in the benefits of, among other things, free markets. Libertarians suppose that you can rip away the institutions that result from this political compromise while still gaining the benefits they are meant to provide. This seems to miss something fundamental about human nature and social interaction.

Political compromise is necessary to create stable institutions, and stable institutions are necessary to enforce the rules of the market (e.g. to protect property rights, enforce contracts, settle disputes, and police fraud). Institutions that are not broadly considered legitimate will, as Rawls argues, be subject to instability, as each faction that even briefly manages to achieve power will attempt to tear down illegitimate institutions and replace them with institutions of their own preference.

So it becomes important to try to determine how people assess legitimacy. Rawls suggests fairness as a crucial benchmark. That seems to have a lot of merit. We've had Boys Weekend discussions on the topic before, noting psychological studies to the effect that people are willing to sacrifice their own benefit in order to enforce a system of fairness, even when there will be no opportunity for direct reciprocity. (I thought it interesting to see recently that humans are not alone in this behavior.) This suggests that even if a libertarian institution is quantitatively superior to some non-libertarian institution it might still be regarded as less legitimate if it produces outcomes that are perceived to be unfair.

Returning then to Dani Rodrik. Rodrik's main specialty is economic globalization. He argues that globalization promoters have been shooting themselves in the foot by ignoring populist complaints about trade unfairness, countering these arguments only with statements of the quantifiable benefits of more trade. Economists too often ignore procedural fairness in favor of simple economic gain. Regular people tend towards the opposite. Rodrik argues that domestic political perceptions of the globalization process are the key to further progress on trade. In other words, to create the social platform for cooperation necessary for global markets to expand we will require a more robust social safety net to remedy distributional unfairness and create perceived legitimacy for the whole endeavor. Otherwise the social compromise on which economic globalism is built collapses into a morass of protectionism. The market can only go as far as the state can carry it.

UPDATE (6/25): Rodrik posted again today with further evidence for his thesis on globalization. He cites a recent academic paper studying a survey of people from 18 countries that found an inverse relationship between the size of the state (measured by percentage of GDP) and preferences for protectionism. Rodrik quotes from the paper:
Our results provide microeconomic evidence consistent with the long-standing argument that the state and the market are in fact complementary. Openness and globalization can introduce uncertainty into peoples’ lives, and this additional risk can lead some people to oppose trade. Government expenditure can help to reduce this risk, and thus shore up support for open markets. It would seem that the ‘grand bargain’ that was embedded liberalism is politically effective.

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