Wednesday, September 21, 2011

It's the asymmetry stupid

I’d like to return to the David Brooks column, not because of its main theme of disappointment in Obama, which is rather pathetic, but because its basis in a pursuit of a moderate position strikes me as misconceived.  Brooks seems to view our politics as a roughly balanced contest, in which the term moderation and compromise conform to our understandings of these words.  That is a politics in which power and the direction of policy is changing hands as elections move control from Democrats to Republicans and vice versa.

But that isn’t what we have.  Our politics has been like the European nations voting to join or stay out of the European Union.  Vote in favor and you’re in, vote against and decent interval is allowed to pass and then you vote again and again until you get it right (unless of course another way can be found to get it done without a vote).  But once you’re in, you’re in.  Similarly, liberals propose government programs.  If they fail to pass they come back up again, perhaps in slightly different form, but with the essential scheme and extension of government intact until they pass.  And they needn’t pass in their final form, getting the program started is the key point, from there once again it is merely a matter of repeated attempts and waiting for the right circumstances until the program is extended to its more all encompassing final form.

For conservatives then politics is an asymmetric contest where wins come in the form of containment or postponements rather than anything resembling a true reversal.  Republican wins result in a slow down of new government initiatives and the management of past programs.  Thus the kind of compromise that Brooks seeks ignores the camel’s nose, toothpaste out of the tube, nature of politics in our time. 

In his column today, Jonah Goldberg gets at this essential point by relating Murray Rothbard’s fable of the shoes.  This is the curious bias that prevails for the status quo in government, where if government has done something for any period of time it is considered axiomatic that any alternative is considered to be beyond the pale.
“If everyone had always gotten their shoes from the government, writes Rothbard, the proponent of shoe privatization would be greeted as a kind of lunatic. ‘How could you?’ defenders of the status quo would squeal. ‘You are opposed to the public, and to poor people, wearing shoes! And who would supply shoes . . . if the government got out of the business? Tell us that! Be constructive! It’s easy to be negative and smart-alecky about government; but tell us who would supply shoes? Which people? How many shoe stores would be available in each city and town? . . . What material would they use? . . . Suppose a poor person didn’t have the money to buy a pair?’”

It’s a good argument, and also an absolutely hopeless one, as I think Goldberg would concede.  He goes on to note that it “is amazing how quickly status quo bias kicks in.”  Quite right, and quite important.  As I’ve noted elsewhere on this site, Walter Bagehot observed that to adequately judge a reform takes a generation.  I think Bagehot was an optimist (see Social Security, et al) but regardless, it should be noted that by then it doesn't really matter as the reform will have already been established.

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