Monday, July 30, 2012

The Naivete of Moderates

My local paper had a sequence of articles by Stephen Young, who presented caricatures of the left and right.  On the left, the Nanny State that gives us unlimited welfare rights and asks for nothing in return.  On the right, social darwinism, which ignores public goods and is indifferent to racism and child slavery.  He's part of the Caux Round Table, a group that wants a 'free, fair, and prosperous global society built on the twin pillars of moral capitalism and responsible government.' It's part of a long tradition of orphaned policy wonks

By setting up two indefensible poles as the planks for our two major political parties, he then suggests that his moderate solution is not merely reasonable, but optimal. I could say his ill-defined middle path is just like that articulated in Venezuela, India, or even Nazi Germany, with all sorts of corporate cronyism shielded by the state's monopoly on 'moral competition.'  I'm sure Young would reply, 'that's not what I meant.'  Perhaps, but the main problem with most political plans is not the intent but the result. Further, it is no less a caricature than what he does to the left and right's positions on politics.

I empathize with a desire to find common ground, especially among those who really don't have strong opinions on socialism or free markets, yet their arguments are pretty weak.  I'd rather they just say they, "I'm indifferent, let's make a deal," without any pretense that such a solution is anything but a temporary compromise.


Unanimous said...

Pretty week?

Government creates and protects property rights on a scale that allows for markets and capitalism to exist.

Government provides a public environment that enables private interests to interact with each other (roads, pipes, cables, postage, etc.).

Government provides public facilities and infrastructure that causes a large component of the value of private property.

Private interests produce goods and services that enable governments to function, and provides much functionality of government.

I would say that there are very strong arguments for saying that modern capitalist states are not mixtures of two possible ways of doing things (government and private). Government and private organisations are more like two side of the same coin. Try to sandpaper either side off and you end up with nothing.

It's all about balance. You can see it happening all around you. How is it naive to recognise this?

There is private corruption, and within government corruption, and corruption between the two, and those are problems. All three types of corruption can bring a system down, but how do you reach any conclusions based on that?

Dave Pinsen said...


Even most libertarians recognize legitimate and necessary roles for government (e.g., defense, enforcing contracts, etc.).

Dave Pinsen said...


The other problem with that sort of polemic is that it ignores narrower, but, for all intents and purposes, more important differences in policies. For example, Alan Greenspan recently wasted several hundred words in an FT op/ed explaining why West Germany's economic model was superior to East Germany's. Instead, wouldn't it have been more useful to focus on the differences between post-Cold War Germany's economic model and ours?

Those differences are, of course, narrower than the ones between West Germany and East Germany, but they are also more important, because they are more likely to be within the Overton window here. Adopting East Germany's economic model is obviously well outside of the Overton window, for good reason.

Drewfus said...

The caricatures themselves are not original to Stephen Young or any other moderates, but are more or less how the left and right see each other. Young is adding nothing and merely concluding that the mean of two extremes (as he sees it) must be about right. Lazy thinking.

Anonymous said...

Eric, So you are suggesting that seeking an alternative to the ideological extremism leads to Nazi Germany, Venezuela, etc?
That those states are the result of moderation ... and not ideological extremism?

This does not resemble your usual well reasoned arguments.

Extreme outcomes come from extreme solutions. Not from trying to strike a balance between an unrestrained free market and social welfare.

The lazy people are the ones in the middle ... they have to think and balance and try to figure out which policy might be best. The lazy ones are the people who reflexively adhere to a ideology. They never have to think about what might work or not work ... just the way things should be.

Anonymous said...

oops. In that last sentence anonymous meant to say that the people in the middle are not lazy. they have to think.

Eric Falkenstein said...

I strongly believe in the saying 'moderation in all things', if only because any good solution will have articulate positions on either side. But professional moderate wonks like David Frum and this guy tend to present confused solutions that sound nice but bury the important part. For example, 'responsible capitalism' sounds like Fannie Mae, which I don't think turned out well.

Unanimous said...

Yes, moderation in all things, especially moderation.

Anonymous said...

Ideologies are about how the people and the world should be. When inflexible extremism is based on an ideology (and when isn't it?), it's not going to work.

Rigidly adhering to your position is an unwillingness to make things work. It's also arrogant, because you are assuming that those who disagree with you are 100% wrong while you are 100% right.

Drewfus said...

Rigid adherence to 'moderation in all things' is just another idealogical position. Being in the middle doesn't stop one from being a true believer.

A century ago, anyone advocating the size and scope of government we have now would have been regarded as holding an extreme position. So why would believing in the same thing now not be a result of the same rigid, flexible, arrogant, idealogical thinking that supposedly afflicts anyone holding an extreme position? Now consider the Libertarian who supports the small government of the early 20th century. Moderate then and radical extremist now? What happened?

Clearly, supporting the status quo, or not, is the key issue here. Moderates will simply define those well to the left or right of them as extremists, forgetting that their own position is little more than historical accident and/or historically transient.