Don proves his point

Part of what keeps a new progressive alliance from forming is that people mistake differences in ideas about how the world works for differences in moral principles. Left-leaning liberals look at the policies classical liberals support and assume that the motivation is to redistribute income from the poor to the rich. And classical liberals look at left liberals and assume that they are motivated by an envious desire to punish the rich even if it means making everyone worse off.

Don Arthur at Club Troppo, 6 April. Italics added.

If it turns out that liberty really is more important than giving rich people back their money, tormenting welfare recipients and smashing unions, then perhaps classical liberals might consider breaking their alliance with conservatives and forming an alliance with other liberals — the kind of people Andrew sometimes calls ‘social liberals.’

Don Arthur at Club Troppo, 2 April. Italics added.

This is one reason why ‘progressive fusionism’ is so unlikely in practice, whatever its attractions in theory. Though Don has read more by classical liberals than most classical liberals have, his intuition still says that it is ideological window-dressing for attacks on the poor. And classical liberals believe that whatever theoretical support for liberty exists in ‘progressive’ circles, their desire to reshape society according to their conception of ‘justice’ will lead to excessive state control.

13 thoughts on “Don proves his point

  1. This is turning out to be an interesting conversation.
    .
    When I wrote the post on realignment I hadn’t realised that there were two ways people could read it.
    .
    On one reading I’m arguing that an alliance between left liberals and classical liberals is possible because classical liberalism isn’t fundamentally about “giving rich people back their money, tormenting welfare recipients and smashing unions”. In the end classical liberalism is about liberty.
    .
    An interpretation I hadn’t foreseen is that I’m arguing that classical liberals are hypocrites because if they really cared about liberty they’d break their alliance with conservatives and ally themselves with left liberals. On this reading there’s no real possibility of a liberal alliance across left-right lines. I’m just engaging in partisan point scoring.
    .
    Personally I prefer the first interpretation. Part of the reason I’ve bothered studying the work of classical liberal thinkers like Hayek is because I think I can learn something from them.

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  2. Don – I think your posts have also highlighted that ideology co-exists with other forces that shape how people act politically, some of which are historical (the cold war disputes that created the personal interconnections between liberals and conservatives) and others which are due to the relative importance attached to current issues. Take me back to the 1960s, when there was greater censorship, homosexuality was illegal, and immigration policy discriminatory, as well as economic policy being protectionist, I would probably think that on the issues that mattered to me ‘progressive fusionism’ was attractive. But on most of the issues pursued by ‘progressive’ activists today I have more in common with conservatives.

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  3. I’m not surprised that you’d have more in common with some conservatives than with the average ‘progressive’ activist.
    .
    Even Brink Lindsey — the libertarian champion of progressive fusionism — can sound a lot like Lawrence Mead when he writes about poverty, as can some Third Way writers.
    .
    It’s interesting that the 1990s Third Way fusion of left-right ideas borrowed from conservative thinkers like Michael Oakeshott. When John Gray turned away from Thatcherism he said that he’d abandoned neoliberalism in favour of conservatism. The Giddens-reading left welcomed him into the fold.
    .
    It seems to me that one of the motivations for the left-conservative alliance was a recognition of the importance of culture. Left wingers thought that markets were undermining the norms that held families and communities together, while conservatives thought the problem was progressive activists and government.

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  4. I do wonder why it is that classical liberals might worry that the Left’s “desire to reshape society according to their conception of ‘justice’ will lead to excessive state control”, while progressives tend to worry that the Right’s desire to reduce the role of government to satisfy their concept of ‘liberty’ will lead to exploition of the poor and disavantaged by the rich and privileged. While there certainly are historical examples of both occurring, it’s usually under relatively unusual circumstances that I’m not convinced would apply to a modern social democracy like Australia. Nor are the goals at all incompatible – there’s no reason we can’t aim for smaller government and the pursuit of social justice. In fact, if the only role of government was to focus on upholding the rule of law and the pursuit of social justice, would this keep both sides happy?

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  5. BTW, Don, did you really mean “Left-leaning liberals …assume that the motivation is to redistribute income from the poor to the rich”? My concern with certain right-wing economic policies is not that they will redistribute income from the poor to the rich, but simply that their primary purpose is make it easier for the rich to become richer, and either assuming (or claiming outright) that as the rich will get richer, the poor will get richer too.
    I would have thought that would be the position of most left-leaning (or even centrist) liberals. Of course some go further and assume they are they about protecting the status quo – ensuring that the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor, but I suspect even that’s a dying viewpoint.

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  6. ***
    “My concern with certain right-wing economic policies is not that they will redistribute income from the poor to the rich, but simply that their primary purpose is make it easier for the rich to become richer, and either assuming (or claiming outright) that as the rich will get richer, the poor will get richer too.”
    ***
    .
    It’s interesting to look at the language people use. Some people talk about ‘social exclusion’. They usually mean that some working age people are not participating in the labour market — people who depend on income support payments for long periods of time.
    .
    So when the economy grows, extra income does not flow to the ‘socially excluded’ unless they move into work or their benefits increase. As a result their ‘share’ of total income falls and they become relatively poorer.
    .
    Does this represent a redistribution of income from the poor to the rich? And does using this kind of language suggest that there is some authority that is able to distribute incomes according to a desired pattern without altering the amount of wealth that is created?

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  7. I don’t see why that would be considered redistribution from the poor to the rich. Redistribution from the poor to the rich is basically what used to happen in the days of serfdom, when peasants/craftsmen had to give up considerable portions of their productive output just to support the lifestyles of nobles and kings.

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  8. And classical liberals look at left liberals and assume that they are motivated by an envious desire to punish the rich even if it means making everyone worse off.

    In my experience, Righties tend to accuse Lefties of misguided idealism, or self-flagellating self-righteousness, or moral laxity. But rarely will a Righty accuse a Lefty of envy or selfishness. Accusations of self-interestedness tend to flow in the other direction—and this asymmetry makes the point, I think, that there is a real intuitive basis to political outlooks.

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  9. How about Don tries this thought experiment. He asserts that classic liberals/ libertarians ought to move closer to left liberals.

    Why not the other way around?

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  10. Does this represent a redistribution of income from the poor to the rich? And does using this kind of language suggest that there is some authority that is able to distribute incomes according to a desired pattern without altering the amount of wealth that is created?

    Don seems to be obsessing that every crumb be evenly distributed rather than understanding what is actually going on.

    In a free market people become wealthy as a result of selling their services or making things people want to buy. Wealth in this case is a sign of economic success .. that the market is bestowing rewards on the firm that is able to achieve this.

    We should never lose sight of the fact that it is impossible for there to be GDP growth without income growth.

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  11. Jc, I’d argue that left liberals have moved a lot closer to classical liberals in the last few decades. The success of economic liberalisation is there for all to see, and fairly few left liberals would still argue that things were better in the 60’s and 70’s when the government ran everything from banks to airlines, and tax rates were up in 80% range etc.
    Australia is now one of most economically liberal countries in the world – exceeded only by two countries that aren’t even proper democracies. On that basis, surely to claim that Australia’s level of economic liberalisation is “about right” would still allow you to qualify as moderate classical liberal.
    OTOH, we’re far from the most socially liberal, so it would seem to be a logical time for classical and social liberals to focus their efforts on jointly arguing for a reduced role of govenment in controlling our personal lives.

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