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Small-Government Egalitarianism

By Matthew Yglesias  

"Small-Government Egalitarianism"

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Ed Glaeser has an interesting post on what he terms “the case for small-government egalitarianism” which goes off into a stimulus detour, but which is more interesting on more enduring issues. He observes that “Political divisions have not always pitted big-government egalitarians against small-government conservatives” but today things are different, and not necessarily for good reasons:

Current American political discourse labels people as either anti-government or pro-equality, but wanting to help the poor should not require the abandonment of sensible skepticism about expanding the size of the state. Many of my favorite causes, like fighting land use regulations that make it hard to build affordable housing, aid the poor by reducing the size of government. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, I also argued that it would be far better to give generous checks to the poor hurt by the storm than to spend billions rebuilding the city, because those rebuilding efforts would inevitably help connected contractors more than ordinary people.

These are well-taken points. And I think it’s both true that people who think of themselves as progressives (the kind of people who think industry shouldn’t just be allowed to pollute willy-nilly, the kind of people who think it would be smart to have a universal health care system) should give more emphasis to these issues and also true that people who think of themselves as conservatives (the kind of people who think income tax rates are too high) should give more emphasis to these issues.

Still, the idea of “small-government egalitarianism” strikes me as a slightly confused concept. The argument seems to go something like this:

  1. Egalitarians often favor government programs that boost equality and regulations to reduce harmful externalities.
  2. Some government programs and regulations are actually just the rich and powerful further enriching themselves.
  3. Underpants gnomes.
  4. Egalitarians should really be libertarians!

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There’s something fishy happening in step three. Contrast “small-government egalitarianism” with ordinary modern American liberalism. When a modern American liberal thinks a government regulation or public spending endeavor would accomplish an important public purpose, he’s for it. But not otherwise! Dean Baker, for example, is one of our foremost defenders of Social Security but also the author of The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer which you both can and should read for free online.

Baker’s book is full of ideas that a “small-government egalitarian” ought to be able to embrace—it’s all about policy proposals to eliminate or reform government interventions in the economy undertaken on behalf of the rich and powerful. He doesn’t happen to tackle the pet issue I share with Glaeser—land use regulations—but it’s very much in that spirit. At the same time, Baker’s just a regular-old liberal. Nothing about his egalitarian dislike of bad government programs forces him into dislike for good government programs. Modern American liberalism isn’t a mirror-image of modern libertarianism and it doesn’t have an a priori commitment to government intervention in the economy on a particular scale. I think it’s completely fair to charge that people who call themselves liberals are sometimes mistaken about the desirability of particular programs or regulations, but that’s a different issue—lots of people are mistaken about all kinds of things.

All that said, with the Cold War over and the conservative movement tending to take most of its emotional succor from a blend of militarism and homophobia these days, I hope that modern liberals and libertarians can find ways to cooperate on some of these economic issues where our interests may overlap.

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