Liberals and Empiricism

By Brian Beutler

A few years ago, Jon Chait made a prediction. “The next liberal administration, whenever it happens, will not be nearly so certain,” he wrote.

Aside from rolling back conservative excesses, its economic agenda will take its cue from external events, and the decisions it arrives at could, in time, be cast aside through experimentation. Ultimately, those policies, whether they move left or right, will be measured against their effect on people’s lives, not the degree to which they bring the government closer to some long-ago agreed-upon vision. In time, those policies will be altered yet again to suit a changing world. This is known as progress.

Today, Ross Douthat snarks:

We’re only two weeks into the new age of liberalism, but so far, Chait’s been utterly vindicated, don’t you think? Indeed, the above paragraph strikes me as a near-perfect distillation of the process that has produced the current stimulus package: A clear-eyed, cool-headed, non-ideological pragmatism, untouched by any pre-existing wish lists or biases.I’m being sarcastic, obviously. Yet of course there are many, many smart liberals – from Paul Krugman to, well, Barack Obama – who would say that Chait has been vindicated, because whatever its faults the stimulus bill is ultimately non-ideological: Shoveling vast amounts of money out the door is simply what you do in circumstances like these if you want to avoid utter economic calamity. The money-shovelers are empiricists, in other words, and their opponents are know-nothings.

This is pretty convenient, but it’s also sort of nonsense. Imagine an alternate reality in which the economy is in fine shape and Barack Obama’s just been elected president. Perhaps he’d go hog wild and propose a trillion dollars in unfunded spending just to sneak a bunch of liberal wish list items on to the government debt ledger. But I don’t really think so. And I don’t think Ross does either. Maybe I’m crazy, but I think it’s much more likely that under kinder circumstances Obama would carry forward with the plan he campaigned on–to let the Bush tax cuts expire, tackle the energy, climate and health crises and, maybe, give the middle class a tax cut. That, of course, was before the economy started shedding 600,000 jobs a month, but it made some sense at the time. Just as Jon’s analysis suggested it would.

Now imagine Barack Obama is a Republican. He’s just been elected and the economy is in the toilet. What’s his answer? Tax cuts for the rich! What if the economy’s in decent shape? Tax cuts for the rich! What if we’d just been invaded by China, Canada, and Mexico, and alien space craft were hovering over Manhattan, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.? Tax cuts for the rich!

This contrast carries across the board. If burning fossil fuels was harmless, for instance, would Democrats stand behind a politically fraught plan to price carbon just for the fun of it? If the private insurance industry had somehow contained costs and covered 98 percent of the people in the country, would Democrats be demanding major, complicated reforms to the health care system? Obviously not.

But our national energy and health policies aren’t successful. They’re broken. And the sad truth is the Democratic solutions probably can’t be implemented. Not because they don’t carry empirical water, but because they don’t involve tax cuts and other privileges (like polluting) for the rich. In a way, the very ambitiousness of the reforms vindicates Jon’s distillation of liberalism on its own. If there wasn’t something to them, or if they weren’t necessary, they wouldn’t exist. There’d be no reason or constituency for them, except, perhaps, among insane people. Tax cuts for the rich, by contrast, are simple, and unambitious, and there will always be people agitating for them no matter how badly they harm the country.