In Praise of Labels

It seems very plausible to me that there are a number of areas of policy in which the right ideas are ideas that are currently being espoused by neither party. I write fairly frequently about things like land use regulation, occupational licensing, carbon emissions taxes, monetary policy via “helicopter drops,” and a host of other issues in which the best solutions aren’t currently being embraced by either Democrats or Republicans. And that’s why I prefer to be affiliated with a think tank rather than working in partisan electoral politics.

But when you look at something like the No Labels initiative you see not merely advocacy of some ideas that neither party is pushing, but the idea that partisanship itself is somehow a bad thing.

That, to me, is a big mistake. If you go to a store you’ll find that a huge quantity of the goods on sale are labeled to indicate which brand makes them. There’s a good reason for this. Normally, how much you’re willing to pay for a good or service depends on the quality of the good or service in question. But there’s no way to sample the quality of a can of soda without buying it first. So how am I to know whether or not I want to buy that can of Diet Coke? Well it’s simple. I may not have had that can of Diet Coke before, but I have had many other cans of Diet Coke. And I can infer that the Coca-Cola corporation, having invested a great deal of time and money in building the Diet Coke band is going to make a good-faith effort to turn out a consistent product. That doesn’t necessarily mean everyone will like the taste of Diet Coke. But it does mean everyone knows more-or-less what Diet Coke tastes like, and then they can make their soda-consumption choices in a coherent way.

A good party system works the same way. Look at the 1960 Presidential election and see what happens when partisanship doesn’t work as a reliable signal. I don’t believe that the 1960 electorate in Alabama and Georgia was more conservative than the electorate in Florida and Tennessee. And yet Alabama and Georgia voted for Kennedy and Tennessee and Florida voted for Nixon. That kind of thing makes politics more interesting for reporters and more lucrative for sundry lobbyists and dealmakers, but it was bad for America and it’s genuinely not a coincidence that it was strongly associated with white supremacist rule over a huge swathe of the country. The rise of recognizable and coherent parties creates some challenges for American political institutions, but the correct response is to tweak the institutions not to spend time wishing for label-free politics.