You Can Laugh All You Want To, But I’ve Got My Philosophy

There’s an interesting back-and-forth between Dan Foster at National Review and Ezra Klein at the Washington Post over whether there’s a symmetry between libertarian (or conservative) preference for smaller government and progressive advocacy for a larger or more active one.  Ezra wants to maintain that the former is “philosophical”—one might use the more loaded “ideological”—in a way that the latter is not.  And his argument has some intuitive appeal, but I think ultimately misfires:

But like a lot of people, I actually don’t have an abstract preference for either bigger government or smaller government. If we made the Defense Department a lot smaller, or reformed the health-care system so that we were getting a deal more akin to European countries, or got the federal government out of farm subsidies, that would be fine with me, even as the government would shrink. A lot of conservatives believe, I think, that their philosophical preference for small government is counterbalanced by other people’s philosophical preference for big government. But that’s not true: Their philosophical preference for small government is counterbalanced by other people’s practical preference for larger government in certain areas where it seems to make sense.

Now, this much I take to be true: Ezra and other progressives, talk show rhetoric notwithstanding, don’t have some abstract desire to increase the size and power of government independently of particular functions they want government to serve.  But that doesn’t mean his contrast between his “practical preference” for larger government “where it seems to make sense” and the “philosophical preference for small goverment” will fly.  As long as we’re invoking philosophy, it may be useful to deploy the hoary distinction ethicists often make between teleological and deontological principles—very crudely, the distinction between principles that specify ends or goals, and principles that specify rules that constrain our pursuit of ends or goals.

In a teleological frame, the asymmetry Ezra is positing makes a certain amount of sense. Progressives’ desire for larger government is mostly instrumental, while libertarians and conservatives seem to treat smaller government as an end in itself. But I think this is somewhat misleading. You could also say that Ezra and I both favor a government exactly large enough to accomplish its legitimate functions, albeit with very different views of what those functions are. In part this difference is “practical”—or at any rate, empirical—on both sides: Neither of us, presumably, think the government should squander taxpayer money on ineffective programs, but we have different background views about the relative effectiveness of government and civil society at achieving worthy aims.

But flipping explicitly into a deontological frame, we can see another difference—and here I think there is a real symmetry. You could say that where we differ is in how much weight we give the citizen’s prima facie claim against coercive interference. I think that claim ought to have quite a lot of weight, such that there are a relatively small number of public goods sufficiently vital to justify overriding the presumption against interference. Even assuming we agreed on the probable utilitarian benefit of some particular government program, I think it is fair to say Ezra gives a lot less presumptive weight to such claims. If you do not see anything seriously morally problematic about compelling people to contribute to projects and goals that (granting assumptions about efficacy, for the sake of argument) seem broadly worthy, you’ll be inclined to see government as an all-purpose mechanism for remedying a whole array of social problems. Which particular problems justify larger government will then be determined by “practical” considerations, but the background premise about the weight of the claim against compulsion is going to be exactly as “philosophical” for the progressive as for the libertarian or the conservative.