If You Want to Pass for Serious in Wonktown

It turns out that Will Wilkinson’s latest anti-libertarian screed is actually worth a look. It’s wickedly funny in places, and you can’t tell me you haven’t heard plenty of the lines that he pins on his hapless interlocutor. Oh the silly things we get up to, whenever we start from first principles! And when the lines do ring false, well, strawmen can be funny too.

I have to wonder, though, about Will’s purportedly realistic, hard-nosed, no-first-principles-here political strategy: Is it really a good idea to scrap libertarian theory altogether, because it’s just not paying off too well in state dismantlement? Should we really work to shore up the welfare state as a means of reining in the regulatory state? Is this the jiu-jitsu we’ve been looking for?

[I]f we patched up the already existing, already very large American welfare state so that it did a better job of preventing people from falling through the cracks, that might make the zero-sum thinking of economic nationalist politicians like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders less attractive, and an agenda of economic liberalization might be more feasible.

Now, the dialogic format means a lot of elision, and as a result, “patch up” could mean nearly anything. This to me seems a bit too carefully calculated to please nonlibertarians, and among them particularly the wonkier sort, who love patching up existing anythings whenever they’re found in the government and leaking. “Take us seriously,” these lines seem to say, “because we’re a whole lot like you are!”

Yet there’s a politically popular reason why (1) the U.S. welfare state is so expensive and (2) so many people fall through the cracks anyway. Both of these can be explained with reference to the U.S. middle class, which receives a very large share of the total benefits, on much flimsier than the usual Rawlsean justifications. But hey, they vote! Every once in a while, a left-leaning pundit will notice this fact, feel ashamed, and be forced to make a discreet retrograde maneuver. Almost nothing ever comes of it, policy-wise.

In layman’s terms, patching up the welfare state – which I charitably take to mean “helping real poor people, instead of pretend poor people” – would require scrapping a whole bunch of middle class tax breaks. Give Bernie Sanders credit for honesty, I suppose, although even he’s understandably reticent about the kinds of taxes that would be necessary for his proposed programs.

Apart from the details of tax policy, it also seems to me that Will’s approach risks growing the U.S. welfare state while leaving the regulatory state completely untouched. If we both agree that the regulatory state is the real problem, then we ought to attack it directly, rather than attacking it in the most oblique way imaginable, by praising an extensive welfare state.

A more modest political strategy might concede that we don’t actually know the consequences of a prominent, welfare-skeptical political faction, like libertarians, collectively changing their minds about welfare policy. It’s not entirely unreasonable to think that it will lead to a larger (but neither juster nor more efficient) welfare state. And that it won’t do anything else at all.

As Will’s own stand-in says, “I believe the social world is too complicated and unpredictable to see more than one or two steps down any path. I think you believe that, too.” And I do believe that!

So let’s attack the regulatory state in one step, shall we? At this point, were it anyone other than Will Wilkinson, and were it any institution other than Cato’s impish kid brother, I would introduce both the author and the institution to… those brave, fire-eating, first-principles libertarians over at the Institute for Justice. IJ works directly to roll back the regulatory state. No mucking about with the welfare state for them! IJ just finds one appalling regulation after another, and it sues the pants off the regulators. Often, IJ wins. (So, for that matter, does Cato’s own legal affairs team.)

Our success in challenging the regulatory state directly is a big part of the reason why I’m not so interested in abandoning first principles. I just don’t see first principles necessarily getting in the way of effective activism. The two can work well together, even if sometimes they don’t, and even if, when they don’t, it can make for some amusing dialogue.

Translating first principles into effective activism is, agreed, actual work. Like, about messaging and priorities and stuff. But I think we can do it, and that it’s likely easier than performing a massive two-step with the welfare state.

And finally, I do agree that first principles can make you seem like a loon at times, even just on their own terms. And that can make for a pretty lonely life, and a frustrating one, in a city that doesn’t much care for first principles of any sort at all.

Still, it’s worth considering how really, truly weird libertarianism is, by the lights of Wonktown, and how much we’d have to give up to fit in here: The establishment adores the surveillance state. It wants to keep the war on drugs, even if it doesn’t quite look to expand it for now (whew). The establishment views eminent domain as just another fun and totally legitimate thing the state can do, for whatever reason it thinks might be good. The establishment doesn’t flinch at imprisoning millions. The establishment wants to spend, by our lights, insanely too much on defense, and it’s now debating whether the solution to all of America’s foreign policy problems is to bomb not-necessarily-identified people whose cell phone usage fits a statistical profile.

I have to wonder how, let alone why, I would choose to be cozy with the defenders of these policies, rather than holding them in a well-regulated and professional disdain (which need not, of course, preclude a working relationship, when such is required).

Do note: Wonktown gives no credit whatsoever for a theoretical willingness to use the state to help poor people: “Can we please,” the Wonks will immediately ask, “can we please keep delivering our help in the inefficient, signal-y, vote-getty ways that we’re used to? I mean, it’s charming that you care about the poor, my dears, but really… Did you think that that’s the reason why we were doing it? And – anyway – enough about helping people: Can we talk about all the ways that you plan to hurt people? Because if you want to pass for serious in Wonktown…”