Tag: Will Wilkinson

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…”

How Your Government Deceives You, ‘Social Insurance’ Edition

From my former Cato colleague, Will Wilkinson:

The trick to weaving an effective and politically-robust safety net for those who most need one is designing it to appear to benefit everyone, especially those who don’t need it. The whole thing turns on maintaining the illusion that payroll taxes are “premiums” or “insurance contributions” and that subsequent transfers from the government are “benefits” one has paid for through a lifetime of payroll deductions. The insurance schema protects the main redistributive work of the programme by obscuring it. As a matter of legal fact, payroll taxes are just taxes; they create no legal entitlement to benefits. The government can and does spend your Social Security and Medicare taxes on killer drones. But the architects of America’s big social-insurance schemes, such as Frances Perkins and Wilbur Cohen, thought it very important that it doesn’t look that way. That’s why you you see specific deductions for Social Security and Medicare on your paycheck. And that’s why the government maintains these shell “trust funds” where you are meant to believe your “insurance contributions” are kept.

Alas, like Social Security and Medicare themselves, the deceptions that protect these entitlement programs cannot go on forever.

Generally, liberals are profoundly conservative about the classic Perkins-Cohen architecture of America’s big entitlement programmes, which they credit for their remarkable popularity and stability. Yet that architecture offers very few degrees of freedom for significant reform. Crunch time is coming, though, and sooner or later something’s got to give.

If Wilkinson’s overlords at The Economist demand that he misspell program, they should be consistent and allow him to abandon the American convention of mislabeling leftists as liberals.

Economics Bloggers Weigh in on Income Inequality

The economics blogosphere has been buzzing about Will Wilkinson’s new paper on income inequality.

George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen discusses why social inequality has been falling for some time in the United States:

I agree with Will Wilkinson’s point that real social inequality has (mostly) been falling for some time in the United States.  Today many an upper middle class person is plausibly happier than many a billionaire.  Yet most self-made billionaires work very hard to get to that position, which creates a possible tension between cardinal and “observed choice” or “ordinal” metrics of welfare.  Why work so hard for so little?  Presumably many of these billionaires really want to “be there,” even if they are only marginally better off or in some cases worse off.

The Atlantic’s Megan McArdle offers her initial thoughts, and promises more analysis soon:

I broadly agree with Will that consumption inequality, not income inequality, is what matters.  If the rich have access to broad classes of goods that the poor can’t have, I find this worrying.  On the other hand, if the problem is that Bill Gates has a really awesome 80 inch flat panel television, while the poor have to be content with a 32 inch CRT, well, I can’t say my heartstrings are plucked very tight by this injustice.  So it’s important to know what the real differences are.

Ezra Klein parses some of Wilkinson’s arguments at WashingtonPost.com:

One of Will’s first arguments is that income inequality is not a good way to think about the issue. The real key is consumption inequality. It’s not, in other words, how much money people make, but how much stuff they buy. And “the weight of the evidence shows that the run-up in consumption inequality has been considerably less dramatic than the rise in income inequality.”

The Economist Free Exchange blog has mixed reactions to the study:

Inequality, in and of itself, is no bad thing, and inequality in America has co-existed right alongside significant improvements in welfare across the income spectrum—and contributed directly to them, in many cases. Redistribution for its own sake is bad policy, and as Mr Wilkinson notes, it’s often bad policy pursued to cover up for still more bad policy elsewhere. But America’s society is a very unequal one, by developed nation standards, and it’s not always clear that that inequality is justified or advantageous. And any good student of human behaviour can tell you that wealth will seek to protect wealth, and will often succeed.

Matt Yglesias from Think Progress has posted twice on Wilkinson’s study:

I’m not in agreement with the overall thrust of Will Wilkinson’s paper on inequality for the Cato Institute, but one point that I think is in the spirit of what he’s saying was brought to mind by a question at last night’s event. The way I would put the point is that it’s a mistake to think of the world as composed of, on the one hand, “economic issues” in which we worry about wealth or income inequality and then on the other hand, “social issues” in which we worry about racism or sexism. Progressives ought to be concerned with a general issue of justice and social inequality, of which gaps in money income or wealth may be part.