Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Tea Party’s perverse leftist fantasy

The left has spilled pages of ink and innumerable pixels wondering why the middle class votes against its interests, debating the effect of the Democratic Leadership Council, and which candidate would be the best presidential contender in 2016 (one of us is guilty ofsuch indulgences). Lefties have harangued Barack Obama, even suggesting that Richard Nixon was more liberal. By doing this, the left has has succumbed to right-wing ideas about social change – that it comes from great men, rather than collective action.

Throughout history, we can find examples of this mythos. FDR, the liberal hero, was not a Nietzschean overman, he was confined by his circumstances. Economics professor Richard Wolff argues that he could only raise marginal tax rates to 90 percent, create a vast array of make-work programs and push through a universal pension because capitalists were so terrified of a mobilized left.

Similar outside pressures also account for the widespread myth that Nixon was a leftist. As Erik Loomis noted discussing Nixon’s environmental record, “Richard Nixon was however a very shrewd politician operating in the time of the postwar liberal consensus.” That is, no matter how conservative Nixon was, he simply could not veto the bills before him without either being overridden or digging deep into his limited cache of political capital. In the same way, no matter how much Obama may want to pass universal health care or gun regulations, he cannot. The central lie of the DLC was not neoliberalism, but the idea that the presidency mattered. By shifting the focus to an almost sacrosanct view of the presidency, the left has forgotten about movement building to fawn on “progressive heroes.”

Consider the press around Bill de Blasio, the newly elected progressive mayor of New York City. For the most part, it has succumbed to the “great man” narrative, and many New Yorkers wait with baited breath for him to single-handedly obviate income inequality. But de Blasio’s success was not his alone, and his governance will not be either. As Harold Meyerson documents, it was the Working Families Party, which spent decades building a progressive infrastructure in and around the city that de Blasio needed to win and it is WFP defense attorneys, city council members and public advocates that will make his time as Mayor successful.


If a Democratic president sits in the Oval Office it may well be due to the tireless efforts of organizations like National Employment Law Project, Demos, Project Vote, Common Cause and others that register voters, build coalitions and sue states just to get them to comply with laws on the books.

The best palliative for this great-man obsession is “The Lego Movie.” In the movie, the “Master Builders,” await a prophesied “special” to destroy Lord Business. When they finally meet the special, Emmet, they find him entirely banal. Eventually, they realize there is no savior, and that they must use their own talents and abilities, contribute what they can to create an emancipatory movement. Such is the debacle of the left. Our hero, long prophesied, has come, and though he is extraordinarily capable, there is simply no way that he can single-handedly end all wars, pass immigration reform, save Social Security, stop the rising oceans and slash rising inequality.

In “The Lego Movie,” the opposition was not only wrong about who would bring change — they were wrong about how change would come about. The Master Builders thought they were going to use their existing institutions and infrastructure. Although they did not use manuals, they still loathed to deviate from the prepared plan. It is Emmet’s insight that the plan is fatally flawed – there is no need for a vanguard party, but rather a mass collective action. His insight is scorned by the council who expected to simply storm Lord Businesses’s offices again, even after Metalbeard’s failed assault. For us as for them, the existing institutions and infrastructures are only part of the equation. Sheldon Adelson votes, like you and me, but he also spent more than the residents of 12 states combined on the 2012 election cycle. In their recent study, Larry Bartels find that the wealthy are not only more engaged in terms of voting, they are also more likely to vote, donate money to campaigns, attend rallies and meet with or call candidates. The left cannot continue storming the Presidency and expecting change.

The right learned the lesson of 1930s and began a mobilization of their own, one which has become so powerful it is almost unseating them from power. The Tea Party is, in nearly every way, a leftist movement. It is based on a perversely egalitarian sentiment, a “makers and takers” narrative, and leftist mobilization. Many may be surprised to learn that the Republican primary candidate who raised the largest percentage of his money from large donors was the most moderate: Jon Huntsman. Like the communists and socialists of the post-depression years, the Tea Party has obliterated the paradigm, pushing change from outside the political system.

“The Lego Movie” is in stark contrast to other “leftist” movies, like “Elysium,” that rely on “great men” to save humanity. “The Lego Movie” is not meant to be communist propaganda, but rather aims to obliterate the “hero narrative” that Joseph Campbell identified in “Hero With a Thousand Faces.” In “The Lego Movie,” Emmet is not “the special.” In fact, the the prophecy predicting such a figure was made up by Emmet’s mentor Vitruvius. But Emmet’s adventure over the course of the film still mirrors the Hero’s Journey narrative laid out by Campbell. However, somewhat contrary to Campbell’s outline, Emmet’s journey doesn’t change him. Instead, his journey changes those around him: his allies the Master Builders and the people of Bricksburg.

Christopher Vogler’s book “The Writers Journey” adapts Campbell’s Hero’s Journey to the craft of writing. In it, he discusses the various kinds of heroes seen in storytelling. Emmet fits into the category of “Catalyst Hero”: “A certain class of Hero is an exception to the rule that the Hero is usually the character who undergoes the most change. These are catalyst Heroes, central figures who may act heroically, but who do not change much themselves because their main function is to bring about transformation in others.” Emmet’s journey teaches the Master Builders and the greater Bricksburg population that everyone is special and should use their personal talents to work together.

In this story, the hero is not unwilling, but impotent; he is not called, but rather stumbles upon his fate; and he does not grow, but rather those around him do. This is a far more realistic description of the reality of Obama’s presidency the salvific narrative that surrounded his election in 2008. His failures remind us that it is not “Great men” who act as a force for social change, but rather great movements. Norberto Bobbio recognized that the central feature of the left was the belief in human equality. As Rousseau said, “the destruction of equality was attended by the most terrible disorders.” In  a brilliant bit, British comedian Robert Newman diagnoses the problem on the left,

When I first started getting involved with Radical-Direct-action-Non-hierarchical-Eco-autonomous-grassroots organisations, I didn’t understand the concept of no leaders. I thought I did; but I didn’t. And I’d go upto the nearest alpha male or alpha female and say, “Here’s what you should do – Why don’t you do this – It’d be great if you all did this – And when are you going to do this?” And they’d give you this look, that I never understood…

What this look meant was, “Yes, good Idea, why don’t you do it yourself? You print the leaflets, I’ll distribute them; you call a meeting, I’ll attend; you organize an action, we’ll come along”.

And from that moment, I realized that, my whole philosophical outlook changed. And from then on, instead of suggesting things other people could do, I stopped suggesting things altogether, in case they expected me to do them…

Such a problem won’t be found in “The Lego Movie,” where characters are exhorted to “start building” with whatever they have on hand. The left needs more middle class donors, giving not just to political campaigns, but unions and think-tanks. The left needs more writers, artists, policy analysts, historians and scientists. The truth, the one that no pundit will ever write publicly, is that it doesn’t matter whether the Democratic nominee is Warren or Clinton, what matters is whether there is a mobilized worker’s movement, student demonstrations and new and refreshed leftist thinking. McGovern didn’t end Vietnam; hippies did. We, the people, did.

Originally published on Salon. 

Can We Make Environmentalism a Centrist Issue?

For decades, thinkers on the left have wondered why the working class regularly votes against its own interests, upending what Marx believed would be an inevitable march from democracy to socialism. In his book,What’s the Matter with Kansas?Thomas Frank argued that social issues obscure economic motives, and indeed the most salient non-economic one has always been race, at least in this country. In America, conservative politicians have exploited racism to their own benefit, first to disempower blacks with Jim Crow, then to undermine the union movement, and more recently to undercut support for welfare programs, as Ian Haney Lopez recently documented in Dog-Whistle Politics. Nixon’s “law and order campaign” played on racial fears, as did Reagan’s denunciation of “welfare queens.” Republicans played at race to win solid majorities for decades while actively working against the interests of the majority of Americans. The left has much to learn about this strategy. It needs to fundamentally re-align Americans around an issue with a deep and latent importance: the environment.

When asked about the most important global issue, 25 percent of Americans cite environmental degradation, while only 10 percent cite the economy. “Everyone studying American politics has been waiting for a new realignment because the last few decades have been marked by political apathy and the rise of a new voting bloc that is not strongly tied to either party,” says Dr. Benjamin Radcliff, professor of politics at Notre Dame and author of The Political Economy of Human Happiness: How Voters’ Choices Determine the Quality of Life. “What is needed is some spark, either an event, like the Great Depression—or just a party capable of mobilizing this latent potential.”

Hedge-fund manager and environmentalist Tom Steyer’s recent pledge to pour $100 million into 2014 races could certainly create the political infrastructure to allow the left to capitalize politically on the next oil spill. A potent path forward is for the left to appeal to independent voters concerned about the environment. By adopting a moderate framing and language that appeals to both centrist thought leaders and disenchanted Republican moderates and independents, the environment could become to the left what race has been to the right.

Dr. John Roemer, a professor of political science and economics at Yale, wrote in a 2005 paper with Woojin Lee and Karine van der Straeten that “the Left might attempt to exploit global warming the way the Right has exploited racism.” He says that the issue is even more salient today, although the right is currently in a state of “cognitive dissonance” because of their anti-government ideology. His own upcoming book, Sustainability for a Warming Planet, uses terms like “intergenerational equity” and “sustainability” that are commonly used by centrists like David Brooks and Joe Scarboroughwho worry that the federal debt is unfair to future generations and on an unsustainable course. Such leaders thrive on issues like the federal debt and sustainability, a leftist concept that is intellectually harmonious with stewardship, a right-wing one. By using the language of responsibility and intergenerational equity, as well as homespun wisdom about “living within our means,” the left could create a broad umbrella coalition encompassing concerned centrists. Internationally, moderate right-wing parties have successfully co-opted the environment from the left; Angela Merkel famously won re-election in part by promising to phase out nuclear energy. In Britain and France, conservative politicians have been at the forefront of initiatives to adopt alternative measures of sustainable progress. France’s conservative Nicholas Sarkozy created the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance to identify ways to move beyond GDP as the measure of economic progress. In Britain, conservative Prime Minster David Cameron also pursued a measure of happiness and well-being.

Both Roemer and Radcliff note that a key detriment to progress is the right’s fixation on eliminating government. “There’s simply no way to reduce emissions without some bureaucracy,” Roemer says. “You can’t fight global warming without government intervention.”

In America, some left-wing candidates have won in heavily right-wing parts of the country by using conservationist rhetoric. Bernie Sanders won his Senate seat in Vermont—a rural, white state that holds the record for longest-consecutive streak voting Republican in presidential elections—by, according to David Sirota, “visiting hunting lodges to talk about protecting natural resources for hunting and fishing and establishing a connection with [hunters].” In Montana, a state that has voted Republican in all but one of the last ten presidential elections, Governor Brian Schweitzer won twice (the second time in a landslide) partially by wooing hunters and fisherman with land and stream access. In Wyoming, the most conservative state in the country, Governor David Freudenthal’s administration focused on a long-term strategy for resource extraction that included, among other things, preserving the state’s forests and regulating hydraulic fracking. The result: a re-election margin of 20 percent and a reputation as one of the most popular governors in the country with 66 percent approval among Republicans.

In hindsight, the potency of the environmentalist message should not be surprising. Religious traditions have always stressed the importance of living in harmony with the environment, and the very idea behind conservatism is not radically re-inventing the world in which one lives, lest unintended consequences ensue. Data from the Pew Research Center show that the environment used to be a non-partisan issue, and only recently became politicized. In her 2013 paper “A Cooling Climate for Change? Party Polarization and the Politics of Global Warming,” Deborah Guber, a professor at University of Vermont, finds, “partisan conflicts are not inherent in the subject of climate change” but rather, that “party polarization among elites has now trickled down to the masses.” She cites thefamous memo by Republican political distorter extraordinaire Frank Lutz, in which Republican politicians were encouraged to “continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.”

The Pew data cited above show that swing voters lean toward Democrats on environmental issues. Rasmussen polling finds that voters overwhelming favor the Democratic position on the environment (51 percent to 34 percent). That leaves a lot of voters open for a sustainability-minded lefty, particularly in states where big businesses threaten land that was once preserved for hunters or fracking threatens water supplies.

According to Dr. Robert Bartlett, chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Vermont, the problem has been framing. “Environmentalists tend to frame the issue in terms of harm and justice, while conservatives respond to in-group loyalty, sanctity, respect and stewardship.” Aaron Sparks, a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Santa Barbara who is studying the issue with Phillip Ehret, finds that about 20 to 30 percent of strong conservatives hold pro-environment attitudes (meaning they are willing to sacrifice economic growth to protect the environment). But Democrats must be “smart about how they frame their appeal,” Sparks says. “Conservatives can be persuaded to accept the environmental argument if is pitched in a way that is consistent with their morality, which tends to emphasize the sacredness of nature and a focus on local, community-building issues.”

But a 2012 study finds that climate campaigns overwhelming continue to frame the issue as harm and care, fairness and oppression of marginalized groups. These liberal values don’t resonate with conservatives. Environmentalists might take a page from E.F. Schumacher’s book, Small is Beautiful:

Modern man does not experience himself as a part of nature but as an outside force destined to dominate and conquer it. He even talks of a battle with nature, forgetting that, if he won the battle, he would find himself on the losing side. Until quite recently, the battle seemed to go well enough to give him the illusion of unlimited powers, but not so well as to bring the possibility of total victory into view. This has now come into view, and many people, albeit only a minority, are beginning to realize what this means for the continued existence of humanity.

Originally published on The American Prospect. 

Six ways America is failing its people

Although the U.S. is one of the richest societies in history, it still lags behind other developed nations in many important indicators of human development – key factors like how we educate our children, how we treat our prisoners, how we take care of the sick and more. In some instances, the U.S.’s performance is downright abysmal, far below foreign countries that are snidely looked-down-upon as “third world.” Here are six of the most egregious examples that show how far we still have to go:

1. Criminal Justice

We all know the U.S. criminal justice system is flawed, but few are likely aware of just how bad it is compared to the rest of the world. The International Center for Prison Studies estimates that America imprisons 716 people per 100,000 citizens (of any age). That’s significantly worse than Russia (484 prisoners per 100,000 citizens), China (121) and Iran (284). The only country that incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than we do is North Korea. The U.S. is also the only developed country that executes prisoners – and our death penalty has a serious race problem: 42 percent of those on death row are black, compared to less than 15 percent of the overall population.

Over two and a half million American children have a parent behind bars. A whopping 60 percent of those incarcerated in U.S. prisons are non-violent offenders, many of them in prison for drug charges (overwhelmingly African-Americans). Even while our crime rate has fallen, our incarcerated population has climbed. As of 2011, an estimated 217,000 American prisoners were raped each year ­– that’s 600 new victims every day, a truly horrifying number. In 2010, the Department of Justice released a report about abuse in juvenile detention centers. The report found that 12.1 percent of all youth held in juvenile detention reported sexual violence; youth held for between seven and 12 months had a victimization rate of 14.2 percent.

2. Gun Violence

The U.S. leads the developed world in firearm-related murders, and the difference isn’t a slight gap – more like a chasm. According to United Nations data, the U.S. has 20 times more murders than the developed world average. Our murder rate also dwarfs many developing nations, like Iraq, which has a murder rate less than half ours. More than half of the most deadly mass shootings documented in the past 50 years around the world occurred in the United States, and 73 percent of the killers in the U.S. obtained their weapons legally. Another study finds that the U.S. has one of the highest proportion of suicides committed with a gun. Gun violence varies across the U.S., but some cities like New Orleans and Detroit rival the most violent Latin American countries, where gun violence is highest in the world.

3. Healthcare

A study last year found that in many American counties, especially in the deep South, life expectancy is lower than in Algeria, Nicaragua or Bangladesh. The U.S. is the only developed country that does not guarantee health care to its citizens; even after the Affordable Care Act, millions of poor Americans will remain uninsured because governors, mainly Republicans, have refused to expand Medicaid, which provides health insurance for low-income Americans. Although the federal government will pay for the expansion, many governors cited cost, even though the expansion would actually save money. America is unique among developed countries in that tens of thousands of poor Americans die because they lack health insurance, even while we spend more than twice as much of our GDP on healthcare than the average for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a collection of rich world countries. The U.S. has an infant mortality rate that dwarfs comparable nations, as well as the highest teenage-pregnancy rate in the developed world, largely because of the politically-motivated unavailability of contraception in many areas.

4. Education

The U.S. is among only three nations in the world that does not guarantee paid maternal leave (the other two are Papua New Guinea and Swaziland). This means many poor American mothers must choose between raising their children and keeping their jobs. The U.S. education system is plagued with structural racial biases, like the fact that schools are funded at the local, rather than national level. That means that schools attended by poor black people get far less funding than the schools attended by wealthier students. The Department of Education has confirmed that schools with high concentrations of poor students have lower levels of funding. It’s no wonder America has one of the highest achievement gaps between high income and low income students, as measured by the OECD. Schools today are actually more racially segregated than they were in the 1970s. Our higher education system is unique among developed nations in that is funded almost entirely privately, by debt. Students in the average OECD country can expect about 70 percent of their college tuition to be publicly funded; in the United States, only about 40 percent of the cost of education is publicly-funded. That’s one reason the U.S. has the highest tuition costs of any OECD country.

5. Inequality

By almost every measure, the U.S. tops out OECD countries in terms of income inequality, largely because America has the stingiest welfare state of any developed country. This inequality has deep and profound effects on American society. For instance, although the U.S. justifies its rampant inequality on the premise of upward mobility, many parts of the United States have abysmal levels of social mobility, where children born in the poorest quintile have a less than 3 percent chance of reaching the top quintile. Inequality harms our democracy, because the wealthy exert an outsized political influence. Sheldon Adelson, for instance, spent more to influence the 2012 election than the residents of 12 states combined. Inequality also tears at the social fabric, with a large body of research showing that inequality correlates with low levels of social trust. In their book The Spirit Level, Richard Pickett and Kate Wilkinson show that a wide variety of social indicators, including health and well-being are intimately tied to inequality.

6. Infrastructure

The United States infrastructure is slowly crumbling apart and is in desperate need for repair. One study estimates that our infrastructure system needs a $3.6 trillion investment over the next six years. In New York City, the development of Second Avenue subway line was first delayed by the outbreak of World War II; it’s still not finished. In South Dakota, Alaska and Pennsylvania, water is still transported via century-old wooden pipes. Some 45 percent of Americans lack access to public transit. Large portions of U.S. wastewater capacity are more than half a century old and in Detroit, some of the sewer lines date back to the mid-19th century. One in nine U.S. bridges (or 66,405 bridges) are considered “structurally deficient,” according to the National Bridge Inventory. All of this means that the U.S. has fallen rapidly in international rankings of infrastructure.

America is a great country, and it does many things well. But it has vast blind spots. The fact that nearly 6 million Americans, or 2.5 percent of the voting-age population, cannot vote because they have a felony on record means that politicians can lock up more and more citizens without fear of losing their seat. Our ideas of meritocracy and upward mobility blind us to the realities of class and inequality. Our healthcare system provides good care to some, but it comes at a cost – millions of people without health insurance. If we don’t critically examine these flaws, how can we ever hope to progress as a society?

Originally published on The Rolling Stone.

Natural Gas Will Not Save the U.S. Economy

Co-Written with Lew Daly

Economist Kenneth Boulding famously said, “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.” But it’s not just economists who believe that anymore. Such ideas are still widely accepted by thought leaders, journalists, and politicians who, together, form a strong consensus that the U.S. recovery should be bolstered by natural gas exploration and production. The McKinsey Global Institute claims in a recent report that a natural gas boom is one of the most important “game changer” ideas for U.S. economic growth, while The Economist writes, “Become a champion of a global fracking revolution, Mr. Obama, and the world could look on America very differently.” And in his recent State of the Union address, President Barack Obama said “I’ll cut red tape” for factories that use natural gas, and that “Congress can help by putting people to work building fueling stations that shift more cars and trucks from foreign oil to American natural gas.”

But the belief that natural gas can be a “bridge fuel,” allowing us to grow rapidly in the age of global warming, is fit for a madman.

The current consensus is that if global temperatures rise more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, the consequences would be catastrophic (the Arctic melt would raise sea levels by tens of meters). So scientists have proposed a “carbon budget”: the total amount of carbon dioxide that can be released into the atmosphere without raising temperatures by 2 degrees. Using a conservative carbon budget of 450 parts per million—which has been endorsed by the International Energy Agency and Britain’s Stern Review—economists Humberto Llavador, John Roemer, and Joaquim Silvestre have thrown cold water on the idea that natural gas is our nation’s economic savior. In a forthcoming paper, they argue that given that budget, the world’s two largest CO2 emitters, the U.S. and China, must keep GDP growth within the threshold of 1 percent and 2.8 percent of GDP per year, respectively, for the next 75 years.

These results may sound surprising, but they are in line with a growing body of research on stranded carbon assets, which are assets such as fossil fuels (oil, coal and natural gas) that will lose their value well before they’re expected to. This can happen as a result of, say, market disruption (rapid advances in green technology like wind and solar polar or divestment) or government regulation (a carbon tax or stricter fuel economy standards). That latter is more likely because, even now, we have found way more fossil fuels than we could possibly burn without inviting long-term environmental disaster.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s carbon-budget model, widely considered the most reliable, puts the budget for 2012-2100 at between 886 and 1119 gigatons of CO2. Total known fossil fuel reserves in the world, if burned, would add 2860 gigatons of CO2 to the atmosphere. Thus, simple math indicates that almost two-thirds of all known fossil fuel reserves must remain unburned if global temperatures are to remain habitable. And these are optimistic estimates. James Hansen of the Columbia Earth Institute and other leading scientists and economists argue that all extraction of coal and other unconventional fossil fuels, like the Canadian Tar Sands, must cease immediately and the extraction of conventional fossil fuels, like oil and natural gas, must be significantly pared down.

Projects like the Keystone XL pipeline and other attempts to revive the U.S. economy based on fossil-fuel extraction are the equivalent of running up billions in debt and then running off to borrow more. The international community is already blowing through its carbon budget; the IPCC predicts that given “business as usual,” we’ll burn 1,000 gigatons of CO2 between 2012 and 2033, depleting the more conservative budget entirely and nearing the upper bound. We’ve already seen the consequences of temperatures growing by less than one degree Celsius, yet we’re on track to see themrise by more than six degrees by 2100. Our current trajectory tempts ecological and economic collapse, and yet, many are arguing that we accelerate the process.

Part of the problem is that our measure of growth, GDP, does not take into account the costs or sustainability of growth. One billion dollars of growth in the production of solar energy is not the same as $1 billion produced by coal in terms of ecological harm and sustainability, but GDP counts them equally. Instead we should measure progress using more extensive metrics like the Genuine Progress Indicator, which factors the impact of greenhouse gas emissions into its calculations. Further, we should institute a carbon tax, preferably an international one. Some companies currently price carbon internally—meaning that they put a price on the carbon produced by their projects, and subtract that from any expected returns—but do so at widely varying rates. A Carbon Disclosure Project study finds that nine of the largest energy companies in the United States internally price carbon dioxide emissions, at a cost ranging from $15 per ton (Devon) to $60 per ton (ExxonMobil). Governments should consider the social and environmental cost of carbon dioxide when they are making infrastructure and research investments, regulating extractive industries like fracking and offering tax incentives. Against the EPA’s recommendation, the State Department decided not to consider the social cost of carbon in its analysis of the Keystone pipeline.

The State Department also didn’t consider the very likely possibility that the pipeline will become a stranded asset. We can only hope it will—because that would mean we’ve finally learned that if we don’t live within our carbon budget, the long-term ecological and economic harm caused by our relentless extraction and burning of fossil fuels will obviate any short-term benefits to the economy. If we build our recovery on natural resources that need to remain underground to keep global temperatures stable, then we’ll be like the foolish builder in the Gospel of Matthew “who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

Originally published on The New Republic.

Do Conservatives have a philosophy? Do Liberals?

Jonathan Chait is great.

When he’s not writing on the Keystone XL pipeline he’s generally pretty solid; I imagine we have deep disagreements, but presently, with a Republican party largely off the hinges, he’s writing on stuff I agree with. One qualm I stumbled upon:

And not because conservatives are necessarily more stubborn. (Indeed, on an individual level, liberals may well be just as stubborn as conservatives.) Rather, conservatism, unlike liberalism, overlays a deeper set of philosophical principles.Conservatives believe that big government impinges upon freedom. They may also believe that big government imposes large costs on the economy. But, for a true conservative, whatever ends they think smaller government may bring about–greater prosperity, economic mobility for the non-rich–are almost beside the point. As Milton Friedman wrote, “[F]reedom in economic arrangements is itself a component of freedom broadly understood, so economic freedom is an end in itself.”

As far as I can tell, this is total bunk. For one, I’ve met a lot of liberals and all of their political decisions are formed by deeply philosophical principles. Chait essentially contradicts himself in his next paragraph:

We’re accustomed to thinking of liberalism and conservatism as parallel ideologies, with conservatives preferring less government and liberals preferring more. The equivalency breaks down, though, when you consider that liberals never claim that increasing the size of government is an end in itself. Liberals only support larger government if they have some reason to believe that it will lead to material improvement in people’s lives. Conservatives also want material improvement in people’s lives, of course, but proving that their policies can produce such an outcome is a luxury, not a necessity.

Now, liberals do have an underlying set of philosophical principles, i.e. utilitarianism. Conservatives, in Chait’s telling are more concerned with ideology i.e. government is always bad. In this paragraph it is the liberals with the deep philosophical claims, while the conservatives are simply reactionary. I would argue that, in fact, conservatives are likely right that a material improvement in someone’s life should not be the end-all, be-all of politics, because millenia of existing as human beings confirm that far more important to well-being are family, community, a sense of purpose and fulfilling work.

There was a time when conservative philosophy was represented in Republican policies, and not a reactionary conservatism, a conservatism that was logically coherent and powerfully persuasive, one that made you think (read: Michael Oakeshott or Leo Strauss or Carl Schmitt and, if I’m being gracious, Chesterton – though never Lewis). Now, that tradition is in shambles, mainly because the Republican party is no longer informed by a coherent set of underlying principles. That’s why Jon Stewart can satirize them so successfully, they are entirely nihilist. Chait recognizes this, in his newest piece on the EITC when he talks about a proposal that is once accepted by Republicans is immediately denounced when their opponents cite it. This is not philosophy, it is, ultimately, nihilism.

I grant that in politics, the lines of your philosophy are blurred. But you can still get a general reading. The humor that Stewart creates is in showing that all of the modern Republican party’s pretensions toward traditions and such are empty – their goal is to forward the plutocratic agenda, it is pure class politics. Chait believes Republicans want small government for no reason. What? No one just hates government out of nowhere; Republicans have a reason for it – primarily, helping those who benefit from smaller government (i.e. richie riches). I don’t know inside their hearts, but I’m guessing this because when big government helps wealthy donors (farm subsidies) the party has trouble getting rid of it. There are libertarians as well, their political program is also informed by philosophical principles – different from my own, but philosophical nonetheless.

I wish there were more people like Andrew Sullivan who really wrestled with their traditions to come up with a realistic conservative political program. When that happens, we could say that the right was infused with political philosophy. As it is, it’s just naked class interests (which is why Sullivan has distanced himself from the Republican party). Liberals, as far as I can tell, have a better, if not incomplete political philosophy, rather than a reactionary program of class interest.