Thursday, January 20, 2011

Has the left been silenced?

This piece, which claims that the "left" is somehow ignored in general discussion on the blogosphere has received a lot of attention including marginal revolution and (a very fine piece from) Matt Yglesias. Here is a summary statement of sorts:
There are many myths within the political blogosphere, but none is so deeply troubling or so highly treasured by mainstream political bloggers than this: that the political blogosphere contains within it the whole range of respectable political opinion, and that once an issue has been thoroughly debated therein, it has had a full and fair hearing. The truth is that almost anything resembling an actual left wing has been systematically written out of the conversation within the political blogosphere, both intentionally and not, while those writing within it congratulate themselves for having answered all left-wing criticism.
It is important to note, right off, that deBoer has a very specific flavor of the left in mind, which he signals here:
That the blogosphere is a flagrantly anti-leftist space should be clear to anyone who has paid a remote amount of attention. Who, exactly, represents the left extreme in the establishment blogosphere? You'd likely hear names like Jane Hamsher or Glenn Greenwald. But these examples are instructive. Is Hamsher a socialist? A revolutionary anti-capitalist? In any historical or international context-- in the context of a country that once had a robust socialist left, and in a world where there are straightforwardly socialist parties in almost every other democracy-- is Hamsher particularly left-wing?
deBoer's left is the old left of activist trade unions and worker uprisings. One way to recast his complaint is not that *the* left is somehow underrepresented in the blogosphere but that *his* left is underrepresented in the blogosphere. Indeed, much of his post is devoted to precisely that point, but framed differently. He argues at length that leftists of the sort who have had an economics class or two, such as Matt Yglesias, and so recognize that prices can be a useful policy tool and that thinking seriously about organizational design and incentives within government might lead to better government, are not really leftists. I think the correct answer to this argument is to note that debates about who is really a leftist are pretty uninteresting relative to practical, informed discussions that try to improve policy and politics. Indeed, this part of deBoer's post reminded of all the crazy infighting that goes on in many far corners of politics between different flavors of Randians on the right or different flavors of Trotskyites on the left. Yawn.

deBoer omits completely another component of the left: the new (newer?) left of hard environmentalism, localism, and anti-corporatism. This left, like the neoliberal left that he assaults at length, is also quite different from the traditional trade-union old left that captures deBoer's affections. Does it deserve a hearing as well? More broadly, there really is no *the* left just as there is no *the* right. Even the very limited discussion here serves, once again, to illustrate the limitations on thought imposed by this tired binary division as well as the violence it does to the underlying reality.

While I think deBoer's claim that the old trade-union left is somehow under-represented in the blogosphere is empirically incorrect, for the moment let's take it at face value and consider alternative explanations for it. deBoer offer's what is essentially a conspiracy theory. Conspiracy theories, though great fun, are nearly always wrong due to the high transactions costs they implicitly assume away. What other explanations might account for the phenomenon that deBoer identifiies?

One good reason why the old trade-union left might receive relatively little attention is the same reason why the monarchist right receives relatively little attention: history has passed it by. I mean this in two senses. First, the conditions under which a regime heavy with trade unions might have made sense have passed. Workers are now much better educated than in the past and less in need of unions to protect their interests. Labor markets are now much broader and much deeper, which has reduced (though not to zero) the ability of employers to mistreat workers. Governments have taken on many of the insurance and worker protection functions once performed by unions. And, I would argue, at the margin unions now push for many worker protections that go against other laudable (and left-wing) goals, as with tenure for K-12 teachers and opposition to school choice or above-market compensation for state and local government workers (which, of course, reduces the quantity of services that can be provided with a given budget).

Second, real socialism wherein the government attempts to supplant the price mechanism did so poorly in practice in so many different places, and so obviously entailed huge costs in terms of lost civil liberties - the process now playing out in Venezuela - that most people who pay attention to evidence simply lost interest and moved on to one of the other viewpoints that deBoer wants to write out of the left.

Let me also remark on deBoer's take on libertarianism:
I was finally driven to write this post by the recent discussions, driven by Chris Beam's article, on libertarianism. I am someone who frequently develops great hope for a hypothetical libertarianism and is consistently disappointed by the actual libertarianism. I'm sorry to say that, if the reaction to Beam's piece is any indication, what libertarians have taken from their tempestuous love affair with movement conservatism is the political salience of constantly complaining about how oppressed you are. I ask, and I wonder, if libertarians ever stop to ponder what it's like to operate from an actually forbidden perspective. I take it that there isn't, actually, a great imbalance in the number of American libertarians (in any sense amenable to the Cato and Reason crowd) and the number of Americans who would consider themselves leftists, or very liberal, or the like. The ranks of American minarchism, after all, are quite small in number. Bush's compassionate conservatism, the inverse of the standard libertarian platform, was a real winner. But while libertarians are tiny in number they are mammoth in influence. This is the case because they've got money, money to fund enterprises like Cato or Reason or smaller outfits. I'm not saying that this is illegitimate. (There's something awfully poetic about libertarianism getting influence by buying it.) I'm just saying that there's no sense in which the lack of a leftist blogosphere is necessarily the product of small demographic representation.
If there was a different libertarianism.... I frequently imagine that an ideology with "liberty" right in the title might be a mad, teeming collection of every flavor of crazy and dreamer, a loose confederation rife with difference and disagreement. Difference so vast that it might, by god, lead some to find common ground with someone like, well, me.
Three points here. First, reason and CATO are the dressed up (albeit often in a sweater or a leather jacket), public face of libertarianism. The crazy, chaotic world that deBoer imagines actually exists just below the surface. If deBoer attended (as I have) any sort of real libertarian event not designed for outsiders, such as a Libertarian Party convention, he would find all the nuts and flakes he could possibly want: nudists, life-extenders, gold bugs, Randroids, Henry George afficianados, anarcho-capitalists, people wanting to start new libertarian countries on islands, people seeking salvation through pot, and all the rest. It is glorious fun and quite bracing - I heartily recommend such experiences. In short, this criticism is simply uninformed. It is like claiming that the left is boring and overly wonky because you went to a forum on budget scoring at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities instead of to the Michigan Women's Music Festival.

Second, the bizarre notion on the left that libertarians have more resources than they do is so comically at odds with reality as to strain one's belief in the sincerity of those who make the claim. There are, literally, a handful of rich libertarians who devote some of their resources to supporting political causes, most notable among them being the Koch brothers. In contrast, there are armies of rich lefties both living and dead, in Hollywood and in the corporate world, as well as dead right-wingers, like Henry Ford, whose foundations have been taken over by the left. More than that, the left receives substantial government support as well. NPR provides one obvious example. Really, this claim is so unserious that it should not even require discussion.

Third, perhaps the fact that libertarians do much better in the world of ideas than one might expect from their numbers or their funding has something to do with the quality of those ideas? Just maybe?

In the end, it strikes me that the deBoer piece has received much more attention than it deserves. I think its central empirical claim is misguided; the broader left is in fact well-represented in the blogosphere while the particular version of the left beloved by deBoer receives less attention than he would like for very good reasons related to historical developments that have taken place since its heyday in the 1930s and to the accumulated empirical evidence on the performance of central planning. His critiques of libertarianism are at odds with the evidence as well. Can we move on now?

Oh, and do read the Matt Yglesias post.

Full disclosure: I received an Institute for Humane Studies Claude R. Lambe fellowship for a couple of years in graduate school. Some of that money may well have come from the Koch family. I was also a reason summer intern for two years in college, for which I received the grand sum of $400 each year.

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