The Washington Post published some concern trolling about how to help liberals talk to conservatives. Of course this advice would come from a guy named “Maximilian” from the Harvard economics department. World-class work, I guess.
Worries about “political polarization” and of our “post-factual era” impeding political debate in our society have become commonplace. Liberals, in particular, are often astonished at the seeming indifference of their opponents toward facts and toward the likely consequences of political decisions. “Donald Trump has been helped by a conservative-media environment in which there is no penalty for being wrong all the time,” Josh Barro wrote at Business Insider back in October; likewise, Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum more recently wondered: “Why do Republicans tell such obvious lies?”
A common, though apparently ineffective, response to this frustration is to double down by discussing more facts.
I can’t speak for liberals, but I can explain why this is stupid.
The phrase “seeming indifference” gives away who’s side he’s really on. Republicans have an actual indifference toward facts. The problem with liberals is their astonishment at that fact.
It’s not really so complicated. Republicans lie because 1) repeating the same bullshit is how they signal group membership 2) they’re emotionally incapable of handling reality and 3) it pisses off liberals and displays that they have the power to get away with it.
Josh Barro, whoever he is, is obviously an idiot for expecting a “comservative-media environment” to have journalistic standards instead of just doing whatever dirty thing advances their agenda. If people can’t explain the most basic tactics of their opponents, they shouldn’t get paid to write about politics like they know what they’re talking about.
When arguing about politics, it is often helpful to construct the best possible version of your opponent’s reasoning — a task admittedly not always made easy by the current administration. In this spirit, though, maybe the issue is not conservatives’ ignorance of facts, but rather a fundamental difference of values. Taking this point of view seems essential for effective communication across the political divide.
This is just trying to manipulate liberals with their stated values. They want to feel enlightened and charitable. It turns out the way to do that is to befriend Republicans! “Admittedly not made easy” is understatement of the year. Being disingenuous with extra style points.
When struggling for power, which is what politics is, it’s often helpful to have an accurate understanding of your enemies. Certainly, the fascists have spared no expense on this. I understand assuming good intent for the purpose of giving people a chance or keeping up appearances, but achieving results in the world is the goal, not befriending awful people.
Next he makes the ridiculous oversimplification that liberals are guided by utilitarianism and conservatives by deontology. This is the stuff of an essay from Phil 102 Introduction to Ethics.
Much normative (or value-based) reasoning by liberals (and mainstream economists) is about the consequences of political actions for the welfare of individuals. Statements about the desirability of policies are based on trading off the consequences for different individuals. If good outcomes result from a policy without many negative consequences, then the policy is a good one. When Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) remarked on the Affordable Care Act this spring, for example, she said, “I feel strongly that when we’re talking about our sick, when we’re talking about our poor … and we’re talking about something that would deny those in need with the relief and the help that they need, that they want and deserve, it does put in place a question about our moral values.” In other words, if a policy will harm the welfare of individuals in need, it’s a bad policy.
Meanwhile, much conservative normative reasoning is about procedures rather than consequences. For example, as long as property rights and free exchange are guaranteed, the outcome is deemed just by definition, regardless of the consequences. People are “deserving” of whatever the market provides them with. For instance, Speaker of the House Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) seemed to center the idea of unfairness in his argument against the Affordable Care Act: “The idea of Obamacare is,” he said, “that the people who are healthy pay for the people who are sick.”
Conservatives are often motivated by a much cruder consequentialism: whatever hurts brown people.
Complaining that the sick should pay for themselves and the healthy shouldn’t have to is not an expression of moral values. It’s an expression of their opposite. Objectivism is not a system of morality. The idea of morality is that it’s there because it’s self-defeating and not in your best interest. Getting rid of that aspect makes it not ethics,anymore. It’s not a restraint on behavior. It’s a license to do evil. That’s what it’s for.
“The status quo is always right” is also not a moral system, but that’s what it means to say that property rights and free exchange justify any outcome. Isn’t it ridiculous that conservatives can say “there is no such thing as society,” but the determiner of morality is an abstract “market” composed of…people doing stuff together…almost like a society.
Quoting Paul Ryan like this means it’s reasonable to Harvard Economist that it’s “unfair” for sick people to receive medical treatment if they belong to the wrong social class. You can’t really do that and pretend to be giving disinterested advice. You don’t get an assumption like that for free. The industrialized world sees it differently, so you can’t just take what should be shocking attitudes for granted.
As an example of how these value differences might matter more than facts, consider the example of bequest taxes, labeled “estate taxes” by liberals and “death taxes” by conservatives. A liberal might invoke various empirical facts: Bequests are very unequally distributed (more so than income or even wealth), bequests primarily benefit those who are already rich, the intergenerational correlation of economic status is very high in the United States and partly driven by bequests, the responsiveness of savings to changes in the bequest tax rate is low, etc. From this, our empiricist liberal might conclude that bequest taxes are an effective policy instrument, providing public revenue and promoting equality of opportunity.
The conservative addressee of these facts might now just shrug her shoulders and say “no thanks.” Our conservative likely believes that everyone has the right to keep the fruits of her labor, and free contracts of exchange between any two parties are nobody else’s business. She will consider someone who has worked hard their whole life, has been frugal and saved their income rather than indulging in consumption, and has raised children to whom he or she intends to pass on the product of his or her achievements. Such a person has lived the model of a moral life. Taxing bequests thus means punishing moral behavior, the exact opposite of what the government should do. And no empirical facts regarding the distribution of bequests or their responsiveness to policy changes affect this assessment in any way.
“Empiricist” is being used as a slur, with plausible deniability. It’s not a term from ethical philosophy at all. Any non-Republican is likely to start talking about “empirical reality,” and this is a signal to the initiated to stop listening at that point because it’s now a shibboleth meaning “I am a liberal pussy.” Whoever utters it can be ignored really hard.
He writes “the intergenerational correlation of economic status is very high in the United States and partly driven by bequests” when he could write “there should not be Paris Hilton when nobody else can get ahead.” The liberal straw man has to speak in a bloodless way. The reader should picture Alan Colmes before picturing themselves shoving him into a locker.
The word “bequests” is used on purpose because nobody knows what it means and it makes the eyes glaze over. Normal people would understand “some trust fund bullshit rich people do.” Normal people would understand “rich people’s kids never have to work, but you have to bust your ass.” The evenhandedness of the article is entirely pretend.
The last sentence of that passage is important, though. Fascism is not about empirical reality. It’s about framing everything in a dickish, judgmental, simpleminded way that makes the bully feel manlier. They don’t give a fuck about sick people. They don’t want one penny of their hard-earned dollars going to some nigger and that’s the end of it.
Engaging with a conservative like they’re honestly expressing well-intentioned beliefs is letting them win before getting started. What’s the last example of something principled a conservative did that anyone can remember? Look at the Republican Party.
He wants to talk about “bequests” to distract us from the reality that “arguing with conservatives” means “arguing with people who think Donald Trump is cool.” Nobody voted for Donald Trump out of their commitment to process and justice, but you can almost make it seem that way if you’re an economics professor at Harvard.