Social democracy = more freedom

I’ve been meaning to write a post on Will Wilkinson’s fascinating post-libertarianism (and the larger project of the Niskanen Center) since I read Chait’s excellent post, “I Have Seen the Future of a Republican Party That Is No Longer Insane” on the matter, back in December.  After listening to a terrific interview with Wilkinson on the Ezra Klein podcast, I decided I finally better get around to it.  I especially enjoyed the podcast’s focus on Wilkinson’s journey beyond libertarianism as he ultimately decided he had to give into the lived facts of human existence instead of the pure ideals preached by libertarianism (and he’s got a great essay on that in Vox from back in 2016).

Anyway, nice job by Chait summing up a lot of this and putting it in the perspective of the modern Republican Party:

Economist William Niskanen worked for the Reagan administration, and then proceeded to chair the Cato Institute, a redoubt of the firm anti-government verities that define conservative economic thought. Toward the end of his life, though, Niskanen began to express some doubts about the efficacy of supply-side economics, the unquestioned foundation of the Republican domestic platform. Cutting taxes without cutting spending, Niskanen observed, simply hadn’t worked. The small-government movement needed to “convince voters to reduce their demand for the services financed by federal spending,” he wrote. “Until that time, some increase in federal taxes appears to be a necessary part of a fiscal policy to balance the budget.”

Niskanen’s observation that tax rates needed to reflect actual rather than desired spending levels is banal to right-of-center economists in almost any country. But it was (and is) absolute heresy on the Republican right, which has elevated anti-tax absolutism into a theological principle. The Niskanen Center, founded in 2015, four years after Niskanen’s death, drew upon his heresies as a basis for an unconventional and less dogmatic approach to libertarian economics…

Last year, Will Wilkinson argued against “small-government monomania” and in favor of a social safety net to “increase the public’s tolerance for the dislocations of a dynamic free-market economy,” and identifiedlibertarianism with hostility to democracy, resulting in persistent Republican efforts “to find ways to keep Democrats from voting, and to minimize the electoral impact of the Democratic ballots that are cast.” Brink Lindsey attacked “the notion that downward redistribution picks the pockets of makers and doles it out to layabout takers.”…

Wilkinson, late last year, stepped away from libertarianism, acknowledgingthat according to libertarians’ own data, countries with larger welfare states also had more freedom. This revealed “a pretty major intellectual mistake lurking within the ideal-theoretic version of libertarianism that the most prominent institutions of the ‘freedom movement’ were built to promote.”…

In theory, it argues, market forces do a better job than central planners. In reality, though, most of the regulations conservatives target are those that advance legitimate social objectives — protecting health, safety and the environment — and impose costs on existing firms. The regulations most in need of scaling back are those imposed by state and local governments, and which protect incumbent owners of businesses and land. That is, regulations can be either good or bad, but in general, Republicans are attacking the good ones while leaving the bad ones in place.

Judging by Niskanen’s overview of the landscape, it is difficult to identify any aspect of public policy in which the Republican Party is making the world a better place. And this is both the most thrilling and discouraging thing about its critique…

The pathological character of the Republican Party is the most important problem in American politics. It has taken decades to develop to its current deformed state, and will not be solved quickly. There is no way to imagine the current incarnation of the GOP getting to the place Niskanen envisions any time soon. Niskanen’s manifesto contains multiple points of overlap with the prevailing orientation of the Democratic Party, and almost none with the prevailing orientation of the Republican Party.

And some great stuff from Wilkinson himself on the Niskanen site:

I think I’m more libertarian—more committed to value of liberty—than I’ve ever been. But that doesn’t mean being committed to an eschatology of liberty, a picture of an ideally free society, or a libertarian utopia. We’re not in a position to know what that looks like. The best we can do is to go ahead and try to rank social systems in terms of the values we care about, and then see what we can learn. The Cato Institute’s Human Freedom Index is one such useful measurement attempt. What do we see? Look:


Every highlighted country is some version of the liberal-democratic capitalist welfare state. Evidently, this general regime type is good for freedom. Indeed, it is likely the best we have ever done in terms of freedom.

Moreover, Denmark (#5), Finland (#9), and the Netherlands (#10) are among the world’s “biggest” governments, in terms of government spending as a percentage of GDP. The “economic freedom” side of the index, which embodies a distinctly libertarian conception of economic liberty, hurts their ratings pretty significantly. Still, according to a libertarian Human Freedom Index, some of the freest places in on Earth have some of the“biggest” governments. That’s unexpected. [italics in original; bold is mine]

That is our basic data. It doesn’t necessarily imply that the United States ought to do more redistributive social spending. But when a freedom index, built from libertarian assumptions, shows that freedom thrives in many places with huge welfare states, it should lead us to downgrade our estimate of the probability that liberty and redistribution are antithetical, and upgrade our estimate of the probability that they are consistent, and possibly complementary. That’s the sort of consideration that mainly drives my current views, not ideal-theoretical qualms about neo-Lockean libertarian rights theories.

Short version: based on the best evidence from how societies actually function around the world, the most human well-being and freedom exists in countries with democracy and robust social welfare system.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

3 Responses to Social democracy = more freedom

  1. Jim Danielson says:

    “The pathological character of the Republican Party is the most important problem in American politics.”

    Yet still so called serious people (including entitled Howard Schultz) complain about “both sides”.

  2. R. Jenrette says:

    Yes, seeming to be fair seems much more important than being accurate in our public discourse.

  3. homeys44 says:

    Ah, to live in a small,really white,borderless, socialist “freedom” paradise.

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