Martin Gilens, over at the Boston Review, pens a thought-provoking, if timid, piece on income inequality and the health of our Democracy. In his brief response, noted blogger andhuman punching bag Matthew Yglesias writes: "I struggle to think of another essay that brings such excellent data and analytical power to bear on an issue while reaching such a fundamentally wrong-headed conclusion." The piece is standard Yglesian fare, which is to say technocratic and liberal, and I struggled to think of another essayist that brings this kind of breathless gadflying—like a college freshman who just read Freakonomics—to bear on an issue while reaching such a fundamentally wrong-headed conclusion.
(Join me on the flip side for more...)
For example: "Therefore if survey data illustrate that policy responsiveness to public opinion reached its apogee in 2001–2004 and was at a nadir in the mid-1960s, it must be telling us that policy responsiveness to public opinion is not particularly important." And, "The purpose of a political system is to resolve political questions in a satisfactory way. When you hire a plumber, you don’t want him to ask you how you think the plumbing should be fixed. You’ve hired him so that he can look at the situation and do what needs to be done. Your role as the customer is to try to find a plumber with a good reputation, to recommend him to others if he’s done a good job, and to fire him if he can’t make it work." My personal favorite, though, is this gem: "And, indeed, the idea that the point of democracy is to implement legislative outcomes that are supported by broad-based surveys seems almost like a straw man dreamed up by an eighteenth-century monarchist."
Contra Yglesias, governments aren't plumbers. And thank God they're not. Plumbers fix things, and that's great—everyone needs a good plumber—but plumbers are rarely asked to make moral decisions. Or, put another way, A government that does well is different than a government that does good, and given the choice—call me a hopeless romantic—I'd take a government that does good over a government that does well every day. That, after all, is the American project. The founding fathers didn't rebel because Great Britain wasn't doing well—it was the great empire of its day; they rebelled because Great Britain was unresponsive to the will of the governed. Indeed, the idea behind the Stamp and Tax acts wasn't particularly horrible governance—from a purely practical perspective: an empire isn't an empire if it can't make bank of its colonies. That selfsame idea, however, was a morally odious one.
The chasm between the morally bad and the practically bad stretches across the topography of our public policy debates. Is efficiency at any cost worth sacrificing worker's rights? Is stoping a ticking bomb worth waterboarding? Is potential safety worth rounding up Japanese-Americans? In a good many philosophies the answer is, do what's the best thing, not what's the right thing. The American answer, though, has always been, as in the words of Increase Mather during the Salem Witch Trial: "It were better that Ten Suspected Witches should escape, than that one Innocent Person should be Condemned." If one buys the premise that America, despite her warts, despite her myriad misdeeds, is something good and worth preserving, then the first thing you're buying is the notion that good beats well.
Of course, Yglesias is an easy target, particularly after his noxious screed proclaiming that "Bangladesh may or may not need tougher workplace safety rules, but it’s entirely appropriate for Bangladesh to have different—and, indeed, lower—workplace safety standards than the United States." This is the kind of absurd conclusions we can expect technocrats to reach when they allow themselves to become untethered from moral considerations.
Crossposted at Ich Bin Ein Oberliner.