Posner dumps (on) Repubs

by John Quiggin on July 7, 2012

The intellectual trend away from the political right has been going on for some time, reversing the trend in the opposite direction that dominated the 1970s and 1980s[1]. But this NPR interview with Richard Posner who says

there’s been a real deterioration in conservative thinking. And that has to lead people to re-examine and modify their thinking

is probably the most notable single example so far, for several reasons.



First, in intellectual terms, he’s a really significant figure.  After Ronald Coase, he’s the most important figure in the field of “Law and Economics” which played a crucial role in the resurgence of conservative/free-market legal thinking. Moreover, while Coase wrote some brilliant papers in his long and influential career[2], he wasn’t an intellectual movement builder as Posner  has been.

Posner is one of a small minority on the intellectual right who have responded to the economic crisis by changing their view of the world, rather than by finding more and more absurd defenses of the indefensible. There must be quite a few others who realise they have backed the wrong  horse, but have chosen to remain quiet rather than making an open break.

Second, the terms of his attack on the US Republican party are scathing by any standards, but particularly for a professor and Federal judge, talking about his own erstwhile allies. His discussion is peppered with terms like “goofy”, “crackpot” and “lunatic”. That’s a pretty fair description of the US right these days, but it’s still not commonly heard on NPR.

Finally, it’s interesting to see him suggest that Chief Justice Roberts might follow the same path, in response to the campaign of leaks against him. I’m not sure I buy this, but even the suggestion should produce some interesting responses on the right.

fn1.  In the US context, the shift started, I think, with Kevin Phillips and Michael Lind in the 1990s, but didn’t really get going until the Bush Administration.

fn.2 He’s still alive at 101, but obvioulsy hasn’t written much lately. His reputation rests primarily on two papers, one from 1937 and the other from 1960.

{ 68 comments }

1

Robert 07.07.12 at 5:12 am

My favorite part is that it finally took a right-winger (or erstwhile right-winger) to say something like this on NPR.

2

Patrick S. O'Donnell 07.07.12 at 5:25 am

Were it that the father had more influence on the son.

3

Patrick S. O'Donnell 07.07.12 at 5:34 am

And John Dean’s conservative critique of the Republican Party stands out as well as part of this intellectual trend.

4

Henry (not the famous one) 07.07.12 at 5:49 am

I haven’t read all of his opinions, but I made a point of reading his labor law decisions for the first few years after he was appointed because I assumed that he was on the escalator for appointment to the Supreme Court back then and I wanted to see what lay in store. For the most part they were far better than I had expected; he had both the intellectual honesty and the ability to unpack concepts, rather than merely recycling someone else’s analysis, that made them a pleasure to read. More to the point, he wasn’t a hack like Manion and some others on the Seventh Circuit–while Roberts has discredited the image of an umpire, Posner called them pretty fair. Despite all his weird academic forays that highlighted his other limitations.

5

Both Sides Do It 07.07.12 at 5:56 am

“That’s a pretty fair description of the US right these days, but it’s still not commonly heard on NPR.”

A good illustration of the reasons behind NPR’s middling content is that it takes Richard Posner to articulate the intellectual vapidity of Republicans and conservatives.

6

bad Jim 07.07.12 at 6:07 am

This is slightly tangential, but somewhat on point, I think. Kevin Drum excerpted this bit

The public did not view Romney as an extremist. For example, when Priorities informed a focus group that Romney supported the Ryan budget plan — and thus championed “ending Medicare as we know it” — while also advocating tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, the respondents simply refused to believe any politician would do such a thing.

Perhaps the most disturbing implication is that the public is largely willing to go along with a party they assume is not acting in good faith, and that a substantial fraction favor it because it shares their values in spite of its forthright dishonesty.

7

Martin 07.07.12 at 7:29 am

“fn.2 He’s still alive at 101, but obvioulsy hasn’t written much lately. His reputation rests primarily on two papers, one from 1937 and the other from 1960.”

He actually recently published a book with Ning Wang titled “How China Became Capitalist”.

8

Christian Hiebaum 07.07.12 at 7:58 am

“Posner is one of a small minority on the intellectual right who have responded to the economic crisis by changing their view of the world…”

Posner may have lost his faith in the Republican Party, but has he really changed his view of the world? He says that “deregulation and privatization may have gone too far.” I wouldn’t think of this as a change of a view of the world, but rather as a sign that he’s not gone completely nuts (in contrast to many representatives of the Republican Party). (To be sure, the American public, as far as it pays attention to Posner, may interprete this a significant shift to the left.)

9

The Raven 07.07.12 at 8:44 am

Christian Hiebaum, #8: you have the right of it; in the interview he still says that he likes Milton Friedman and Reagan. He was especially happy with Reagan for “standing up to the air traffic controllers union.” Posner is 73. He’s not likely to be changing long-fixed convictions.

10

Tim Worstall 07.07.12 at 8:51 am

“Posner expressed admiration for President Ronald Reagan and the economist Milton Friedman, two pillars of conservatism.”

I think it’s a little difficult to argue that Friedman was a conservative. Free market liberal, yes, but that isn’t, in any way, shape, or form equivalent to American Conservatism.

Similarly, in a more general sense, conservatism and free market liberalism aren’t the same thing. In the literal sense of “conservatism” the UK’s Labour party is probably the most conservative of the current parties. The post war welfare settlement is just fine and shouldn’t be changed. They may or may not be right but that’s a conservative position: don’t change what we have.

11

ogmb 07.07.12 at 10:02 am

After Ronald Coase, he’s the most important figure in the field of “Law and Economics” which played a crucial role in the resurgence of conservative/free-market legal thinking. Moreover, while Coase wrote some brilliant papers in his long and influential career[2], he wasn’t an intellectual movement builder as Posner has been.

Coase’s two groundbreaking contributions to economics were the observations that if markets were indeed free, we would have no need for firms (The Nature of the Firm, 1937) or the law (The Problem of Social Cost, 1960). Even though the intransigent free-marketers love to interpret these contributions as saying, “we’re in the clear on externalities since markets can internalize them efficiently”, Coase says the exact opposite: The existence of firms and the law shows that markets are indeed not (transaction-cost-) free but rather fail persistently at executing all but the simplest contracts without a rather elaborate institutional support structure. Hardly a right-wing talking point.

12

Henry 07.07.12 at 10:39 am

Coase on the Coase theorem

bq. I think the success of the Coase Theorem—because it’s discussed all over the place—is an interesting illustration of what’s wrong with economics; because, if you read “The Problem of Social Cost,” it occupies perhaps four pages. It’s useful. I think it’s useful because you can show, using it, the type of contracts that would have to be made in order to have an efficient economic system. But then you have to introduce, having done that, the obstacles to doing it. Then you see how the system actually works. But many people have only read the four pages or only thought about the four pages—one of the reasons they’ve done that, of course, is it’s the most abstract part of the article.

13

Kieran 07.07.12 at 11:35 am

I remember the first time I read those two articles it was a jarring experience, because Coase seemed to end up in a very different place from where I’d been told he did when I learned about the Coase Theorem.

14

Cranky Observer 07.07.12 at 1:09 pm

Forgive me if I am not entirely sympathetic to a person who deliberately ignites a forest fire intending to burn out the hippies who have colonized “his” territory and is surprised when the flames turn around and consume his friends’ town and his own house. Seems to me that Posner achieved 90% of what he set out to do as a young legal mind (thanks Bill Clinton!) and his backers have reaped the results; seems a bit wet to cry over the side effects at this point [1].

How’s the deregulation of the provision-of-electricity industry working out for the BosWash area at the moment? Good thing we were able to raise the salary of the CEO of PEPco from the traditional $400k to $20 million; we sure did get better service and lower prices as a result.

Cranky

[1] Particularly since regardless of what Posner may have believed those side effects were desired by his large-scale backers and may, indeed, have been the point of the exercise.

15

Jonathan 07.07.12 at 1:37 pm

I liked in the interview when Posner said he admired Reagan for “standing up” to the air traffic controllers union.

In all seriousness, though, Posner’s writings on the supreme court often note that law clerks write (substantial parts at least of) many of the opinions, an important observation that journalism seems to ignore.

16

Patrick S. O'Donnell 07.07.12 at 4:01 pm

The role of law clerks in penning opinions is well known by many who have any interest in the law in this country (cf. the Wikipedia entry: ‘A law clerk or a judicial clerk is a person who provides assistance to a judge or a licensed attorney in researching issues before the court and in writing opinions’), although it may be true that the general public is ignorant of this fact (among many other things). But of course the justices give instructions to their clerks, oversee drafts, etc., and have final say in what is written. This is one reason they choose their own clerks. “Some judges seek to hire law clerks who not only have excelled academically but also share the judge’s ideological orientation. However, this occurs mostly at the level of some state supreme courts and the United States Supreme Court. Law clerks can have a great deal of influence on the judges with whom they work.”

17

Shakes 07.07.12 at 4:14 pm

Republicans are loons for sure. But what about Pelosi or Debbie Wasserman Shultz? My God man, make it stop.

I don’t think Republicans have corned the market, and I am the angry Tea Party type.

Who are the leaders of the Republican Party? Williard Romney of liberal Mass fame. John Boehner and Eric Cantor aren’t crazy. Paul Ryan doesn’t have some mental illness. You might not like their politics, but I don’t think the inmates are running the asylum.

Also, I think I have read about Posner’s coming out party a few years back. I don’t think that this is the first time I have read this type of article about him. And it isn’t like people haven’t considered Posner as a bit “goofy” himself. It is only when he calls Conservatives goofy that he is respected as a venerable man of reason.

http://www.economist.com/node/1858788

“Whether it deserves this attention is another matter. For Mr Posner is not only America’s most prolific writer on legal subjects, he is also one of the strangest. He has solid intellectual achievements to his credit, most notably his pioneering work in the 1970s on the hitherto neglected relationship between law and economics.

And yet he can be, well, loony. His proposals for a free market in babies or his explanation of why high-heeled shoes are considered sexy for women (they make it harder to run away from husbands) might be defended as adventurous antidotes to lazy thinking. But his loathing of public intellectuals who pronounce on subjects about which they are not expert is bizarre for a man who himself is keen to comment on virtually everything.”

18

otto 07.07.12 at 4:14 pm

Coase actually recently published a book with Ning Wang titled “How China Became Capitalist”.

Has anyone read, or can anyone recommend, the Coase / Wang book on China? It’s much too expensive for a casual purchase…

19

Jonathan 07.07.12 at 4:31 pm

Patrick–I think Posner’s citation of this fact generally comes in a discussion of the lack of intellectual originality or distinction of supreme court justices, a position rarely adopted in legal journalism’s emphasis on personalities and ideological orientation as far as I have seen.

20

RobW 07.07.12 at 4:33 pm

I think it’s a little difficult to argue that Friedman was a conservative. Free market liberal, yes, but that isn’t, in any way, shape, or form equivalent to American Conservatism.

Absolutely! Friedman says to himself that conservatism is decidedly not what he’s about. The GOP is emphatically NOT the party of liberty! Those who favor free-markets and limited government do not have a home in the present political space (outside of third-parties with little to no influence on the overall debate much less an actual chance at governing). Given this, it seems very hard to argue that:

…a small minority on the intellectual right who have responded to the economic crisis by changing their view of the world, rather than by finding more and more absurd defenses of the indefensible.

Where’s the real alternative to Keynesian stimulus? Anyone who says, “Look at Europe!” should do exactly that and notice that all the countries in supposed “austerity” continue to run massive budget deficits! At what point do the backers of this worldview have to acknowledge that responding to continued economic malaise with either “trust us, it would have been worse” or “it is evidently clear that the stimulus wasn’t big enough” is itself more indefensible as time goes by.

Posner might be right about the GOP but this is a far cry from saying Keynes and the left are correct. The GOP is a party of Big Government, perhaps not of big social programs but of Big Government all the same.

21

Patrick S. O'Donnell 07.07.12 at 6:33 pm

Jonathan,

Interesting. I don’t think intellectual originality is a desideratum we expect of the justices (and I am surprised to learn Posner would think it is), given the legal division of labor with regard to the Constitution and the role the Court plays therein. Distinction is another matter, and I dare say I think the percentage of justices evidencing this quality is probably no higher or lower than in any other branches of the government. Legal journalists who write for major news services or newspapers and other media are rarely given the time and resources to explore such things in any depth, as this is a comparative exercise requiring considerable time and space (perhaps a piece in The New Yorker or one of the major book review periodicals may do this). On the other hand, there do exist a fair number of books on various justices, some of which are quite good and do in fact highlight intellectual (and moral, legal, and political) distinction of various kinds, for example, Melvin I Urofsky’s recent biography of Louis D. Brandeis (2009) comes to mind.

22

studentee 07.07.12 at 7:07 pm

“Anyone who says, “Look at Europe!” should do exactly that and notice that all the countries in supposed “austerity” continue to run massive budget deficits!”

The deficits will not go away. Raising taxes and cutting spending hurt an economy. An ailing economy requires more spending on social programmes, and an ailing economy produces less tax revenues. An ailing economy depresses consumption and investment desires, irrespective of balance sheet conditions. It’s pretty simple, and it clearly leads from Keynes. You have no magic bullet.

“Austerity” can never be defined by the size of the deficit. It should be defined by taxation and spending regimes.

23

Antonio Conselheiro 07.07.12 at 7:30 pm

“OH! So that was what I was doing all those years!”

As a non-Republican Posner will become much less important. His work is done, he’s no longer needed, and the battle is over.

24

John Quiggin 07.07.12 at 8:06 pm

Of course, the simple-minded reading of the Coase theorem is wrong. But even the more sophisticated version, notably as elaborated by Posner, supports free-market/conservative implications, relevant to the debates we’ve been having recently. My summary would be

In the presence of transactions costs, property rights won’t work perfectly, and unresolved externalities will arise. The best response is to create explicit property rights where they are missing, and to rely on the wisdom of common-law judges to interpret unclear property rights in the most socially efficient way.

In particular, it’s important to notice that while the Coase-Posner model allows for the possibility that the ‘wrong’ people may have the property rights in particular cases, there’s no room for the idea that the system as a whole wrongly allocates the great bulk of property to a minority, who then exercise unjust power over the rest.

25

JP Stormcrow 07.07.12 at 8:19 pm

I’m happy to see Posner state the obvious on this point, but I have doubts that he has fundamentally shifted his position. Here he is basically taking a position similar (or possibly even more reprehensible) to Cowen’s on access to healthcare for the poor (from his Salon piece “Chief Justice Roberts did the right thing—but it’s still a bad law“).

But the deficit cannot be allowed to grow indefinitely, and the health care law will help it to grow indefinitely. There is no way the nation can add 30 million people to the private or public health insurance rolls without experiencing higher health costs. The reason is that insured people demand and receive more health care than the uninsured. That is explicit in Professor Dellinger’s reference to health costs that are “unaffordable” by the uninsured. The care they will now get may improve their health. They may live longer. But the longer people live, the more medical care they need.

Will no one think of the deficit?

26

Gene O'Grady 07.07.12 at 9:57 pm

Cowen’s position (I think it’s his) as quoted in no. 25 above is silly. My experience of budgeting in the medical sector convinced me that rising costs are not driven by “customer” demand; they are driven by the desire of actors in the health care system to maintain revenues. De-emphasizing primary care and investing in fancy new machines that bring in higher reimbursement have nothing to do with “demand.”

27

JP Stormcrow 07.08.12 at 2:38 am

Posner was (regrettably) parroting an argument made by the WaPo’s Robert Samuelson (who he specifically mentions in his preceding paragraph).

28

Satan Mayo 07.08.12 at 2:44 am

Cowen’s position (I think it’s his) as quoted in no. 25 above is silly. My experience of budgeting in the medical sector convinced me that rising costs are not driven by “customer” demand; they are driven by the desire of actors in the health care system to maintain revenues. De-emphasizing primary care and investing in fancy new machines that bring in higher reimbursement have nothing to do with “demand.”

Demand for unnecessary procedures created by misleading advertising is still demand. This is an issue where an essential economic term is hard to use because outside the economic context it has different associations. Like people disputing Yglesias using “skilled workers” to describe GMU economics professors. The term “skilled workers” does denote people like that, even if they are neither workers nor skilled.

29

John Quiggin 07.08.12 at 3:47 am

Quite a few comments here are almost universally applicable in cases of this kind

(a) Discussion of the unfairness of the welcome to recent converts (vis a vis the long-term true believers) goes back at least to the parable of the Prodigal Son.

(b) Political converts rarely undergo an immediate and wholesale change of belief. Rather, a break with orthodoxy on key issues produces a break with the movement, which then makes it easier to shift on other issues. I saw a great discussion of this with reference to Australian Labor leaders in the first half of C20, quite a few of whom changed sides, mostly, though not invariably, going through a protracted process of subsequent adjustment before ending up as orthodox conservatives (I think it was cited in Crisp’s biography of Holman, if any Oz readers have it handy).

I’m not saying that the concerns are valid or invalid in any particular case, just that they arise in almost every case.

30

Lee A. Arnold 07.08.12 at 3:59 am

I am not sure that Ronald Coase actually accepts the Coase Theorem as normally stated. Conservatives boosted him but I don’t think he himself ever advocated the creation of private property rights as a general solution. He is far too precise a thinker.

Coase, in a recent interview: “All economies have different systems of property rights. The common classification of private versus public property rights, the former associated with capitalism and the latter with socialism, is too simplified a view. Britain and America have different systems of property rights. China under Mao and the Soviet Union were also different in the ways property rights were structured. A good system of property rights is the one that economic resources, including human talents, are efficiently utilized. I think China will develop its own system of property rights. Whether you call it socialist or capitalist does not matter.”

31

Gene O'Grady 07.08.12 at 4:23 am

Satan, MRI machines, to take an example, do not attract customers because of misleading advertising. Usage is largely driven not by the patient but by the institution and the professionals associated with the institution who are incentivized (am I using the term right) to choose what may be a less desirable and even unnecessary but more remunerative treatment.

So far can this be from demand that at the medical center I worked at they notoriously sank a few million bucks into a machine called a lithotripter which was obsolete before it was installed and had precisely no patient use ever. Even an economist would be hard pressed to call that “demand.”

32

JW Mason 07.08.12 at 4:55 am

Like people disputing Yglesias using “skilled workers” to describe GMU economics professors. The term “skilled workers” does denote people like that, even if they are neither workers nor skilled.

No, using that term is offering a specific explanation for pay differentials, which may or may not be correct.

33

Lee A. Arnold 07.08.12 at 4:57 am

@25 — Hard to believe that anyone still believes the canard that healthcare demand is indefinite or unpredictable. It is also hard to believe that Posner misses the rather obvious point that lack of access to healthcare doesn’t reduce demand at all, it just reduces effective demand, and it also creates economic inefficiency by burdening people with unaddressed healthcare issues, and the economic inefficiency reduces the size of the economic pie. It is also hard to believe that anyone would call Robert Samuelson “excellent”. In just this case alone, Samuelson’s three “basic criticisms” of Obamacare are ridiculous. The only reputable study of the healthcare reform done to date (CBO) says that it REDUCES the long-term deficits (partly by, yes, increasing taxes to pay for it. When do you think either Posner or Samuelson will realize that those taxes go right back into the economy?)

34

ponce 07.08.12 at 6:29 am

Posner pines for the days of logical Republicanism…the Laffer curve and selling Hezbollah anti-tank weapons to fund covert wars in Central America?

35

Tim Worstall 07.08.12 at 7:58 am

“But even the more sophisticated version, notably as elaborated by Posner, supports free-market/conservative implications, relevant to the debates we’ve been having recently. My summary would be

In the presence of transactions costs, property rights won’t work perfectly, and unresolved externalities will arise. The best response is to create explicit property rights where they are missing, and to rely on the wisdom of common-law judges to interpret unclear property rights in the most socially efficient way.”

As a self-acknowledged raging free market loonie I don’t think that is actually what the policy prescription is.

There’s a useful analogy with Elinor Ostrom’s work on access to common resources here as well.

A brief reading of Hardin would lead to assuming that it’s either private property or governmental regulation that’s needed. Ostrom goes on to point out that actually there have been many intermediate solutions worked out by people in various such situations. The limiting factor (OK, one of them) seems to be the number of people involved: above a few thousand it seems very difficult indeed for any of those middle ways to work.

It’s not entirely absurd to point to the analogy (not direct equivalence, just an analogy) between this and Coase’s transaction costs.

Which brings us to the policy prescription. There are some such problems which can indeed be solved simply through common law property rights. To start at the absurd low end, the ownership, placing and maintenance of a common fence between two back gardens.

There are others where, just given the sheer number of participants (ie, transaction costs) this is not possible: CO2 emissions into the common atmosphere for example. The answer here has to depend upon some form of regulation.

What that regulation is is another matter: I prefer Pigou Taxes. Others might prefer cap and trade, yet others direct regulation of each source of emissions (I think that latter fails on the Hayekian grounds of local and centralised knowledge but that’s an aside). But there is going to have to be governmental action: the transactions costs of a private property solution just will not work.

Which leads to what I think is the true value of Coase and or Ostrom. It is not that they are final answers to the question of “what do we do about this problem?”. It is rather that they are logical structures through which we can discuss what are workable solutions to a specific problem. Three people involved? Then private property, contractual agreements, might well work (note, not will, but could). Millions involved in a common resource? No, that won’t work: some form of governmental intervention or regulation is necessary.

As that free market loonie the theory(ies) are guides to where my prejudices will not work. Quite a useful thing to have when trying to discuss policy prescriptions.

36

John Quiggin 07.08.12 at 9:31 am

@Tim I think this is excellent as a summary of Ostrom, but I don’t think Ostrom=Coase. Having worked in the field, attended Ostrom’s conferences on common property etc, there was a clear view that we needed to correct, not just misreadings of Coase, but the ideas of the (private) property rights school arising from Coase.

37

Eli Rabett 07.08.12 at 10:28 am

There are some such problems which can indeed be solved simply through common law property rights. To start at the absurd low end, the ownership, placing and maintenance of a common fence between two back gardens.

Given the classic fence fight fiascoes that fill the newspapers during silly season, no, not always. The words spite fence too often apply.

38

Tim Worstall 07.08.12 at 10:52 am

“but I don’t think Ostrom=Coase. “

Nor do I. Note the word “analogy”. Which I meant to apply really to this part:

“As that free market loonie the theory(ies) are guides to where my prejudices will not work.”

Going well off subject the Coase/transactions costs/size of the firm thing is something I’ve pondered in my own field of weird and exotic metals. I work with one of the rare earths, scandium, largely because it is a network of contracts which thus provides room for an independent like me. The other rare earths are entirely different: large (relative to market size) integrated companies. There’s very little of a spot market. Reasons might be size of the market itself (scandium is tiny, no more than $10 million a year globally), other rare earths requiring huge amounts of capital (a processing plant is $800 million, not something you need in scandium) and I could no doubt come up with a list of more differences.

There are other minor (and precious) metals where “the market” is a network of intermediaries and thus arguably on the contractual side of Coase. There are others where it’s all a great deal more vertically integrated into large companies (on the firm side). No hard and fast theory explaining the distinctions has come from my limited ruminating. But it is there, this difference in market structure between seemingly similar metals. Not a total and entire difference, just some markets seem to veer more one way than others. As a very limited first attempt, there’s more integration where shipping logistics are more important. Iron ore, bauxite, coal perhaps, are really about the cost of railways and boats. When you get to my end of the market, where 30 kg of something might be worth $200,000, who cares who runs the transport system?

39

Anarcissie 07.08.12 at 3:15 pm

Thought and conversation might possibly be clarified if we stopped confusing the term conservative with rightist. The present Republican Party is rightist; it is not conservative. It is the Democratic Party which is conservative, at least in the normal, traditional (conservative?) use of the word. The Republican Party has become a collection of various radical rightist tendencies, especially of the religious and tribal sort, with some classical liberals hanging on around the fringes. I don’t know why Posner (who is a crank, not a philosopher, but a smart crank) hasn’t realized this.

40

Lee A. Arnold 07.08.12 at 3:45 pm

I believe the reason that conservative thinking has become so loony is because it was never that good to begin with. Conservatism has been in a political and rhetorical ascendancy, not an intellectual one. (I also don’t think that progressive thinking or libertarian thinking are very coherent either, so I am not choosing any of the sides in this comment.) I see a rather direct analogy in the U.S. between liberalism’s going off the rails into shrillness and in-fighting in the 1970’s after its ascendancy, and what is happening to conservatism now after 30 years of Thatcher-Reaganoid gabble. The intellectual underpinnings aren’t good enough; reality intrudes. We are in a system that is complexifying rapidly and dangerously, from both inside and outside, and we need, not simply more markets or more government, but a panoply of overlapping institutions, of different heights and girths, that are transparent and responsive and can be changed when they need changing. We need polycentric responsivism, but we don’t know how to do this, we scarcely know how to conceptualize it. Instead, most people get their minds caught inside one sort of institutional response, and apply it to everything they see. If you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail, etc.

41

Bruce Wilder 07.08.12 at 5:05 pm

I think conservative thinking in the the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s could be very, very sophisticated, subtle and even muscular. I’m more familiar with the economists and those, like Posner, oriented to economics, than with those with more general philosophic or social orientations. Figures like William F Buckley, Milton Friedman or James M Buchanan or James Q Wilson or Robert Nozick, or Barro, Lucas, Prescott, etc. could wield some impressive intellectual firepower, when they wanted to impress, and they had genuine intellectual achievements. Whatever they were, they weren’t dumb, nor were they, like so many prominent figures today, left and right, simply cynically corrupt.

The problem with today’s conservative intellectual isn’t raw intelligence, though; it is an epistemic problem. Many conservatives seem to be caught up in an alternative reality, a Fox News bizarro world.

Posner, it seems to me, is an example of a conservative, who has remained a conservative, but has also chosen to remain reality-based. Sticking with the partisan-brand-Republican conservative political tribe, as it has marched off into authoritarianism and religious fundamentalism and ideological fanaticism, just wasn’t possible for some.

For Posner, personally, I think the second Clinton Administration was probably the policy sweet spot, even if Clinton wasn’t a member of his own partisan tribe. It may have helped, that he was, himself, formally outside of partisan politics. He felt that things had arrived at the “mid-point” he desired, and when things kept going south under the second Bush, he was increasingly repelled.

I like Q’s list of markers — Kevin Phillips and Michael Lind are significant because they were so articulate in analyzing the direction of the moving train, which they chose to get off early. I would add Paul Krugman — even though he plays a liberal on teevee, it is worth remembering that he’s always been a pretty conservative guy, pretty much in line with the neoliberals, philosophically.

42

Bruce Wilder 07.08.12 at 6:22 pm

Lee A Arnold @ 40: “conservative thinking has become so loony”

It seems to me that it has become both detached from reality and dumb. It didn’t used to be dumb. But, the epistemic detachment was a design principle, from the get-go.

The architecture of Milton Friedman’s argument, as expressed in popular polemics like Free to Choose, is wholesale denial that institutions matter, that the well-functioning American economy of the 1960s was a product of New Deal institution-building, that markets were artifacts of government policy and required careful, detailed design and management. That was the left hand of Chicago; the right hand was James M Buchanan and Public Choice, which produced a sophisticated analysis of institutional entropy and corruption, backing a powerful moral fable and mythos hostile to the regulatory state.

Friedman didn’t invent an economics detached from reality; he inherited it, but in the form he inherited, its practitioners were well-aware that the abstract theory and logic of how an imaginary and idealized market economy worked was a stark contrast to the messy reality of the actual, institutional economy. Friedman’s gift was an ability to tell a persuasive story, which disguised that detachment better than, say, Mises or Stigler. He was arguing that the well-functioning economy of the 1960s, was a natural, emergent phenomenon, and the concrete, political, institutional economy produced by the New Deal, was an unnecessary dross. (A classic example was his argument that the Tennesse Valley Authority, which had done so much to develop extremely poor areas of the South, with transportation and energy infrastructure, was nothing but an costly burden inhibiting the development of the region.)

In a completely different line of thinking, Mancur Olson distilled an analysis of the decay of political institutions into the framework of a powerful moral fable, with probably little personal awareness of how the moral narrative analysis detached it from functional analysis of reality.

Detachment from reality has been useful to the powers that be, even if the immediate agenda was simply breaking down the institutions of the New Deal and the WWII international order. Feeding off of the entropy of those institutions and the disinvestment it entails has been the economic agenda of the funders of both the libertarian conservatives and the movement conservatives, on the Right, and the neo-liberals.

The intellectual framework that the libertarian conservatives built, and which supplies the basic framework of common terms and concepts, since the neo-liberals adopted it in the late 1970s, dictates the epistemic detachment of our politics. Not just on the loony, Fox News Right, but also for much of the “serious” fops of the mainstream punditocrisy. That framework has no referents to anything observable, and, so, it makes a common consensus reality, impossible.

I think this epistemic detachment is particularly stark in mainstream (macro)economics, but it is characteristic of the whole universe of public commentary, which derives its sense of consensus reality and what is “serious” or sober thinking from mainstream economics. Q’s Zombies continue to walk the earth, because the whole framework of thought has no foundation in observable reality, and that’s by design. Prescott’s RBC and Lucas’s New Classical Rational Expectations revolution were all about detaching economics from reality, and they succeeded. The New Keynesians, though unjustifiably proud of their continuing reasonableness, cannot seem to find the means for getting the mainstream, which they themselves dominate, to reject any reactionary idea, and to ground even what they themselves say, persuasively, in observable reality.

In the comments on Henry’s July 6 post, Markets and Freedom: Common Mistakes, I realized that whole argument was revolving around an apparently futile effort to ground the discussion in observable facts, which was made futile by a framework of terms for the analysis of causality, that had no observable referents. We use these morally-loaded metaphors, like “markets” and “skills”, which are so far from descriptive, that it becomes almost impossible to focus conflicting viewpoints on a commonly agreed case, or anything resembling a realistic case. And, we weren’t discussing something esoteric; we were considering the commonplace, indeed pervasive, terms of labor employment in our modern economy. And, someone as smart and observant and dedicated to reasonableness as Matthew Yglesias, having adopted the neoclassical framework, couldn’t hold onto the thread!

43

SN 07.08.12 at 7:11 pm

I don’t see that Posner has changed his core views. He’s a big fan of private property and capitalism. He seems to think that Greenspan and the de-regulators are not good protectors of those things he values. They seem like fairly conservative values.

I suspect he is also turned off by the theocrats. That’s just a guess but it is a common thread among other conservatives who’ve become disenchanted with the current loony right–like Buckley.

I don’t see a great transformation in these folks. But maybe there’s something in his current views I’m unaware of.

44

Sandwichman 07.08.12 at 7:37 pm

“The problem with today’s conservative intellectual isn’t raw intelligence, though; it is an epistemic problem. “

Yes, but I think it is a mistake to identify that epistemic problem with conservatives or even conservatism plus mainstream macroeconomics, neoliberalism and the punditry. We’re all in this together, I’m afraid. As the Walt Kelly character, Porky Pine observed, “Thar’s only two possibilities: Thar is life out there in the universe which is smarter than we are, or we’re the most intelligent life in the universe. Either way, it’s a mighty sobering thought.”

The epistemic problem has to do with the programming of our “brains” by grammar, logic and rhetoric, which makes us very proficient at thinking up rationalizations for things we already believe but not so hot at challenging our preconceptions or engaging in dialogue. Libertarians are merely the textbook (or thesaurus) caricature of this tendency. Art offers an alternative way of thinking but the more our culture privileges “rationality” over “aesthetics”, the more it enshrines rationalization over truth. Trying to persuade libertarians with “reason” is like trying to abolish chance with a throw of the dice.

45

Lee A. Arnold 07.08.12 at 7:50 pm

Bruce Wilder: ” the whole framework of thought has no foundation in observable reality, and that’s by design. “

You could almost say it is by intelligent design.

46

bob mcmanus 07.08.12 at 8:40 pm

42:We use these morally-loaded metaphors, like “markets” and “skills”, which are so far from descriptive, that it becomes almost impossible to focus conflicting viewpoints on a commonly agreed case, or anything resembling a realistic case.

Bruce, you’re often saying the left needs to come to an accommodation with some kind of authoritarianism. Even discourse needs an authority to enforce a common language.

As for the rest of this, the problem is that all sides are actually liberal fighting over interests more than foundational ideas, using hegemony over concepts definitions and words as their weapons and battlefield. I’m one who believes that even Burke and De Maistre were essentially liberals.

40:Conservatism has been in a political and rhetorical ascendancy, not an intellectual one. (I also don’t think that progressive thinking or libertarian thinking are very coherent either …Arnold

You want an intellectually respectable conservatism? Well, read Thucydides first, then try the Tokugawa Neo-Confucians Hayashi Razan, Ogyu Sorai, Arai Hakusaki. You know, 250 years of peace, prosperity, and steady population and economic growth in a semi-closed society. Conservatism can actually work, although whatever ideology you accept will have costs as well as benefits. I think liberalism, with capitalism, will eventually and inevitably end up well, where we are. Where we are isn’t all sheer hell, yet. I like it some days. Like Renaissance Italy, you know?> Had compensations for the war and stuff.

I think that maybe Corey Robin with his study of hierarchies and Hayes looking at the problems with meritocracy if they work really hard and maybe together, and take a quick glance away from the crazy liberals party, might even begin to understand real conservatism and then they maybe even might understand liberalism.

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bob mcmanus 07.08.12 at 8:44 pm

The discourse is mad, and maddening.

Gingrich and Romney are “Conservatives?”

Johnson and the Tories wouldn’t have been this crazy, and recognized all the Whigs on both sides of the aisle.

48

Omega Centauri 07.08.12 at 10:33 pm

Christian @8. I don’t find not changing his world views, but changing his conception of which tribe better embodies them to be a bug. Its just a version of “I didn’t leave the Republican party, they left me”. The problem with our current system, is that one side considers it to be a game, and pushing the needle always further right to be the goal. The problem with this sort of politics, which consists simply of pushing the frontline as far as possible, is the risk that we end up in the Delta quadrant (which seems to have been the case).

49

Bruce Wilder 07.09.12 at 12:34 am

Sandwichman @ 44

We are story-telling animals, who want meaningful narrative fables, with a clear moral. The whole scientific, functional analysis and observable facts thingee is definitely a minority taste. When astronomy diverged from astrology, or evolutionary biology from creationist theology, or any of the sciences from myth-making, I suppose the pragmatic ability to do stuff other than meaningful ritual — technological magic — was a factor in its favor. The Right in economics has long been championing the justification of certain moral imperatives and narratives, while the Center and Left suck their thumbs. It’s very close to the equivalent of astrology staging a comeback, against astronomy. But, much of the Left is happy to stroke their chins, and ponder seriously what the evidence is, for the effectiveness of fiscal policy, and whether anything can be done, to remedy the man-made ills, of, say, the Euro. The technocratic incompetence combines with the impotence of the center-left and seems to reinforce the rise of myth-making in place of knowledge in economics and policy analysis, generally.

bob mcmanus: “I’m one who believes that even Burke and De Maistre were essentially liberals.”

I think Burke was, arguably, a proto-liberal, in that he was a Whig and naively idealistic. Anyone, who thought he could impeach Warren Hastings has to have had a good side.

De Maistre, though? Really!? If De Maistre was a “liberal”, the term can have no meaning.

50

bob mcmanus 07.09.12 at 3:20 am

49: Cory Robin points out the radicalism of De Maistre.

From Wiki, “Whiggism”

In India, Prashad (1966) argues that the profound influence of the ideas of Edmund Burke introduced Whiggism into the mainstream of Indian political thought. The Indians adopted the basic assumptions of Whiggism, especially the natural leadership of an elite, the political incapacity of the masses, the great partnership of the civil society, and the best methods of achieving social progress, analyzing the nature of society and the nation, and depicting the character of the ideal state.[16]

De Maistre at Cambridge

Recent critical scholarship has revealed Maistre’s place in intellectual history in a new light: as an individual deeply committed to civic humanism, a believer in in moral progress and a Pelagian proponent of humanity’s ability to direct its own destiny. As a monarchist, Maistre also had libertarian and meritocratic sympathies, supporting access to political office for all those who wished to acquire it though merit. This was, after all, how his own family had entered the ranks of the nobility.

That is no conservative.

Read the Chris Hayes yet?

A liberal is an achiever kicking the ladder away once she reaches the top. In practice. She uses theory and rhetoric (meritocracy, capitalism, rights) to both justify her ascendance and protect her gains. But in bad faith.

The point is actually look at what happens in fully liberal societies like 19c UK and 19c US, rather than buying the lines that liberalism is failed by liberals or subverted by conservatives.

51

John Quiggin 07.09.12 at 4:06 am

@Bob McManus – the linked source on De Maistre gives zero support, AFAICT, to the quoted passage.

52

John Holbo 07.09.12 at 4:23 am

I too would be curious to hear more about De Maistre’s humanistic and progressive Pelagianism. I am, for now, skeptical. I suspect excessive credulity in the face of the occasional Rovean feints, on De Maistre’s part. He’s a polemicist and, like most polemicists, he throws an awful lot to see what sticks.

53

John Quiggin 07.09.12 at 4:26 am

On my suggestion, “There must be quite a few others who realise they have backed the wrong horse, but have chosen to remain quiet rather than making an open break”, here’s Ross Douthat displaying intellectual abused spouse syndrome

Shorter Douthat: The Repubs may be treat conservative policy wonks like dirt, but if we keep trying they will change

http://douthat.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/05/for-us-there-is-only-the-trying/?scp=3&sq=douthat&st=Search

54

Harold 07.09.12 at 4:35 am

The article on “whiggism” defines it as a belief in the supremacy of parliament over the monarchy. De Maistre believed in the divine right of kings and in the supremacy of the Pope over the monarch, did he not? Therefore, he cannot be described as having whiggish tendencies — nor “libertarian” unless you define “libertarian” as submission to Divine Providence. De Maistre wanted to radically re-shape the future along the lines of what he thought Providence had in mind (in this he resembles Marx). He is therefore considered a radical reactionary rather than a conservative.

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bob mcmanus 07.09.12 at 5:29 am

Oh, then argue with Maia Woolner, the author of the linked page. Or, after some quick googling, check out, carefully, Carolina Armenteros The French Idea of History. Her intro and conclusion are available at Amazon, and give hints. She mentions Le Brun. I am no De Maistre scholar.

You know what is conservative? Hereditary aristocracy and the denial of social mobility as socially necessary and protective principles. Such societies existed, Sparta, Edo Japan, other Confucianist regimes. Brutally pessimistic ideologies.

What is Liberal? “Natural aristocracy” and social mobility promoted as principles. Do Romney, Gingrich, Boehner, even in their darkest hearts believe that a qualified talented person should not be able to improve their social position, status, influence by their effort (and some luck)? This almost universal position has a lot of consequences, you’ll always be battling emergent oligarchies or anarchy. (Just started Hayes, and he does mention Pareto, but not yet Michels)

Is there a conceivable alternative, neither conservative or liberal? A actual radical egalitarianism? Where the waitress is socially and politically equal to the Wall Street lawyer? I’m working at it, but it’s hard. Everybody claims egalitarianism already.

We can start by selecting legislators and President by lottery.

56

bob mcmanus 07.09.12 at 6:01 am

I don’t know, Wilder often talks of finding some kind of authoritarian common ground with the right-wing populists. I had no idea what he has in mind.

Peisistratus? Huey Long?

Cause that is one of the things you get when you have abusive oligarchies or suicidal battles between factions within the oligarchy. The tyrant. Did Michels mention that?

I am no fascist, but neither am I eager to let the world burn up or the 99% turned into debt-serfs out of some nostalgic affection for a dead Republic. Liberals have never given me a solution to the problem: “the assholes also get to vote.”

57

Belle Waring 07.09.12 at 7:30 am

I am no fascist, but neither am I eager to let the world burn up…
Oh, come now, Bob; I’d always taken you to be quite eager to let the world burn up.

58

Belle Waring 07.09.12 at 7:31 am

Perhaps only in the right cause.

59

Harold 07.09.12 at 7:46 am

The Roman Catholic church has always believed in promotion of talent, regardless of class. After all, the first bishops, the twelve apostles, were fishermen, not aristocrats. De Maistre was a Roman Catholic. This is no news.

60

ajay 07.09.12 at 9:14 am

57: no, no, he actually wants to set light to it. This is mcmanus we’re dealing with here. Solution to Fukushima? NUKE JAPAN! Solution to the Macondo spill? NUKE THE GULF! He’s like Edward Teller with a Whole Earth Catalog.

61

bianca steele 07.09.12 at 1:32 pm

Has there been an aristocracy that lasted more than a hundred years that didn’t admit new members through marriage if not through merit? Aristocrats have an unfortunate tendency to run through money like nobody’s business.

62

bianca steele 07.09.12 at 1:58 pm

I was watching 1776 last Wednesday, and obviously in these Tea soaked days, John Dickinson’s retort to John Adams that “most men would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich than face the reality of being poor” resonates. But then I noticed that although the dancers, from their own point of view, are moving “to the right, ever to the right”–from the audience’s point of view, they’re going to the left! This must mean something. (Dickinson, as you’ll recall, loses the debate and resigns from Congress rather than sign the treasonous Declaration.)

Here’s the first link I found on Google.

63

Barry 07.09.12 at 2:20 pm

John Quiggin, Bruce’s comment @43 deserves probably two front-pages posts all on its own:

1) The imagining of all ‘good’ outcomes as ‘natural’, produced by a free market (with the inverse for bad outcomes).

2) The Newspeak of right-wing economics. Note that on the previous comment threads, Poe’s Law applied with vigor – it’s hard to differentiate between a right-wing economist’s viewpoint and that of a sociopathic *sshole. The goal of Newspeak was to make it difficult or impossible to discuss or even think of certain ideas; right-wing economics does the same.

64

Barry 07.09.12 at 2:22 pm

John Quiggin 07.09.12 at 4:26 am

” On my suggestion, “There must be quite a few others who realise they have backed the wrong horse, but have chosen to remain quiet rather than making an open break”, here’s Ross Douthat displaying intellectual abused spouse syndrome

Shorter Douthat: The Repubs may be treat conservative policy wonks like dirt, but if we keep trying they will change”

More like ‘battered mistress syndrome’. Douthat isn’t a wonk, he’s a pseudo-intellectual propagandist.

65

mds 07.09.12 at 3:31 pm

Discussion of the unfairness of the welcome to recent converts (vis a vis the long-term true believers) goes back at least to the parable of the Prodigal Son.

It’s been a while, but I don’t recall the Prodigal Son returning home and saying to his dad, “I was right to do absolutely everything I did, but my wastrel friends finally got too crazy even for me. If they hadn’t been quite so crazy, I’d still be out there. Now, give me my brother’s inheritance, too.” The Prodigal Son had to admit that he was wrong. Yet Posner is still peddling mendacious horseshit about the PPACA and the deficit. So if some other portion of the horseshit is finally losing its savor, he is welcome to choke on it.

66

Harold 07.09.12 at 4:30 pm

@43 “The imagining of all ‘good’ outcomes as ‘natural’, produced by a free market (with the inverse for bad outcomes).”

That is because “the free market” is identified with Providence (or teleological evolution/Natural Law/ God’s will/whatever). This is an observation that was made at the time he wrote of Herbert Spencer’s social Darwinism. Spencer believed that “the liberty which a citizen enjoys is to be measured, not by the nature of the governmental machinery he lives under, whether representative or other, but by the relative paucity of the restraints it imposes on him; and that, whether this machinery is or is not one that he has shared in making, its actions are not of the kind proper to Liberalism if they increase such restraints beyond those which are needful for preventing him from directly or indirectly aggressing on his fellows — needful, that is, for maintaining the liberties of his fellows against his invasions of them: restraints which are, therefore, to be distinguished as negatively coercive, not positively coercive” (Man Versus the State).

For Spencer and his followers (who include the Gazillionnaire of today and their “pundit” spokesmen of GMU) , if Providence (social evolution) were only allowed to work itself out unimpeded by laws and regulation, society as a whole would benefit and the millenium would be attained.

67

Sandwichman 07.09.12 at 5:48 pm

“The Right in economics has long been championing the justification of certain moral imperatives and narratives, while the Center and Left suck their thumbs. It’s very close to the equivalent of astrology staging a comeback, against astronomy.”

Except in the case of astronomy and astrology, astronomy prevailed for a few centuries. Economics has always been primarily about justifying certain moral imperatives and narratives and discrediting others — by whatever means necessary. Rasbotham’s 1780 pamphlet — a meaningful fable with a clear moral if there ever was one — is parroted today not only by the Right in economics but by such good centrists, small “l” liberals and labourites and big “D” Democrats as Paul Krugman, Richard Layard, Jonathan Portes, Lawrence Katz, David Autor and so on. Of course they don’t know they’re parroting the old Bolton magistrate. Nor did Paul Samuelson realize he was promulgating fables dear to open-shop hearts of the National Association of Manufacturers.

The problem may be that unlike astrology you can indeed “do something” practical with those economic fables, namely justify extortionate profits and otherwise unconscionable inequalities of outcomes.

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Earwig 07.13.12 at 2:01 am

+1 mds @ 65

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