12 January 2012

George Will makes a case for socialism

Perhaps despairing at last of the Republican primaries, George Will turns in a recent column to first principles, submitting what he takes to be a decisive case against the liberal regulatory state and its redistributionist agenda. There's a little bit of self-delusion in this essay, most apparent when he writes: "A puzzling aspect of our politically contentious era is how little contention there is about the ethics of coercive redistribution by progressive taxation and other government “corrections” of social outcomes it considers unethical or unaesthetic." I had thought that such contention was the basis of the entire modern conservative movement, but Will's attitude may reflect an unconsciously arrogant belief, given his recent anathemas against Newt Gingrich, that Will himself is the only conservative who actually thinks conservatively. In any event, Will supposes that "government rarely explains, or perhaps even recognizes, the reasoning by which it decides why particular outcomes of consensual market activities are incorrect." I suppose that someone in government would first have to concede that all market activities are consensual before satisfying Will, but I think it more obvious that the progressive liberal (the ventriloquist behind "government" in Will's mind) is less concerned in detailing the incorrectness of outcomes than in fulfilling the liberal's defining imperative that everyone must live, preferably in a humane minimum of comfort, and with easy access to the means of extending life. If redistribution alone secures that access for all, progressive liberals will support it without having to argue whether certain market activities are right or wrong. The burden of proof rightly sits on Republicans who consider both the redistributionist program and its motivation incorrect. But since none of this resembles a case made by George Will for socialism, I had better get to my point.

Will thinks it a compelling argument against redistribution as practiced by the liberal welfare state that "such government is inherently regressive: It tends to distribute power and money to the strong, including itself." He elaborates on the point in his next paragraph: "Government becomes big by having big ambitions for supplanting markets as society’s primary allocator of wealth and opportunity. Therefore it becomes a magnet for factions muscular enough, in money or numbers or both, to bend government to their advantage." As a practical example, he cites how "a small cohort" of sugar producers benefit from lobbying for preferential sugar import quotas while the majority of consumers pay higher prices. In short, Will's argument is that a government committed to regulating vested interests is susceptible to influence by those interests when drafting regulations, which often end up benefiting those interests, and perhaps the regulators as well, rather than the general public. For Will, this follows from government's inevitable tendency to self-aggrandizement. For another observer, the problem is more obviously the vested interests. If regulators are vulnerable to manipulation by vested interests, the reasonable alternative for a government dedicated to correcting market outcomes is to abandon the futile project (on Will's account) of regulating vested interests in favor of socializing production. Will would object to that, of course, as a further aggrandizement of government with no greater justification for rejecting market outcomes. But he has arguably pointed out to progressives an inherent flaw in their own approach. Conservatives are fond of showing liberals how their plans won't work, and they can actually prove useful in that role. As long as progressives ignore the related argument that certain plans shouldn't work, or shouldn't be tried on "ethical" grounds, they should be open to any practical critique of their programs. When a conservative makes an objectively practical case against liberal regulation, progressives might take that as a cue to try something more radical.

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