Thursday, 15 July 2010

Why do rational, economic arguments fail to move liberals?

In the midst of a wide-ranging discussion on liberal whining over the failure of “their” president to deliver the goods, Doug Reich at The Rational Capitalist asks an excellent question--Why do rational, economic arguments fail to move liberals?—which provokes a much more interesting answer.

It’s not just the bad ideas that liberals hold, he argues, that leaves them immune to economic logic; it’s because they tend to view ideas not as an integration of facts to form valid conclusions, but as a part of a “narrative” used like a rhetorical bludgeon against competing “narratives”—a very post-modern view of ideological struggle—leading inexorably to the idea that success in the battle of ideas comes not by promoting ideas that conform to reality, but by promoting stories that their friends can agree with. Can feel good about.

To put it another way, they figure you should embrace positions not because they agree with reality, but because they agree with the view of their neighbours. For them the idea of “consensus” trumps the reality of logic.

Welcome, if you like, to the logic of the People’s Republic of Grey Lynn, where everyone is all but required to agree with everyone else. It’s like tribalism extended to epistemology.

But the further implication of this is that when liberals fail it’s not because reality has failed to respond to their wishes (reality, what reality?), but because someone else must be grabbing the narrative.  And since they hold their own ideas on the basis not of their truth but because of their agreement with the group, they assume the opponents who’ve confounded them must hold their ideas in a similar fashion.

So by this standard then, liberals’ complaints about the failure of President Zero stem not so much from any failure of reality to conform to his tantrums (“Plug the damn hole!”  “Fix the damn recession!”) but because of the success of their opponents in grabbing the “narrative.”

Doug quotes liberal journalist Eric Alteman, whining, for example, that Americans’ increasing skepticism about government “has been reinforced during this same period by a massive ideological investment by conservative individuals and foundations—aided by global corporations—in discrediting activist government and presenting laissez-faire policies as the natural order of things.”  It’s like a massive liberal conspiracy theory, involving everyone from Fox News to the Cato Institute. “These [conservative & libertarian] groups and others championed the likes of Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek and American economist Milton Friedman to replace what had previously been a Keynesian consensus. These ideas were further disseminated by a rash of new publishing outfits, later augmented by an entire alternative media structure we now understand to be a natural part of our political and cultural landscape.”

As Doug Reich observes,

_Quote Although I do not necessarily agree or support the various conservative writers to which he refers, it is important to note the subtle implication in this passage , an implication which almost always underlies liberal arguments, namely, that the truth of an idea is not relevant. According to Alterman, these pundits did not integrate facts into theory and reach a valid conclusion, rather, they went on a "crusade" to overthrow the "Keynesian consensus." And how was this "Keynesian consensus" originally validated? He doesn't say. To him, belief in ideas can only be based on faith and consensus rather than reason. He is not only imparting a religious connotation to the free market movement but to ideas as such—a view that stems directly from modern intellectuals' broader rejection of reason and objectivity.”

It’s worth reading all of Doug’s thoughtful post.  It’s good:

UPDATE: In the second of his “Freedom School” videos, Head of Canada’s Freedom Party Paul McKeever points out a related danger for those who rely only on economic arguments to make the case for capitalism, without any reference to morality.  You know who I’m talking about.


  1. Great article there from Rational Capitalist.

  2. Thanks so much for the link and further analysis!


  3. @Doug: You're very welcome. It made a few new connections for me I was just starting to identfy. :-)

  4. All rational arguments fail to move liberals, economic or otherwise.


  5. PC,

    You or your readers might be interested in this post too:

    in which I attempted to analyze this in a bit more detail

    thanks again

  6. Is it because liberals attempt to ensure the well-being of all, which is possible.
    That's their goal, rather than just the economic bottom line?


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