David Brooks’ column this morning can best be understood, I think, as a mischievous act of what the Internet calls “trolling.” The column, titled “The Center-Right Moment,” suggests that David Cameron’s electoral victory in the UK provides evidence that voters around the world are rejecting progressive economic arguments.
Perhaps Brooks is unaware that his fellow NY Times columnist Paul Krugman has been arguing for weeks that the Conservatives’ strength in the UK is based, predictably, on the economy having done well over the six months or so before the election? And that this economic improvement is not a vindication of the Conservatives’ austerity policies, but simply a recovery from the unnecessary economic harms caused by austerity? And that no one is pointing all of this out clearly to voters in the UK, so their embrace of the Conservatives cannot be understood as a rejection of arguments against austerity?
No, surely Brooks is aware of Krugman’s arguments. I assume he must be trolling Krugman. He’s attacking a position that Krugman obviously cares about deeply, and he’s attacking it in a way that ignores Krugman’s reasoning, as though that reasoning didn’t exist. This is a surefire way to provoke outrage — the goal of trolling.
How else to explain a passage like the following?
[Center-right parties] have been basically sensible on fiscal policy. After the financial crisis, there was a big debate over how much governments should go into debt to stimulate growth. The two nations most associated with the “austerity” school — those who were suspicious of debt-based stimulus — were Germany and Britain. This will not settle the debate, but these two nations now have some of the strongest economies in Europe and their political leaders are in good shape.
Now, anyone who occasionally writes on economic issues for the leading newspaper in the world must surely be aware of the relative consensus among mainstream economists that Britain’s fiscal austerity from 2010 onward was a failed policy. Even the IMF now agrees that austerity in a depression is a bad idea for countries like the US and the UK. The economic historian Barry Eichengreen just wrote a book, Hall of Mirrors, that shows how post-crisis austerity policies were a misguided rejection of widely accepted economic wisdom and experience.
I assume that Brooks is having a little fun, and gloating a little over the Conservatives’ victory. Maybe he’s getting back at Krugman for Krugman’s repeated habit of using his own columns to argue against points made by Brooks in earlier columns, without naming Brooks…
For the purposes of this blog, the most interesting part of Brooks’ column is his description of “opportunity progressivism” — his favored (alleged) alternative to “redistributionist” progressivism — as a tendency that “actively uses government power to give people access to markets, … but [that] doesn’t interfere that much in the market and hesitates before raising taxes.”
Here we see again, as we saw earlier in a column by Greg Mankiw, the defining rhetorical gesture of the Reagan era: the unstated assumption that contemporary markets are not created by governments, that there is a choice between “leaving markets alone” and “governments interfering in the market.”
This ignores, as all the good legal scholars know, the fact that governments create markets through the enforcement of property and contract law, and in countless other ways. The rules of the market are defined and enforced by the state. It makes no sense to speak of government choosing not to “intervene” in a market when the market only exists as a result of government policy and action. Even Francis Fukuyama has come around to understanding this.
If many voters in the US and the UK continue to support politicians who offer center-right policies such as “a slightly smaller public sector, strong welfare state reform and more open and vibrant labor markets,” this is not because these policies are in fact pro-opportunity (they aren’t), but because ideologies die hard. We may be living within the last dregs of the Reagan era, but its assumptions continue to pervade our politics — and will probably continue to do so until progressives succeed in articulating a new vision of governance as simple and persuasive as Reagan’s.