Economics, Law, Philosophy, Politics

The Intellectual Foundations of a New Progressive Era?

Free Photo: US 54

This post is the fourth in a series of five considering what the shape of progressive political-economic thought might look like following the neoliberalism of the Reagan Era.

In earlier posts, I introduced the progressive view of markets as government creations, and sketched some of the intellectual history of the idea.

In this post, I would like to note a few distinctive features of this view of markets and how it relates to other economic and political positions.

First, the idea is counterintuitive. The opposition between government and markets is so deeply rooted in our public economic discourse today that it may take some explanation and illustrations to show what is meant by the claim that our markets are government creations. But the idea is no more counterintuitive than Reagan-era claims were at the time of their introduction, such as the slogan that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” In addition, the idea has the virtue of being in some sense obviously true. No one can deny — and sophisticated neoliberal theorists like Hayek do not deny — that the functioning of modern economic markets depends on and is shaped by state enforcement of property, contract, corporate, criminal, and many other laws.

Second, the view of markets as government creations, and the legal rules of markets as political choices, frames economic debates in a way that favors progressives but leaves room for conservatives to participate — just as the neoliberal framing of economic debates in terms of a choice between government and the market favored conservatives but left room for progressives to participate. Conservatives in a new progressive era would be free to argue (unappealingly) that we should choose rules for our markets that favor billionaires over working families, because of the merits of wealth accumulation, for example; just as progressives in the neoliberal era have always been free to argue (unappealingly) that high taxes and big government are actually a good thing, because certain parts of the economy are better left to government management.

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Economics, Literature, Politics


Free Photo: Path Through Debris, Galveston Hurricane

(Translated from the German.)

In the waiting room of the hospital sits a gatekeeper. To this gatekeeper comes a man from the country who is in pain and seeks to gain entry to the hospital.

“Anyone may enter the hospital,” the gatekeeper tells the man. “All you need do is enter through the emergency door.” She gestures toward a wide, swinging door at the far end of the waiting room.

The man approaches the emergency door, then turns back. “How much will it cost to enter through this door?” he asks. The gatekeeper says that there is no way of knowing the cost before the man enters. She encourages him to enter for the sake of his health. “We can settle the cost afterward,” she smiles. “We are not barbarians, after all.”

The man returns to the gatekeeper’s desk and asks her if there is another way to enter the hospital. Continue reading

If, Literature

Emily Short, interactive fiction, and If (a novel)


When I finished writing If, a novel of ideas with a choice at the end of each chapter, I knew almost nothing about interactive fiction, other than that it existed and made a nice acronym. For anyone who shares my ignorance, “interactive fiction” does not refer to Choose Your Own Adventure-style novels with a choice at the end of every chapter. It refers to a thriving genre of often online text-based games where the player makes frequent choices by clicking on hyperlinks in the text. The hyperlinked choices may arrive every few sentences, or even every few words. After clicking on a link, new text appears based on the reader’s choices, leading to new choices, etc.

If you felt like it, you could go and write your own work of interactive fiction using Twine right now.

By contrast, novels with choices at the end of each section — like If, Kim Newman’s Life’s Lottery, and the Choose Your Own Adventure series — apparently aren’t usually called “interactive fiction” at all. As discussed in my interview with Joe Rositano, there’s no commonly accepted general term for this kind of work. Most people say “Choose Your Own Adventure novels,” even though that’s a trademarked term for a specific series of books. Rositano favors “choicefic.” Wikipedia uses the term “gamebook.”

So: I’ve never written a work of interactive fiction — and, to be honest, I still haven’t had a chance to finish reading one, either. But working on the publicity for If has made me increasingly aware of interactive fiction, which appears to be going through a kind of golden age right now. One of the leading writers (and organizers) responsible for that golden age is Emily Short, so I was delighted that she recently took the time to write a lengthy blog post on If.

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An interview about If at Electric Literature


Here’s a link to the recently posted interview between me and the multitalented Joe Rositano at Electric Literature. We talk about If, the use of the term “choicefic” to describe books with branching narratives, skepticism, Burke, and what comes next.


If (the novel) arrives

Well, it appears that my little experimental novel If is now available on

Thanks to the great Joe Taylor at Livingston Press for giving this novel a shot, and for all his support behind the scenes. And a big thanks to JK at the The Kugelmass Episodes for invaluable comments on an earlier draft. Without the generosity of these two people, I don’t know where the novel would be today, if it existed at all. Also, thanks to our recently married friend (congratulations!) at mangolandia for the superlative blurb.


As mentioned in earlier posts, the novel has an unusual structure — one that may be familiar to readers of Borges’ The Garden of Forking Paths, or to those who read a certain series of children’s books in the 1980s in which the reader makes a choice at the end of every chapter… If the threat of being sued for trademark infringement were not lurking in the background, I might even say that this novel is the world’s first literary ______ ____ ___ _________ novel (where the missing blanks might or might not be filled by a familiar series title).

Things being as they are, however, Continue reading


What would the Capitalism and Freedom of a new progressive era say? (First sketch)

So, the preceding several posts hint at one way of attempting to move beyond the ideology of the Reagan era: begin by rejecting the ostensible significance of the distinction between big and small government, and then shift the discussion toward the question of democratic government. This would be a vision of government in which we no longer assume that markets and government are opposed, government is the problem, and markets are the solution—but instead, recognize that markets are creatures of government, and that our democratic choice has primacy over both general types of government action: direct through government spending, and indirect through government-created rules.

What are our goals as a democracy? In the American political tradition, freedom has always played a central role.

It is worth emphasizing that the debate over big versus small government is largely irrelevant to someone concerned with achieving the goals of freedom. In some contexts, addressing a problem through direct government action will make us more free; in others, addressing the problem through the rules of government-constructed markets will offer more freedom. Health insurance may be an example of the former, in part because all Americans need it at one time or another, their preferences are largely the same, and the overwhelming majority of consumers are not well-equipped to choose efficiently between the insurers that would best suit their needs. Groceries may be an example of the latter, in part because Americans have strongly divergent preferences, not all Americans need to buy any of the same groceries, and consumers are well-equipped to make efficient choices in a marketplace.

As Coase showed in “The Nature of the Firm,” sometimes markets are the most efficient way of managing a problem, and other times they are not. If markets were always the best solution, then there would be no need for firms with their centrally coordinated management: all tasks would be carried out through competitive bidding. The existence of firms, including many enormous ones (consider GE), suggests that centrally coordinated management can sometimes be more efficient than market processes, even on a large scale. In addition, looking beyond efficiency, the world around us is already full of contexts in which we choose not to allow market processes, because they would offend our values: organ donation, adoption, child labor. These marginal cases demonstrate a central point. We should recognize that we have a choice regarding when to use markets, and that the choice can and should be made in accordance with our values.

We have always been responsible, through our government, for choosing when to use markets, and what kinds of markets to use. We have always chosen the rules for markets based on the values of our democracy. But we have inherited from the classical liberal tradition a tendency to deny to ourselves that we are making these choices. We have acted too often in bad faith, imagining that a false necessity compelled us to make the choices we did, as though we were powerless to choose otherwise, or as though some universal law of economics dictated our choices—as though some arbitrarily chosen versions of nineteenth-century classical liberal markets are the only true markets, the only free markets, the only markets worthy of the name. None of this has ever been the case.

Again, contrary to the ideologies of the New Deal and of the Reagan era, neither direct government action, nor indirect government action through markets, is necessarily aligned with our freedoms.  Because there is no universal rule for determining which approach will promote freedom most in any specific context, the question that should frame our politics is not whether government is “big” (tending to rely on direct government action) or “small” (tending to rely on indirect government action through markets) but whether our government is democratic, in the sense of being responsive to the public’s values—including, perhaps above all in the American political tradition, freedom.