Economics, Politics, Science

Mapping Politics: Corey Robin and Mary Douglas

Free Photo: Harbors in Barcelona, Spain

In earlier posts, some of them a few years old now, before our current president’s rise demonstrated the continuing power of partisan tribalism and white grievance politics in the United States, I tried to explore the idea that tribalistic political thinking and the struggle for group recognition might be, under some circumstances, more politically powerful than economic self-interest.

Starting from this perspective, I enjoyed finally reading Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind (2011), a popular collection of revised magazine-pieces on the history of right-wing thought from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, as the subtitle puts it. (A new 2017 edition brings the story, and the title, up to Trump. Let’s hope this is the last edition.) The central thesis of Robin’s history of ideas is that there is an essence to conservatism: “the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back” (4). Conservatism is identified with the Right, and both are defined as reactions against the Left’s “politics of emancipation” (9).

Against the modern American conservative’s sense of himself as a principled defender of liberty and limited government, and as free from the blood-and-soil chauvinism of the European Right, Robin argues that the political thought of the Right in Europe and America, in the eighteenth century and today, is in fact usefully approached as “a unity” (34). The unity is defined by “backlash politics” (34):

Conservatism … is not a commitment to limited government and liberty — or a wariness of change, a belief in evolutionary reform, or a politics of virtue. These may be the byproducts of conservatism, one or more of its historically specific and everchanging modes of expression. But they are not its animating purpose. Neither is conservatism a makeshift fusion of capitalists, Christians, and warriors, for that fusion is impelled by a more elemental force — the opposition to the liberation of men and women from the fetters of their superiors, particularly in the private sphere. (16)

In other words, rather than defining the Left and the Right in terms of economic policy positions, as has been the norm in discussions of American politics, Robin defines his two political poles in terms of us-versus-them group power dynamics. Based on my earlier thinking about the potential importance of political tribalism in explaining the contemporary American political landscape, Robin’s approach is appealing.

At the same time, I found myself wondering how to relate Robin’s claims about the essence of the Right to other scholarship I’ve encountered that attempts to provide a map of political space — especially the social science scholarship descended from the anthropologist Mary Douglas‘s “group-grid” typology of political orientations (sometimes labelled “Cultural Theory“), and the mainstream political science scholarship surrounding Poole and Rosenthal’s spatial model of congressional ideology (such as the DW-NOMINATE method for locating legislators in issue space).

Of course, Robin doesn’t present his project as an exercise in mapping or categorizing political ideologies. He makes no reference to either Douglas or Poole and Rosenthal. Robin’s book presents itself primarily as a contribution to the history of ideas, with a focus on the underlying, sometimes largely unstated or even obscured impulses motivating the history of conservative ideas.

Still, it seems to me that Robin’s history implicitly rests on something like a model of political space. It is a one-dimensional model that sorts political ideas and political actors by their proximity to two ideal types: the Left or the Right, where the former is defined by its commitment to emancipating the subordinated from their superiors, and the latter is defined by its reaction against the former.

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What so few economists know, but nearly all the good legal scholars understand

Free Photo: Stacks of Tires in a Rubber Factory

Many of the blogs I’ve enjoyed most over the years feature recurring motifs. One of Kevin Drum’s hobbyhorses is the relation between the phasing out of lead in the United States beginning in the 1970s and the drop in violent crime over the last two decades. If a prominent article proposes an explanation of the fall in violent crime (for example, arguing that “broken windows” policing was responsible) without mentioning the possibility that Americans are less violent because they’re no longer being poisoned by lead at an early age, Drum will chime in. Similarly, Paul Krugman returns again and again, both in his blog and in his columns, to failed predictions of runaway inflation by commentators on the right. Whenever a new warning against “printing money” and the risk of hyperinflation appears, Krugman posts a response. Likewise, Sanford Levinson (at Balkinization) circles back repeatedly to the criticism of political analysts who fail to recognize the harmful political effects of the undemocratic, hardwired structural provisions in the U.S. Constitution, such as the malapportionment of the Senate, the selection of the President by the electoral college, and life tenure for Supreme Court justices.

If I were going to have a hobbyhorse, it would probably be the failure to recognize the role of government in the economy. Not the role of government in regulating the economy. The role of government in constituting the economy. Progressive legal scholars have been hammering away at this point for nearly a century, at least since Robert Hale’s “Coercion and Distribution in a Supposedly Non-Coercive State” (1923), but it has never gotten through to the public consciousness. It has never shaped the way that the American public thinks and talks about the economy. And that’s a tragedy for our national economic conversation.

One reason that the progressive legal scholar’s view of the economy as a government creation has not gotten through to the general public may be that the public (naturally) looks to economists for guidance on how to think about the economy. Unfortunately, even most progressive economists today talk about “the market” as something that exists in opposition to the government, rather than as something created by the government. Whether on the left or right, mainstream economists tend to share the basic conceptual framework of the Reagan era when it comes to the economy, the framework I criticized in an earlier post on Greg Mankiw.

Consider Joseph Stiglitz’s recent remark in Harper’s: “Of course, there is no such thing as a ‘purely’ capitalist system. We have always had a mixed economy, relying on the government for investment in education, technology, and infrastructure.” These statements may sound progressive at first glance, but they adopt some of the central and most damaging assumptions of the Reagan era.

When Stiglitz says that there is “no such thing as a ‘purely’ capitalist system,” he’s right–but not in the sense he intends. The reason there is no such thing as a “purely capitalist” (or “purely free market”) system is not that all modern governments engage in infrastructure spending and the like. The reason is that “capitalism” is not a concept that has an essence or a core. We can talk about pure water–water with all the impurities removed, water that is nothing but H2O. But it simply makes no sense to talk about “pure” capitalism if this means something like capitalism with all traces of government removed. Markets without government aren’t markets at all, at least not in any sense we would recognize today. If the government plays no role in the economy, then there are no property or contract rights–and surely private property rights are one of the features of every economic system that we would call “capitalist.”

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