Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Notes for a quadriformist manifesto — #9: how the Niskanen Center’s new center-right vision leaps ahead but falls short

I keep scanning for new views on the Right (Center and Left too) that look encouraging to me as a proto-quadriformist. Thus this note applauds the Niskanen Center for recently offering a new center-right policy vision, better than anything I find elsewhere on the Right. Niskanen is not headed toward quadriformism, but it’s rectifying its original libertarianism in ways that make for a sounder fit with TIMN theory.

As my prior post deplored, specious right-wing thinking about individualism vs. collectivism, particularly as voiced by Ayn Rand and her drove of admirers, assures that conservatives will resist an idea like quadriformism. Fortunately, other thinking is at work in conservative circles. In an environment where most think-tanks on the Right (e.g., Heritage, Cato, AEI) keep going in their customary directions, the Niskanen Center is turning away from libertarianism toward a rebalanced vision of society and policy.

The key Niskanen write-up is “The Center Can Hold: Public Policy for an Age of Extremes” (December 2018) by Brink Lindsey, Will Wilkinson, Steven Teles, and Samuel Hammond. Other recent writings by Lindsey, Wilkinson, and Jerry Taylor speak to its points as well.

According to the authors, America is at a “perilous juncture” where “The challenge before us is as simple to state as it will be difficult to achieve: to restore the promise of the American Dream.” To that end, they call for “idealism without utopia” based on “deep commitments to the basic liberal principles of a free and open society: individualism…; pluralism…; the rule of law; representative democracy; a competitive market economy; and a government that secures those collective goods that private efforts cannot.” America, they say, presently faces a “crisis of legitimacy”; nonetheless, “the liberal democratic capitalist welfare state” remains “the best model of governance,” and it “can still work to improve ordinary people’s lives.”

These points, scattered across the document, are all to the good — but they are not unusual. What makes Niskanen’s vision distinctive and innovative compared to other visions from the Right is that the authors call for “a whole new way of thinking about policy” whereby “it is necessary to use a new ideological lens: one that sees government and market not as either-or antagonists, but as necessary complements.” Their advocacy of a balanced collaborative relationship between government and market breaks with conventional libertarian and other conservative views that remain intently anti-government and pro-market.

Here are passages that explain their shift toward recommending “the free market welfare state,” based on their finding that “The freest economies generally feature big welfare states”:
“Our hybrid vision combines the best of both sides and marks us as clearly pro-market and pro-government simultaneously. In other words, we reject the current polarization as a false dichotomy. In our view, dynamic, innovative markets and strong, energetic government go together and cannot be separated.”
“We reject the current package deals and offer a new package of our own: the free-market welfare state. Our package reflects not the relative status we happen to accord to government versus market actors, but the clear evidence that a wide scope for economic freedom and robust social spending are complements rather than antagonists.
The authors take an additional stance that is normally anathema on the Right: They recognize the value of and the need for regulations — for, properly applied, regulations work to protect competition and prevent collusion and over-concentration in capitalist systems. Thus, they say,
“Where we differ from many on the right is in our insistence that free markets are not spontaneous and self-executing, but rather the product of well-crafted regulations. Specifically, regulations are necessary to ensure that the ideas that are profitable in the marketplace really are good ideas — in other words, that they actually advance social welfare and make society richer than before. Good regulations, then, are what make Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” possible: They align the private interest of profit-seeking with the public interest of wealth creation.”
They further recognize that a well-regulated polity is needed to go with a well-regulated economy: “just as we emphasize that markets are institutionally constructed, so is democracy — and free-for-all democracy is no better than free-for-all capitalism.” Hence they oppose willy-nilly privatization schemes as well as government corporatism. They also oppose constraints on access to information, while at the same time advocating “deliberative constraints” (I’m not sure about what that means). For in their view “Democracy, like the market economy, needs to be properly regulated to function effectively.”

Overall, then, Niskanen seeks to foster a “daring, reformist spirit” of “bold moderation” by pulling together “what is best in a variety of ideological traditions” in order to “help move our divided society toward the best version of itself, and away from the toxic tribalism of our current politics.”

These are striking reconsiderations for the Niskanen Center to advance — quite a departure from doctrinaire libertarian principles that ordinarily call for “unregulated markets” and a “minimal, night-watchman state.” Which is why the document has received acclaim in centrist conservative circles, notably in David Brooks’ column about “A New Center Being Born: The market and the welfare state go together,” and Jonathan Chait’s article observing “I Have Seen the Future of a Republican Party That Is No Longer Insane.” (For citations, see comments section.)

Now, regarding TIMN, here’s what I appreciate about Niskanen’s new vision: Unlike most visions on the Right, it’s equally in favor of the institutional (+I) and the market form (+M); the authors don’t deprecate the former and overvalue the latter. Niskanen also recognizes that both forms (+I and +M) have bright and dark sides — capitalism can go wrong as readily as government — and that wise leadership is essential to make the bright sides prevail over the dark. The authors further recognize that both forms, and their respective public and private sectors, work best when kept within limits and in balance vis à vis each other. They also show that regulations are necessary to assure this. All these points fit with TIMN theory.

The new Niskanen vision recognizes that a properly ordered economic market system is crucial for a healthy political democracy. This too brings it into harmony with TIMN, which holds that political democracy arises when +M market principles about freedom and competition flow into the +I realm of hierarchical government institutions, enabling market-like representative politics to take hold. The Niskanen vision doesn’t quite go on to add, as TIMN does, that if a capitalist economy turns more corrupt, concentrated, and collusive, thereby diverging from the best standards of the +M market form, then similar patterns are likely to arise in politics as well, thereby undermining and distorting the practice of political democracy — but Niskanen comes close to implying that.

Furthermore, Niskanen’s new stand values not only individualism but also pluralism. And by inference it acknowledges collectivism too, given the positive references to collective goods, collective enterprise, and collective endeavor, as well as to government insurance risk pooling. According to TIMN, each of its cardinal forms of organization entail different mixtures of individualism and collectivism — both isms are inherent in each form. Today’s ideologues on the Right are remiss in arguing that individualism is good and collectivism bad (see my prior post).

None of these positives should be a big deal — they are basic TIMN dynamics — but matters are so out of kilter nowadays that it is a big deal to see this rethinking occurring on the Right. Yet I can’t be entirely upbeat about Niskanen’s new vision, for it has significant shortcomings from a TIMN perspective: In particular, this write-up is mostly about the two standard sectors — the public sector and the private sector — plus an occasional nod to the existence of civil society, its families, communities, and associations, as a less coherent sector. Which means that Niskanen’s vision remains triformist, and therefore not so visionary about the future. The authors mention education and healthcare as growing challenges throughout the document — but seemingly as challenges to be resolved via better public- and private-sector cooperation. I had hoped for some recognition that a next new sector may be emerging — say a “social sector” or “commons sector” — that would be more appropriate and effective for addressing such challenges. But for now, Niskanen doesn’t seem ready to foresee quadriformism. At least they foresee that revitalizing the “American Dream” requires overcoming the “toxic tribalism” that is undermining our society’s potential — a sound TIMN note on which to conclude this review.

For the full document, go here:

For David Brooks’ opinion column, go here:

For Jonathan Chait’s article, go here

Friday, April 5, 2019

Notes for a quadriformist manifesto — #8: rubbish-nonsense from the Right about individualism versus collectivism

This post is about a specific arch-conservative saying, and thus may seem to have little to do with quadriformism. But it is pertinent, for it shows that some arch-conservative mindsets are so devoted to old binary formulations — like individualism vs. collectivism — that they may be unable to accept new ideas about shifting from triform to quadriform visions of the future.


Conservatives often say they’re for individualism and against collectivism. Plainly stated, as a tendency, that seems sensible. But that’s rarely how it’s stated. Instead, I’ve heard for years the aphoristic claim that conservatives are for individualism, whereas liberals (i.e., lefties) are for collectivism. That’s a divisive insensible canard — and it runs deep in right-wing thinking.

The people saying so are always arch conservatives, most vociferously the NRA’s head Wayne LaPierre in speeches at CPAC and NRA conferences. Another example is Craig Biddle, writing in 2012 in The Objective Standard, a magazine that reflects Ayn Rand’s thinking, where he says that “The fundamental political conflict in America today is, as it has been for a century, individualism vs. collectivism” — from which he concludes that collectivism is evil, immoral, “utterly corrupt from the ground up,” and will lead Americans “down the road to statism and tyranny.” This view also crops up on Fox News shows now and then, implicitly if not explicitly — probably on some AM radio talk shows too, but I’m not as aware of them anymore. (See

Ayn Rand is evidently a leading source of this strain in right-wing thinking. As I found at a website devoted to her thinking, “In her novel The Fountainhead [1943] (and in her other writings), Ayn Rand challenges the doctrines of collectivism and introduces a radical new conception of individualism. She rejects the tribal mindset at its deepest roots and offers a vision of human existence in which we are not interchangeable members of some collective, but sovereign, independent individuals, whose true interests align.” It’s even said that “her philosophy of individualism can serve as the antidote to our era’s increasing tribalism.” (See and

But while she may be a famously extreme proponent, this view is found in some mainstream conservative thinking as well. For example, William Buckley, when he was a college student who would later write God and Man at Yale (1951), reportedly “hoped to find "allies against secularism and collectivism" — but instead … he found himself fighting against "those who seek to subvert religion and individualism."” (See

Fortunately, not all conservatives fall for this right-wing saw. I don’t hear it being voiced by the Burkean conservatives I read and admire; they know the limits to individualism and how to keep it in balance vis à vis other isms. For example, NYT columnist David Brooks has often criticized the spread of excessive individualism throughout American society, as in noting that true love-of-country nationalism is “threatened by extreme individualism — people who put the needs of the individual above the needs of the community.” However, thoughtful Burkean conservatives are outnumbered these days by Faustian conservative leaders, as well as by ordinary supporters of President Trump. (See

By itself, this aphorism may not seem too significant; I don’t hear it voiced very often. But as a thread in a tightly-woven fabric of right-wing binaries — big government vs. free markets, capitalism vs. socialism, “us vs. them,” etc. — it is significant, perhaps particularly so for alt-rightists, arch libertarians, and anarcho-capitalists, not to mention some Tea Party and Freedom Caucus members. They help hold that fabric together by divisively contrasting individualism and collectivism; for its notional and emotional content interlaces with many other themes that comprise the right-wing “memescape.”

Partly because of this positional significance, voicing the aphorism may trigger enthused responses — e.g., head nods, fist pumps, shouts of agreement, as occurs when the NRA’s LaPierre rouses a crowd of conservative gun-rights proponents with his fiery orations. I have the impression that, whenever this aphorism is deployed, ordinary conservatives, say those who listen to Fox News and AM radio talk shows and who attend pro-Trump rallies and CPAC conferences, tend to react positively. The aphorism appears to fit with years of conditioning to assure a tribal mindset. It would be difficult to undo belief in it through logic alone.


This aphorism is rubbish-nonsense. Its divisive binary framing, pitting individualism against collectivism, may suit tribally correct thinking on the Right, but it cannot withstand outside examination.

For starters, all the liberals and progressives I know strongly favor individualism, even though they may also favor government solutions to many policy problems. Indeed, classic liberalism was founded on Lockean principles of individualism, including that the state should serve to protect and promote individual freedoms. As Gideon Rose notes, handily for me, in a recent Foreign Affairs article, “The United States began as a radical experiment with grandiose ambitions. Its founders believed in Locke’s idea that free individuals could escape the perils of anarchy by joining together and cooperating for mutual benefit — and they created a country to show it wasn’t just talk.” So much so that, far to the Left, even socialist icon Eugene Debs praised individualism. (See

More to the point, the notion of individualism voiced in this arch-conservative saying is very broad, but the notion of collectivism is very narrow. It refers mainly to “big government,” and in most usages only to big government. Lately, it’s code for denouncing socialism, just as the term “socialism” spells “collectivism” in conservative thinking. But if we put individualism and collectivism on similarly broad conceptual footings, then collectivism means far more than statism. Then, family and community become expressions of collectivism, and so do military institutions, business corporations, farmers’ co-ops, evangelical and other churches, and sports teams, not to mention patriotism, and “collective security” — all of which most conservatives rightly favor, but fail to rightly acknowledge when subjected to this tribal meme. More to the point, pro-conservative organizations, such as the Heritage Foundation, Liberty University, and Bikers for Trump represent collective endeavors, even though they oppose ideological “collectivism.” Maybe it would help if ”mutualism” or “institutionalism” or “groupism” were substituted for “collectivism” — but I don’t see that happening.

Plus there’s the irony that tribalism, both its healthy and toxic manifestations, corresponds to a kind of collectivism. And few phenomena nowadays are more collectivist than the malignant political and cultural tribalisms that keep growing on the Right as well as the Left; for tribalists often demand group conformity and oppose individualized expression. This pattern shows up in Republican rules (e.g., the Hastert Rule, also the practices of Gingrich and McConnell) that no Republican shall speak ill of another, nor negotiate independently with a Democrat. It also shows up in litmus-test culture-war issues — e.g., about marriage, abortion, gun ownership, voting rights, etc. — where conservative call for collective solidarity among themselves, and seek to deny individual rights inside and outside their fold. And it shows up in episodic desires among conservative Republican to institute the so-called “unitary theory of executive power” — a collectivist notion.

Which leads to a second irony. The aphorism supports individual freedom and liberty. But by encouraging “memetic tribalism,” it thereby turns to stifle individualism and induce collective conformity. This is contrary to the correct functioning of liberal democracy, a true expression of individualism. Instead, the aphorism may help rally people to accept a more authoritarian, more collectivist forms of governance where their tribe dominates — even neo-fascism, or short of that, to unitary executivism. Compounding this risk is knowing that President Trump’s own inclinations lean toward corporatism (along with tribalism), not liberal democracy. (See

In sum, far-right conservatives depend on collectivism as much as anybody, far more than their rhetoric allows them to recognize. Indeed, today’s crop of tribalized conservatives is the most ominously collectivist I’ve ever seen.


I could go on, for this arch-conservative aphorism is not only philosophically fraught, it’s also scientifically unsound. There are vast writings on the roles of individualism and collectivism in the social sciences. Of particular note is the point that all societies combine expressions of both, to varying degrees. Individualism and collectivism co-exist symbiotically — healthy societies cannot have some of one without also having some of the other.

All four TIMN forms (Tribes, Institutions, Markets, Networks) entail different mixes of both isms — a point I should elaborate someday. In the meantime, let’s note that sociologist Geert Hofstede’s “cultural dimensions theory” is particularly renowned for modeling and measuring how societies vary according to six values — one being individualism-collectivism. According to Wikipedia, “This index explores the “degree to which people in a society are integrated into groups.” Individualistic societies have loose ties that often only relate an individual to his/her immediate family. They emphasize the “I” versus the “we.” Its counterpart, collectivism, describes a society in which tightly-integrated relationships tie extended families and others into in-groups. These in-groups are laced with undoubted loyalty and support each other when a conflict arises with another in-group.” Points made elsewhere show that, in Hofstede’s view, “Individualism is the extent to which people feel independent, as opposed to being interdependent as members of larger wholes.” And collectivism “means that one "knows one's place" in life, which is determined socially.” He even offers a metaphor from physics, whereby “people in an individualistic society are more like atoms flying around in a gas while those in collectivist societies are more like atoms fixed in a crystal.” (See and

If I/we were to go through this scholarly material carefully, it would only reinforce my earlier points: The polarized aphorism at hand is insensible and dysfunctional. Arch conservatives, while claiming to be solely for individualism, are plainly collectivist as well, in their own way. All of which goes to show that there is much merit to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s observation decades ago that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” The aphorism fails this test.