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

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