Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The economics of anarchism in America

In a recurring Democratic fantasy that ironically echoes Frank Fukuyama’s essay on the end of history, progressives imagine the American conservative movement, the Republican Party, and its tea-party offshoot to be unstable coalitions of corporatist tax-cutters and Christian conservatives doomed in the fullness of time to unravel. Even if there were ever any truth to this, it is now out of date. Coalition of changing parts though it may be, today’s opposition to progressives is stable, can command sustainable majorities, and has shed its conservative cocoon to emerge as something new and different – something closer to an anarchist party.

The traditional progressive view sees the American right as doomed by contradiction and opportunism. It is supposedly contradictory because tax-cutters want to limit the state while Christian conservatives prefer expanding the state’s role to express specific religious values. And it is seen to be opportunistic as an unholy alliance of corporate money with evangelical and fundamentalist votes.

On this view, to be sure, accidents may happen. For example, Iranian hostage-takers may have helped elect Ronald Reagan; a recovery engineered by Paul Volcker may have reelected the man; George H.W. Bush may have won because he was a centrist in disguise; his son may have become president through cynicism on the Supreme Court; and war-time fear-mongering may have helped reelect the younger President Bush. Barring such accidents, however, the popular will shall triumph over incoherent and opportunistic political maneuvering and centrists and liberals (in the European sense of supporters of open societies) shall prevail.

By ignoring the emerging economics of US political competition, however, this view anaesthetizes progressives and centrists to the arrival of a profoundly illiberal dominant force on the American scene – even as it helps fund-raisers on the right squeeze contributions from corporate and religious donors. It ignores the new anti-liberal movement’s ability to absorb future single-issue political factions as they emerge and maintain a stable majority – without relying on accidents.

Imagine a political system where over half of the voters care about one issue each. The issue may differ from voter to voter. And the single-issue voters may be in the minority on every issue. But that still leaves a majority willing to vote for anyone offering support on their various causes.

A parliamentary system will tempt these voters to form lots of splinter parties. In a two-party system, however, it makes sense for them to band together. If there are enough single-issue voters, a party of the single-minded can command a majority even if it is in the minority on each issue.

The importance of transforming minority views into an operating majority is all the greater as single-issue voters often find themselves in the minority on their issues. After all, single-issue voters with majority views generally win a quick change in the law and move on to other issues.

This will be very perplexing to those holding majority views on most issues and yet find themselves persistently in a minority party. It can happen, in such a system, because some of the voters in each issue-specific majority will in effect have agreed to join the opposition in exchange for support on their own top issues – issues where they hold minority views.

A party of the single-minded that commands a majority even though it is in the minority on nearly every issue is not far from the current state of affairs on the American right. Buttressed by a lot of Pew polling data, Morris Fiorina’s Disconnect argues more precisely that we have a party of single-minded activists on the right whose causes share few if any common roots. There is no necessary affinity, for example, between those seeking to relax gun-control laws, those seeking to ban abortion and gay marriage, and those seeking to deport undocumented immigrant families.

Indeed, there are probably lots of gun advocates who are uncomfortable with increasing the state’s powers in ethics enforcement and border control. There are probably plenty of abortion and gay-marriage opponents who would prefer laws that are less friendly to guns and friendlier to families of any origin. And there are probably many immigration opponents who would just as soon maintain the superiority of police fire-power and keep state firmly above church.

The disparate groups against gun control, abortion, and immigration, moreover, have nothing at all in common with the positions of activists opposing social spending on health and education and regulation of emissions and financial services. Social spending and regulation opponents argue they should not have to pay for other people’s healthcare, schooling, or protection from the side-effects of legitimate business. They have no connection to the constitutional, religious, and nationalist sentiments of gun control, gay marriage, and immigration opponents.

There’s room in this broad church, finally, for the seemingly conflicting views of conservatives ten years ago and today on US federal budget deficits. It’s wrong to dismiss as cynical or opportunistic the evolution from Vice President Cheney’s view that “Everyone knows deficits don’t matter” to the view of today’s Republican House that deficit reduction is the gravest national concern. In fact, these are two distinct views – and they fit together as well as any on the American right today.

The earlier view is best seen as taking advantage of good economic times – after successive efforts of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton balanced the federal budget – to cut taxes. The financial sector was behind it. The later view sees economic hardship as a sign of difficulties to come and thus no time for delaying deficit cuts. These are the capital-intensive sectors speaking. The remarkable thing is that they don’t really contradict one another – even though they add up to a strange doctrine that the federal government should abandon economic stabilization and pursue aggressively pro-cyclical policy.

What these groups share is weak poll results on their own issues. None of them could command anything near a stable national majority. Together, however, they come close.

The question for a political economist – in fact, for any kind of economist – is what drives the proportion of voters focused on single issues. Part of the answer must be that conditions promoting social fragmentation and isolation also nourish single-issue politics. Thus when the opposite conditions from a prolonged war and a financial crash brought large numbers of very different Americans together we should not be surprised to have seen an unusually cohesive majority coalesce around Barack Obama.

Conditions promoting or allowing social fragmentation sound a lot like the business environments Chris Anderson describes in The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More. He writes about the impact of technology on the ease of offering small amounts of many different things and thereby increasing choice. If you imagine a graph of those small amounts of many different goods or services you get a curve with the long tail of Anderson’s title.

For example, low online costs are supposed to grow a long tail of highly specialized booksellers who in the aggregate offer a little of everything. Of relevance here is the fact that even if Americans lack the diversity of tastes in fiction, biography, and history to take advantage of those long tails in publishing, that diversity certainly seems to exist in the political preferences of the politically active.

Liberalism, itself, may be the most important cause of single-issue politics. In Political Liberalism, Rawls argues government should be neutral between competing views of what is good. A liberal order allows people to pursue their own unique values – as long as doing so does not limit others’ pursuit of what they think is good. The image of opinion-makers loudly pursuing largely unrelated views of what’s good is not a bad picture of the mix of mostly minority views that have come together in what has replaced the American conservative movement. Perhaps this new strain of conservatism in American politics just reflects the natural limits of liberalism.

What the economics of long political tails means is that those with a majority view on most major policy issues today may find themselves in a persistent political minority. If so, it need not be because of Democratic political incompetence, congressional districts, or an asymmetrically politicized judiciary. It could be a simple result of the economics of democracy under new conditions.

And those conditions may be most stable in a tolerant and liberal climate. So it is especially ironic that the amalgam of minority views on the American right are having a profoundly illiberal impact. Across the Republican Party’s positions on guns, church and state, immigration, social spending, deregulation, and the role of government in economic stabilization, there is no unifying theme. There is only a sense that the protection of others’ safety, privacy, citizenship opportunities, well-being, commercial transactions, and access to a stable economy is not a legitimate role of government.

That leaves policing and defense of the state, which become all the more important when the rest of the policy amalgam has grown into an unintended prescription for anarchy. The problem with this anarchist amalgam is that, by its structure, it offers those sharing majority views nothing at all.

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Blogger russell1200 said...

Couldn't you say that we have a lumpy mass in the middle, and the party that can hold them and still grab the largest share of the special interest crowd wins.

Thus we have not legalized same sex marriage at the Federal level, and also not outlawed abortion.

The parties have an obvious incentive to lump special interests that have either a common cause, or at least are not antagonistic. As society evolves you would suspect that that would be more difficult, and that the older the current coalition is, the more stress there will be.

2:54 AM  

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