A recent Roosevelt Institute summer intern gets inspired by early progressives on how to make a winning economic argument.
Recently, my libertarian friend and I had a debate. We found ourselves circling around the classic libertarian argument that the state should stay out of economic affairs, except to affirm a fair backdrop for people to enter into voluntary (economic) exchanges.
For a starter, I argued, how voluntary is “voluntary?” If I need a job to eat and stay alive, I could certainly choose to not accept an offer because the wages were too low. But the alternative would be starving, which is not really a choice. This situation, to me at least, really resembles a mugging rather than a voluntary exchange. There was something morally troubling for me here, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
My friend countered that my argument was “old, boring, and wrong.” I returned that his idea that the only coercion in our lives comes from the state is at least equally old and boring, but much, much more wrong. Yet, having just read The Progressive Assault on Laissez Faire by Barbara H. Fried, I realized he was right about one thing. Both of our arguments are old, and I was right that his ideas were older! Score one for the progressive. Almost one 150 years ago, conservatives were arguing much the same things that they are arguing now. And, I think more importantly for progressives, 80 years ago our side was making the arguments that we should be making now but aren’t.
Here’s the crux of the problem. Conservatives tend to argue morals and assume policy, whereas we progressives tend to argue policy and assume morals. When you read an article that suggests a liberal policy, you’ll often notice an assumed moral framework that isn’t justified. Conservatives, on the other hand, constantly justify their views in terms of rights and values that answer the question of “why” we should view a policy issue in a certain light. For example, most progressives feel like income inequality is wrong and will assert as much. But why is it wrong? Probably the answer has something to do with equality — that we should be equal, but how equal? And how do we balance liberty with equality? And how do we affect that change? Often the answer is, “Umm…taxes and social programs.”
Conservatives, particularly libertarians, often have an immediate and developed moral response. Their hero Milton Friedman often made his arguments within explicit moral frames that highlighted how we should look at his more functional arguments. A typical conservative argument about inequality, for example, would insist that it is a result of choices (voluntary exchanges) people make. Any government interaction to change it is coercive, like putting a gun to someone’s head and taking her money. By interfering with our choices, the government is hurting us, rather than protecting us, they say. And this is morally wrong.
Meanwhile, progressives continue to argue policy rather than morals. We fail to affect the change we want because we don’t answer the essentially moral question of “why” we should act in a certain way. Maybe we assume that our moral arguments are understood because at one point we won them, as Fried’s book illustrates.Utilitarianism, for example, helped earlier progressives provide a moral frame for economic issues. This theory focuses on “the greatest good for the greatest number of people.” Many of its great proponents were laissez-faire economists on the face, but they justified government intervention where it would help the largest number of people. Progressives of the early 1900s took this position over and over again, insisting that the best way to help the most is through progressive policy. So if we apply this thinking to current debates about the tax code, we can argue that it is not good for the greatest number of people to let the rich get richer while the poor get poorer. We can say plainly that it is not moral to let poor people starve while rich people become increasingly gluttonous.
On the issue of coercion, early progressives developed a framework of “positive liberty” in which people have the right to be free of the coercion of others. This, they argued, requires a degree of state intervention. Here’s an argument we could use far more frequently today. We can press for using the strength of the state to defend people who are getting horribly coerced by others, for example. Instead of the state being a bully, it becomes a protector of those who can’t defend themselves. This re-framing gives moral justification to state action. The powerful cannot exploit the powerless, and unequal deals between capitalists and laborers are a form of exploitation. It is the role of the state in a democracy to defend and represent the interests of all its constituents. That is how we establish the greatest good for the greatest number of people, and in so doing, create the greatest good for society as a whole.
For progressives, the more we explain our moral assumptions and re-define them for current debates, the more we can make headway with conservatives who have been refining their values message for decades.
Adam Gluck is formerly a communications intern at the Roosevelt Institute New York office and is a rising sophomore at the University of Chicago.