Parties, Government Capture, and Poverty

Nancy Rosenblum's apology for partisanship put me in mind of some thoughts on the perils of strong party identification in the section on inequality and democracy in my forthcoming Cato paper. 

[T]he danger of “capture” in democratic politics is not primarily a matter of systemic conflicts of economic interest between those occupying different strata of the income distribution. Rather, the problem is that political power in democracies flows to those able to put together winning electoral coalitions, and this ability necessarily involves maintaining the loyalties of special interests whose demands may not be in the public interest. 


[W]e're unlikely to make real progress in improving the quality of public policy if otherwise sophisticated minds continue to be surprised by the fact that the party promising security may leave us less secure, or that the party promising to lift up the poor may leave them stranded. Strong partisan identification is dangerous because it can pressure even the best and brightest into accepting that the policies best for the electoral success of their favorite party — a fragile and contingent consortium of often conflicting interests — will somehow turn out best for the country. 


It is not enough for the privileged and the powerful to wish with their whole hearts to make ours a society in which all people have a real chance to make the most of their liberties and lives. Our democracy has to deliver the policies that can actually make this happen. But just as special interests can capture democratic coalitions, our coalitional minds can be captured by democratic politics. What the poor need is not party faith, but good faith in the effort to find policies that really deliver. 

That “our coalitional minds can be captured by democratic politics” is my main concern about partisanship. Party ID can become a powerful social signal of moral rectitude. But electoral dynamics provide strong reasons to believe that each major party must rule out of bounds some policies that would be best for the poor. Perversely, the more strongly a particular party ID signals care for the poor, the more protected will be large factions within the party whose interests oppose the poor. This is how our coalitional minds reason: Because the success of the party is so important to the welfare of poor, and these factions are so important to the successes of the party, their interests are ipso facto important to the welfare of the poor. And so their actual antagonism to policies in the interests of the poor becomes most invisible to those most eager to communicate their solidarity with the poor through party identification. Our need to signal care can produce viciously careless results.


Some libertarianish and conservatives types sometimes like to think of the territory of the U.S. as a big piece of real estate over which citizens have a kind of shared property right. There are lots of things that are wrong with this way of thinking, especially for people who think their philosophy is grounded in a strongly moral conception of property rights. Perhaps the primary flaw in the national-territory-as-collective-property schema is that very little U.S. territory was gained legitimately. Mostly it was gained in the way political territory is generally gained: war, theft, and purchase from thieves. Some worry about the fact that the Louisiana Purchase was unconstitutional. But why not worry instead about the far more troubling fact that the French state could not have been the legitimate owner of large swathes of land already owned by natives? Can James Polk's brinkmanship really be principle that determines that I have a stake in what happens in in Portland, but not in Vancouver?

I understand that this is the way the territories of kingdoms, principalities, and states are formed. Colonial criminality drew the map. That's the way it is. No turning back. But shouldn't we be long past the idea that these traces of regrettable history have truly weighty moral significance–that the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo or the Gadsden Purchase somehow create deep moral facts about where some human beings should and should not be able to go?

New at Free Will: Lew Daly and Unjust Deserts

In this week's Free Will, I chat with Lew Daly of Demos about his book with Gar Alperovitz, Unjust Deserts: How the Rich Are Taking Our Common Inheritance and Why We Should Take It Back. I found the book, especially the first part, stimulating if unconvincing. Daly and Alperovitz adopt a Douglass North-style neo-institutionalism and emphasize the broadly social nature of scientific discovery, invention, and economic growth. I'm completely on board with all this. They begin by noting that good institutions and technological advance are the foundation of growth, which is also true enough. They go out of their way to emphasize that successful economic activity depends on an enabling climate of norms, property rights, and decent government. Yup.

But it doesn't take them long to fallaciously infer that your dog owns your house. The main thrust of Daly and Alperovitz's argument is that the cumulative nature of the scientific advance and entreprenuerial discovery that leads to productivity gains implies that, as time goes on, individuals add a diminishing fraction of the overall value of the goods and services they help produce. D&A then push hard on a very simple and I think largely discredited notion of desert as the basis for just distribution. Since I didn't come up with the theory of computation, did not build this computer or the Internet, since I cannot singlehandedly prop up the entire context of wealth-enabling institutions in which I am embedded, and since taxpayers paid for the education that enabled me to read and write, I deserve next to nothing of the economic value of this blog (if it has any). Daly and Alperovitz's view comes down to the idea that, since we're constantly enjoying and building on the positive spillovers of prior economic activity and earlier generations of wise governnance, society deserves almost everything produced. As you'll see in the diavlog with Lew, I had some problems with this argument.

In particular, their story seems to imply that networks of scientists and innovators now long dead deserve a large portion of the wealth that we now create, since they are causally responsible for its foundation. But if that's true, then it's likely true that today's innovators are also undercompensated, since they will be able to internalize only a tiny fraction of the value they pass on to future generations. So which is it? Larry and Sergei are too rich or not rich enough? Moreover, if successful American entrepreneurs don't deserve much of their profits, then neither do contemporary American citizens who have done even less than the entrepeneurs to create economic value. Sure, I couldn't make a fortune selling widget polish if no one ever invented the widget, or if the institutions in which widgets could be invented never developed. But there is nothing in the argument that implies that current tax consumers deserve my profits more. Even if we buy that I don't deserve my income, D&A don't seem to bother showing that society does. At least, I couldn't find the argument that shows why, if I don't deserve X, then a big set of people who also do not deserve X have a legitimate claim to it. This confusion is compounded by their lazy identification of society with the membership of the nation state. 

Their real worry is inequality. They want higher taxes on the wealthy and more government spending. And they seem to think popular but confused intuitions about desert and distribution stand in the way of their egalitarian policy objectives. That may be true. But it's hard to see how offering an even less intuitve but nevertheless false account of desert and distribution is supposed to help them.


If the discussion of Harvard political theorist Nancy Rosenblum's On the Side of Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship at Jacob Levy's digs isn't enough for you, try this month's Cato Unbound, where Rosenblum makes her case for partisanship in today's lead essay. In the coming week and a half, we'll have replies from Cato's own Brink Lindsey, GW political scientist Henry Farrell, and Stanford's James Fishkin.

My problem with partisanship in the U.S. is that, due to the structure of the electoral system, there's really no place for more than two parties. My own disenchantment with active political participation is in part driven by the fact that there is next to no chance that any party I would be willing to join could be a real force in government. I suspect that in the possible world where the U.S. suddenly became a proportional parliamentary system, a party with roughly my politics could pick up a fair number of seats and would have a chance of sharing power in coalition governments. But in the actual world, the best I can do is be a Libertarian and totally irrelevant, or I can join the Democrats or the Republicans and be actively hated, for one reason or other, by my co-partisans. So, no thanks. 

I'm curious to see how my partisan sympathies shake out when I suddenly become Canadian.