Why the (US) right is always wrong … and how both-sidesists help to ensure this

A decade ago, when the issue of Republican anti-science bias was raised, a common response was to point to attitudes to vaccination, where, it was claimed, Democrats were the anti-science party. I observed at the time that this claim wasn’t justified by the available evidence. A little later, I noted the likelihood of the Republicans becoming anti-vax , a point on have been proved tragically right by the Covid pandemic.

But this case, and many more like it, hasn’t prevented the publication of a continued stream of pieces starting from the premise that “both sides do it”. The latest iteration relates to housing policy, and the claim that Democrats are the party of NIMBYism. For example this piece in The Atlantic by Jerusalem Demsas states

liberalism is largely to blame for the homelessness crisis: A contradiction at the core of liberal ideology has precluded Democratic politicians, who run most of the cities where homelessness is most acute, from addressing the issue. Liberals have stated preferences that housing should be affordable, particularly for marginalized groups that have historically been shunted to the peripheries of the housing market. But local politicians seeking to protect the interests of incumbent homeowners spawned a web of regulations, laws, and norms that has made blocking the development of new housing pitifully simple.

Demsas is way off the mark[1]. Biden’s infrastructure package included provisions for multi-family housing to be erected in traditionally residential zone. These provisions were vigorously resisted by Republicans, following the lead of Donald Trump, who used racist scaremongering to mobilise opposition.

More generally, the YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) movement is now ascendant among leftists (AOC is a notable example), as well as moderate liberals like Biden. There are still plenty of left and liberal NIMBYs, but it’s Republicans who make NIMBYism a majority view.

Rather than go through this issue in detail, I’m going to propose a meta-theory to explain why Republicans are always wrong, and why they always get a pass from both-sidesists. The central propositions are

(i) Leftist and liberals start from the meta-belief that the right policies will be consistent with empirical evidence
(ii) Republicans and rightwingers start from the meta-belief that “owning the libs” is more important than any policy outcome
(iii) Bothsidesists start from the meta-belief that a situation where half the population is systematically wrong is unthinkable.

Now consider a situation where correct and incorrect beliefs about some policy are initially distributed more or less randomly across the political spectrum. This is the ideal case for bothsidesists who will point out the inconsistencies. But to the extent that their claims are valid, those on the left will gradually reject the beliefs that have been shown to be wrong. At this point, it is necessary for those on the right, not only to hold on to their existing wrong beliefs, but to embrace those that have been abandoned by the left.

It’s easy enough to multiply examples.

The first I noticed was carbon pricing. As long as environmentalists rejected pricing in favor of detailed controls, carbon pricing was popular on the right. But as soon as the case for pricing became widely accepted, the right changed sides. The same was true in more technical debates about the relative merits of carbon taxes and tradeable permits.

The Earned Income Tax Credit was a Reagan initiative, but it is now denounced by the right . Indeed the EITC formed the basis of the “47 per cent pay no tax” talking point popularised by Mitt Romney. Sticking to Romney, his own ‘Romneycare” plan for Massachusetts was the basis for Obama’s much-vilified Affordable Care Act. And so on.

And throughout all of this, bothsidesists have tried, with increasing desperation to find examples of rational thought on the right. But these examples either turn out to be wrong (for example, the claim that nuclear power is a sensible option held back by environmentalists) or are picked up by the left and repudiated by the right.

This process cannot end well. Either political power in the US will end up in the hands of an utterly delusional movement, or the two-party system will collapse, with unpredictable consequences.

fn1. It’s fair to say that policies dating back to the 1970s, backed by liberals, empowered local resistance to developments of all kinds, from polluting industries to expanded provision of housing. But localism is deeply embedded in US culture, both for good and ill.

The slow demise of neoliberalism

That’s the headline for my latest piece in Inside Story, a review of Brad DeLong’s Slouching Towards Utopia and Sebastian Edwards The Chile Project . Some extracts

The Chile Project, of which Edwards was a generally sympathetic observer, ranks with Thatcher’s Britain as the paradigmatic case of what I’ve called “hard neoliberalism,” which combines authoritarianism and radical free-market policies …Outside the United States, soft neoliberalism was often described as the Third Way. Its central theme was the idea that the goals of social democracy (or liberalism in the US sense) could best be achieved by embracing market-oriented reforms, and particularly financial deregulation, while maintaining a generally redistributive welfare state.

Edwards sees the protest movement that launched in 2019 as the beginning of the end for Chilean neoliberalism. Taking account of global trends, DeLong marks 2010 as the year when the “slouch towards utopia” slowed to a crawl or stopped altogether. Either way, neoliberalism had gone from unchallenged hegemony at the turn of the twenty-first century to full retreat twenty years later.

DeLong argues, correctly I think, that social democracy was a victim of its own success. Everyone expected accelerating growth in their incomes combined with a continuation of full employment and low inflation. When the system failed to deliver at quite the expected level, neoliberalism promised a return to prosperity. By the time it became clear that this promise would not be realised, expectations had been lowered so much that (for example) a 5 per cent rate of unemployment was seen as a success rather than the disaster it would have been perceived as in the 1970s.

Again taking the optimistic view, we are seeing a gradual rehabilitation of the institutions of the mixed economy, including activist governments, public enterprise and trade unions. At least for the moment, we don’t have to worry that our limited successes will recreate the hubris of the 1960s. Perhaps we can finally put the era of neoliberalism behind us. •

Read the whole thing at Inside Story, then come back here to comment if you would like.

Jefferson rejected even voluntary emancipation

The Washington Post has a long piece about a Virginia family whose current (substantial but not huge) wealth derives from their slaveholding forebears and who may now be greatly enriched by the discovery of uranium under their land. There’s an interesting discussion of the arguments for and against reparations

Buried in the middle of the article is something much more interesting, to me at any rate. One member of the family, Edward Coles, opposed slavery. He hid his views until he inherited ownership of 17 enslaved people, then took them to Illinois and freed them. None other than Thomas Jefferson wrote to Coles, seeking to dissuade him.

Jefferson wrote Edward a letter on Aug. 25, 1814, trying to talk him out of it.

[M]y opinion has ever been that, until more can be done for them, we should endeavor, with those whom fortune has thrown on our hands, to feed & clothe them well, protect them from ill usage, require such reasonable labor only as is performed voluntarily by freemen, and be led by no repugnancies to abdicate them, and our duties to them,” Jefferson wrote to Coles.

This is a pathetic evasion, amounting to a restatement of the standard enslaver claim that chattel slavery was a positive good compared to the alternative of earning a living in the capitalist economy (“wage slavery”). It undermines the idea that Jefferson maintained support for gradual and voluntary emancipation even after abandoning the idea of legal abolition. Adding weasel words about “until more can be done for them” doesn’t change that, given that Jefferson made no moves to do anything more, either politically or with respect to the hundreds he personally enslaved.

It seems that, having been genuinely opposed to slavery at the time of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson came to realise that the profits of slavery, and particularly slave breeding, were too great to pass up. In this context, even his ban on the Atlantic trade slade looks bad. For a breeder like Jefferson, prohibiting import competition made perfect economic sense.