Wednesday, September 17, 2014
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美国保守主义的思想危机

伯克利—现在,在我书桌的左后角摆着三部新书:布鲁克斯(Arthur Brooks)的《战争》(The Battle)、穆雷(Charles Murray)的《崩溃》(Coming Apart)和埃伯斯塔特(Nicholas Eberstadt)的《匪之国》(A Nation of Takers)。总的来说,它们代表了重要的思想动向,这也恰好是当今美国保守主义对治理经济鲜有建设性意见、在美国选举舞台上频频败北的重要原因。

但让我们回顾历史,看看我们所谓的现代保守主义是如何在19世纪初的英国和法国起源的。一些人——巴斯夏(Frédéric Bastiat)和萨伊(Jean-Baptiste Say)立刻出现在眼前——认为当市场或生产出现了暂时性的干扰时,政府应该安排失业者去建设基础设施。但他们的观点被西尼尔(Nassau Senior)反对,他认为就连食品救济都不应该有:尽管数百万人因爱尔兰土豆饥荒丧命,但“这远远不够。”

早期保守主义的主要卖点是彻底反对任何形式的社会保险:让穷人变富,他们就会生更多孩子。结果,农场规模会下降(因为土地得分给越来越多的子女),劳动生产率会下降,而穷人会变得更穷。社会保险不但毫无意义;简直就是大逆不道。

合理的经济政策是让人们尊王(从而尊重产权)、尊父(从而不会轻率早婚)、尊宗教(从而畏惧婚前性行为)。接着,只要女人在一半或以上的育龄时期严守贞洁,新增人口就会减少,穷人所处的环境就能尽可能地改善。

快速地浏览一下二战前150年中的美国,看看芝加哥学派对罗斯福新政这一社会保险新形式的最初批判——它形成了阻碍经济创新的“等级”(notch)。弗里德曼和其他人指出,政府告诉穷人:赚多点钱,我们将剥夺你的免费房子、食品券和收入支持。人是理性的,弗里德曼说,因此如果没有好处或好处不多,他们是不会长时间工作的。

19世纪初马尔萨斯派保守主义对社会保险的批判和芝加哥学派20世纪70年代的批判之间的重大区别在于,芝加哥学派的批判有这样一个要点:为“相称的”穷人提供公共支持,在他们开始自立根生时撤掉支持,这样做会破坏激励,不可能形成好的结果。

1970—2000年,保守派(他们想让政府停止鼓励伤风败俗行为)、中间派(他们想让政府把钱花在刀刃上)和左派(他们想减贫)组成了广泛同盟,把“等级”从社会保险体系中逐出。卡特、里根、老布什、克林顿甚至小布什诸位总统及其支持者创建了当前的体系,税率和起税点不再起到抑制企业的反激励效果。

那么,美国新一代社会保险的保守主义批判家看到了什么问题?产生马尔萨斯式崩溃的不是穷人的生活水平较勉强维生有所提高,让人们几乎无酬工作的也不是税收和取消福利。

在埃伯斯塔特看来,问题在于对政府的依赖在让人民变弱,太多的人仰仗政府过活。在布鲁克斯看来,问题在于知道公共项目让生活变得更加容易导致民众把选票投给非共和党候选人。在穆雷看来,问题在于社会保险意味着做得不好不会导致崩溃——我们需要导致崩溃的坏行为,这样才能让人们不再做出坏行为。

关键点在于,美国保守主义精英相信布鲁克斯、埃伯斯塔特和穆雷。眼下,罗姆尼相信他之所以输掉2012年总统大选,是因为奥巴马不公平地给了拉丁裔美国人健康保险补贴,给了妇女免费的生殖健康保险(不含流产),还给了其他群体类似的“礼物”。他绝不会“让他们认为他们应该承担个人责任,看好自己的生活。”

事实上,不论哪位候选人,让拿政府福利的美国人相信他们与其说是受助者,不如说是依赖者、相信把票投给让他们生活更好的政客是不对的、让他们相信好的公共政策应该造成而不是避免人类灾难都不是易事。美国保守主义者的问题不在于候选人的选择或是说辞的语调,而在于他们的想法不具有政治可持续性。

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  1. CommentedFrederick Hastings

    A column from an economist, not a polemicist, on the historic intellectual debate on the role of government in human action and no references to rent-seeking, regulatory capture, induced dependency, pork-barrel spending, moral hazard, animal spirits?

  2. CommentedJ St. Clair

    http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/from-war-to-welfare-595/

    lets add this article onto this one and compare subject regarding welfare "states"

  3. CommentedAndré Rebentisch

    Apparently conservatism in the United States is a unique brand dedicated to undermine cohesion in society. I would expect a conservative personality to esteem assistance for persons who do less well. The actual unresolved crisis lies in US federalism balancing, not ideology.

  4. CommentedG. A. Pakela

    In response to Mr. O'Callaghan's comments below, "the nonsense that the rich are so greedy that they will refuse to invest efficiently if they are required to pay their fair share of progressive taxation..." is indeed worthy of comment. Investors will decide among an array of opportunities on a risk and tax adjusted basis. If the tax on capital income is set at too high a level, investors will reject those risky opportunities whose after-tax return falls below what they are willing risk. A business owner will not reinvest in the business if she believes that the upside return is subject to confiscatory taxes, but she still has to absorb all of the losses if the investment fails.

    This is a decision process that affects millions of small businesses that are the backbone of employment opportunities for many if not most Americans. Thus, the real losers are not business owners, but those prospective job-seekers who cannot find work.

      CommentedAnthony Juan Bautista

      Indeed, Animal Spirits require that projected returns exceed cost of capital. The Fed is doing everything possible to lower the discount rate on new venture; and the White House is doing everything possible to raise it. All the while our projected returns are revised downward in serial fashion, as the consumer deleverages.

      At least this is how I explain the world to myself over coffee and toast.

  5. CommentedFrank O'Callaghan

    J Bradford DeLong is right but does not go far enough, (Perhaps this is courtly academic elegance) but he could point out that most right wing orthodoxy has failed to deliver on it's promises. Conservative "ideas" are a thin veil for a lootocracy. It is not a coincidence that those who vote most loyally for the 'red state' side have been most disadvantaged by their representatives.

    The nonsense that the rich are so greedy that they will refuse to invest efficiently if they are required to pay their fair share of progressive taxation is absurd beyond comment. That has not prevented this theory from being the central plank of conservatism for decades.

    The conservative (liberal economic) attitude to the potato famine in Ireland bears examination. The view was taken that one or two million deaths of the Irish poor were a 'necessity' for the 'greater good' was argued. The amount of resource released by the removal of these desperately poor and deprived was relatively small. Had a similar number been 'liquidated' at the OPPOSITE extreme of the social/economic scale in the British Isles at the time it would have released a much greater quantity of resources. Indeed it would have required a much smaller casualty toll to produce a much greater social 'good'.

    There are those who see a similar argument today with the 99% vs the 1%

      Portrait of J. Bradford DeLong

      CommentedJ. Bradford DeLong

      I do wish they would give me a link at the bottom to which I can attach a longer, extended version of the argument...

  6. CommentedProcyon Mukherjee

    The debate is shifting to empowerment versus dependence, and America is equally divided on the road to be taken; the illusion of clarity and the binding rationale to take on a particular path as opposed to the other is seen in the weakness of the current incumbent to take on a decisive stance on either taxation, fiscal or in transfers of all forms. The ‘majority view’, if it is muddled to give a clear direction and if the ‘less than majority view’ is straddled in the legacies of the past, we have a polity that reflects not only in the lack of vision but also in the lagging ‘bias for action’.

  7. CommentedSharon Curran

    Reading the article, I wonder how people construe economics practiced conservatively with what is happening now. I think, Prof. DeLong, the problem is viewed as a debate between those who earn and those who need help rather than the morality of some people who have a lot of money--undeservedly and so much--compared to everyone else. I don't know how to reconcile a fellow working hard to make his business function or a woman employed for a particular reason with people, like those who caused the banking crisis with greedy behaviour and are still rewarded. Neither types of the conservatism you discuss take issue with this sort of reality. I think that is why a lot of people are so angry--there is a moral crisis at hand, I just don't think that people, particularly the undeserved rich, want to take responsibility for it. It is very easy to criticize the poor or unemployed, even the working poor, rather than recognize that unearned wealth (and I know that means more taxes, but perhaps a fairer distribution of wealth) is currently determining how society functions. And regardless of what type of conservatism one favours that particular issue is the problem.

  8. CommentedJohn Médaille

    I should point out that Bastiat, Senior, and Say were economic *Liberals*; the meanings of "liberal" and "conservative" have changed places in the last 100 years, so that today a "conservative" is one who believes in the crudest form of economic liberalism.

      Portrait of J. Bradford DeLong

      CommentedJ. Bradford DeLong

      I would disagree: Say and Bastiat, at least, believed in expanding government spending to put people to work when the number of unemployed was unusually large...

  9. CommentedPaul Ross

    As a layman reading the article the last paragraph hits home, the current Conservative platform is in essence telling the American People, "Vote for us, we'll make your life harder."

    As a voter, I am highly unlikely to vote for you, if that is what you offer.

    An exception being a stand on single red button issues I feel strongly about. (Personally I don't have many those; and the ones I do; would have me not vote for anyone, which is not a great way to run a country.)

      Portrait of J. Bradford DeLong

      CommentedJ. Bradford DeLong

      Complexity theory is supposed to give us a map between microfoundational characteristics and emergent macro properties. Unfortunately, complexity theory cannot do this for us yet. So as a result macroeconomists are trapped into either (a) writing down microfoundations they know are wrong and using them to construct models that say what they want them to say (and then falsely claiming that they have "scientifically derived" their results), and (b) waving their hands in the air and talking about reduced forms. (If you hadn't noticed, I favor (b) as more honest...)

      CommentedAnthony Juan Bautista

      REPLY to Ashok:

      Well we agree, mostly. I'm all-for drastically different paradigms as to understanding the macro economy. But these paradigms will have to be modeled. And the "truths" yielded, will be constrained by usefulness. And the most useful thing in the world, is a reasonably good forecast. (I'll even go so far as to say that all true things can be modeled, with various precision, depending on how "good" the truth is.)

      I just want people to realize exactly who in society is talking to them, when the macro-economist claims: "This is what we should do, and I KNOW it." It's not a scientist talking to them, and it's likely not even a truth-seeker. (Again, this applies to all political persuasions.)

      CommentedAshok Rao

      But nothing significant happened over the past 70 years that would force a complete haul of an economist's priors.

      I don't want to compare the work of macroeconomics to Einstein, I mean he's truly a mind-blowing guy, but even Einstein had his doubts about quantum mech (famously, "God does not play his dice on us").

      There's also a rich, and thriving, field of computational economics based on complexity theory that will be promising (I think) in the next era.

      Economics might be a flawed discipline, and it is certainly not 'scientific' in the physics sense of the word – but how can it be? How can you create a controlled experiment in all but the smallest interventions (a la Poor Economics)?

  10. CommentedAnthony Juan Bautista

    "American conservatism today has little that is constructive to say about managing the economy"

    Sadly, JBD continues the sullied tradition of economist as political partisan.

    When I read pieces like this I simply remind myself: these men are not scientists, and these men are not truth-seekers. And their role in society must be framed as such; meaning, it's important to understand what these people are NOT. What they ARE--exactly where they bring value--is an open question.

    We must likewise remind ourselves that the same men now making claim to a corpus of good knowledge (asserting that they now "know" what's best), are the same people who 5 years ago didn't "know" we were headed for the greatest global economic turmoil in 80 years (70 years after Keynes gave them a running start). What credible scientific discipline studies phenomena for 70 years, and still can't make modestly useful predictions based on modeled theory? (And this applies to econo-partisans of all religions.)

    So when men like JBD assert they now "know", simply think to yourself: just 5 years ago, they DIDN'T KNOW. And this marginalizes the case for them currently knowing, or currently knowing who doesn't know!

    But perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps someone can pass-on one of JBD's peer-reviewed, published works (the hard science) wherein his econometric models predicted (or implied) the Great Recession; or in timely/usable fashion, warned as to the depth or duration of the recession/output gap/unemployment, etc. This would certainly bolster the case for credibility (explaining why we should listen now).

    Yes, a formalized and (reasonably) prescient modeling and understanding from 5-plus years ago would definitely help to distinguish JBD from those frauds and ignoramuses who at present, really DON'T know.

    Help us separate the frauds from those who really know--those who are constructive versus those who are destructive.



      CommentedAnthony Juan Bautista

      Reply to CHARLES:

      Ha yes! I read "Genius" many years ago; perhaps it made an impression.

      And this is indeed a quotation that rightly frames the issue:

      "Religion is a culture of faith; science is a culture of doubt." RP Feynman

      However I feel the much needed cynicism toward the pundit-econo class (JBD, Krugman, and on and on) has a tradition predating RPF by 2K yrs or so:

      http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-causality/

      CommentedCharles Travis

      Interesting that I was just watching a documentary on Richard Feynman and he seemed to have the same basic premise - expertise that isn't being tested and evaluated is of little value.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bgaw9qe7DEE

      CommentedAnthony Juan Bautista

      REPLY to ASHOK (why no reply button?):

      I'm sorry to say, but resumes DO matter. Hence, it's extremely reasonable to ask a person who's making a claim to current knowledge: "How well have you understood the subject phenomena in the past?".

      Macro-economists have had 70 yrs to update their priors. A truly Bayesian algorithm/process gets more accurate at t+n! This has not been the case with macro econ--meaning, normative calculations are NOT Bayesian.

      And Newton was indeed no idiot--but let's remember, his models still apply to a VERY useful approximation. And Einstein was actually a Founding Father of QM; he got it!--another non-idiot! Heisenberg merely discovered another important constraint.

      You have helped me make a case that the statements of macroeconomists who claim they "know", should be weighted in-accordance with the historical precision and usefulness of their models. Truth is actually a model (Newton mentioned):

      https://dl.dropbox.com/s/445qya8ba7ugqyw/truth%20is%20a%20model.jpg



      CommentedAshok Rao

      Thinking that it was coming five years ago doesn't make your argument today any more appropriate and, conversely, not knowing that it was coming doesn't make what you say today irrelevant.

      Actually, all that matters is how one updates his/her priors after the event. There's an article here at Syndicate itself where JBD remarks how much the financial crisis has changed the way he thinks, noting a speech Larry Summers gave at Bretton Woods.

      Newton wasn't an idiot for not seeing relativity come, and Einstein wasn't an idiot for not seeing quantum mechanics come.

      It's kind of odd to expect economics to be as "scientific" as the study of nature. You can't form a controlled experiment. Which is why arguments from Rogoff and the like treating the 90% mark as some sort of natural, intrinsic, "threshold" don't hold water.

      The real problem is that conservatives seem to be allergic to Mr. Bayes.

  11. Portrait of J. Bradford DeLong

    CommentedJ. Bradford DeLong

    Let me note three things:

    (1) Most of what I have to say is highly, highly derivative from Mike Konczal and Mark Schmitt (and others); (2)
    The problem is not just that today's crop of AEI-conservative ideas is not politically sustainable, but that it is simply wrong--Cahn and Carbone's Red Families, Blue Families has convinced me that contra Murray America's (Blue) families are actually in pretty good shape (Red families that try to keep their daughters ignorant about family planning not so much), my take on Eberstadt is coming out in Democracy Journal later this month; and
    (3) Arthur Brooks seems to me at bottom simply lamenting that Democratic policies work and make people's lives better--that Republicans are losing their campaign to try to make America a worse-off place does not strike me as a minus.

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