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Culture War Roundup for the week of October 17, 2022

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Classical liberalism vs. The New Right

Tyler Cowen responds to the ‘New Right’-

There is also a self-validating structure to New Right arguments over time. You can’t easily persuade New Right advocates by pointing to mainstream media reports that contradict their main narrative. Mainstream media is one of the least trusted sources. Academic research also has fallen under increasing mistrust, as the academy predominantly hires individuals who support the Democratic Party.

Most classical liberals are uncomfortable with the New Right approaches, and seek to disavow them. I share those concerns, and yet I also recognize that hard and fast lines are not so easy to draw. The New Right is in essence accepting the original classical liberal critique of the state and pushing it a few steps further, adding further skepticism of elites, a greater emphasis on culture, and a belief in elite collusion rather than checks and balances. You may or may not agree with those intellectual moves, but many common premises still are shared between the classical liberals and the New Right, even if neither side is fully comfortable admitting this.

The New Right also tends to see the classical liberals as naïve about power (the same charge classical liberals fling at the establishment), and as standing on the losing side of history. Those aren’t the easiest arguments to refute. Furthermore, the last twenty years have seen 9/11, a failed Iraq War, a major financial crisis and recession, and a major pandemic, mishandled in some critical regards. It doesn’t seem that wrong to become additionally skeptical about American elites, and the New Right wields these points effectively.

The major thing he misses, or perhaps only elides to, is that the individualist framework that libertarianism was built on has been utterly obliterated by technological, political, and demographic shifts. The future is now, old man, and it’s all about groups, and Kaldor-Hicks efficiencies. Given our degenerate institutions there is no way any particular set of losers can actually expect compensation for their damages, and so all one can hope for is that our particular sect wins out in the scrum of sectarian squabbling.

Yet, listening to a recent interview of his, I was struck by his (likely correct) bone-deep cynicism towards grand reform. His marginal revolution is lower variance than a monarchy or integralist state, and so intrinsically less ambitious. X-risks seem to demand a serious response, but Cowen just shrugs and hopes we have a nice few centuries before we destroy ourselves.

a major pandemic, mishandled in some critical regards.

Hah, I think that's a fair phrasing in context but holy cow does it undersell the damage this mishandling did to institutional trust across the board.

The pandemic became politicized almost immediately, the government seemed to have very little plan for a structured response once "two weeks to flatten the curve/stop the spread" was done, guidance from the CDC was ambiguous or flat-out contradictory at times, the FDA was responsible for delaying all kinds of reasonable measures for responding to the crisis, and at no point did anyone in any position of authority admit to making a mistake or otherwise being incorrect about it.

And that last point I think is where the focus should be. Because across all of those previous grievous institutional failures he mentioned, you'd be hard pressed to name any authority figure who paid any significant personal cost for their role in the events. The Iraq war, the 2008 crisis, the botched Afghanistan withdrawal just last year. A point of comparison I sometimes seen brought up is Iceland, which actually put bankers on trial for fraud stemming from the 2008 meltdown and put many in jail, vs. in the U.S. where they got bailouts and golden parachutes. I have no clue as to how justifiable those convictions were, I just note that they happened.

It really starts to look like the task of classical liberalism is mostly spreading around blame and responsibility enough that no particular individual need be held accountable for any failures. And in the process, giving cover to the people who made the mistakes, or lied, or otherwise created huge failures and yet.... were allowed to continue to hold power and continue to make mistakes.

"Oh but you can vote out politicians and hold them accountable that way." Sure. And then they retire to a cushy lifestyle often paid millions for book deals and speaking tours and may even get to continue to have a say in public affairs. And classical liberals find this just peachy because 'peaceful transition of power' is important and once someone exits the political arena they are free to enrich themselves, right?

I think the "New Right" seems to get one thing correct, albeit by accident: its the need for reintroducing serious skin in the game for the powers that be. In their mind this seems to imply mass arrests, trials, and hopefully prison or possibly execution of 'traitors' to the country. I think this implies a government that is a bit more tyrannical than we'd like.

If I thought there was one solution that might actually improve our existing institutions and MIGHT be within the real of political reality, it would be the introduction of actual consequences for malfeasance on the part of public officials. Some personal stakes that actually makes them have to care about the actual impacts their policies have and that they can't escape merely by leaving or switching offices.

Note, he is using a fairly broad definition for his "New Right" concept:

In its stead are rising alternatives that don’t yet have a common name. Some are called “national conservatism,” and some (by no means all) strands are pro-Trump, but I will refer to the New Right. My use of the term covers a broad range of sources, from Curtis Yarvin to J.D. Vance to Adrian Vermeule to Sohrab Ahmari to Rod Dreher to Tucker Carlson, and also a lot of anonymous internet discourse. Most of all I am thinking of the smart young people I meet who in the 1980s might have become libertarians, but these days absorb some mix of these other influences.

Maybe Classical Liberals need to absorb a bit in return. After all, I thought the great strength of the classical liberals was the ability to identify and implement good or innovative ideas from elsewhere. I don't see how implementing rules, procedures, or institutions that hold authority figures directly accountable for their decisions violates any of the rules of liberalism.

The big problem in the west now is that senior bureaucrats are never held accountable. There's been a steady growth in power of the managerial class combined with a diffusion of responsibility.

Part of it is what Watergate established.

Reporters get big stories by having powerful friends in the bureaucracy. They need to protect those friends to keep the stories coming.

Any reporter who openly blames a senior bureaucrat will be blacklisted by all of the others.

Trump's Schedule F appointment system was the best idea I've seen to try to fix things, but it came too late to do any good.

The pandemic response was so obviously, monstrously incompatible with the ideas of Classical Liberalism that it's questionable whether someone who merely describes the failings as "mishandled in some critical regards" even meaningfully qualifies as a Classical Liberal. The state can do whatever the fuck it wants as long as it says "because pandemic" at the end of it? That ain't anything-Liberal.

The role of government is to provide [...] protection against pandemics.

Not by any pre-2020 definition of the word classical liberalism. Did the government protect you against the 1918 pandemic? No. The median action was nothing. Did the government protect against the mid-century flu pandemics? No. Again, median action was nothing. HIV? Any Classical Liberal I can name would have strongly opposed recriminalizing homosexuality. As someone in the comments over there already put it, it's recency bias. The position of Classical Liberals pre-2020, to the extent they even had a position, would have been that the government is not meaningfully placed to outright prevent pandemics, just as it's not able to prevent e.g earthquakes, and thus it should not even have the power to attempt this. They could even point to the parable of King Canute and the tide.

To be fair we understand viruses far better than we used to. I wish there could be a coherent position around yes we can have lockdowns but only if the virus is literally civilization ending.

To be fair we understand viruses far better than we used to.

Do we, in a way that's meaningful for what many governments sought to do in 2020? We might know more on paper, but it's not clear to me that any of this knowledge had an impact for the goal of "protection against pandemics", which is distinct from mitigation. The information overload and the delusion that modelling would be accurate made things worse, not better. And for the more cynical, if covid was a result of gain of function research, then instead of protecting against pandemics, this additional understanding instead caused the pandemic.

yes we can have lockdowns but only if the virus is literally civilization ending

Governments can define what viruses are civilization ending. We know this because they already did this sort of redefinition before, not just for covid-19 but also for swine flu.

Then you get the "experts" declaring the next flu season as civilization ending.

Yeah correct course of action is caution in the beginning - as we learn it's weak just ignore it. Problem is 'experts' apparently are unwilling or unable to publicly admit being wrong.

And that last point I think is where the focus should be. Because across all of those previous grievous institutional failures he mentioned, you'd be hard pressed to name any authority figure who paid any significant personal cost for their role in the events. The Iraq war, the 2008 crisis, the botched Afghanistan withdrawal just last year. A point of comparison I sometimes seen brought up is Iceland, which actually put bankers on trial for fraud stemming from the 2008 meltdown and put many in jail, vs. in the U.S. where they got bailouts and golden parachutes. I have no clue as to how justifiable those convictions were, I just note that they happened.

Neocons will still tell us Iraq and Afghanistan were not failures. Liberals will say that flatten the curve and masks still worked or were not done correctly. Part of the problem is that it's impossible to remove the bias inherent in humans and politics when determining if or when something works. Sunk costs fallacy is another problem. This could explain why policy makers are inclined to not abandon bad policy. Admitting failure means losing reelection and credibility, whereas continuing bad policy still means the possibility things could get better.

Neocons will still tell us Iraq and Afghanistan were not failures.

I think they often go the extra mile and tell us that Americans wanted and voted for these wars and our leaders were evidently unable to decisively withdraw because that would have dismayed voters too much.

Not an exaggeration:

Tom Nichols: "Afghanistan is Your Fault."

Afghanistan was different. This was a war that was immensely popular at the outset and mostly conducted in full view of the American public. The problem was that, once the initial euphoria wore off, the public wasn’t much interested in it. Coverage in print media remained solid, but cable-news coverage of Afghanistan dropped off quickly, especially once a new adventure was launched in Iraq.

and

But as comforting as it would be to blame Obama and Trump, we must look inward and admit that we told our elected leaders—of both parties—that they were facing a no-win political test. If they chose to leave, they would be cowards who abandoned Afghanistan. If they chose to stay, they were warmongers intent on pursuing “forever war.” And so here we are, in the place we were destined to be: resting on 20 years of safety from another 9/11, but with Afghanistan again in the hands of the Taliban.

Which he might have a point on if there was ever an actual declared war in Afghanistan. But no, we got an Authorization for Use of Military Force that received effectively ZERO congressional debate year after year. Pretty much no President made it a campaign issue.

How were voters to express any opinion on the situation other, perhaps, than electing Ron Paul in 2012?

But this is ultimately what I'm saying. They hang the blame for the debacle on 'us' since diffusing responsibility and shuffling blame for political outcomes to 'the people' who ostensibly voted for it is, as mentioned, the primary purpose of Classical Liberalism these days.

They're definitely not advancing the classically liberal principals that ensure free speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of association anymore. They sure as hell ain't making free markets a priority.

But this is ultimately what I'm saying. They hang the blame for the debacle on 'us' since diffusing responsibility and shuffling blame for political outcomes to 'the people' who ostensibly voted for it is, as mentioned, the primary purpose of Classical Liberalism these days.

One of the purposes of a representative democracy, rather than a direct democracy, is that the buck stops with the representatives, not the voters. Legal responsibility for a government's actions fall on them, not the general public.

Surely that's only true until the next election? If an elected representative makes a decision, and his electorate decide to re-elect him, that looks to me like ratification of his decision.

Sure, representatives make a lot of decisions, so re-electing them is more aggregate approval than specific approval, and then there's the factor of "is he better than the alternatives," but at some point, accountability has to go back to the electorate. It's the people who are sovereign, and responsibility comes with that.

Which he might have a point on if there was ever an actual declared war in Afghanistan. But no, we got an Authorization for Use of Military Force that received effectively ZERO congressional debate year after year

Barbara Lee was the only correct person in the entire government. She predicted almost exactly what happened and was called a traitor for her efforts.

Is this essentially the poltical version of that "borrowing the jack" parable one of our mods linked once? Our leaders never bothered to pull us out of Afghanistan until last year because they thought they could read our minds and decided inaction was better?