Sunday, August 22, 2010

The conservative left

I enjoy reading Matt Yglesias's blog for the same reason I enjoy reading Ezra Klein and any number of other young bloggers from this post-Clinton generation of liberal policy wonks: because they tend to take markets and libertarian arguments seriously. Even when I disagree with their conclusions, they tend to approach domestic policy issues from a reasonably analytical perspective. So it was with great interest as I watched the debate that unfolded on Yglesias's blog this weekend over occupational licensing. It started when Yglesias took the libertarian (or perhaps liberaltarian) position that barber licensing was unnecessary and had perhaps unintended costs that far outweighed the benefits. Ygelesias's leftish readers revolted, some wondering whether he was looking for a date with a Cato staffer, others calling him just plain wrong. It led to a string of posts over the weekend on a variety of licensing issues which are all worth a read:

Barack Obama, Barbering Deregulator
Licensing and Health Care (Which posed the very interesting question of why we can't pay to get our teeth cleaned without the presence of a dentist.)
A Free Market in Legal Services
And finally, Idealogical positioning

I lept into the commeting fray myself this past weekend and was amazed by the ferocity of people's insistence that the government really ought to regulate barbers. When I brought up the fact that local health and safety regulations would apply to any licensed or unlicensed barber, licensing was defended on the grounds that it provided another layer of consumer protection, presumably from lousy haircuts. When I questioned why we needed to license the dude that cuts my hair, but not the guy that makes my sandwich, I was mocked and got some answer about the licensing being for professionals.

A few minor points before I get to my larger one:

1- As a man, I could pay more for a sandwich than a haircut and it's possible that either service could come from a sole proprietor, one of a small number of employees of a sole proprietor, or a an employee of a larger business. And to cut my hair, you need a license, whether you work for the Hair Cuttery, whether you work for Jim's Barber shop, or whether you are Jim the Barber. Yet to handle my food, an activity with seemingly far more health and safety risks, you don't need a license.

2- In the health care licensing post, Yglesias remarked that the need for dentists to present for all teeth cleanings drives up the cost of health care and questioned whether a more free market in dental services would give us lower costs and better dental health. After all, if you could pay for the simple services of a dental hygienist, you could plan on getting your teeth cleaned three or four times a year and you could just see an actual dentist when you actually needed to. Yglesias's commenters balked at the idea: One said we needed to commission studies on the issue, while others worried about the inconvenience of having to go to a separate dentist appointment if the hygienist found a possible cavity. And my reaction was, really? The entire point of markets is to give people choices- if the thought of seeing an unaffiliated hygienist worries you, you could stick with your traditional arrangement. Not one supporter of the status quo could offer an example of how individuals could be harmed by getting a teeth cleaning from an unaffiliated dental hygienist. (And remember now, dental hygienists are licensed as medical professionals and I'm not making the ultra-libertarian argument that they shouldn't be licensed. We're simply asking the question of whether they should be able to do what they're licensed to do without having to work under a dentist.)

My larger point (that it looks like it took awhile to get to) is about the changing nature of political roles. Conservatives became associated with the ideology of free markets and small government because the conservatives of the the early-to-mid 20th century were seeking to conserve those classical liberal traditions. But since the time of FDR, the proponents of larger government have won time and time again, leaving us with the heavily regulated, heavily taxed world where we live today. And that leaves us in the rather interesting spot of free market perspectives as truly radical, while supporters of government are defenders of the status quo. I titled this post "the conservative left" because of the inherently conservative, reactionary nature of Yglesias's commenters. Yglesias titled his last post "ideological positioning," but I tend to see ideology as an intellectual framework that guides policy discussions, not a rigid enforcement of basic principles.

Intellectually speaking, I don't think the left wants to expand government just for the sake of expanding government, but for the sake of helping people and improving people's lives. But just like plenty of tea partiers and self-described conservatives have difficulty describing just what government they'd actually cut, there are far too many folks on the left who take the reverse tea party position of clinging to the existing structure of government no matter how pointless it is (and as Yglesias points out, no matter how many poor people are hurt by that structure.) Ultimately, both conservatism for it's own sake and progress for it's own sake are useless without context and further guiding principles. All other things being equal, maybe it's fair to say you lean towards preserving or altering the status quo, but all things are rarely equal.

What struck me about the defense of barber licensing was how similar it was to the defense we here of drug laws. My argument is always that you very specifically shouldn't decide on the necessity of an established law by considering the fact that the law already exists. This creates a self-perpetuating cycle where bad laws don't get overturned unless they're particularly egregious. The proper way to judge the necessity of a given law is to examine it in a vacuum, a sort of "if we were starting out from scratch" scenario. So the current legality of alcohol and illegality of marijuana is irrelevant in deciding what drug laws make sense, just as the prior existence of barber licensing should be irrelevant in deciding what professions require licensing.

In the vast majority of cases, there tends not to be a good defense of the status quo, precisely because we don't make laws in that sort of logical fashion. What we get are a hodgepodge of special interests and misguided responses to crises, mixed in with well-intentioned legislation. That the rules we wind up with don't always fit together logically isn't a surprise. In fact, given the extent of government regulation in this day and age, it would be shocking if the legislative process produced across the board regulation that fit together logically. The "conservative" reaction to defend government as it exists is misguided precisely because it reactionary and is not based upon any logical principles of how government should work.

I've blogged before about the debate over "epistemic closure" on the right and this may be the equivalent on the left. It's not just a failure to engage "the other side" but a failure to engage the intellectually curious on one's own side. It's obvious (as in the immigration debate) that the failure to engage can be at times a blatant disengagement of reality. But the sort of pernicious failure to engage by Yglesias's commenters is perhaps even worse, a rejection of logic with the facade of reasoned argument.

I tend to get worked up over these issues, no matter how small, where the empirical facts seem to dictate a logical choice. It's why (on much larger issues) I have problems with conservatives who claim to favor small government, but support a bloated, inefficient military and a byzantine immigration bureaucracy. It's why I have trouble with the inconsistency of alcohol being legal while marijuana is not, when marijuana is an equally dangerous if not less dangerous drug. And it's why I have trouble with the argument that my barber, who would have to be extremely negligent to harm me, requires government licensing, but my sandwich dude, who could get me sick by forgetting to wash his hands, does not.

If you want to take the position that drugs should be restricted based upon their relative level of danger, so be it, and we can debate that relative level of danger. Similarly, if you want want to set a relatively low bar for what fields should require government licenses, then let's debate what that bar should be, but you can't even have that debate when peoples position is to support the ad hoc system of licensing that currently exists.


Anonymous rose said...

Great post.

Two more reasons why its illogical to license barbers is that they rely almost exclusively on repeat business, which gives an incentive to do a good job. And secondly, the quality of their work is easy to judge immediately on the spot. Reputation and perfect information.

Contrast that to a sandwich shop in a tourist location; hey, this dumb tourist is gonna be 100 miles away before he realizes that that tuna sandwich just gave him herpes.

Licensing barbers is asinine.

Milton Friedman's quote describes the Yglesias' commenters perfectly:

"Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself."

The "conservative left" idea is widely applicable too. Not sure if you've ever read the development economist Bill Easterly, but his ideas fit into that mold. The status quo in foreign aid is always more money, bigger plans, more bureaucracy, and lack of faith in the innovative capacity of poor individuals. Easterly is technically on the "right", yet he's trying to mount an insurgency against the status quo, which has been dominated by the planners of the left for 50 years.

3:21 PM  
Blogger lonely libertarian said...

Real good call on the barbers -

On a somewhat related note, I'm always struck by the ferocity of liberal opposition to policies like social security reform and school choice. It's not about ideas, but that same intense need to conserve the system we have.

If you tell someone on the left you want to adopt a Swedish-style social security system and a Dutch-style education system, they might reflexively support those "European ideas," yet Sweden has a privatized retirement system and the Netherlands has a national program for school choice.

11:20 AM  
Anonymous rose said...

Here's an example of what you're talking about:

Recently, a neighbor of mine who is a highly educated practicing attorney, explained to me that Bush's social security privatization would have led to a depression that dwarfs the current downturn. He didn't explain by what mechanism that would've occurred, but he seemed to think that once "Charles Schwab" got his hands on your investable social security funds, poof, stolen, good as gone.

1:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are you distinguishing barbers from hair stylists? Although I am not an expert in either field, I do believe that hair styling including hair dying and other complicated procedures does require the knowledge and handling of chemicals which can damage persons hair semi-permanently (as long as it takes the hair to grow out). Although I generally agree with your points, and especially I think you make a good point about dental hygienists (who I know go to school to become hygienists), I do feel comfort in knowing that my hair stylist has in fact gone to school and met some qualifications. I do think there needs to be some minimum standard for hair stylists, perhaps also barbers. Although I do agree with your reasoning.

12:48 PM  

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