The Classical Liberal Political Advantage

Recently the California Senate retracted a bill that would have called for a referendum to reverse Proposition 209, the famous initiative banning racial, ethnic and gender preferences in public education and contracting. This decision came in response to  second thoughts from Asian-American state senators who got an earful from constituents. These citizens feared that reversing Proposition 209 would lead to lower numbers of Asian-American students at elite institutions, like Berkeley, where Asian-Americans are overrepresented as a percentage of the population.

The dynamics of this event reveal several things about the struggle between classical liberalism and the forces of government intervention and redistribution. The great old fear of classical liberals is that democracy permits majorities to redistribute wealth and opportunities to themselves at the expense of freedom and prosperity. The great new fear is that coalitions of energized, concentrated groups that are not even a majority can engage in such redistribution because they will have substantial leverage in a political system, where the majority may be uninformed, apathetic, and rationally ignorant of politics.

The forces for liberty in society, however, do have a significant structural advantage, even in the face of these substantial concerns. A coalition for redistribution can more easily develop internal tensions that prove fatal to its success. For instance, even if California becomes a so-called majority-minority state, not all the minorities will have similar interests. The failure to go to vote on the referendum shows that concentrated groups cannot get their way when a conflict develops between the groups. Democrats are thus overconfident that the demographic rise of minorities will make Democrats the natural party of government.

Public sector unions and minorities represent another important coalition for the Democratic party in urban areas. Yet this coalition has already begun to fracture, most notably because of education policy. The Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, stymied Mayor Bill de Blasio’s attempt to put the brakes on charter schools. While de Blasio had hoped to reward union allies, minority groups who benefit from charter schools helped justify Cuomo’s move.

In contrast, the forces of freedom—classical liberals–have fewer internal tensions because of its confidence that freedom helps everyone, at least in the long run, by creating prosperity and opportunity. For instance, a meritocratic educational system promotes investments in human capital and best fosters long-term growth.

Classical liberals can press home this advantage in two ways. First, government transparency is key. The leaders of Asian-American organizations were actually in favor of reversing proposition 209. But publicity about the bill and its potential effects on the composition of student bodies energized (grass roots) opposition. Second, it is crucial to continue to show that freedom can benefit everyone in order to sustain an encompassing coalition for liberty less prone to fracture. For instance, today we need to demonstrate that market-driven innovation makes products radically cheaper and, in some cases, free, even if these large benefits may not show up in traditional economic measures. Joel Mokyr, a distinguished economist at Northwestern University, makes this point in an important new essay, The Next Age of Invention. By making government transparent and instilling confidence in the broad-based benefits of freedom, the classical liberal advantage over redistributive coalitions can endure. That advantage preserves and indeed periodically restores liberty even within a democratic order.

John O. McGinnis is the George C. Dix Professor in Constitutional Law at Northwestern University. His recent book, Accelerating Democracy was published by Princeton University Press in 2012. McGinnis is also the co-author with Mike Rappaport of Originalism and the Good Constitution published by Harvard University Press in 2013 . He is a graduate of Harvard College, Balliol College, Oxford, and Harvard Law School. He has published in leading law reviews, including the Harvard, Chicago, and Stanford Law Reviews and the Yale Law Journal, and in journals of opinion, including National Affairs and National Review.

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Comments

  1. R Richard Schweitzer says

    The “value” of “market-driven” innovation has been, and is, constantly “demonstrated.”

    If markets are modes of distribution of goods and services by exchanges between or amongst participants, then -

    What we need to “demonstrate” are the effects of “excess” participants (such as regulators, persons setting economic or social objectives to result or be affected by the exchanges, etc.), the *others* than those engaged in actual exchanges; including the constraints on liberty from “excess” participants (whose objectives may have no relation to, or even conflict with, the objectives of the exchanging parties).

    “Markets” alone are not sufficient. They must have open access and minimum excess participants. The trends, all currently politically and sociologically “justified” have been running in a different direction.

  2. gabe says

    Yes, but then we would have to deal with all the unemployed regulators – and we can’t have that now can we?

  3. nobody.really says

    The forces for liberty in society, however, do have a significant structural advantage, even in the face of these substantial concerns. A coalition for redistribution can more easily develop internal tensions that prove fatal to its success.

    Sure enough, people who are ideologically unified are less likely to encounter ideological fault lines in their midst. But the stronger the ideological litmus test, the fewer people will pass — and ultimately, the greater the need to form coalitions with those of other ideologies. As Lord Acton noted in his History of Freedom in Antiquity (1877),

    At all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare, and its triumphs have been due to minorities, that have prevailed by associating themselves with auxiliaries whose objects differed from their own; and this association, which is always dangerous, has been sometimes disastrous, by giving to opponents just grounds of opposition.

  4. nobody.really says

    [A] meritocratic educational system promotes investments in human capital and best fosters long-term growth.

    Great — but that begs the question, how do we find a meritocratic system?

    You may argue that Affirmative Action was created by Democrats as a kind of spoils system, and that it’s naive to think otherwise. In contrast, Democrats argue that 1) Affirmative Action was created to offset the lack of meritocracy in our society, and 2) opponents of Affirmative Action are not interested in meritocracy; they’re just interested in establishing whatever spoils system favors their own demographic — and it’s naive to think otherwise.

    It would be useful to define “meritocracy.” Most measures of student’s academic success correlate with the social class of the student’s parents. In short, “meritocracy” and “aristocracy” have more in common than a rhyme scheme.

  5. gabe says

    ” In contrast, Democrats argue that 1) Affirmative Action was created to offset the lack of meritocracy in our society” – Certainly a True statement!!!
    and #2 would be true if we change as follows “(opponents) PROPONENTS of Affirmative Action are not interested in meritocracy; they’re just interested in establishing whatever spoils system favors their own demographic — and it’s naive to think otherwise.

    AND THIS IS QUITE REGRETTABLE – yet it is inherent in the premise that opportunity allocations must meet some predetermined ratio(s) developed by social scientists (such as THEY are). Had a truly fair allocation based upon some objective (such as they are) standard(s) been observed, the world would be a happier and wiser place, n’est ce pas?
    To fault one simply because his or her social class may better prepare one for success in certain endeavors is as unfair to advantage one simply because his / her class or social situation ill prepared them for similar success.
    While it is difficult to overcome the disadvantages associated with certain social /cultural impediments (and if a Texas Judge is to be believed the problems of greater advantage – i.e. being “spoiled), ultimately it does come down to individual effort and drive.
    While it is convenient to highlight the difficulty in defining merit, we, as humans, seem to do it rather well in our everyday lives, don’t we?
    I prefer to look to athletics as a good example of meritocracy. In fact, one sign of a truly superior athlete is his / her ability to recognize and applaud the excellence in others. They know that they (or the others) did not achieve their success simply because of god-given talent – it took many long years of study (football) and hard work to get there, self-denial, sweat, etc. etc.
    As I have grown older, I have come to appreciate “excellence” in others in whatever field or endeavor as I have come to appreciate the effort involved.
    Let us celebrate not those who have talent but rather those who have made the best use of their talents whatever their starting condition. This is as true for athletics as it is for manufacture, science, or other intellectual pursuits.
    And it certainly includes WINEMAKERS!!!!!
    Have a glass, Nobody – I mean .really!!!!
    take care as always
    gabe

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