"Fact Finding" with Jonathan Chait

My greatest frustration in the week since The Smug Style in American Liberalism was published has been how “the smug style”, as I define it, has been conflated with “smugness”, the general trait. This has led to an incessant objection: “But aren’t a lot of conservative figures smug?”

Setting aside that I say explicitly yes, there are elements of this style in most political movements, the question is beside the point. Of course individual conservatives are smug. Of course elements of conservative argument might be characterized as “smug”. But I did not argue that liberals are uniquely “smug”, or even that the trouble is general “smugness” amongst liberals. I argued that liberalism is animated by something I call “The Smug Style”.

That style has a few key elements. It believes the following things to be true:

  1. Political conflict is not moral conflict. It is reducible to differences in information and intelligence.
  2.  Liberals have a monopoly on correct information.
  3.  Liberalism has no ideology. It is only the rational response to the correct information it possesses.
  4.  The trouble with conservatives, therefore, is that they are either too stupid or too stubborn to accept the correct information, and act accordingly.

Or, as I put it in the essay:

The studies, about Daily Show viewers and better-sized amygdalae, are knowing. It is the smug style's first premise: a politics defined by a command of the Correct Facts and signaled by an allegiance to the Correct Culture. A politics that is just the politics of smart people in command of Good Facts. A politics that insists it has no ideology at all, only facts. No moral convictions, only charts, the kind that keep them from "imposing their morals" like the bad guys do.

I go on to argue that the Smug Style's premises are untrue. Politics is about competing moral visions. Liberalism does possess an ideology: like all political movements, ideology is how it determines its goals. The trouble with conservatives isn’t that they’re stupid, it’s that their moral vision is wrong (so, for that matter, is liberalism’s). A consequence of the Smug Style is that liberals fail to understand the world (by incorrectly ascribing political conflict to information and rational asymmetries ), and fail to understand themselves (by incorrectly maintaining that they have no prior moral commitments). These misapprehensions have combined with a number of historical forces in order to produce a liberal elite that does not prioritize the needs of the poor and justifies it on the basis that poor people’s petulant stupidity merits their abandonment.

This came up earlier today in an exchange I had with Jonathan Chait, one in which Chait explicitly defended the four premises I named above. I respect him for it: Jonathan Chait doesn’t play with typical liberal defensiveness. He doesn’t pretend the Left’s goals are ideal but not realistic. He doesn't think much of ideology at all. He believes liberal technocracy is the only way to govern, and he’s willing to defend that belief frankly. It’s admirable.

In order to clarify his position, Chait sent me his own 2005 New Republic essay “Fact Finders”. That essay, he said, would make clear his position on ideological politics and the merits of liberalism.

Chait’s essay is worth reading in full. I regret enormously that I did not find it while I was writing Smug Style, because it is that style’s Platonic Form.

Chait begins with a thought experiment: Imagine God descended from on high, and demonstrated irrefutably that all conservative beliefs about economics are true. Chait says that while this would surprise him, he would only have one rational course of action: He would immediately accept these new facts about the world and act accordingly.

But, he goes on, imagine the same scenario in reverse:

God appears in order to affirm liberal precepts: Current tax levels barely affect economic incentives, social programs provide tremendous economic security at modest cost to growth, and most regulations achieve their intended effects without producing undue distortions. Would economic conservatives likewise abandon their views? Some certainly would, but a great many would not. Economic conservatism, unlike liberalism, would survive having all its empirical underpinnings knocked out from beneath it.

He goes on to explain why:

And not because conservatives are necessarily more stubborn. (Indeed, on an individual level, liberals may well be just as stubborn as conservatives.) Rather, conservatism, unlike liberalism, overlays a deeper set of philosophical principles.

The contrast between economic liberalism and economic conservatism, then, ultimately lies not only in different values or preferences but in different epistemologies. Liberalism is a more deeply pragmatic governing philosophy--more open to change, more receptive to empiricism, and ultimately better at producing policies that improve the human condition--than conservatism. 

In other words, Liberalism isn’t an ideology, it’s just an adherence to Good Facts.

In other words, what’s wrong with conservatism is that it has a moral philosophy. Not that its moral philosophy is wrong.

In other words, liberals have a monopoly on reason.

Liberalism, according to Chait, has no ideology. Only a desire to use data in order to produce “beneficial outcomes”. How do we know what outcomes are good? Unanswered. Irrelevant.

In practice liberalism’s commitment is to capitalism (but nicer!). Its moral question is “How can we grow GDP, but in a way that isn’t quite so brutal as the conservative plan?”. I believe that these are not especially good moral goals, but the more immediate frustration is that liberals by and large do not want to admit that they are moral goals. Just the results of Good Facts in a vacuum.  

This, at bottom, is the trouble with The Smug Style. If you do not admit that you have ideological commitments, you will be blind to the harm caused by those commitments. If you believe the trouble with others is that they don’t share your dedication to Facts, you will tend to believe they are either willfully ignorant or stupid. You will fail to defeat your ideological enemies. Worse: you will fail to understand the nature of the battle itself. Chait's essay shows us not only the fundamental nature of the smug style, but also its consequences.

It is not a coincidence that Chait's account of liberalism as a non-ideological fact finding mission quickly becomes a defense of welfare reform. "Clinton also recognized the failure of welfare, previously a cherished liberal goal, to accomplish its stated purpose, and he enacted a sweeping overhaul," he writes, "Many liberals complained, but the main objections centered around the details--certain punitive provision and the lack of adequate job-creation measures--not the concept of welfare reform."

Such is the consequence of Good Facts before good morals. Who cares that welfare reform devastated the poor? The numbers added up! What will the facts justify next? Who knows! Who the fuck even cares? What I tried to demonstrate by a dozen examples, Chait achieves in one essay: A liberalism that rejects prior moral commitments, that just "follows the facts" where they lead, will rapidly become a liberalism that punishes poor people.

Chait’s essay is instructive. If you’ve had trouble understanding the difference between “smugness” and “The Smug Style”, I would encourage you to read it. It is the clearest articulation I have ever seen of The Smug Style, and, to Chait's credit, an admirable attempt to defend it.