When he’s right, he’s right

I rarely agree with Ross Douthat, but his column on Putinism nails it: there’s really no serious alternative to the liberal order.

Now, can Douthat convince his increasingly illiberal Republican allies? Workers’ rights, the safety net, reproductive freedom, environmental protection, religous and ethnic tolerance, and respect for science aren’t optional. They’re part of the basic package.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

17 thoughts on “When he’s right, he’s right”

  1. The problem is that Douthat doesn't really believe in reproductive freedom or workers' rights due to his conservative religious beliefs. It's the main reason why he hasn't jumped ship on the Republicans along with David Frum and Bruce Bartlett.

  2. Douthat:

    A few voices on the American right have praised his traditionalist rhetoric — but only a few. As beleaguered as America’s social conservatives sometimes feel, we’re a long distance from signing up as useful idiots for a thuggish, obviously opportunistic “family values” crusade.

    Well, yes, the American right is sufficiently xenophobic that there's no way it would adopt a thuggish, obviously opportunistic family values crusade promoted by a foreigner.

  3. Aside from the fact that the column is garbage (Imperial Russia was thinking of global ideologies?), there's also a major error there and here – the right likes Putin, and considers what he's doing to be admirable. They love the dictatorship, brutal repression and censorship, and the corrupt oligarchy.

  4. No. Douthat can't convince the GOTP of anything, because they already know everything worth knowing.

    This edition of Simple Answers to Obvious Queries has been brought to you by the runes fehu and ansuz, and Avocado's number.

    1. "…and Avocado's number".

      The greenest of numbers, and the only one which can be safely processed by the guac() function.

  5. And now, for a serious-ish comment.

    Douthat says:

    The lesson in both cases is not that late-modern liberal civilization necessarily deserves uncontested dominance.

    But 25 years after the Cold War, from Kiev to Caracas, there is still no plausible alternative.

    So, maybe the liberal agenda isn't all tea and cakes in Douthat's estimation, but one thing a career in mathematical and applied statistics has taught me is that life isn't a Sears catalog: we don't often get "Good", "Better", "Best". Something can be the best alternative available without being objectively good. Maybe Douthat hasn't learned that lesson yet.

  6. Now, can Douthat convince his increasingly illiberal Republican allies? Workers’ rights, the safety net, reproductive freedom, environmental protection, religous and ethnic tolerance, and respect for science aren’t optional. They’re part of the basic package.

    I think that is not really true.

    I think the US was for most useful defintions of "liberal" a liberal society in 1931, and the USSR was not.

  7. I agree with Mark here: much as Ross Douthat's Op-Ed product is mostly trite hackwork, he (Douthat) has it right this time. I only found one assertion in his column to take issue with:

    In the Romanov era, the throne-and-altar idea still had a real claim to political legitimacy. But there is no comparable claim Putin can make for his own authority

    Actually, I think Putin and his power-structure IS trying to recreate (or at least revive in a modernized mode) the classic Church-State interdependency prevalent in virtually all of pre-Revolutionary Russian history: it's not hard to see the elements of religious extremism is very many contemporary Russian political movements: Whatever Putin''s own views might be, I think he is probably quite eager to get the support of the "Holy Russia" crowd behind his regime.

    1. Does Douthat actually object to altar and throne conservatism, or does he simply acknowledge that it ain't happening anymore?

  8. "Environmental protection," means, using less of a non-scientific floating abstraction, curtailment of private property rights to prevent degradation of allegedly collectively owned/maintained ecological commons.

    As such, "environmental protection" is decidedly illiberal.

    1. Only in the fantasy world where ownership rights trump all other rights and interests. In consensus reality, not so much.

  9. …allegedly collectively owned/maintained…

    Okay. If the atmosphere is not collectively owned, who owns it? If the oceans are not collectively owned, who owns them?

    And, yeah, I think the 3 mile/12 mile or whatever territorial limits are nonsense. They are conveniences for governments.

  10. BTW, Mark. As far as Ross Douthat being right, don't forget the stopped clock principle. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

  11. Mark: Now, can Douthat convince his increasingly illiberal Republican allies? Workers’ rights, the safety net, reproductive freedom, environmental protection, religous and ethnic tolerance, and respect for science aren’t optional. They’re part of the basic package.

    I'm not seeing that. The "liberal" in "liberal democracy" means something entirely different from the modern "liberal" as a quasi-synonym for "Democrat". I mean, I think that workers' rights are generally a good idea, but they aren't part and parcel of a liberal democracy. For example, the basic income approach favored by some libertarians (and progressives) would necessitate relatively little in terms of workers' rights, since you aren't required to work for living (whether it's economically feasible is a different question); if you aren't dependent on work to feed yourself, you can bargain with an employer as an equal and aren't dependent on legislation to create a level playing field. The same could in principle be said for variants of Denmark's Flexicurity system.

    1. I disagree with the claim that removing starvation as a threat ends the power asymmetry between employers and workers. But put that disagreement aside, and assume that a basic income would eliminate any need to protect the right to organize at work. My point was that something other than a Nozickian free market for labor is needed to achieve basic liberal purposes, and that calling libertarianism "classical liberalism" is a mere shuck and jive. To be effective in practice, formal equality requires a limit on material inequality.

      1. Let me clarify a few things. As a social liberal (as opposed to classical liberals or libertarians), I have no problems myself with the idea that human rights are not just defensive rights vs. the state, but that they also need to be actualized (by the government, if necessary). When you're coughing up your lungs in the gutter, freedom of speech may as well just exist on paper for all it does for you. If all you want to say is that worker's rights are generally good policy, I not only won't object, I'll completely agree with you. I also don't particularly like how some libertarians try to reclassify their belief system as being classical liberalism, but that's a completely different story.

        That said, I don't see workers' rights or environmental protection as part and parcel of a liberal democracy (and depending on how you define "reproductive freedom", maybe not that, either). They are generally pretty integral parts of modern social democracies, but a social democracy is only one particular implementation of a liberal democracy.

        Also, workers' rights are not necessarily related to material inequality. France and Germany, two countries with some of the strictest labor laws in the developed world, have inequality before taxes and transfers on roughly the same level as the United States (as measured by the Gini coefficient), whereas Denmark, despite at-will employment, has lower inequality. Inequality in France and Germany is lower because of taxes and transfers, not because of labor laws. Labor laws in both countries have other functions: economic security for individuals, macroeconomic stability, workplace safety, etc. All worthwhile goals, but you can argue that the same can be accomplished differently also (and possibly better – considering that the same goals induced suboptimal handling of the Euro crisis).

        Now, if you want to say that hardcore Republicans likely wouldn't be on board with anything that might reduce inequality or increase economic security (in particular anything that would require an increase in taxes), I won't disagree. But your list of policy prescriptions seemed to be a bit more specific than that.

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