Debates with progressives on economic and political policy often lead nowhere. In my experience this is because conservatives argue from historical fact and cold, hard data — from experience — while progressives wave off all such references as irrelevant.
Argue, for instance, that a 2013 Brookings Institute report confirms that the expansion of global free market trade and the spread of representative democracy since 1980 has lifted some 31% of the world’s population out of deep poverty:
Global poverty is falling fast. 21% of the world’s people are living on less than US$1.25 a day compared with 52% in 1980.
Progressives will wave that off as irrelevant. They aren’t denying history, saying that it didn’t happened. They are simply denying that it matters into the future.
This interview of former World Banker Herman Daly in The European magazine is a potent example of this fundamental denial. Daly declares with absolute, dogmatic certainty that regardless of the success of abundance and growth we had in an “empty world”, we now live in the world Paul Ehrlich forecasted: finite resources and limited capacity. Daly has no doubts this is true prima facie. Why? Solely because he believes it’s so.
The European: Why should we question growth?
Daly: We are in a situation where growth has begun to cost more than it is worth. It has become uneconomical, at least in rich countries. In an empty world, growth is good. But that is not the world we inhabit. We live in a world that is full of us and our stuff, a world that is finite in terms of the economic activity it can sustain. We need to build the physical constraints of a finite biophysical environment into our economic theory.
This shift from a progressive’s point of view from a resource-abundant past in which 31% of the global population escaped poverty, to a future of desperate limitations and existential environmental threats is, of course, exactly why historical arguments are ignored.
To be charitable, Daly doesn’t see himself as being irrational. If the past is just a record of all that progressives detest, what is there for them to learn from it? What positive lessons are there from a past one believes can’t be sustained? Conservatives in debate must understand that history, necessarily for Daly and Ehrlich and all of their ideological kin, must be irrelevant to the future because if it is not the deep structure of progressive ideology falls apart.
This is where the debate can be won. It must be engaged with progressive pessimism and cynicism in mind. The tactic must be to expose both. And to that end sarcasm and irony work better than cold data and hard fact.
For instance, does anyone recall that Paul Ehrlich was totally wrong when in the mid-1960s he predicted global famine, by the middle 1970s at the latest? Do progressives praise the agricultural revolution that feeds the world today, to which Ehrlich was totally blind? Of course not. Instead, we need to hammer failed pessimism with heaps of wry sarcasm. Extol boundless human creativity.
For instance again, does anyone recall the dire ‘peak oil’ forecasts, of the collapse of our oil and gas fueled Western culture by the late 1980s, as fossil fuels were globally depleted? Those same Cassandras are today bemoaning the increasing flood of carbon fuels in the world as the source of global catastrophe. Hammer that irony mercilessly. Extol an Earth that, treated rightly with deep respect, willingly provides.
Such debates are not a waste of time. Progressives are bred in herds. Conservatives are created one mind at a time. One need only appeal to an optimistic vision based in reality, one Reagan would immediately embrace, and delivered to exploit progressive nihilism to notch a win.
One more tactical note. The ideological commitment to “absolute equality amidst dire scarcity” allows progressives no room to adjust their thinking. To concede that abundance is even possible is tantamount to surrender. If you begin from the first exchange to take that one “inarguable” idea – scarcity — away from progressives the entire edifice of their thinking collapses. Conservatives win when we argue for a world of free market capital efficiency, the potential for growing abundance, a ‘larger pie’, and technological innovation… all arising from inexhaustible human creativity.
Daly and Ehrlich are emblematic of a nihilistic cult preaching economic shrinkage and the evils of financial meritocracy within their vision of a pinched, parched, crabbed world. Conservatives who have adopted this same doomed, dystrophic vision have lost their way and will lose the debate, as well. We can’t try to ‘out-pessimist’ a progressive and expect to win.
I know what you’re thinking. Do I sound a bit too ‘Mary Sunshine’ for your taste; a bit too ‘Pollyanna’? I am neither. I am very aware and in great detail of the precarious state of the world. There will be hell to pay before we see another Reagan-esque ‘morning in America’, this I know.
But I also know that unless we grow the ranks of thinking, optimistic, committed conservatives, unless we can win the battle for hearts and minds and steel them for the difficult and painful road ahead, every new crisis will be just another excuse to wade ever deeper into the progressive swamp. More spending in the name of stimulus. More deficits in the name of pump-priming. More debt piled on debt. More monetary manipulation.
We will only fix America if we’ve first won the debate. Fostering and renewing the entrepreneurial spirit. Devolving most federal regulatory power back to the 50 states and in so doing reestablishing federalism and the Constitution at the core of government. Totally overhauling the tax and regulatory code to end crony capitalism. Rebuilding and returning entitlements and pension funds to solvency. And we can only gain the authority to do these and many other necessary things by winning the debate one mind at a time.
Michael Booth, often posting as Cato, lectured in finance and economics at the Univ. of Texas, and worked as a managerial finance trainer in the technology industry.