The Right Coast

February 02, 2004
Hellie shoots back, hits foot
By Tom Smith

Benj Hellie has replied to his numerous critics of his argument that right wing pundits are to be doubted more than left-wing pundits. (Here via Brian Leiter's site). The problem with the young professor's argument is pretty apparent. It rests squarely on a big, fat empirical claim that he seems not to think is an empirical claim, or is so obvious as to be beyond contention. Namely, that there exists some obvious alternative to standard mainstream American political and economic ideas -- economic freedom, political and religious freedom, relatively small government, etc. etc., which would, first, be better for the vast majority of American humans and second, would be supported by the majority, at least if they were not caught fast in the grip of false consciousness.

Well, maybe I'm missing something here, but it is hardly obvious that this empirical claim is true. It certainly is not obvious that you would be better off being born randomly (assuming you could avoid getting aborted of course; 25% of fetal American get the chop before they make it through the veil of ignorance) into some European social democracy than into the heart of American darkness. The whole of Hellie's argument depends on the path of truth shining brilliantly to the left, so that only liars could claim the rightward path is superior. Even ruling out all of the really nasty left-wing regimes, it just isn't at all clear that this is so. At a minimum, the record of more or less free market economies stand up favorably to various more and sometimes much less democratic socialisms. If that is true (and notice I'm flagging it as an empirical proposition) then Hellie's argument goes nowhere. The reason why there are so many smart, articulate, well educated and influential people to Hellie's right is that they've looked around, studied lots of things, some even served in government or worked on actual problems elsewhere and concluded that socialism is a bad idea and freedom works better than anything else, even with its high (but lower than the alternatives) human cost.

(On a different but related point, I would like to know what economic system we are supposed to admire instead of Amerikan Kapitalism. Presumably not the old Soviet or Red Chinese regimes. Norway? Ghana? The people's republic of African despair? The Netherlands? Denmark? I think France might be a swell place to be a middle class intellectual. Your kids can go to school, university, hell, stay in school for the rest of their lives, all at government expense. How long before the whole pyramid scheme collapses is another question, of course. The point is, picking a real model gives you idea of the tradeoffs, which always turn out to be substantial. Back when I worked for the Gipper, pundits thought we should imitate Japan. We actually looked at Japan carefully in the Council of Economic Advisers, and thought, golly, they are going to be in a fine mess when all this state directed investment turns into [insert rude word]. Don't hear much about the wonders of the Rising Sun lately. Fear about the Japanese taking over the US economy look pretty silly now. Obvious alternative was not so obvious, obviously.)

Indeed, I think it would be much easier to make the case that Hellie must be the insincere one trying to mislead the masses. The argument would go just like his, except that the premise would be that it is perfectly obvious that an alternative that is better for the mass of people exists, and it's not redistributivism or socialism or whatever the grand left path is supposed to be these days.

Give Hellie time. He may wise up. Things change. Did you know Students for a Democratic Society used to have a song praising the regime in North Korea? It went to the tune of "Maria" in West Side Story. You know "Koreeeea; Koreea, Koreea, KoreeeAH!" No kidding. I am not making this up. They were pretty smug too.