Understanding the Left

(Updated) This is an essay on politics. Some of my most valued readers have expressed they don’t enjoy my posts on politics. Fair enough, I’ll be back soon with commentary on monetary policy. See you later. 

This essay is part of a larger project from last fall, to understand what’s going on with the Woke movement in the far left of American politics. This is an economic analysis — I analyze behavior from incentives. I don’t try to examine the content of ideology, but I watch its uses. I look for objectives and rules of the game that make sense of behavior. I think in terms of strategies and payoffs, in simple game-theory terms not moralistic terms. But the point of the essay is to understand a political movement. 

What about Trump? I hear this comment all the time, even when my posts don’t have anything to do with Trump. As the essay explains, I think I have an insight here into what is going on with the left. What’s going on with Trump is a different question. When I have insights about that, I’ll write about it. Not everything has to be about Trump. 

More deeply, though, I see that Wokeism has permeated all the institutions of civil society, and is a rising force that will be around for a while. In my view, Trumpism consists largely of the tweets of one man, with very little institutional force, and I suspect Trumpism will be gone November 4 if current polls bear out. If not, in 4 years. The Republican Party will rebuild on other lines. Ross Douthat’s “there will be no Trump Coup” expresses this view beautifully. Perhaps I’m wrong, but one does not have to cover everything in one essay. 

Really, the battle lines that are likely to matter for the next 4 years is the Woke millennials vs. the conservative democrats of the Woodstock generation. Understanding the left will be the task of all my moderate Democrat friends, which describes most of economics. This is dedicated to you, not to Trump supporters. 

Why now? I worked on this project for a good deal of last year, producing this essay in January. I hoped to come back to it and produce a longer and better piece, but that’s not happening, and events and ideas are moving fast. So, until I get back to it in a few months, perhaps it has useful insights. I think I was early to the point, now common, to see in Wokeism a secular religion with political force, perhaps analogous to the reformation (let’s not forget what a bloodbath that was) or the Russian Revolution. This essay was written before George Floyd, Antifa riots, and before the whole issue became tinged with race. Perhaps that is for the best too. 

This was a speech given for Mt Pelerin in January 2020, organized by John Taylor.  Original source and context here

With that preamble, here it is: 


Understanding the left. 

Comments for Mt Pelerin society meetings, “How to deal with the resurgence of socialism” January 2020, Hoover Intistution

John H. Cochrane

Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution

A new wave of government expansion is cresting. It poses a threat not just to our economic well being, but to our freedom — social, political and economic.

1. A will to power

Consider the economic agenda proposed by the Democratic presidential candidates:

  • A government takeover of health care. 
  • Taxpayer bailout of student loans. Necessarily, after that, government funded and administered college.
  • An immense industrial-planning and regulation effort in the name of climate. 
  • Government jobs for all. “Basic income” transfers on top of social programs.
  • Confiscatory wealth, income, estate and corporate taxation. 
  • Government and “stakeholder” control of corporate boards. 
  • Rent controls and subsidies. Expanded, politically-allocated “affordable” housing. 
  • Expanded regulation of wages, hiring and firing.
  • Extensive speech and content regulation on the internet. 

And this is the center of the movement, not its fringe that talks of banning air travel. Though the fringe becomes the center quickly here.

Free-market economists, the few of us who remain, respond in the usual way. “I share your empathy, but consider all the disincentives and unintended consequences will doom these projects now, just as they have a hundred times before, and end up hurting the people we  want to help. Here is a set of free-market reforms that will actually achieve our common goals…”

But why say this for the 1001th time? Nobody’s listening.  We’re making a big mistake: We are presuming a common goal to produce a free and prosperous society, and somehow this crowd missed the lessons of history and logic of how to achieve it. Let’s not be so patronizing. 

If their answers are so different, it must be that they have a different question in mind. What is the question to which all this is a sensible, inevitable answer? 

Ask that, and only one question makes sense. Power.  All these measures gives great power those who control the government. 

But what should happen, if those deplorables vote in a Trump junior who will then access this great power? We can’t have that, can we. The most important power is the power to stay in power, and these measures are ideally designed to that end too.

Stakeholders on corporate boards and a federal charter? The purpose is explicit: Power for those who run the government to tell large corporations who to hire, who to fire, what to make, what to buy, what to invest, how much to charge.  And power to demand those businesses’ political support.

What happens when you put billionaires, their lawyers and lobbyists, congresspeople, and the IRS together for a once-a-year discussion of just how hideously complex financial structures will be valued, and how many millions the billionaires will consequently fork over? The wealth tax is explicitly advocated as a device to tame the political power of billionaires. It will work wonders to that effect. Support those in power, keep your money. 

Why address climate with extensive regulations and government-run companies rather than a simple and much more effective carbon tax? Well, then those who run the government get to give out the jobs and contracts. Legal and regulatory woe already already befalls the business who does not support the effort. 

Regulating the internet? It’s just too obvious. He or she who can define and regulate “hate speech” and “fact check” political speech, has enormous power to win elections. 

Consider the associated political agenda

  • Stacking the Supreme Court. 
  • Eliminating the electoral college. 
  • Eliminating the filibuster. 
  • Detailed federal control of elections.
  • Even more government control of campaign finance.

Only grab and keep power, and shove it down their throats fast makes sense of that. 

2. The great awokening

The ideological side of this movement marshals the social, cultural, psychological, and political force of religious fanaticism. 

It starts with an all-encompassing narrative of sin, and guilt; of a vast conflict between good and evil people.

Western civilization is just a stew of systemic racism, sexism, colonialism, homophobia, and genocide. Our economy and political system are dominated by huge monopolies and billionaires, enriching themselves by squeezing the little people dry. Swarms of unemployed roam the land.

Armageddon is coming, in exactly 11 years. Climate is the world’s “greatest problem,” never mind war, pandemic, civilizational collapse or the mundane smoke and bacteria that kill thousands.  But speak not of nuclear power, genetically modified foods, carbon capture, geoengineering, or mild adaptation.  How should California bring the rains, or stop the fires? Of course, build a high speed train. Build no dam, clear no wood. That would not atone for our sins. 

Climate policy has been hopelessly captured by this power-hungry cult. And sadly, by tying climate policy to this extreme political agenda, the chance of actually fixing the climate is vastly reduced. 

The IPCC writes that as a scientific fact, climate projects must “increase gender and social inequality… [promote] sustainable development… [address] poverty eradication” and “reduce inequalities.” Science proclaims that “social justice and equity are core aspect… to limit global warming to 1.50ºc.” The Green New Deal offers the same on steroids.

A new “eco-authoritarian” or “coercive green new deal” movement takes apocalyptic propaganda to its logical conclusion. If indeed civilization is going to end in 11 years, we can’t sit around and wait for democracy to wake up. “Dissenters” must be “silenced” and those unwilling to go along “thrown overboard.” Congress must “coerce … powerful interests to fall into line.” These are quotes. 

But you can be redeemed from sin through professions of faith, and participation in the great religious war.

To gain and signal virtue, you must master an ever-changing menagerie of nonsense words, repeated until they gain meaning. Say no longer global warming, not even climate change, now say “climate catastrophe.” Say not poor, say “marginalized” and “underresourced” “community.” Say not homeless, say “unhoused.” Say not “minority,” you must now say “minoritized.” Nouns are now passive verbs, with mysterious hidden subjects. “Violence,” “trauma” and “racism” are thrown out like candies, trivializing centuries of suffering.

You can even buy indulgences — carbon offsets, that, by the way, do not actually offset any carbon. 

A politico-religious cult appeals to all the people in our secular society who once would have gone to do missionary work or taken religious orders. Now they are activists for “social change,” which means government power. A cult usefully demonizes opposition, cutting off civic, scientific, or scholarly debate, and justifying the grabbing and keeping of power in a democratic society. This is the force of the protestant reformation, of Soviet communism, of Islamic Jihad. 

This movement has taken over the institutions of our society. It pervades the schools and universities, nonprofits, the media, international organizations, and the Federal bureaucracy, what political scientists call the “elites.” Conservatives and libertarians are social outcasts, and know to keep silent. 

This movement still represents a minority of Americans. But small well-organized political cults have taken over countries in the past, especially when the people in charge of a society’s institutions have lost faith in their purpose. 

3. Partisanship and polarization

The danger is greater, I think, because our system of government is falling apart.

Our government was not designed as a pure democracy. It is designed as a republic, with rights and protections for electoral minorities. A 51% majority can not take power, shove anything down the opponent’s throats, and rewrite the election rules to stay in power. 

Why not more democracy? Because then the 49% will use any means to avoid losing. America must remain a country in which a politician, a party, an interest group, can afford to lose an election; surrender power, retreat, regroup and try again, but not be totally destroyed.

But we are moving fast towards winner-take-all democracy. The checks and balances, and informal norms, restraints, rules of behavior in our government that protect electoral minorities are steadily eroding.  

Why is it happening? Don’t blame twitter. It’s simple incentives. The expansion of Federal power, of executive and judicial power, the unintended consequences of “democratic” (small D) reforms, kick it off. Winning the game by breaking a norm pays more. 

Then, once each side starts breaking the rules, the other side loses trust that they should act with restraint, to preserve their rights when the tables turn. A tit-for-tat spiral follows. 

What do I mean by norms? Consider a few increasingly quaint rules of political etiquette that are quickly vanishing. 

  • Presidents should do not routinely use executive orders, regulations far beyond statutory authority, or dear colleague letters to advance a policy agenda. 
  • Trump’s twitter and eraser follow Obama’s phone and pen.
  • Presidents don’t declare national emergencies over small policy issues like tariffs and border wall funding. 

Tit will lead to tat. Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have already called for declaring climate a national emergency.  Then winning the presidency is worth breaking any norm to achieve.

  • We don’t decide major issues by one-vote margin, party-line votes, or by 5-4 Supreme Court cases.
  • Presidents get their nominees approved in most cases. Confirmation holds back from personal destruction. 

Supreme Court nominations have descended into madness. Why? The courts are deciding big policy and political issues. One justice and maybe you can shove it down their throats.

  • Impeachment is not a regular part of the political process. 

Be sure a Republican House will start impeachment investigations the minute President Warren is elected, and will start by subpoenaing every record of her life to try to embarrass her.  Impeachment will spread to the supreme court after the next big decision.

  • You don’t wantonly use the criminal justice system or investigations to take down political opponents. 

As they will do unto you the minute they get the chance. I’ll cut short the list here, but we can easily name 20 more. 

Allying with an anti-democratic religious cult that demonizes opposition is a natural strategy in the winner-take-all game. 

4. What to do?

To get out of this we must reverse the winner-take-all rules of our political game. That’s a talk in itself, which I’ll leave for another day but for one thought: 

I sense that our forebears, while equally if not more acrimonious on policies, put a higher value on the survival of the system — with one immense, tragic exception. I also sense they thought it more fragile than we do. Perhaps Americans are too lulled in confidence that our constitutional order will survive, no matter how many norms are broken. Perhaps a greater fear that the whole thing might collapse might focus people to behave a bit. Perhaps, however, the woke cult’s disparagement of our whole society leads too many people not to think it worth saving. 

5. Conclusion

Our session is titled “how to deal with socialism,” My talk has mostly been about how to understand the contemporary left.  You have to understand something before dealing with it. 

Bottom line: This isn’t your grumpy uncle’s socialism, singing Pete Seeger union songs from the 1930s. It’s new and different.  What is the question to which its goals are an answer? Only one makes sense, a political will to grab, expand, and keep the power of the federal government. 

That political program is married to a new secular cult. That movement has already taken over most of the “elite” institutions of our country, and disarmed the rest, who now feel guilt rather than pride of and hope for the American project. 

Politicians have chosen partisanship, and chosen to ally with this jihadist cult, because the expansion of government power has made our system much more winner-take-all and shove-it-down-throats of electoral minorities. 

Fix that, I think, and we survive. Leave it in place, and they just might win and take all. 

This isn’t about 2020. It will be with us for decades.

Update:A millennial correspondent sent me the following fascinating response, with a well deserved slight rebuke.  There is more nuance and a great deal of internal debate on the left than I gave it credit for. 

I think we agree to a surprising degree on the fundamentals, especially the way that the expansion of executive and judicial authority is exacerbating partisan polarization and threatening the foundations of the constitutional system. But the biggest substantive disagreement I have with the essay is that I don’t think it models the left coalition accurately, and in doing so I think it understates the opportunity for those who care about markets and civil liberties to find allies on the left.

When I look at the big internal fights in the contemporary left I see a robust debate over the limits of government power. Some examples:

 – Criminal justice: The left mostly agrees [with libertarians, as well as among themselves] that Black Americans face unfair treatment by police, courts, and prisons [and schools, in our previous correspondence]. Biden thinks the solution is to put more money into the system for training and oversight. More radical groups want to defund police and prisons entirely. [In our previous correspondence I pointed to libertarians such as Alex Tabarrok arguing how over-policed we are. We don’t need cops with guns to give out traffic tickets.]  

– The role of the Democratic party: Electoral groups like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) think that the best way to pull the country left is to run for office and govern as Democrats. Grassroots activists think that the Democratic party is captured by corporate interests and that the only way to make change is through direct action like community organizing and distributing mutual aid.

– Housing and land use: Scott Wiener, Democratic State Senator from San Francisco, has drafted four major bills to deregulate home building and legalize apartments in California. DSA San Francisco recently endorsed his challenger because they want more public housing instead.

 Maybe I’m being naive, but I’ve seen libertarian-leaning groups like Niskanen and YIMBY have a lot of success at working with the left’s own skepticism of government these past few years, so I don’t understand the panicked tone of the essay. To be “woke” in America is to believe that racism and sexism are built into the systems that govern us, and that these systems have more influence than the prejudice of individuals. Whether or not you agree with this belief, you should note that those of us who accept it also accept by definition that the government can do harm. [In previous correspondence, I had pointed to teachers unions, and what they do to low income and minority education as an instance of “systemic racism.”] 

 I see a lot of fear coming from conservatives in tech, media, and the academy who are concerned about their right to talk about politics without facing retribution from their employers. I think this concern is reasonable, but here again I would urge us to find common ground, because leftist speech is also policed by these same institutions. Some leftists don’t grasp the danger yet, but describing them as “jihadists” or “a cult” isn’t going to convince them. An engagement with the fault lines in their coalition and a willingness to articulate shared values just might.

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