Shedding Light (OR The Right Argument)

Via Ezra comes this enlightening article from Dean Baker. For those who, like me, read Baker’s Beat the Press blog regularly, many of the points Baker makes won’t be new. Still it’s well worth the read.

Framing regulation debates in terms of more and less is not only inaccurate; it hugely biases the argument toward conservative positions by characterizing an extremely intrusive structure of, for example, patent and copyright rules, as the free market.


Conservatives support regulatory structures that cause income to flow upward, while liberals support regulatory structures that promote equality.

So, why have liberals been unable or unwilling to frame the debate in these terms? One would think that most people would be opposed to rules that cause income to flow upward, if it were clearly expressed.

Like conservatives, liberals generally acknowledge that people get ahead as a result of their skills and hard work, with some luck thrown in. The main difference in the liberal and conservative views of the economy is that liberals are more likely to believe that many people face serious impediments to their success and do not get the same chance as people from wealthier backgrounds. Liberals are also likely to feel guilty about the difference in opportunities and therefore support political measures that will reduce the gap and help those at the bottom. However, most liberals still accept the proposition that the distribution of income is fundamentally determined by the market rather than political decisions embodied in regulations such as patents, copyrights, and bankruptcy law.


The less-versus-more framing of regulation supports the premise that there is in principle an unregulated market out there and that some of us wish to rein in this unregulated market while others would leave it alone. This is consistent with the idea that large inequalities in income distribution just happen as a result of market forces. But as the above examples illustrate, no one is really talking about an unregulated market—rather we are all just talking about whom the regulation is designed to benefit. Distribution of income has never preceded the intervention of government.

The government is always present, steering the benefits in different directions depending on who is in charge. Accepting this view provides a political vantage point much better suited to the case for progressive regulation. After all, conservatives want the big hand of government in the market as well. They just want the handouts all to go to those at the top.

As I said, well worth a read.


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