Posted by: Jeff | April 6, 2010

Valorization, Demonization, and Political Confusion

Tim Lee and Matthew Yglesias note that there is actually something very strange about the fight over carbon pricing. The left, which wants to slap an actual dollar value on units of carbon emitted into the atmosphere, is taking the approach more philosophically consistent with property rights. The right, meanwhile, favors letting anyone dump as much carbon into the atmosphere as they please, which is far more philosophically consistent with a “commons” approach. Thing is, this is an inversion of what we usually assume from the left/right divide.

I think if you look at political conflict you’ll see that attitudes toward property rights are really all over the map. I like the idea of allowing people to build more densely, which would be a form of strengthening property rights, whereas Cato’s Randal O’Toole doesn’t like this idea at all. The main difference between left and right with regard to property rights is simply that the right is invested in a lot of rhetoric about markets and property rights and the left is invested in different historical and rhetorical tropes.

To borrow an idea from Robin Hanson, I think it’s useful to think about political conflict in terms of valorized figures. On the right, you see a lot of valorization of businessmen. On the left, you see a lot of valorization of pushy activists who want to do something businessmen don’t like. Formally, the right is committed to ideas about free markets and the left is committed to ideas about economic equality. But in practice, political conflict much more commonly breaks down around “some stuff some businessmen want to do” vs “some stuff businessmen hate” rather than anything about markets or property rights per se. Consequently, on the left people sometimes fall into the trap of being patsies for rent-seeking mom & pop operators when poor people would benefit more from competition from a corporate bohemoth.

Or if you look at the energy sector, you’ll see that businessmen want to push property rights for the stuff that’s in the ground (coal, oil, whatever) and a commons model for the stuff (particulates, CO2) that’s in the air. You can call that “inconsistent” if you like, but obviously it’s perfectly consistent with what coal and oil executives want! And those industries are the most loyal supporters of “right” politics around.

While I don’t think we should take this example too far – there’s a reason we have assumptions about what the left and right stand for, after all – I think this is a very helpful point. Particularly when it comes to any political conflict involving markets, which are always human constructs but tend to be treated as metaphysical absolutes. Which obviously opens the door for all kinds of confusion.

It also seems to me that a mirror-image of the “valorized figure” phenomenon is at work in politics as well. Maybe you could call this the “demonized figure” phenomenon. A good example would be the debate over health care reform we just had. The insurance companies are generally hated by the public, while providers of care like hospitals and doctors are generally viewed favorably. So politicians focused most of their rhetorical and legislative muscle on reining in the insurance companies and doing things they don’t like, while treating the providers with kid gloves. The problem is that the providers are arguably more responsible for the sorry state of our health care system, as they’re the ones jacking up the per-unit cost of care far beyond what it is in any other developed country.

Another example might be nuclear power. For the same amount of fuel, nuclear power produces much more energy and much less pollution than any fossil fuel, making it an environmental god-send. Yet it’s nevertheless opposed by the left. Probably because of who and what nuclear power is associated with, and because the left often takes its cues from environmental activists.

Or America’s populist predilection for sticking it to the rich through a pretty progressive tax regime. European social democracies are actually much more humane in their treatment of the poor than we are, in spite of having more regressive tax systems. Because regressive tax systems mean a much broader tax base, which means more money for government programs to help the least fortunate.

Even the broad-based political desire to go after CEO salaries and bonuses in the wake of the financial collapse fits into this pattern. If we really wanted to fix the problems with our financial systems, we’d ignore salaries and bonuses and instead concentrate on regulating behavior, leveraging, interconnectedness, etc.

Anyway, you get my point.


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