As I wrote a whole book largely dealing with the canard that liberals are non-ideological pragmatists who only care about “what works” I don’t have much enthusiasm for going through all that again, particularly in response to Alterman (who was lecturing Joe Scarborough about all this on MSNBC this morning). And if you’re the kind of person who thinks Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi or for that matter the folks at the Nation are just a bunch of clear-eyed non-ideologues and empiricists single-mindedly focused on “what works,” there’s probably very little I — or anyone — could say to change your mind. Some people are so ideologically committed to claims of their rationalistic empiricism that no amount of reason or empirical evidence will suffice. But I’ll give it another try anyway. Even the standard of “What works” is, on its own terms, an ideological one because it simply begs ideological questions. What works for whom? Ultimately, the standards you bring to bear are ideologically freighted. Single-payer healthcare “works” if your definition of “works” hinges on questions of egalitarianism. Single payer works less well if you prioritize other things, such as, say, innovation, or a desire to keep government limited. Once you agree on the ideological standards, empirical questions of what works take center stage. Ideology helps determine the goal, empiricism lights the path to get there. I have no problem conceding that liberal ideological standards are valid, but I think it is ridiculous to claim that liberals have none.
Moreover, I’m not even sure why liberals are so determined to deny what is so obvious (though not to them, as I think most are sincere in their dogmatic belief in their own anti-dogmatism). We may believe slavery is bad on empirical grounds, but underneath those grounds lies the bedrock of principle, or yes, ideology. The abolitionists were not motivated primarily by green-eyeshade questions of economic efficiency. If I could prove that in some utilitarian sense that slavery was better for most people, but awful for just a few, I sincerely doubt, and would certainly hope, that liberals would not suddenly change their minds on the question. Alterman claims that liberals don’t actually like high taxes. This strikes me as an odd claim, given that so much of contemporary liberalism’s argument for higher taxes is suffused with moralizing language about the greed of the wealthy. Even president Obama has admitted that he would favor higher capital gains taxes even if they generated less revenue, out of a bias towards “fairness” not what works.