The title of a recent article by Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine was eye-catching: “I”ve seen the future of a Republican Party that is not insane.”
Chait’s essay focused on a relatively unknown think tank: the Niskanen Center. The Center was named for a now-deceased economist who served in the Reagan Administration and then worked for the libertarian Cato Institute. Toward the end of his life, he began to question libertarianism’s rigid ideological lens. He developed– and expressed– doubts about supply-side economics, based upon–gasp!–evidence that those theories hadn’t worked.
Niskanen’s observation that tax rates needed to reflect actual rather than desired spending levels is banal to right-of-center economists in almost any country. But it was (and is) absolute heresy on the Republican right, which has elevated anti-tax absolutism into a theological principle.
The Center has developed a research agenda that is detached from what Chait calls the “theological certainties” of the current GOP. Its scholars begin with the audacious assumption–scorned by fringe political activists on the left and pretty much all of the right– that policy should be based upon empirical evidence rather than ideology-cum-theology.
Center scholars have argued against “small-government monomania” and in favor of a social safety net to “increase the public’s tolerance for the dislocations of a dynamic free-market economy.” They have accused libertarianism of hostility to democracy and attributed persistent Republican efforts “to find ways to keep Democrats from voting” to that hostility.
Center scholars have compared libertarian political theories to empirical data, and concluded that the data rebuts “the notion that downward redistribution picks the pockets of makers and doles it out to layabout takers.” They have acknowledged that countries with more generous social safety nets have more robust market economies and more individual freedom.
The Center recently issued a paper conceding that an oversimplified small-government vision fails to come to terms with important facts about political and economic life, including the persistence of structural racism. The libertarian belief that capitalism’s rewards are based almost exclusively on merit and hard work ignores the massive inequality that was originally produced by brute force.
Although the paper argues convincingly that market forces do a better job than central planners, it also notes that most of the regulations movement conservatives target are those that advance legitimate social objectives — protecting health, safety and the environment — and impose costs on existing firms. The regulations they believe do need to be scaled back are rules imposed by state and local governments to protect owners of businesses and land.
That is, they recognize that regulations can be either good or bad–and they argue that Republicans are attacking the wrong ones. To oppose regulation per se is to ignore the realities of 21st Century economies.
Chait’s reference to ideology as “theology” illuminates the central problem of our times: “true believers” of all sorts who elevate fact-free belief over evidence, who reject the complexities of the real world in favor of a simple one defined by bright lines and moral absolutes, and who are profoundly uncomfortable with ambiguity.
It’s a short step from “true believer” to cult member–and today’s GOP looks more and more like a cult. If insanity is the rejection of evidence-based decision-making, Chait’s title makes perfect sense.