fbpx

How Populist Progressives Ignore the Unseen

Senator Kamala Harris, a leading Democratic candidate for President, recently suggested that all legislators should be forced to look at autopsy photographs of children killed by guns before voting on gun control laws. This comment encapsulates three elements of the progressive populism that seems to be enjoying a revival these days.

First, it captures its bossiness. Harris wants to impose a mandate even on representatives. In a democracy, representatives should have the discretion to formulate policy by choosing what they view as the most relevant evidence. But this requirement would force them to deliberate as progressives see fit.

Second, it reflects the progressive idea that all we need is a simple law to obtain a given policy result—in this case no dead children. But often laws are ineffective because people can get around them, and the government cannot enforce them against the people who most need to be regulated. That is one argument against the effectiveness of many gun control laws, for instance. More complicated legal responses—in this case, changes to our mental health system—or nudges for cultural change may be more effective.

Third and perhaps most importantly, this comment dramatically captures the progressive populist preference for the seen over the unseen. These children in the photographs are the very visible victims of people wielding guns. But by imposing restrictions on law abiding citizens, gun control laws may increase crime and violence by reducing criminals’ fear that they will be meet with lawful force. Over a century ago Frederic Bastiat wrote a beautiful essay, “What is Seen and What is Not Seen,” arguing that what separated a wise political economist (and by implication a wise stateswoman) from a foolish one was the ability to consider the unseen consequences of laws.

To be clear, I am not against all forms of gun control, just many of the arguments and slogans of progressive populism in their favor. That form of policy making is not just limited to arguments for gun control. Medicare for All is another slogan that shares many of the same defects. First, it is based on the idea that a legal quick fix is what we need in health care, although it is not even clear that access to insurance substantially improves health outcomes. Second, it focuses on the seen effects—giving health insurance for all at no direct cost to them—while leaving out all the unseen ones. For example, it fails to consider what government control of the pricing for all or most medical services will do to medical innovation.

Amusingly, Harris made a mistake in applying the principles for selling progressive populism in her own roll-out of Medicare for All. She said her version would eliminate private insurance. That is indeed a very visible effect, readily seen by the millions who like their insurance plans. But running on the platform “If you like your health insurance, you can’t keep it” does not seem like a sure winner. The more sophisticated version of progressive populism instead creates a “public option,” permitting anyone to sign up for Medicare. The unseen effects will likely be similar for many people as the existence of the free public option will result in many companies dropping their plans in the future, but that consequence will not be immediately visible to voters. Expect better-calculating populist progressives, like Elizabeth Warren, to avoid similar mistakes.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on February 01, 2019 at 17:35:55 pm

Senator Kamala Harris, a leading Democratic candidate for President, recently suggested that all legislators should be forced to look at autopsy photographs of children killed by guns before voting on gun control laws. This comment encapsulates three elements of the progressive populism that seems to be enjoying a revival these days.

First, it captures its bossiness. Harris wants to impose a mandate even on representatives. In a democracy, representatives should have the discretion to formulate policy by choosing what they view as the most relevant evidence. But this requirement would force them to deliberate as progressives see fit.

Really? In multiple states women are legally compelled to listen to heatbeats and look at ultrasounds of fetuses, and physicians are compelled to read bullshit about abortion health statistics—all in an effort to commandeer the bodies of 500,000+ women per year. But when this fact is contrasted with the hypothetical notion that legislators might have to look at dead kids, McGinnis concludes that progressive populists are bossy. Really?

McGinnis, The Handmaid’s Tale was just a book—you can take off your blinders every now and then. It won’t kill you, I promise. Which is more than I can say about guns.

More complicated legal responses—in this case, changes to our mental health system—or nudges for cultural change may be more effective.

Ah, the libertarian version of “thoughts and prayers.” In all the years people have been reading this blog, has anyone seen a post from McGinnis recommending changes to our mental health system or “nudges for cultural change” to address the problem of gun violence?

How ‘bout this for a gun control argument: Yes, guns kill innocent people, including kids—and we value access to guns nonetheless. Politicians (and the rest of us) should be clear-eyed about the benefit AND COSTS of our gun culture. I have less interest in compelling legislators to look at dead kids than in removing the Republican gag rule prohibiting government agencies record data on gun deaths. Why must Republicans everywhere perpetually cower in fear of truth?

That said, I share McGinnis’s aversion to bad progressive policy arguments. (Someday he may also adopt an aversion to bad conservative and libertarian policy arguments.) I acknowledge that many of the appeals for gun control rely on sensationalism and the availability heuristic (that is, the ease with which your mind can recall an example of an event, and the propensity to regard this ease as evidence for the prevalence of the event). Trump (and gabe, for that matter) is perpetually citing some atypical example of something, and then acting as if the anecdote were relevant to some policy proposal. As boring as it sounds, we really need to look to statistics as the basis for policy, not emotionally-charged anecdotes. And if that means that Fox News broadcasts are reduced to four minutes per day, so much the better.

read full comment
Image of nobody.really
nobody.really
on February 01, 2019 at 20:19:05 pm

On what grounds should a policy do anything more than hold those who violate the natural rights of others accountable?

More than that is simply being a bossy busybody...

read full comment
Image of OH Anarco-capitalist
OH Anarco-capitalist
on February 02, 2019 at 10:34:37 am

"Trump (and gabe, for that matter) is perpetually citing some atypical example of something, and then acting as if the anecdote were relevant to some policy proposal."

And this coming from the "character" that predicates all his arguments on the "atypical" and also presumes the worse about his fellow man. Perhaps, just another instance of "projection" on nobody's part.

And BTW: How about we remove the Leftist media's "gag order" on the number of lives saved BY gun owners or for that matter the fact that there are more late term abortion deaths than there are deaths by gun violence (suicides excepted).

read full comment
Image of gabe
gabe
on February 02, 2019 at 10:41:11 am

Oops, forgot:

Speaking of the atypical - How about "imputing" interest / income to money held in a coffee ca, as did nobody some days ago.
Nobody really believes in arguing that the "fanciful", the distorted perspective of the economist, in an attempt to demonstrate rational thought, is sufficient to sway an argument.

In so doing, as always, he misses the essentials, re: his tax argument FAILS to recognize the distortion of the tax mechanism over time. Where once the taxing mechanism was thought to / intended to fund specific government functions, it is now "intended' to primarily moderate human behavior - or so nobody would have us accept.

Who is fanciful?

read full comment
Image of gabe
gabe
on February 04, 2019 at 00:30:10 am

[…] How Populist Progressives Ignore the Unseen John O. McGinnis, Law and Liberty […]

read full comment
Image of PowerLinks 02.04.19 – Acton Institute PowerBlog
PowerLinks 02.04.19 – Acton Institute PowerBlog

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.