The Classical Liberal Political Advantage

Recently the California Senate retracted a bill that would have called for a referendum to reverse Proposition 209, the famous initiative banning racial, ethnic and gender preferences in public education and contracting. This decision came in response to  second thoughts from Asian-American state senators who got an earful from constituents. These citizens feared that reversing Proposition 209 would lead to lower numbers of Asian-American students at elite institutions, like Berkeley, where Asian-Americans are overrepresented as a percentage of the population.

The dynamics of this event reveal several things about the struggle between classical liberalism and the forces of government intervention and redistribution. The great old fear of classical liberals is that democracy permits majorities to redistribute wealth and opportunities to themselves at the expense of freedom and prosperity. The great new fear is that coalitions of energized, concentrated groups that are not even a majority can engage in such redistribution because they will have substantial leverage in a political system, where the majority may be uninformed, apathetic, and rationally ignorant of politics.

The forces for liberty in society, however, do have a significant structural advantage, even in the face of these substantial concerns. A coalition for redistribution can more easily develop internal tensions that prove fatal to its success. For instance, even if California becomes a so-called majority-minority state, not all the minorities will have similar interests. The failure to go to vote on the referendum shows that concentrated groups cannot get their way when a conflict develops between the groups. Democrats are thus overconfident that the demographic rise of minorities will make Democrats the natural party of government.

Public sector unions and minorities represent another important coalition for the Democratic party in urban areas. Yet this coalition has already begun to fracture, most notably because of education policy. The Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, stymied Mayor Bill de Blasio’s attempt to put the brakes on charter schools. While de Blasio had hoped to reward union allies, minority groups who benefit from charter schools helped justify Cuomo’s move.

In contrast, the forces of freedom—classical liberals–have fewer internal tensions because of its confidence that freedom helps everyone, at least in the long run, by creating prosperity and opportunity. For instance, a meritocratic educational system promotes investments in human capital and best fosters long-term growth.

Classical liberals can press home this advantage in two ways. First, government transparency is key. The leaders of Asian-American organizations were actually in favor of reversing proposition 209. But publicity about the bill and its potential effects on the composition of student bodies energized (grass roots) opposition. Second, it is crucial to continue to show that freedom can benefit everyone in order to sustain an encompassing coalition for liberty less prone to fracture. For instance, today we need to demonstrate that market-driven innovation makes products radically cheaper and, in some cases, free, even if these large benefits may not show up in traditional economic measures. Joel Mokyr, a distinguished economist at Northwestern University, makes this point in an important new essay, The Next Age of Invention. By making government transparent and instilling confidence in the broad-based benefits of freedom, the classical liberal advantage over redistributive coalitions can endure. That advantage preserves and indeed periodically restores liberty even within a democratic order.