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Structural Activism vs. Policy Activism

July 29, 2009

Jacob Lyles’ seminal post on the distinction between structural libertarianism and policy libertarianism does a great job of explaining why policy libertarianism is a fundamentally incomplete political philosophy. But beyond that, the structural approach has another important advantage over policy approaches – it is less antagonistic, more inclusive, and ultimately more persuasive. There are two primary reasons why this is true – first, because people are not as emotionally invested in their political structures as they are in their policy preferences – and second, because policy failures are difficult to demonstrate empirically, while evidence of structural failures is harder to explain away.

For many people, politics is either the public manifestation of their religious beliefs, or a religion substitute. In the case of conservatives, opposition to gay marriage and abortion are non-negotiable, defining aspects of their political philosophy. For progressives, defending the environment, and ensuring broad access to health care, are more than mere policy preferences – they are moral imperatives. There’s no way to cross the partisan divide on these issues – no middle ground that would be the basis for consensus, no set of arguments that could persuade someone to abandon these positions. People are extremely attached to their ideologies.

However, a person’s ideology usually has a lot more to say about the specific policies that should be in place, and not the structures that should be in place, so people are generally far less invested in their structural preferences than their policy preferences. Even Bill O’Reilly, that stalwart defender of the War on Terror and all other aspects of the police state, joked that he was an anarchist on the Daily Show, after he realized that he was looking at eight years of Democratic governance. He’s not alone among conservatives in doing this – when out of power, conservatives generally sound a lot like Ron Paul, but when in power, they don’t find power structures all that distasteful.

Because people are less emotionally invested in their structural preferences, structural activism has a much greater chance of persuading someone than does policy activism. Not only does it avoid attacking someone’s emotional sensibilities – it does one better, in that a structural activist is making arguments about how a different system could facilitate the goals that the partisan might want to achieve.

Moving on, if we think about our policy prescriptions, there is an extreme lack of verifiability as to whether one side or another is correct. Most policies don’t get enacted at all, so people are free to speculate, correctly or incorrectly, about the utilitarian value of their preferred policies. Moreover, those policy changes that do happen generally happen on the margin – wholesale reform of a system is rare, and tweaks to the system are far more common. Add this to the fact that empirical studies of the effects of policies are very difficult, because of the myriad of possible alternate causes, and you have a situation in which it can be extremely hard to persuade someone that their policy is a bad idea.

A great example of this is minimum wage legislation. Libertarians have been making the argument seemingly since time began (well, at least since Milton Friedman) that minimum wage legislation is bad for the poor because it reduces demand for low-skilled labor. But verifying this empirically has been difficult, because the minimum wage is low enough that very few people are structurally unemployed because of it, and there’s enough noise and alternate causality to get the causal relation to express itself in the data.  In fact, there are even studies (the Card study most notably) that claim to show that minimum wage increases actually lead to an increase of employment. Like every other attempt to verify an economic policy’s efficacy, these studies face the problem that there is no way to manufacture an effective control for an economic experiment. You can’t put two different economies into two different test tubes, change one ingredient, and then see which one does better. And without such a control, everyone is free to draw their own conclusions (which unsurprisingly are similar to their initial hypotheses.)

This contrasts with structural activism. Structural libertarianism is much more persuasive than policy libertarianism, because while everyone can summon evidence to their side about why their policy might be best, no one can delude themselves into thinking that the democratic system can achieve their ends, not after progressives have gained complete control over the executive and legislative branches and still can’t get their legislation passed.

As a demonstration of the persuasive power of this failure – we suddenly have three major, moderate, pragmatic, progressive bloggers – Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, and Matt Taibbi – making radically structuralist arguments, only seven months into the Obama administration. The structural movement is just starting, and it provides an answer for the incoming floods of disheartened progressives. We’ve still got a whole seven and a half years for progressives to become disillusioned. Attack progressives on their policies, and they will get defensive. Convince them that it’s not their fault, that they are not wrong, and show them that there is another way to get the policies that they prefer, and we may well have an effective liberaltarian alliance, as opposed to one based on trading “policies” that no one could implement if they tried.

  1. July 30, 2009 12:19 am

    I’m still scratching my head over this “structural” vs. “policy” debate. The government’s structure *is* a policy. The debate actually worth pursuing is not what kind of “political” activism is worthwhile, but whether libertarians should be involved in “political” activism, period.

  2. July 31, 2009 9:42 pm

    I’ve tossed out a few purely structural proposals on my blog. The usual response is a vitriolic flame from someone whose favorite policy would suffer under the new structure. So they’re not so easy to separate in practice.

  3. August 3, 2009 4:50 am

    Could you point me to some of them?


  1. Structuralism: a movement for good governance « Let A Thousand Nations Bloom

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