Why mislabeling keeps us stuck in partisan politics
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The biologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote that “[c]ategories often exert a tyranny over our perceptions and judgments,” adding that “[w]e do not ponder the bases of our classifications with sufficient scrutiny.”

Popular political debates have yet to fully appreciate this vital insight. Our political categorizations facilely conflate questions of fundamentally different kinds, leading to a conceptual confusion that hobbles constructive discourse. Clarity in this discourse requires a separation between two kinds of questions, those about means and those about ends.

Debates about the goals themselves are values questions, premised on our normative judgments, that is, our views on what ought to be—what makes a good society or political system.

These questions and our answers to them are importantly quite different from our arguments about the practical question of how to arrive at those goals once we’ve settled on them. And at a sufficiently general level of abstraction, there is actually a rather broad consensus as to ends, the goals at which public policy should aim.


Government and public policy ought to serve high values like liberty, justice, equality, and security. Government officials, scholars, and think tankers formulate competing hypotheses about how best to achieve at those goals. Given the impossibility of using controlled experiments to test such hypotheses, we are left with our observations of the real-world functionings of existing policy mechanisms, often crudely rendered by statistics that capture only a hazy outline of the true picture.

In their book “Rational Choice and Democratic Deliberation: A Theory of Discourse Failure,” Guido Pincione and Fernando R. Tesón discuss the problems created by the confusing and equivocal terminology used to describe positions in political philosophy, its tendency to elide the various senses in which one might employ a particular descriptive term. 

Pincione and Tesón highlight the term “left-wing” as an example of this problem. That term, they explain, may just signal a general “commitment to equality,” without necessarily implying the acceptance of specific policy prescriptions. Other times, however, the leftist label expresses “a commitment to various forms of governmental interference with market processes,” premised, of course, on the belief that market processes won’t by themselves serve the goal of equality. Though related, these uses are different—the first signaling endorsement of “certain principles or values,” the second pointing to support of “certain policies or institutions.” Too often our political discourse fails to appreciate this distinction; it reduces concern for the poor, for example, to support of the welfare state, because it simply takes the causal arguments about the connection between the two for granted.

But what happens if we don’t assume the truth of this causal proposition? Pincione and Tesón ask us to consider the case of David, who “cares about equality” but believes “that free markets will better serve equality than government intervention.” 

The authors note that in today’s discourse, David’s causal argument seems to be irrelevant to determining whether he is a proper leftist, specific policies and institutions being a conditio sine qua non of leftism. 

It therefore seems to be the case that virtue-signaling by cheering the meddlesome modern state is more important to the left’s political self-identity than real-world outcomes.

It may come as a surprise to contemporary left-wingers that it was once quite common for the champions of laissez faire to make exactly David’s argument. In fact, some prominent American libertarians, associated with the journal Liberty, went so far as to argue that a genuine free-market economy was the only path to the socialist promised land.

During much of the nineteenth century, free-market liberalism was contrasted with the old orders of privilege, systems like feudalism and mercantilism in which proximity to political power meant wealth.

Today’s left seems to have forgotten that achieving even some separation between the economic sphere and the arbitrary, corrupt power of politics was a monumental coup for the political left of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, that is, for classical liberal movement.

Much of that seismic shift, the transformation that spread specialization and trade around the world, is now simply taken for granted. It should come as no surprise that freer economies, those in which the government’s role is carefully limited, see less corruption; opportunities for it dwindle as the power and discretion of government officials is reduced.

Of the top 25 freest economies in the Heritage Foundation’s latest Index of Economic Freedom, all but a few also appear at the top of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index list.

Standing in contrast, many of the most corrupt countries are administered by socialists and economic populists, themselves frequently the loudest critics of corruption and privilege and the connection of those problems to inequality. As Ruby Mellen recently pointed out in Foreign Policy, the Transparency International report shows that the growth of populist movements around the world “will likely only exacerbate widespread corruption as it continues to seep into democratic institutions.”

Populists and socialists focus myopically on particular ends, often to the exclusion of important insights about means and, even more crucially, the practical relationships between ends and the means chosen.

They put the cart before the horse, blind to the fact that protections for economic freedoms and private property must precede prosperity and the social inclusion of working people. It’s not just that government interventions and programs fail to realize their proponents’ good intentions, but that they actively retard the processes through which the goals as stated are actually achieved.

The question of whether traditional left-wing means—e.g., extensive government control of and intervention in the economic sphere, the modern welfare state, centralization, bureaucracy, etc.—accomplish the left’s own stated goals should matter. 

That it seems not to matter points to a deep problem with the prevailing discourse on politics and public policy.

David D’Amato, an adjunct law professor at DePaul University, is a policy advisor at the Heartland Institute.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.