Alex Massie

Progressive libertarians!

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That's not, of course, a contradiction in terms. (Which may be why I'm less spooked than some by the idea of "Progressive conservatism") Another way of putting this is, as Harvard's Edward Glaeser did in the NYT, "small-government egalitarianism". Key point:

Libertarian progressivism distrusts big increases in government spending because that spending is likely to favor the privileged."

All too true. The professor adds:

Today, the New Deal’s heirs are vociferously arguing that more of the stimulus package needs to be spent on public works rather than tax cuts. The big-government skeptics point out that the government can’t spend hundreds of billions of dollars on infrastructure projects both wisely and quickly. Good infrastructure spending doesn’t happen on a dime, and applying a “use-it-or-lose-it” rule to speed up spending will lead to a lot of waste. The country could certainly invest more, in both human and physical capital, but that spending should follow the rule that benefits must exceed costs. Good investments need plenty of time to plan and implement, which pretty much rules them out as good fiscal stimulus. Moreover, since many of these projects will disproportionately benefit the prosperous, many of them can be financed with user charges.

Yet skepticism about vast public works does not necessarily lead towards Alf Landon-like antipathy towards stimulus, or towards tax cuts for big businesses and the wealthy. A quite plausible alternative, which is partially present in the president-elect’s proposal, is for the fiscal stimulus to primarily take the form of payroll tax cuts for poor and middle-income Americans. Those are, after all, the people who are most likely to spend the money quickly.

Also all too true. The bigger the government the more rent-seeking and regulatory-capture there's going to be. In the long-run that's great news for established corporate interests and would-be monopolists. Not so great for the rest of us.

Nor, obviously, is this restricted to economics. The (baffling, to my mind) controversy over something as seemingly simple as school choice - that is to say, extending privileges the affluent take for granted to the poor. The wealthy can choose what school their children attend, either going private or paying a mortgage-premium to attend the best state schools. The poor have no such opportunity. (The fact that not everyone will necessarily avail themselves of this opportunity is no reason to resist granting it).

For more, see Will Wilkinson and John Schwenkler.

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Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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