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Will Wilkinson and Bryan Caplan have been going back and forth on the value of labels. In particular, Will is arguing that political labels are a detriment to clear thinking. Overall, I think both of them have some pretty good points. I do think Will is correct that for most people political labels make you dumber. I am frequently baffled by the sight of an otherwise intelligent person making a partisan knee-jerk defense or attack on a politician when they would obviously be taking the exact opposite position if the D were switched with R. I see this happen literally almost every single day, and it is an extremely sad sight, made all the more sad by it’s obviousness. This makes me side with Will (somewhat). Yet, as would be expected, I don’t think my own labels do this to me (much), and I do think they are useful, which makes me side with Bryan (somewhat). But there is one point I think is missing from the debate: a self-conscious lack of labels is in fact a label, and can be just as constraining of one. Let me explain.

Will writes:

Politics just is coalitional conflict. A political label puts you, like it or not, on a team in a number of disputes in which there are significant real-world stakes. People therefore tend to see their ideological affiliation as constitutive of their identity in a way their opinion about the ontology of mental illness (to use one of Bryan’s examples) isn’t…  Other people are thus likely to see our politics as central to our identity, and to see our attributed identity through the prism oftheir politics. Self-labeling gives others permission to apply to us the label we apply to ourselves, and (here is something I believe!) who we are is to a large extent a complicated product of our reactions to social expectations.

But to define oneself as, for example, “of no party or clique”, as Andrew Sullivan does, creates in others a social expectation of holding beliefs that defy parties and cliques. You may not be expected to take particular and easily predictable positions on every issue as you would if you had a politically well-defined label like, say, paleolibertarian, Christian conservative, or pro labor democrat.  But you are expected to regularly take positions that are idiosyncratic.

Take Will for example. He is one of my favorite writers and I think he has a great talent for peering deeply into an issue. But nowadays I expect Will’s self-description as stridently not-a-libertarian who still steadfastly holds some libertarian positions to mean he will be boldly rejecting libertarian positions somewhat regularly, and embracing them other times. Will’s label as a label-less individual is perhaps even more central to my expectations of him than ever, since this has become an important issue to him that he wishes to persuade us on. “Look at me”, Will seems to be shouting sometimes, “I am no longer beholden to libertarianism!”. I don’t begrudge him his new found freedom, and am glad he feels unburdened of a bias, but it is a label he is wearing brightly.

I consider myself something of an idiosyncratic neoliberal libertarian who is willing to admit a lot of uncertainty. Each of those four things creates some expectations (to the extent anyone expects anything of me), but I think they give me a fairly wide berth to accept claims across many ideological spectrums. I don’t think abandoning those labels would liberate me, because I don’t feel very constrained. I think a lot of libertarians and conservative couldn’t picture themselves agreeing that the minimum wage doesn’t lead to unemployment, and indeed at one time I also could not have done it. But I took a lesson from Robin Hanson and pictured myself walking around as someone who believed this, and adjusted my self-conception until I actually could do that. Now I sometimes earnestly consider it, rather than just reconvincing myself that my belief in the opposite is rigorous. I don’t think you have to do this with all literally absurd claims, but it should be possible for slightly plausible claims.

Perhaps Will’s rejection of a label, or I should say his embracing of the label “label-less”, is the most effective way for him to minimize his biases. For me, I think I feel the most pressure or bias from my  “idiosyncratic” label, and my “neoliberal” and “libertarian” labels help counter that by aligning social expectations of my beliefs to what I approximately consider to be the truth, and so regularly believe. But “idiosyncratic” isn’t a political ideology, it’s an adjective. And try as we might we cannot label ourselves as “adjectiveless” or be “adjectiveless” people and writers.

For some perhaps the best course of action is to abandon labels with strong expectations for those with less. For others I think the best course of action is to truly be able to imagine yourself defying social expectations your labels create, and to practice doing so by thinking a lot about the areas where you are most likely wrong. Just don’t defy social expectations of your beliefs by re-labeling yourself as someone who defies social expectations of your beliefs, or you will end up biased against holding predictable beliefs. Idiosyncrasy can be a burden like that.

That is the epistemic case against abandoning labels. Now allow me to make the Straussian case.

There is a constant branding war over ideologies, which combined with the inevitability of labels and anti-labels leads me to wish to defend the label libertarian by attaching myself to it and steadfastly insisting it is compatible with reasonableness. I know many people have exaggerated and cartoonish images of what makes a libertarian, and many cannot imagine themselves as self-identifying as libertarians. Part of this is the fault of Ron Paul and other radicals. I think convincing people that their self-conceptions as reasonable people can remain intact while they also embrace the label “somewhat libertarian” or even just “sometimes agreeing with libertarians” is valuable for the cause of promoting liberty, especially smart libertarian policies.

On the other side of the spectrum, I want to sell radical libertarians on a more reasonable brand of libertarianism. This is an easier task for someone who truly sees themselves as a libertarian. It is also, I hope, valuable for the cause of promoting liberty, especially smart libertarian policies.

Let me end by noting that I expect Will, with his insightfulness and persuasiveness, to talk me out of half of this [this is my uncertainty label operating].

Karl has requested that, along with a few other people, I answer this question:

What are the significant differences that you think we could actually see come to pass from a Romney Presidency versus an Obama Presidency?

Here are Tyler CowenKevin Drum, and Matt Yglesias. They all say a lot of believable things. I’m probably my least useful in this type of speculation, but here goes anyway. In a lot of points below I’m going to take the cowards way out and make a bunch of arguments I’m not necessarily going to stand behind, but that could plausibly be argued for.

One thing I’m pretty confident in is that if we’ve arrived at Obama vs Romney, and I think we have, then we’ve already dodged the biggest bullets (you know who I mean). So I think Karl is right to ask this question, as the answer is neither as dramatic or obvious as it could be if some of the other GOP contenders had gotten lucky.

If we’ve passed through the better part of the recession by the time the election is over, one could imagine attention will turn to tax reform. I can see either supporting something like Simpson Bowles, but Romney relying somewhat more on changes in the social security formula and removing exemptions, where Obama would lean somewhat more on increases in top marginal tax rates and some new taxes. I don’t think that the differences here would be huge overall, especially given the range of what could be done, but small differences can be pretty consequential in terms of welfare when you are talking about a multi-trillion dollar economy, so I don’t want to overly minimize these differences.

But whoever wins, I am looking forward to the end of Obama’s first term. I’ve come to believe that Obama’s biggest mistake might have been winning the election as resoundingly as he did. Republican’s came out of the election with a president who had mobilized the youth and won over a lot of independents.  He was going to gain more from their mutual success if they worked together, and he was going to lose more from their mutual failure if they didn’t work together. Rationally then, many Republicans’ top priority in the past four years has been to make Obama a one term president. One could argue that if Obama wins, especially if it is a tight race, this dynamic will change once the possibility of one-terming is gone. Or he’ll lose and I just don’t see Democrats having the same resistance to working with Romney.

If Romney wins I suspect he won’t have to give very much to the base for the very same reason that Obama’s first term has been such a struggle: what Republicans want most is for Obama to be a one-term president. In achieving this Romney will already have delivered a large chunk of what the base wants. This could conceivably grant him some sway. He’s probably a moderate technocratic conservative, so maybe that’s how he’ll govern, but who knows.

I’m hopeful that once the recovery gets fully underway political cooperation will be easier regardless of who is president. I don’t think most voters actually understand the recession, and without a clear real answer they grapple naturally for whatever answer is most satisfying, and partisan explanations are most satisfying, which naturally leads to polarization. Of course if Tyler is right and we are in the middle of a Great Stagnation, then I don’t think we’ll be out of the political stagnation anytime soon. Let us home Smithianism carries the day.

One possible problem with Romney is that he can’t win under circumstances which he could govern under effectively. The conventional wisdom is that the economy will be determinative in the election.  To oversimplify the issue: if the economy is weak, Romney will win. If it’s strong, Obama will win. But while I think Romney will have the political freedom to deal effectively with a recovering economy with long-term structural problems,what tools will he have to deal with an ongoing balance sheet recession? Does he have a plan to stimulate the housing market?  To increase inflation? He’ll have won on some pretty strong anti-immigration rhetoric, so a large amount of immigration as stimulus seems unlikely. What will he be able to do? If I’m right he will have some sway, but I don’t think much of it in the direction he would need it here.

One of the ways I think about elections is to ask “what will the victory do to voters?” One could argue that one of the benefits of Obama winning in ’08 was the salutary disillusionment of liberals on the power of a strong president relative to what they’d be thinking at this point had McCain won.   A democrat win risks undoing the hard earned disillusionment. (“Rocking the vote” is a tragedy. The central limit theorem does not apply to voting, in fact something like the opposite is true. More voters means more people paying attention means more populist governance.) On the other hand, a republican win in 2012 followed by a recovery could solidify the unhealthy myth that this is Obama’s recession if Romney happens to ride in at just the right time in the recovery. This part about how people will react to either win is hard to predict but important.

I am specifically going to ask Yglesias, Drum, Cowen, Ozimek and Barro (Josh) to chime in on this. Anyone else feel free as well, but I would like to hear from these guys.

I don’t care if Mitt Romney pays negative taxes, cheated on his mistress with her daughter, fired his Grandmother while at Bain, and lied to kids to get the GOP nomination, etc.

What are the significant differences that you think we could actually see come to pass from a Romney Presidency versus an Obama Presidency?

I am generally a better-the-devil-you-know kind of guy, but I am pretty open here. So, let me here it.

Paul says

So what the story of Romney and the auto bailout actually shows is something we already knew from health care: he’s a smart guy who is also a moral coward. His original proposal for the auto industry, like his health reform, bore considerable resemblance to what Obama actually did. But when the deed took place, Romney — rather than having the courage to say that the president was actually doing something reasonable — joined the rest of his party in whining and denouncing the plan.

And now he wants to claim credit for the very policy he trashed when it hung in the balance.

He also says

Cowen apparently wants me to make the best case for the opposing side in policy debates. Since when has that been the rule? I’m trying to move policy in what I believe to be the right direction — and I will make the best honest case I can for moving in that direction.

Look, economic policy matters. It matters for real people who suffer real consequences when we get it wrong. If I believe that the doctrine of expansionary austerity is all wrong, or that the Ryan plan for Medicare would have disastrous effects, or whatever, then my duty, as I see it, is to make my case as best I honestly can — not put on a decorous show of civilized discussion that pretends that there aren’t hired guns posing as analysts, and spares the feelings of people who are not in danger of losing their jobs or their health care.

This is not a game.

But, if this is not a game, and if consequences really matter, then why is it wrong or even cowardice for Mitt Romney to Say Anything to be elected.

Lets take this by its smoothest handle for those with Paul’s perspective on things. The conventional wisdom coming into the 2012 was that the economy was going to be in horrible shape and that it was highly likely that President Obama would lose based on “A Time for A Change” thinking.

That is, swing voters would conclude that the Obama administration has failed and vote for the alternative.

Mitt Romney says to himself, well look either I am the alternative or someone else is. I look around me and all of these other guys are freaking nuts. Much better if I am President than if they are. Unfortunately, to get there I have to do some unsavory things.

However, which is more important to me: avoiding sullying my hands with unsavoriness or preventing the country from being run by nuts.

Would it not be selfish to choose the former? Doesn’t Mitt Romney have a moral responsibility to Say Anything to become the Republican Nominee? If congeniality is not a shield against the moral responsibility of allowing millions of people to suffer then why is honesty?

A while back Kevin Drum asked

Politicians and corporations engage in meaningless puffery all the time, but to be effective it has to be based on at least a tiny core of truth. . . .

. . . So what’s the strategy here? In the primaries, I assume he’s calculated that it just doesn’t matter.

. . . But what about the general election? Independents aren’t going to go for this stuff. They’ll just shake their heads and wonder what the hell he’s talking about. So is he going to ditch this stuff completely after he’s won the nomination and pretend that he never said it? Or will he keep pressing, literally hoping that if you say anything often enough you can get people to believe it? It is a mystery.

Actually I’ve found the question fascinating from the opposite perspective: why do politicians in particular base so much of their campaign propaganda on things that are arguably truthful?

For corporations, you have the customer disappointment problem. If you make a completely untrue statement AND that statement convinces a person to buy your product you face a disappointed customer who will not only not purchase again but bad mouth you to other people.

Note, that there are a lot of folks who won’t care. They will buy the product regardless. But, then they would have bought the product regardless, so why bother lying?

Its only the marginal customer who will be enticed by the lie and it is her who is most likely to be disappointed.

Note, also that fly-by-night operations do not suffer this problem and so do indeed rampantly lie.

What about politics?

Well, here the ability to judge what you “bought” is far harder. Moreover, I tend to think the marginal voter is not even really interested in what he or she is buying.

The marginal voter is either expressing displeasure with the current state of affairs. This underlies the “Time for a Change” models in political science. Or, he or she is responding to a message.

In the former case, it doesn’t matter much what you say. In the later case its much more important that you be clear about which tribe is which than about any policy details.

So, to bring us back to this example Romney is saying “I am of the pro-capitalist tribe”  Though even that is not really accurate. Romney himself probably does care about capitalism but I doubt the marginal voter does.

He is really saying “I am of the pro-Karma tribe” in my tribe believes that people get what they deserve. Then he describes Barack Obama as wanting to institute a government that defies Karmic Justice. Its completely clear what side Romney is on.

Whether Obama wants to do this is fundamentally immaterial. The voter neither knows nor cares what Obama wants to do. The voter cares about tribal affiliation, and that’s what Romney is offering.

So, the question for me is – why isn’t this par for the course.

Part of it I think is – or at least was – a small fear that the Mainstream media would out and out call Romney a liar. That’s a horribly character tag to have and would cause voters not to want to affiliate with him. If that tag became conventional wisdom it would be damaging.

Perhaps more importantly though, I suspect much of it has to do with building a campaign team. While the average voter might not care how Romney is looked upon by the policy elite, his staff probably does. They would prefer not to associate themselves with someone who has low status in the beltway.

However, as the GOP continues to push back against the MSM, a crop of staffers has growing up who are less sensitive to such things. Thus you don’t have to worry that your entire team is looking at their shoes when you speak.

That I would guess, allows politicians to pursue a more direct strategy of agitprop.

My tendency towards policy nihilism should lead me to underestimate the value of elections generally. So, it is natural that I am missing the value of this one. Nonetheless, I offer for consideration that this is turning out to be an election in which not much is on the table and that is – as almost always – a good thing.


There is some chance that this will be rolled back if there is a GOP sweep. I thought the whole thing was much ado about nothing in large part because I didn’t think that expanding health care would do much to improve health and I don’t think that the cost controls embedded in ObamaCare will work.

The major benefit I saw was that folks would not necessarily be driven to declare medical bankruptcy if they got really ill. This is an emotionally traumatic event for folks even if I am not sure the change in real resource distribution is that different.

In any case, during the GOP Google debate there was a poll that asked GOP voters if someone should be denied medical treatment because they could not afford it. 80% said no. This is the end of the major question in my mind. If you answer no then you have de facto signed on to socialized medicine through some means.

You could formally socialize through universal insurance or you could force hospitals to treat the sick regardless of ability to pay which just informally socializes it.

If you want to get into the weeds of public policy efficiency there is an argument here, but nothing like the national debate that people seemed to want to have.

Taxes on the Rich

At least in the near term highly punitive taxes on the rich are not likely to be passed by a Democratic majority. Over the long term if something is not done to raise the living standards of the bottom half of Americans more rapidly then there will be punitive taxes on the rich regardless. The GOP will shift on the issue and when it happens it will be fast and furious.


The anti-trade constituency is multi-party and at this point unlikely to wield any serious power.


I am not actually sure how this even cuts. Though increases in Latin American immigration are more likely with Democrats in power. Increases in high skilled immigration may be more likely with the GOP in power, as I see a desire among the GOP to quiet the pro-immigration crowd without expanding Latin American immigration.

This means that some movement is actually more likely under the GOP, though the ideal is more likely under the Dems. I am just not sure which is better.


I think the actual policy moves here are limited. A reversal of Roe vs. Wade, in my estimation, would destroy the pro-life movement. The chipping away strategy can work, but will happen regardless of who is in office.


Human Biological Research

This can matter but, neither Mitt Romney nor Newt Gingrich will stand in the way of cloning or other techs if they gather mainstream support. Right now I think both the right and the left intelligentsia is pushing this far more than the bulk of the population. If popular sentiment changes then neither intellectualist leaders from both parties will support more human biological research



I think it should be clear by now that the Democrats are no less hawkish than the GOP. I think the Bush administration was particularly wide-eyed and naïve about the costs of war, but my bet – maybe I am wrong – is that the broad swath of elite opinion on both sides has learned from Iraq.


The Welfare State

I just don’t take efforts to dismantle most of the welfare state seriously. People have been trying for 75 years and no one has made any progress. No Western Nation has instituted a Welfare State and then repealed it. I suggest this is because it can’t be done. Old people are a really popular, not just powerful, constituency. No one wants to see starving Grannies.

No one.

If you want to be policy wonkish about it you would say that what is really going on here is that people are paying for the positive externality of knowing that there grandparents are taking care of without actually having to take care of their grandparents themselves.

This is because people feel extremely guilty about not taking care of their grandparents but there is also an enormous amount of inter-family strife that imposes very heavy costs on the grandchildren.

Thus support for the state to take on this burden is huge. Even if it means very high taxes. What would you pay to know that your Nana was well fed but not have to listen to her constantly criticize your lifestyle choices? Probably well over half your income.

The only large welfare state program I can environ being cut is Medicaid. Here again I don’t think the provision of health insurance is that big of a deal and where it is – children and the elderly – I think you will see a backlash in favor of healthy doses of public support for these two groups.


Crime and Gun Control

Crime is falling and will likely continue to fall, irrespective of what the government does. I think its falling because there is less lead in the air and more estrogen in the water. This isn’t going to change anytime soon.

This also kills support for gun control. I don’t think anything is likely to change the status quo of a slow move towards less and less state control over guns.


The Deficit

See Atrios: No one cares about the deficit


Civil Rights and the Power of the State

This will continue to evolve in a direction that civil libertarians find unpleasant. I don’t think there is any popular support for stopping it and the elite is not interested in standing shoulder-to-shoulder in support of civil liberties. There may be a point where we hit an elite backlash, though I doubt there is any foreseeable point where we hit a popular backlash.


Gay Marriage

Gay marriage will be legal in almost all states and practically legal everywhere within 10 years. Political parties are irrelevant here.



Marijuana will be almost completely decrimalized within 10 years. It will not be made legal. By the time my son is a teenager, smoking pot will be looked upon like speeding or underage drinking. Everyone will do it. Everyone will know you are just not supposed to get caught. Political parties are irrelevant here.


Those are the long term issues and I don’t see much difference there. I see some difference on short term issues but it cuts opposite ways.

Near Term Demand Stimulation

Here is where I think there is some difference and I actually think your best hope here is that Mitt Romney gets elected president and the Republicans sweep the congress. If the economy is not in full rebound Romney will propose Keynesian tax cuts.

My hunch is that this time we will see more action around the payroll tax or other broad based taxes as this can win support from Republicans without risking raising the ire of the public.

Of course, the Bush tax cuts would be made “permanent” but I don’t think this in itself really means much because the path of taxes is always determined by what Congress at the moment is willing to tolerate. You’ll notice that the sunset on the Bush tax cuts did not actually make it really easy for them to go away.

If Obama is re-elected I see it as much more difficult for him to push any kind of demand side stimulus including tax cuts.

I know it upsets progressives because they are on the “correct side” of this issue, but the organizational discipline of the GOP means that in fact they are more likely to deliver here.  Its not “fair” but neither is life.



If additional bailouts are needed I think we have a better chance getting them through a Democratic Congress and a Democratic president. I get the impression that enough Congressional Republicans really are willing to tank the economy to stand on principle here. The likelihood of needing this seems relatively low at this point as I think a crisis could be handled by an aggressive use of Federal Reserve facilities, but nonetheless this is a big Damocles to hang over the economy.



So all-in-all it looks to me like practically speaking very little is at stake in this election. Yes, the absence of bailouts could be extremely bad for humanity but it is a low probability event balanced by the more high probability of tax cuts.

Since, its impossible to actually know what state of nature we will be in its impossible to say that at this point in time that one is more consequential than the other.


Technical Note:

I am horribly irregular about reading the comments. It depends on my mood and my willingness to take the abuse that sometimes appears in the comments. I am not proud of this fact, but it is true. If you have an important point that you want to make sure I see, email me.

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