The most effective politicians often have a kind of cynical genius for speaking the language of feelings while brazenly disregarding facts. Count Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez among them. Her statements at a Martin Luther King Day event this week have almost too many fallacies to count:
Millennials and people, you know, Gen Z and all these folks that will come after us are looking up and we're like: “The world is gonna end in 12 years if we don't address climate change and your biggest issue is how are we gonna pay for it?”...This is our World War II.
At Reason, Nick Gillespie dismantles two of those fallacies. First, Ocasio-Cortez’s cavalier approach to paying for her preferred environmental programs invalidates her comparison to the Second World War, where the government raised taxes and borrowed heavily from its citizens. Second, as I also wrote recently, climate change poses real risks, but they’re the type of risks to be approached by looking at costs and benefits rather than the existential risks posed by Hitler, Mussolini, and Imperial Japan.
But in her invocation of a generational struggle, Ocasio-Cortez unknowingly revealed that the left is stuck in a framework for addressing societal problems that is largely a relic of history. And those who argue against its policy prescriptions often unwittingly make the same assumption.
Strong centralized nation-states are good at marshaling resources to defeat other nations in wars. But how have more recent “wars” we’ve fought against drugs, poverty, and terrorism turned out? Society has gone through staggering changes since 1941, and so have the problems we face. The left should think long and hard about these changes before planning its next round of wars.
The “Wars” We’ve Lost
A comparison to the failed war on drugs is instructive. The belief was that the government could attack both the supply and demand sides of illegal substances with strong, centralized action. But ending the sale and abuse of drugs is a vastly different problem from winning military battles against a nation led by a tyrant. Drug abuse is a fundamentally dispersed problem. Rogue smugglers and dealers have command structures far more complicated than nations. And users make tragic and unhealthy decisions for a wide variety of reasons that “experts” still have trouble understanding.
The problems our society has with drugs are the emergent results of billions of complexly interwoven individual decisions. They are nothing like those in a traditional military conflict. And because we tried to address them that way, it’s hard to say we haven’t failed. And Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty involved massive public housing projects that made problems worse along with clever-sounding welfare programs — again centralized solutions to decentralized problems. And the actual military and security threats we most often face today involve rogue actors buried deep within that complex web of individuals.
Eighty years ago we relied on a government that solved problems by exploiting its vast size, a mass media that kept people similarly informed, and an ability for individuals to express themselves generally confined to reaching one’s friends and neighbors.
Today, individuals have unprecedented ability to access niche products and ideas from around the world, and communicate with virtually anyone. Unlike 80 years ago, we live in a complex, technologically driven, and increasingly decentralized society. And yet, there’s the same government, relying on its centralization and scale to manage problems that are complete mismatches to this approach. In my opinion, this is the central source of the political tension we all feel that appears to only get worse.
Strength Through Peace
Poverty, unequal access to health care and education, and environmental degradation are real problems. The left insists that we declare more wars, following the 1940s model of large, top-down programs enacted by the nation-state. But these programs all resemble the failed wars I just described. Taking education as an example, we currently rely on top-down administration and accept the outsized interests of entrenched groups. Instead, we could allow school choice, and unleash the power of markets and social entrepreneurship to find ways to educate our children that a room full of experts could never match.
A history of military conflict shows us that when people perceive an existential threat, they are willing to sacrifice some degree of freedom to the government. By labeling climate change an existential threat without being willing to have a good-faith discussion of costs, benefits, and options, it is not overly dramatic to say that some left-wing politicians are playing a dangerous game with our freedom. And by not unleashing the decentralized private sector on the problem, their ideology may prevent actual problems from being solved.
I don’t like demonizing my political opponents, and many of these politicians are simply wrong and have a stubborn unwillingness to question themselves that to some degree all humans share — traits that are certainly not unique to the left. I also know many rank-and-file progressives who simply want to help people and solve the problems discussed in this article.
The type of solutions I have in mind radically depart from what we’ve tried and found unsuccessful in the past decades. I have nowhere near all the answers, but it is imperative that economists build on these ideas and communicate them to all Americans. That, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, is the central challenge of this generation.