Glaeser's Libertarian Progressivism

I have no idea how I missed Ed Glaeser’s blog post on “small-government egalitarianism,” which he also dubs “libertarian progressivism.” By “egalitarianism” I don’t think Glaeser intends a view strictly oriented toward the equalization of economic holdings so much as he intends something like “prioritarianism,” as some political philosophers would call it: the view that the welfare of the least advantaged should be given a certain priority in policymaking. If we’re putting the poor first, we’ll want to note that big government generally redounds especially to the benefit of the rich and connected. As Glaeser puts it:

Libertarian progressivism distrusts big increases in government spending because that spending is likely to favor the privileged. Was the Interstate Highway System such a boon for the urban poor? Has rebuilding New Orleans done much for the displaced and disadvantaged of that city? Small-government egalitarianism suggests that direct transfers of federal money to the less fortunate offer a surer path toward a fairer America.

This is prefectly consonant with the idea I think liberals ought to favor: the growth-maximizing welfare state. Arrange our basic economic institutions to maximize productivity, and then directly transfer resources to those who fall below what we (through due democratic consideration) judge the threshold of sufficiency. You don’t need a big government for that. Glaeser is right that something like this is the missing position in contemporary American politics. But he points out it wasn’t always this way, And it doesn’t have to be now. 

Current American political discourse labels people as either anti-government or pro-equality, but wanting to help the poor should not require the abandonment of sensible skepticism about expanding the size of the state. Many of my favorite causes, like fighting land use regulations that make it hard to build affordable housing, aid the poor by reducing the size of government. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, I also argued that it would be far better to give generous checks to the poor hurt by the storm than to spend billions rebuilding the city, because those rebuilding efforts would inevitably help connected contractors more than ordinary people.  

Glaeser goes on to express skepticism about the both the effectiveness as stimulus and the distributive effects of big infrastructure spending, and argues for a means-tested cut in the payroll tax — not far from what I argued on Marketplace last week

I declare Glaeser a liberaltarian in good standing! Anyway, read the whole, stimulating post.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center