It’s quite something to watch modern people make up their minds about current events. In the age of social media, we can watch in real time as the hive mind churns out a thousand different “takes” on something before it has even finished taking place. Everyone truly is a critic, rushing to offer his or her “unique” perspective or serve up some customized snark the instant a piece of news breaks.
Most of these split-second reactions are doomed to instant irrelevance. They evaporate into ether the second they’re published. They never accumulate enough retweets or elicit enough knowing chuckles to reach cultural escape velocity, and so they fail to claim a spot on the official menu of Opinions To Have About This Topic. They might be perfectly valid or even pretty clever, but the roulette wheel of rhetoric hasn’t spun their way.
But a few opinions do emerge triumphant. These lucky winners pierce through the fog and bubble up into prominence. When the centrifuge stops spinning, each ideological subculture is left with a go-to reaction it then takes into battle against the other side. Conservative Twitter and Fox News repeat one script ad nauseum, while progressive Twitter and MSNBC harp on another. Handwringing centrists cry about how little these two discourses resemble each other, and America spends another frantic news cycle loudly talking past itself.
Don’t make the mistake of pining for some halcyon days past; confirmation bias and motivated reasoning are certainly nothing new. But the Internet offers us an eerie, live-action shot of conventional wisdom crawling out of the primordial soup that is everyone’s ill-informed instincts.
Ryan’s Poverty Plan Is the Perfect Example
This wearying process lurched into motion once against last month, as Rep. Paul Ryan strode to the podium to unveil a “discussion draft” of his new anti-poverty plan. It includes big-think reforms that would dramatically reorient the modern welfare state, small-bore tweaks that would nudge existing programs toward optimality, and a variety of mostly sound ideas in between. He would expand tax credits for the working poor, modernize higher-education accreditation and criminal sentencing laws, and permit entrepreneurial states to repurpose funds from Great Society-era welfare programs if they could devise a superior use for the money. A common motif ran through all Ryan’s rhetoric: He seeks to shrink the role of one-size-fits-all bureaucracies in anti-poverty policy, and instead to empower local organizations and communities to deliver relief and hold recipients to account.
Most of this struck neutral observers as uncontroversial. His designs for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and for criminal justice reform, for example, are both explicitly bipartisan policies. When the notoriously left-leaning Washington Post declares that “Paul Ryan’s anti-poverty plan so bipartisan it doesn’t sound like he’s running in 2016,” it’s safe to say we aren’t dealing with the Ayn Rand reincarnation that partisans like Paul Krugman claim is Ryan’s true self.
Now, there are certainly honest objections to the plan’s boldest step, the “opportunity grants.” That’s what Ryan calls his idea that innovative states should be allowed to redirect money from conventional welfare programs to pay for personalized case work. This would be a major shift. Progressive blogger Jordan Weissmann isn’t wrong when he frets that it could be “a radical re-imagining of a massive chunk of the welfare state.” We conservatives may believe that sort of major policy shift is precisely what poor Americans need and deserve, but skeptical voices urging that Ryan look hard before leaping make an important contribution to the debate.
Unfortunately, though, this leftist critique didn’t carry the day. This productive policy skepticism wasn’t the viewpoint that won the crown of conventional wisdom. Progressives were beta-testing a thousand different rebuttals before Ryan’s remarks had even concluded, and it didn’t take long for a clear crowd favorite to emerge.
The Left Zeroed In on ‘Micromanaging’ Paternalism
Even as Ryan spoke, the smart and thoughtful Jeff Spross of ThinkProgress seized on what he saw as an irony embedded in the Congressman’s thinking:
Later that afternoon, another ThinkProgress blogger summed up Ryan’s efforts with the following headline: Paul Ryan’s New Poverty Proposal Would Have Government Micromanage Poor People’s Lives. This led Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute to scoff:
A few days later, the Center for American Progress echoed the now-conventional leftist reaction:
This is how a narrative congeals.
For those of you scoring at home, your eyes do not deceive you—the online Left’s core complaint about a conservative Republican’s policy proposal was that he is too eager to meddle in the financial affairs of individuals. Better to trust in markets’ spontaneous order, to leave individuals ample economic liberty to personally direct resources based their unique circumstances. Right?!
Unless this left-leaning crew recently converted en masse to laissez-faire and nobody bothered to let me know, there’s something funny going on here. But put aside this broader philosophical question, this question of when progressives do and don’t tolerate government intervention in our lives. That’s a bigger conversation worth having. But there’s an even simpler problem with progressives’ reactions to Ryan.
‘I Don’t Like This One Tree. This Forest Sucks!’
We might ask: Why were progressives so fixated on these “life plans” or “contracts” to begin with? I’m sure some would cite its symbolic centrality to Ryan’s broader thinking, or engage in some equally gelatinous wordplay. But the whole enterprise ultimately reeks of willful baby-bathwater confusion. The proposal they’re attacking is a Ryan suggestion that local nonprofits and community organizations could work with aid recipients to develop concrete personal goals and timelines for achieving them. It is a singular thought in a lengthy and substantive discussion draft that is brimming with other proposals. Yet this one provision was widely cited as a reason to reject Ryan out of hand, to define him as an offensively anti-poor policymaker who deserves nothing but scorn.
But no matter how much this particular provision may offend folks on the Left, there is no sense in which the rest of Ryan’s proposals conceptually rely on it. It would be completely coherent to vehemently oppose that idea and still hope that his EITC expansion, his criminal justice reform, his conditional block-grant, and his accreditation reform carry the day. Attempting to poison the well based on one line-item—to convince everyone to pay Ryan no attention at all because you don’t like one of his bullet points—is to argue in totally bad faith.
And, frankly, it’s kind of lazy. If you like a bunch of Ryan’s ideas, suck up your pride and praise the evil Republican where you feel his thinking merits it. If you hate every word of his plan on substantive policy grounds, have the intellectual honesty to explain why. Either way, discussants should match Ryan’s courage and engage in real discussion.
Here’s How It Should Be Done
Some progressives did meet Ryan’s efforts in a fairly gracious and evenhanded spirit. New York Magazine’s Annie Lowrey, for example, took exactly the approach I am urging in a post she titled “Paul Ryan’s Poverty Plan: The Good, the Bad, and the Paternalistic.” Now, even she is pushing the “paternalism” attack, which I still see as a wildly misguided criticism. That topic requires its own article. But the structure of Lowrey’s analysis is a model for the spirit in which each of us should engage with policy.
Journalists and thinkers on both sides need to take a page from Lowrey’s book. If each of us put forth the effort to consciously resist the creep of conventional wisdom, to assess new ideas afresh for ourselves and be open about our reactions, we just might kick off a few more conversations worth listening to. And when your right reason jeopardizes your preconceptions, when your logic and moral intuitions seem to suggest you should praise someone you’re accustomed to bashing or vice versa—well, that’s exactly when you need to keep forging ahead.
Paul Ryan’s anti-poverty proposal is a bold and courageous attempt to spark a sorely-needed conversation. If only his critics could match his courage.