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Yes, Labels

Thursday, March 7, 2013

No Labels’ goal of arguing less and getting more things done is not simply wrong but dangerous too. Instead, this country needs to vigorously debate how a free society is supposed to function, with the people ultimately deciding the victor.

A few days ago I received a personal email solicitation from a senior person at the organization No Labels asking, “Would you be open for 15 minutes to hear progress on No Labels?” The group advocates bypassing ideological gridlock, working together across the aisle, and all of us rolling up our sleeves and solving problems in Congress, government, and society at large.

My, those ideas sound nice. Who could be against them? Well, for starters, I am. To be clear, I’m not against the idea of getting along or working together. Of course, all else equal, those are wonderful things. But the implicit claim of No Labels is that these actions are more important than standing up for what you think is right, that we all must put principle aside at this time of crisis, and that if we would all just compromise more, everything would be okay. This I seriously question.

So why am I delivering my response to the No Labels email publicly rather than directly? First, since the sender keeps writing me personal emails ignoring my objections, I’ve obviously not gotten through. Second, and more important, I think perhaps others would be interested. The basic position of No Labels — that we just need to stop fighting and “start fixing,” as their slogan says — is the prevailing wisdom of so much of the media and electorate these days that a contrary view deserves a hearing. Third, people who keep emailing you when you’ve clearly asked them to stop must be punished as a moral imperative. It’s all that separates us from the wolves.

So, below is my unsent response to the latest unsolicited email:

My short answer is no. I'll now give you my far longer answer.

As I've told you before, I like my personal labels, and won't be changing them, forgoing them, acting as if they don’t represent what guides me, and signing on to a group that eschews them. I'm a fiscal conservative and libertarian. In my view, these are both moral choices and the choices that lead to the most prosperity for the most people. These are not things on which I will compromise because, "Oh gee, we just need to get something done around here." In particular, when government aims to "just do something" it's often more harmful than helpful. The foundation of your position, advocating getting things done more and arguing less is not simply wrong but often dangerously backwards.

It is not the case that the average of right and wrong is always or even usually a good outcome. And the bias of such averaging always seems to be a bigger role for government.

What we need in this country is an honest, vigorous — even historic — debate between those adhering to different labels, with the people together ultimately deciding the victor (subject to the Constitution, a real constraint for at least one side of this fracas). In short, we need to decide if we will continue moving toward "social democracy" (something they often just call “socialism” over in Europe, but saying that here is a hate crime) or back toward American constitutional limited government. Little else matters.

Instead of debate, we get pabulum, hysterics, and attack ads. For instance, in the last election we never came close to such a debate. The president ran solely on the platform of, "Romney is rich, and the rich are bad, very very bad, and I'll tax them a lot, but not you, dear voter," and emerged victorious with little else said. Romney failed to find an effective counter (not that I have one either, even well after the fact). Those who say the last election shows the Left has forever won the big versus small government debate are wrong because we never actually had that debate (and by the way, the Left wasn’t so quick to give up its views and submit when President Reagan and a couple of Bushes “won” the debate going the other way, nor would I expect the Left to give up).

Compromise is a wonderful thing at times, but a disastrous thing at other times. For example, “Johnny, you split that last cookie with your sister Sally,” is often a good compromise. Munich (I’m thinking 1938 but really any compromise related to Munich) was a bad compromise. Sometimes arguing and fighting is a more wonderful thing than compromise and “getting something done.” Here are six examples of the things I think require more fighting and less compromise:

1) We do not need to compromise on spending; we need to spend less.


2) We do not need to compromise on taxation; we need to tax less and tax with less complication.


3) We do not need to compromise on regulation; we need to regulate less and with less political correctness and nannyism. We need to end the giant, super-powerful government bureaucracies that are not only costly but get “captured” by special interests and then add to cronyism; such bureaucracies are, in their essence, anti-liberty in their wide powers.


4) We do not need to compromise on the amount of crony capital that goes to politicians’ friends and to politically correct industries; we need to let everyone stand or fall on merit.


5) We do not need to compromise on how much of the people’s personal judgment we replace with government authority; we need to let grownups purchase whatever soda size they want and let parents be in charge of their own children. If that leads to imperfect outcomes for some, well, nobody ever said freedom was sugar-free.


6) We do not need to compromise on the Second Amendment (or any enumerated right of any citizen). We need to retain it not only to protect ourselves and our families, and certainly not only for “hunting” (an epic straw man), but most importantly as a hopefully never-used bulwark against tyranny. We may differ on what would constitute such unbearable tyranny, but surely every American has some limit. Leftists may feel horror when they see rednecks armed with AR-15s — horror they feel at the existence of both rednecks and AR-15s — but they need those armed rednecks on that wall. Of course, this right to arms has to be limited at some point, as my needed rednecks on that wall don’t need nukes (there’s a “Nukes of Hazzard” quip in here somewhere), but I fear any compromise today would explicitly ignore the prime purpose of this, and other, enumerated rights, a particular danger of compromise at times of great emotional trauma.

Others, I know, have the exact opposite views to mine and might produce the inverse of my list. I do not reject the very idea of some compromise with them, even regarding the issues I list above, but in practice these compromises usually have been found wanting (more below). Furthermore, I would agree that on a few issues (e.g., immigration) we could use more sleeve rolling and less fighting, and that the middle ground of compromise might be best. But these are usually the rare issues where the question of “how?” is more relevant than the questions of “why?” and “what?” For instance, on social issues, I would produce a more left-leaning personal list of principles that I’d be hard-pressed to compromise on. But, I might be willing to do so with social conservatives of goodwill, on either matters of “how?” or where we don’t stand on a slippery slope.

We need to decide if we will continue moving toward ‘social democracy’ or back toward American constitutional limited government. Little else matters.

On the more fundamental issues, if some kind of honorable, enforceable compromise were possible I actually would be very interested. For instance, if under such a compromise taxes, spending, nanny-like government intrusion, and regulation ended up higher than I liked, but lower than the Left wants, and we had a secure framework for preventing them from perpetually growing, I might become a fan of such compromise. But sadly history doesn’t bear that out as likely. The rub comes in my requirement that we have a “secure framework for preventing them from perpetually growing.” Compromise has almost exclusively ratcheted up the size and intrusion of the state, with few historical counterexamples, and there are powerful forces that will likely make it so going forward. What is a “small government” position today would have been a giant-government position to many past liberal icons. So far this ratcheting has been excruciating but bearable. I fear that further compromise will kill the goose of liberty and the golden egg of prosperity it lays.

This is crucial: there is a directional bias to the “solutions” No Labels proffers. Viewing our many problems, as your organization essentially does, as ones requiring earnest engineering, goodwill, and effort, not as matters of philosophy and right versus wrong, creates big-government solutions again and again, even if that’s not your initial intent. Even casual perusal of our, and certainly Europe’s, history demonstrates this quite clearly. If I did not believe in this strong tendency I would in fact be a much bigger fan of “compromise” and “problem solving” in your mold.

So, in my view, we don't need to solve problems or wear pins declaring how much we love to solve problems (which is even more fun). Rather, we need to fight it out until we decide whether freedom and prosperity without big brother are the moral and prosperous way to live or whether dependence, nannyism, and socialism — with much more redistribution, government control of formerly free enterprise, and political correctness — should reign (okay, I admit that’s not how progressives would put that, but it’s my essay). Meeting in the middle creates mush that, for reasons both understood and mysterious, turns into big government and eventually tyranny — not freedom and prosperity. The ratchet on “compromise” has been one way, in favor of the state, for at least 100 years now. If such increased statism is not the goal of No Labels it will nonetheless be the outcome in the event you succeed.

Let’s next consider the specific action items on the front page of your website under the exuberant title “Make America Work!” as they are instructive:

1.    Tell us the full truth
2.    Govern for the future
3.    Put the country first
4.    Be responsible
5.    Work together
6.    It’s nice to be nice to the nice

These all sound very sweet, as platitudes usually do. Perhaps somewhere, someone hiding in a cave disagrees with your list, but you will be hard-pressed to locate this Neanderthal. This agreement is, of course, meaningless, because your nostrums require specifics to have any content.

While these are nice things to teach children, they don’t lead to any actionable items. What about when one side believes the truth is that “stimulus spending works like a charm, just look at our theoretical models,” and the other side believes the truth is that “stimulus spending is a wasteful theft by the government from the people that does little good, just look at the results”? Please inform us which truth to tell if we want to follow rule 1, and where the compromise and chance to work together lies? The problem is not that we have a country of liars ignoring rule 1, the problem is that we have a country relatively evenly split as to what truth to believe.

Compromise has almost exclusively ratcheted up the size and intrusion of the state, with few historical counterexamples, and there are powerful forces that will likely make it so going forward.

“Govern for the future,” “Put the country first,” “Be responsible” — these are all undeniably good things viewed alone. So are good personal hygiene and being kind to animals. I’m not sure how adherence to any of these bromides, yours or mine, helps settle issues where we sharply disagree (actually good personal hygiene improves any situation). For instance, following your rules, what do we do about progressives who are willing to hurt industry and jobs by taxing fossil fuels, honestly believing that they are doing the right thing because the environmental good will outweigh the economic pain, versus conservatives and libertarians who believe the exact opposite? Tell me now what your rules say to do? That we pollute a little and declare victory? Some politicians get their names on a bill that accomplishes close to nothing? The next to last, “work together,” also sounds wonderful, but if your answer on all of these things is the equivalent of meeting in the middle, well that is often self-defeating and self-canceling (hey, let’s allow a little more pollution but regulate the polluters a little more; let’s do some more stimulus spending but offset that with some more cuts; let’s let half the gay people marry or all the gay people marry but not to other gay people). While each issue presumably has a (difficult to know) right and wrong, it is not the case that the average of right and wrong is always or even usually a good outcome. And, again, the bias of such averaging always seems to be a bigger role for government.

By the way, I made up number 6 above. I think Frank Burns said it on “M*A*S*H,” but it did kind of fit, no?

Your approach is the pleasant “feel good about yourself” path that solves little, or worse causes harm, but lets you crow about your accomplishments and superiority. You label yourselves “No Labels” and "problem solvers" (I'll leave it to Bertrand Russell to decide whether "No Labels" is actually a label). Again, we don't need to solve problems like they are just complex engineering puzzles, or worse, childish disagreements where the answer is usually to give each whining brat half. Real life problems are more Solomon-like and your approach leads to a lot of split babies. Rather, we need to debate the issues of right and wrong and how a free society is supposed to function. One side has to win this debate on the merits. If my side loses, I fear the country will ultimately be subject to decline (for rich and poor alike) and tyranny, but at least I will have been defeated on the field of intellectual battle, not in the swamp of compromise you propose we bathe in.

Finally, again, even short of such a “win” I could accept some compromise, even on my most sacred beliefs, but only if such a compromise has a high likelihood of being enforceable and long-lasting. The track record here, particularly for the side of liberty getting the shaft, is dismal.

So, if it's not clear yet, I'm not your target audience. Please do not solicit me anymore. Unsubscribe.

I will end with one of my favorite quotes by T.S. Eliot, as I think it applies to your movement:

Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don't mean to do harm — but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.

Cliff Asness is managing and founding principal of AQR Capital Management. He is a trustee of the American Enterprise Institute.

Author's note: I'd like to thank Aaron Brown, John Liew, and Mike Mendelson for some very helpful suggestions and editorial advice. Also, I’d like to acknowledge that I’m sure I was influenced by the similar sentiments (with even better sarcasm) in Jonah Goldberg’s book “The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas.” Comments may be directed to

FURTHER READING: Asness also writes “The GOP Must Lead (Again) on Civil Rights,” “We Are the 98 Percent,” and “The Health Care Myths We Must Confront.” Andrew G. Biggs asks “Liberals or Conservatives: Who’s Really Close-Minded?” Norman J. Ornstein says “New Year, Same Awful Congress.” Jonah Goldberg discusses the “Top 5 Cliches That Liberals Use to Avoid Real Arguments.”

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group

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