On John Scalzi's excellent blog Whatever, commenter Dave is obligingly and productively wrong on the Internet:
"...why would anyone in Michigan vote against the party trying to jump-start the economy in favor of the people who deride government intervention in the apparent belief that the economy should be left to fix itself?"
This is such a usefully pithy expression of a very common plaint, that upon reading it I was struck with unexpected insight.
"Fix the economy." Surely only a dumb or malign person wouldn't want to do that? Even if I have no confidence in government intervention whatsoever, shouldn't I want to fix things by making the government and its cronies stop digging? Shouldn't I try to do my own personal bit, if I have systemic reasons for distrusting our now-dominant institutions?
Well, yes - partly, and sort of kind of. But the truth is, while I object to bad economic conditions as much as the next wolf-warder, I don't want to fix the economy at all.
Because when Dave (and, I think, most people across the political spectrum) talk about fixing the economy, they show thereby that they think of it as something like a machine, which can and must be serviced by expert engineers during its occasional and inevitable breakdowns. Another Dave on the political Right has even gone so far as to suggest that British society itself is a broken machine, which badly needs him and his crew to reconstruct it! And as long as we accept the metaphor, the response is actually a sensible and spirited one.
But even the economy is not much like a machine. It is only a subset of society, which is a set of social relations between people. When the relations between all the people in a population are considered merely as the components of a machine for achieving whatever it is that the machine-handlers are after, then we are thinking in terms either of a very unattractive society or a very inefficient machine.
So I don't, intuitively, think of the economy in mechanistic terms. This is an intuition which has taken me a long time to come by - the policy wonk and the SFnal engineering geek in me both have a natural tendency to think in terms of design and art. Still, I think I'm mostly cured by now.
Once one gets as far as thinking of the economy, not as a machine for producing output, but as a bunch of people choosing to do stuff among themselves - then the "We need to fix the economy!" cri du coeur suddenly acquires a very different ring to it.
Because we have just gone from comparing intervention with fixing a broken machine, to something more like fixing a football game or an election. That is not the sort of intervention that usually works out in favour of the punters.
I would like to un-fix the economy! I would like to yank the magnets out of the bent bankers' roulette-wheels, short out the power to the self-stimulating bureaucrats' printing-presses, and chuck a monkey-wrench into the special interest cartels' legislative sausage-machine. Since these all lie somewhat beyond my modest powers, mostly I just get to grumble, and seek out the most honest games in town where I have any choice at all.
But I think this explains why full-spectrum liberals like me on the one hand, and progressives and conservative paternalists on the other, so often seem to be talking past one another and shaking their heads at each other's unfathomable idiocy, as per Dave's quoted comment and a million others like it everywhere.
It isn't idiocy on either side.* It's just that we're working from such violently clashing metaphors for what an economy is, that it's almost impossible for one of us to state any proposition about it without sounding either imbecilic or wicked to the other. Unpacking the implicit bits of the metaphors might be a start in narrowing down the reality of the disagreement. I wonder what the next step would be?
* Especially not mine, obviously.