Thursday, October 23, 2008

Greg Mankiw sees it this way: Rawls (Obama) vs. Nozick (McCain)

Greg Mankiw is an economist at Harvard. He keeps a blog here.

In a recent couple of posts he has related an interesting analogy. He has compared the McCain-Obama tax debate to one between two seminal philosophers -- John Rawls and Robert Nozick. He wrote, "The current election is in part a referendum on Rawls versus Nozick."

In this conception, Rawls is the figure in favor of using taxation to achieve 'distributive justice.' And Nozick is the figure in favor of limiting taxation to ensure individual freedom.

I think there is a kernel of truth in this -- but only a kernel. In short, Prof. Mankiw is making the mistake of reading Sen. Obama as a man of ideology. To be sure, Sen. Obama believes in "fair" and "just" uses of federal taxes. But in my reading, Sen. Obama is above all a pragmatist. I think he has shown this throughout the campaign. He has shown he will subsume his ideology to (a) compromise with his opponents, and (b) do what's best for the country. In other words, if his economic advisers convince him that 'distributive justice' is a pie-in-the-sky ideology in light of our contracting economy, Sen. Obama as president will listen and act accordingly.

With all due respect, Prof. Mankiw is not paying good enough attention to what Sen. Obama is actually saying and what he is actually doing. Frankly, he is misreading the president-to-be. Probably because Prof. Mankiw has little experience analyzing qualitative and behavioral data.

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