Conservative rhetoric, COVID-19, and Lockdown Socialism

Arnold Kling has a recent post up on “Lockdown Socialism”:

I’ve seen headlines about polls showing that people are afraid of restrictions being lifted too soon. To me, it sounds as if they prefer what I call Lockdown Socialism.

Under Lockdown Socialism:

–you can stay in your residence, but paying rent or paying your mortgage is optional.

–you can obtain groceries and shop on line, but having a job is optional.

–other people work at farms, factories, and distribution services to make sure that you have food on the table, but you can sit at home waiting for a vaccine.

–people still work in nursing homes that have lost so many patients that they no longer have enough revenue to make payroll.

–professors and teachers are paid even though schools are shut down.

–police protect your property even though they are at risk for catching the virus and criminals are being set free.

–state and local governments will continue paying employees even though sales tax revenue has collapsed.

–if you own a small business, you don’t need revenue, because the government will keep sending checks.

–if you own shares in an airline, a bank, or other fragile corporations, don’t worry, the Treasury will work something out.

This might not be sustainable.

Kling later published a second post acknowledging that the phrase “Lockdown Socialism” is inflammatory and explaining why he opposes the lockdown and the economic relief the government is providing during the crisis.  I will turn to those arguments in a day or two.  But his inflammatory post is worth examining for what it teaches us about the rhetorical strategies of economic conservatives. I will focus on four aspects of his argument.


Kling argues that Americans who worry that restrictions will be lifted too soon support something called “Lockdown Socialism”.  I doubt that a sizable majority of Americans prefer something called “Lockdown Socialism” or indeed any other form of socialism.  Very few Americans identify as socialists, and most of those who do use the term to mean social democratic capitalism, which is not socialism in the standard sense of government ownership of the means of production and central economic planning.  Using the phrase “Lockdown Socialism” seems to be nothing more than an attempt by Kling to tar people he disagrees with the negative connotations that socialism has for many.

Polls are often difficult to interpret, but in this case I suspect that people who worry that restrictions will be lifted too early are worried that . . . restrictions will be lifted too early.

Fostering resentful identity politics:

The most serious problem with Kling’s post is that he frames “lockdown socialism” to encourage his readers 1) to think that many people are violating important social norms, including the norms to have a job and pay your rent, and 2) to focus on horizontal inequities, such as the fact that some people have to work at essential jobs while others stay safe at home (without paying rent). 

Conservative economists often encourage us to focus on norm violations and horizontal inequities caused by government programs because it is the most effective way to get people to support limited government.  Most people are not buying what libertarians have on offer, but resentment sells.  Kling’s post garnered an unusually large number of comments, and it was reposted by Tyler Cowen, and it also got an unusually large number of comments on his blog.  Of course, it is inevitable that some political actors will try to exploit resentments for political gain.  The question is whether responsible public intellectuals should frame issues in a way that foments resentment and distrust by suggesting that policy disagreements are rooted in opportunism and rejection of widely shared values.

I think not.  Resentment is politically toxic but using inequities that are plausibly justified to foster resentment is a choice we do not need to make.  Rather than encouraging essential workers to be resentful of the fact that they are putting themselves at risk while others are safe at home, we can express gratitude to them and encourage them to feel good about the sacrifices they are making on our behalf.  Classical liberals used to warn about the dangers of envy, but too many small-government conservatives today think nothing of deliberately stoking resentment, a far more dangerous emotion.

Disaster innuendo:

Hayek controversially argued that welfare state policies could inadvertently put us on a slippery slope to totalitarianism and central planning, but he never really explained how this would happen, and he never came to terms with the possibility that strong welfare state institutions could stabilize capitalism and democracy.

Kling indulges in the same kind of “disaster innuendo” when he tells us that “Lockdown Socialism” “might not be sustainable”.  Of course, a prolonged economic shutdown will probably not be sustainable.  But doing nothing also wasn’t sustainable. 

This doesn’t mean that policy is perfect.  If Kling wants to criticize specific policy choices made by Congress or the President, that’s fine.  But encouraging people to believe that we are heading towards disaster because some people are socialists who reject basic American values is reckless.

Ignoring politics:

Economic conservatives want people to pin the blame for bad policy outcomes on “government”, rather than on concrete choices made by specific political actors.  The result is that they tend to ignore the actual political context, in this case the responsibility of Republicans in general and especially Trump for avoidable missteps that have made the current situation considerably worse than it needed to be.

The problem with this approach is that it is completely divorced from political reality.  The most important choice that most Americans have to make concerning our response to COVID-19 is whether to vote for Biden or Trump and for Congressional Democrats or Republicans in November.  “Limited government” will not be on the ballot.  Neither will “Lockdown Socialism”.

As I noted above, Kling followed this post up with a less inflammatory post to explain why he disagrees with the lockdown and the economic policies Congress has adopted in response to the crisis.  I will address those arguments tomorrow.

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