Do Social Democrats Believe In Free Lunches?

I have a question for Brad DeLong. He has semi-jokingly created membership cards for various versions of lefty economics, including this one for Social Democrats:

“Many” free lunches? I’m not saying Brad is wrong—that would be foolish since he’s a PhD historian of economics while I’ve read only one book about the history of social democracy—but what are these free lunches?

Here’s my own guess: lefties in general are a little too willing to sucker themselves into believing that various kinds of welfare pay for themselves. This is frequently based on a few questionable studies and some strong confirmation bias rather than hard thinking. So you get folks who claim that broader health care coverage will pay for itself by reducing emergency room use, or that free college will pay for itself in higher GDP down the road. There are some cases where this is true, but not nearly as many as a lot of people would like to believe.


As near as I can tell this rarely affects policymaking in a serious way. For the most part, Social Democrats want things like universal health care and free college because, as Brad puts it, equality is beautiful for its own sake. We believe in a decent safety net because we believe in treating people decently, and we believe in going beyond that because we want everyone to live their best possible lives regardless of how much money they happen to grow up with. The business about these things paying for themselves is a minor bit of flim-flam that helps to sell the case.

But it really is minor. It’s nowhere near the massive belief in the free-lunch fairy that conservatives routinely haul out to defend their tax cuts for the rich or their belief that self-regulation works a treat. It’s a small self-deception that has a small effect, and I don’t think it deserves to be one-seventh of a postcard summary of social democracy.

But maybe I’m missing something big. Anyone care to chime in?


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