Resurrecting the Liberal Project: Part 1: Universal Benefits

Globalization is driving much of this transformation. It can split this country (fear-driven Republican response) or bind it more tightly together (hope-driven progressive response). I say: e pluribus unum. - promoted by Bob_Neer

In the sixth year of the Obama presidency with stalling on all fronts for progress, and defensive battles against casino’s and tax cuts on the horizon locally in Massachusetts, it’s more important than ever to consider not what we have to defend but what we can still accomplish. I hope to start a conversation reclaiming the word ‘liberal’ from the dustbin of history. When the Bookers and Schumer’s and even Bloomberg’s reclaim the word ‘progressive’ for their corporate agenda-it is time to reclaim a word our own side allowed to be turned into a pejorative but one that once stood proudly as the height of American idealism.

Part of this is repudiating market liberalism, the idea that the government if it pursues growth through neoliberal capitalism can create safety nets to offset those that lose out. This project has started to fray, and it’s time we reassert a strong foundation for a new generation of liberalism. The Fordist consensus between business and liberal government is over-globalization killed it and we aren’t going to recover that era. What we can do-is ensure that our era is as equitable as that one-even more so if we remember the progress made in social liberalism in the past generation bringing gays, minorities, and women into the American project as full partners.

As Tom Edsall elegantly argues, the safety net is merely a bandaid to a systemic failure in American capitalism that is badly in need of regulation and structural reforms. It also alienates the working and middle classes needed to politically sustain it, and has directly contributed to their voting against their economic interests since they view government programs as ‘handouts to the needy’ or even worse ‘handouts to the irresponsible’ rather than rights they should be entitled to as citizens. Medicare and Social Security have largely survived due in part to the fact that everyone pays in so everyone is entitled to receive. The trend of means testing and turning entitlements into anti-poverty programs has the perverse benefit of making those anti-poverty programs far more politically vulnerable.

In practice, Konczal writes, the political left has abandoned its quest for deep structural reform — full employment and worker empowerment — and instead has “doubled-down” on the safety net strategy. The result, in his view, is “a kind of pity-charity liberal capitalism.”

Konczal’s poignant description of the problem goes a long way toward explaining the current struggles of the left. The question is whether there is an effective worker empowerment strategy at a time of globalization, offshoring and robotization.

Insofar as Democrats concentrate the bulk of their efforts on means-tested transfer programs (on the extension of long-term unemployment benefits, Medicaid and food stamps, for example), they leave the most needy and vulnerable to the vagaries of public opinion.

Authors further to Edsall’s left are persuasively arguing that there is a new captive audience in the Millenial voter and the large swath of downscale service workers ready to hear this message and be brought into the tent. Those workers are close to the vaulted ‘Sams Club Mom’s’ that delivered Obama a second term. Many were attracted to the candidates stance on abortion rights, but their is no reason we cannot also deliver a greater amount of this constituency towards economic policies that fairly distribute American wealth.

The rush to erase the term ignores its potency. The discourse of entitlement is a discourse of rights, of human agents claiming what’s theirs instead of asking permission from the powerful. It’s a tradition that regards paternalism and noblesse oblige as pejoratives. Dignity, not charity, is the animating principle. People earn access to the rudiments of life (food, healthcare, shelter) by virtue of their humanity. Rights language invites the beggar to rise from his knees and, without equivocation or supplication, demand his humanity be recognized. Workers are entitled to a living wage. Children are entitled to grow up free from poverty. Homeless people are entitled to a home.

From guaranteed minimum incomes to taking away the strings attached to receiving benefits, we can ensure that benefits are universal and the political majorities sustaining them far stronger.


2 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. This is an interesting discussion

    A few things to keep in mind.

    1. Universal social benefits (social security, medicare, and, in more civilized countries, health care) are simpler to administer and are less subject to attack by the politics of resentment.

    2. The market really does do a lot of things more efficiently than government ever can. The problem is to get that boundary right, and that doesn’t mean outsourcing everything so that government becomes the coordinator of crony capitalism. Brad DeLong’s first semester economics course last year began with an estimate of how efficient communist countries were to capitalist. If I recall correctly, it was only about 30% as efficient. That’s a lot lost productivity, and it gives one measure on the limits of government involvement.

    3. Capitalism has significant churn. Technological advances and efficiency improvements mean that employment will always disappear from some sectors as it grows in others. A social safety net will always be needed for that.

    4. And boy is regulation as necessary as it is tricky.

  2. In some respects...

    Part of this is repudiating market liberalism, the idea that the government if it pursues growth through neoliberal capitalism can create safety nets to offset those that lose out. This project has started to fray, and it’s time we reassert a strong foundation for a new generation of liberalism. The Fordist consensus between business and liberal government is over-globalization killed it and we aren’t going to recover that era.

    … “market liberalism” ought to be the most liberal, and truest, of the doctrines that can combine under the ‘liberal’ umbrella. The reason the opposition is called ‘conservative’ is because of the native caution and antipathy towards resource sharing: it is opposite to the generosity, open hearted and open-mindedness that marks the very definition of ‘liberal’. A conservative will err on the side of denial and resource hoarding whereas a liberal, a true liberal, will not make that error: A liberal, generous and open minded, will err on the side of giving too much away; of being too open and free…. which, if you think about it, isn’t an error at all… In this regard, ‘market liberalism’, as it is constituted now, really isn’t liberalism at all. It’s just a very pinched form of freedom and a very specific form of generosity… but freedom that is pinched is not freedom and generosity in a straightjacket isn’t, likewise, generosity at all. That’s the point where people “lose out”. A true market liberalism would see that, for anybody to lose out, means deep inefficiencies to the system and so would capture the fallout in a self -sustaining safety net.

    Or, put another way, all progress is made with, or by, the liberal. I’m slightly distrustful of the term ‘progressive’, as it connotes technocratic, hence agnostic, movement forward… which really can’t happen without some true liberal involved.

    True conservatism no doubt has it’s roots in a Malthusian understanding of resources: that the pie is only so big and that there really isn’t so much to go around; that there really is just a trickle left over, and that trickle is all the rest of us get… That’s the appeal of the gold standard and of balanced budgets. Liberalism has its roots in the notion that there really is enough to go around and whether it is a trickle or a flood depends, entirely, upon the generosity of those at the top. This was, essentially, the diagnosis made by Marx and Engels in the mid 1800′s. I don’t agree with the cure they proposed, and I think history is with me in this respect, but I think that their diagnosis was spot on.

    A true market liberalism really would reward job creators and encourage rapid and decisive distribution, re-distribution and again re-re-distribution of wealth in a growing cycle of inclusion for everyone. Money shouldn’t just flow upward: increasing the pile at the top… it should be part of an ecology where is circles and cycles endlessly. Instead of rewarding job destroying paper tigers on Wall Street and in Hong Kong we should be rewarding an ecosystem in which a single person with a preponderant wallet is an aberration and a threat: money that sits in a safe, or under a mattress, is just paper.

    “Over globalization” isn’t per se the problem of market liberalism that you think it is: it’s merely stunning dramatization of the easy lure of a cheap, and temporary, solution to the wrong problem. Globalization, over or under, as it stands now is just stark inequality: cheap labor in India, China, where ever, is exploited to provide underpriced goods to people with too much money on hand and not enough sense to spend it wisely (and yes, I do mean US). We wouldn’t have embarked upon it if we perceived China and India as equals. But China and India wouldn’t have agreed to it if they didn’t see it as entree to equality. So there’s that. But it can’t last.

    A true market liberalism would see India and China as equals already and provide entree to a greater, wider, shared pool of wealth for us and for China and India and the rest of the world.

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Mon 21 Apr 3:08 AM