Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Swedes and bloggers and libertarians (oh my)

There's been an interesting little argument in the blogosphere about Sweden's social democracy. It all started with this piece by Tim Worstall in TCS Daily, in which he attempts to show that since America and Sweden both have an income distribution of about 38% for low-end wage earners, America is therefore not so different from the "supposedly" progressive Swedes. At which point both Max Sawicky and Matt Yglesias swooped in to correct Worstall, noting that Sweden provides a whole heap of non-income benefits, including health care, education, and child care. The blog Obsidian Wings also takes a stab at the issue.

Blogger Hilzoy at the latter site points out this statement by Worstall, which also struck me:

"[The Economic Policy Institute] are, as you may know, the people who urge that the USA become more like the European countries, most especially the Scandinavian ones. Less income inequality, more leisure time, stronger unions and so on. All good stuff from a particular type of liberal and progressive mindset -- i.e. that society must be managed to produce the outcome that technocrats believe society really desires, rather than an outcome the actual members of society prove they desire by building it."

It's that last bit that gets me. Who's to say that a population couldn't autonomously arrive at the conclusion that they want greater social democracy? That's certainly the case with Sweden, where politicians (and presumably their policies) have been conscientiously chosen by Swedes. In other words, a greater welfare state is not the result of some sort of "big-government conspiracy," but reflects the desires of the electorate. Coming now to the example of America, who's to say that Americans might not someday choose single-payer healthcare or stronger welfare benefits? In fact, they did for an extended period of time (welfare, that is). Even conservative Presidents such as Eisenhower and Nixon did little to dismantle the big-government programs of Roosevelt and Johnson, respectively. Only the "small-government" ideology of Reagan broke through the welfare state, which was firmly entrenched in Europe and on somewhat less firm footing in America, and initiated the more or less 20 year period of growing wage inequality and increase in poverty we have witnessed in our lifetime. Reaganism, or Voodoo Economics or what have you, is so firmly entrenched in the American political psyche that a social democracy seems nigh impossible, but there is at least a fighting chance. (Thus the existence of groups like the Economic Policy Institute.) In a more cynical vein, I am tempted here to say that were the United States not such a political oligarchy, and were lower income voters more empowered and listened to, the chances of greater social democracy might go up emphatically, making Worstall's comments seem even more foolish.

The whole scenario further complicates many problems I already have with libertarianism and to a lesser extent free market conservatism. The latter I find to be more or less an ideological joke, since the last 20 years have proved not that enormous upper-echelon tax cuts and corporate welfare will "benefit everyone," but that in fact (surprise!) such policies lead to greater inequality and perks for politicians' corporate lobbyist buddies. Libertarianism, on the other hand, I have more sympathies for, since its adherents appear to be at the very least sincere, and since they start from similar philosophical premises as I do (i.e. that individuals should have greater control over their immediate economic interests).

My problems with libertarianism are manifold. First, there is the underlying idea that although direct responsibility for economic interests is an ideal, there is far too much inequality in America for there to be anything even close to an "equal playing field" for individuals. Ergo, it's fine to talk about greater "ownership" and self-determination, but in today's world such a system will only benefit those who already possess social, economic, and political power. Plus, libertarian ideas of ownership exclude notions of communal ownership and collective action tout court. That leads me to my second critique. Libertarians are so obsessed with the notion of "rational self-interest" (i.e. the Homo economicus model) that they cannot allow for a freely and collectively chosen socialist system. Even if individuals freely choose to enter into communal and need-based relations with each other, such a system is so foreign to libertarian notions of free trade and capitalism that it is ruled out from the beginning. Because once you've seen the free market light, so to speak, how could you possibly choose anything else? I watched an interesting C-SPAN show today featuring David Boaz of the CATO Institute, for whom the "free market" is the obvious solution to everything. But what if the members of a community decided to vote in socialist policies? It would be the result of a free decision-making process, but it wouldn't square with capitalist methods. A libertarian might argue that such a decision missed the "truth" of the "empirical" evidence that capitalism leads to the best results, but libertarianism in its most radical form has never been about the "truth" anyway. It is about what individuals freely choose to do, even if those choices are disastrous (i.e. smoking cigarettes, drug use, one might even say private schooling, since the curriculum can include even the most odious teachings, as in the case of religious anti-evolutionary "science," bigotry, millenarianism, etc).

I disagree with libertarianism on this point, because although ideally people should be free to choose everything about their lives, an education based on notions of citizenship, cosmopolitanism, and reason is infinitely more beneficial than one developed along the guidelines of religion, race, or other interest group. Indeed, one begins to wonder how libertarians can imagine a nation functioning with so many competing groups at play, or how they would constitute a "nation" at all. (One could accuse me at this point, in a Stanley Fish-esque way, of privileging one form of "discourse" over another [i.e. the "liberal" one over the "interest group" one], but I'm sticking to my Enlightenment liberal guns on this one, not only because it seems emanantly right to me but because pragmatically it is the most stabilizing option.) At the same time, I tend to agree these days with libertarians that large bureaucracies, or to be more specific centralized political oligarchies, tend to alienate us from meaningful, democratic decision-making. I may be way off base here but I think this is an area where libertarians and socialists (somewhat) agree, but with differing solutions, of course. Okay, rant over. Talk amongst yourselves.


Blogger Robot said...

Some interesting points, Matt. Your decision to bring up Fish at the end is a good one, I think. (Has there been any other author who acts as that voice in your head telling you "whoa now..."). If libertarianism is wrong, it has to be wrong because its prescriptions are wrong: that unfettered capitalism cannot distribute resources equitably, and that a personal philosophy of purely rational self-interest is less valuable and fulfilling than one of greater social responsibility. Liberalism, it seems to me, is better able to handle these "competing groups at play," as you put it. And while some may regret liberalism's inability to seriously privilege any one form of values, or capitalism, over another, its relative silence remains pragmatic.

That is, in America, there remains a fairly healthy debate about issues that have been long since dead in Europe (religion and the welfare state being the two most obvious). These debates are important, because as odious as some of Reagan's economic policies might have been to Democrats at the time, they paved the way to Clinton's Welfare Reform Act which has had far fewer detestable consequences than tax cuts to the wealthy. Clinton's reforms may have prevented wages from stagnating even further, and unemployment numbers from reaching doulbe digits (as in Germany, France, etc.). The marketplace of ideas (something libertarians would seemingly be quite fond of, loving both the marketplace and ideas) seems, then, to work best in when in the hands of liberals.

One final question. You write that "were lower income voters more empowered and listened to, the chances of greater social democracy might go up emphatically." While I wish that lower income voters would vote as I do, and believe what I believe, it seems unlikely this will happen anytime soon. I'm struck by your qualifications of "empowered and listened to." How do lower income voters lack these things? More importantly, do you think they can they be changed without initially empowering them socially and financially? Essentially, I'm asking the following: can lower-middle class social conservatives be persuaded to care more about class than "social values" without first giving them what a New York Liberal would consider the proper education/socio-economic status that some would probably think would more feasibly enable their chances of persuasion? Phew....

1:26 AM  
Blogger Scantron said...

Thanks for the input, Robbie. A few points:

You cite "liberalism's inability to seriously privilege any one form of values, or capitalism, over another." Do you really think this is the case? I suppose that in a sense strict, abstract liberalism gives us a "free range of options" from which to choose our various identities, but on the whole, and historically, liberalism has certainly championed capitalism and "purely rational self-interest," as you say. In fact, no matter what its ideological merits now, no matter how beneficially we might use it, I think it is undeniable that liberalism as a doctrine in fact arose as a natural response to capitalism. It is the philosophical underpining of the free market. Which is not to degrade it at all, it is just to point out its social origins.

Libertarianism is kind of like the rough coal of liberalism ground down to a fine diamond: it looks flawless, but its adherents have absolutely no clue as to how society could possibly carry it out. (Indeed they really have no concept of "society" at all.) Libertarianism is liberalism stripped of all the historical necessities and contingencies involved, such as the labor movement, the minimum wage, government interference, etc. The good thing about it, as I was saying, is that it at least tries to restore some primacy to the individual and his or her original, creative impulses and decisions, rather than fall back upon bureaucratic/"common sense" projections of "normalcy." The great thing about libertarians over against common Republican conservatives is that libertarians would love to have you as a neighbor even if you're a blind Rastafarian polyamorous lesbian (provided you can afford such a lifestyle, of course), whereas Republicans are more likely to envision an exurban neighborhood of smiling white Christians. (I should add that for many Democrats the ideal might be the white neighborhood above, transplanted to a more "urban" environment, with a gay couple thrown in, a Trader Joe's, the New York Times in plentiful supply, and some "funky" boutiques and bookstores sprinkled, um, liberally throughout. And an independent movie theater. Just have to be fair!)

As for "empowering" lower class voters, you are right to challenge me on this. However, what I had in mind was not so much putting them through the New York Liberal rigorosum or totally replacing their values, but something as simple as: promote unionization. This has certainly been rather, shall we say, *low* on the federal government to-do list since the 80s. According to the Census Bureau, in 2005 12.5 percent of wage workers were unionized. In 1983, the first official union census, it was 20.1 percent, which means it was probably even higher in the past. In 1974 there were 424 strikes involving almost 1.8 million workers total. In 1982 there were 96 strikes. In 2004 there were 17 strikes involving 171,000 workers. Coincidence?? Furthermore, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2005 unionized workers made median weekly earnings of about $800, whereas non-unionized workers had a median of $622. Extrapolate those numbers for yearly pre-tax income and you have the significant difference between making $41,600 and making $32,300. More money means greater stability and an even better chance at bargaining power and added social welfare benefits.

Now, the story of the decline of unionization is a long and complex one, and certainly it is not so simple as "the government has shifted to anti-union." There are the factors of globalized markets (which simultaneously call for cheaper labor for the sake of competition and also cause much job flight overseas) and new trends in commodity trade (information boom, etc). BUT, it seems to me obvious that the federal government plays a definite role in labor power, especially when Presidents like Reagan and Bush appoint pro-employer bureaucrats to the National Labor Relations Board.

So, unionization is a factor that needs neither educational and financial "realignment" nor the shedding of social norms. However, it is a question of whether workers can assert their power from below or whether we need a pro-union Democrat in the White House first. But that's my idea of "empowered and listened to."

12:07 AM  

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