Left for Dead: Equality of What, Equality for Whom?

There’s a pretty fantastic exchange happening in the blogosphere right now, started by Freddie DeBoer here and followed-up here. The substance of DeBoer’s criticism is that there are no legitimate “far left” bloggers, only center-left “neo-liberals” and the panoply of social conservatives, partisan Republicans, and libertarians. Thus, DeBoer charges, we have a blind spot, an absence in our policy spectrum that pulls the center ever rightward, specifically abnegating the left’s historical commitment to labor unions and worker’s rights, as well as other unnamed policies that don’t fall within the neoliberal consensus.

Since I read a lot of the non-blogger folks who criticize this thing called “neoliberalism” and advocate allegedly more radical alternatives, I’m interested in this charge. As an academic, I often feel a nudging guilt that I am not more radical in my own policy-advocacy, but I’ve found that these “far left” positions depend too heavily on resentment and substitute solidarity for argument and affect for evidence. Perhaps that’s why my first temptation on reading DeBoer was to respond that the far left has exited the field of serious debate in the blogosphere because their positions fail to meet the demands of public reason. 🙂 Echoing my secret self, one of DeBoer’s specifically-targeted neoliberal bloggers (Matthew Yglesias) responded with what amounts to disbelief:

while I’ll cop to being a “neoliberal” I don’t acknowledge that I have critics to the “left” of me. […] I recognize that many people disagree with [the Progressive] agenda, and that many of those who disagree with it think of themselves as “to the left” of my view. But I simply deny that there are positions that are more genuinely egalitarian than my own. I really and sincerely believe that liberalism is the best way to advance the interests of the underprivileged and to make the world a better place. I offer “further left” people the (unreturned) courtesy of not questioning the sincerity of their belief that they have some better solutions, but I think they’re mistaken.

This sounds about right for me: when you start from the basically Rawlsian framework of justice, the distributive progressive agenda is basically the non plus ultra of justice-oriented policy, with evidence-responsive modifications which lend themselves to F. A. Hayek-style decentralization. Because markets seem to maximize resources available for redistribution, some form of market economy tends to be favored by those whose primary interest is in helping the least advantaged. The bigger the pie, the more there is to share.

Of course, Rawls or Rawlsekianism could be wrong. DeBoer glosses this view as “globalize-grow-give.” Consider the way that the center-left agrees with the sentiment if not the timing of President Obama’s latest anti-regulation rule review: when policies restrict growth or trade and are not absolutely necessary to preserve consumer safety or environmental quality, these policies should be eliminated. This is where far left critics accuse Rawlsian liberals of an ideological mistake called “neoliberalism”: when progressives and centrist liberals advocate free trade, pro-growth, and redistribution, they may be making a fundamental mistake about the way that those policies will interact. (“Neoliberalism” is actually a much more specific set of policies, used for instance in Pinochet’s Chile, but that’s part of why far left critics use the term: it’s a rhetorical device to connect progressives with fascists, a predilection the far left shares with Glenn Beck.)

Free-market egalitarianism is perhaps best summarized by Milton Friedman’s advocacy of a basic income guarantee to replace various welfare services, a policy also advocated by people as far to the left as G. A. Cohen. Rather than allow the government to expensively administer an intrusive set of welfare interventions, the basic income guarantee would grant each impoverished person the freedom to participate in the market for consumption goods untrammeled by state paternalism. If they want to have access to above-subsistence goods or services, the poor could avail themselves of the labor market, where they would be protected only by government regulation of working conditions. But basic income guarantees are at the heart of my complaint about the “far left”: if we only grant a basic income for our own citizens, we effectively exacerbate the inequality between Americans and non-Americans. Yet if we grant the basic income for all residents, we exacerbate the already difficult to manage flow of immigration. Instead, we ought to advocate policies that help the truly least advantaged, the global poor: non-Americans subsisting on less than a dollar PPP, the 25,000 children who die each day from easily-prevented poverty-related diseases, and the women who must face both distressing poverty and misogynistic social systems.

Thus, my differences with the “far left” are primarily related to the scope of my concerns with inequality: where the “far left” has tended to target domestic inequality and concern itself with the international arena when there is a war to be opposed, I find myself concerned with international inequalities first, to the extent that I am sometimes even willing to consider relaxing my reflexive pacifism, as I did during the nineties with regard to Rwanda and Bosnia/Kosovo. This, then, is not a battle between left and center, but between the old guard “labor left” and the newly emerging “cosmopolitan left.” (There are some trenchant criticisms of this new cosmopolitanism, namely that it obscures an elitist ideology, but I’ll address these another time.)

To DeBoer, efforts to guarantee the domestic least advantaged the material means of subsistence pale in comparison to efforts to guarantee that they are not dominated by the domestic rich and powerful. For this, he charges, programs devoted to redistribution are less effective than the support of worker’s councils and unions by which workers can counter that domination:

The goal should be to empower the worst off to provide for their own material well-being, and I think the best way to do that is to defend the right to organize which should, if workers desire it, lead to more powerful and prevalent trade unions. I’m not, of course, opposed to a social safety net, and one has to be maintained in particular for the unemployed or underemployed. But social safety nets can’t produce equality of self-empowerment. And the issue, ultimately, is one of power.

This, for DeBoer, is the heart of the “far left” blogosphere that he claims is missing: support for old-school labor unions, and opposition to economic globalization. For my own part, I think that civic engagement, not labor unionization, is the key to non-domination. But they can be mutually supportive; the problems with unions lie in the ways they oppress non-members. DeBoer perfectly demonstrates this exclusivity:

I rarely see an admission that, for example, the exportation of jobs overseas is a contributing factor to 12% true joblessness.

Just think about the implications of this throwaway line. You don’t export a job. You allow workers in other countries to export their products to the US. By calling outsourcing “job export,” we implicitly advance the jingoistic assumption that jobs “belong” to Americans, and that non-Americans have no right to compete with us. And this isn’t some sort of Freudian slip: protectionist attitudes are historically prevalent in the labor movement, which is why unions conspired with the CIA to undermine Latin American governments and to minimize the competitiveness of foreign workers, often under the guise of “solidarity” and helping them “organize.”

High wages are of course nice, but they only supply their benefits if a person is employed. By enforcing high wages, unions end up excluding large numbers of workers from employment, or exiling them to precarity and the casual labor markets. Then they blame the bosses for not hiring more workers at the higher wage. When you look at the way that the autoworkers’ unions bled each succeeding generation of workers to pay for the benefits of retirees, I don’t believe that you can even call this workplace democracy: it’s simply another form of rent-seeking.

Of course, as productivity increases, it’s always possible to take those gains as more “stuff” or as less time worked. At the beginning of the labor movement, and before there was effective state regulation of workplace safety or conditions, the unions were an important force for ensuring that some of those gains made work fairer and healthier. But note that they were locally organized, not enforced by treaty. Now that the US government will shut down the mine or fine the factory when it becomes too dangerous, what good is a union, except to artificially restrict the number of workers and keep member wages high? For my part, I can’t see why labor unions should be able to enforce provisions that keep others from working, especially when those who are deprived of jobs by the union are also the least advantaged. In that sense, the right to unionize is in conflict with the right to work, and simply replaces one form of domination for another one. Many union advocates seem happy to leave the lumpen-proletariat completely incapacitated so long as it preserves advantages for already-flourishing middle-class workers. This is especially true for those who trumpet successes in the public sector and manufacturing unions, who can seek  rents on political positions or technological advantage, rather than seeking greater organization and unionization among the truly disadvantaged service and casual workers. I’d like to hear more from DeBoer on this.

UPDATE: While writing this, I came across a post by my old colleague Will Roberts, who names himself a “far left” enemy of the center left, offering this criticism of the progressive agenda:

Nowhere is there even a hint of the thought that an increase in market freedom might lead to a decrease in other sorts of freedom, or to less happiness, or to any other bad outcome.  Nowhere is there any mention of something like a guaranteed basic income, or of any other policy that would reduce the need for people to rely upon wage labor to live.  Nowhere is there any attention to global macroeconomic dynamics like the swelling of the global surplus population — the hundreds of millions of people who do not participate in any meaningful economic activity whatsoever.  Nowhere is there any reference to tax competition.  Nowhere is there any hint that all these wonderful markets might depend upon the existence of a labor market, including a market for bare subsistence wage-labor, with all the poverty and desperation that market implies.

Notably, Will picks up on the basic income (calling it far left, when it is not) but also mentions “global surplus population” and “tax competition” as further blindspots beyond labor rights, and seems to imply that markets produce subsistence rather than alleviate it. Perhaps Will will demonstrate how his disdain for “bare subsistence” and “surplus populations” navigates Parfit’s Repugnant Conclusion?

Other than that, I think that the center left is pretty amenable to concerns about tax competition, when the issue is understood in terms of tax havens or tax arbitrage, and as I’ve already demonstrated, to the basic income guarantee. Consider, for instance, the British welfare reforms advocated by the coalition of Conservatives and non-labor Liberals: it’s a basic income.  (There’s some room to argue about the means-testing element in actually-existing basic income proposals.)

5 thoughts on “Left for Dead: Equality of What, Equality for Whom?”

  1. One quick point: there is at least one difference between a basic income guarantee and Friedman's negative income tax: means testing. The former is generally advocated by lefties, and is in part designed to undermine the low-end labour market. The latter is generally advocated by neoliberal economists, and is designed to smooth out the dynamics of the labour market. I say generally. Basic income proposals do attract support from across the left-right spectrum. Basic income is neither a hallmark of nor a litmus test for radical leftism. Nonetheless, it is a radical policy proposal, for which a leftist case can be made, and it does not seem to be on the agenda for left-neoliberal bloggers like Yglesias.

    And you'll have to explain the relevance of the "Repugnant Conclusion" to me — I don't do that abstract moral philosophy thought experiment stuff.

    1. I recognize that means testing distinguishes Friedman from Cohen, but I don’t see how it matters much what we do with Bill Gates’ $20,000/year. This seems like a theoretical difference that doesn’t actually matter much in practice: there’s less difference between “undermining” and “smoothing out” than those terms suggest, though there is growing concern among labor economists that Friedman’s proposals actually disincentivize work by creating such a large implicit marginal tax. Thus, more basic income folks on the right and the left are coming around to your way of thinking. (The real trouble is that so much of the welfare state is still very bossy and intrusive. I regularly see food assistance folks in my grocery store stuck in line while the grocery clerk tries to figure out how much orange juice they’re allowed.)

      I’ll retract the “repugnant conclusion” dig if you’ll explain what you mean by “global surplus population.” Those are people who have a right to flourish, not wasteful overproduction gumming up the works in your domestic labor markets. That said, the Repugnant Conclusion isn’t an abstract thought experiment: we all take a stand on it every time we decide to use birth control or to have kids. Take a look at my stuff on anti-natalism if you’re interested: here, here, and here.

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