Wednesday, January 19, 2011

What's Left of Liberalism?

Oy, does this thing still work?

So, Matt Yglesias thinks he has no enemies to the left.  I haven't waded through all of the post he is responding to, but...

Issue numero uno: de Boer says of Yglesias that he is "one of the most vocal of the neoliberal scolds, forever ready to define the 'neoliberal consensus' as the truth of man and to ignore left-wing criticism."  To this, Yglesias responds: 
I don’t really know what it means to criticize a writer for holding that his own views are “the truth of man.” Obviously, I agree with my political opinions and disagree with those who disagree with me. If I didn’t agree I’d change my mind.
But you're not being criticized for believing what you say -- you're being criticized for believing what you believe!  The problem is content, not sincerity. 

Issue numero dos: Yglesias avers, "while I’ll cop to being a 'neoliberal' I don’t acknowledge that I have critics to the 'left' of me."  He then rattles off a list of his primary policy concerns (to which I'll return), before saying:
I recognize that many people disagree with this 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.
The unspoken assumption throughout is that Left = egalitarianism.  No one is more egalitarian than Yglesias, hence no one is further to the Left than he.  Now this assumption has a long history.  In academic circles it certainly runs back to the 80s, when the Marxists stopped calling themselves Marxists and started calling themselves egalitarians, when historical materialism went out the window, to be replaced by neo-Kantian moral theory.  

If this assumption is taken on board, then those who thinks of themselves as being to the Left of liberalism are actually just sentimentalists and wishful thinkers -- they will the end of equality without willing the means of liberal government, which is the only mechanism for achieving equality.  Genuine egalitarianism is liberal egalitarianism.

As someone who thinks of himself as to the Left of liberalism, and who has never hoisted the banner of Equality!,  I'd like to register an objection.

Equality always has to be specified.  Equality unmodified means nothing; we must answer the question: Equality of what?  For Yglesias, it is equality of economic freedom, greater equality of economic outcome (wealth), and equality of respect and recognition -- pretty much the standard Rawlsian package.  Thus, look at the specific issues that concern him:
  1. More redistribution of money from the top to the bottom.
  2. A less paternalistic welfare state that puts more money directly in the hands of the recipients of social services.
  3. Macroeconomic stabilization policy that seriously aims for full employment.
  4. Curb the regulatory privileges of incumbent landowners.
  5. Roll back subsidies implicit in our current automobile/housing-oriented industrial policy.
  6. Break the licensing cartels that deny opportunity to the unskilled.
  7. Much greater equalization of opportunities in K-12 education.
  8. Reduction of the rents assembled by privileged intellectual property owners.
  9. Throughout the public sector, concerted reform aimed at ensuring public services are public services and not jobs programs.
  10. Taxation of polluters (and resource-extractors more generally) rather than current de facto subsidization of resource extraction.
Most of these -- 2, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10 -- are nothing more than efforts to extend and perfect the market.  They internalize externalities, eliminate rents, etc.  Now I don't necessarily disagree with all of these things, but every one of them implies that we need more and better markets.  The remaining concerns -- 1, 3, and 7 -- aim to establish the non-market prerequisites of these more and better markets.  

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.

In short, nowhere does Yglesias hint that more and better markets might themselves be problematic.  That's not to say that the Left is or ought to be in favor of fewer and worse markets, but to say that the Left, since Marx, has been centrally opposed to the notions of freedom and equality that find their ground in "the market" -- the surface appearance of capitalism.

So, I say to Yglesias: sorry dude -- there's definitely plenty of room on your Left, and it's populated with enemies -- like me.