The case for American social democracy–4: final thoughts

(Previous posts: here, here, and here.)

My summary can’t do justice to Kenworthy’s book, largely because it leaves out the impressive array of data he uses to buttress his arguments. I’m hardly a data-wonk, but in most cases the evidence he presents is clear and fairly persuasive in showing how the policies he favors can ameliorate the problems of economic stagnation and inequality. He’s also fair and level-headed in addressing objections, and generally un-dogmatic about his conclusions.

There are still things to argue with in this book, though. One of the more interesting arguments, to me anyway, is whether liberals/leftists/social democrats should agree with Kenworthy in accepting a future consisting in large part of relatively low-wage service jobs “cushioned” by generous government spending and services, or whether they should work toward reestablishing, in some form, the high-wage industrial model of the mid-20th century. I don’t know the answer to this, but in support of Kenworthy’s position, I think it’s fair to say that no one has yet come up with a way of recreating that model, despite it being the object of a lot of nostalgia on the center-left.

I’d also liked to have seen more discussion of the “intangible” aspects of work–its meaning, the extent to which it engages our capacities and creativity, whether it allows for some degree of autonomy and self-direction, etc. Making sure everyone has sufficient material resources is absolutely a prerequisite for a decent society, but a good society should also allow for everyone, to the extent possible, to exercise their distinctively human capabilities. That doesn’t have happen through paid labor, but given that many people spend a large chunk of their waking hours at work, making it more fulfilling should be on the agenda.

All that said, however, I’m inclined to support most if not all of Kenworthy’s policy prescriptions. Most of them are good ideas on their own merits, even if they may not be sufficient to solve the problems he identifies. I also consider it a mark in this agenda’s favor that it wouldn’t require an unlikely and radical break with past progress, but its natural continuation. If nothing else, it certainly gives the center-left plenty to do in the years to come.

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8 thoughts on “The case for American social democracy–4: final thoughts”

    1. Well, the outsourcing of the duty to care for one’s family and neighbors to an impersonal bureaucracy, say? Social democracy is a huge machine to permit narcissists to live an entirely self-centered life with a clean conscience, because hey, they voted for the social democrats! And that is setting aside the actual assault on traditional religion that social democracies actually engage in.

      And look at the actual fate of Christianity in social democracies: church attendance in Sweden is down near 10%. Of course, these societies will disappear, as the birth rate falls far below replacement in them.

  1. I think that collectively providing certain goods so that everyone can have access to them is very consistent with Christian ethics. Both the Old and New Testaments imply that there is, for example, a communal responsibility to provide for the sustenance of the poor. And history seems to demonstrate that leaving things up to the vagaries of individual effort and market outcomes is far from enough.

    And, anyway, why is it any more a dereliction of duty to your family to “outsource” some functions to the government and not others? Am I neglecting my familial duties by outsourcing national defense to the federal government, or by leaving the apprehension of criminals to the police, or by sending my kids to a public school to be educated?

    I do think concerns about fostering government dependence can be legitimate, and there is a certain intrinsic value in individuals, families, communities doing certain things without the direct assistance of the state. Some kind of principle of subsidiarity should temper an over-reliance on the state. But the flip side of subsidiarity is that there are duties that are proper for the state. And given the scale of the economic phenomena that generate inequality, poverty, etc., the state is the only plausible candidate for ameliorating those problems.

    Most Western democracies have opted for a more generous government role in assuring social welfare and they aren’t, as far as I can tell, more narcissistic, etc. on the whole than the U.S. I’m not sure it’s possible or desirable for the U.S. to become a full-blown social democracy along Scandinavian (or other) lines; but there’s a lot more we can and should do to ensure economic fairness.

    1. “I think that collectively providing certain goods so that everyone can have access to them is very consistent with Christian ethics.”

      Me too.

      “And, anyway, why is it any more a dereliction of duty to your family to “outsource” some functions to the government and not others?”

      Because certain things, like defense, are handled pretty well by massive, national level democracies, and others, like charity, are handled very poorly at that level?

      “but there’s a lot more we can and should do to ensure economic fairness.”

      I agree. And that would best be done at the local level.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subsidiarity

  2. I don’t think it’s an either-or question. Some national-level anti-poverty programs (e.g., Social Security) work fine & aren’t particularly bureaucratic. Other efforts may be better handled at the state or local level and/or by private orgs. (Though I’ve yet to meet someone working for a private charity who thinks private money is sufficient.)

    “Subsidiarity” doesn’t mean we should push everything to the local level–it means they should be handled by the *appropriate*-level institution. And if these are falling down on the job, higher-level institutions need to step in. (Naturally there will be disagreement about when this occurs.)

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