The socialism question

socialism

In case you haven’t noticed, there’s been a lively argument going on about the rise of “democratic socialism” within (or adjacent to) the Democratic Party. Obviously, the candidacy of Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primaries is ground zero for this discussion, but we’ve seen a general shift, even among otherwise mainstream Dem pols, toward “socialist” policies like Medicare for All and free college. Most recently, the 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a fully paid-up member of the Democratic Socialists of America, unseated veteran Democratic congressman Joe Crowley, leading to a wave of fist pumping or hand-wringing (depending on your ideological leanings) about the specter of socialism haunting the Democratic Party.

Some more traditional liberals have pointed out that Ocasio-Cortez’s (and her like-minded comrades’) platform doesn’t look a lot like socialism as traditionally understood. Rather, it resembles an updated version of mid-20th-century liberalism: a program aimed at taming the excesses of capitalism instead of transcending it. (In Europe this program typically goes by the name of social democracy: a generous welfare state, regulated markets, etc.) Leftists have responded that over the last several decades mainstream liberalism, by embracing deregulation, deficit fetishism and privatization, has moved so far to the right that those further to the left needed a label to distinguish themselves from this desiccated form of liberalism.

Now, I’m hardly the pope of socialism (I wouldn’t even consider myself a member of the church), but it seems obvious to me that “socialism” is an attractive label in part because it evokes the desire for a dramatic alternative to the status quo. This isn’t just something that appeals to young people, but young people are perhaps better positioned than certain tut-tutting pundits to perceive the shortcomings of the American approach to capitalism. Many people coming of age after the Great Recession have dimmer economic prospects than their parents, are saddled with massive student debt and struggle to find good-paying jobs that include benefits you need for a decent life (like health insurance). There’s also the minor detail that they may be inheriting a planet on its way to being rendered uninhabitable by human civilization in its current form.

While the Trump administration and the current Republican congress are exacerbating these problems, they predate the Trump era. Obama-era policies may have ameliorated some of the grosser effects of these trends, but they haven’t reversed them. It’s not surprising that many Millennials like Ocasio-Cortez consider “liberalism”—meaning the type of policies associated with the Clinton and Obama years–woefully inadequate to our present situation. That may be unfair to the Clinton and Obama administrations, who were at least to some extent constrained by the hands they were dealt and would’ve liked to do more, but whoever said politics was fair?

The Democratic Party will probably remain a broad center-left coalition of leftists, mainstream liberals and even moderates for the foreseeable future (and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing). But it’s clear that much of the energy and excitement is coming from the further-left end of the spectrum. And a big part of that excitement has to do with the promotion of big, bold ideas that offer the promise of a tangibly better life for lots of people. Some of these are ideas recently thought impossible within the confines of our post-Cold War/post-Reagan consensus. But one lesson that the rise of Trump should’ve taught us is that–for better or worse–the boundaries of what’s “possible” are wider than we previously imagined.

UPDATE: It’s probably worth clarifying that there does seem to be a genuine diversity of opinion among democratic socialists (and Democratic Socialists) about their ideal society. Some do envision the abolition of capitalism as we know it, whereas others seem more focused on concrete policies (like Medicare for All) that would take certain essential goods out of the market nexus. In other words, “socialism” isn’t just a radical-sounding label for an old-fashioned liberal program (at least not in all cases). There does seem to be a fair bit of slipperiness in current usage, though that may not be entirely a bad thing. It might be more useful for “socialism” to point to a broad set of values rather than a detailed blueprint for a post-capitalist utopia.

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“Original Sin Liberalism”

I appreciated this piece from E. J. Dionne on what he calls “Original Sin Liberalism,” which is a pretty accurate label for my own political outlook. Dionne is responding to conservatives who accuse liberals of believing that people are essentially good, and are only made bad by social structures or conditions. Dionne notes that liberals like Reinhold Niebuhr have long been aware of humanity’s propensity for wickedness; this is why they think we need political and legal checks on this universal tendency:

Law exists precisely to “tame the savageness of man,” a phrase that Robert Kennedy drew from classical sources. The human capacity for sin and evil requires us to consider that denying someone the right to own an AR-15 may enhance the right to life of far more people than those restrained by such a restriction. Background checks are based on the view that if we can keep weapons out of the hands of those who have a record of perpetrating violence (as well as those with psychiatric problems), we can reduce the number of evil acts that people are, indeed, quite capable of performing.

An Original Sin Liberal might go on to challenge conservatives who claim to be very conscious of human fallibility and our capacity for selfishness. Why do they so often oppose laws reducing the likelihood that individuals and companies will despoil the environment or take advantage of their employees?

A noble but guarded attitude toward human nature was prominent in James Madison’s thinking, leading him to see the politics of a democratic republic as entailing an ongoing search for balance.

On the one hand, we need to pass laws because we know that men and women are not angels. But this also means that we should be wary of placing too much power in government, since it is run by flawed human beings who can be guilty of overreach. Many of our arguments involve not irreconcilable values but different assessments of where this balance should tilt at a given time on a given issue.

Conservatives who want to pare back the regulatory function of government are arguably far more guilty of dewy-eyed optimism about human nature than liberals. They think (or at least purport to think) that an unchecked market will somehow result in greater well-being for everyone. They embrace the highly counter-intuitive (and empirically dubious) notion that “an armed society is a polite society.” And they’re more likely to vest unchecked trust in law enforcement and the military. It’s true that liberals and their further-left cousins have sometimes been blind to the dangers of power concentrated in the hands of government to oversee and manage the economy, so no one party or ideology is without fault here.

The Christian doctrine of original sin should make us suspicious of all forms of concentrated and unchecked power, whether it’s the economic power of corporations or the deadly power of military-grade weapons and government surveillance. As Dionne suggests, this doesn’t provide a neat and tidy ideology, since we need to maintain a balance between government, the market, civil society, and private initiative. But government has an indispensable role to play as a check on the human tendency toward wickedness. Laws can’t change hearts, but they can limit the damage that sinful human beings inflict on one another.

 

The welfare state is good

Dylan Matthews at Vox has an excellent article defending the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program, which is (of course) under attack from the current administration. The piece is long and chock full o’ data, but the upshot is that the program serves people who really need it, not a bunch of freeloaders with backaches as Sen. Rand Paul might tell you.

I’ve written before about how my own family depended on SSDI after my dad sustained a life-changing injury at work. He was about 30 at the time and has been receiving benefits ever since (he’s in his 60s now). Our family got by on SSDI, workers compensation benefits and my mom’s jobs, and we still had to scrimp and save to get by. I was only able to go to college (and become a relatively well-functioning productive member of society) because of student loans and grants for low-income students and a relatively well-funded (at the time) state university system.

Unfortunately, the forces of reaction have been chipping away at our public institutions for support and advancement for decades. But no amount of free-market fairy dust is going to take their place. As I’ve written,

people are not, in general, rugged individualists, including those who think they are. Each one of us is just one accident or piece of bad luck away from becoming utterly dependent on others. The idea that you could tear down the institutions that we’ve built for collective support–rickety and ad hoc though they are–without causing a lot of human suffering is not remotely plausible.

Reasonable people can disagree about how best to devise these programs for collective support. But the radically individualist view that they aren’t necessary looks a lot like a bad-faith rationalization for funneling (even more) wealth to the top, leaving everyone else in the dust.

Toward utopia?

I have always had a small-c conservative streak that makes me skeptical of utopian politics. The idea that human beings could, through their own efforts, abolish suffering, strife and injustice once and for all has always struck me as dangerously wrongheaded. Both history and my own religious tradition seem to tell pretty decisively against this kind of hubris. 20th-century communism is probably the most towering example of utopian aspirations leading to widespread human misery. Human nature is not nearly as malleable as various utopian thinkers have supposed, which tends to undercut ambitious programs of remaking society from whole cloth.

But there’s an opposite danger to utopianism, which is to become complacent about the status quo. Just because utopia in the strict sense is impossible doesn’t mean that things couldn’t be a lot better than they are. Complacency is a particular temptation for the privileged–those of us who are relatively well off materially and insulated from the more obvious forms of injustice.

On a more prosaic level, it’s increasingly evident that the fortunes of center-left political parties across the developed world have suffered in part because they no longer offer a compelling vision of the future that can inspire hope among the electorate. This dynamic played out in last year’s presidential election, where Hillary Clinton was perceived (fairly or not) as lacking the “vision thing” (as George H.W. Bush memorably called it). Her realism was ill equipped to fend off Donald Trump’s fear-mongering and grandiose promises to make America “great” again, however untethered from reality those promises were. And it’s no secret that the enthusiasm Bernie Sanders generated was due in part to his willingness to “go big” in his proposals (free college, universal health care, etc.). Again, it’s debatable whether a President Sanders would’ve been able to deliver on those promises, but he provided something like a vision of a better society and not just a series of incremental tweaks to the status quo.

There’s no easy solution to the dilemma between offering big change and staying within the bounds of political realism. Even our most transformative presidents, like Lincoln and FDR, were keenly aware of the limits placed on them by the powers of their office and the political situations they found themselves in. Nevertheless, it seems clear that without some animating vision of a good society, a political party or movement risks losing its reason for being. Maybe there is room for “utopian” dreaming about the society we want to see.

Toward that end, I really liked this article from Australian economist John Quiggin that I came across recently. Appealing to the thought of the great economist John Maynard Keynes, Quiggin argues that the left, broadly speaking, needs to reclaim a utopian vision of human beings freed from extreme material want; such freedom will allow us to enjoy ever-greater amounts of leisure and develop our distinctive capabilities.

In his 1930 essay “‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,” Keynes argued that steady economic growth would eventually solve the problem of scarcity and essentially abolish the need to work to survive. Once the age-old struggle for subsistence was solved, humans could use their newfound leisure for other, more humane pursuits.

Quiggin argues that the end to scarcity Keynes envisioned is actually achievable within the relatively near future through a combination of productivity-enhancing technological progress and social-democratic policies. This would require a shift away from the obsession with maximizing wealth and consumption that characterize what Quiggin calls “market liberalism” (and what others call “neoliberalism,” Reaganism, Thatcherism, etc.).

Under market liberalism, the gains of economic output have increasingly accrued to the very rich, while the rest of the population has seen little benefit, and certainly not the freedom from material scarcity that Keynes envisioned.

This could change with a correction in policy, Quiggin thinks:

The first step would be to go back to the social democratic agenda associated with postwar Keynesianism. Although that agenda has largely been on hold during the decades of market-liberal dominance, the key institutions of the welfare state have remained both popular and resilient, as shown by the wave of popular resistance to cuts imposed in the name of austerity.

Key elements of the social democratic agenda include a guaranteed minimum income, more generous parental leave, and expanded provision of health, education and other social services. The gradual implementation of this agenda would not bring us to the utopia envisaged by Keynes — among other things, those services would require the labour of teachers, doctors, nurses, and other workers. But it would produce a society in which even those who did not work, whether by choice or incapacity, could enjoy a decent, if modest, lifestyle, and where the benefits of technological progress were devoted to improving the quality of life rather than providing more material goods and services. A society with these priorities would allocate most investment according to judgments of social need rather than market signals of price and profit. That in turn would reduce the need for a large and highly rewarded financial sector, even in relation to private investment.

This is essentially the program of the leftward-edge of social democracy (or left-liberalism in American terms), and a kissing cousin of “democratic socialism,” depending on how one understands those terms. But it would be in the service of a particular vision–of moving beyond the “money-driven” society toward one in which human beings are free not to work and accumulate, or at least work and accumulate less. And though Quiggin doesn’t mention this in his essay, the environmental crisis calls into serious question whether a world of ever-increasing consumption and accumulation is even compatible with the continued existence of human civilization.

Yet our mainstream politics is usually afraid to step outside the terms of debate offered by market liberalism. Even left-of-center politicians (in the U.S. anyway) typically talk about citizens as workers and consumers first and foremost and tend to valorize the ulta-rich (particularly if they happen to be their donors).

But the great philosophers and religious traditions are virtually unanimous in saying that the good life for human beings consists of something other than endless work, accumulation and consumption. I’m optimistic enough to believe that many people would, if given the choice, prefer to have less “stuff” if their essential needs were taken care of and if it meant they could spend more time with their friends and family, enjoy artistic and creative pursuits, travel, appreciate nature, etc. This is hardly utopian in the sense of bringing and end to human suffering, nor does it require a revolution to tear down existing society and start from scratch (with the rivers of blood that usually entails). But it points to a dramatically different society organized around virtues that our current arrangements tend to stifle. As Keynes himself put it:

I see us free, therefore, to return to some of the most sure and certain principles of religion and traditional virtue – that avarice is a vice, that the exaction of usury is a misdemeanour, and the love of money is detestable, that those walk most truly in the paths of virtue and sane wisdom who take least thought for the morrow. We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not, neither do they spin.

Given the current state of things, even thinking about utopia seems utopian! But as the Scriptures say, “where there is no vision, the people perish.”

Bernie Sanders and the progressive foreign policy turn

Foreign policy was oddly absent for most of last year’s Democratic presidential primary. This is odd not just because foreign policy is obviously a large part of the president’s job, but because it’s an area where eventual winner Hillary Clinton was arguably the most vulnerable. You may recall that in the 2008 Democratic primary foreign policy–most importantly the Iraq war–was one of the most salient differences between Clinton and a young upstart senator named Barack Obama. Clinton’s support (or sorta, kinda support, depending on how you parse her votes) for George W. Bush’s ill-fated adventure in the Middle East put her on the wrong side of the liberal base (not to mention the majority of Americans by that point).

Given that history–as well as her role in controversial foreign interventions during her tenure as secretary of state (e.g., Libya)–Clinton’s primary challengers had ample ammunition to attack her foreign policy judgment. While there were a few shots taken early on (I seem to recall both Lincoln Chaffee (remember him?) and Martin O’Malley making hay of this in one of the early debates), it didn’t emerge as a major issue in the primary, particularly once it was a just contest between Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

It was clear that Sanders was more dovish than Clinton, but his campaign focused much more heavily on the themes of economic inequality and Clinton as a symbol of the failed status quo. This appears to have been partly because of Sanders’ laser-like focus on economics and also because he was less comfortable talking about foreign policy. (In the debates he came off as out of his depth at times, even if his instincts were generally sound.) There was also probably less hunger for a foreign policy debate among the Dem primary electorate because Barack Obama, not George W. Bush, was sitting in the White House. Rightly or wrongly, liberals were much more muted in their critique of Obama’s foreign policy, even when it demonstrated more continuities than differences with the previous administration.

Whatever the reasons, though, the primary now looks like a lost opportunity to debate what a progressive foreign policy should look like. But Bernie Sanders, very possibly eyeing another run in 2020, looks like he wants to correct that. He gave a major address this week on foreign policy that tries to broaden our conception of what it entails (like addressing global economic disparities and climate change), highlights alternatives to militarism in achieving our goals, and reaffirms the values of internationalism and liberal democracy.

Full disclosure: I voted for Clinton in last year’s primary, but my foreign policy views hew much closer to those articulated by Sanders. Whether or not Sanders ends up running in 2020 (and I have mixed feelings about that) it’s good to see him (and others, like Connecticut senator Chris Murphy) beginning to articulate a progressive alternative to the status quo.

One of the many unwelcome consequences of last year’s election is that, when it comes to foreign affairs (or anything else, really) the administration in power appears to be combining fecklessness and brutality in roughly equal measure. Moreover, the entire rise of Donald Trump, fueled by xenophobia and fear-mongering, owes a lot to the “war on terror” paradigm we’ve been living under for the last sixteen years. Democrats have often been loath to fundamentally challenge that paradigm, even when they’ve criticized its implementation. It’s good to see some of the party’s leading lights* finally moving in that direction.


*I know Bernie’s not technically a Democrat, but for all intents and purposes he’s tied his political future to the party.

Tom Paine, the Bible and wealth redistribution

I enjoyed this interview with University of Michigan philosopher Elizabeth Anderson on how workplaces effectively function as “private governments” and often act in oppressive ways toward their employees.

That lead me to this piece by Anderson on Tom Paine as an early theorist of social insurance. In Anderson’s telling, Paine was responding to revolutionary communist tendencies among some thinkers during the French Revolution.

thomas_paine2
The other Tom of the American (and French) Revolutions

He wanted to save private property and freedom while also solving the problem of poverty–the very problem that led some to embrace extreme, communist-like solutions.

Paine called for an unconditional grant of money to every citizen funded by a tax on inherited wealth. For him, this was not a matter of charity, but of justice. The earth belongs to everyone, so others are owed some recompense when property is appropriated to private ownership. Moreover, the value of any property depends in part on the social context in which it exists.

As Paine says in his essay Agrarian Justice:

I have made the calculations stated in this plan, upon what is called personal, as well as upon landed property. The reason for making it upon land is already explained; and the reason for taking personal property into the calculation is equally well founded though on a different principle. Land, as before said, is the free gift of the Creator in common to the human race. Personal property is the effect of society; and it is as impossible for an individual to acquire personal property without the aid of society, as it is for him to make land originally.

Separate an individual from society, and give him an island or a continent to possess, and he cannot acquire personal property. He cannot be rich. So inseparably are the means connected with the end, in all cases, that where the former do not exist the latter cannot be obtained. All accumulation, therefore, of personal property, beyond what a man’s own hands produce, is derived to him by living in society; and he owes on every principle of justice, of gratitude, and of civilization, a part of that accumulation back again to society from whence the whole came.

What’s striking about Paine’s arguments is that they anticipate later views about the common origin of property, the social construction of property rights and the duties that property owners have to society. (Recall President Obama’s (in)famous “You didn’t build that” line.)

I’d add that, although Paine was a Quaker-turned-Deist, this general viewpoint is consonant with Christian thinking. The earth does not belong to any human being; rather we hold it in trust as a gift of the creator. The Old Testament sets explicit limits on property rights, calling for fields and vineyards to be left fallow for the poor (and animals!) to eat from every seventh year (see Exodus 23). There is no absolute right of private property in the Bible, and any scheme of property rights that leaves some in destitution is unjustifiable and wicked.

With the Fourth of July upon us, remember that Paine is at the very least an honorary founding father, so wealth redistribution turns out to be as American as apple pie. 😉

 

A brief case for #MedicareforAll

I’ve long believed that people in a wealthy society (such as our own) have a right to health care regardless of their ability to pay. To me, this arises from a Christian conviction (though certainly not an exclusively Christian conviction) that each human being has intrinsic worth as creature made in the image of God. This intrinsic value entails that the market can never be regarded as the ultimate arbiter of value: whether someone deserves an essential good like health care is not determined by their ability to pay for it.

That said, I’ve always been largely agnostic about the best means to achieving universal coverage. I supported the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) as a positive step forward, and in many cases it has been a literal life-saver. But with yesterday’s vote in the House of Representatives we’re one step closer to undoing even the relatively modest accomplishments of the ACA.

The ACA, with its reliance on market mechanisms and private insurance providers, was designed in part to appeal to centrists and conservatives (not to mention to get the insurance industry on board). Nevertheless, Republicans opposed it from inception and have pledged to repeal it pretty much from the moment it passed. In conservative rhetoric it constituted a “government takeover,” planting us squarely on a slippery slope to the dreaded socialism. More basically, despite its technocratic and market-friendly design, the ACA works by redistributing wealth from the rich to the non-rich, opposition to which is a bedrock of American conservatism.

What this shows, to my mind, is that the GOP, at least in its present incarnation, will oppose any effort toward universal coverage that requires taxing the rich to pay for benefits for the non-rich. And given that the whole problem is that many people simply can’t afford insurance, it’s hard to envision a solution that wouldn’t require redistribution. Conservatives sometimes argue that a “free” market in health insurance would solve the problem of cost, but there are well-known problems with treating health care like any other consumer good. Moreover, the “free market” solution is something that doesn’t exist outside of conservative theorizing, while there are plenty of real-world examples of universal coverage being provided by governments or through a mix of public and private solutions. It’s also worth noting that the most successful portion of the ACA, in terms of increasing coverage, has been the expansion of Medicaid eligibility–the most overtly “socialistic” piece of the law.

Given the intransigence of the Republican opposition, there doesn’t seem much point anymore in trying to appease conservatives. Whatever the fate of efforts to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, Democrats and liberals have very little reason not to push for a more ambitious, single-payer-style program to cover everyone in the country. This, of course, was a centerpiece of Bernie Sanders’ unsuccessful presidential bid, and it’s been gathering additional support among progressive Democrats in Congress. Whether this can be achieved in one fell swoop is debatable. The most viable approach might be to gradually expand Medicare and Medicaid eligibility, perhaps supplemented by a public health insurance option like the one progressives originally hoped would be part of the ACA. (Hillary Clinton voiced support for bringing back the public option in her ill-fated campaign.) Either way, it seems clear to me that pushing for more direct public provision is the most equitable and sustainable way forward.

This all assumes, of course, that Democrats ever manage to win elections again.