Liberalism: What’s Going Right

In “Libertarianism and Liberalism: What Went Wrong,” I tried to describe some of the features of conventional libertarianism and conventional liberalism that inhibit an anti-authoritarian coalition between them. In this post, I’d like to mention some promising trends within liberalism that offer hope for common ground with libertarians.

At the most modest level, I’ve been encouraged in some ways by Obama’s insurgency against Clinton, who personifies the most objectionable features of establishment liberalism. Obama’s preference for working with the  market mechanism instead of through the administrative state (purportedly resulting from the influence of Austan Goolsbee on his economics staff), seems on the whole to be a positive sign.

Of course Obama and Goolsbee are a mixed bag. The positive note is tempered somewhat by Goolsbee’s part in the NAFTA flap. Assuming there’s some fire behind that smoke, his fondness for NAFTA suggests he conflates “markets” way too much with the existing corporate system. His idea of “democratizing markets,” as Daniel Koffler describes it in the link above, relies heavily on subsidies to higher education, which sounds too much like both the New Labour and New Democratic approach: Accepting corporate domination and meritocracy as given, and using education as a social engineering tool to turn everyone into managers. The danger is that Goolsbee’s affinity for “markets” will translate, not into taking  big business off the government teat, but into simply splitting the difference with the Reagan/Thatcher version of banana republicanism – in other words, the DLC model of kinder and gentler neoliberalism.

I also confess to being a bit sick of Obama’s whole Oprah/New Age/”Law of Success” shtik about everybody just getting along, and transcending partisan differences, and all that happy crappy. I might be in a bit more conciliatory mood after the bleeding heads of every billionaire and Fortune 500 CEO in America are mounted on pikes along Wall Street. We’ll just have to wait and see. As for Oprah’s recycled version of the old “name it  and claim it” gospel, I care a lot less about whether the board rooms “look like the rest of America,” than about the power those boardrooms exercise in the first place.

Still, there’s the possibility that with Obama’s more genuinely left-wing (as opposed to liberal) voting record, and the influence of Goolsbee’s market-friendliness, he might just manage to combine them in a novel way that promotes egalitarian goals outside the conventional liberal box. The combination of pro-market and left-leaning rhetoric, taken at face value, offers at least a hope of the kind of thing Jesse Walker mentioned (“How to be a  Half-Decent Democrat“) as a way for Democrats to attract libertarian votes,

Don’t be a slave to the bureaucracy. Look, I don’t expect you to turn into a libertarian. But there are ways to achieve progressive goals without expanding the federal government, and if you’re willing to entertain enough of those ideas, you’ll be more appealing than a “free-market” president who makes LBJ look thrifty. You could talk about the harm done by agriculture subsidies, by occupational licensing, by eminent domain, by the insane tangle of patent law. And no, I don’t expect you to call for abolishing the welfare state — but maybe you’d like to replace those top-heavy bureacracies with a negative income tax?

Consistently applied, what this suggests is essentially the geolibertarian approach of replacing the administrative and regulatory state with Pigovian taxation of negative externalities and economic rents, and replacing the welfare state bureaucracy with a basic income funded by taxation of rents and externalities.

Although Obama’s departures from establishment liberalism are modest at best, the same tendencies show themselves much more strongly elsewhere within the traditional liberal camp.

RFK, Jr. is a good example. He refers to markets in a positive way, but (unlike Obama and Goolsbee) sharply distinguishes the free market from corporate capitalism. In fact he demonizes the corporate economy in terms of free market principles,

You show me a polluter and I’ll show you a subsidy. I’ll show you a fat cat using political clout to escape the discipline of the free market and load his production costs onto the backs of the public.

Free markets, when allowed to function, properly value raw materials and encourage producers to eliminate waste – pollution – by reducing, reusing, and recycling…

The truth is, I don’t even think of myself as an environmentalist anymore. I consider myself a free-marketeer.

Corporate capitalists don’t want free markets, they want dependable profits, and their surest route is to crush the competition by controlling the government.

Let’s not forget that we taxpayers give away $65 billion every year in subsidies to big oil, and more than $35 billion a year in subsidies to western welfare cowboys. Those subsidies helped create the billionaires who financed the right-wing revolution on Capitol Hill and put George W. Bush in the White House.

Even better, Dean Baker has explained how the conventional “liberal” vs. “conservative” scripting on economic issues gets everything exactly backward:

Political debates in the United States are routinely framed as a battle between conservatives who favor market outcomes, whatever they may be, against liberals who prefer government intervention to ensure that  families have decent standards-of-living. This description of the two poles is inaccurate…

It is not surprising that conservatives would fashion their agenda in a way that makes it more palatable to the bulk of the population, most of whom are not wealthy and therefore do not benefit from policies that distribute income upward. However, it is surprising that so many liberals and progressives, who oppose conservative policies, eagerly accept the conservatives’ framing of the national debate over economic and social policy. This is comparable to playing a football game where one side gets to determine the defense that the other side will play. This would be a huge advantage in a football game, and it is a huge advantage in politics. As long as liberals allow conservatives to write the script from which liberals argue, they will be at a major disadvantage in policy debates and politics. The conservative framing of issues is so deeply embedded that it  has been widely accepted by ostensibly neutral actors, such as policy professionals or the news media that report on national politics. For example, news reports routinely refer to bilateral trade agreements, such as NAFTA or CAFTA, as “free trade” agreements. This is in spite of the fact that one of the main purposes of these agreements is to increase patent protection in developing countries, effectively increasing the length and force of government-imposed monopolies. Whether or not increasing patent protection is desirable policy, it clearly is not “free trade.” It is clever policy for proponents of these agreements to label them as “free  trade” agreements…, but that is not an excuse for neutral commentators to accept this definition….

Unfortunately, the state of the current debate on economic policy is even worse from the standpoint of progressives. Not only have the conservatives been successful in getting the media and the experts to accept their framing and language, they have been largely successful in getting their liberal opponents to accept this framing and language, as well. In the case of trade policy, opponents of NAFTA-type trade deals usually have to explain how they would ordinarily support “free trade,” but not this particular deal. Virtually no one in the public debate stands up and says that these trade deals have nothing to do with free trade….


This entry was posted on Tuesday, March 18th, 2008 at 9:30 pm

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