Longtime readers of the blog may remember that when I first started posting, in March 2014, I began with an odd question: what would a progressive Milton Friedman say? Underlying the question was my sense that contemporary American progressives have failed to articulate a vision of government that could replace the crumbling vision of the Reagan era, as embodied in Milton Friedman’s rhetorically powerful and very influential Capitalism and Freedom.
In retrospect, one of the unstated assumptions of that series of posts — to which I hope to return, especially as the materials for a progressive post-Reagan-era vision continue to accumulate, if not coalesce — was the idea that a contemporary, progressive Capitalism and Freedom would be primarily about economics, as Friedman’s book was.
But why should this be the case? Why must economic policy and the government’s role in the economy be the defining focus of the next “era” — the next political or constitutional regime — in the United States? Even if the New Deal era and the Reagan era were largely defined by changes in economic ideology and policy, must this always be the case?
In particular, as I turned toward thinking about the environment as part of a recent project, I wondered whether the next American political regime could be defined by the response to environmental problems and above all climate change, which, it’s at least plausible to argue, is the single most important political issue facing the United States and the world today. Maybe Europe’s Green Parties could be a sign of things to come.
Of course, a turn toward a politics of climate change and the environment could be described as nothing more than a focus on a new set of economic issues, since nearly all governmental responses to environmental problems involve changes in economic policy, especially the rationalizing of negative externalities through Pigovian taxes.
In fact, nearly any political transformation, movement, or era can be described as “about economics” if one defines economics broadly enough and puts enough creative effort into the description. I’m sure some Marxist (do they call themselves “Marxian” now?) historians would continue to argue, for example, that the Civil War was really, deep down, all about economics and property, and not about race, white supremacy, and defending regional tribal identities and moral commitments. While conflicts over economics and property no doubt played an enormous role in the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the rise of Jim Crow, I’m probably not alone in finding this argument ultimately implausible. It’s hard to believe that if Lincoln had announced at his First Inaugural that all the slaves would be freed and their owners fully compensated, at no cost to the Southern states, the South would have shrugged and said — “Okay, that sounds fair. All we wanted was money…”
Despite all of the above, however, I don’t think the next political era or regime in the United States will be defined by environmental issues. I continue to think that a progressive Capitalism and Freedom should, in its overarching scheme, be primarily about economics, as I suggested in my first few gestures toward what such a scheme might look like. Why?
A hierarchy of political needs
I’d propose — and, I assume, some political scientist somewhere has already proposed — that there is something like a hierarchy of political needs, or, more concretely, a hierarchy of political issues that shape voting and other political behavior.
The idea of a hierarchy of personal needs comes from Abraham Maslow’s 1943 “A Theory of Human Motivation,” which can be seen as a kind of critique of the rational choice theories that continue to dominate orthodox economics, and increasingly the social sciences generally. Instead of viewing human beings as primarily, or for most useful predictive purposes, motivated by insatiable pecuniary greed, Maslow emphasizes that physiological needs such as air, water, and food come first, then safety needs such as personal and financial security, leading all the way up through love to various spiritual needs.
The part of Maslow’s model that’s useful for my purposes is the idea that when the more basic needs are satisfied, it’s not always obvious how foundational they are, how central they are to what we end up doing.
Similarly, we could imagine a hierarchy of political needs where, for example, national security trumps economic policy, and economic policy trumps other issues, such as civil liberties, or campaign finance reform, or more altruistic goals like saving future generations from the consequences of severe climate change (water conflicts, famines, mass migrations, global instability, terrorism, wars, poverty, disease), or helping other countries increase their wealth or avoid mass atrocities, or building international institutions to address the world’s increasingly international concerns.
One of the main lessons of post-September 11 American politics, in my view, is that such a hierarchy seems to exist, at least in the contemporary American political culture. Once national security is called into question, pretty much everything else takes a back seat. If a nation is under attack, “bread and circuses” won’t be enough for a leader to gain popular approval. This also fits the standard story used to explain Winston Churchill’s becoming Prime Minister in 1940, and then his ejection from office almost immediately after the end of the Second World War. The public supported his national security stance and opposed his economic stance; during wartime, the former allowed him to become Prime Minister; after wartime, the latter came back to the fore.
When a country faces an external threat to its security, especially what is now sometimes called an “existential threat,” elections and political support can no longer simply be explained by saying: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
This might seem like an obvious point. American presidents are always saying that national security is their first priority. But political scientists who develop models to predict presidential election outcomes — rather than relying on pundits’ reporting about campaign gaffes and candidates’ ostensible identities — seem to have had the best luck with models that place significant weight on the economy’s performance and include no variable explicitly related to national security.
But just as the power of hunger and thirst to shape personal behavior may be invisible so long as a person is well-fed and hydrated, so the power of national security to shape voting behavior may be invisible so long as a nation feels no sense of imminent security threat. This doesn’t happen often in the United States, thankfully, but when it does, I suspect national security concerns tend to displace everything else.
This conclusion isn’t always reflected in the way that progressives talk about politics. Nor do progressives since the 1960s always seem to have been aware of the relative importance of economic issues. The American Left’s focus on cultural and identity politics through the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, however valuable, displaced attention from progressive economic politics. This focus also doesn’t seem like a promising electoral strategy. If a hierarchy of political needs exists like the one sketched above, and one side of the American political spectrum is arguing for votes based on strong national defense and self-interested economic grounds, while the other is arguing based on appeals for fair treatment of marginalized groups, it stands to reason that the party making economic arguments will have an advantage.
Or will it? I suppose Thomas Frank’s argument in What’s the Matter with Kansas? was that cultural appeals were trumping economic self-interest among socially conservative voters during the Reagan Era. As I’ve mentioned before, however, I’m skeptical of Frank’s basic point. I suspect that the vast majority of Republican voters during the Reagan Era viewed themselves as voting in favor of both their moral commitments and their economic self-interest. Although I haven’t seen any research on this, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that these voters perceived themselves as supporting candidates who would advance job-creating, pro-growth policies and oppose job-killing regulations. Frank simply disagrees with these voters about what policies would serve their interest. The fact that he’s apparently right and they’re apparently wrong as a matter of economics doesn’t change the political analysis.
In any case, all of the above is why I continue to believe that a Capitalism and Freedom for a new progressive era should be — probably has to be — primarily about economic issues. Barring another serious attack on the United States by members of some group seen as others, and barring an imminent man-made environmental catastrophe — which is arguably what many places in China face today, but which is not likely in the United States in the near future, at least as an obvious, straightforward result of climate change — whatever comes to replace the Reagan Era will most likely be defined primarily by its economic ideology.