Economics, Law, Philosophy, Politics

The Intellectual Foundations of a New Progressive Era?

Free Photo: US 54

This post is the fourth in a series of five considering what the shape of progressive political-economic thought might look like following the neoliberalism of the Reagan Era.

In earlier posts, I introduced the progressive view of markets as government creations, and sketched some of the intellectual history of the idea.

In this post, I would like to note a few distinctive features of this view of markets and how it relates to other economic and political positions.

First, the idea is counterintuitive. The opposition between government and markets is so deeply rooted in our public economic discourse today that it may take some explanation and illustrations to show what is meant by the claim that our markets are government creations. But the idea is no more counterintuitive than Reagan-era claims were at the time of their introduction, such as the slogan that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” In addition, the idea has the virtue of being in some sense obviously true. No one can deny — and sophisticated neoliberal theorists like Hayek do not deny — that the functioning of modern economic markets depends on and is shaped by state enforcement of property, contract, corporate, criminal, and many other laws.

Second, the view of markets as government creations, and the legal rules of markets as political choices, frames economic debates in a way that favors progressives but leaves room for conservatives to participate — just as the neoliberal framing of economic debates in terms of a choice between government and the market favored conservatives but left room for progressives to participate. Conservatives in a new progressive era would be free to argue (unappealingly) that we should choose rules for our markets that favor billionaires over working families, because of the merits of wealth accumulation, for example; just as progressives in the neoliberal era have always been free to argue (unappealingly) that high taxes and big government are actually a good thing, because certain parts of the economy are better left to government management.

Continue reading

Standard
Economics, Law, Politics

After Trump: A Progressive Manifesto

Free Photo: Migrant Man Traveling

Whether we think of the last four decades in U.S. politics as the Reagan Era or, with an eye to global political-economic trends, as the era of neoliberalism,[1] it is worth considering that the political regime with which we are all familiar may be coming to an end, with the current president as its final unraveling.

A little over a year since the election of Donald Trump, what we have seen is consistent with the theory that his presidency may be a “disjunctive” one. The term comes from the political scientist Stephen Skowronek’s structuralist theory of presidential politics, which suggests that certain presidents — such as John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Herbert Hoover, and Jimmy Carter — find themselves in an “impossible leadership situation” as “a president affiliated with a set of established commitments that have in the course of events been called into question as failed or irrelevant responses to the problems of the day” (39).

Assuming our democracy survives the next three years — which remains unclear so long as an unwell racist demagogue possesses executive power, supported by a blindly obedient mass following — what might come after the Reagan Era? The continuing global spread of illiberalism, perhaps aided by the rise of a more competent American strongman, is one possibility. But what is the progressive alternative?

What would American progressives like to see replace the collapsing ideology of neoliberalism?

This question has been a driving preoccupation of this blog since I started writing it in 2014. I still find it useful to frame the challenge for progressives in terms of the question I asked in my second post: If a progressive today were to write a book like Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom, what would it say? In order to lay the intellectual foundations for a new progressive era, progressives should be able to offer what Friedman’s book offered to the Reagan regime: a simple, rhetorically compelling, easily summarized general vision of politics and the economy — alongside a sample of bold policy proposals that embody the general vision and can serve as a focus of practical political action.

It now seems to me that the intellectual foundations for a new progressive era are finally coming into view. In recent years, a growing chorus of progressive voices — from Dean Baker, Robert Reich, Dani Rodrik, and Geoffrey Hodgson, to the legal scholars at the recently launched Law and Political Economy blog — have begun to coalesce around a simple, compelling idea about government and markets. At the risk of oversimplification, the basic thought is something like this:

The economic choice we face today is not, as the last forty years of our politics has suggested, between government and the market. In fact, as a closer look makes clear, markets are created by governments. The rules of our economic markets are established by our government through its laws.

Our markets are government creations, and the rules of our markets are political decisions. It is in our power as a democracy to fix the rules when they are broken.

For the last forty years, we have lived in the illusion that “the free market” means a set of market rules favoring the wealthy and powerful few at the expense of the freedom of the many. But nothing in the nature of markets requires the neoliberal economic policies our government has so often chosen.

Continue reading

Standard
Economics, Law, Philosophy, Politics

A Critique of “Critique”: What Is Still Wrong with the Academic Left

Free Photo: Pulling an Airship From a Hangar

There is a recurring form of argument on the academic Left that I believe deserves more critical scrutiny. I will call the form of argument “critique,” although I obviously mean something more specific than the ordinary meaning of the term. The peculiar structure of this “critique” is arguably a defining feature of the contemporary academic Left, yet it is rarely acknowledged as a specific gesture — as something that the academic Left characteristically does, and is virtually alone in doing.

When I say “critique,” what I have in mind is the following simple structure of argument, which can be, and has been, executed with countless variations:

  • Step One: Begin by identifying something — especially a powerful institution or idea — that the mainstream liberal political culture assumes to be largely a good thing, such as human rights, the language of rights in general, the rule of law, foreign aid, peacekeeping, or free speech.
  • Step Two: Identify something — especially some pathology involving inequalities of power — that the mainstream liberal political culture views as a bad thing, such as global poverty, war, sex trafficking, or gender discrimination. Often, from the perspective of the mainstream liberal political culture, the problem here will be endemic, and susceptible to no easy solution, although the mainstream liberal political culture views itself as committed to finding better solutions.
  • Step Three — and here is the conjuring trick, where the leftist scholar really has a chance to display intellectual virtuosity: Reveal that the institution or idea from Step One is in fact responsible for the perpetuation of the evil in Step Two. What the liberal thinker assumed to be a good thing — is in fact complicit in what he agrees is a bad thing! For example, it is revealed that the liberal “rule of law” is only a smokescreen for the imposition of exploitative neoliberal economic policies on less powerful countries and communities. Or one discovers that liberal “human rights law,” far from opposing cruelty and promoting the equality of all people, perpetuates racist, colonial-imperialist, extractive-capitalist, patriarchal, and ableist assumptions and power-structures — and moreover, through its emphasis on rational autonomy, attempts to deprive the cognitively impaired of human dignity!

There is no Step Four. The academic Left is defiantly unconcerned with proposing less-worse alternatives to the status quo. Rather, the aim is critique, and critique alone.

This is, in other words, a profoundly unpragmatic mode of argument — as the pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty recognized already in his late-1990s criticisms of the spectatorial academic Left. It does not live in a world of better and worse practical alternatives. It is not interested in what reforms might be possible, or how to get from where we are to some better state of affairs. It denounces the status quo in the righteously indignant tone of someone who knows of a better alternative and is outraged that this alternative continues not to be realized — but without specifying what that alternative might be, or indeed showing any interest in the question of alternatives.

Continue reading

Standard
Economics, Law, Politics

“Finally, Whites Come First”

Free Photo: KKK Members With an Airplane

Like many white Americans, I have been pleasantly surprised by the Trump administration’s efforts to increase racial equality in the United States. After a lifetime of being denied opportunities based solely on the color of my skin, I now have a first, tentative sense of what racial justice must feel like.

To paraphrase the immortal words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Free at last, free at last. Thank God almighty I am free at last.”

I realize my reaction may be difficult to understand for the dominant groups in the United States today, such as blacks, undocumented immigrants, gays, and Muslims. If you have never been discriminated against, it can be difficult to appreciate the ways that racial oppression distorts and limits a life.

Let me share a parable that captures my experience. It comes from the sociologist Arlie Hochschild, who spent years talking with the white victims of racial discrimination in the United States.

Continue reading

Standard
Law, Politics

Trump/Caesar

Free Photo: Investigating the KKK

From Christian Meier’s Caesar: A Biography:

Caesar was insensitive to political institutions and the complex ways in which they operate. . . . Since his year as consul, if not before, Caesar had been unable to see Rome’s institutions as autonomous entities. . . . He could see them only as instruments in the interplay of forces. His cold gaze passed through everything that Roman society still believed in, lived by, valued and defended. He had no feeling for the power of institutions to guarantee law and security, but only for what he found useful or troublesome about them. . . . Thus what struck him most about the Senate was the fact that it was controlled by his opponents. It hardly seems to have occurred to him that it was responsible for the commonwealth. . . . In Caesar’s eyes no one existed but himself and his opponents. It was all an interpersonal game. He classified people as supporters, opponents, or neutrals. The scene was cleared of any suprapersonal elements. Or if any were left, they were merely props behind which one could take cover or with which one could fight. Politics amounted to no more than a fight for his rights.

Quoted in Jeremy Waldron’s Political Political Theory (2016), a defense of the importance of political institutions to political theory. Waldron concludes: “And by ‘his rights’ Meier meant not Caesar’s interests or his wealth but due recognition for his greatness.”

Continue reading

Standard
Economics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science

Max Weber and Political Ethics

Free Photo: Constructing the Manhattan Bridge

I hadn’t read anything by Max Weber until very recently, but finally made my way through “Politics as a Vocation,” his late lecture delivered shortly after the end of the First World War and the start of the German Revolution.

Weber seems to be primarily known today for several largely logically independent ideas scattered across the social sciences and humanities — especially: the idea that a Protestant work ethic played a role in the rise of capitalism, the importance of charisma to politics, the centrality of bureaucracy in the modern state, and the definition of the state as “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory” (where “legitimate” only means “accepted as legitimate,” to the apparent consternation of many normative political theorists).

I had heard that “Politics as a Vocation,” where this definition of the state appears, was one of the places where Weber approached political theorizing, and I was predisposed to sympathize with the lecture by some positive remarks that the legal scholar Duncan Kennedy had made about Weber and the “ethic of responsibility.” I’ve also always believed that political theorists tend to pay too little attention to empirical knowledge from history and political science, so I was hopeful that a broadly historically and empirically informed social scientist like Weber might offer a valuable perspective.

To my surprise, however, the lecture as a whole turns out to be remarkably parochial, and in parts, dangerously misguided.

Continue reading

Standard
Law, Politics

Negotiation Theory Argues for Constitutional Hardball Against Trump

Free Photo: Home Being Moved

In a 2004 article, the constitutional law scholar Mark Tushnet described the rise of what he called “constitutional hardball.” The article draws attention to a phenomenon that has become even more prominent in the United States over the ensuing thirteen years: the use of “political claims and practices … that are … within the bounds of existing constitutional doctrine” but that nevertheless conflict with prior assumptions about how things are supposed to work–the assumptions that “go without saying” in a working system of constitutional government.

A historical example would be Roosevelt’s court-packing plan. Already in 2004, Tushnet described a number of more recent examples of constitutional hardball by both Democrats and Republicans, but primarily by the latter–the Democratic filibuster against Bush’s judicial nominees in 2002-2003 and the Republican response, moves in Colorado and Texas to revisit districting decisions after the 2000 census, and the impeachment of President Clinton.

Many Republicans would argue that President Obama engaged in constitutional hardball by circumventing Congress through executive actions. Even if this is granted for the sake of argument, it would be hard to deny that the radicalized Republican Party of recent years has engaged in an escalation of constitutional hardball with no modern precedent. These hardball tactics include the transformation of the Senate filibuster into a hurdle for routine legislation, the Republican decision to hold hostage the nation’s credit by threatening to default on the debt, the unprecedented refusal to hold a vote on Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court, and the North Carolina legislature’s recent attempt to rewrite the powers of their Governor after a Democrat won the office. The list could go on.

The most important example, I would argue, was the general Republican refusal to engage in ordinary legislative negotiation with Obama throughout the course of his presidency. As Mitch McConnell famously stated in 2010: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Republicans carried out this strategy for the next six years by vocally opposing virtually every initiative supported by the President, even those policies that Republicans had supported before Obama and now support again under President Trump, such as infrastructure investments.

McConnell understood a central fact of contemporary American politics, one backed by social science studies and now confirmed by the success of McConnell’s strategy. This fact is arguably the central fact of contemporary American politics, along with the phenomenon of partisan polarization grounded in antipathy for the opponent’s party. As Jonathan Chait has repeatedly, persuasively reminded us:

The truth is that voters pay little attention to legislative details, or even to Congress at all. They make decisions on the basis of how they feel about the president, not how they feel about Congress. And a major factor in their evaluation of the president is the presence or absence of partisan conflict. If a president has support from the opposition party, it tells voters he’s doing well, and they then choose to reward the president’s party down-ballot.

In fact, voters “are so single-minded in their focus on the president that voters actually base their vote for state legislature on their assessment of the president.”

Welcome or not, this is a fact of contemporary American political life. Voters will reward Democrats in 2018 and 2020 for opposing everything that Trump and the Republican Party attempt to do between now and then–and punish Democrats for any perceived Republican legislative or executive victories. Despite what voters sometimes say in surveys, they will not reward Democrats for cooperating to get things done. No one is actually paying attention to that.

In addition, there are only so many seats in the Senate and the House: a win for Republicans is a loss for Democrats and vice versa. Partisan representation is a zero-sum game, with no possibilities for mutual advantage through negotiation.

As a result, Democrats have an obvious self-interest in opposing congressional Republicans and Trump on every possible front, including the forms of constitutional hardball that Republicans used throughout the Obama presidency. The most obvious and important example is Democratic refusal to vote for Republican legislation, including legislation that Democrats might support based on its substance alone.

Another example would be Trump’s nominee to fill the vacant seat on the Supreme Court. Democrats have an interest in obstructing the nominating process through every means possible, using whatever flimsy justification comes to mind. The justification would certainly be no less flimsy than the one used by Republicans to obstruct Garland’s nomination.

But sensitive, fair-minded, principled Democrats may hesitate to embrace such a flatly oppositional approach–as Senator Schumer and no doubt many other moderate Democrats appear, very much, to be hesitating. If Democrats begin to play routine constitutional hardball just like the radicalized contemporary GOP, descending to their low game rather than rising above the fray, what will become of our constitutional system?

Once the unwritten norms of fair play and settled tradition are routinely, unapologetically violated, will the Constitution not cease to “make politics possible,” leading to a serious constitutional crisis?

Continue reading

Standard