Economics, Politics

Can progressives exploit national security fears too?

Free Photo: Men Working in an Aluminum Factory, Boring Holes in Armour

President Obama recently made a speech to graduates at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, arguing that climate change is a national security issue. This is an argument that the Pentagon made in a report last year. Many others have been making it for over a decade.

I’ve often thought that progressives who care about climate change should make the connection to national security more often, in an attempt to appeal to the values of cultural conservatives — although there will of course be limits to the persuasiveness of such an appeal if conservatives perceive it as coming from liberals.

More generally, what President Obama might call “a whole host of”* progressive policies could be advocated on national security grounds. This casts a new light on several previous arguments that have appeared on this blog.

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Adolph Reed Jr. on the Current State of American Liberalism

Adolph Reed Jr., a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, recently wrote a piece in Harper’s on the decline of American liberalism. For those of us without a key to the Harper’s paywall, Reed has been making similar arguments in other venues.

Many of Reed’s arguments echo this blog’s recent posts on the background of our current moment in American politics. In particular, Reed critiques “the bogus premise that Democrat = liberal”:

Most telling … is the reinvention of the Clinton Administration as a halcyon time of progressive success. Bill Clinton’s record demonstrates, if anything, the extent of Reaganism’s victory in defining the terms of political debate and the limits of political practice. A recap of some of his administration’s greatest hits should suffice to break through the social amnesia. Clinton ran partly on a pledge of “ending welfare as we know it”; in office he both presided over the termination of the federal government’s sixty-year commitment to provide income support for the poor and effectively ended direct federal provision of low-income housing. In both cases his approach was to transfer federal subsidies — when not simply eliminating them — from impoverished people to employers of low-wage labor, real estate developers, and landlords. He signed into law repressive crime bills that increased the number of federal capital offenses, flooded the prisons, and upheld unjustified and racially discriminatory sentencing disparities for crack and powder cocaine. He pushed NAFTA through over strenuous objections from labor and many congressional Democrats. He temporized on his campaign pledge to pursue labor-law reform that would tilt the playing field back toward workers, until the Republican takeover of Congress in 1995 gave him an excuse not to pursue it at all. He undertook the privatization of Sallie Mae, the Student Loan Marketing Association, thereby fueling the student-debt crisis.

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What would the Capitalism and Freedom of a new progressive era say? (First sketch)

So, the preceding several posts hint at one way of attempting to move beyond the ideology of the Reagan era: begin by rejecting the ostensible significance of the distinction between big and small government, and then shift the discussion toward the question of democratic government. This would be a vision of government in which we no longer assume that markets and government are opposed, government is the problem, and markets are the solution—but instead, recognize that markets are creatures of government, and that our democratic choice has primacy over both general types of government action: direct through government spending, and indirect through government-created rules.

What are our goals as a democracy? In the American political tradition, freedom has always played a central role.

It is worth emphasizing that the debate over big versus small government is largely irrelevant to someone concerned with achieving the goals of freedom. In some contexts, addressing a problem through direct government action will make us more free; in others, addressing the problem through the rules of government-constructed markets will offer more freedom. Health insurance may be an example of the former, in part because all Americans need it at one time or another, their preferences are largely the same, and the overwhelming majority of consumers are not well-equipped to choose efficiently between the insurers that would best suit their needs. Groceries may be an example of the latter, in part because Americans have strongly divergent preferences, not all Americans need to buy any of the same groceries, and consumers are well-equipped to make efficient choices in a marketplace.

As Coase showed in “The Nature of the Firm,” sometimes markets are the most efficient way of managing a problem, and other times they are not. If markets were always the best solution, then there would be no need for firms with their centrally coordinated management: all tasks would be carried out through competitive bidding. The existence of firms, including many enormous ones (consider GE), suggests that centrally coordinated management can sometimes be more efficient than market processes, even on a large scale. In addition, looking beyond efficiency, the world around us is already full of contexts in which we choose not to allow market processes, because they would offend our values: organ donation, adoption, child labor. These marginal cases demonstrate a central point. We should recognize that we have a choice regarding when to use markets, and that the choice can and should be made in accordance with our values.

We have always been responsible, through our government, for choosing when to use markets, and what kinds of markets to use. We have always chosen the rules for markets based on the values of our democracy. But we have inherited from the classical liberal tradition a tendency to deny to ourselves that we are making these choices. We have acted too often in bad faith, imagining that a false necessity compelled us to make the choices we did, as though we were powerless to choose otherwise, or as though some universal law of economics dictated our choices—as though some arbitrarily chosen versions of nineteenth-century classical liberal markets are the only true markets, the only free markets, the only markets worthy of the name. None of this has ever been the case.

Again, contrary to the ideologies of the New Deal and of the Reagan era, neither direct government action, nor indirect government action through markets, is necessarily aligned with our freedoms.  Because there is no universal rule for determining which approach will promote freedom most in any specific context, the question that should frame our politics is not whether government is “big” (tending to rely on direct government action) or “small” (tending to rely on indirect government action through markets) but whether our government is democratic, in the sense of being responsive to the public’s values—including, perhaps above all in the American political tradition, freedom.