18 December 2013

Two components of the liberal project

In Is The Safety Net Just Masking Tape? at the New York Times, Thomas B. Edsall makes a number of observations

Two years ago, Mike Konczal, a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, opened a productive line of inquiry in a blog post called “Are We at the Completion of the Liberal Project?”

Konczal described two approaches to the liberal state. In the first, “you would have the government maintaining full employment, empowering workers and giving them more bargaining power.” In the second, “you would have a safety net for those who fell through the cracks.”

These two approaches, according to Konczal, should not be looked at as an either-or proposition, but as mutually reinforcing and interdependent:

I don’t believe those two can exist without each other. Without a strong middle and working class you don’t have natural constituencies ready to fight and defend the implementation and maintenance of a safety net and public goods. The welfare state is one part, complementing full employment, of empowering people and balancing power in a financial capitalist society.” In practice, Konczal writes, the political left has abandoned its quest for deep structural reform — full employment and worker empowerment — and instead has “doubled-down” on the safety net strategy. The result, in his view, is “a kind of pity-charity liberal capitalism.

Konczal’s poignant description of the problem goes a long way toward explaining the current struggles of the left. The question is whether there is an effective worker empowerment strategy at a time of globalization, offshoring and robotization.

Edsall proposes a set of policies going forward that progressives like me would love to see … but then argues that it's hard to see how they could succeed politically in our current environment.

And in the longer term, I cannot see how his full-employment policies are a solution. With robots doing more and more and the limits of material resources pressing, “full employment” seems neither possible nor desirable.

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