I feel the tension between liberals and the Left. Being on the political Left in the US puts you in uncomfortable position because the national conversation is extremely narrow, and liberals focused on day-to-day governance are pinched from both sides. Those on the broader Left–the “International Left”–come across as contrarians or as puritanical. Petty liberals–those who, broadly speaking, hew to the center-left line of the Democratic Party, embodied by the Brookings Institute, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, and public intellectuals like Matt Yglesias or Robert Reich, and politicians like Barack Obama and, formerly, Ted Kennedy–bristle as much at criticisms from the Left as they do to criticisms from the American right wing, and often are more defensive against those criticisms as they see them as coming from an attitude of “purity” or Utopianism.
Before getting to the problems with statism, it is useful to define what I mean by “liberals” and “the Left”.
It is hard to define terms in this debate, because the political spectrum is essentially fluid and the absence of ideological parties with specific manifestos confound categorization. In general terms, the petty liberal left is redistributionist and mildly statist; petty liberals don’t dispute that the foundations of American society are essentially just; rather, they seek to use extant institutions to address distributive problems.
The rest of the Left is something like an “International Left”. They are not necessarily socialist (more social democratic), but do rely on Marx’ methods to analyze social conditions and come up with solutions. These are not liberals but Leftists. The reason I’d say they aren’t necessarily socialists (or even Marxists per se) is that the roots of Leftism go back to the American and French Revolutions and predate Marx, and they do not necessarily adopt Marx’ prescriptive and predictive elements, meaning, they don’t necessarily believe a dictatorship of the proletariat (in the Marxist, not Leninist, sense) is inevitable or desirable. The essential dictates of this International Left probably have as much to do with Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man and Age of Reason, the Declaration of Independence (and Jefferson’s semi-public correspondence) as they do with Marx and the thinkers who survived the First International. Perhaps the strongest single statement you could use to sum up the Left is Jefferson’s contention that “The Earth belongs…to the living.” In other words, power resides in the democratic institutions closest to the people in successive generations, including property rights, which proceed from social sovereignty rather than preceding it. “Justice” for a Leftist isn’t rooted as deeply in “property” as it is for a petty liberal, since property exists at the sufferance of the people. This was essentially Thomas Paine’s position by the later stages of his career.
The Left seeks redistributive policies–like a progressive tax code or welfare–because they are viewed as a way to address structural injustices without fundamentally altering the way American society is ordered. Let the powerful get richer, but take a bit more from them as a sort of transaction cost for their good fortune. The alternative is to order society in a way that makes it impossible for power and wealth accrue. The average American liberal would see this as unjust; you are unduly limiting an individual’s liberty to dispose of their property and their talent, and the social cost of that infringement is unconscionable.
The problem with this view is that it is essentially ceding an argument to the libertarian right; thus why we end up in perennial arguments about just how high the top marginal tax rate should be, with the right busting out the ludicrous Laffer Curve to justify a lower rate. When the only criteria is a nebulous conception of “fairness”, how can you justify using the coercive power of the state to extract more from one group–solely because they are more successful, even by the liberal definition? I’m not certain you can. While I think all factions of the Left agree that a progressive tax system is “more just” than a flat tax with no other structural changes to the economic system, this is a pragmatic and frankly stop-gap solution. The Right always has an advantage in that they can rest on normative “oughta” proposals–“It is wrong to use the coercive powers of the state to take from one group and give to another”–whereas the Left is forced to delve into sound byte unfriendly rationalizations for why this is the “least we can do.” Liberals are also forced to appeal to people’s better nature on the matter of fairness–easy enough in good times, impossible in bad times–whereas the Right has the much more potent instinct towards self-preservation and self-interest.
I don’t doubt at all that most American libertarians honestly believe they are just advocating for something “neutral”–even though the material reality of the world means their proposals result in de facto bias. Honestly believing they are advocating for something neutral and therefore essentially fair, they are impossible to dissuade and have all the self-righteousness needed to keep them plugging away for their Utopian vision for lifetimes. Their ideology also sounds more fair precisely because it doesn’t rely on appeals to charity or empathy. Liberals are enamored of posturing as being more “caring”; of wanting to “help” the “less fortunate”. But this is all backward.
The Left should be wholly unconcerned with “helping” anybody. To the contrary; we should be advocating for policies, programs, and reform that make it possible for the “less fortunate” (really, the exploited) to help themselves.
With that in mind, I once posed the following theoretical trade to a group of libertarians: I would give up the progressive tax system, MedicAid, TANF, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and basically every New Deal and Great Society program and institution with the exceptions of Social Security and MediCare if they’d grant me just one thing: abrogation of at-will employment and the liquidation of NLRB case law related to it. They claimed they’d make the trade; I think they’d get an earful from their friends at the National Manufacturer’s Association and the Chamber of Commerce.
At-will employment, in brief, is the American common-law doctrine that says that an employee can be discharged for “good cause, bad cause, or no cause at all.” Your boss can tell you you’re fired because he doesn’t like the color of your tie, or because he feels like it, or he can give you no reason at all. The other side of it is that an employee can leave at any time for any reason.
The doctrine of at-will employment is uniquely American and is one of the keys to capital’s utter domination of American civic life. At-will employment enshrines in common law the imbalanced relationship between the employer and employee. Considering the simple majority of Americans work for large firms (500+ employees) in unskilled non-professional labor, there can’t be a question that, society-wide, losing your job is much more serious than losing one employee. If you’re born in a Western industrial economy, you basically have to work for someone else to survive. Capitalism wouldn’t work if everybody was an entrepreneur who used their capital to generate a profit for themselves. Capitalism requires a large labor force trading only their labor value for wages. Since capitalism requires employees, enshrining at-will employment puts individual workers at a permanent disadvantage.
What’s more, oddly, at-will employment essentially disadvantages one group: white males. The major exception to at-will employment is that you cannot be discharged because of your race, gender, religion, national origin, age, or disability. If you’re a white male who isn’t disable, you have no recourse. There’s also an exception for “union activity” that is outside of the doctrine of at-will employment: according to the Wagner Act (the National Labor Relations Act of 1935) you cannot be discharged for union activity; but generations of adverse National Labor Relations Board decisions have made the criteria for proving discharge for union activism impossible difficult to meet. The result is that workers are forced to go through costly and long-shot tort proceedings to protect their livelihood.
Anybody who has organized a union with a private employer will tell you that the unionization process in the US is fundamentally broken, particularly in economic down times, and that truly organizing large employers is for all practical purposes impossible. Unions have abandoned the “NLRB process” (i.e, ballot elections) because the boss has every advantage, rooted in their ability to fire anybody at will, with the burden being on the discharged employee to prove they were discharged for their union activity specifically. Instead, unions have increasingly relied on “corporate” or “comprehensive” campaigns, wherein they expend enormous organizational resources to publicly assault a large employer in order to force them to agree to “neutrality agreements” that bind them to stay out of the organizing process. Anti-labor groups refer to these as “gag rule” agreements that “impose” unionization on the employees, when in fact all they do is enjoin the employer from engaging in high-pressure anti-unionization tactics that, again, are rooted in their ability to fire anybody “at will”.
America’s unions have declined to a 7% density in the private sector, but still possess immense resources and are impressively adept at confronting employers; if at-will employment were dissolved in favor of “Just cause” employment similar to what actually already exists in Montana, there’s no doubt that union density would explode, particularly in places where a solid union base already exists–the Northeast, the Midwest, and the West Coast. More importantly, the “race to the bottom” set off by “right to work laws” in the old Confederacy and Southwest would be retarded and employers wouldn’t be facing such a huge competitive disadvantage.
The result of all of this of course is that wealth would be redistributed at the point of contact–in the workplace–without first accruing. Not only this, but it would be redistributed by locally democratic organizations by working class people themselves. It would happen through mutually-agreed to contracts entered into voluntarily by both parties–an essentially business agreement, rather than a political process. Not only would wealth be redistributed by a voluntary contract, but workplace rules and management would be instituted shop-by-shop rather than by a remote government agency forever under-resourced.
On top of this, non-discrimination laws like the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which created the EEOC), while still useful, would fade in importance. A statute prohibiting termination for race, sex, or religion would be somewhat redundant in a society where you can only be discharged for cause. Simultaneously, it’d be strengthened because employees would be more willing to come out against their employer’s discriminatory practices if they weren’t at risk for termination themselves. The public perception that “liberals” or “the left” is only interested in protecting minorities would disappear.
This should be the Leftist ideal, however far-off a dream it may seem. How much of a dream it is is open to debate; keep in mind that at one time, union density was above 35% and John Lewis of the United Mine Workers essentially dictated energy production with a phone call. Those were probably dark days for the libertarian right.
Isn’t it closer to left wing ideals to empower working class people to secure their own livelihoods through a free and democratic process (unionization and collective bargaining), while also deferring to liberal concerns about property rights and individual liberty to get state coercion out of the redistribution game? And even from a politically pragmatic point of view, wouldn’t it undercut the Utopian, normative arguments of the right?
The challenge ironically doesn’t come from the right, but from capital’s replacement of labor in the Democratic Party power structure. Democratic politicians rely far more on the money generated by high finance than they do on labor, and as a result they’re much less sympathetic than they were even a generation ago to labor-side problems. Liberal intellectuals have internalized the view that the system is fundamentally sound, just a little imbalanced, and are hostile to criticisms of that position.
The progressive income tax and redistributionist programs like it are not morally wrong if we accept the idea that American society has structural deficiencies that result in unearned disadvantages. Abrogating these programs without attendant reform in things like labor law–without deep, fundamental reforms–is making the problem worse. But that doesn’t mean that our own ideal is just as far from statism as that of the ideological right.