On Bloggingheads, Mike Konczal and I talk about Nietzsche, the Austrians, and neoliberalism. I explain the weird ways in which Hayek’s view of judging mirrors America’s belated feudalism, how my thinking about the Austrians has changed, why academic theorists and leftists wrongly elevate Strauss and Schmitt above Hayek and Mises, and how we might think about neoliberalism differently. Unfortunately I can’t seem to embed the video here, so you’ll have to click on the link and watch it over at the BH site.
Since my last roundup on the response to Chris Bertram’s, Alex Gourevitch’s, and my piece on workplace tyranny, there’s been a lot of action. But before I get to that, there are a couple of dispatches from the front that are just doozies.
Down in Australia, a company issues guidelines for how its employees ought to keep their work stations clean:
Cold soup can be freely enjoyed in communal hubs on each floor, but hot soup is only permitted on the “top deck”, an area devoted to eating and socialising on level 45 with sweeping views of the city and beyond.
While gum, throat lozenges and lollies can be consumed at desks, the privilege does not extend to “chocolate, fruit, nuts and other nibble food”.
No plants can be brought in from home to avoid “unintended plant diseases or create maintenance issues” and although flowers can be kept for a “short period”, the company will not be supplying vases.
Each staff member is allowed to have a single photo frame of A5 size on their desk permanently or, in lieu of a photograph, a framed work-related award of similar dimensions.
On the matter of photo frames, digital versions are allowed so long as they are A5, that is 148mm x 210mm, or smaller.
The photo issue comes into play if you are lucky enough to win a framed award. Employees are allowed to have the award on display during the day, but each evening “the clear desk policy will apply”. The way around this is if the award is “A5 or less in size”. This means you “may choose to have this as your photo frame that can be left out over night”.
Similarly, if an individual is a “warden”, “first responder” or “zero harm champion” they will receive appropriate signage for their desks. Along with level 45, which has been described as being like an airport business lounge, it is also permissible to eat hot food on the level 4 terrace.
In fact, staff are encouraged to bring their own meat to barbecue for lunch. Raw meat will be stored in designated fridges to ensure proper handling and hygiene.
Across the pond, 35 employees of France Telecom killed themselves over a two-year period in response, it seems, to workplace tyranny (and struggles over bathroom breaks).
Harrowing details emerged of the mental anguish of staff who killed themselves, including one who set himself alight in front of his office in western France. Some workers left notes blaming unbearable work pressure, bullying and “management by terror” while scores of other staff, from senior technicians to staff who worked processing bills, were saved as they attempted to kill themselves. One worker was found unconscious after taking an overdose at her desk.
Unions complained of a culture of fear and depression, where managers did not take staff mental health seriously. Some union officials said the company had intentionally created a stressful work environment to push employees into quitting in order to reduce its labour force and thereby cut costs.
During the crisis over the number of staff deaths, Lombard caused outrage by referring to it as a “suicide trend”. He is now accused of advocating tough management practices amounting to psychological harassment.
The legal case is a first in France because Lombard is not being singled out for personally targeting individuals but for presiding over a collective managerial bullying approach that spread across the company. It is the first time a French chief executive has been placed under judicial investigation in a workplace bullying case.
In February 2010, government labour inspectors said a restructuring plan that sought to reduce the company’s headcount by 22,000 and put 10,000 other workers in new positions had a “pathological effect” on staff morale.
One worker in Troyes was so desperate over the pressure of forced moves that he stabbed himself in the stomach during a meeting. Others killed themselves at their workplace, some in the middle of the working day.
One 51-year-old who had a senior job working on Orange’s networks wrote before his death that the “only reason” he killed himself was work: “I have become a wreck,” he wrote.
Call centre workers said they had to ask permission to go to the toilet and file a written explanation for going one minute over a lunch break. Senior staff described being subjected ti bullying and being repeatedly forced to move job.
And, last, an employee complained to Dear Prudence about her boss, the head of a non-profit.
Our president is a big personality and often tries to treat employees as friends, whether they like it or not. She makes jokes that are highly inappropriate and she bullies our more timid employees. Last week she took things to a whole new level. In an attempt to scare a female employee who’s been the victim of some of her bullying, she snuck up behind her and planned to give the employee a soft tug on her skirt. What actually happened was that the employee’s skirt came off her waist and exposed her underwear. Immediately afterward the president repeatedly told the depantsed employee “not to tell anyone.”
Prudence’s response is revealing in its own right: despite her best intentions, she can’t help but show just how impotent employees are in the face of this kind of crap.
But what truly caught my eye is that the non-profit in question is said to be funded by…the Koch brothers. You remember the Kochs: the libertarians whose attempted takeover of Cato launched this whole goddam debate about workplace coercion to begin with. Circle of life.
Okay, enough reality. Back to the theory.
Brad DeLong has a nice summary of the state of play.
Speaking of which, Tbarrok has some new, um, stuff, where he says thinks like this:
All else equal, an improvement in workplace conditions will reduce wages.
People exposed to a higher risk of sexual harassment are paid more, just as people exposed to a higher risk of death are paid more.
Because, you know, all those women who are at higher risk of sexual harassment than men tend to be paid more than men. And all those lawyers and upper-level managers, who enjoy better workplace conditions, tend to pay for that in the form of low wages.
But while we’re on the topic of Cowen. Remember when he was fretting about all those thieving workers at George Mason University, where he teaches?
I am not comfortable with the mood affiliation of the piece. How about a simple mention of the massive magnitude of employee theft in the United States, perhaps in the context of a boss wishing to search an employee?
When I was seventeen, I had a job in the produce department of a grocery store. They made me wear a tie. They did not let me curse. Even if there was no work at the moment, I could not appear to be obviously slacking for fear of setting a bad example. They had the right to search me, including for illegal drugs. I suspect that “contract indeterminacies” gave them other rights too.
The company kept each and every one of its promises to me and they paid me on time every two weeks. The company also taught me a lot. I honor that company to this day. I also did my best to keep each and every promise to them.
What I did observe was massive employee shirking, rampant drug use including what appeared to be on the job, regular rule-breaking, and a significant level of employee theft, sometimes in cahoots with customers.
I understand full well that’s only one anecdote and only one side of the picture, and yes the company did fire vulnerable workers and quite possibly not always with just cause. Still I get uncomfortable when this other side of the story is ignored. When I hear the phrase “workplace coercion,” the first thing I think of is employee theft, estimated by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce at over $50 billion a year.
Addendum: If I ponder my workplace at GMU, I see many more employees who take advantage of the boss, perhaps by shirking, or by not teaching well, than I see instances of the bosses taking advantage of the employees. Make that two anecdotes.
That prompted one of the commenters on my blog to ask: “Wow, how much paper do they steal at GMU?”
Turns out, probably not much. Most workplace theft, according to this piece in the Guardian, is committed by the bosses, not the workers.
If fraud is usually an inside job, most of it is perpetrated by the bosses of companies involved, according to research by accountants KPMG.
Fraud committed from within organisations by management or employees made up 61% of the value of all cases in the accountancy firm’s latest fraud barometer, covering the first six months of 2012.
Finance directors, chief executives and other senior managers were responsible for 55%, by value, of all the cases KPMG analysed. The level of fraud by management has remained stubbornly stable, at £206m.
Perhaps Cowen ought to pay less attention to that janitor stealing a roll of toilet paper and more attention to his university’s board of trustees.
And, last, here’s a word from Julian Sanchez, who started this whole thing off.
Mike Konczal and Bryce Covert have a new article and paper out that confirm a long-held position of mine: the economic and social agendas of the right are one and the same. As Mike and Bryce show, 12 states are responsible for over 70 percent of the state and local public-sector layoffs since 2011. Eleven of those states were taken over by Republicans in the 2010 election, thanks in large part to the efforts of the Tea Party. Those 11 states were also far more likely to restrict the reproductive rights of women than were other states. Mike and Bryce don’t talk about how those 11 states compare with other states when it comes to rolling back worker and labor rights (though given the higher rates of unionization among public-sector workers, cutting public-sector jobs is obviously connected to that question). I have my suspicions, but it’d be good to see more research on that as well.
As Mike writes, the research he and Bryce have done sheds critical light on how we think about the right:
I had two questions about this that I tried to answer in this article. The first was where these state losses were occurring, and whether there was anything interesting going on with the distribution of lost jobs.
The second question was how the new Tea Party influenced Republican state legislatures, especially Republicans that took over 11 states in the historic 2010 midterm elections, were governing. There’s two theories I saw. The first could be called the “social issue truce” theory, based on a statement Mitch Daniels made. As Dick Morris put it, “No longer do evangelical or social issues dominate the Republican ground troops. Now economic and fiscal issues prevail…It is one of the fundamental planks in the Tea Party platform that the movement does not concern itself with social issues.” They aren’t interested in restricting voter restrictions or reproductive freedoms. (A corollary theory is David Frum’s argument that ”these new majorities will arrive with only slogans for a policy agenda.” They won’t even know what to do as there aren’t independent conservative intellectuals to guide them.)
The second theory could be called the Corey Robin theory, which would argue conservatism is everywhere a “reactionary movement, a defense of power and privilege against democratic challenges from below, particularly in the private spheres of the family and the workplace.” In this theory, beyond just shredding the public sector in favor of the private, the movement would be compelled to combat challenges against the family that come from reproductive freedoms and threats to entrenched power that come from expanded democratic access. They might, for instance, be more likely to pass bills restricting reproductive freedoms as well as voter suppression bills than non-GOP states in this theory, where under the “social issue truce” we wouldn’t see a difference.
I think we were able to get an empirical handle on both questions.
Climbing aboard the anti-birth control bandwagon, the Arizona Senate Judiciary Committee voted 6-2 on Monday to endorse legislation that would: a) give employers the right to deny health insurance coverage to their employees for religious reasons; b) give employers the right to ask their employees whether their birth control prescriptions are for contraception or other purposes (hormone control, for example, or acne treatment).
There are three things to say about this legislation.
The Private Life of Power
First, as I argue in The Reactionary Mind, conservatism is dedicated to defending hierarchies of power against democratic movements from below, particularly in the so-called private spheres of the family and the workplace. Conservatism is a defense of what I call “the private life of power.” Less a protection of privacy or property in the abstract, as many conservatives and libertarians like to claim, conservatism is a defense of the rights of bosses and husbands/fathers.
So it’s no surprise, as I noted in the conclusion of The Reactionary Mind, that the chief agenda items of the GOP since its string of Tea Party victories in 2010 have been to roll back the rights of workers—not just in the public sector, as this piece by Gordon Lafer makes clear, but also in the private sector—and to roll back the reproductive rights of women, as this chart, which Mike Konczal discusses, makes clear. Often, it’s the same Tea Party-controlled states that are pushing both agendas at the same time.
What I hadn’t predicted was that the GOP would be able to come up with a program—in the form of this anti-birth control employer legislation we’re now seeing everywhere—that would combine both agenda items at the same time.
Fear, American Style
Second, in a way, I should have foreseen this fusion because, as I argued in my first book Fear: The History of a Political Idea, in the United States, it has historically fallen to employers rather than the state to police the political opinions and practices of citizens. Focused as we are on the state, we often miss the fact that some of the most intense programs of political indoctrination have not been conducted by the government but have instead been outsourced to the private sector. While less than 200 men and women went to jail for their political beliefs during the McCarthy years, as many as 2 out of every 5 American workers were monitored for their political beliefs.
I’ve spoken about this issue on this blog before—my apologies to the old timers here; unfortunately, this point can’t be repeated enough—but recall this fascinating exchange between an American physician and Tocqueville during the latter’s travels to the United States in the early 1830s. Passing through Baltimore, Tocqueville asked the doctor why so many Americans pretended they were religious when they obviously had “numerous doubts on the subject of dogma.” The doctor replied that the clergy had a lot of power in America, as in Europe. But where the European clergy often acted through or with the help of the state, their American counterparts worked through the making and breaking of private careers.
If a minister, known for his piety, should declare that in his opinion a certain man was an unbeliever, the man’s career would almost certainly be broken. Another example: A doctor is skilful, but has no faith in the Christian religion. However, thanks to his abilities, he obtains a fine practice. No sooner is he introduced into the house than a zealous Christian, a minister or someone else, comes to see the father of the house and says: look out for this man. He will perhaps cure your children, but he will seduce your daughters, or your wife, he is an unbeliever. There, on the other hand, is Mr. So-and-So. As good a doctor as this man, he is at the same time religious. Believe me, trust the health of your family to him. Such counsel is almost always followed.
While all of us rightly value the Bill of Rights, it’s important to note that these amendments are limitations on government action. As a result, the tasks of political repression and coercion can often be—and are—simply outsourced to the private sector. As I wrote in Fear:
There is little mystery as to why civil society can serve as a substitute or supplement to state repression. Civil society is not, on the whole, subject to restrictions like the Bill of Rights. So what the state is forbidden to do, private actors in civil society may execute instead. “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation,” Justice Jackson famously declared, “it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” But what star in our constitutional constellation forbids newspapers like the New York Times, which refused during the McCarthy years to hire members of the Communist Party, from prescribing such orthodoxy as a condition of employment? What in the Constitution would stop a publisher from telling poet Langston Hughes that it would not issue his Famous Negro Music Makers unless he removed any discussion of Communist singer Paul Robeson? Or stop Little, Brown from refusing to publish best-selling Communist author Howard Fast?
The Sixth Amendment guarantees “in all criminal prosecutions” that the accused shall “have the assistance of counsel for his defence.” But what in the Constitution would prevent attorney Abe Fortas, who would later serve on the Supreme Court, from refusing to represent a party member during the McCarthy years because, in his words, “We have decided that we don’t think we can ever afford to represent anybody that has ever been a Communist?”
The Fifth Amendment stipulates that the government cannot compel an individual to incriminate herself, but it does not forbid private employers from firing anyone invoking its protections before congressional committees. To the extent that our Constitution works against an intrusive state, how can it even authorize the government to regulate these private decisions of civil society? What the liberal state granteth, then, liberal civil society taketh away.
Let’s come back now to the birth control employer question. Thanks to the gains of the feminist movement and Griswold v. Connecticut, we now understand the Constitution to prohibit the government from imposing restrictions on access to birth control. Even most Republicans, I think, accept that. But there’s nothing in the Constitution to stop employers from refusing to provide health insurance coverage for birth control to their employees.
And here’s where the McCarthy specter becomes particularly troubling. Notice the second provision of the Arizona legislation: employers will now have the right to question their employees about what they plan to do with their birth-control prescriptions. Not only is this a violation of the right to privacy—again, not a right our Constitution currently recognizes in the workplace—but it obviously can give employers the necessary information they need to fire an employee. If a women admits to using contraception in order to not get pregnant, there’s nothing in the Constitution to stop an anti-birth control employer from firing her.
During the McCarthy years, here were some of the questions employers asked their employees: What is your opinion of the Marshall Plan? What do you think about Nato? The Korean War? Reconciliation with the Soviet Union? These questions were directly related to US foreign policy, the assumption being that Communist Party members or sympathizers would offer pro-Soviet answers to them (i.e., against Nato and the Korean War). But many of the questions were more domestic in nature: What do you think of civil rights? Do you own Paul Robeson records? What do you think about segregating the Red Cross blood supply? The Communist Party had taken strong positions on civil rights, including desegregating the Red Cross blood supply, and as one questioner put it, “The fact that a person believes in racial equality doesn’t prove that he’s a Communist, but it certainly makes you look twice, doesn’t it? You can’t get away from the fact that racial equality is part of the Communist line.” (Though Ellen Schrecker, from whose book Many Are the Crimes I have taken these examples, points out that many of these questions were posed by government loyalty boards, she also notes that the questions posed by private employers were virtually identical.) The upshot, of course, was that support for civil rights came to be viewed as a Communist position, making public support for civil rights a riskier proposition than it already was.
It’s unclear what the future of Birth Control McCarthyism will be, but anyone who thinks the repressive implications of these bills can be simply brushed aside with vague feints to the religious freedoms of employers—more on this in a moment—is overlooking the long and sordid history of Fear, American Style. Private employers punishing their employees for holding disfavored views or engaging in disapproved practices (disapproved by the employer, that is) is the way a lot of repression happens in this country. And it can have toxic effects, as Liza Love, a witness before the Arizona Senate committee, testified:
“I wouldn’t mind showing my employer my medical records,” Love said. “But there are 10 women behind me that would be ashamed to do so.”
In the debate over the legislation, Arizona Republican Majority Whip Debbie Lesko (also the bill’s author) said, “I believe we live in America. We don’t live in the Soviet Union.” She’s right, though perhaps not in the way she intended: unlike in the Soviet Union, the government here may not be able to punish you simply for holding unorthodox views or engaging in disfavored practices (though the government can certainly find other ways to harass or penalize you, if it wishes). What happens instead is that your employer will do it for the government (or for him or herself). As the president of Barnard College put it during the McCarthy years, “If the colleges take the responsibility to do their own house cleaning, Congress would not feel it has to investigate.”
Third, the standard line from Republicans and some libertarians is that requiring religious or religion-related employers (like the hospitals and universities that are funded by the Catholic Church) to provide health insurance coverage for their employees’ birth control is a violation of their First Amendment rights to religious freedom. The same arguments have come up in Arizona. Just after she made the comparison above between the United States and the Soviet Union, Lesko added:
“So, government should not be telling the organizations or mom and pop employers to do something against their moral beliefs.”
“My whole legislation is about our First Amendment rights and freedom of religion,” Lesko said. “All my bill does is that an employer can opt out of the mandate if they have any religious objections.”
Father John Muir, a priest at the All Saints Catholic Newman Center on the Tempe campus, said the controversial issue is not about birth control, but religious freedom and the First Amendment.
“It’s not about birth control,” Muir said. “It’s about the right to live out your beliefs and principles without inference by the state.”
There are many reasons to be wary of this line of argument, which I won’t get into here. Instead, I’d like to recall some more history.
It’s often forgotten that one of the main catalysts for the rise of the Christian Right was not school prayer or abortion but the defense of Southern private schools that were created in response to desegregation. By 1970, 400,000 white children were attending these “segregation academies.” States like Mississippi gave students tuition grants, and until the Nixon administration overturned the practice, the IRS gave the donors to these schools tax exemptions. And it was none other than Richard Viguerie, founder of the New Right and pioneer of its use of direct-mail tactics, who said that the attack on these public subsidies by the Civil Rights Movement and liberal courts “was the spark that ignited the religious right’s involvement in real politics.”
According to historian Joseph Crespino, whose essay “Civil Rights and the Religious Right” in Rightward Bound:Making American Conservative in the 1970s is must reading, the rise of segregation academies “was often timed exactly with the desegregation of formerly all-white public schools.” Even so, their advocates claimed to be defending religious minorities—and religious beliefs—rather than white supremacy. (Initially nonsectarian, most of these schools became evangelical over time.) Their cause, in other words, was freedom, not inequality—not the freedom of whites to associate with other whites (and thereby lord their status and power over blacks), as the previous generation of massive resisters had foolishly and openly admitted, but the freedom of believers to practice their own embattled religion. It was a shrewd transposition. In one fell swoop, the heirs of slaveholders became the descendants of persecuted Baptists, and Jim Crow a heresy the First Amendment was meant to protect.
So it is today. Rather than openly pursue their agenda of restricting the rights of women, the GOP claims to be defending the rights of religious dissenters. Instead of powerful employers—for that is what many of these Catholic hospitals and universities are—we have persecuted sects.
Knowing the history of the rise of the Christian Right doesn’t resolve this debate, but it certainly does make you look twice, doesn’t it?
Update (March 15, 4:30 pm)
This post got cross-posted at Salon; check out the comments there. In a very smart piece, also at Salon, Irin Carmon looks at the evolution (and continuities) of the GOP position on this issue. Also check out this excellent piece by Sarah Posner, again at Salon, which looks at the contributions of the Democrats to this morass we’re in.
Also, on the question of whether the Arizona law allows employers to fire employees on the basis of whether they use birth control for contraception purposes or not, check out this.
In On the Jewish Question, Marx famously critiques liberal theorists of religious freedom on the grounds that they merely wish to emancipate the state from religion. Assuming—wrongly, it turns out—that the 19th century state, or at least the American state, had indeed been fully emancipated from religion (e.g., there was no official state religion, no specific confessional requirement for the exercise of political rights, etc.), Marx notes that the American people are nevertheless quite religious. This leads him to the observation that “to be politically emancipated from religion is not to be finally and completely emancipated from religion, because political emancipation is not the final and absolute form of human emancipation.” We may be free of religion at the level of the state, but we are not free of it in our everyday life (like most Enlightenment thinkers, Marx thinks of religion as a defect). To be truly free of it, we need to emancipate ourselves from religion, to shift our focus from the state to society itself, to get past the distinction between our public lives and private selves. Not just in matters of religion, as it turns out, but in other areas as well.
President Obama’s recent “compromise” over contraception—where religious-based employers like Catholic universities and hospitals are required to provide insurance coverage that includes free birth control but are not required to pay for it, leaving insurers to eat the costs; churches and other explicitly religious institutions will remain exempt from the provision—makes me wonder if we’re not moving in the reverse direction.
98% of sexually active Catholic women essentially reject the Church’s position on contraception. In this respect at least, society has emancipated itself from religion. Even so, the state allows its policies to be dictated by the Church elders. And judging by the growing Republican discontent with even this compromise, the state’s capitulation to religion and religious sensibilities could get worse. Keep in mind, as Katha Pollitt points out, that we are not talking about isolated sects like the Amish, which don’t depend on all manner of tax subsidies and public monies for their operations; these are large-scale institutions that would not exist in their current form were it not for the state’s ongoing support.
Speaking of conservatives, the birth control debate recently led Mike Konczal back to Ludwig von Mises’ classic 1922 text Socialism. Mises was a pioneering economist of the Austrian School, whose political writings have inspired multiple generations of libertarian activists in America and elsewhere. Mike took a special interest in the fourth chapter of Socialism, “The Social Order and the Family,” in which Mises has some retrograde things to say about women and feminism. This led Mike to conclude prematurely that Mises was against birth control, which he wasn’t, but as I make clear in the comments thread, Mike’s larger point—that Mises was not in favor of women’s sexual autonomy; nor, for that matter, was he in favor of other kinds of autonomy that would free women from the dominion of their husbands—still stands.
All this back and forth about the text prompted Brian Doherty, author of a wonderful history of libertarianism, to waspishly comment that, well, who really gives a shit what Mises may or may not have thought about women and birth control. Libertarians care about liberty; all the rest is commentary.
Mises does go on to address “natural barriers” that socialists want to overturn, and doubtless some of his own personal opinions about what those natural barriers might be would differ from moderns, liberal or conservative, which is exactly why [Konczal’s] entire implied point doesn’t make any sense to begin with. Those concerns are far more matters of opinion, not political philosophy, and in no sense should bind even those who have sworn fealty to Mises’ general views on economics and liberty. (For example, I’m quite the Misesian in most questions of politics and economics, but can imagine an intelligent conservative argument that the “rationalization of the sexual passions” is in some sense harmed by birth control, though not in the specific procreational sense he is addressing specifically.)
But let’s address the larger point, if there is one, besides that atop all of our heads for even talking about this: That polemical points can rightly be earned laying some judgment, whether real or imagined, of an intellectual founding father or influence on a political movement or tendency on to the backs of its younger followers–either to mock them or to insist that, no, this is really what their intellectual mission is: not to promote liberty, but to work for whatever Ludwig Von Mises liked or didn’t like.
It is interesting, for those interested in intellectual history, that Mises saw free love as part of some larger socialist mission to destroy the family. But for the libertarian the relevant question is, is this voluntary or not, does this infringe on anyone’s life, liberty, or property or not? “Anything that’s peaceful,” baby, as Leonard Read, one of Mises’ great popular disciples in America, wrote.
Thus, there’s a libertarian case to be made against forcing anyone to cover any specific medical care, birth control or whatever, in the insurance deals they make with their clients. But it has nothing to do with whether Ludwig von Mises was comfortable with free love, or birth control, or with catheters, or blood transfusions, or any other specific medical procedure that might or might not become a political controversy when the government tried to force people to sell insurance only on the condition that that insurance cover that procedure or medication’s use.
Set aside the strangeness of someone who’s written—for what were obviously more than antiquarian reasons—one of the best intellectual histories of libertarianism, in which Mises plays a not insignificant role, telling us that intellectual history, and Mises’s role in it, doesn’t much matter.
Also set aside Doherty’s declaration by fiat that Mises’s views on women are just “matters of opinion,” which can be discarded as so much ancient prejudice, rather than genuine “political philosophy.” (This chapter on Robert Nozick in Susan Okin’s Justice, Gender, and the Family should make any reasonably literate political writer leery of the notion that a libertarian’s views on women are somehow contingent or incidental and separable from their larger worldview. In Mises’s case, it’s doubly important to remember that he saw his chapter on women as one part of his campaign against socialism, an effort in which he styled himself the lonely leader of a small, heterodox band.
Socialism is the watchword and the catchword of our day. The socialist idea dominates the modern spirit. The masses prove of it. It expresses the thoughts and feelings of all; it has set its seal upon our time. When history comes to tell our story it will write above the chapter “The Epoch of Socialism.”
Mises did not think his views on women were refractions of the age; he thought they were the dissonant wisdom of someone who had thought long and hard, against the dominant view, about such issues. And given that many socialists were making feminist arguments and gaining ground across Europe—Remember Red Vienna? It wasn’t all economics, you know—I’m not sure Mises was entirely wrong in his self-understanding.)
Finally set aside, as one commenter on Mike’s thread pointed out, the fact that many of Mises’s views persist in later libertarian arguments.
The real reason Mises’s arguments about women are so relevant, it seems to me, is that in the course of making them he reveals something larger about the libertarian worldview: libertarianism is not about liberty at all, or at least not about liberty for everyone. In fact, it’s the opposite.
Here’s Mises describing the socialist program of “free love”:
Free love is the socialists’ radical solution for sexual problems. The socialistic society abolishes the economic dependence of woman which results from the fact that woman is dependent on the income of her husband. Man and woman have the same economic rights and the same duties, as far as motherhood does not demand special consideration for the women. Public funds provide for the maintenance and education of the children, which are no longer the affairs of the parents but of society. Thus the relations between the sexes are no longer influenced by social and economic conditions….The family disappears and society is confronted with separate individuals only. Choice in love becomes completely free.
Sounds like a libertarian paradise, right? Society is dissolved into atomistic individuals, obstacles to our free choices are removed, everyone has the same rights and duties. But Mises is not celebrating this ideal; he’s criticizing it. Not because it makes people unfree but because it makes people—specifically, women—free. The problem with liberating women from the constraints of “social and economic conditions” is that…women are liberated from the constraints of social and economic conditions.
Now Doherty will reply, well, that’s just Mises’s view of feminism, who cares, we libertarians stand for freedom. But the underlying logic of Mises’s argument—in which the redistributive state is criticized not for making men and women slaves or equals but for making them free—cannot be so easily contained. It can easily be applied to other realms of social policy—labor unions, universal health care, robust public schools, unemployment benefits, and the like, which the left has always seen as the vital prerequisites of universal freedom—suggesting that the real target of the libertarian critique may be the proposition that Mises articulates here so well: that all men—not just the rich or the well born—and all women will in fact be liberated from the constraints of their “social and economic conditions.”
On Thursday, September 29, The Reactionary Mind was officially launched. Because of Rosh Hashanah—Shanah Tovah to all of you!—I haven’t been able to keep up with the whirlwind of commentary and activity around the book. With time, I hope to have lengthier, more substantive responses to the thought-provoking reactions I’ve read. But in the meantime, I just wanted to give you all a quick roundup and a reminder.
Onto the reactions.
Salon interviewed me about the book and contemporary conservatism more generally. Salt Lake City’s NPR station did an interview with me. Doug Henwood interviewed me for his show, which airs on KPFA in Berkeley. This week, I’m going to be interviewed for the C-SPAN Book TV show After Words; once I get a link, I’ll post it.
Thanks to that guest post I did over at Mike Konczal’s Rortybomb, which you might have read here on the blog, the book has gotten the attention of some heavy-hitters in the blogosphere, with combined readerships of, well, a lot of people.
Andrew Sullivan, whose writings have served as an immensely useful provocation to me throughout the decade, offered a thoughtful response.
Everyone’s saying that Robin’s new book on this very subject, The Reactionary Mind is awesome.
We’ve been mulling this over for some time and I still don’t have adequate answer to the problem. But I think I might be edging toward some insight in reading Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind. I’ll keep you posted.
You should also check out the comments on both of Digby’s posts and on the guest post I did for Mike as well.
Elias Isquith did yet another post on the book, the fourth of a series of fascinating posts in which Isquith takes up a particular theme of the book and applies it to some contemporary issue, whether it be the death penalty or the GOP’s obsession with cunnilingus (I’m not kidding). I’ve really enjoyed watching him work his way through the book, and seeing what he does with it. I think you will too.
Over at Lawyers, Guns, and Money, Scott Lemieux used The Reactionary Mind to launch a lengthy discussion of David Brooks and college sports. Some of you know how I feel about sports, of any kind, but I’ll take the props however I can get ‘em.
But by far, my favorite piece of news: Don’t know if you’ve been following the Occupy Wall Street protests, but they’ve slowly begun to capture the imagination of America and the world. Apparently, they have a library down there. Charles Petersen, who copy edited the book, tweeted over the holiday that “@CoreyRobin ‘The Reactionary Mind’ at the #occupywallstreet library.” Caleb Crain, who writes lovely essays for the New Yorker, tweeted “Also spotted in the @occupywallst library: John Dewey, Noam Chomsky, @CoreyRobin.” Couldn’t ask to be in better company. And here’s the photodocumentary evidence:
Speaking of tweets, I did catch this one, from the formidable Brad DeLong, just before the holiday: “Finished reading The Reactionary Mind : Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin by Corey Robin.” Would love to hear what he thinks…
On Thursday next week, the CUNY Center for the Humanities, The Nation, and the Roosevelt Institute will be hosting a public conversation about The Reactionary Mind, featuring me and Chris Hayes, host of the excellent new program Up With Chris Hayes on MSNBC. The details are here, but if you’re feeling link-fatigue, it’ll be on Thursday, October 6, at 7 pm, in the Martin Segal Theater of the CUNY Graduate Center (365 5th Avenue, between 34th and 35th). Make sure to get there early as seating may be limited. And if you do come, please make sure to say hello or, if we haven’t met personally, introduce yourself. And if you can, please share this information widely.
In anticipation of the event and the book’s publication, Mike Konczal asked me to do a guest post for his blog Rortybomb, which Time Magazine calls one of the top 25 financial blogs in the country. Readers of this blog probably know Mike already, since he’s become one of my must-reads for information about the economy and appears frequently in our discussions; as Paul Krugman writes
Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute, whose blog has become essential reading for anyone interested in financial reform…A number of people have asked for my own list of top finance/economics/whatever blogs. …I read Calculated Risk, Econbrowser, Rortybomb…
Mike also gets a ringing endorsement from James Kwak. In addition to being another major writer and commentator on all things financial, James went to the same high school I did. He was in the class behind me, but we worked together on the school newspaper. It’s been nice to run into him again in these parts.
I should add that Mike is also a genuine intellectual, interested, it seems, in virtually everything, with interesting things to say about virtually everything.
Anyway, here’s the blog I posted over at Rortybomb, which was also posted at the Roosevelt Institute’s New Deal 2.0 blog. I’m also posting a slightly longer version of it below.
* * * * *
Long before Ron Suskind tangled with the media and the White House for telling truths or tales about the Obama administration, he was the hero of liberals. For it was Suskind, in the course of exploring the Bush presidency for the New York Times Magazine, who stumbled upon the Rosetta Stone of the contemporary conservative mind.
In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.
The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
“Reality-based community” soon became one of the most cited quotes of the Bush era—a Google search yields 456,000 results; it even has its own Wikipedia page—an affirmation of everything the left ever thought about the right: that it lives in a fact-free universe, where ideological purity is more important than pragmatic solutions, that it’s revolutionary and radical rather than realistic and moderate, that it’s activist rather than accommodating, that it’s, well,…not…really…conservative.
Conservatives, at least by reputation, are supposed to be calm, reasonable, quiet, averse to the operatic, friendly to the familiar. They don’t go looking for trouble in far-off lands. They stay home, tending their gardens, patching the roof, taking care of their children. They want to be left alone. They’re not interested in history’s adventure. They want to leave things be, even if things aren’t so great, because they know that trying to change things, particularly through politics, will only make them worse. Insofar as they are concerned with politics, it is, as William F. Buckley once said, the “politics of reality.”
That, at any rate, is how many literate conservatives understand themselves and their tradition. It’s also how many liberals who may have read Edmund Burke in college, or who are perhaps friends with these literate conservatives, understand the conservative tradition.
To wit: this recent column by Paul Krugman.
Modern conservatism is actually a deeply radical movement, one that is hostile to the kind of society we’ve had for the past three generations — that is, a society that, acting through the government, tries to mitigate some of the “common hazards of life” through such programs as Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare and Medicaid.
When Krugman talks about “modern conservatism,” he means anything from the last ten years of the GOP to the postwar American conservative movement as a whole. Either way, the notion is that there once was a conservatism that was different, a conservatism that looks something like what I sketched out above.
It’s a pretty common notion: modern conservatism—however it’s defined—is different from the conservatism that came before it. Here’s Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times Book Review and author of a forthcoming biography of Buckley, in his widely read The Death of Conservatism:
What we call conservatism today would have been incomprehensible to the great originator of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke….Burke’s conservatism was based not a particular set of ideological principles but rather on distrust of all ideologies…
The movement conservatives of our time seem the heirs of the French rather than the American Revolution.
Reaching a little less deeply into the well of history, Sidney Blumenthal wrote at the high tide of the Bush administration.
Bush also claimed to stand in the conservative tradition of Ronald Reagan. Indeed, Reagan sought to overturn longstanding policies of Democratic and Republican presidents alike in his pursuit of a radical and often fanciful conservatism. But when he found himself cornered by realities, Reagan the ideologue gave way to Reagan the old union negotiator prepared for compromise…
Nothing like Bush’s concerted radicalism has ever been seen before in the White House.
As soon as the afterglow of 9/11 began to fade, Andrew Sullivan also took up this argument in a series of articles and posts that culminated in his 2006 book The Conservative Soul. Since then, he’s pursued it time and again, pillorying the conservative movement, in all its variations and iterations since the 1980s, for its rejection of Burke’s supple traditionalism, Hayek’s critique of utopianism, and more.
So powerful is this meme of conservatism-betrayed-by-conservatives that the blogger P.M. Carpenter has recently declared a ban on any use of the word in reference to the modern conservative movement. Commenting on Krugman’s column, Carpenter writes:
Why, then, do modern commentators persist in referring to modern conservatism as “conservatism”? While Krugman’s statement is perversely unimpeachable — “modern conservatism is actually a deeply radical movement” — it also contains a colossally unconcealed contradiction, which is way overdue for journalistic retirement.
To posit that “conservatism” is a “deeply radical movement” is to untether oneself from intelligible language and customary comprehension. By definition, conservatism is anything but deeply radical. Indeed, authentic modern conservatism arose from Edmund Burke’s revulsion of the French Revolution’s butchery of political order (such as it was), cultural tradition, social institutions, and human life; that is, modern conservatism arose in reaction to modern radicalism.
So, to Mr. Krugman et al, please cease perpetuating the contradiction. Stop calling conservative pols what they are not: conservative. They are pseudoconservatives, they are reactionaries, they are radicals, and in some instances they are merely lunatics. But they are not conservative.
I wrote The Reactionary Mind for many reasons, but one of them was to show—contra Carpenter, Sullivan, Blumenthal, Tanenhaus, Krugman, and many more—that today’s conservative is in fact conservative. She hasn’t betrayed the traditions of Burke, Disraeli, Hayek, Oakeshott, Buckley, and Reagan: she has fulfilled them.
Because Burke so often figures in these discussions as the touchstone of comparison, I’d like to make a novel suggestion: let’s read him. And not just a few isolated passages in his Reflections on the Revolution in France—the pages everyone who took Intro to Political Theory refers to—but his entire counterrevolutionary oeuvre, particularly his Letters on a Regicide Peace. For Carpenter is right: modern conservatism, which dates to Burke, did arise in reaction to modern radicalism. But what Carpenter doesn’t say, perhaps because he doesn’t know it, is that something funny happened on the way to the counterrevolution.
As early as the Reflections, published in 1790, Burke had voiced concern that the revolutionaries in France had tapped into the deepest currents of modern civilization, putting themselves into the driver’s seat of history, threatening to leave the defenders of the old order behind.
Burke framed the contest between the revolutionaries and the old order as a struggle between “ability”—the village lawyers and urban financiers of the bourgeoisie, who made the revolution in alliance with the mob—and “property,” the aristocrats and their clients. In such a contest, he was fairly certain who would win and why: “As ability is a vigorous and active principle, and as property is sluggish, inert, and timid, it never can be safe from the invasions of ability, unless it be, out of all proportion, predominant in the” state. Without the protection of the feudal state, property would lose.
By the time he began writing his Letters on Regicide Peace, two years before he died in 1797, Burke’s concern about the relative strength of the old order had reached a fever pitch. “In ability, in dexterity, in the distinctness of their views,” he now wrote of the revolutionaries, “the Jacobins are our superiors.”
But where initially he had located the source of the revolutionaries’ superiority in their class position, their material base in finance and commerce, Burke now saw it in their absolute indifference to their material circumstances. The strength of the Jacobins lay in their faith, their willingness to destroy and suffer anything and everything for the sake of their cause. “While you are in vain torturing your invention to assure them of your sincerity and good faith,” Burke wrote to the British officials who wished to negotiate and compromise with the French, “they have left no doubt concerning their good faith, and their sincerity towards those to whom they have they engaged their honour….They have been true and faithful to the engagement which they have made more largely.”
It was Burke’s great fear that the British elite—as well as the other monarchies of old Europe—could not summon similar reserves of ideological resolve. They were too comfortable, too assured of their possessions, too confident of their estate. Where the Jacobins had “conquered the finest parts of Europe” with an “annihilated revenue, with defaced manufactures, with a ruined commerce,” the aristocracies of Europe were drowning in the very properties Burke had once held up as the counter to revolutionary France. They didn’t just possess estates; they were possessed by their estates.
At no time has the wealth and power of Great Britain been so considerable as it is at this very perilous moment. We have a vast interest to preserve, and we possess great means of preserving it. But it is to be remembered that the artificer may be incumbered by his tools, and that resources may be among impediments.
They who are in possession of all they wish are languid and improvident.
In the ordinary course of human affairs, any check to population among men in ease and opulence, is less to be apprehended from what they may suffer, than from what they enjoy. Peace is more likely to be injurious to them in that respect than war.
Because the British elite possessed so much, and were so assured of their possessions, they approached the Revolution with a prudential logic rather than a daring zeal. They were careful and calculating, cautious and prudent. They were, in short, Burkeans. Condemning Pitt and his allies, Burke wrote:
They spoke neither to the understanding nor to the heart. Cold as ice themselves, they never could kindle in our breasts a spark of that zeal, which is necessary to a conflict with an adverse zeal; much less were they made to infuse into our minds that stubborn persevering spirit, which alone is capable of bearing up against those vicissitudes of fortune which will probably occur, and those burdens which must be inevitably borne in a long war.
These “creatures of the desk” and “creatures of favour,” Burke complained, charged with defending the old orders of Europe, “had no relish for the principles of the manifestoes.” They lacked the “generous wildness of Quixotism.”
The other negative consequence of an inheritance that’s assured, wrote Burke, was that its possessor—whether a country with an ancient constitution or an individual with a familial estate—quickly became encumbered by the weight of history and tradition. This is a seldom noted theme in Burke, for it runs counter to our stereotype of him as the tribune of long-standing wisdom and embedded prudence. But there is a deep and untapped vein in Burke’s writings of worry about, even hostility toward, individuals and institutions that are awash in history.
“Our most salutary and most beautiful institutions yield nothing but dust and smut,” Burke declared at the outset of his Regicide Peace. The laws of the state, ancient and “full of reason, and of equity and justice,” were a “dead letter,” producing “no more than stubble.” Their very ancientness, he concluded, made them weak.
Our Constitution has more impediments, than helps. Its excellencies, when they come to be put to this sort of proof, may be found among its defects.
Nothing looks more awful and imposing than an ancient fortification. Its lofty embattled walls, its bold, projecting, rounded towers that pierce the sky, strike the imagination and promise inexpugnable strength. But they are the very things that make its weakness. You may as well think of opposing one of those old fortresses to the mass of artillery brought by a French irruption into the field, as to think of resisting by your old laws and your old forms the new destruction which the crops of Jacobin engineers today prepare for all such forms and all such laws.
It wasn’t just the laws and constitution that were suffering from age; individuals too steeped in their history, Burke warned, would be blind to the very newness of the threats they faced. Prudence, in other words, the proverbial wisdom of the past made present, was not a way forward but a liability of the first order.
There was no more emblematic figure in this regard than Louis XVI, the hapless monarch who lost his head, in both senses of the word. He was by no means incompetent or malicious. He was well tutored and lettered, particularly in history. And that in the end was the problem. “Louis the XVIth. was a diligent reader of history. But the very lamp of prudence blinded him.”
Against so powerful a force as the Jacobins, and the revolutionary order they were inaugurating throughout Europe, prudence, half-measures, compromise, and moderation—all the meats and treats of the Burkean high table—would have to be pushed aside in favor of a more bloody repast. In a series of rhetorically escalating epigrams, Burke called his conservative brethren to the most radical arms.
Acquiescence will not do; there must be zeal.
To destroy that enemy, by some means or other, the force opposed to it should be made to bear some analogy and resemblance to the force and spirit which that system exerts.
The madness of the wise…is better than the sobriety of fools.
Every little measure is a great errour.
These were not just rhetorical tropes; they were programmatic injunctions to the leadership of the old order, who Burke hoped would wage a counterrevolution of continental proportions against the Jacobinism plaguing Europe. (This is another great misunderstanding among the defenders of Burke: they see him as the man of the “little platoon,” of the local and the national as against the international. Not so. In face of the “general evil” that was Jacobinism, Burke wanted everyone to think of himself as a citizen of Europe. England should realize that international affairs were domestic affairs and vice versa: “Nothing in human affairs was foreign to her.” ““No citizen of Europe could be altogether an exile in any part of it.” Against those who wanted to take care of their little plots on their beloved island, Burke enjoined a great leap forward and across the English Channel.)
This was not to be an old-fashioned war of rules and constraints. Burke called for total war, of Sein oder Nichtstein, against not a country or a people but “an armed doctrine.” That doctrine had to be exterminated, for “if it can at all exist, it must finally prevail.” Against even its most infinitesimal expression, no quarter could be given: “It must be destroyed or it will destroy all of Europe.”
I have dwelled so long on Burke in part because of the stature he holds, on the right and the left, as the founder of conservatism—and as the measure against which all contemporary conservatisms are deemed insufficiently conservative. But it’s not just Burke who makes these sorts of arguments in favor of ideological zeal and against prudential restraints. Nor is it in the face of an arguably lethal threat like Jacobinism that conservatives make them.
In the twentieth century, one finds a similar move in Friedrich Hayek, arguing against not the totalitarianism of Stalin but the democratic socialism of Britain and France and the liberal welfare state of the New Deal. Again, this is not a widely noted theme in discussions of Hayek, but if you want a full-throated defense of ideology and utopianism against the prudential improvisations of the proverbial conservative, you could do worse than to start with Volume 1 of his Law, Legislation, and Liberty. There, Hayek says, among other things, that the “successful defense of freedom must therefore be dogmatic and make no concession to expediency” and that
Utopia, like ideology, is a bad word today…But an ideal picture of a society which may not be wholly achievable, or a guiding conception of the overall order to be aimed at, is nevertheless not only the indispensable precondition of any rational policy, but also the chief contribution that science can make to the solution of the problems of practical policy.
The other reason I have dwelled so long on Burke is that though he’s often held up as the source of conservatism, I get the feeling he’s not often read. Likewise, Hayek and the rest of the conservative canon. Sure, someone will quote a passage here or a phrase there, but the quotations inevitably have a whiff of cliché about them—little platoons and so on—emitting that stale blast of familiarity you sense when you listen to someone go on about a text he may or may not have read during one week in college. That, it seems to me, applies no less to the right than it does to the left. Everyone thinks they know Burke or Oakeshott or Hayek, but have they read them? In the last decade?
If nothing else, I hope my book spurs readers to go back to these texts. Not just because they’re great, which they are. But also because we’re having a conversation about modern conservatism in the dark, based on a misapprehension of the what the enterprise is and is not about. If we can get clear on these ancient texts, maybe we can get a little clearer on the contemporary practice.
So here’s my final suggestion for Andrew Sullivan, Sam Tanenhaus, and anyone else who likes to invoke Burke or Hayek or [fill in the blank] against today’s GOP: Read ‘em. Then let’s talk.
Those of you following this discussion between me, Matt Yglesias, and Mike Konczal, need to check out this post from Doug Henwood. It not only cuts through a lot of the fat, but it also takes us in a completely different, unexpected, and difficult direction, raising fascinating questions about the petit bourgeois origins and dimensions of the politics of inflation. Doug is my rabbi in all things economic (though, sadly, we part ways on matters musical). Check it out, comment there, here, everywhere.
Update (July 18, 12:30 pm)
And now the boys—and, seriously, there are an awful lot of boys in this debate; never realized just how male-dominated these types of discussion are—over at Crooked Timber are getting in on this. Fascinating discussion over there; check it out.
Update (3:30 pm)
And more debate over here at Lawyers, Guns, and Money.
Update (4:15 pm)
And here from Will Wilkinson, who seems to think he’s schooling us all with his considered notion that nothing lasts forever and things change, and here from Kevin Drum. And Yglesias has yet another post.
Prompted by this post from Mike Konczal, Matt Yglesias has weighed in again on our debate about what the government should do to create jobs. But it turns out that’s not what we’re debating. What we’re really debating, says Yglesias, is monetary policy: specifically, whether the left should care about it.
Yglesias thinks we should, and I gather I’m supposed to think we shouldn’t. Instead of confronting the real impact monetary policy has on jobs, inequality, and so on, I, like my brothers and sisters on the left, have allowed my “romance with the idea of the Works Progress Administration,” the misty water-colored memory of New Deal “social solidarity” and “public investment,” to blur my thinking about what would actually improve the material prospects of middle- and working-class people. That’s a shame, says Yglesias (and Konczal says the same thing), because historically monetary policy was the subject of heated debate, a debate the left has now ceded to the right because of its romance with the way we were.
To be fair: Yglesias isn’t explicitly talking about me here, at least I don’t think he is, but he’s talking about people I gather he thinks are like me—and perhaps a sensibility he detects in my posts.
I have some thoughts about these larger ideological questions. But before I share them, it’s important to remember how we got here. This exchange was prompted by a debate about what government should do to create jobs, specifically, Yglesias’ response to the question “What is the single best thing Washington can do to jumpstart job creation?”
Yglesias proposed that the Fed increase its inflation targets. I offered several concrete, practical reasons why I didn’t think that was the single best thing government could do, and proposed instead that the government should just create jobs. Given the obvious benefits of a jobs program, and the fact that Yglesias’ proposal seemed to have so little to recommend it as a jobs program (it might have other benefits, as Yglesias and Konczal have argued, but I still don’t see the jobs), I was moved to speculate on the ideological dimensions—”the Reaganite temper”—of Yglesias’ thinking on these matters.
This back story is important for two reasons. First, in his three responses to my original post, Yglesias hasn’t addressed the concrete objections I’ve raised to his proposal. The closest he has come (and Konczal makes a similar argument) is to say that any jobs programs could be easily counteracted by tight-fisted policies of the Fed. That’s true and would be worrisome if it occurred (though Bernanke seems to want some kind of stimulus from the government, so I’m not sure it would actually happen in this case). But it doesn’t really support the claim that increasing inflation now is the best—or even a—thing government could do to create jobs. Nor does it counter the objections I raised to that proposal.
Second, Yglesias seems to believe my objections to his proposal are primarily ideological. As he puts it:
I’d been asked to write something for The Atlantic, so I wrote something couched in technocratic language, and Robin was really objecting to me on thematic/ideological grounds.
But as I said, I was more struck by the disparity between the concrete flaws in his proposal and the obvious benefits of a jobs program—benefits, I should add, neither Yglesias nor Konczal have disputed; in fact, they both support jobs programs—and that’s what led me to raise the larger ideological/thematic questions about his proposal. My objections, in other words, were not primarily ideological or thematic, though they did lead me to raise ideological/thematic questions.
In a different situation, I could see the benefits of increasing inflation targets. Based on my discussions with Doug Henwood, who’s really done the heavy lifting here and should be brought more forcefully into this discussion, we don’t seem to be in that situation. Yglesias’ insistence on approaching the problem of jobs through the Fed’s inflation’s targets seems more of a symptom of his ideology, whatever it is, than my focus on a jobs program is of mine.
But since the question of ideology has been raised, let’s go there. I really appreciate what Konczal and Yglesias have to say about monetary policy and why the the left should care about it. And I can see why my initial characterization of Yglesias’ position as Reaganite may have been too hasty.
For Yglesias and even more so for Konczal, monetary policy—and raising inflation targets—can be a form of dispossession, a way of countering the power of wealth and restoring power to the debtor, the single mom maxed out on her credit card, the mortgage-strapped homeowner; a way of forcing the rich to do something productive (like hire people) with their wealth; and a way of supporting strong fiscal policies that put people to work.
Some of that is fine, as far as it goes—Doug has some genuine concerns about this reliance on inflation as a mode of equalizing our fates and fortunes that seem quite real to me—and I don’t really know of anyone on the left (I’ve been asking around over the last few days) who would disagree that good monetary policy can be a critical supplement to good fiscal policy. Nor do I know of anyone on the left who thinks that monetary policy is “technical,” to respond to Yglesias’ charge, which I found a little bizarre; I mean, say what you will about the left, it’s not exactly known for thinking anything in the economy is merely technical or apolitical.
But here’s where we do have an ideological disagreement. The reason why leftists like myself emphasize fiscal policy over monetary policy is that we ultimately approach the problem of inequality as not merely a question of money (who has it and who doesn’t) but as a problem of power, of relationships between individuals and classes.
We’d like to see people who work for other people make more money on the job, have more options for employment (including government work), more unions and collective bargaining, and more taxation and regulation of the wealthy — not just so that the poor or the working and middle classes can enjoy the good things in life (though that’s critical) but also so that they can have more power on the job, against the men and women who have the greatest day-to-day say in their lives.
I totally see what Konczal is saying about enhancing the power of debtors, and that’s critical for individual and family finances, but here’s what a credit card company or a bank holding your mortgage can’t do to you: it can’t tell you to be at work at 8 am; it can’t tell you have to stay after work when you have to get home to your kids; it can’t tell you when to pee in a cup (for a drug test) or when you can’t pee (because there’s no bathroom break allowed); it can’t tell you can’t sport a political bumper sticker on your car; it can’t tell you to stand up or sit down, to speak out or shut up; it can’t run your day-to-day, minute-to-minute life the way an employer can.
I realize this may seem far afield from the concerns of Yglesias, though I suspect much less so to Konczal. But if you want a single reason why leftists prefer to enhance the material prospects of the vast majority through fiscal as opposed to monetary policy it is that we see money as a form—and subset—of power: not just the power to actualize your dreams or to achieve some kind of abstract parity with some faraway class of wealthy people, but the power to oppose and resist and challenge those who have the greatest power over your day-to-day lives.
So, here’s what a government jobs program would mean to us: less unemployment, absolutely; greater stimulus and multiplier effects, absolutely; but, beyond those specific economic indices, it would also mean greater chances of unionization; better options (often) for pay and benefits; greater options for exit from bad private-sector work and thus, in the long run, better options for voice and power at that work.
Government jobs are obviously not a panacea, especially not on their own, but when they’re part of a larger package of increased labor rights, tighter regulation, higher minimum wage, greater taxation, more generous unemployment and social welfare policies, they add up to a vision in which the masters of the universe have to contend with more—and different—men and women than they heretofore have had to contend with.
You can certainly disagree with or dislike that vision, but that is the vision. Not a romantic dream of public investment or a false memory of social solidarity, but a hard-headed, gritty—dare I say realistic?—understanding of how power works on and off the job, and a desire, which may or may not be realistic, to change that.
When Yglesias says that the left lacks a political analysis of money and the money supply, he’s thinking of an analysis that would distinguish Republican from Democrat. At the dawn of the republic, he points out, Hamiltonians and Jefersonians divided over monetary policy, and so on down to Populists and FDR. Today, he says, it is only the Republicans who have a distinctively political analysis of money, i.e., an analysis of money that marks them as Republican or conservative.
Yglesias might be right about the Republicans, but I would urge him to develop a genuinely political analysis of money: not one that marks him as a Democrat or liberal or whatever he wants to call himself, but one that addresses politics in the deepest sense of power as it lived and experienced in the day to day lives of men and women.
Mike Konczal, whose blog Rortybomb is must reading on the economic and financial questions we’ve been talking about here, has a thoughtful post on my exchange with Matt Yglesias. Konczal argues that the left needs to think hard about monetary policy and not assume fiscal policy will take care of all of our concerns. I’ll be responding, but very curious to hear your thoughts.
Update (11:10 pm)
Prompted by Konzal’s post, Matt Yglesias has yet another response to our exchange. Again, I’ll be writing something about this in the next few days, so all thoughts are welcome.