Friday, December 13, 2013

The Legitimacy of Government

A great weakness of the center left since the 1980s has been the failure to make the deep philosophical arguments that are necessary to strategically frame issues, successfully persuade people over time, and bring about political change. Actually arguing for good principles and values, and arguing against bad ones, is necessary to strategically shape the landscape of political opinion to accept better policies when political circumstances become opportune. While there has always been a principled far left, it was marginalized long ago, and policy debates since the Reagan years in Washington and the media have consequently shifted to the right simply because the left does not successfully advance its principles. This leaves us now with an ideologically constricted debate between centrist third way Democrats (who are actually center-right) and the far right as exemplified by House Republicans and the tea children.

The result is that left is never heard, while the center-left push a liberal agenda only weakly. We keep letting the right have the philosophical and ideological initiative; we keep accepting their terms of debate; we keep beginning the debate with the premise that government is bad. With such weak support, is it any wonder that our social programs are weak and that inequality grows year after year?  But allowing the right to set the agenda and dominate public debate only weakens and delays necessary social programs, causes great suffering, magnifies injustice, divides society, and is now leading us quickly to oligarchy.

The failure to champion equality as a political principle, and the welfare state as its material actualization in everyday life, has meant that the left conducts the fight in the other side's terms. This leaves us fighting an uphill battle, despite the fact that the left's principles are more sound, its values more humane, and its policies more successful than the right. We must counter these standard conservative/libertarian arguments that government is illegitimate: 
  • Freedom: only a small government is legitimate, because (while people need some public authority) government and law inherently limit people's freedom by coercive means, and are thus oppressive. Therefore the smallest possible government is best. Taxes are seen here as a form of theft of the property of the individual.
  • Efficiency: bureaucracy is the standard organizational form of government, but bureaucracy is inherently inefficient. Government structures do not channel the self-interest of individuals in the most efficient way for the public good, markets and charities do. Therefore market solutions and privatization are preferable to public policy options.
  • Moral character: social programs and subsidies create dependency and laziness because they give people resources and rewards whether they work to earn them or not. Markets demand that people exchange their labor for resources and rewards, and therefore avoid this moral problem.

Each of these arguments is either wrong or a vast oversimplification, and principled left-wing arguments should be made publicly, and made often, to counter them:
  • Freedom: freedom can be taken not just by government but by powerful private entities such as corporations. Public, democratically accountable regulations helped prevent such threats to freedom. Social programs, including education, healthcare, public pensions, unemployment support, and other programs do not limit people's freedom; they empower people to be fully free and active citizens who lead full lives in which they can pursue their vision of the good life. Taxes are seen as a fee that one pays to provide public goods and maintain a civilized society. 
  • Efficiency: markets may be efficient at providing some consumer goods, but they are inefficient at providing public goods and they cause all sorts of problems with pollution and other externalities. Even conservatives accept that police, the courts, the military, diplomacy, and other things are public goods best provided universally to all, free of charge, by the state. They fail to see that many other aspects of modern life are he same. For example, health insurance is most efficiently provided by government because it is based on the principle of an insurance pool, and the larger the pool the more efficient it is.
  • Moral character: as mentioned above, social programs provide basic goods, services, and empowerment to enable people to be fully active citizens; and this improves their character. Education creates informed citizens and cultured members of society; unemployment insurance and social security provide the financial confidence to base decisions on reason, not fear; the welfare state improves people’s ability to fulfill their dreams and thus gives them confidence; greater equality reduces the ability of the greedy and wealthy to think they are better than everyone else. Welfare almost always serves exactly the purpose that Americans think it should: temporary help for people who need it to get back on their feet and be productive contributors to society.

Liberal values are positive values for other reasons. They provide greater equality between citizens, something that is necessary for a democratic society to endure. They create greater stability in the political system. And they sustain a shared public sphere that is necessary to building a common national and social identity.

Despite the initial Obamacare difficulties, we should right now be arguing for bigger government, a larger welfare state, more public control over corporations, and economic democracy, because these things are more just, lead to a healthier society, increase equality among citizens, and increase the freedom of common people, an argument I will flesh out next time.