Monday, January 13, 2014

I Doubt That

Ross Douthat is back with a point he has made before-- the Democrats are attempting to wage war on inequality, but they have done so by galvanizing an upper middle class portion of the community which only vibrates to the tune of populist rhetoric so long as it is directed just over their heads-- toward the superrich. The true economic interests of this class, after all, will not genuinely coincide with an anti-inequality agenda, which would have "to raise taxes and expand transfers" to accomplish its goals, says Douthat in a follow-up.  The Democratic reliance on such voters will ever blunt the real force of the party's populism, he suggests, meaning it will remain the sort of party it was under Clinton, and not a voice for "the more sweeping post-Obama populism than liberals are getting excited about today."  

Though Douthat does not lean on the point here, one of the undercurrents of the argument is that the cultural politics of the Democrats are bound to appeal to the upper middle class and alienate other types of voters-- yet the Democrats' economic and social agenda depends on strong working- and lower middle-class support if it is ever to have any teeth.  Douthat has written before about a possible mismatch between left-wing cultural and economic politics.  Of marijuana legalization and the spread of casinos: "[L]iberals especially, given their anxieties about inequality, should be attuned to the way that some liberties can grease the skids for exploitation."

Fair enough-- though one wonders whether "expressive individualism" is the only point one might urge against the criminalization of pot.  (Douthat acknowledges in the piece, after all, the evils of mass incarceration and even gestures at the questionable moral status of subjecting people to the state violence of imprisonment for things they have elected to do with their own bodies.  These have helped to make pot "a more complicated issue.")  Details aside-- I think he may be on to something here.

But the trouble with these inconsistency arguments, as always, is that they cut both ways. Were Douthat either a thoroughgoing populist, in both his economic and cultural politics, or a libertarian tout court, he might have a leg to stand on.  But since he is not either, as he makes clear in the column, we are left wondering what the trouble is.  Surely being a cultural libertarian and economic populist is no more incoherent, intrinsically-- no more likely to destroy the cohesion of a political unit-- than being an economic individualist and cultural communitarian like Douthat.  

And indeed, while Douthat betrays some sympathy for egalitarianism (even if he thinks the Left's agenda will not serve it as well as his own), he ultimately insists that inequality is "the wrong windmill to be tilting at in the first place," stressing that "mobility" is the true test of social justice.  And this, he believes, is not served by an anti-inequality agenda.  He suggests that New York, despite its income inequality, has considerable mobility (Say-- could that have something to do with that "growing welfare state" in New York which Douthat rounds on in the final paragraph?).  (Douthat proceeds to pooh-pooh early childhood education as part of the solution, linking to an article from National Affairs which offers one of the oldest canards in the right-wing playbook: it points to gains among students enrolled in Head Start at pre-school ages, followed by diminishing returns as those students enter grade school.  In other words, children benefit from Head Start while they are in Head Start, but not afterward.  Clearly, the logical solution is to ensure that they never go there at all.)

But the more substantive objection concerns Douthat's emphasis on mobility.  Now, why on Earth should this be construed as the sole test of social justice?  Douthat points to evidence that some wealthy New Yorkers have an easy time falling out of the upper class as a sign that the state is doing things right.  Do we really consider a society just which consists of mountains of affluence which can be easily scaled, and gullies of deprivation into which climbers can fall swiftly and easily-- with no guarantee that one's children are likely to remain at the top or the bottom for long?  And if not, isn't this because we find something disgusting in inequality itself, and not simply in the effect it may have on mobility?

More significantly, isn't this emphasis on mobility a rather individualistic one?  The cohesion of families and neighborhoods and communities hangs, rather minimally, on the assumption that each individual member is not looking to flee from them at the earliest opportunity.  If we want to preserve such community structures by means other than trapping their members in ossified social classes, then we'll have to make those communities places where people freely elect to stay-- because they are healthy and safe and decent places to live.  

One hungers for some recognition of this from Douthat.  His much-vaunted communitarianism resurfaces when it is a culture wars issue.  Whenever gay and lesbian couples wish to start families and celebrate their love with marriage, say: then Douthat rather abruptly decide that such things pose a threat to "the family," etc.  But an economic system which leaves some of our communities immensely poorer than others, but which allows some of their lucky or "gifted" members to leave their family and friends behind-- that, apparently, is a sacrifice worth making on the altar of individualism.


  1. I basically agree with your point about social mobility, but (and I'm sure you knew this was coming) I have to take issue with your description of Douthat as an "economic individualist." Obviously this is partly a matter of semantics, but here are some fairly recent quotes/selections from his writing which I think show that, while not a liberal, he's quite far from being a laissez-faire libertarian-meets-hardline social conservative.

    "This Catholic case for limited government, however, is not a case for the Ayn Randian temptation inherent to a capitalism-friendly politics. There is no Catholic warrant for valorizing entrepreneurs at the expense of ordinary workers, or for dismissing all regulation as unnecessary and all redistribution as immoral ... The pope’s words ... should ... inspire Catholics to ask more — often much more — of the Republican Party, on a range of policy issues." -

    "[C]onservatives simply cannot make economic policy successfully (or credibly cast themselves as a populist party on these issues) if they ignore the actual performance of the American economy over the last generation, and if they refuse to see that distributional issues as well as arguments from efficiency and liberty have to play a role in the way that we reform our tax code and our welfare state." -

    "... the basic 'reform conservative' agenda looks something like this ... A tax reform that caps deductions and lowers rates, but also reduces the burden on working parents and the lower middle class, whether through an expanded child tax credit or some other means of reducing payroll tax liability ... A repeal or revision of Obamacare that aims to ease us toward a system of near-universal catastrophic health insurance, and includes some kind of flat tax credit or voucher explicitly designed for that purpose ... A “market monetarist” monetary policy as an alternative both to further fiscal stimulus and to the tight money/fiscal austerity combination advanced by many Republicans today ..." -

    "[T]here are still pro-life Democrats for a reason: Because many abortion opponents can’t reconcile their views on social justice with the harder-edged, “any redistribution equals socialism” tendencies in the Republican Party ... Where was the pro-family pressure on conservative lawmakers to propose reforms that actually leveled the playing field between workers with employer-provided health insurance and those without it? Where was the pro-life Republican lawmaker standing up for the funding necessary to make high-risk pools actually work? Where was the right-of-center health care proposal that an anti-abortion but otherwise center-left Democrat might have felt comfortable breaking with his party and backing?" -

    I don't necessarily agree with all or even most of the agenda implied by these passages, but it seems to me that they fall pretty far short of economic individualism in any traditional sense.

  2. Good points and intriguing examples. I definitely think his emphasis on mobility as the best criterion betrays "economic individualism" for the reasons given above-- but it is probably tempered by other considerations somewhat more than I realized.