Better Progressive Rhetoric? Obama Is Building That
While it’s still unclear whether the going flap over Obama’s “you didn’t build that” line is a net gain or a net loss for the president, I’m increasingly encouraged by the Left’s response. Sure, there’s the customary—and impotent—exasperation over the Romney campaign’s manipulation of Obama’s words, and there are some snarky proto-memelets kicking around, but there’s also an uptick in thoughtful leftist argument. If the Left is ever going to reassert a “moral vision” for the country, it needs to strenuously make the case that public institutions help to guarantee a prosperous common life for individual citizens. It needs to argue that markets rest upon these public goods, and that individual economic success depends upon the fabric of community life.
For a great example, take a look at Mike Konczal’s striking post on the place that property rights should have in a progressive policy agenda (he nails it):
“[L]iberty” for one comes at an expense of “liberty” for another. Since there’s no neutral way for the government to set these rules, certainly no abstraction like “economic liberty” to guide the path, the question over social control of property, as Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse put it, is “not of increasing or diminishing, but of reorganizing, restraints.” The issue here isn’t that everything is up for grabs – it’s that there is no “neutral,” and appealing to higher abstractions as “rights” or “ownership” don’t get you anywhere.
And he sticks the landing! The crowd goes nuts! BOOM!
As a matter of philosophy, of rhetoric, of ethics, of politics, of political economy, and so much more…Konczal’s got it exactly right. As I’ve argued before, rights take their effective meaning from the actual degree of freedom that they make possible—NOT from their correspondence to some pre-ordained order of things or the “natural” constitution of human beings. So many conservatives (and others) insist that the individual right to property is pre-political and construct all sorts of oddball thought experiments that purport to “prove” this beyond doubt—e.g. What if we were all alone in an inconvenient wilderness? Suppose that we still had universally-homogeneous moral instincts in this pre-social state and thus were able to spontaneously coordinate collective responses to dangerous, transgressive individual behavior. What sorts of rights would we deduce from that situation? WHAT THEN? Or, alternatively—what if we were temporarily blind to our size, shape, intelligence, family, community, cultural background, and economic status? What sorts of rights would we grant ourselves then?
Why should we project ourselves into a pre-political (or extra-political, or supra-political, depending on the case) realm in order to determine the content of our political rights and institutions? Why should we imagine ourselves away from our current context in order to set the rules for settling problems within that context? Egregious use of rhetorical questions? How many of these can I use in a sequence before it’s no longer moving the argument along?
It isn’t just that a free market can survive regulation; it’s that the free market is the product of regulation, regulation designed to protect the public from the kind of arrangement that, let’s say, allows people with undue influence on the government to have a lower tax rate than people who don’t.
They’re both right to hit this point hard. It’s one of the fundamental principles at core of the last century of leftist thought in the United States (and Britain, if Konczal’s Hobhouse reference is to be believed). See, the original Progressives organized in response to inflexible political protection of dramatic injustice. The movement formed because traditional interpretations of contract and property rights were being used to protect and even justify the horrifying exploitation of men, women, and children alike. They argued, in other words, that the United States was founded upon thick, egalitarian promises to individual citizens (like these). No amount of philosophical machinery could convincingly paint the working conditions in the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory as “free,” let alone “just” or “good” or “admirably American.” Instead of thinking of individual liberty in terms of desiccated and abstract rights claims, progressives argued that we ought to measure it as those choices that our political institutions make possible. So if we find that our traditional conceptions of contract and property rights lead to brutal treatment of individual humans and/or staggering economic inequality, we can make changes in order to bring conditions better in line with the American Founding’s promises.
Here’s an example of original progressive thought along those lines. In a discussion of individual liberty in Individualism Old and New, philosopher John Dewey wrote (emphasis added):
The significant thing is that the loyalties which once held individuals, which gave them support, direction and unity of outlook on life, have well-nigh disappeared. In consequence, individuals are confused and bewildered. It would be difficult to find in history an epoch as lacking in solid and assured objects of belief and approved ends of action as is the present. Stability of individuality is dependent upon stable objects to whichallegiance firmly attaches itself. There are, of course, those who are still militantly fundamentalist in religious and social creed. But their very clamor is evidence that the tide is set against them. For the others, traditional objects of loyalty have become hollow or are openly repudiated, and they drift without sure anchorage. Individuals vibrate between a past that is intellectually too empty to give stability and a present that is too diversely crowded and chaotic to afford balance or direction to ideas and emotion. Assured and integrated individuality is the product of definite social relationships and publicly acknowledged functions.
Thank goodness that leftists—including the Obama Administration, by the way—aren’t backing away from this argument. Thank goodness that they’re making the case that economic freedom and prosperity rest upon stable and reliable regulatory institutions. I’m more convinced than ever that the Left needs to get its moral vision clear—trendy demographic studies and rhetoric-of-the-day issues aside, this election is really about the relationship between government and economic life. If leftists want to justify financial reform, environmental regulations, progressive taxation, and most of the rest of their policy preferences, they urgently need to be able to explain how public institutions enhance economic life. So: the “you didn’t build that” salvo could well be the first step towards reestablishing the legitimacy of the original progressives’ rhetoric as an alternative to the GOP’s supply-side politics. It could well be the first step towards a tougher American Left.
Conor P. Williams makes this argument a lot. Williams writes and teaches in Washington, D.C. Feed his fragile ego by following on Facebook, Twitter, and at http://www.conorpwilliams.com. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.