29 of 38 people found the following review helpful
Backward Rather than Forward Looking Policies for Liberals
, February 18, 2009
This review is from: The Case for Big Government (The Public Square) (Hardcover)
Well, conservatism is in retreat in the United States and `liberal' is no longer a term of abuse. So, what are liberals going to do about long term social policy? I don't mean how should we deal with the current crisis, but rather how should we set and meet social goals to make a better society in the long run? I say "we" advisedly because I am neither a liberal nor a conservative. Rather I am more of a social planner-type who just wants to get the job done. This tends to make me critical of, and exasperated by, traditional political ideologies, which often substitute political correctness for solid ideas. This is why I read Madrick's book. Madrick is a true liberal of Michael Dukakis vintage, so his ideas will be in the running for such a vision in the next several years, provided we emerge healthy from the current financial meltdown.
If you want a well documented exposition of the thesis that the size of the government sector is not a problem, this is your book. I know that this finding will come as a shock to many, especially younger, readers who have been lectured to all their lives about the sins of drug abuse and big government, but Madrick is quite correct. It is not the size of government that affects social welfare, but rather the content of its taxation, expenditure¸ and regulatory policies. The simple fact is that there is no advanced economy without a large state sector, and traditional economic theory tells us exactly why: market failures and unintended outcome must be corrected by social intervention, in the absence of which a high level of wealth cannot be sustained.
If you want innovative ideas about new ways that government can serve the people, Madrick is not your man. His recipe list for social policy is basically, "let's go back to where Michael Dukakis left off, and finish the job." What this approach forgets is that there is a reason why conservatism took over, and if liberals make the same mistakes that they did in incurring voter wrath, the same thing will happen all over again. The idea, for instance, that trade unionism should be a considerable part of a progressive coalition is simply the kiss of death. In a global economy, unions cannot thrive in a competitive sector, because there is no monopoly surplus generated by firms that can be shared with the workers---profits fall to their competitive levels. This is why unions only do well in the state sector. This, by the way, is true the world over, not just the United States (e.g., the level of unionization in France is only 8%). Of course, one can also oppose globalization, but Madrick is not obtuse enough to suggest an anti-globalization policy (indeed, he tends to say that globalization is not a serious problem---p. 76).
Madrick also does not understand that the public's rejection of liberal social policy was not on grounds of economic efficiency and growth, but rather moral legitimacy. People believed the government wasted money, funneled perks to cronies, and administered a welfare state that rewarded sloth and anti-social behavior. The brilliance of Clinton as president was his clear recognition of this fact, and his support for policies that restored the appearance of legitimacy to the welfare system. Nowhere does Madrick recognize or affirm this point. All he says, over and over, is "big government does not lead to a low rate of economic growth."
Central to Madrick's vision of social policy in a redistribution of wealth to the lower middle class (non-college working class) through severe taxation of the rich and some vague transfer to wage earners (e.g., through unions, lower payroll taxes, and the like). I believe this is just a non-starter. The whole idea that the income distribution is "too unequal" and that voters are dissatisfied with the distribution of income is almost certainly incorrect. Only the liberal-left fringe care about the income distribution. Most voters care about the legitimacy of the private economy and the capacity of government to improve this legitimacy. For instance, the public is now pissed at the financial elite because they are feathering their nests while everyone else suffers, and their misdeeds are the cause of the crisis. This is a legitimacy issue, not one of abstract notions of inequality.
A progressive social policy must be based on the notion that attractive social programs are both efficiency enhancing and can be legitimated on general moral grounds. The so called "Employee Free Choice Act," which in fact severely reduces workers' democratic participation in union affairs, is a case in point. There is zero chance the public will not see right through the hypocrisy of abolishing the secret ballot in union elections. Similarly, liberal hostility to voucher and charter schools will be clearly seen as a payoff to the venal teachers' unions, the major enemies of better schooling, especially for the poor.
Rather than taxing and subsidizing, or strengthening unions, expanding day care for working parents and voucher/charter educational systems that transfer power to parents and communities will be heartily supported by voters, as will a heightened American leadership in the development of alternative energies sources and creating sustainable environments. We need more policies of this sort in the liberal reform dossier.
I hope that my alternative vision comes about, but I would not be surprised if the Democrats are no less pigs than the Republicans they have replaced, and avidly feed at the public trough just as Republicans did when their turn at the helm came to pass. What happens depends not on the politicians, but rather the progressive culture that develops on the local level around pressing social problems that we face.
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