Peter Frase and Bhaskar Sunkara, two of the brightest minds the young left has to offer, call for federalizing and expanding the social welfare state in this month’s issue of In These Times:
This might seem like a poor moment to call for expanding the welfare state. But the timing has never been better. Austerity has only worsened unemployment and stagnated wages, and only a concerted effort to employ idle workers and boost purchasing power can revive growth and restore employment. Despite fear-mongering about the effects of budget deficits, the government is still able to borrow money virtually interest-free. And contrary to right-wing claims of out-of-control spending, taxes as a percentage of GDP are at their lowest level since 1950. We can, and should, ensure that everyone has access to healthcare, education, a secure retirement and a livable income, regardless of labor market uncertainties.
Most on the Left would agree with these goals—the question has always been how to achieve them.
We think we have an answer. We propose a new anti-austerity coalition united by the immediate demand that certain social spending burdens, currently borne by states and municipalities, be federalized. Almost all states are legally required to keep balanced budgets, making it unfeasible for them to employ deficit spending to address to a cyclical economic downturn. Even if these laws were changed, states would still face far more difficulties in this arena than the federal government. States could never borrow money on as favorable terms as the United States can, and they haven’t been printing their own currencies since the Articles of Confederation.
Simply put, without centralization, true social democracy in America is impossible. Once achieved, progressives could pursue policies that not only immediately improve working-class lives, but also lay the groundwork for more radical reforms in the future.
For too long, liberals have focused on technocratic policy analysis, seeking granular remedies to isolated problems. Such solutions lack the kind of sweeping political vision that wins and sustains policy reforms. Conversely, radicals have for too long made rhetorical appeals without any grounding in political realities. The plan outlined below is a corrective to both trends, written with the understanding that policy and politics are inextricably linked.
I think Frase and Sunkara might oversell their plan—it’s less a “sweeping political vision” than a proposal to overhaul important parts of the American state—but it’s still a compelling strategy that is, indeed, mindful of the interplay between policy and politics. I support it.
My critical thoughts on the essay, then, are addendums, caveats, and minor quibbles.
First, the glaring oversight: where’s full employment? If education falls under the welfare state rubric, how does a job program fail to make the cut? Full employment has to be a central demand for any radical reform strategy worthy of the name.
Second: Maybe I’ve imbibed too many New Left critiques of bureaucracy and centralization, but I’m less sanguine about the federalization-as-emancipation panacea than Frase or Sunkara (or Corey Robin). We have a two-tiered welfare system: Federal social insurance programs, as the pair rightly notes, are less intrusive; if bureaucratically byzantine, Social Security beneficiaries at least aren’t shorn of their dignity, privacy invaded. Administered by states, public assistance programs offer measlier financial benefits and place clients in a subordinate role. One of the purposes of the welfare state should be to free citizens from the hierarchy and subjugation that often characterizes capitalist work relations. Yet it can function as an analogous sphere of domination, with caseworkers assuming the role of the boss. Federalization obviously makes sense in this case (and hopefully, it will lay the groundwork for a Guaranteed Minimum Income).
But centralization requires justification on its own terms, in each instance.
I’m less convinced it would be beneficial in the case of public education. I’m all for equalizing funding, for having Washington disperse more funds. However, I’m squeamish about the federal government arrogating additional power to decide what local school districts should do. I’m wary of educational centralization if it wrests control away from parents and teachers, community members, and school boards. Things like Race to the Top clearly do just that. Public education, unlike other publicly provisioned services, should not be standardized. Pluralism is a boon.
Additionally, one of the central benchmarks for the left should be the extent to which a policy or program strengthens democracy and democratizes power. A couple weeks back, I wrote, “Deepening democracy should be one of our core commitments, reflected in our programmatic prescriptions. When evaluating individual policies, one of the cardinal questions should be: How does it/ will it affect participation, attitudes toward the state, and existing power relations?”
We can often do better than just sawing off the rough, dehumanizing edges of the welfare state. We can design institutions and programs in a way that participation is actually encouraged, where citizens have genuine decision-making power. This doesn’t solve the socioeconomic inequities the dispossessed bring to the table—the material benefits which an expanded welfare state confer would do more to rectify that problem—but it’s a prerequisite for emancipation.
Scholars have found that citizens often perceive government as a monolith. That is, when citizens are systematically mistreated and dominated as welfare clients, they tend to take a dim view of the state writ large, not just the invidual agency or bureaucracy. Meaningful participation (e.g., Head Start policy councils) and consciously democratic programs can counteract that tendency. And while collective self determination is something to value by itself, activating a previously disengaged constituency buttresses the left project. Just imagine if the dispossessed had as much cachet and sway as the AARP.
I was heartened to see Frase and Sunkara wax poetic about democracy and freedom in their peroration. But I would’ve like to see a more tangible manifestation of the former in their plan.
“Maximum feasible participation” is still a noble goal.