It’s a robust internet tradition that the a significant portion of the comments in every post that responds to Matthew Yglesias, or even mentions him in passing, must be dominated by arguments about the proper global assessment of Matthew Yglesias, and the comments on Scott’s post below are no exception. Is he an odious right-winger in drag, or just wrong about certain issues? Does his wrong position of the day stem from ignorance, privilege, limited intellectual capacity, or some combination thereof? And so on and so forth. As far as internet traditions go, this seems like a strong candidate for abandonment for a variety of reasons, one being that it’s boring, and nothing new ever gets said. But within that tradition, we can occasionally discern some substance. From today’s comments:
The Yglesias position is what Freddie DeBoer has called “pity-charity liberalism”. It reduces the position of the middle class to that of petitioners begging crumbs from their new masters’ tables. And there is no guarantee that these crumbs will be granted. It’s morally appalling and politically unviable.
There’s something to this critique of Yglesias’s preferred model of liberal democracy, to be sure: there are good reasons to prefer various forms of direct empowerment to transfers of wealth. But this characterization of such a form of liberalism troubles me insofar as it devalues democratic accomplishments. If we were ever to get the kind of constellation of policies that Yglesias wants in his “pity-charity liberalism,” which includes generous and robust transfers of wealth, would require an impressive, committed, broad-based political movement to achieve–elites certainly won’t do it on their own. It would necessarily be the result of a lot of people working really hard to change our political system to improve the lives of poor and middle class people. That’s real, empowering work, and all that democratic agency disappears in this characterization of Yglesias’ model. Yglesias himself doesn’t talk much about that work, of course, but that’s neither here nor there in characterizing the model of liberalism he offers.
There’s also an implied presumption in this critique that there’s an alternative model that, if successful, would successfully short-circuit elites from eroding political and economics gains made by the poor and middle classes in the future. This belief, I think is a wise one to resist. There are all manner of ways in poor/middle class political and economic victories can be eroded, clawed back, and undermined; the institutions of “pity-charity liberalism” don’t stand out much in this regard. (The best defense against regression of this sort is, simply, to create programs so popular politicians are afraid to touch them. But even then, such programs can be undermined by policy drift). Such as assumption reveals a profoundly naive understanding of social and political power: the kind of guarantees implied to be available here simply aren’t. To quote myself, from an academic paper (that I think is quite good but can’t seem to get journal editors to agree):
When considering a particular institutional arrangement, we must choose between two assumptions: Nozick’s view that “whatever arises from a just situation that follows just steps is therefore just” or Shapiro’s view that even just hierarchies and arrangements, when “left unchecked” are potentially in danger of “atrophy(ing) into systems of domination” (Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia, p. 151; Ian Shapiro, The State of Democratic Theory, p. 4). Nozick’s view is appropriate given his disinclination to view many forms of domination as normatively problematic. But Shapiro’s assumption seems much more fitting for a theorist concerned with opposing all forms of domination, regardless of origin and cause. If we choose Shapiro’s view, even if the rules and institutional structure of a legislative and contestatory democratic regime are constructed as well as they possibly could be, they might cause—or fail to prevent—some forms of domination.
The Nozickian assumption isn’t limited to libertarianism, it lurks all over the place; for example in the seemingly endless parade of “if only we’d abandon Roe and follow my 6 step plan, abortion wouldn’t be such a hot-button political issue” nonsense Scott has to deal with, but it’s not something progressives should succumb to, in any form. Politics doesn’t end, elites are creative and sneaky SOBs, and there are no guarantees, in the long run.