Power, Baby, Power

| Sat Jan. 22, 2011 7:34 PM EST

Tim Lee says that American liberalism has incorporated libertarian critiques at a striking rate over the past few decades:

Libertarians have had a pretty impressive winning streak in recent decades, especially on economic policy. Income tax rates are way down. Numerous industries have been deregulated. Most price controls have been abandoned. Competitive labor markets have steadily displaced top-down collective bargaining. Trade has been steadily liberalized....This isn’t to say there are no longer disagreements about economic policy; clearly there are. But what’s striking is that the left’s smartest intellectuals and policy advocates now largely make their arguments from libertarians’ intellectual turf.

He's right! And there are both benefits and drawbacks to this. Still, Will Wilkinson points out that liberals and libertarians remain pretty far apart. So far apart, he says, that most liberals won't even accept this third-best not-even-very-libertarian proposition:

It’s best to just maximize growth rates, pre-tax distribution be damned, and then fund wicked-good social insurance with huge revenues from an optimal tax scheme.

Will is right too! I don't accept this. I think there are two big problems here.

First, it contains an implicit conviction that libertarian notions of tax and regulatory structures will maximize growth rates. This is practically an article of faith on the right, but there's virtually no empirical evidence to support it. As it happens, I'd argue that my preferred brand of the modern mixed economy is, on the whole, probably more efficient than a stripped down libertarian state, even one that includes lots of centrally-directed income redistribution. But not by much. Personally, I'd be pretty happy if both sides accepted the notion that within a fairly wide range of modern capitalist systems — from Sweden to the U.S., say — overall growth rates change very little. For the most part, we're really arguing about other things.

Second, I suspect there's no feasible path to Will's state of the world. The problem is that a system that generates enormous income inequality also generates enormous power inequality — and if corporations and the rich are allowed to amass huge amounts of economic power, they'll always use that power to keep their own tax rates low. It's nearly impossible to create a high-tax/high-service state if your starting point is a near oligarchy where the rich control the levers of political power.

I am, fundamentally, old fashioned about this stuff: I think of the world as largely a set of competing power centers. Economics matters, but power matters at least as much, and I think that students of political economy these days spend way too much time on the economy and way too little time on the political. This explains, for example, why I regret the demise of private sector labor unions. It's not because I don't recognize their many pathologies, or even the fact that sometimes they stand in the way of economic efficiency. I'm all in favor of trying to regulate the worst aspects of this. But large corporations have their pathologies too, and those pathologies are far worse because there's no longer any effective countervailing power to fight them. Unions used to provide that power. Today nobody does.

So when Tim Lee writes that "Competitive labor markets have steadily displaced top-down collective bargaining," I just have to shake my head. Competitive for whom? For the upper middle class, labor markets are fairly competitive, but then, they always have been. They never needed collective bargaining to begin with. For everyone else, though, employers have been steadily gaining at their expense for decades. Your average middle class worker has very little real bargaining power anymore, and this isn't due to chance or to fundamental changes in the economy. (You can organize the service sector just as effectively as the manufacturing sector as long as the law gives you the power to organize effectively in the first place.) Rather, it's due to a long series of deliberate policy choices that we've made over the past 40 years.

It's worth noting, by the way, that corporations and the rich know this perfectly well, even if lots of liberals have forgotten it. They know exactly what the biggest threat to their wealth is, and it's not high tax rates. This is why the steady erosion of labor rights has been, by far, their single biggest obsession since the end of World War II. Not taxes, unions. If, right now, you were to offer corporations and the rich a choice between (a) passage of EFCA or (b) a return to Clinton-era tax rates on high incomes, they wouldn't even blink. If you put a gun to their head and they had to choose between one or the other, they'd pay the higher taxes without a peep. That's because, on the level of raw power, they know how the world works.