Monday, October 24, 2016

Do we need a neo-Progressivism to fight neoliberalism?

“We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

Matt Stoller uses that famous quotation from Justice Louis Brandeis in an impressive article surveying how neoliberal policies and ideology came to dominate the Democratic Party, How Democrats Killed Their Populist Soul The Atlantic 10/24/2016. He gives a nuanced description of how Democrats of the Watergate Babies wave of the 1970s built a programmatic approach that combined socially liberal commitments to an economic doctrine of deregulation that eventually facilitated the Reagan Revolution and, more recently, spawned the conditions for the Great Recession.

Matt isn't focusing so much on the lessons of the Progressive Era as he is the New Deal. He makes the important point that New Dealers favored antitrust enforcement primarily because they recognized that the excessive organizational concentration in business created an imbalance of power that endangered democracy, even undermined it.

A closely related piece is "Challenging the New Cuse of Bigness" by K. Sabeel Rahman The American Prospect Fall 2016. As of this writing, it's not yet available on the website,though presumably it will be soon. In the Prospect's current quarterly format, they present articles clustered around an organizing theme, featuring the analysis and policy wonkery for which they are well known. Rahman writes:

From too-big-to-fail finance to new concentrations of power among internet and tech giants like Google, Amazon and Uber, the problem of bigness is again a central concern. In this new Gilded Age, addressing the problem of private power requires looking back at the strategies of Progressive Era reformers, reviving and adapting these concepts and tools of antitrust, public utility, and public options to address the new forms of private power dominating today's economy.
The two articles complement each other. Matt's focuses more on how the Democrats' version of neoliberalism and the political articulation of it developed since the 1970s. And he raises an important question about the policy options of antitrust vs. regulation.

Rahman digs more deeply into the economic and political theories behind Progressive ideas, may of which became part of the New Deal. And the triad of approaches mentioned in the quote above of antitrust, public utility and public option provides important context into how the three approaches interacted and complemented each other.

Both of them also mention how conservative used the idea of "regulatory capture" to politically discredit the concept of regulation.

And both are admirable exercises in developing a "useful past" that looks at how past experiences can inform the political and policy challenges of the present. And hopefully doing so without resorting to anachronism, the habit of projecting today's conditions and assumption unrealistically onto the past.

And since I opened with the Brandeis quote, I'll include this segment from a tribute to Brandeis earlier this year from the Jesuit magazine America (Joseph McAuley, Justice Brandeis and "The Right to Be" 01/27/2016):

The Brandeis worldview was simple: he was an avowed enemy of those who looked upon the common people with distaste and disdain, even though he himself was comfortably well-off. He placed himself on the side of those who were without power and influence; he believed that the poor, the immigrant and the downtrodden had rights that deserved to be respected. And he also believed that women had rights, too. He was the first to explain what was to become known as the “right to privacy.” He was a deeply learned man who had a social conscience and believed in the betterment of society.

He had entered Harvard Law School at the age of 18, and when he graduated in 1877, he had earned the highest honors in the law school’s history. (What made this unusual was that he achieved this distinction without ever having gone to college or university. Though he hadn’t reached the required age—21—for graduation, Harvard Corporation passed a resolution allowing him to receive his law degree.) And from there, his work and tireless efforts on behalf of human and civil rights earned him the title, "The People’s Lawyer."

He lived in a time of foment and change; he lived in the “Progressive Era” and the term adequately described him. He fought against unjust laws and discrimination. He passionately believed in free speech; at the same time, he was equally passionate about fairness, whether it involved banking or insurance, wages and labor regulations, and of monopolies of any kind. In time, he would become renowned for the “Brandeis Brief,” whereby his marshalling of facts, reason and common sense in the service of his beliefs and his clients would come to serve as a model for future Supreme Court presentations. He was a model of judicial liberalism, a liberalism that comprised of both the theoretical with the practical. For Louis Brandeis, both were essential, not only in life, both also in law.

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