A debate has broken out across various left-leaning policy blogs about the virtues of a technocratic view of politics versus one that revolves around mobilising organised interests. It’s a fascinating discussion about the means and ends of progressive politics. I don’t have much to add to it, but I thought it might be worth linking to some of the key contributions for anyone who has missed the whole back-and-forth.

It all started when Matt Yglesias contributed to a debate at The Atlantic’s website by claiming that:

[t]he best step to create jobs and boost the [US] economy would be for the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee to announce a plan to target inflation at 3 or 4 percent.

This raised the hackles of Doug Henwood, who accused Yglesias and his fellow “left neo-liberals” of preferring monetary to fiscal remedies because:

…they operate through the financial markets and don’t mess with labor or product markets or the class structure. A jobs program and other New Deal-ish stuff would mess with labor and product markets and the class structure, and so it’s mostly verboten to talk that way.

Henry Farrell piled on, suggesting that “neo-liberals” like Yglesias

tend to favor a combination of market mechanisms and technocratic solutions to solve social problems. But these kinds of solutions tend to discount politics – and in particular political collective action, which requires strong collective actors such as trade unions. This means that vaguely-leftish versions of neo-liberalism often have weak theories of politics, and in particular of the politics of collective action.

At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum weighed in, tentatively coming down on the side of Farrell and Henwood, but with some sympathy for Yglesias. He explains his own drift from a more technocratic point of view to one that places greater emphasis on organised political power as the means to achieve progressive ends:

Back in the 90s, if you’d asked me what my political persuasion was, I probably would have said I was sort of a neoliberal (in the American, Charlie Peters-ish sense of the word). My political leanings are liberal, but my temperament is technocratic and market oriented, and that made me a pretty good fit for the neoliberal team.

I got steadily off that bus over the years… I’ve moved even further away from the neoliberal persuasion because my nose has been rubbed a little too firmly in the fact that it simply doesn’t work politically. The world is a messy place governed by messy interest groups and messy countervailing powers, and if you absent yourself from that world you’ll get steamrolled.

At this point, Yglesias professed that he had “no idea what it is that we’re disagreeing about”. He claims to “really, strongly, profoundly agree” that rebuilding an organised left and “the infrastructure of economic populism” is a good idea, but in the absence of a concrete proposal to achieve that aim he declares that “[d]ebating the desirability of devising some hypothetical future good idea seems kind of pointless to me”.

Henry Farrell wasn’t happy that Yglesias “waxed sarcastic” about the whole thing, responding with a lengthy critique of the lack of a “theory of politics” among so-called left neo-liberals like Yglesias. Farrell’s critique seems to amount to the suggestion that, by pursuing desirable economic policies without consideration for their second-order  effects on the dynamics of political power, left neo-liberals do little good and do some harm.

Brad DeLong doesn’t think that Farrell’s vision, of rebuilding organised coalitions of left-leaning groups to offset the strength of the organised right ,”is workable or advisable”.

Finally, Lane Kenworthy thinks that organised political power is important to achieving progressive outcomes from the policy process, saying that:

If you want progressive policies, the comparative historical evidence suggests it’s very helpful to have a strong labor movement. Indeed, after democracy, it might well be the single most valuable thing to have.

However, he also suggests a “second-best” alternative in countries where unions are “weak, and getting weaker” that involves broader coalitions of left-leaning interests.

The debate still seems to be raging, and it is a fascinating one.

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