The Change is Too Damn Fast

March 13th, 2012  |  Published in Politics, xkcd.com/386

Matt Yglesias has responded to me, although in a way that sort of misses the point I was trying to make.

Part of his post is given over to reiterating the position that increasing the amount of housing stock in desirable cities would be a correct and egalitarian thing to do, even if it inconveniences some of the incumbent owners and residents. Let me emphasize that I agree with this. But he goes on to speculate that I hedged my position because it “makes [me] feel icky to embrace deregulation”, as though my critique were a symptom of an affective disorder.

That really isn’t the point. I’m actually quite a bit farther toward the left-neoliberal “deregulate and redistribute” end of things than many of my comrades on the Left. My argument—which was meant as a self-critique of my own tendencies as much as Yglesias’—is that we need to be attentive to the people’s legitimate objections to rapid change, which complicate any project that wants to substantially rearrange the existing order.

Yglesias doesn’t really respond to my argument that his overall deregulatory project tends to make life more volatile, when stability is itself a value to a lot of people. What he does say, in response to my comment that “there’s no a priori reason to say that the desire to have a stable, predictable life or job or neighborhood is less valid than the desire to maximize economic growth”, is that:

The question is not whether some fixed pool of people should give up stability in exchange for more money. The question is whether the incumbents should be asked to give up some stability for the sake of other people who are currently excluded from the opportunities the incumbents enjoy. My answer is that yes they should. That we should work toward plentiful housing not merely for its own sake, but precisely for the sake of equality.

The language of “incumbents” and “insiders” plays a central role in the neoliberal critique of regulation, whether in land use or in the labor market. And it’s an argument I have some sympathy for. One of the things that most irks me about progressive nostalgia for the post-New Deal golden age is the way it elides the exclusions—of non-whites, of women, of non-union members—that made up the other side of stable high wage employment for the white male breadwinner.

But if an analyst portrays the issue merely in terms of a few insiders and an excluded mass, then he sets himself too easy a task. It’s not just rich owners of San Francisco real estate who benefit from some kind of “insider” status. Many of us are insiders, whether due to rent regulations or union membership or occupational licensing. In any particular case, it’s easy to set this up as a matter of egalitarianism and access. But generalized across the entire economy, what this amounts to is everyone (or most people) losing stability to some degree, in return for everyone having more freedom and access. There can be a tradeoff between equality and stability, and my point was simply that it is a tradeoff. And it’s the unwillingness to jump into the whirlwind of market relations that I think drives some of the revulsion at Yglesias’ political project from certain quarters.

People want, and have always wanted, institutions that protect them from the pressures of the market. Even if one would like people to act as perfect left-neoliberal subjects—obeying the dictates of the profit motive by day, enjoying their generous transfer payments by night—the historical evidence is that people rarely behave that way. This argument is basically drawn from Polanyi; here is how the deregulators of an earlier age are criticized in The Great Transformation:

Nowhere has liberal philosophy failed so conspicuously as in its understanding of the problem of change. Fired by an emotional faith in spontaneity, the common-sense attitude toward change was dis­carded in favor of a mystical readiness to accept the social conse­quences of economic improvement, whatever they might be. The ele­mentary truths of political science and statecraft were first discredited then forgotten. It should need no elaboration that a process of undi­rected change, the pace of which is deemed too fast, should be slowed down, if possible, so as to safeguard the welfare of the community. Such household truths of traditional statesmanship, often merely re­-teachings of a social philosophy inherited from the an­cients, were in the nineteenth century erased from the thoughts of the educated by the corrosive of a crude utilitarianism combined with an uncritical reliance on the alleged self-healing virtues of unconscious growth.

Polanyi’s argument wasn’t merely a normative one, but an analysis of history. He argued that industrial society was characterized by a “double movement”, in which efforts to subordinate society to the self-regulating market were met with the “self-protection of society”. This entailed efforts to impose limits on the market’s control over the “fictitious commodities”: labor, money, and, yes, land. It should be noted that Polanyi believed that the cataclysmic changes wrought by capitalism—the enclosures, the industrial revolution—were on balance good things for humanity. But he believed that someone needed to stand athwart history yelling “slow down!”:

A belief in spontaneous progress must make us blind to the role of government in economic life. This role consists often in altering the rate of change, speeding it up or slowing it down as the case may be; if we believe that rate to be unalterable—or even worse, if we deem it a sacrilege to interfere with it—then, of course, no room is left for intervention.

When it comes to the abundance-stability tradeoff, Yglesias and I are more on the same side than not—I’m ready to move in the direction of abundance, relative to the status quo. But we still have to take into account the disruptive impact of removing someone’s “insider” protection—whether it’s a restrictive zoning ordinance or an occupational licensing scheme. The insiders have be either persuaded, bribed, or coerced into giving up their privileges. And since a large proportion of Americans are “insiders” in one or another part of the economy, figuring out how to strike this balance has major implications for the democratic legitimacy, achievability, and feasibility of the project Yglesias is advocating. Which is why I spend so much time talking about ways to counteract the volatility of life in contemporary capitalism—like, for instance, the basic income—without reproducing insider-outside dynamics.

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