I just finished Tony Judt’s piece in the NYRB on how to revive social democracy, and perhaps it’s just because I myself strongly sympathize with social democratic ideals, but I think a lot of what he has to say will resonate for many Americans on both the left and the right.
That the very idea of achieving a social democracy has fallen so out of fashion in the U.S. has to do with the language with which we discuss public projects. Judt observes how it’s become common practice to have such conversations in purely economical terms, whether such-and-such a program is revenue neutral or contributes to G.D.P., whether it is efficient. What gets lost in the debate is whether said program produces a social good irrespective of its C.B.O. score, a good that is worth paying for.
The result of this has been the gutting of welfare programs over the past 30 years, the decline in federal funding for rail projects, and increasing privatization of formerly public services. Amtrak is a perpetual focus of criticism because of its unprofitability, just as the current struggle for universal health care requires any final bill to be scored deficit neutral. This is in part because for the former it’s very difficult to perform a cost-benefit analysis on improving connections between communities and lowering our transport-related environmental pollution through reduced car and plane travel; and for the latter it’s very difficult to weigh the cost of the 20,000 or so American lives lost each year to lack of access to health care.
This last point was taken up by Ezra Klein on Monday to underscore the need to shift the language of our debate on public programs from pure economics to something more moralistic. Somehow the Christian right has taken ownership of moralism in American politics, often employing it towards the nefarious causes of reducing access to family planning services and fighting marriage equality. But the left has a much stronger case to make for its current platform of enhanced public services that will not only improve lives but save them as well.
It seems that the left, after being bullied by fiscal conservatives during the 80s, is afraid to unabashedly propose greater government expenditures in this area, perhaps with higher taxes to cover the cost. But, as is often noted, the absolute failure of fiscal management under conservative administrations has sucked all the legitimacy out of Republican complaints of adding to our ballooning federal deficit.
But this doesn’t have to be a partisan issue. Judt argues that the best way forward for proponents of social democratic ideals is to appeal to our sense of how things were in the past. It was our grandparents (or our parents, depending on your age) who first saw the need to institute social safety nets in the face of absolute uncertainty. And while our current age can hardly be compared to the global chaos of the 1930s, a strong element of uncertainty is back with us along with doubts as to the wisdom of relying on largely unregulated markets. Playing to this fear is certainly appropriate, as Judt mentions, but practically speaking it is a fundamentally conservative argument: the best way to protect ourselves going forward, to ensure that our children had the same opportunities that we had, is to maintain and even strengthen social programs that in turn strengthen our society as a whole.
Injecting a dose of moralism and nostalgia into arguments for what are now called “progressive” social programs and investments seems to be the smart move. Whether we’re talking about unemployment benefits, universal healthcare or national rail networks, there is a strong case to be made that softens party lines and focuses on fundamental social values.