Three Pillars of Democratic Empowerment

By Dan Kervick

Brad Delong recently presented what he impishly called ‘The Seven Cardinal Virtues of Equitable Growth’.  For me, DeLong’s list is a mixed bag.  But there are a few items on the list I would unreservedly endorse.  One is his second virtue:

2. Invest. Invest in ideas, in equipment capital, in structures capital, in education: we need more of all forms of investment. Boost public and private investment: we need both kinds.

I also very strongly support the last two items in DeLong’s virtuous septet:

6. We need more equality. If we want to have equality of opportunity 50 years from now, we need substantial equality of result right now.

7. We are going to need a bigger and better government. The private unregulated market does not do well at health-care finance, at pensions, or at education finance. The private unregulated market does not do well at research and early-stage development. The private unregulated market does not do well with commodities that are non-rival. We are moving into a twenty-first century in which these sectors will all be larger slices of what we do, and so a well-functioning economy will need a larger government relative to the private economy than the twentieth century did.

But let me add a few additional items to DeLong’s rousing itemization of the virtues. The Christian thinkers of old, developing their own list of seven virtues, actually distinguished the four cardinal virtues from the three theological virtues. I will steer well clear of theology, but would instead like to make some analogous suggestions in the realm of political ideals. So in amending DeLong’s list of cardinal virtues, let me put forth these Three Pillars of Democratic Empowerment:

I. We need more democracy. And that doesn’t just mean we need more elections and more access to voting. We need more real, honest to goodness, full-participation, deliberative, hands-on democracy. We need more active citizen engagement in all aspects of the processes that determine our future. We need more democracy at the national, regional, state, local and sub-local level. And we also need more democracy inside organizations, including corporations. We need, in a word, an American democratic renaissance.

And since we are dabbling here with analogies to high doctrine, let me put the matter in suitably apocalyptic terms: The 21st century in America is the battlefield on which will be waged a moral and political war to determine which shall be the dominant form of social organization in our country: (i) the democratic form of organization based on the equality of all and the engaged participation of all members of a social organization in the decisions determining the future of that organization, or (ii) the corporate form of organization based on hierarchical systems of command and control. Both of these forms of organization may survive in some degree, but only one can be dominant. Democracy must win. Americans must choose decisively to embrace the best parts of its muddled but vigorous democratic tradition, and extend democratic forms of decision-making throughout the social sphere.

We have to get back into the habit of thinking that the future is not something that only happens to us. It is not a place where fate just happens to land on us with a heavy, unsummoned weight. It is a place we are entitled to deliberate about, argue about and then democratically choose. And once we have made an informed and thoroughly debated choice about what kind of future we want as a people, we then formulate a strategy for getting to the place we have chosen, and execute that strategy.

Some will see this as heresy. For some decades now, Americans have been taught to believe that only evil communists think this way about the future. For the true-blue, decadently neoliberal American, the future isn’t supposed to be chosen or planned in any degree; it’s supposed to be delivered to us by 1,000,000 independent entrepreneurs seeking their own self-interest by building better mousetraps and tastier burritos. Social progress on this model reduces to the indefinite multiplication of just so many improved salsa options at The Burrito Pavilion.

This is a slavish and doltish attitude. It is slavish in that in its ultimate psychological and political effect it defers real power not to the so-called invisible hand, but to those individual titans who happen to possess and control our society’s capital resources. It is doltish in its blind denial of the innumerable examples of the successful implementation of bold, deliberate plans and strategies, both in our society and other societies.

II. We need to advocate for a restructuring of work and life in the United States. Real democratic citizenship and equal dignity for all cannot be realized without changes in the way we live and work. It is impossible to predict how the nature of work will evolve over time. But however that evolution of work goes, we know there will be a great deal of work to be done. The burdens of that work must be divided and shouldered fairly; and the fruits of that work must be shared equally as well. Also, a democratic people cannot afford to exhaust all of their precious, limited time in forging a material living, but must conserve and set aside enough time to do the work of governing their society.

I propose a reduction in formal employment to a firmly enforced, national  4-day work week, with the new open day to be devoted to community and democratic work.  Everyone will be expected to participate in or on a school board, a conservation committee, a zoning board, a parks committee, a legislature, government commission etc. In a functioning democracy, everyone needs to be part of the government. Preserving democratic liberty isn’t just a matter of claiming rights; it’s a matter of shouldering responsibilities. Self-government is hard work, and the first rule of democratic understanding is this: govern or be governed. A citizenry can’t govern itself, and make itself into a truly democratic polity, if the heavy demands of income-earning work squeeze out all of the time that needs to be devoted to the responsibilities of engaged and effective participation in democratic society.

III. We need to restore the bargaining power of labor and restore work and the people who do it to a place of privilege over capital and the people who own it. We must commit to a system of 100% full employment, with the public sector permanently mobilized and standing ready to provide work and income-earning opportunities to everyone who is willing and able to work, but for whom the private sector has been unsuccessful in generating a viable employment opportunity. And having done that, we must double the minimum wage and enact suitable compensatory adjustments and restrictions at the top end of the income scale. This is the only way to end the permanent buyers’ market in labor that is responsible for decades of rising inequality and insecurity.

Right now, both of our major parties are failing to grasp this imperative, as is seen in the recent debate over the House of Representatives vote to cut the SNAP program. The ruthless Republican solution is based on permitting plutocratic capitalists to lord it over a demoralized and insecure workforce that must bow and scrape for work and income opportunities, and choose between either accepting whatever degrading and meager opportunities are on offer from the plutocrats or accepting the destitution of unemployment without public assistance. The Democratic welfarist alternative is more humane, but is organized only around the idea of alleviating that ruthlessness somewhat. By failing to push forward toward a commitment to full employment, Democrats passively accept a de facto caste system consisting of the fortunately employed on the one side, and the dependent poor and unemployed recipients of aid on the other side. What is really needed is a powerfully engaged and active public sector that provides all of the work opportunities that the private sector can’t or won’t provide. This is the only way to secure full dignity and democratic equality for all of our fellow-citizens.

By combining some of DeLong’s recommendations for equitable growth with these pillars of democratic empowerment, maybe we can come up with a society that is really worth living in again.

Cross-posted from Rugged Egalitarianism

Follow @DanMKervick

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