Friday, February 09, 2007

Re-fighting the New Deal (Brad DeLong & Arnold Kling)

On January 7 Wall Street Journal hosted an on-line mini-debate about the significance, value, and legacy of the New Deal between the generally left-of-center Democratic economist and blogger Brad DeLong, whose perspective is that of a proud but non-orthodox neo-classical fan of the capitalist market economy and free-trader who also believes that capitalism needs to be stabilized and humanized by moderately social-democratic policies, and Arnold Kling, who is a technophile "libertarian" of the free-market-fundamentalist variety. I guess it's only fair to add that Brad is a friend of mine and that while we don't always agree, on these kinds of issues he and I agree a lot more than either of us agrees with Kling.

Even though this was a brief and necessarily incomplete discussion, I found it useful and interesting at a number of levels, and I recommend reading it ("New Takes on the New Deal").

On the whole, this was a policy-oriented debate conducted in a polite and reasonable tone rather than one of fevered ideological polemic. I thought Kling was relatively sensible through most of his discussion (which is not to say that his arguments always held water), up to the last section where he let his pent-up ideological passions cut loose a bit. Correspondingly, while Brad DeLong was generally favorable toward the New Deal, his enthusiasm for it was quite sober and tempered.

I e-mailed Brad DeLong to share three of my own immediate reactions after reading this debate, and I guess I might as well share them more generally, even though they're just some offhand thoughts.

=> First of all, I was struck by the fact that in the course of this discussion of the New Deal, neither of the participants really says anything about unions. Kling does toss in a passing phrase about "legalization of trade unions" (which is a slightly odd way to put it--he's not sure they should be legal?). But unless I missed something elsewhere, that was it for both of them.

It seems to me that one of the major elements of the New Deal was a set of measures (including the National Labor Relations Act) that helped reshape the playing field of labor/management conflict in ways that helped to support the massive upsurge in unionism, especially industrial unionism, during the 1930s. These developments had a very significant and mostly valuable impact on American society & politics (the fact that union members are more likely to vote than other working-class people would be enough, by itself, to make this an important factor--but of course that's only one element of the package), and the gradual erosion of that legacy over the past decades has been one of the more unfortunate and damaging features of our own era.

And this aspect of the New Deal also departs from the one-dimensionally statist/top-down/regulatory picture of it presented by Kling and people like him. The fact is that by protecting and facilitating these forms of bottom-up mobilization and collective action, the New Deal also made a major contribution to associational life and, thus, to the vitality of political society (as distinct from the administrative state, technocracy, etc.). All this is obscured from view if one operates with a binary state-vs.-market dichotomy ... as Kling basically does here.

Update: As I was writing this, I just noticed that Brad DeLong already agreed with these points in his blog (here).
Jeff Weintraub politely writes in about the New Deal. Being a historical sociologist of Tocquevillean bent, he sees the AFL-CIO and the NLRA as absolutely crucial aspects. [....] He is right, of course.
For my part, I'm not surprised that Brad and I are in accord about this. I realized I wasn't telling him anything he didn't know already, but in a brief exchange one can't deal with everything.

The result, though, was that the overall thrust of the debate wound up being framed too exclusively in state-vs.-market terms, which greatly distorts the issues at stake in thinking about the political (rather than purely economic) significance of the New Deal.

Which leads me to the next point ....

=> Kling gets the final word in this exchange, and in his final installment, as I noted earlier, he cuts loose a bit. Through most of the debate, Kling was struggling to sound reasonable, open-minded, and pragmatically empirical in tone, but then at the end his self-discipline breaks down, and he tells us that:
In the progressive/New Deal utopia, we are all wards of the state.
OK, I can sympathize with Kling's desire to move beyond the narrow terrain of purely technical issues concerning economic policies. In the 1930s, those happened to be of momentous importance--but however momentous, they're only part of the story. Kling is right to feel that there are also some even larger socio-political issues at stake, and that we shouldn't evade the fundamental normative and ideological disagreements that necessarily frame the ways we approach such issues. This is the kind of point traditionally stressed, and in principle correctly stressed, by exponents of ideologiekritik from left, right, and elsewhere. Fair enough.

But then a lot depends on how we actually try to get at those larger issues. You don't have to be a left-wing (or "post-modernist") ideologue to lose your intellectual balance when you try to take this step. Other kinds of ideologues are also susceptible to this danger.

So what is this business about "the progressive/New Deal utopia"? Leaving aside some absurdities in what follows (e.g., Brad DeLong supposedly believes in a "technocratic, welfare-state utopia"), Kling's statement is comical because it so completely loses sight of the actual spirit and practice of the New Deal--which for better or worse was quite un-utopian, even anti-utopian, in style as well as experimental, non-doctrinaire, and even slapdash in its self-defined pragmatism. Brad DeLong capture the real picture a lot better with his "thumbnail summary of the entire New Deal: badly-handled, but a vast improvement."

=> Third, I couldn't help picking up an intriguing trace of mild Oedipal (or at least generational) political/ideological revolt in Kling's reference to his father:
What would have happened in the U.S. without the New Deal? My father answers with one word: Fascism.
Full-fledged fascism? I'm not so sure. But intense political polarization, increasing political violence, and the possibility of a turn toward more authoritarian and repressive arrangements? In that milder sense, Kling's father may well have been on-target.

But anyway, having raised this political scenario, Kling then says nothing in the rest of his discussion to contest or undermine its plausibility. I think he believes that some of the points he's making do this, but they don't.

And that brings me back to a theme that has run through these reflections: In the end, the whole focus of this debate about assessing the New Deal is oddly un-political ... to a degree that's worth noting, perhaps.

Jeff Weintraub

P.S. For some further polemics between DeLong, Kling, and various critics (who mostly focus on different issues from the ones I've raised) see here and here ... and these previous salvoes by Kling & Caplan here and Paul Krugman here.