The Realignment Project often focuses on the furthest reaches of public policy – the big picture, the long term, the very edge of the Overton window – because these are the places where the true character of any political movement is manifest. Paul Ryan’s now-infamous roadmap is important, not because it’s a “serious” attempt by a conservative to honestly grapple with the reality of the Federal budget (it’s not), but because it reveals what conservatives actually care about – privatizing Social Security and Medicare, lowering taxes for the wealthy and spending on everyone else – and what they don’t care about, namely balancing the budget or reducing deficits. For all the protests to the contrary, these long-range visions reveal us for who we are, or at least who we’d like to be.
If the American left produced a report that got the same kind of attention – it would reveal a curious division of sentiment between two of its most cherished dreams of the future, namely the dream of a guaranteed minimum income, and the dream of a right to a job.
These two visions arguably stem from the same place – namely, the emergence of the modern Left in the early 19th century in response to the rise of industrial capitalism and the then-new phenomenon of total, lifelong dependency on wage labor. Prior to this, economic security had always had the agricultural backstops of the village commons and the parish relief, and most people weren’t completely dependent on the market for subsistence. Total disasters tended to be natural – a famine or flood or drought wiping out all in its path – and thus somehow distinct from mere “hard times.”
As scholars like E.P Thompson and others have noted, the arrival of industrial capitalism (accompanied by the theft of the commons and poor law reforms) severed the links between the poor and such primitive systems of support as had existed, leaving no recourse when wage labor dried up. This new experience of involuntary unemployment without recourse provoked two divergent responses. Tom Paine and others – including Henry George – pointed to the expropriation of the commons as an act of injustice that had to be compensated for by the provision of a basic income. Assuring every working-age person the princely sum of £15 (about £14,000 or $22,400 today) would ensure that economy-wide downturns would not mean individual destitution for the worker. As early as 1848, figures like Louis Blanq were looking back to the National Workshops of the French Revolution to argue that the state should “guarantee the existence of the workmen by work” through the establishment of the right to work (at a rate of 2 francs a day). In their eyes, enabling workers to work for the common good recognized the dignity and self-worth embodied in one’s labor, and a step to socialized production more generally.
Guaranteed Minimum Income – Broken Down:
The idea of a Guaranteed Minimum Income (GMI) has had a long staying power, in part because of the sweeping nature of the change it envisions. GMI goes beyond the more reformist impulses of the welfare state, which even in its most robust, social democratic form still envisions “cradle to grave” pensions as the exception to the norm of wage labor intended to support those who are either out of work (unemployment benefit) or who cannot (old age pensions, disability benefit) or are not supposed to work (traditionally family benefit and mothers, although this did change substantially following the 1960s) for a living. GMI extends state support to all, and in this light envisions the abolition of poverty and the end of dependence on wage labor through a simple redistribution of income.
For this reason, GMI has always had a strong attraction on the left. In addition to the the anti-poverty impulse that inspired the welfare rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr., social democrats like John Weeks argue that a GMI could eliminate the coercive discipline of the market place – namely, the ultimate threat of being fired and the resultant destitution – and sever the link between market labor and income, thereby taking one small step out of capitalism and a giant leap towards an economic order beyond scarcity.
Oddly enough, GMI has also had a passing popularity on the conservative side (although more the academic economic conservative side than the movement conservative activist side). Milton Friedman famously pushed the idea of a negative income tax as a means to eliminate the inefficiency-inducing welfare state bureaucracy, and in a sense seeing the loss of the presumably insufficiently productive poor from the labor market as not much of a loss. Likewise, Richard Nixon pushed a Family Assistance Plan that sought to establish a minimum income, at least for working families with children, as a way to support the “deserving poor” and divide the Democratic Party’s base.
Right to a Job – Broken Down:
In a similar way, the right to a job is similarly a traditionalist and a radical idea. In one sense, the right to a job honors the implicit social contract in America (and within capitalism more generally) that one’s right to participate fully as a citizen and one’s worth as an individual is earned through labor, what Alice Kessler-Harris and others described as “economic citizenship.” This concept also has deep roots on the American Left – in the “labor republican” ideas most notably expressed in the American Populist movement of the late 19th century.
Groups as varied as the Knights of Labor, the Farmer’s Alliance, the Greenback Party, and the People’s Party brought Thomas Jefferson’s belief in the necessity of independent yoemanry in a Republic into the world of industrial capitalism and advanced the labor theory of value as a moral claim to the supremacy of a people’s government over the forces of capital. Farmers produced the food that civilization required to exist, workers produced the goods that were traded, and through their labor had earned full citizenship – by contrast, labor republicans argued, speculators, investors, and bankers who lived off of capital income were “parasites” who didn’t morally own the property they were increasingly monopolizing, and who were undermining the republic itself through the wholesale buying of politicians.
In this sense, the right to the job goes beyond the conservative prescription of “work requirements” to argue that in addition to expecting people to work, society and the state are required to provide the opportunity to live up to the expectation by providing work to any who seek it. The right to a job also goes a step further than the traditional Keynesianism adopted by the center-left throughout the West in the 1940s – while Keynesian economic policy envisions the government acting to manage the economy through stimulating demand, in most cases it relies on stimulating private consumption to spur private employers to achieve its ends. To many Keynesians, this was an advantage in that it provided a solution to the economic crisis of the Great Depression that didn’t require statist planning and ownership of production.
The right to a job ultimately requires the government to act as an Employer of Last Resort, directly hiring the unemployed and competing with the private sector as an employer of workers and a producer of goods and services. Not only would the right to a job therefore envision the end of unemployment, but it would also end the monopsony (a single purchaser – in this case of labor – as compared to “monopoly,” a single seller) position of employers. This would also work to diminish the disciplinary powers of employers, creating a countervailing force in support of workers.
Devil in the Details:
So how then does the left choose between these two compelling dreams?
On a purely political level*, the choice is pretty clear:
Politically speaking, the guaranteed minimum income is poison. When Richard Nixon attempted to establish the Family Assistance Plan as a way to split the Democratic Party’s base between the working and non-working poor, he ultimately succeeded in doing nothing more than enraging the country. Even low wage workers who would massively benefit from his program wrote thousands of furious letters to the White House denouncing the idea that non-workers should be paid at all. The idea that 1972 when a Democratic Congress and a supportive presidency seemed poised to establish a GMI represented a lost opportunity to move beyond the cramped confines of the American welfare state – a view expressed by many left of center activists – doesn’t hold in the face of massive popular opposition. This negative impression continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s at about 60-70%.
By contrast, the right to job is enduringly popular. Even after the decline from its height during the New Deal-influenced 1930s and 1940s, a consistent three-fifths of the American people have continued in their belief in the right to a job, even in the midst of McCarthyism or the dawn of the Reagan Revolution. This commitment stems not merely from the policy’s reflection of longstanding cultural values of work, but also I believe because it makes visible the bilateral nature of democracy inherent in all forms of social insurance. When welfare programs are both designed and talked about in terms of a relationship between the state as provider and welfare clients as beneficiaries, part of the reason that we see the creation of anti-welfare politics based on a tax-payer/tax-spender divide is that the individual is taken out of the picture in favor of a state that taxes and a population that benefits. When programs are designed instead to frame everyone as common contributors and common beneficiaries, they begin to think of themselves as part of a people’s government who are actively engaged in a program of mutual protection and benefit.
In the case of direct job creation programs, at the same time that beneficiaries can use the cultural importance of work to legitimize their public benefits as earned through labor, taxpayers are made immediately aware of what they are getting in return in the physical form of roads, bridges, tunnels, libraries, schools, hospitals, airports, housing, and the like. They are also more likely to see themselves as potential beneficiaries when they think of themselves as workers who might be temporarily unemployed and in need of a job as opposed to non-workers on benefit.
* (There’s a practical issue that GMI tends to reduce work participation, whereas the right to a job envisions full employment and full production, which would have significant consequences for GDP growth, tax revenue, and so forth, but that’s a subject for another time.)
As a firm believer in Max Weber’s description of politics as the “strong and slow boring of hard boards,” I believe that the roadmap of the center-left should be to embrace the right to a job for all, and a guaranteed minimum income for all workers. As I have shown, the former is politically popular even in conservative epochs; the latter is also politically viable when we consider that two-thirds of Americans support raising the minimum wage to $10 an hour (including 47% of Tea Partiers!), and the nigh-universal support for the Earned Income Tax Credit. In so far as both dreams should be given scope within a larger political program, this is a compromise that has some legs.
This roadmap – the idea that no one who works should live in poverty, and that no one who wants to work should be unemployed – is one that both transcends the immediate limitations of the political moment and can serve as a roadmap to victory as well.