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Prospects for a New Left-Right Economic Coalition

Monday, 1 Apr 2013 | 4:53 PM ET
Jon Schulte | E+ | Getty Images

Mike Konczal's most recent Wonkblog column focuses in on the potential pitfalls facing any attempt to put reformist libertarians and reformist liberals together into what Michael Lind has been describing as a coalition against rentiers—people who receive a substantial amount of "unearned" income.

Konczal writes:

In a recent series of three posts at Salon, Michael Lind of the New America Foundation argues that this threat of rentiers is back and causing mass stagnation in an age of huge wealth. Lind believes that an anti-rentier agenda could unite a broad coalition, including "owners of productive businesses as well as workers, populist conservatives and liberal reformers."

Meanwhile, conservatives are trying to assemble their own coalition by developing an economic agenda suited to where the country is right now. Tim Carney at the Washington Examiner called for a free-market populism, one that shows that "big government expands the privileges of the privileged class." Others see a younger generation of conservative activists as harbingers of this approach to economic policy.

If that's the case, where might we see overlap on the left and the right, and where might we see stark differences?

One problem Konczal anticipates is that the conservative side of the coalition has too narrow of a view of the problem.

"One issue is that free-market populists tend to only see problems where government is acting, consciously or unconsciously, to boost monopoly power. More reformist liberals would tend to see market power itself as something that occurs naturally and needs some sort of public accountability," Konczal writes.

This strikes me as missing the mark.

It's not really true that free-market populists like my brother Tim Carney tend to only see problems where government is acting. Sometimes they see government acting and try to discern what problems might be arising, which companies might be secretly benefiting from a program supposedly put in place for the public interest.

But just as often, the free-market populists focus a problem that might look to a liberal like a "market failure." But instead of just assuming that the problem arises from "something that occurs naturally," they tend to seek out more specific and proximate causes. Frequently, these causes can be traced to government programs.

This keen awareness of the ways government operates to implicitly grant monopolies also makes free-market populists hesitant to jump to accept the idea that "public accountability"—that is, more government regulation—is the best solution to economic problems.

Reformist liberals tend to actually resist evidence of government's role in alleged "market failures." Greed and bonuses are, for example, a more popular explanation for the financial crisis than the far better perfect storm explanation offered up by Jeff Friedman.

There may be room for genuine coalition building. But first, liberals will have to learn a lesson about the government's role in economics that conservatives have had to learn about the government's role in education.

Once upon a time, conservatives imagined they could harness education policy to serve conservative goals. They saw the things that appeared to "occur naturally" in American education and sought to counter them with public measures. The results weren't pretty.

Take the 1971 Texas state law requiring state colleges mandate six course hours in American or Texas history. The Texas legislators hoped to beat back what they saw as the rise of the student counter-culture. As William Murchinson describes in the latest issue of The American Conservative, these days the required courses are concentrated on race, class and gender and hardly designed to inspire loyalty to the United States.

What conservatives had to learn was that the government wasn't on their side. It wasn't going to aid them in enriching their goals—it would always be used to pursue special interests often inimical to conservative purposes.

This isn't a lesson many reformist liberals have yet learned. They still imagine that government programs will aid them in reaching their goals—instead of mainly serving to further enrich the wealthy, entrench the powerful and stymie upward economic mobility.

In my more hopeful moments, however, I still believe someday they may learn this lesson.

Follow me on Twitter @Carney

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