May 25, 2017

Socialism and the Welfare State

Here's a tweet from Matt Yglesias that bears on my definition of socialism from December.

I think it's fair to say that my definition is both less radical than traditional socialism and many more hardcore radical perspectives today. However, I think it's important to be clear that this definition demands a complete welfare state, not just a larger one.

From the perspective of the working class, the point of this brand of socialist policy is twofold. First, we must provide all people who cannot work (children, students, disabled and unemployed people, etc., who make up the super-majority of the poor) with a decent income. Second, we must make sure that every single person who can work has a decent job ready and waiting for them (through full employment policy) — or failing that, that they have unlimited unemployment insurance and retraining/job placement assistance (through active labor market policy).

This mostly removes the traditional capitalist coercion to work. Now, under my scenario, if you are an able-bodied adult out of school, and you refuse to accept an offered job or to look for work, then it is possible that you will fall into poverty (though of course there should be a further safety net to prevent actual starvation). Given that a tremendous volume of labor is simply necessary every day to simply push human society forward through time, I think that there is no getting around at least some level of coaxing people towards work.

However, I think there is a fundamental difference between that sort of pressure and coercing work through the threat of total destitution. If we have structured our economy well, work should be useful — dedicated towards advancing society through time, or solving some problem or another. I believe that virtually every person wants to participate in society, to perform some useful task, and that if decent jobs are readily available — that is, jobs which are safe, well-paid, leave you with plenty of free time, and are socially necessary — then people will do them willingly.

The quintessential Bad Job is flipping burgers at Wendy's. Yet it is doesn't get much less socially necessary than keeping the citizenry fed. And indeed, food service can also being one of the highest-status jobs there is, given the right social context. Fast food work is a bad job because it is low-paid and exploitative, not because there is something inherently undignified about cooking burgers.

I think both liberals and hardcore leftists underestimate the transformative potential of a complete welfare state. If the hand of government is there to catch everyone who has a run of bad luck, provides healthcare, childcare, and leave for all, and structures labor markets to coax people into good work (as opposed to brutally scourging them into whatever jobs capital happens to have on hand, whether they exist or not), people's lived experience of freedom is tremendously expanded. The effects of this can be profound — Katie Baker, for example, once wrote an excellent piece about how the profound generosity of Denmark's system makes Danish women significantly less vulnerable to predatory men.

But it's the completeness that is key to this effect: it means that no matter who you are or what happens to you, so long as you're alive you'll be looked after.

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