It’s Time to Reclaim the Promise of Economic Rights in the U.S.

September 13, 2023

Remember Bernie Sanders? Given the likely upcoming clash of Joe Biden and Donald Trump in the 2024 presidential race, it might be easy to forget all that the democratic socialist senator has stood for. But Sanders is still around and the ranks of his allies in the U.S. Congress are growing. Moreover, the influence of Sanders and ​“the Squad” can be seen in the often hesitant progressive initiatives of the Biden administration. And this left-wing cohort’s egalitarian vision continues to provide lessons for the Democratic Party ahead of next year’s elections. 

In his new book The Ends of Freedom: Reclaiming America’s Lost Promise of Economic Rights, Rutgers Professor Mark Paul provides a full-spectrum picture of what we could think of as a version of the Sanders program, located historically in the history of U.S. social democracy. Paul’s objective is to propose a framework for understanding the full gamut of economic and social policy in the 21st century.

One of the book’s central claims is that the idea of rights as a political concept is immediately tangible and appealing to the general public. Policy can be endlessly detailed and arcane, including in the implementation of rights. But on the surface, the idea of, say, a right to a job, is readily grasped.

Paul sets up a menu of rights in seven categories: employment, housing, healthcare, nutrition, income, education and the environment. Before introducing the definition and political viability of each category, he lays down the retrograde history of liberty in the United States.

When it comes to the treatment of rights in the United States, the historical emphasis has largely been negative, for example, the right to pursue one’s personal interests unencumbered by government taxation or regulation (i.e. freedom from, rather than freedom to). 

To this end, Paul supplies a history of the evolution of neoliberalism and its chief exponents, especially right-wing economists such as Milton Friedman. Neoliberalism in this context refers to the conservative ideological critique of the New Deal that began with a cabal of reactionary economic thinkers. The economic profession more broadly receives some well-deserved criticism in Paul’s telling.

It should immediately occur to the reader that such rights are unevenly applied and tend to benefit the privileged. An example of a basic, negative right would be the right to the security of one’s person and property, but this right is clearly defended selectively.

So ​“rights” under U.S. capitalism have, in many ways, been a scam. Those interested in a deep dive into the bias inherent in the treatment of rights could consult Katharina Pistor’s 2019 book The Code of Capital: How the Law Creates Wealth and Inequality, which has the density of law review articles, but the basic truth was condensed over a century ago in a remark by the French Poet Anatole France: ​“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread.”

There is also a counter-history to the upholding of negative rights in the United States. In contrast to negative rights there have also been struggles for positive ones. Paul traces this background from Thomas Paine and Alexander Hamilton to Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, Jr. All were engrossed in the notion of economic rights relevant to the masses. Moreover, the government has always been more of a meddler in the economy than commonly supposed. 

Paul writes of ​“the American developmental state,” for which Alexander Hamilton was a forerunner, to point up the role of public infrastructure in economic growth. Public infrastructure that benefits individuals is an example of a positive right that furthers ​“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Roping Paine and Lincoln into this tradition could be seen as a bit of a stretch. Much more to the point were Roosevelt’s New Deal and ​“Four Freedoms,” and MLK’s 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Roosevelt enshrined in federal policy the priority of support for working class needs, especially employment and retirement security, i.e. positive rights. Paul also notes the critical roles of Black radicals A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin and their Freedom Budget, which expanded upon the New Deal theme of the Four Freedoms (freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear). He might have mentioned the most plausible, contemporary heir to the MLK tradition: Reverend William Barber and his ​“Moral Monday” movement.

Of course, without Lincoln there would have been no Reconstruction, but as a historical matter, its importance deserves more attention than it receives in Paul’s book. The same should be said for W.E.B. Du Bois and his magnum opus, Black Reconstruction in America, in which he chronicles the launch and liquidation of post-Civil War programs to afford freed slaves with the full benefits of citizenship. Reconstruction could be understood as the first social democratic upsurge in the United States.

Going against the grain of progressive policy was the role of the Vietnam War — conceived of by liberals and pursued maniacally by Lyndon Johnson — in disabling both the Great Society and War on Poverty.

As much as anything else, the progress of the late 1960s, including the institution of Medicare and a raft of other social programs, was arrested by U.S. imperialism. It was not a case of economic scarcity forcing transfers of resources from domestic social programs to military spending. There is always enough money for both. It was a focus of political attention, which is in finite quantity, on Cold War nostrums and, when it came to Southeast Asia, hot war lethality. A costly, fruitless war in Vietnam blew up the Democratic electorate and opened the door of the White House to Republican Richard Nixon.

Progressive, social democratic priorities did not truly return to the presidential stage until the Sanders campaigns in 2016 and 2020. The Carter and Reagan administrations promoted cruel welfare reform, eventually enacted with the assistance of Bill Clinton. Democrats upheld deregulation, austerity budgets, and corporatist ​“free trade” deals. I’m so old I remember when, as vice president, Al Gore began taking shots at the administrative state.

In response to Bernie Sanders’ presidential candidacy, his opponents largely offered neoliberal canards. For instance, there was Hillary Clinton’s straw-man proclamation: ​“If we broke up the big banks tomorrow….would that end racism? Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community? Would that make people feel more welcoming to immigrants overnight?” Then there were pseudo-populist attacks on free college as a supposed gift to the children of the rich. Or the condescending assurances by members of Congress that ​“nothing is free.” Perhaps the lowlight of this episode was civil rights legend John Lewis shrugging off Bernie Sanders’s civil rights record.
The wisdom of Randolph and Rustin’s Freedom Budget was its understanding that a class program was effectively anti-racist.

It is possible to find Sanders wanting in his lack of attention to such matters as race and gender, but a good faith critique would be backed by substantive commitments in the same vein. In other words, did Hillary Clinton present compelling alternatives in this area, beyond rhetoric?

The wisdom of Randolph and Rustin’s Freedom Budget was its understanding that a class program was effectively anti-racist. One struggles to find superior alternatives in the appeals of today’s mainstream Democrats. 

An alternative framework to Paul’s menu of economic rights is the Green New Deal (GND). But what is the Green New Deal? Of course, Paul is for it, and so am I, but it’s a box in which one can deposit different things. In contrast, the right to a job, an income, housing, healthcare, nutrition, education, and a livable world in the face of climate change are straightforward,

It might be more palatable to speak of a ​“New Deal that is green” rather than a Green New Deal. Paul’s framework of economic rights avoids the ambiguity of whether environmental concerns might supersede the basic need for jobs, income, etc. It’s hard to imagine the working class buying into a GND that downplays their most urgent needs.

Paul’s principal tool to satisfy his program of rights is public provision, requiring federal government spending. He does speak of price controls and supply-side policies, but the federal spending focus causes him to miss a few tricks.

On the right to a job, he gives only brief, passing thought to a potential opponent of expanded public employment: public employee unions. They are worried that state and local governments will substitute workers subsidized by a federal program for their own members, a fear well-grounded in history and a danger not easily prevented.

For a right to housing, he focuses on social housing and rent control. Both should be in our sights, but also relevant is the extent of regulation of housing in the form of restrictive local zoning. A wrinkle when it comes to rent control is the likely predominance of state and local government, in light of the extreme variation in housing conditions across localities.

The federal focus also could be criticized when it comes to ​“free college.” A major factor in the inaccessibility of college has been cuts in state government funding. These need not be reversed simultaneously. Separate state-based organizing can address the issue. Such organizing is likely to advance at different speeds in different places.

Paul’s overall approach strives for ​“de-commodification,” which means taking certain types of consumer spending out of the market and supplying them as public services and benefits, without charge. Of course, they are not ​“free” in the sense that they can be produced without cost. Even so, the focus is on individual consumption of goods and services. On the income side, he proposes income guarantees for individuals, or families.

A countervailing consideration is envisioning the end of any need for individual saving or wealth accumulation. For instance, a common goal of housing reform is widening home ownership, to facilitate wealth-building. But in a system that provides economic security, such as one with ample, universal pensions and an ample range of public services, there is no need for individual wealth. With guaranteed housing, there is no need for home ownership.

When it comes to the inevitable ​“How do you pay for it” question, Paul provides a reasonable account of the ease of deficit spending and the potential for revenue increases with tax reform. 

There is no question that the chief, current source of federal revenue — the individual income tax — could supply a great increase in revenue. It is less obvious to me, however, that the income tax could finance social democracy, or Paul’s bevy of economic rights. If we look to nations of the European Union with much larger public sectors, we observe heavy use of taxes on consumption, chiefly the Value-Added Tax (which resembles a sales tax). Since the EU nations, especially the Nordic countries, are the most tenable immediate future for U.S. social democracy or democratic socialism, their revenue systems should be of interest to those seeking a progressive future for the United States.

Paul’s program provides a much-needed counterweight to the endemic Democratic urge to go Republican-lite, in hopes of tying down the votes of centrist independents. In the current struggle to preserve democracy in the United States, it will be incumbent on Democrats to appeal to the disaffected working-class voters whom the party establishment is so far failing to inspire and mobilize for 2024.

In These Times, September 12, 2023

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