Learning from New Labour

Briefly, I’ll just say that US Democrats would do well to pay close attention to the continuing travails of New Labour, which finds itself in a long, messy denouement as evidence of Bushian incompetence continue to pile up.

In 2005, Noam Scheiber made a very smart argument about conservative cronyism (which unfortunately can’t be find on TNR‘s website).

If you happen to think bureaucracies are structurally incapable of improving people’s lives, and if you have contempt for the kinds of people who reside in them, then you have two choices: You can either slash the bureaucracy and refund taxpayer’s money, or you can reconcile yourself to the existence of bureaucracy and run it as a patronage operation.

For those of us who’ve followed the Bush Administration closely, this seems very convincing indeed. Yet Gordon Brown doesn’t believe that “bureaucracies are structurally incapable of improving people’s lives.” Moreover, it’s by no means obvious that he’s staffed the British bureaucracy with incompetents. The deeper problem is that any institution, public or private, is going to make missteps. The more authority we give to an institution, the costlier those missteps are likely to be. That is the fundamental reason to devolve authority.

Matt Yglesias says “eh” to the federalism argument, which of course goes far beyond federalism.

In practice, arguments about federalism are almost universally made opportunistically. People favor devolving power to the states when they think doing so will produce policies they approve of, and people favor concentrating power in Washington when they think doing so will produce policies they approve of. Everyone knows this.

I’m happy to take a principled stand here. The case against national ID cards, which plenty of smart liberals are happy to embrace, applies far beyond national ID cards.

Actually, let’s consider a case for federal intervention, paying people to lose weight.

One of the main obstacles to such efforts is that employers and insurers are often reluctant to make long-term investments in employees. The average tenure of an American employee is just four years. The disincentives this creates for companies raises the question of whether state or local governments should follow Mayor Buonanno’s lead.

Of course, Americans are pretty mobile. Paying New Yorkers to lose weight might mean that Georgia or Arizona reaps the benefits in reduced medical costs. Why not get the feds involved? I have to say, there’s a part of me that finds this extremely attractive. But imagine the information would need to gather to make this program work. Imagine how that information could be abused. Like it or not, we’ll need to either depend on the altruism and far-sightedness of private institutions or the good judgment of individuals.

So what does this mean in practice for parties of the left? It mostly means: exercise humility, embrace blue federalism, and use incremental approaches rather than radical approaches. In fairness, New Labour has been more incremental than radical, with the notable exception of so-called “constitutional reform,” but it has been the incrementalism of a central planner.

I’ve recently been reading Anthony Giddens’ books on the Third Way, which, though rather dated, offer a lot of insights into the state of left politics in the English-speaking world. The central difficulty of importing social democracy to these countries is that social democracy relies heavily on the shared normative understandings that derive from cultural homogeneity, i.e., liberal nationalism. But the countries of the “Anglosphere” are and have always been diverse, and not only in ethnocultural terms. So my sense is that the Third Way wasn’t just a response to the collapse of the socialist left. Rather, it was a way of translating the language of solidarity and social democracy into a highly individualistic, antipaternalist context. The US is known for deep reserves of “social capital,” but these tend to exist within subcultures. And so Giddens hoped to ally the power of the state with the goal of truly emancipated individuals. That’s not quite the reality of Scandinavian social democracy, which talks a good game when it comes to radical individualism but delivers a deeply conformist, nationalist reality.

Viewed in this light, I think the Third Way project is ultimately less likely to succeed than conventional social democracy. But since social democracy depends on homogeneity, it would require a literal transformation, through ethnocultural amalgamation and (bluntly) nationalist propaganda, of the English-speaking countries. Call me crazy, but I find that prospect pretty unattractive. I suppose I’d rather keep these countries a little more unequal and a little more free. (This, of course, reflects my bias as a member of an ethnoreligious minority.)

I should note that my thoughts on all of these matters are very much in flux.