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Greed Is Not Good: The Social Usefulness of Progressive Public Policy

01/21/2014 02:22 pm ET | Updated Mar 23, 2014

Progressive public policy has chiefly appealed to one of two great social values: A sense of fairness; or a concern for the welfare of others. Consider the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960's. This body of legislation was promoted and defended on the basis of fairness. Whole classes of Americans -- African-Americans principally -- were being treated as second-class citizens. They were denied access to public accommodations. They were deprived of equal educational opportunities. They were even robbed of their right to vote, thus denying them the means of changing their condition through the political process. Simple fairness demanded open accommodations, the Voting Rights Act, and the various other measures that were enacted into law.

Concern for the welfare of others has been the other great traditional value appealed to by progressives. And, here, we might look at the ways in which progressives made the case for Social Security and Medicare. When Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law in August, 1935, he justified it in part as "a law that will take care of human needs." When Lyndon Johnson signed the Medicare Act, he defended it on similar grounds. "Older citizens will no longer have to fear that illness will wipe out their savings, eat up their income, and destroy lifelong hope of dignity and independence."

It has become increasingly difficult to justify social welfare legislation on such grounds, simply because of the increased cynicism of the American public. More than three decades of right-wing rhetoric has taken its toll. This toxic rhetoric bears two characteristics. First, it stresses the alleged dysfunctionality of government. Government cannot get anything right. It is the problem, not the solution. This rhetoric aims fundamentally at delegitimizing governmental services by creating widespread mistrust in government efficacy.

Second, right-wing rhetoric aims to convince individuals that government means to take what is rightfully theirs. The money you earn is yours, no one else's. If it is taxed then, the logic goes, it is taken from you to be given to someone else. It is moved from the makers to the takers. All taxation is explained as redistribution and redistribution is just socialism by another name. The makers should be allowed to keep their hard-earned cash, the takers be damned.

As I have written elsewhere, I see these efforts at delegitimization as destructive of the common good. Healthy societies cannot be premised on language that is meant to institutionalize greed and social isolation. We need to recapture the old progressive vocabulary of the common good.

In the interim, however, I also believe that progressive social policies can also be justified on the basis of social utility. Consider the way I might justify arguments for publicly-provided health care:

We might take the relationship of publicly-provided health care and entrepreneurship. The right wing attempts to pit such health care against entrepreneurship. In fact, the two work well together.

Let's assume that there is a significant number of people possessed of great, innovative ideas whose creativity helps drive the engine of economic growth. We know by observation that a few such people branch off every year in new directions, quitting the security of well-paid jobs for the excitement of forming their own businesses and seeing their ideas come to market. They benefit personally from the wealth they generate, of course, but society also benefits from the jobs they create.

But many more innovative people never branch off on their own. And many of them do not do so because of their concerns over health care. Perhaps they have dependent family members who need health-care coverage. Or perhaps they have pre-existing conditions that render them uninsurable on the open market. For whatever reason, they choose to stay put, and American society is poorer for it. We lose, as a society, the contributions they might make, the jobs they might create, the energy and vitality they possess, and the innovations they might bring to market.

Subsidized health care invites prudent risk-taking. Few established corporations engage in foolish, high-risk, bet-the-company strategies. The risks they take are measured. But small entrepreneurs typically are required to bet everything on the success of their vision. Nothing short of their own welfare, their own economic survival, is at stake. And public health care can reduce the existential threat new entrepreneurs confront when they get sick, and even when they are healthy.

Consider a second way a vocabulary of social utility can assist the case for progressive public policy, and that is in the area of low-cost higher education. When I went to college, I did so as a beneficiary of progressive educational policy. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which I attended in the 1970's, had a low-cost tuition policy. When I first enrolled there in 1973, my tuition was two hundred dollars per semester as a full-time student (it was a little higher when I graduated). That's right. Two hundred dollars per semester, not per credit. There was a time when Wisconsin believed that an educated citizenry was a benefit to society: Well-educated women and men held good jobs, led stable lives, and gave back to the community.

Contemporary higher education policy, however, is in thrall to the right-wing doctrine that a college education is self-serving and that therefore individuals must assume most of the cost of education themselves.

This dogma has been harmful in at least two respects. First, it has stunted social mobility. American social mobility is much lower than it was in the 1970's. Indeed, if we define true, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps social mobility as moving from the bottom twenty percent of wealth to the upper twenty percent, you have a much better chance of doing so in Europe, or Canada, or Australia. American society, in other words, is assuming a rigid class structure that locks out many worthy people from the fruits of economic success for no better reason than that they were born without easy access to a college education.

This right-wing ideology has been harmful in a second way as well, for it is the motive force behind the student-loan crisis. If education is a purely private, purely personal venture and students are expected to cover their own costs, then students from less affluent backgrounds must borrow for their education. And this borrowing has had many deleterious social consequences. Education, which should be a time of intellectual exploration and the development of talents, has assumed the risk profile of a chancy start-up business venture. Social mobility is stifled, since college and graduate-school expense will deter some from its pursuit. And, given the onerous terms and conditions of student-loan debt and its non-dischargeability in bankruptcy, it has now become an anchor on the economy, dragging down crucial sectors, like housing.

Again, a return to the progressive policies of the 1970's, when states invested heavily in higher education, would have the effect of alleviating most of these social costs. After all, society benefits from young adults who have effectively cultivated their talents, who are not constrained in their educational choices, and who are able to buy homes and start new households.

To summarize: Progressives must never abandon appeals to fairness and concern for the vulnerable when advocating on behalf of sound public policies. But we must also bear in mind that many in our audience have been conditioned, through years of exposure to appeals that pander to the selfish side of human nature, to ask what a particular policy can do for them. And for that part of our audience, we must be prepared to answer that policies that are fair, policies that protect and promote the concerns and welfare of all Americans, are also policies that benefit society as a whole.