Liberalism and class

The success of people like Donald Trump and Victor Orbán has deeper roots than the charisma of a few demagogues. It reflects a potentially fatal weakness of contemporary liberalism that liberal political coalitions have not seriously addressed. Quite simply, liberalism as practiced in the broad West since the 1980s becomes coded as elite and upper-class, not because the public is misled by charlatans but because the public is perceptive. For “liberalism as practiced…since the 1980s” I might have used the term “neoliberalism”, but I want to emphasize I am not referring (just) to the project of expanding the scope of markets and market-like institutions, even to domains formerly insulated from them. Aspects of liberalism so foundational they are indistinguishable in liberal communities from virtue predictably become polarized by class.

Three pretty basic liberal values include

  1. the right to live as, where, and among communities one chooses, so long as those choices don’t harm others, under a narrowly circumscribed conception of harm;
  2. that competition for social goods (like jobs) or imposition of social sanctions (like punishment for crime) should be administered according to predefined formal procedures, “neutral” with respect to the identities of the parties; and
  3. that one has an obligation to be tolerant of, and interact cordially with, people of widely varying lifestyles, beliefs, and communities (a kind of complement to the first value)

All of these values I think have become polarized by class, not just in the United States with our peculiar history, but throughout much of the West and especially the recently liberalized, post-communist East.

It is not hard to understand why. The right to live as, where, and among communities one chooses is only valuable to the degree that it is practical and ethical for a person to exercise that right. Among the affluent, the costs of uprooting oneself from where one happens to start to some other community of ones own choosing are tolerable, both to the uprooter and the community left behind, because affluent people rely upon portable financial capital and impersonal markets for most of their requirements. In less affluent communities, people’s wealth and insurance against adversity are bound up in very personal relationships, which get destroyed rather than transported when a person “abandons” her roots. Professional class Americans follow their careers around the country, relocating between liberal cities and college town with remarkable ease, paying expensively for new child care in each. Working class Americans are much more likely to rely on family to render child-rearing manageable and consistent with their jobs. Among the affluent, elderly parents can be left “on their own”, because deliveries can be paid for, rides can be hired, if necessary more intensive, personal help can be paid for. The downscale elderly rely much more upon unremunerated help from children and church, upon the goodwill of particular human beings. When people upon whom they rely leave, they simply become poorer. For the person who might choose to leave, this cost they might impose pits liberal “rights” against very visceral obligations. A person who has faced that dilemma, and chooses to stay, might understandably view the kind of people who make the opposite choice as selfish.

Alternatively, an economic migrant who feels compelled to move somewhere he would not otherwise choose in order to help those he’ll leave behind might not count his exile as a blessing of the liberal order. He may think the cash he’ll send home is more valuable than whatever his presence could offer, but his family will still be broken. Liberalism gains adherents from the promise of choice, but creates cynics when the choices are so bad it feels like compulsion beneath a velvet glove. Which you experience depends very much on affluence.

The class valence of our second value, procedural fairness, is more obvious. We all understand that however formally neutral, almost any institutional procedure is gameable, and people with lots of resources will tilt the odds in their favor in ways unavailable to people with less. If you are accused of a crime, what is more important, your actual guilt or innocence, or the quality of legal representation you can afford to engage? The answer is not obvious. We invented standardized testing to make fair and neutral decisions in academic admissions, and then we invented the SAT prep industry by which the wealthy could gain an edge. The IRS acknowledges that it enforces our ostensibly neutral tax laws disproportionately against the not-so-wealthy, even though the wealthy hide more dollars from the fisc, because despite ostensibly neutral enforcement procedures, the IRS can afford to go after the working class but is outgunned when it goes up against the rich.

It’s not just that the game is rigged. It’s that there’s no game we can invent that plausibly would not be rigged, given the yawning differentials of resources that now prevail in our society. Throughout the Trump Administration there was a chorus of “career professionals” each day shocked anew by some violation of procedural norms. The Inspectors General were fired! I’ll admit, I was outraged too. But I’m of their broad social class. The outrage did not catch fire so much beyond the ranks of career professionals, because most people accurately understand that under the weight of contemporary inequities, the liberal ideal is already something of a sham. From the perspective of those who will always lose anyway, which is worse, to lose under institutions about whose professionalism and neutrality hymns are sanctimoniously sung, or to lose in what is obviously a kangaroo court? The latter does less violence to your dignity.

You may say this is overcynical, and I’ll agree. (I would, wouldn’t I?) However infertile the soil for fairness and impartiality, we’ll get more of it by assiduously trying than by giving up all hope and just cackling while we summarily execute the meddlesome poor. But try as we might (and we really do try!), we succeed at best partially, and the contours of our success cannot help but bend to the terrain of wealth and class. Differentials of economic and institutional power in our society are simply too great for our efforts to yield outcomes that are even plausibly fair. Why should the people on the losing end of this get bent out of shape in defense of “liberal norms”? Why shouldn’t they entertain hopes of a more honestly, overtly, accountably hierarchical order of which they might not be the bottom rung? Support for liberal norms and procedure rises with economic and social class, because liberal norms and procedure only deliver a colorable simulacrum of fairness for people in higher social and economic classes. Everyone else is understandably open to alternatives.

Finally there is the obligation that is the flip side of liberal choice and diversity, the requirement to be tolerant. This doesn’t sound so hard or class-stratified. You do you, I’ll do me, we’ll all get along just fine. But we’ve already seen that the stakes of interpersonal conflict and controversy are higher in communities where people’s material security depends upon direct intercourse and approval. If you’re affluent and your neighbor is freaky, that’s cool, you still send your kid to day care. If you can’t afford daycare and your neighbor is freaky, do you still send your kid over while you work a shift? Deviance imposes higher costs within communities of direct, reciprocal interdependence than it imposes among affluent communities whose material needs are provided for by markets. This takes its toll on the balance of values between toleration and conformity within such communities.

More pressingly, liberal societies do not demand toleration only at an individual level. An essential fact of liberal societies is we are permitted to segregate into communities reflecting diverse choices of lifestyle, profession, interest, etc. Individuals who do not choose to so segregate, or who do not have the means to choose, are nevertheless segregated by virtue of the people who leave. The obligation to be tolerant in a liberal society then shades from a kind of negative requirement — “try not to be a dick” — to a positive requirement of understanding the sensibilities and sensitivities of diverse communities and taking care to respect them. On the cultural left this is sometimes referred to as “code switching”. More broadly it might be understood as diplomacy.

Code-switching or diplomacy, it’s a hard thing. It takes time, practice, and careful attention to manners and mores. It is work, and the kind of work for which the verbal gymnastics of a formal education really helps. People from affluent communities have that advantage, and they have more resources to devote to the work, than people from poor communities. Some communities self-segregate so hermetically that members face very little need for diplomacy, in the same way many Americans see little reason to learn a foreign language. But poorer communities cannot do that, because they require access to resources that become available only by interacting with more upscale communities. For members of poorer communities, the burdens of diplomacy are high, yet they have little choice but to try and often fail to bear them. The “meritocratic” professional class, since it purports to recruit talent and serve clients from diverse communities, increasingly makes fluency and attentiveness to this kind of diplomacy a non-negotiable requirement. But this has the paradoxical effect of further isolating this class from the bulk of the public, for whom the burden of staying current with everchanging mores is simply too much. Yet the professional class disproportionately sets social expectations, leaving much of the public conscious of a kind of inadequacy, and resentful of a set of requirements that feels artificial and courtly and that clearly has the effect of excluding and disadvantaging them. The requirement of diplomacy has become a kind of regressive tax. The same high standards are expected of everyone, but only a certain class of people can easily afford to meet them.

Thus toleration itself, expansively defined, has become a regressive tax, helping cement the class valence of liberalism. Matt Yglesias gets into trouble on my Twitter timeline criticizing an “antiracism of manners”, but I think this is what he’s getting at, and I agree it’s unsatisfactory. The trouble is there’s no way out. One can’t demand that some communities be less sensitive without acknowledging that the mores of powerful communities will always be nonnegotiable (the original context for code-switching). Either liberal professionals require those within their ranks to be elaborately diplomatic towards diverse, less powerful communities, and by doing so set themselves apart as a peculiar and exclusive elite, or they don’t and everyone has to code-switch to accommodate the most affluent and powerful communities. In a less class-stratified society, it might be possible to define a kind of Esperanto into which everyone would be expected to acculturate for public purposes, in the way that English is Singapore’s public language even though it’s almost no one’s native tongue. In contemporary America, this would collapse to illiberal domination.

Putting all of this together, I think it makes perfect sense that liberalism has become a kind of upper-class creed. So long as it is, liberalism is in peril, and should be. There are illiberal currents on both the left and right that would exploit popular dissatisfaction to remake society in ways that I would very much dislike, whether by restoring a “traditional” hierarchy of implicit caste, or by granting diverse professionals even more prescriptive authority than they already have at the expense of liberty for the less enlightened. My strong preference is that we do neither of these things, and instead restore the broad appeal of liberalism by “leveling up”. We should ensure that everyone has the means to rely upon some mix of the market and the state to see to their material welfare, reducing the economic role of networks of personal reciprocity and history. This would render the good parts of liberalism more broadly and ethically accessible. Reducing economic stratification makes liberal proceduralism more credible pretty automatically. When economic and institutional power are dispersed and broadly shared, no one has a built-in edge, and aspirations of neutrality and fairness become plausible. Once we view society less through a lens of domination and oppression — because in a more materially equal society that will be a less credible lens — it will become possible to agree on a common, stable set of commercial and professional mores rather than extend deference to myriad communities’ evolving sensibilities. It will be practical for the broad public to learn and understand those common mores, and so not be excluded or set apart from professional communities by what come to seem like inscrutable courtly conventions.

There are undoubtedly tensions between liberalism and egalitarianism. But they are yin to one another’s yang. Opposites in a sense, they must be reconciled if either is to survive.


13 Responses to “Liberalism and class”

  1. Eric Dewey writes:

    Read this article as I sat on hold for a long time waiting for someone in the Oregon Health Authority to tell me whether the odd-looking email I received is a COVID vaccine signup scam or a legitimate opportunity to get a vaccine.

    These are important ideas, well thought-out, and should receive attention from those with the ability to make policy changes.

    Yet I fear that they will not get that attention, just as I cannot seem to get the attention of the government agency that I am calling to ask what seems to me to be a relatively simple question.

    The problem may best be summed up and disposed of by the title of a self-help business book from the 90’s: “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff (and it’s all Small Stuff)”.

    This attitude, that it’s all Small Stuff not worth the attention of anyone important enough to make a difference, seems to be yet another direct result of the abominable misreading of the idea of the Invisible Hand of the Free Market, and to fly directly in the face of the increasing quantity of hard evidence piling up in favor of the value of theories of complexity and emergence. The flapping of a butterfly’s wings is an externality far too small for anyone to worry about, yet over time it sets into motion a chain of events which may eventually result in the collapse of civilization as we know it.

    Change is the only thing that happens, and the only thing that has or will ever happen. Adapting to change is what we do, what we have been best at, and yet despite our meager 200,000-year emergence, we are merely a sentient species in embryo at best.

    “Don’t wait for leaders; do it yourself, person to person.” Mother Teresa

  2. TB writes:

    Why shouldn’t they entertain hopes of a more honestly, overtly, accountably hierarchical order of which they might not be the bottom rung?

    Yet the professional class disproportionately sets social expectations, leaving much of the public conscious of a kind of inadequacy, and resentful of a set of requirements that feels artificial and courtly and that clearly has the effect of excluding and disadvantaging them.

    So do “the public” want an arbitrary feudal court order or don’t they? I don’t really see how these two things can go together. You want a strict hierarchy, you’re gonna get sneered at for wearing last season’s periwig style.

    I personally think the latter observation is far more valid than the former one. People do hate what feels like arbitrary whimsical rules enforced through shaming and shunning, being “looked down on”, and even more when told it doesn’t just make them declasse but immoral. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone express a longing for an “honestly” strict hierarchy. People want “a fair shake” and when they perceive the game is rigged they never blame the game, they look for a cheater to get mad at. So much the worse for me, since I believe in toleration and respect, but (like you) think the game cannot not be rigged, unless (I’m not sure you agree with this one or not) there is a social revolution, and communism in the best sense.

  3. Phil Armstrong writes:

    TB writes: So do “the public” want an arbitrary feudal court order or don’t they? I don’t really see how these two things can go together. You want a strict hierarchy, you’re gonna get sneered at for wearing last season’s periwig style

    I think the point our good host is making is that at least the latter is honest about it, from the point of view of those on the bottom rungs.

  4. Eli writes:

    So do “the public” want an arbitrary feudal court order or don’t they? I don’t really see how these two things can go together. You want a strict hierarchy, you’re gonna get sneered at for wearing last season’s periwig style.

    I don’t really think there’s much of a contradiction here. Almost nobody really has a consistent position on “hierarchies” as an abstract concept. They have strong opinions on specific hierarchies, which are mostly driven by where they fall on them. (Which is why so many elite professionals like this one so much.) There is no particular inconsistency, if you are at the bottom of the hierarchy of liberal society, in wishing for one with more feudal values in which qualities that you might possess (or feel that you possess)–physical courage, loyalty, adherence to some notion of “honor”, conformance with traditional gender roles, etc.–are more rewarded than they are in liberal society. (Which is certainly not to say that you would in reality be better off under such a hierarchy–but I can see how it would be easy to think so.)

  5. vn writes:

    I would like to dispute several points.
    1. Neither code-switching, nor toleration is any sort of tax. Taxing means to take something away that’s currently yours. Raising the standard (while it may be exaggerated) is not a tax. And it is no tax particularly when the new target state to be achieved by meeting the elevated standard is not a public good. – What you describe is akin to saying that sports professionals who didn’t make it to the Olympics couldn’t do so because they were taxed. That’s some distorted kind-of logic right there.
    2. It’s a difficult judgment call what, when and how to tax in order to redistribute income and wealth. I think there are bad choices in the US at both extremes (too low taxes for the very rich; too few benefits for the very poor). But I also think that a generic, “let’s have more egalitarianism” catch-all kind-of policy has the potential to make things much worse. In a very broad systemic overview, economics is an intricate mechanism to set incentives. The more dull you make it, the more you need to compensate elsewhere. I admit it’s debatable, but in my opinion we are already at the limits of wage policy. The problem is the lack of redistribution.
    3. And with that I think we arrived at the most practically crucial point. I am not sure you realize that you are talking to the wrong crowd. For it is not mainly the liberal-leftist-elitist class that hampers overall redistributive policies the most, but the conservative-rightwing-populist lot. Their biggest con – and it works still, like a charm – is to divert attention from it and make somebody else appear to be responsible for it. Why don’t we call out the bullies in the room, for once, hm?

  6. Anonymous writes:

    I am curious how liberalism is coded as elite, as its most arduous adherents are grad students subsisting on modest incomes, lower middle class, middle class at best “professionals” in education, healthcare, government civil servants, etc. The income, if not the caste, of many of the people opposed to liberalism is certainly higher; small business owners, self employed professions, skilled proles, etc.

    The capital that you are assuming communities opposed to liberalism have has long since been dissipated, surely African American male high school dropout longevity being higher than white non-Hispanic male longevity below a college degree is a blatant tell of this.

    As these communities you are speaking of barely exist, and to the extent they do self selection and conformism ensure that your example of the neighbor as a “freak” seldom does, your justification of their backlash politics seems lacking.

    Cultural norms matter, one of the most interesting things of late is the contradiction between the “meritocracy” endorsing working hard, and the massive drop in labor force participation among men, and when the men drop out they sleep a lot more (unhealthy), watch TV, and play video games, essentially they are idlers living off others, mainly family and government assistance.

  7. Detroit Dan writes:

    The United States as a whole has chosen to highlight differences in identity rather than in material well being. Our job is to turn this around using democratic principles — majority rules, minority rights, free speech.

  8. Detroit Dan writes:

    I was thinking along the lines of Anonymous (liberal does not equal elite) until I reflected on our elite institutions including colleges, the media, and large corporations. “Liberalism” is now culturally dominant. Unfortunately, the brand of liberalism which is dominant is obsessed with identity, an obsession which is not at all liberal.

  9. Detroit Dan writes:

    I found the original post rather dense, and I guess I therefore shouldn’t be surprised that I’m finding some of the comments rather hard to interpret. For example, what does vn mean by:

    “in my opinion we are already at the limits of wage policy. The problem is the lack of redistribution”

    I guess this is with regard to the minimum wage. Is vn saying that we shouldn’t raise the minimum wage? With regard to “redistribution”, I guess (s)he means that we should focus on raising taxes on the wealthy, and providing for universal or means tested benefits?

  10. kwinterkorn writes:

    This discussion suffers from use of the word “liberalism”, a now debased word that used to root from “liberty” as in freedom of choice for the sovereign individual, but now commonly means coerced societal change using government as the agent of change

    The classical Liberal prefers free markets in which choices are made in voluntary relationships. The modern Liberal is happy to use government controls and incentives, incentives like the ones a mobster uses, non-compliance with which will ultimately lead one to a meeting with people with guns on their hips.

    Intellectual elites too often suffer from an insatiable desire to prove to everyone that they, being smarter, should be allowed to rule the world. They are not trustworthy. History shows, over and over again, that once in power they serve themselves first. The proles, as someone above calls the people, hate this. Hence Trumpism, for example. Hence the Newsom recall, for another.

  11. Kien writes:

    Have you considered how liberal values stack up at the international level. As best I can see, it favours free trade and free movement of capital, but no one talks about free movement of labour and technology transfer at marginal cost. So the “liberal order” seems stacked against the poor especially when rich countries reserve the right to oppose nationalisation and land redistribution, even overthrowing democratically elected countries in the process.

    Having said that, I support liberalism and my main complaint is that liberalism ends up being used and interpreted selectively to entrench disparities that have historical roots in slavery, colonialism and other past injustices.

  12. ishita writes:

    Whenever we praise someone, we give him a number, like if I appreciate someone’s post from one to 10, I would like to give you a whole number of 10 because you wrote your post very well. The word is very beautiful. I hope you will keep writing such excellent posts in your life and we will definitely comment by reading these posts.

  13. Detroit Dan writes:

    Will changes to our “liberal” but unequal order be forced by international competition led by Russia and China? China and Russia Launch a ‘Global Resistance Economy’ — Strategic Culture

    the biggest element in anyone’s budget today is housing at 40%, which simply reflects high house prices, based on a debt-fuelled market. Instead, imagine that proportion at 10% (as in China). Suppose too, you have low-cost public education. Well then, you are rid of education-led debt, and its interest cost. Suppose you have public healthcare, and low priced transport infrastructure. Then you would have the capacity to spend – It becomes a low-cost economy, and consequently it would grow…. At one level therefore, this ‘it’ is a strategic challenge to the western eco-system. In one corner, the debt-driven, hyper-financialised, yet stagnant economies of Europe and the EU – in which strategic direction and economic ‘winners and losers’ are set by the Big Oligarchs, and in which the 60% struggle, and 0.1% thrive. And, in the far corner, a very mixed economy in which the Party sets a strategic course for state enterprises, whilst others are encouraged to innovate, and to be entrepreneurial in the mould of a state-directed economy (albeit, with Taoist and Confucian characteristics).

    Socialism versus capitalism? No, it is a long time since the U.S. was a capitalist economy; it’s hardly even a market economy today.