...Archive for March 2021

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.