Lis­ten to the vic­tims of the Free Mar­ket

The Pak Banker - - OPINION - Me­gan McAr­dle

LAST week, I talked about why mar­ket lib­er­al­ism is, de­spite its up­sets , the right pro­gram for Amer­ica. Today I'm go­ing to talk about why Amer­i­can elites are do­ing such a bad job of sell­ing it, and why I think peo­ple in both par­ties are re­volt­ing so strongly against their in­flu­ence. Any gov­ern­ment pol­icy cre­ates win­ners and losers; that is sim­ply un­avoid­able. That's why I am al­ways leery of ar­ti­cles about pol­icy that con­sist of say­ing "This per­son has been helped" or "This per­son has been hurt." Even the Soviet econ­omy worked well -- for the com­mis­sars. But you can­not run a na­tion of 300 mil­lion peo­ple by com­pet­i­tive anec­dote.

Mar­ket lib­er­al­ism is no ex­cep­tion to this prob­lem. The dy­namic forces of cre­ative de­struc­tion make many peo­ple bet­ter off, es­pe­cially the de­scen­dants who will in­herit the col­lec­tive fruits of gen­er­a­tions of Amer­i­can in­ge­nu­ity. It also makes some peo­ple in­dis­putably and per­ma­nently worse off, as pre­vi­ously sta­ble and prof­itable ca­reers are made ob­so­lete. Those peo­ple are not go­ing to ac­cept that they'll just have to lean into the strike zone and take one for the team, no mat­ter how log­i­cally el­e­gant your ar­gu­ments.That said, the ar­gu­ments for mar­ket lib­er­al­ism are bound to sound a lot less con­vinc­ing when they in­vari­ably is­sue from the folks who aren't ex­pected to take one for the team -- who are, in fact, be­ing made bet­ter off, thanks to skills that are prized by the global mar­ket and thanks to trade, au­to­ma­tion and im­mi­gra­tion that have put more goods and ser­vices within their reach. It's not so easy to rem­edy that prob­lem, since aca­demic econ­o­mists and pol­icy an­a­lysts are among the knowl­edge work­ers who have ben­e­fited greatly from lib­er­al­iza­tion. On the other hand, those peo­ple could stop be­ing so tone deaf in the way that they talk about these things, and so blithely sure that what is good for them is, al­ways and ev­ery­where, good for ev­ery­one else.

To see what I mean, let's look at some­thing that elites con­sis­tently fail to talk about in any mean­ing­ful way: good jobs. Oh, we talk around those things. We talk about trade and im­mi­gra­tion, if forced, though we do not of course do any lis­ten­ing on the same topic. We talk about in­equal­ity, and paid leave. We talk about ed­u­ca­tion. Politi­cians make rit­ual obei­sances to­ward the ne­ces­sity of de­cent work, promis­ing that some pol­icy, laugh­ably in­ad­e­quate to the task, will pro­vide thou­sands of good jobs do­ing some­thing we want to do for com­pletely dif­fer­ent rea­sons, like re­duc­ing car­bon emis­sions.

But nei­ther party has any mean­ing­ful pol- icy to fos­ter good work -- by which I mean work that of­fers op­por­tu­nity, sta­bil­ity, re­spect and enough money to raise a fam­ily. The clos­est ei­ther party comes is the $15-an-hour min­i­mum wage, a pol­icy with the slight draw­back that it may throw a lot of peo­ple out of work.

In­stead of ask­ing how we have ended up with an econ­omy that of­fers sta­bil­ity and re­ward only to the hold­ers of a col­lege di­ploma, and how we might change that, elites of both par­ties fo­cus on the things they want for them­selves. Repub­li­cans of­fer tax cuts and dereg­u­la­tion, as if ev­ery­one in Amer­ica were go­ing to be­come an en­tre­pre­neur. Democrats of­fer free col­lege tuition and paid ma­ter­nity leave, as if these things were a great ben­e­fit to peo­ple who don't have the abil­ity, prepa­ra­tion or in­cli­na­tion to sit through four years of col­lege, and as a re­sult, can't find a de­cent job from which to take their leave.

While there are a lot of things on the par­ties' agen­das that pri­mar­ily ben­e­fit the ed­u­cated, there are very few that pri­mar­ily ben­e­fit peo­ple who aren't like us. The im­plicit as­sump­tion of elites in both par­ties is that the so­lu­tion for the rest of the coun­try is to be­come more like us, ei­ther through ed­u­ca­tion or en­trepreneur­ship. Rarely does any­one dis­cuss how we might build an econ­omy that works for peo­ple who aren't like us and don't want to turn into us.

And the giant hole at the cen­ter of this dis­cus­sion we aren't hav­ing is work. We talk a lot about how to pal­li­ate the ef­fects of a la­bor mar­ket that no longer of­fers many re­wards to the less ed­u­cated. We act as if jobs in­evitably grow, like weeds, in the fer­tile soil of cap­i­tal­ism. Or worse, as if they were a sort of op­tional in­ter­me­di­ary step in the im­por­tant busi­ness of dis­tribut­ing money and fringe ben­e­fits. Given how cen­tral work is to the lives of the elite, how fear­ful we are of los­ing our own ca­reers, this be­lief is some­what in­ex­pli­ca­ble. It's also po­lit­i­cally sui­ci­dal, as the cur­rent mo­ment now shows us.

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