et’s cut to the chase. What we have here is the latest attack on New Deal philosophy, values, and programs, brought to us courtesy of two of the current crop of the best and the brightest—Ted Halstead, founder and president of the centrist think-tank, New America Foundation, and Michael Lind, reformed conservative activist, social critic, novelist, and senior fellow at the foundation. These are brash young thinkers, members of the new, technocratic, intellectual elite, for whom, when it comes to public policy and the meeting of social needs, the privatizing structures of the information economy are all, and the role of ideology in giving interpretive meaning to those structures, nothing.
Halstead and Lind are celebrants of the new middle, a Third Way on steroids. It is “high time for a new political program,” they tell us, “one tailored to the new realities of Information Age America and yet anchored in our nation’s timeless values.” (15) Since their goal is to move beyond what they consider the obsolete policy commitments of the traditional left and right, they call their new political program—and their book—The Radical Center, although while it is deliberately, even aggressively centrist, there is little about it that is radical.
The authors do claim to be writing in the American progressive tradition, rather than the conservative, and their commitment to a society in which no one goes without is well meant, energetic, and complex. But their framework is the progressivism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and their models, Herbert Croly, theoretician of the emerging liberal corporate state, and Theodore Roosevelt, its political embodiment, whose presidency was the first, through the use of regulatory legislation, to attempt to rein in the social ruin bred by an unrestrained capitalism. Just as Croly and Roosevelt, standing at the cusp of the transition from an agrarian to an industrial America, developed a public philosophy for negotiating the social and political upheavals brought about by the latter, so Halstead and Lind seek to develop a public philosophy for negotiating the social and political upheavals initiated by the rise of the programming technologies that structure the information economy. The challenge today, as it was then, they tell us, is “not to reject technological and economic progress, but to channel it to minimize the bad effects and share the benefits with all Americans.” (213) Such a challenge, they argue, is beyond the capacities of the New Deal paradigm. Time, therefore, to re-order the social contract.
Admittedly, one could do worse than look to the middle-class progressivism of early twentieth century America which gave us antitrust legislation, the first worker safety laws, wilderness conservation, the abolition of child labor, beginning oversight of the food and drug industries, and even, with the Sixteenth Amendment (1913), the income tax. The question, however, is whether we could do better. The analogy between our contemporary economic transformations and those of the Progressive era is not so much false as facile. The problem facing post-industrialism is not, as it was for the Progressives, how to develop a public philosophy of social accountability across the range of economic and social difference. It is how to hold onto such a philosophy. For the central political problem of the information society is to maintain a system of governance based on people’s increasing social and economic interdependence, even as that interdependence becomes less visible and immediately experienced, but still no less embedded than in previous eras in the structures of everyday life. The public philosophy offered by Halstead and Lind, however, remains blind to the ways in which the economic and social relations ordered by advanced communications technologies continue to link people together in common predicament
Post-industrialism breaks apart and isolates the critical elements of the system of production. Computer based processes fragment the workplace into globally disparate sites, increase, domestically, the proportion of economic resources devoted to professional and low-wage services rather than commodity output, and segment the goods and services production stream through outsourcing and routine use of the technical expertise of small, independent firms. Such dislocations create the illusion that individuals in the post-industrial workforce are more singular, autonomous and self-dependent than in the past, and come to disguise the continuing reliance of a majority of the population upon social services and public goods. Halstead and Lind, unable to transcend the myopic frame that presents to view only an increasingly individuated work process, are thus led, logically enough, to reject the basic pillars of the New Deal social contract. “The guiding principle of an Information Age contract should be to link all benefits directly to individuals rather than to employers or other intermediary institutions.” (64) They call this a citizen-based social contract, which connects the distribution of resources and rewards immediately to individual recipients, and eliminates the role of all bureaucratic agencies, private or public, corporate or state-based, from responsibility for social welfare delivery. “The overwhelming advantage of a citizen-based social contract is that basic benefits would flow directly to individuals following them from job to job.” (72) Building upon this notion of the “citizen-based social contract,” Halstead and Lind claim to shatter the rigid programmatic thinking associated with the issue configurations and policy presuppositions of the old industrial welfare state. Because it steps outside these presuppositions, theirs, they argue, is a public philosophy free of ideological taint.
Indeed, unconstrained by the traditional perspectives of the major parties, Halstead and Lind bounce back and forth from one side of the political spectrum to the other, offering policy proposals that will sometimes please and sometimes offend progressives and conservatives alike. Yet while their overall schema might appear to be an eclectic menu of proposals, a sort of one from column A, one from column B approach to public policy, their framework of analysis has, in fact, an ideological consistency. For, in every case, they focus on programs that target benefits to the abstract "individual citizen," rather than take into account the collective formation of which those individuals may be part, and ignoring whatever problems of the commons might lurk behind the scenes. To make this point more clearly, in what follows I want first to assess the ways in which the authors approach two policy issues in particular, universal health coverage, and the viability of Social Security. I follow with a cursory survey of some of the other policy proposals discussed in the book, so that I might make more explicit their underlying and connecting public philosophy. Finally, I’ll conclude with a critique of Halstead and Lind’s general philosophy of social policy, arguing that it misjudges the role and character of the public sphere in an era governed by programming technologies, and has the potential to undermine critically the democratic fabric necessary to hold a post-industrial world together.
As I have tried to show, at the center of Halstead and Lind’s concept of policy formation is the principle that social benefits ought flow directly to individuals, free of the connective tissue of mediating corporate agencies, whether private or public. In the case of medical coverage, for example, they argue that health insurance should no longer be tied to employment. Rather, government should institute a mandatory individual health insurance system, which, funded by payroll deductions, would, at the same time, support independent workers, low-wage employees, the unemployed, and the indigent.
Just as most states require citizens with cars to buy car insurance, so every American would be required by the federal government to purchase a basic private health insurance policy . . . The federal government, meanwhile, would subsidize the purchase of private health insurance by those unable to cover full cost of a basic plan . . . (75)
No one would be allowed to fall below a governmentally determined health care minimum. Since private insurers would carry these policies, but all persons required to hold one, the proposal would be a form of universal health coverage. Yet it would keep the insurance industry happy, and have the added advantage of portability, following individuals from job to job, or, should unemployment strike, out of the job market altogether.
Such a market-oriented response to the crisis of health coverage in the United States still leaves the problems of what minimums would be set, how fees would be determined, how the system would handle regional variations, and how much leverage the insurance industry would exercise. The plan would probably do no better in bringing health coverage to every member of the polity than the current Section 8 rental assistance program under HUD has done in bringing adequate housing to everyone below a defined income level. That program, after all, lacks any provisions mandating that sufficient low-income housing be built, so the shortage of such housing remains. The homeless are still with us—and in growing numbers, it would seem. But just as more low-income people have better access generally to housing because of Section 8 subsidies, so too under Halstead and Lind’s plan, would more independent, low-income, part-time, and unemployed workers have greater access to health insurance than they do at present. To be sure, it is not a single-payer system, as exists in Canada, and which Senator Paul Wellstone and Representative Jim McDermott proposed to the 103rd Congress, but finding a way to disconnect the health insurance provision from its unique association with employment would go a long way toward extending coverage to the many of whom a service economy, unless buffered by some form of a national health service, leaves uninsured. The point is that this proposal, by holding government accountable for the availability of health coverage for all, ties itself to the principle of shared citizenship, the idea that the state needs to support a public sphere through which citizens take some level of responsibility for one another’s economic security. The health insurance subsidies will, after all, come out of tax dollars. But Halstead and Lind’s proposed resolution to the dilemma posed by Social Security on the other hand, moves in the opposite direction. Although rooted in the same concept of the "citizen-based social contract" as their health coverage proposal, it undercuts the public sphere’s role by weakening the societal commitment to protect against the potential economic ravages of, in this case, retirement.
Not surprisingly, driven by the same logic of an individually-centered public policy, Halstead and Lind support the political initiative, originated by the Cato Institute, to privatize—or, as it supporters insist, "partially privatize"—Social Security. The technical policy arguments for either privatizing Social Security, or finding ways to retain its basic structure of generational income transfer are familiar. Loosely speaking, given the declining proportion of younger to older workers, and the fact that surplus Social Security taxes are used to purchase low risk, but low-yield government bonds, the fund is expected to run out of money sometime in the second quarter of the century. The way to uphold a viable pension program, according to one side of the argument, is to allow workers to invest a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes in private—“personal”—financial accounts. Those who want to retain an independent and publicly directed Social Security Trust offer a number of alternatives. Revenue into the fund could be increased, for example, by lifting the cap on the earnings subject to the payroll tax, or by allowing the government agency responsible for the trust to invest a portion of its monies in higher yield public or private securities. No resolution is totally satisfactory at this point, and there is no need here to rehearse in detail the various proposals. What I do want to suggest, however, is that one of the key issues at the root of this policy debate is not the efficacy of this or that specific program, but the deeper question of the role of the public sphere in the service-based economy, and the ideal of shared citizenship to which that sphere is connected.
Halstead and Lind make clear their disdain for any concern with the promotion of shared citizenship as part of public policy, particularly in relation to Social Security.
The major reason for replacing, rather than reforming the Social Security system inherited from the New Deal, is as much philosophical as it is pragmatic. A public pension system should be based primarily on individual savings rather than an intergenerational transfer system; it should encourage individual self-reliance, with assistance when necessary from the government, not paternalism by an all-providing government. Many on today’s Left . . . defend Social Security on the grounds that it provides a sense of shared citizenship among Americans . . . [But] Franklin Delano Roosevelt thought of Social Security as insurance, not as a sacred political expression of egalitarian solidarity . . . (86)
Now, it is certainly not the case that the normative principle of social accountability of citizens to one another should trump all other criteria for policy adoption, including the plain and simple one of a program’s ability to realize its material goals effectively. But the singular focus on a recipient’s direct connection to the distribution of benefits, as opposed to a perspective that takes into account his or her relation to countless unknown others through complex societal formations, may be particularly wanting as a philosophy of public life. It may both weaken the consensual solidarity necessary to overcome the vastly differentiated social worlds created by advanced technological modes of organization and production, and, in many areas, simply not be adequate to get the job done. Privatization of social security, in fact, fails on both these counts. The recent collapse of the private security markets, and the devastating loss of value in 401k’s, demonstrate that failure on the empirical side. And it is not clear that, despite his patrician standing, the presidential leader who made freedom from want and freedom from fear two of the pillars of his political vision was as dismissive of the normative ideal of shared citizenship as Halstead and Lind imply he was.
An overview of the policy proposals offered throughout the text of The Radical Center shows they are all guided by the same general principle of “enhancement of individual self-reliance.” Tying their ideas to this premise allows the authors to move back and forth between traditionally “left” and “right” proposals, since no ideological perspective within a democratic framework is actually opposed to self-reliance as a value. The issue for progressives has always been whether government action is necessary to create the conditions whereby the greatest number of citizens can achieve self-reliance. Thus, some of Halstead and Lind’s suggestions are compatible with both increasing individual opportunities for the pursuit of well being and governmental responsibility for shaping the life-world situations that make those opportunities possible. They urge, for example, that the United States replace its fifty separate state sales tax systems with a single and simple national consumption tax, whose proceeds would be rebated to the states on a per capita basis, and would therefore be progressive and redistributive in nature. Individuals whose incomes are at the higher levels, and who therefore consume more, would be compelled to pay more to the commonweal, while the states would be compensated on the basis of population, whatever their contribution to the general revenue. On the other hand, as a trade-off, Halstead and Lind would get rid of the corporate tax, while increasing taxes on capital gains and passive income, thus eliminating “the corporate middleman,” ending “the double taxation of capital” and placing the tax burden “where it belongs—on shareholders.” (136) It is not clear, however, whether ending taxes on corporate profits would further social justice.
In the disputes over education, Halstead and Lind, not surprisingly, support voucher systems—ignoring the two-tier educational structure which such programs, by abandoning public schools to the students with the greatest learning and behavioral difficulties, would inevitably create. Apparently, the Information Age has no need to give priority to the maintenance of a strong and inclusive public education system. At the same time, however, they advocate a national program to end to the unequal funding of public schools, urging that the revenues from their proposed national consumer tax be distributed to the states on a per pupil basis. (154) Thus, those left behind in the public education sector would at least be provided uniform resources with which to meet national standards. Finally, when it comes to the issue of racial equality, Halstead and Lind would, of course, eliminate affirmative action. “[W]e need to abandon the system of racial classifications and preferences that, at this stage in our nation’s history, only serves to reinforce racial differences instead of diminishing them, and to polarize our nation instead of unifying it,” they insist. (176) Now, there are many difficulties with race-targeted programs, including the backlash and divisiveness they re-enforce, but there is an equivalent backlash created by public policies that ignore the continuing impact of past discrimination both on people’s cultural self-identity, and on existing inequitable distribution of resources. It is questionable whether one can create a legitimizing consensus across a history of racial discrimination and denial of opportunity by banishing the claims of those on the minority side of the divide, and attempting, by policy definition, to render color invisible. Still, even as the authors recommend erasure of the formal political recognition of racial differences, they call for the retention of anti-discrimination laws. And though, in the interest of justice for members of all groups, such laws are essential, it is unclear how they could be meaningfully enforced unless the state insisted on collecting records in employment, housing, education, and banking and consumer services that acknowledged the viability of racial classification generally.
In the end, it is not particularly
fruitful to approach this book by assessing its policy prescriptions one
by one, though it is important to have some sense, at least, of what
those prescriptions are. It is much more crucial to examine the public
philosophy the text promotes, and the underlying assumptions by which
its authors support or reject policy proposals. As I have tried to show,
its first principle of tying welfare delivery directly to individuals
misses the crucial role played by the political imaginary of the public
sphere, which understands the fate of all members of a polity to be
linked in some way. This is not to argue that, within the frame of a
welfare state, all social service programs must rely on bureaucratic
implementation, or that no privatization of services can ever achieve
public purpose, or that the use of markets to realize collective ends is
in every case counterproductive. To put the matter another way, to pose
against each other the safety net and universal provider models of
government economic protection is to offer a false dichotomy. Sometimes
one model will achieve the goal of economic security, sometimes the
other. The test in every case is precisely the extent to which a
policy legitimizes and reinforces the notion of shared citizenship,
particularly given the insular living spaces created by the information
society. For we threaten the very networks of democratic culture when we
shred the convictions that define the contemporary public sphere.
These are the beliefs that people are accountable to one another
across the borders of class and group identity, and that governments are
responsible to provide the institutional supports that allow each
individual to attain an economically productive life.