Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

These Are the Droids You've Been Looking For

Very interesting exchange between NY Times colleagues Ross Douthat and Paul Krugman.  Douthat kicked it off with a column about the coalition that reelected President Obama, noting that Obama's coalition included a lot of people who have been failed by traditional social institutions and who are "united by economic fear."  Krugman responded by casting this as an argument for social democracy.  Douthat responded to the response, arguing that (A) what works for Sweden won't necessarily work here, and (B) in any case, Sweden enjoys stronger families than the United States, out-of-wedlock births notwithstanding.

Frequent readers will suspect that I instinctively side with Krugman, and they will be right.  But I am thrilled that this debate is happening, because Krugman and Douthat are among the best pundits in the United States, and this is basically the debate we have been waiting for.  And already the debate is generating fascinating points.  For instance, Douthat raises the very interesting point that notwithstanding its high rate of out-of-wedlock births, Sweden actually has more stable families than the United States.  (OECD report here (PDF), Reihan Salam post here.)

This reinforces something I already believed, which is that, just as liberals need to accept that science has proven that white people are racially superior to black people (right, Will Saletan?), they also need to get much more comfortable thinking about and talking about non-state norms and institutions that contribute to human thriving.  This is true for two reasons.  First, liberals are simply wrong to downplay the salutary effects of strong social norms.  Quite often those norms are complementary to, and maybe even necessary for, a well-functioning social democracy.  The government can be a powerful force for human dignity, but there is no reason to rely on it exclusively.

But also, quite often these are debates that liberals can and should win.  Conservatives sometimes pretend that all arguments about values and tradition are favorable to them.  Not at all!  Norms of egalitarianism, fairness, respect, etc. reflect core liberal values and often cut against the conservative project of replacing our shared values with the sociopathy of the marketplace.

And so let me issue just such an argument.  We all know that Sweden is less of a basket case than conservatives would predict based on its huge public sector, its widespread secularism, and its high rate of out-of-wedlock births.  Reihan Salam wants to turn this into a point about how Sweden isn't as left-wing as you might think, because it has a fairly stable family structure relative to the United States.  That's a perfectly legitimate point, but consider all the implications.  Isn't it possible that Sweden has a more stable family structure than the United States in part because social democracy, even when highly secular, is more family-friendly than free market capitalism, even when heavily inflected with religion?

In short, isn't this a case where liberal norms, institutions, and values are winning, even by allegedly conservative standards such as family stability?  And shouldn't we be ready to celebrate that and advance it as an argument for social democracy?  The thing Democrats tend to do is to note how some Republican budget cut will devastate working families, and then say something like, "And they dare to call themselves the party of family values!"  It's a good attack, but it would be much better if liberals would openly recognize the value of families and articulate a fully-thought-out pro-family agenda.  And where might you find such an agenda?  Well, I hear Sweden does pretty well, maybe their social system is worth a second look.


Blogger Sarang said...

I don't want to rehash previous responses over email, so I'll just make a couple of short points. 1. I agree that when liberals go on about conservatives-and-families it often feels like they're making gotcha points, which detracts from the overall influence of the critique, and might be partly fixable by repackaging various liberal policies with Family labels. 2. Beyond this I am not sure what specifically you are going on about when you talk about norms, at least at the level of generality of this post. (Would it be smart/wise of the Swedish left to develop cold feet about the sexual revolution?) 3. There is an interesting distinction between what seems the conservative view of families, well-being, social cohesion etc. (viz. state support is "crowding out" existing social networks like the family and the church by taking away their material rationale, and in order to make the family and the church more effective we have to weaken the state -- this is like your old division of labor thesis) and the reality, which is that there is no crowding out, and people are happier/more functional along all dimensions, so that families tend to work better, in conditions of low economic anxiety. Regardless of how much further value one thinks good families add, this appears to suggest (a) that _substantively_ one should want to promote economic stability to make families work better, (b) that _politically_ this won't work at all for the same reasons that Keynesian economics doesn't work politically. People don't really believe in the existence of positive-sum games.

8:00 AM  
Blogger Grobstein said...

I was wondering how much of this family structure difference is really explained by fertility differences: if children who would be born not-into families are simply not being born, it's hard to see what that has to do with economic security.

But the fertility gap between Sweden and the US is smaller than I thought it would be: 1.80 vs. 2.05. Link.

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