The Dangers of Make-work Liberalism


(cc photo by MPD01605)

Mike Konczal has written about what he sees as the problems with “pity-charity liberalism, where the goal of the liberal project is to give some sort of ex post compensation for brute bad luck instead of giving workers agency or power.”

Somewhat in that spirit I want to complain that in response to overreaching rightwing attacks on public services, I feel like I’m seeing a lot of people come dangerously close to explicit advocacy for what I’d call “make-work liberalism,” where the goal of the liberal project is to offer direct public sector employment to as many people on as generous terms as possible rather than try to actually make the economy work. This is brought to mind by recent blogospheric interest in technological change and the ever-recurring question of where the jobs of the future will be as automation allows for less labor-intensive production in many sectors of the economy. One potential answer to that query is that public sector work can be made as arbitrarily labor-intensive as you like. A town can always hire an extra teacher or firefighter or bus driver. You can simply decline to replace toll booth attendants with EZ-Pass machines. And public sector works exists in an appealing way all up and down the skill spectrum. There are lawyers and doctors and college professors working for public institutions, but also janitors and road construction. There are butch jobs (cops) and femme jobs (nurse) and above all else there are the stable middle class career paths of alleged yore with stepwise raises and a pension at the end.

There’s a lot to like about this, but it’s important to recall on some level that a world where ten rich bankers pay the taxes to finance make-work jobs for ninety other people isn’t an alternative to a pity-charity version of economic justice it’s just a way of hiding the ball.

I think it’s important not to do that. The important thing about public services is the provision of services, not the provision of jobs. The right question to ask about firefighters’ pensions isn’t a moralizing one, it’s a practical one—will reducing them imperil public safety in some important way? The answer is sometimes that, yes, you really do need to stand up for the public sector. Congressional efforts to “de-fund” various regulatory agencies and/or push for staffing reductions or salary freezes is a clear effort to do an end-run around enforcement of environmental, labor, civil rights, and financial regulation. But the point of our local transit agency is to provide transportation services, not to improve the living standards of bus drivers and it’s possible for public sector personnel expenditures to be wasteful even without it being the case that the janitors at the DMV are the real fat cats of our time or any such nonsense. Over the longer run if you can make the private economy work to provide growth and jobs and income, then the public sector needs to be generous to be competitive. But the reverse strategy of building up a generous public sector as the lever for producing an income-generating economy doesn’t work.