Three Types of Politics: Interests, Ideas, and Grievances

The political system in a democratic society allows a diverse group of people to make collective decisions. Here I define politics as the content of deliberations and decisions within such a system, rather than institutions and mechanisms used to bring about decisions. Of course, institutions do affect the content of politics, but that won’t be my focus here. Rather I will focus on different types of political content.

The content of our political discussions, arguments, and bargaining can be categorized into a number of incompatible types. They are about different subjects. These types of politics are all utilized by the major political parties, but we are often unaware of how their incompatibility thwarts political compromise and decisions. And they each leads to unique problems when any one begins to dominate the politics of a country or political party.

One of the basic problems we are seeing with politics today is a transition from a politics of ideas and interests to one primarily of grievance. Although the politics of grievance is perhaps best exemplified by Donald Trump and his followers, grievance is also becoming a dominant political theme on the left.

There is nothing particularly wrong with the inclusion of grievances within our politics. Many grievances are valid and must be addressed by any successful political system. However, when grievance dominates politics, much as when it dominates personal relationships and other social relations, it fosters a bitterness and anger that makes compromise and cooperation difficult.

I do not think that the answer to this problem is a politics dominated by either interests or ideas. A politics dominated by interests lacks any direction or justice and will tend to promote the narrow interests of whatever groups are in the best bargaining position. Likewise a politics dominated by ideas, where we attempt to transform government and society according to some coherent ideology, leads society to ignore the interests of various groups. History also tells us that a politics guided by ideology often justifies dispossession of property and violence in order to bring about the radical social change in line with that ideology.

My primary purpose here is to describe these three types of politics. However, I think that such a discussion provides reason to prefer a politics that mixes interests and ideas, and attempts to limit the inclusion of grievances.


A view traditionally held by political scientists (for instance, see Dahl’s Democracy and Its Critics) states that democratic politics allow the interests of the public to be expressed in political decisions. Voters will tend to vote according to their interests, and so a widespread franchise that weighs voters roughly equally will tend to create politics that reflect the interests of voters equally as well. Modern western thinkers tend to reduce “interests” to economic interests, though we probably shouldn’t do this. People also have an interest in living within an environment that allows the to act according to their non-economic values as well.

The politics of interests is a politics of negotiation. When people are guided by their interests, they tend to support tax codes in which they pay the least and budgets in which they gain the most. They expect their political representatives to act similarly. The rich, who benefit more from lower taxes more than generous social welfare programs will advocate for lower taxes, whereas the poor will advocate for higher taxes on the wealthy and more generous social welfare programs. Communities will pursue funds for their own roads and infrastructure projects, even when it puts other communities at a disadvantage. Farmers pursue farm subsidies, corporations that need large numbers of workers pursue free trade and open boarders, and labor unions pursue tariffs and closed borders.

Politics from interests tend to be both stable and, given a universal franchise, serve the interests of the most people. There are also ways of creating institutions so that political decisions take into account the interests of minority groups that might be largely ignored within large societies. One of the more powerful tools is the promotion of political localism in which many decisions are left to community governments. This has the effect of allowing national minorities with shared interests to possess majorities or significant minorities within local governments. It also allows for a safety valve, so to speak, so that minorities who believe that their interests are not being respected by local politics can move to a place where they are respected. For all of these reasons politics from interests serve as the stabilizing backbone of a thriving political system.

However, politics from interests are also shallow and myopic. They lack any vision or wider direction that can guide a state or community to become better, and will often promote outcomes that seem unjust. We feel a strong need for political decisions to tend toward some notion of fairness, even when it may disadvantage certain groups that have historically had various advantages. For this reason systems that are dominated by interests will also tend to be unstable in their own way, as people are unwilling to accept immediate personal and regional costs that promote the greater good. Therefore, it is important that political systems are also guided by ideas about what a good society looks like and what is just. They allow people to see how certain political policies will promote larger social goals that they support. A politics of ideas also allows politics to promote a sense of justice, something that binds people together within the society.


When politics is too focused on individual and group interests it is very difficult for us to provide arguments for our favored policies that can be accepted as valid by others. Discussions about politics of interests begin and end with the bargaining power of the various groups. Good arguments show others how the result will benefit them and why they couldn’t hope to get a better result. These are politics in the mud.

Arguments about political ideas, on the other hand, allow us to discuss the merits of various political policies abstracted away from the particular bargaining context. Ideas allow us to paint a picture for others about a possible ideal society and describe how various policies might get us there. If politics of interests is fought in the mud, politics from ideas soars through the air.

The libertarian reformation of American economic policy during the 1980s (whatever we may think of it) would have been impossible without a clear vision of its ideals and goals. Free-market advocates did not just argue that their preferred policies would advantage the interests of voters (although they did do this), they also argued that they would create a system in which people were better able to get what they deserved. When taxes were redistributed, in the form of social welfare programs, some people were given things by the government that they had not earned and so did not deserve. Under this view, eliminating redistributive policies makes the system more just. Of course, they also offered an argument from interests (the high taxation required for redistribution is inefficient and so makes us all poorer), but the libertarian ideas were crucial for gaining widespread support even among those who benefited from redistributive policies.

The politics of ideas is important for understanding why people often vote against their interests. Some have wondered “what is wrong with Kanasas” where scores of people of modest means vote against the very redistributive policies that would likely benefit them. One could similarly wonder “what is wrong with California” where scores of rich people vote for redistributive policies and higher taxes that are unlikely to benefit them. They do so because of their political ideals, based upon ideas of what a just and good society is like. They believe that certain types of policies are just, even though those policies don’t benefit them.

It is the very ability of political ideas to support policies not in people’s direct interests that also make them dangerous. Although the politics from interests tend to by myopic, they also keep people grounded. It is rarely in anyone’s direct interests to commit acts of violence, disturb the peace of society, or radically alter important government programs. On the other hand, politics from ideas often call for radical actions and radical shifts in policy. If we are concerned about justice, and we see that a certain group of people are supporting an unjust system, then we may be able to justify violence against them.

Not only do ideas more easily justify radical actions, but they are also more susceptible to manipulation. The ideas that we have are more malleable than our own interests, and few people are any good at examining their own ideas or those provided by others. It was shocking to many how easily a large portion of the Republican party was made to believe that Trump rightly won the 2020 election. I don’t think that this should come as too much of a surprise. Political elites can easily manipulate the political ideas of those who already follow them – it is much more difficult for those leaders to alter the interests of their followers.


Politics of interests and ideas are both forward-looking. When people are guided by them they seek the best possible future outcome. The past and present are only relevant in what they say about those future outcomes. However, people also often demand responses to their grievances over what they view as past wrongs. Many grievances are able to be resolved within the judicial system. If someone causes you a demonstrable harm, then in many cases you can file a lawsuit that is meant to resolve that grievance. However, many perceived harms are not subject to intervention by the judicial system; this is the role of a politics of grievance.

Politics of grievance is concerned with those grievances that are not in the purview of the existing judicial system. Those with grievances seek to use the political system to obtain restitution for the harms done to them, sometimes directly from the people who they believe harmed them and other times from society at large. Often times these grievances are valid and the target is indeed responsible, but other times grievances are largely invented (there was never a corresponding harm) or the target is incorrect. Ultimately the burden of differentiating valid and invalid grievances is placed on the political system.

Western political systems are generally good at handling both politics of interests (through bargaining) and politics of ideas (through deliberation), but have more difficulty handling grievances without creating conflict. Conflict is inherent to grievances, because they typically make demands on others without offering them anything in exchange. This is because grievances are backward looking; the perceived harm has already occurred and only compensation for that harm can resolve the grievance.

Grievances can still be worth pursuing, but these politics often require that the aggrieved group (or its allies) are in a position to coerce the group that supposedly committed the harm. For instance, after the Civil War, the north was in a position to resolve grievances of enslaved people in the south only by first destroying the ability of southern whites to resist. And of course, coercing groups who do not believe that they have done anything wrong will often cause them to create grievances of their own. This sets up a bitter cycle of grievance, and if coercion is not continually applied (just as it was ended after Reconstruction) the originally harmed group can find itself once again the subject of the perpetrators’ violence. Alternatively, the perpetrating group can be convinced of the wrongness of the harm they caused (as with Germans after WW2). However, this often requires a dramatic social change that is beyond the immediate coercive abilities of a state.

Interests, Ideas, and Grievances

A healthy political system will support both politics of interests and ideas. Interests ground political decisions in a concrete world of actual people, whereas ideas allow a political society to develop into something better and more coherent. A politics of grievances is important in providing recourse to those who were harmed when there is no recourse to be had through current law. However, this form of politics can quickly grow contentious and bitter. A political system that is characterized by grievance will tend to devolve as conflict interferes with a society’s ability to come to reasonable political agreements. After observing the events of the past year, it is hard not to conclude that American society may be devolving in just this way. Grievances are crowding out interests and ideas.

Progressive Federalism

There are clearly two Americas, and one is holding the other back.  At least this is likely the view held today by many Progressives. To use the terminology of the famous nuclear war strategist Herman Kahn (though obviously in a different context) there is the A-country, and there is the B-country [*See Note Below*].  The A-country is making progress, where the government is involved in creating communities, taking care of the vulnerable, and creating equal opportunity for all.  This is the Northeast, parts of the great lakes (primarily Illinois and Minnesota), and the entire west coast.  These are places that routinely vote for Democrats and have reliably Progressive policy initiatives.  It is also where the most interesting stuff is happening, and where we are most likely to find conditions conducive to a good life (for the Progressive at least).

Then there is what Progressives would likely think of as the B-country; this is all the rest.  Libertarian and conservative politics prevail, the government does far less to provide equal opportunities to all citizens, and the people generally have somewhat “backward” or “traditional” values.  Of course, from the perspective of libertarians and conservatives, much of B-country is preferable to A-country; they see the policies of A-country to be smothering initiative and violating individual rights.  These different ways of life are supported by different sets of values.  

One problem, you might think, with the standard progressive strategy of the past 30 years is that action has been at the national level.  Policies have meant to apply across both A and B countries, even though the people living in those different places have wildly different values.  This has long been the complaint of conservatives who desire for the federal government to stay out of their business, so that they can ban abortion or permit discrimination against minorities.  Additionally, conservative states often want to be left out of various programs that involve the government intervention in various aspects of life.  This preference for strong federalism has been resisted by Progressives who have wanted their policies to apply across the country.  

The resistance to strong forms of federalism makes perfect sense in clear cases of injustice.  Progressives cannot permit the widespread discrimination against minorities or the denial of basic rights to occur anywhere in the country (though there is also conflict about what should be considered a “basic right”).  However, I think there might be a different story for positive programs, like the provision of universal health insurance.  It may be possible for states in the A-country to undertake such programs themselves, much like Massachusetts did in the 2000s, but as a block.  This might be in the form of a single market between states for health insurance (providing more competition) as well as the provision of common regulation and subsidies for that market (providing benefits of scale in implementation), or even a single-payer health system shared by those states.  

The single-payer system may be especially interesting, because it would provide these states (which have a large proportion of the national population) substantial leverage to negotiate prices. It would also seem that this may not violate any constitutional restrictions on limiting federalism (a problem with Trump’s “plan” for the interstate sale of insurance), because it would be formed through the voluntary agreements between states.  Multi-state agreements like this are not uncommon (port authority and transportation authorities, for instance), though this would be far more ambitious.  

There are obvious difficulties to coordinating such a system, but I think it could be done if some of the larger or adjacent states (centered around California and New York, for instance) took the lead.  If large states formed such a block, then the inevitable taxes required to pay for insurance subsidies would not render those states uncompetitive relative to others.  Businesses to not routinely move from California or New York to Texas simply because of small differences in taxes (which already exist).  The benefits of these locations are too enticing.  Such a program could provide the benefits of the Affordable Care Act without the necessity of dragging unwilling states into the mix.  There is a hope that voters in B-country would eventually see the benefits of such a social welfare program and want to be included in the interstate agreement.  This may eventually grow into a truly national program once a critical mass of states agree to join.  Of course, it is possible that majorities in B-country will never come around.  All the worse for them, but it is not the fault of those living in A-country that those living in B-country are backward looking rather than Progressive.

Some will rightly worry that such a program would create a further rift in our country.  Perhaps.  Though in many ways that rift already exists.  People in A-country and B-country already live in rather different worlds.  And voluntary interstate agreements would eliminate the high levels of conflict that exists at the federal level; there simply would be less to argue about.  The hope is that this would lower the stakes of federal policy formation, and thus make our politics more functional.  Progressives will have an easier time convincing New Yorkers and Californians to implement such a program than convincing a block of former slave states.

*Completely unrelated note*: Kahn’s idea (From On Thermonuclear War) was something like the following.  Even if our major cities like New York and LA (A-country) were blown up in the first round of a nuclear war, we might still have a substantial supply of infrastructure, resources, and people left. This “B-country” might include exciting places like Winona or Cedar Rapids.  He thinks that we should plan on a strategy for an extended but winnable nuclear war rather than simply “mutually assured destruction.”  But please don’t tell this to Trump.  Especially because Kahn wrote this before larger stockpiles of hydrogen bombs existed, so his insight may no longer be relevant.

What now? Progressives must speak to the working class, even the deplorables.

Trump has won: the barbarians are inside the gate.  They will undoubtedly destroy much of what we have built.  And I did not sleep last night.  What does this mean for us all?  I’m horrified as any right-thinking person should be.  But I try to be a positive person and look at what we can learn from this.  In particular, I am ruminating on what this might mean for the Progressive movement, or what it should mean for that movement.  At least if it ever hopes to be a successful core of the Democratic Party (in other words, win elections).

First of all let’s get something out of the way. It is certainly on our minds.  Many progressives (almost all I would think) find the fact that someone would vote for Trump to be repulsive and idiotic.  That of course we cannot deny; Trump supporters did a disgusting thing and did not live up to our standards of basic human decency.  They are all deplorable.  But that matters little, because standards of decency change very slowly (often only through what might be politely called “attrition” i.e. death).  We will certainly not convince them that they are indecent.  More importantly, many of them are the very working-class subjects of Progressive policy.  They are who Progressives wish to help.  And for that reason Progressives must understand (and take seriously) their needs, fears, their thoughts.  Otherwise Progressives will not be the ones who will get the opportunity to “help” them, conservatives will.

Below I lay out a few ideas of where Progressives might focus.  Some of this runs deeply contrary to the standard “Progressive” line.  I only ask that you forgive me if I offend your progressive proclivities, for I am light on sleep.

Labor and economic issues must form the center of our policy agenda, and they must be the sorts of policies that aid the lower-middle and middle classes.  Poverty cannot be our only focus.  This undoubtedly means that Progressives must take seriously the sorts of concerns I raised two posts ago about the lack of low skill jobs in the new economy.  Democrats as much as Republicans are seen as allies of those who are bringing about the demise of working-class jobs, and that must change (just look at how David Plouffe is now at Uber, destroyer of working-class driving jobs).  It is unreasonable to think that people with IQs below the mean will be able to train into jobs found in the new knowledge economy, and it is also unreasonable to expect them to live decent lives on the dole.  Stable work that pays a living wage is a basic requirement of a decent life.  It must be at the core of Progressive policy.  Financial support without work is not enough.

Fighting for new social policy in states rather than at the federal level seems crucial for winning white working class voters. Let’s be frank: the white working class (and especially white men) are disproportionately misogynist bigots.  Trump himself is a misogynist bigot, and this is one reason why he appeals so much to working class voters.  One of the great elements of progress during the Obama administration was the extension of gay marriage rights.  But this incredible victory was won through slow social change and not national politics, and the only politics that aided it were at the state level.  I think this must be a model for the future.  

Progressives should push policies in states in which they have the most influence, showing the country how life can be better if policies are made in the Progressive model.  In many ways this has already occurred. Lives are far better for people in places like Massachusetts and Minnesota than they are in Alabama and Arizona; this is in large part due to the sorts of policies people in those states have chosen for themselves.  This will certainly mean that some in backward states will be left behind.  But many of those same people consistently vote for Republicans; you cannot help people who will not help themselves.  It is too bad that many are stuck in conservative states, but at this point progressives can do little to help them.  Help for them must come later, once attitudes change.  We need to accept that.

Frame issues of civil rights and economic justice in terms of class, rather than race.  I think that there is a crucial point lost on many Progressives, that white working class Americans find the concept of “white privilege” to be insulting to their lived experience.  Even if they have benefited in various ways from racial bias, working class whites certainly do not perceive how they have benefited.  And, in fact, I find it plausible that the benefits of this privilege to rust belt working-class whites is minimal.  Therefore, direct racial preference from affirmative action programs create significant amounts of racial animosity.  Very similar effects can be achieved by focusing on class (parents’ income, educational level, etc.) rather than directly on race.  These are highly correlated with the groups who need help anyway.  Progressives may think that there is still tremendous amounts of direct racial bias in American society — and indeed there is — but they must also think strategically.  

I will certainly have more thoughts later.  But I think Progressives must take seriously the difficulty they will have in appealing to working class voters as long as they stay a movement that assumes a college-educated mindset.  We must be more Biden and less Clinton.  

We must also fight.

Your local neighborhood drones…

As autonomous vehicles and drones start to become a reality, various possible uses of the technology naturally come to mind. One of the most interesting possibilities is autonomous drone security and policing. The image goes something like this. In the hopes of having more eyes on the streets, police departments in some cities may eventually start using autonomous drones to patrol high-crime areas and during special events. This would primarily provide added surveillance, essentially (drone) eyes on the street. Drones would be outfitted with night-vision sensors and various algorithms for detecting suspicious behavior. When a drone detects something that is suspicious, it notifies the dispatch so that police can respond and investigate. This is not a “robocop” vision, in which drones themselves respond crime, but merely one that extends current automated surveillance techniques already used in many American cities (for instance, gunshot detectors).

Such a system obviously has significant potential to reduce crime and improve the lives of those living in high-crime areas. Increasing the likelihood that crimes will immediately be responded to dramatically increases the expected costs to criminals. If one expects to be followed by a drone immediately after mugging or shooting someone, and then consequently found by the police, there is little sense to the action. This would also likely make people feel far safer in their own neighborhoods, and might create a virtuous cycle in which greater feelings of safety cause more people to be on the streets, which then further increases community surveillance and reduces crime.

Of course, the above vision is also horrifying. It introduces a prospect of total police surveillance, in which the government has a complete record of everything that goes on at all times. And the likelihood that such a policing strategy would disproportionately affect those in minority neighborhoods makes it even worse. It combines the possible nightmare of a police state with problems of racial discrimination. Consequently, it is a future that will likely be closed off by law, whether conventional or constitutional. For Progressives it goes against their commitments to privacy, civil liberties, and limited police powers.

What about the private use of “security” drones? It is entirely possible that cheap drones could (in the not too distant future) be available to private citizens and community groups as well as the government. A neighborhood watch organization could plausibly buy the sort of autonomous drones that I describe above, to provide extra eyes on the street. They similarly may be set up to call 911 upon seeing a possible crime, just like a nosy neighbor. This sort of (highly effective) “neighborhood watch” might be just as transformative for people living in high-crime neighborhoods as police drones, and produce an environment that is nearly as disturbing. “Neighborhood-watch” drones may buzz around watching one’s every move. It doesn’t seem to matter significantly in this sense that they are not owned by the police.

I think that the Progressive is forced to support such drone programs, and in fact, it may be important for progressive organizations to someday fund the purchase of drones for neighborhood organizations that want them. However, it also presents Progressives with a serious dilemma of values. The fear and violence that so many Americans face on a daily basis is too deplorable to be ignored. Although the root causes of these conditions lie in deeply rooted social and economic problems, those issues are unlikely to be solved before drone technology may be of significant use. Likewise, other than an extensive limitation on handgun ownership, which is unlikely to happen for a very long time (if ever), no public policies of any kind are likely to solve the problems of public safety in the foreseeable future.

The problem, of course, is that the choices of some individuals (in setting loose drones) would be transforming the environment for all. The prospect of outside organizations paying for the drones makes matters even worse. It is entirely feasible that the drones patrolling the far south side of Chicago may be provided (to neighborhood groups) by law-and-order nonprofits primarily funded by rich white suburbanites. How we think about this largely depends upon what priority we give public safety. Conservatives often take the provision of public safety to be the primary purpose of the state. But given how necessary minimal levels of justice and safety are to being able to live a good life, Progressives must also take this more seriously. And we would do well to think about how changes in technology might radically effect policing strategies and public safety in the next couple decades.

Must progressives be so boring?

I’m going to make a bold prediction. Hillary Clinton will win the presidential election. I think we should move beyond this fact. Clinton is very competent but no revolutionary. She might do quite well at protecting some of the gains the left made during the Obama administration, but few are expecting her to significantly push the envelope of the progressive agenda in her first term. What will Clinton be able to achieve by 2020? Probably not much. There is almost no chance that she will be able to achieve (or even make substantial steps toward achieving) some of the bolder goals that are part of the Democratic platform, especially a single-payer health system and free higher education. Of course, perhaps those on the left simply need to work hard and bide their time.

However, those who think of themselves as “progressives” should also wonder whether they even know what the “envelope” looks like. Is it represented best by the policy views of Bernie Sanders. For a very long time Americans on the left have, rather reflexively I think, attempted to make an America in the political image of Europe; there is a spoken and unspoken principle of leftist thinking that Europe is a model society, more civilized and decent. European public policy is in many ways the culmination of a post-war welfare-state program, in which the community is tasked with taking care of all.

Those on the left lament the fact that the construction of the welfare state was never as successful in America, even with its unmatched wealth. The standard story (I take it) is that America is too steeped in conflict and corporate domination to be a fertile ground for an extensive welfare state; or perhaps Europe’s cleansing in the fires of WW2 showed it the way to righteous politics. Though perhaps it has more to do with the relative homogeneity of European countries that allowed generous welfare benefits to remain popular. Americans have a long tradition of despising each other, but this is a relatively new phenomenon in European countries that have thrived on consensus politics. Europe’s current internal struggles with immigration reveals that there might be something to this.

In any case, the ideal of the European welfare state is not transformative in the way progressivism was in the early 20th century, when the sort of abject poverty and powerlessness that characterized the lives of the vast majority of humans for most of human history was all but eliminated in the United States. And in the 1960s the American cultural revolution and civil rights movement did to social relations what the early progressive movement did for physical subsistence, dramatically changing how people thought about themselves and each other.

What I find rather remarkable is how immediately comprehensible the thoughts of ‘60s artists, thinkers, and writers are to us, in ways that those from the ‘50s are not; there is a certain foreignness (for us) to American culture before this time. We don’t often think about how important it is that (many) 18 year-olds today still understand and fully appreciate Bob Dylan or The Beatles, when this music was recorded half a century ago. Even Trump’s veiled racism is little different than Goldwater Republicanism. Truly, our economic aspirations are a century old and cultural aspirations are a half century old. The gadgets of the 21st century nip at the margins of our lived experience, but they have not transformed it.

What goals would be transformative enough to be worthy of the name “progressive”? I’m not sure. But I have a few ideas, and will express some of them between now and the election. I’ll start with an idea that originates, in some ways, in the right’s vision of a radically transformed society: a society of radical personal liberty in a free market.

In many ways the political right possesses the sort of new transformative vision of society that the left lacks. The sort of vision inspired by Milton Friedman and (less cogently) Ayn Rand is one in which the coercive powers of the state have been all but eliminated, and in their place exists a system of free markets and voluntary associations. This is the libertarian ideal. It takes the very old ideas of anarchy and provides a demonstration for why social order can be maintained even absent any sort of significant coercive regime. Its power then – and it really was a powerful idea that transformed conservative political thinking in the 1980s – is in its ability to show how freedom can be made compatible with complex economies and societies.

The reaction of the left, I think, has been largely uninspiring; it is typically argued that this is an unrealistic vision, and that markets will always need substantial government regulation for them to operate efficiently and in the common interest. I think this is true, but rather boring. In particular, it doesn’t get to the heart of the issue of whether the vision offered by the right is one that should inspire us at all. Is there something wrong with the vision, or is it just something we aren’t able to attain? The problem with the latter answer is that it leaves us wondering whether we simply aren’t doing enough the attain the goal. Perhaps we just need to privatize more social programs!

I think there is something basically wrong with the vision of a society composed entirely of free markets and voluntary associations, but I also think this ideal gives us an insight into what might be a progressive ideal. It at least shows us a problem about which we must ponder. The libertarian ideal takes humans to be fully capable of deciding how to act in the market and what voluntary associations to make; in fact, some versions of this ideal take a person’s preferences and values to be identified with the structure of her choices. According to that formulation, there is really no way in which a person can choose poorly in life. If a person chooses to smoke cigarettes, shoot-up heroin, or get serial pay-day loans then she is just “revealing” her preferences for those goods.

The progressive reaction to this ideal brings out an important foundation of progressive politics, and one that stands in tension with the existence of a free society. I think it can be represented by several claims:

  1. There are better and worse ways of living.
  2. At least some of the time, we are incapable of independently making good life choices (leading to a good life). And a substantial number of us are incapable of doing this most of the time.
  3.  We have obligations to care for others.
  4.  A necessary feature of a good life is the liberty to choose how to live one’s own life (personal autonomy).

Most libertarians would deny that the first three conditions are true, and even those who do not deny their truth think that society instantiating the first two conditions (and perhaps 3 as well) is not compatible with one that instantiates the last. In short, they think that any society respecting personal autonomy must ignore (1)-(3) when determining how to design its political institutions. I don’t think the above list would surprise most progressives, but its has important implications for the possible shape of society when put into the context of the 21st century.

The modern welfare state already presumes that (1) is true to some degree; the life of a starving person is worse than that of someone with enough food to eat, and this is why we spend money assuring that everyone has enough food to eat. However, this aspect of the welfare state might be supported by Libertarians as well as those on the left – the provision of cash payments (or vouchers) to the poor is a mainstay of right-wing welfare policy. However, many on the left also promote paternalistic policies, which promote certain ways of living and not just economic goods (like food and housing) that any way of life requires. Paternalism is especially obvious in policies that promote health care and safety; providing incentives for people to get yearly checkups, talk to their doctors about their weight or blood pressure, or wear seatbelts are all perfect examples of paternalistic policies supported by the left and (often) criticized by the right.

And here is where things become more radical, and where serious thought is necessary. Many of the social problems that we see today are due to how people choose (or are forced) to live, rather than their lack of basic necessities. And more importantly, some of the social problems on the horizon cannot be dealt with by the contemporary welfare state, even if benefits are very generous. For instance, automation has drastically reduced the market price of manual and repetitive labor. And AI threatens to reduce the price of even some complex labor. The high unemployment among non-college graduates has in part occurred because the price of manual labor in many sectors has been reduced below the minimum wage that allows workers to obtain a minimally decent lifestyle.

The ready solution to this problem has always been the retraining of these workers, thus increasing their productivity to above the minimum wage. But constraints on fluid intelligence limit the sorts of jobs workers can be retrained to do. It is entirely feasible (as Galbraith argued in the 1950s) that at some point in the future there will simply be no economic use (at a minimally decent wage) for large segments of the population. At some point it may even be more expensive to train those of average (or above average) intelligence to do complex tasks than it will be to develop and maintain a machine to do that same tasks. Of course, there might always be roles for high-level human developers and managers, but very few people are ever capable of being trained to perform those tasks. This leads us to a question that is currently facing some of the generous welfare states of the Europe today: can a life that is not economically productive be as good as one that is not?

In order to answer this question, Progressives must go beyond the 20th century goal of equalizing the consumption of the rich and the poor. It is likely that a life of pure consumption, without a meaningful contribution to society, is not a good life (though this is something that requires thought!). The government could always make positions for people to fill; this was a favorite strategy of the FDR administration. But today this would require the government to not only undertake tasks it might not otherwise undertake, but also undertake them in ways that are dramatically less efficient (utilizing more labor) than could be achieved on the free market.

It is true that the sort of public works projects that employed many during the Great Depression built much of value, but today those projects would certainly be accomplished far cheaper by finding already trained workers from the private sector. In a future in which even construction work is automated, substantial additional funds would have to be spent in order for such projects to employ significant numbers of people. In that case the government might even be able to give the unemployed higher levels consumption by using automation than if they had payed them to do work less efficiently.

This is all rather speculative, but it shows the sort of problem that progressive politics might face in the changing world, problems that I think progressives are in a position to answer. Importantly, I think the left is better able to provide answers than the right. For instance, according to the libertarian ideal if someone isn’t able to successfully compete in the market (meaning no one is willing to pay for their labor at some minimally decent price) then they must rely upon charity. But a society in which vast segments of working-age adults are charity cases baffles the mind; that is not a vision to work toward, but is rather a disaster to avoid.

I will return to this problem in a couple weeks. I admit that I don’t have many answers, but I think that the role of work in the lives of those in the rich world may be one of the defining issues of the 21st century, and progressives must have an answer.

However, in the next post I will ask another question that may be central to progressive politics in the 21st century: what is the role of surveillance and robotics in policing and security? In perhaps not more than 30 years there may exist technologies that will dramatically increase the monitoring and prevention of crimes. They could have live-changing benefits for people living in cities and neighborhoods that are not safe, but raise rather obvious questions about civil liberties. Would the use of, for instance, constant police drone patrols produce a world that was safe but unbearable? This is made more disturbing by the fact that such technologies would likely most often be deployed in minority-majority neighborhoods, increasing the risk of discrimination. Such surveillance techniques have the promise to eliminate much of the intolerable violence of American society, but at serious costs in privacy. Progressives should be conflicted about this prospect, but technological advances are not likely to give us the benefit of decades to deliberate about it.