All this week’s ruminations across the commentariat in connection with the 50th anniversary of LBJ’s launching of the “War on Poverty” have been useful if not always illuminating. One issue I haven’t seen discussed much is a certain anomaly about how people on the Left and Center-Left think about inequality and how to deal with it. The CW is that the further “left” you go on the ideological spectrum, the greater the support you find for “redistributive” measures. But in my experience, that’s no quite right: “traditional liberals” or “New Deal liberals” or whatever you want to call them, tend to focus on aspects of the economic system that produce an unequal distribution of resources in the first place, whether it’s “free trade” or weak unions or inadequate regulation or insufficient minimum wage laws. “Center-left” folk actually tend to favor letting markets govern the initial distribution of resources, but want policies that “redistribute” income via government programs or subsidies, alongside longer-term strategies (i.e., education and training) aimed at improving the earning capacity of have-nots.
This difference in perspective was very evident back in the Clinton years when “traditional liberals” and New Democrats used to argue all the time about high minimum wages versus the EITC as the right path to placing a floor on the incomes of working people. “Living wage” fans viewed the EITC as an indirect subsidy for corporations (much as some liberals now dislike Medicaid because it lets low-wage employers shirk the responsibility to provide health coverage); EITC fans thought socializing the costs of income supports via a progressive tax code minimized its impact on business “competitiveness.” Michael Lind forcefully recapitulated the first position in an essay last year that treated the EITC as part of a broader southern conservative conspiracy (I don’t think I’m exaggerating here) to pursue low-road development strategies, and my response to Lind largely reflected the second position.
In any event, the ongoing conservative assault on all efforts to prevent or ameliorate unequal distribution of resources since the Clinton years has largely mooted that argument on the Left, at least for the time being. But if and when a true “struggle for the soul” of the Democratic Party or progressivism develops, this unresolved dispute will be front and center.