The journal Philosophy and Public Issues has just been released with papers by William Edmundson, Jessica Flanagan, Ingrid Salvatore and myself responding to Freeman’s Liberalism and Distributive Justice (Oxford University Press, 2018).
Freeman’s extensive reply discusses a property-owning democracy at length and defends it from various critiques; he also re-formulates his case for workplace democratisation, grounded on the Fair Equality of Opportunity principle and an argument from stability. Check it out!
My paper sets out a further defence of the pre-distributive versus re-distributive distinction as alternative forms of egalitarianism.
Forty years of neo-liberalism have produced a distorted economic landscape: forget the bedtime story about neo-liberals ‘rolling back’ the state. They co-opt the state at the service of a class war aimed at destroying the bargaining power of the working class. If you succeed – and the evidence of ‘success’ is all around us – then you drive down labour’s share of the productive surplus and real wages leading to chronic and extensive inequality. The flip side is the distortion of the corporate sector. The question is whether state response to the current coronavirus crisis can help to remove these distortions and lead us to a sustainable, mass consumption, full employment capitalism of the kind described here and here. (1)
Wherein lies the distortion? If a corporation has played the game intelligently, and well, then it has successfully exploited the state and the public sector. Perhaps it
stole ‘borrowed’ patents from the public stock, or sought public subsidies for its innovation, but when the time came to pay the fair share on the return it reneged by jurisdiction shopping to cut the tax bill. If a corporation required any manufacturing capacity, that was outsourced overseas as were its ‘just in time’ supply chains. Focused on the religious mantra of shareholder value, all nonessential corporate functions were outsourced. (The halo effect of being a non-productive worker in a corporation was reduced.) This is the world not of superstar employees – although many of the employees of such firms like to think of themselves as the LeBron James of their employment niche – but of superstar firms. These firms, large-scale multinationals adept at tax evasion, have massive profitability and could fund any innovation they chose through their retained earnings. They do not, then, need external financing from the financial sector: what they do, instead, is become financial market players in their own right. (Apple’s joint issuance of a credit card with Goldman Sachs is the way of the future for this class of firms.)
This leaves the service sector. Some services, such as financial, legal and accounting services, are so closely imbricated with the successful corporate sector that it shares its (happy) fate. However, the vast majority of employment is located in a broader service sector that, unlike capital intensive production, cannot be outsourced (although it can in some cases be automated). Here we have firms where margins are very tight, profits are negligible and pay is very low. Many workers in this sector receive state benefits in work as a result of their low pay and/or precariousness of employment. (Or they may, in the UK, rely on private charity in the form of food banks.) For these sectors of the economy, the financial sector is an irrelevance. And here’s the rub: the Fordist-Keynesian model of production relied on Henry Ford paying his workers enough to buy a car. The lumpy profile of the fissured economy drives a structural deficit in consumption: wages are too low to support consumption (even when supplemented by private debt).
Suspended across these two sectors is the small and medium enterprise sector: too small to be of interest to lenders to the major corporation (whose monopolistic position gives them what every banker wants: the ability to be a price maker, not taker, in their markets to guarantee the flow of returns). A more stable and employment friendly capitalism – or successor to capitalism – working towards a full employment and mass consumption economy would have to be re-built from here.
The C-19 pandemic has seen the installation of many different kinds of emergency plumbing to see state support channelled through to firms, wages, and consumption. The ultimate origin of that support is the central bank: the Bank of England in the UK, the Federal Reserve in the USA. Both banks know that the major corporates are playing what Mark Blyth has called a “moral hazard extortion game” against the central banks with, as he also notes, the rider that “they [the central banks] are aware of it, they just don’t know how to get out of it”.
As Bill Blain has argued, the total disconnect between asset prices and the real economy cannot go on for ever. No amount of financial engineering can conceal the impact of C-19 on supply chains, manufacturing and sales in the medium term. As the weaker of the major corporates slide towards insolvency with downgraded credit ratings on the way we know exactly how they are going to respond: by firing people. As we know from Bill Lazonick’s work, we live in an economy with such perverse incentives that a firm laying off staff is welcomed by the market by an increase in its share price. Cue the Great Depression of 2021–22….
This is where, amongst the plethora of progressive solutions emerging in response to C-19 including Robert Hockett‘s suggestion of a people’s QE via a digital dollar/pound, state bailouts receiving, in return, a Golden Share of corporate stock for governments (as endorsed by the FT), part of a managed shift to greater economic democracy and worker ownership or profit sharing – there is a connection be forged between QE and the Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) sector. In contrast to the mega-corporates, this sector can be an employment buffer, particularly when workers participate in decision making. They can be a bridge between the QE agenda, the central banks’ capacity to extract themselves from the “moral hazard extortion game” and the community wealth building initiative. The long term process of rebuilding after the pandemic will keep some of the emergency plumbing permanently in place to engineer a structural reform to our current, inequality generating, fragile and crisis prone economies.
The community wealth building agenda arose from the ruins of extractive capitalism when localities such as Cleveland in the USA and Preston in the UK had economically to regenerate in their own terms. The key was to keep both production and consumption local with local government playing a key enabling role. One way to integrate all these different approaches is to give Central Bank QE the aim of supporting the SME sector in particular via wage support and providing much needed capitalisation with a retained stake in these enterprises. Taken in aggregate, this stake holding should be used to leverage employee ownership and a Citizens’ Sovereign Wealth Fund during the post-C19 recovery that will not return us all to the secular stagnation of the failed “recovery that wasn’t” from the global financial crisis of 2007–8. In the UK context, and to a certain extent in the USA, a community wealth building strategy based on SMEs could also contribute towards a regional re-balancing of wealth (and power) to geographical locales beyond London and the South-East or America’s coastal megacities.
Central bank reaction to this crisis has been swifter and more focused: perhaps one can hope it will also lay the foundation for a more resilient economic future as the pandemic tails off and we return to a new ‘new normal’ that replaces the old new normal. The C-19 pandemic will pass: the opportunity it presents for a more just, sustainable and inclusive capitalism ought not to be allowed to pass along with it.
(1) E-mail me for an offprint of the latter…
20 – 21st February 2020
Goethe University, Frankfurt
Paper: ‘Market Socialism: Macro, Meso- and Micro- Justifications
This paper assesses the claim that to avoid labour alienation we must be market socialists committed to an extensive sector of worker-owned firms. The labour republican tradition offers three different versions of this argument: David Ellerman argues that non-alienation demands that all workplaces be worker owned. Robert Hockett has argued that it demands implementation as a macro-economic policy that the state function as the employer of last resort. Bob Taylor argues that republicanism merely requires a strengthened exit right for workers. This paper develops an earlier argument that mandatory market socialism would be illiberal by thinning the market for labour and removing the fair value of exit rights. The most reasonable view, overall, accepts that the state must be the employer of last resort so as to eliminate labour alienation, but this is a macro-level commitment that does not place any meso-level restrictions on the nature of the firm. Yet this commitment is the way in which exit rights are given a fair value. In the context of associational pluralism, the special value of worker owned firms can be identified as a stabilising aspect of a liberal-republican economy.
July 9 – 11
University of Minho, Braga, Portugal.
I will be participating in the tenth annual summer school at Braga with Lisa Herzog, Abraham Singer, and Isabelle Ferreras.
My paper will be “Modern Monetary Theory and the Scale of the Firm”
Modern Monetary Theory has become a recent focus of attention, partly because of its role in the Green New Deal, but it has provoked as much controversy from progressives as from conservatives. Going back to source, in the work of Minsky, MMT is both an account of the nature of money, an explanation of how sovereign monetary systems actually operate and a set of policy prescriptions. However, it would be a mistake to detach Minsky’s views of money – and his policy prescriptions – from his concrete proposals of institutional reform to put in place an economy centered on small and medium scale firms, a limited and robustly controlled financial sector, and geared towards full employment, mass consumption and low investment. This blueprint, it is argued, can be the basis for a Mill-in style defense of workplace democracy as a valuable associational form that can be left to the free choice of individuals who seek more, or less, autonomy respecting workplaces. However, a presupposition of that Millian approach is a commitment to full employment (via the state) and to policies that favor high employment over the technological replacement of labor.
Capitalism, Democratic Solidarity and Institutional Design
I will be participating in this summer school organised by Stefan Sciaraffa at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, this summer with Mark Blyth, Bill Edmundson, Robert Hockett, Stephanie Mudge and Stefan. Full program and details of how to apply here:
My talk will be:
‘Property Owning Democracy and the Role of the State: Big State, Small State, Smart State Or….?’
Both political liberals, such as John Rawls, and republicans, such as Richard Dagger, think that a fully specified implementation of a just society will take the form of a property-owning democracy. In this presentation I will begin by explaining why both of these traditions converge on this specific form of what Rawls called a “realistically utopian” private property system that is not capitalist. I will then address a fundamental problem for this approach to the specification of a schematic political economy; its failure clearly to demarcate itself from its rivals, and an inherent vagueness about the envisaged role of the state. For both supporters and critics, a property-owning democracy can seem to be nothing more than the familiar welfare state capitalism, supplemented by some ad hoc asset based policies (such as baby bonds, or estate taxes). Alternatively, it is the wholesale rejection of welfare state capitalism to be replaced by a competitive individualism that gives citizens only “starting gate” equality of opportunity (plus a demogrant). Another way of framing the issue here is the role envisaged for the state in a property-owning democracy. Is it the “big state” of traditional redistributive socialism with an extensive sector of public ownership? Is it the “small/smart” state of neo-liberalism, allied to a specific vision of globalization? By examining the role of the state in guaranteeing full employment, democratizing finance, directing public investment, underwriting key markets for essential goods, and the democratic co-opting of all major forms of capitalized institution (the open corporation, charitable trusts, pension funds) I hope to defend the distinctiveness of asset based egalitarianism as a realistic utopia.
Gabriel Monette, Philosophiques, vol 45, no. 2, autumn 2018, p. 343
“Cet ouvrage ambitieux et érudit de la plume du philosophe britannique Alan Thomas est une contribution significative à la recherche sur le libéralisme, et plus généralement à la philosophie de l’économie”…”C’est un projet ambitieux qui pose des questions importantes sur les institutions économiques de nos sociétés au regard de nos principes de justice. L’auteur déploie une connaissance encyclopédique de la littérature et des débats sur le libéralisme qui, à elle seule, mérite qu’on s’y intéresse. Outre la question de la forme des entreprises, qui fait défaut, peu de questions restent inexplorées. Quiconque veut se familiariser aux enjeux économiques du libéralisme ou du républicanisme est encouragé à parcourir ce livre.”
Lisa Herzog, Ethics, vol. 129, no. 3, pp. 497–501
“In this impressive book, Alan Thomas pursues two central aims: to reconcile Rawlsian liberalism with neo-republicanism, and to argue that the institutional system needed to realize justice as fairness must be a property-owning democracy (POD in what follows). In doing so, he covers a broad range of current discussions in analytic political philosophy and defends his positions in great detail. If one loves a good analytic debate, reading this argumentative firework is pure joy.”…”In going through the different arguments to delineate and defend his proposal, Thomas engages with a huge number of approaches and proposals in contemporary liberal egalitarian thinking, to which I have not done justice in my summary. “…”For this book in particular, it would be a shame if its readership remained limited to an academic audience.”
Which Property? Whose Capital? Property-Owning Democracy and the Socialist Alternative
When? 3-5 July 2018
Where? Auditorium of the Institute of Arts and Humanities (ILCH), University of Minho
Centre for Ethics, Politics and Society – University of Minho (CEPS)
University of York – Department of Philosophy
Serralves Museum – Porto
Day 1 — 3 July 2018
João Cardoso Rosas (Dean of the Institute of Arts and Humanities, ILCH, University of Minho)
João Ribeiro Mendes (Director of the CEPS, University of Minho)
10.00am: Public Lecture by Alan Thomas (University of York), Property-Owning Democracy and Socialism
Chair: Daniele Santoro (CEPS, Un. of Minho)
11.00am: Coffee Break
11.15am: Workshop A: Property, Wealth, and Inequality
Chair: Roberto Merrill (CEPS, Un. of Minho)
– Eric Fabri, (Université Libre de Bruxelles), What is property ? From modern to contemporary definitions
– Dick Timmer (Utrecht University), What’s Wrong with Wealth?
– Sylvain Lajoie (Utrecht University), From Individual Wealth Inequalities to Political Illegitimacy: A Case for the Reconceptualisation of Property
2.30pm: Workshop B: Property-Owning Democracy, Distribution, and Libertarianism
Chair: Hugo Rajão (CEPS, Un. of Minho)
– Cain Shelley (London School of Economics and Political Science), The Politics of Property-Owning Democracy
– Cristián Fatauros (National Scientific and Technological Research Council, Argentina), Distributive Justice, Consumption Taxes and Property Owning-Democracy
- Jason Keyser (University of South Florida), Self-Ownership, Provisos, and Addendums: Why Libertarians Shouldn’t Accept Their Own Justifications for Inequality
4.15pm: Coffee Break
4.30: Public Lecture: William Edmundson (Georgia State University), The Property Question
Chair: Alan Thomas (University of York)
Day 2 — 4 July 2018
10.00am: Public Lecture: William Edmundson (Georgia State University), What Is the Argument for the ‘Fair Value’ of Political Liberty?
Chair: António Baptista (CEPS, Un. of Minho)
11.00am: Coffee Break
11.15am: Workshop C: Property-Owning Democracy and the Socialist Alternative
Chair: Alan Thomas (University of York)
– Dai Oba (Waseda University), Connecting dependency and productivity: job training in Rawls’s property-owning democracy
– Kristina Meshelski (California State University, Northridge), Pure Procedural Justice and Property-Owning Democracy
– Marc-Antoine Sabaté (Université Libre de Bruxelles), Rawls’ “Reticent Socialism” and the Case for a Universal Basic Income
2.30pm: Workshop D: Capital and Production
Chair: Lucas Petroni (Brazilian Center of Analysis and Planning (Cebrap) / University of São Paulo / CEPS, Un. of Minho)
– Dennis Moore (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee), Political Liberty and the Means of Production
– Kimberly Chuang (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor), Tax contributions and political legitimacy
– Angus Hebenton (University of York/UK), Relational equality and hierarchies of authority in economic production
4.15pm: Coffee Break
4.30: Public Lecture by Raul Magni-Berton (Sciences Po, Grenoble), How Should We Distribute Education? Individual Versus Collective Property of Educational Capital
Chair: José de Sousa e Brito (University of Lisbon)
Day 3 — 5 July 2018
10.00am: Public Lecture by Alan Thomas (University of York), The State as Employer of Last Resort
Chair: Catarina Neves (Nova University & CEPS Research Group on UBI)
11.00am: Coffee Break
11.15am: Symposium on William Edmundson, (2017). John Rawls: Reticent Socialist. Cambridge University Press.
Chair: Gonçalo Marcelo (CECH, Univ. de Coimbra / Católica Porto Business School / CEPS Research Group on UBI)
João Cardoso Rosas (CEPS, Un. of Minho), Roberto Merrill (CEPS, Un. of Minho), Daniele Santoro (CEPS, Un. of Minho), António Baptista (CEPS, Un. of Minho), Lucas Petroni (Brazilian Center of Analysis and Planning (Cebrap) / University of São Paulo / CEPS, Un. of Minho)
Replies by William Edmundson (Georgia State University)
2.30pm CEPS Panel on Basic Income, organized by the Research Group on UBI)
Chair: Raul Magni-Berton (Sciences Po, Grenoble)
Catarina Neves (Nova University & CEPS Research Group on UBI), UBI, Distributive Justice and Employment
Joana Gomes (Independent Scholar) and Gonçalo Marcelo (CECH, Univ. de Coimbra / Católica Porto Business School / CEPS Research Group on UBI), Working Time Flexibilization and Universal Basic Income: complementary strategies for the future of work
Hugo Rajão (CEPS Research Group on UBI, Un. of Minho), Is UBI a good interpretation of opportunity?
Jorge Félix Cardoso (University of Minho & CEPS Research Group on UBI), Can a Basic Income be a public health measure?
Lina Coelho (Faculty of Economics – University of Coimbra & CEPS’ research group on UBI), UBI and Feminism
Replies by Guy Standing (SOAS University of London)
7.30pm: School dinner near Serralves Museum, Porto
9.30pm: Debate on Basic Income at Serralves Museum, Porto
Chair: Roberto Merrill (CEPS, Un. of Minho)
Guy Standing (SOAS University of London), Alan Thomas (University of York), Francisco Louçã & Martim Avillez Figueiredo
With the anniversary of publication coming up (November 6th) there are currently five reviews of the book (in reverse chronological order):
John Wilesmith in Economics and Philosophy:
“I consider Thomas’s book to be required reading for anyone working at the intersection of normative political theory and political economy. It makes valuable contributions to a range of existing debates and also opens up new avenues of research, particularly in the final chapter on globalization. Thomas should be applauded for the sheer ambition of his project. His attempt to synthesize the most plausible normative insights from two leading traditions of political thought into a coherent theory of justice and then develop its institutional implications in close conversation with the social sciences is political theory at its most courageous.”
Paul Raekstad in the European Journal of Political Theory:
“Original and interesting.”
“Ambitious and wide-ranging.”
“An important and challenging work that will set the stage for a great deal of the discussion not only of justice and republicanism, but also of POD, market socialism and broader discussions of alternative economic institutions, to come. It develops an interesting synthesis of republican and Rawlsian liberal ideas, and uses this synthesis to contribute to one of the most important problems of our time, namely the growing inequality and oligarchy and the disastrous effects they are having on our world.”
James Lindley Wilson in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews:
“The level of policy detail, informed by Alan Thomas’s studies of historians, economists, and political scientists, is impressive.”
“Thomas’s book articulates and thoroughly defends several important theses … these theses are of great concern to theorists and justice and to those interested in the goals of egalitarian reform. Given the great breadth of this work, it is hard to imagine a reader who will not find much to learn from Thomas’s remarkably well-informed treatment of these pressing matters.”
Nicholas Vrousalis for The Philosophical Review:
“[A] groundbreaking new book.”
Phil Parvin for Political Theory:
“Thomas’s vision of an egalitarian property-owning democracy is powerful and compelling. In drawing on civic republicanism to highlight both the deficiencies of Rawls’s political liberalism and also the specific challenge to democracy and freedom posed by the rise of the New Inequality, Thomas arguably provides the best hope that liberal democratic states have for ensuring greater justice and also repairing what has broken in our current democratic theory and practice.”
My posts will be mirrored here:
I should begin by thanking James for the exemplary care and thoroughness of his review of my book. In his generally sympathetic discussion, he confesses that he cannot get the point of the distinction between the predistribution that I take the book to exemplify and orthodox redistribution.
I once heard Hilary Putnam tell the story of his taking to his supervisor, Hans Reichenbach, a copy of Quine’s ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’. Putnam told Reichenbach: “it is an extraordinary paper; Quine argues that the difference between the analytic and the synthetic is not a difference of kind, but one of degree.” Reichenbach looked puzzled and then replied “Hilary, is the difference between a difference of kind and one of degree a difference of kind or one of degree?”.
If philosophy is about asking the right questions, this has always struck me as a very good question (and students of both post-War analytic philosophy in general and Putnam’s work on analyticity may well agree). So is the difference between pre-distributive and re-distributive egalitarianism one of kind or one of degree? One way of expressing James’s concern is that I seem to be present it as a distinction of kind when, in fact, it could only be a distinction of degree.
Even those sympathetic to the enterprise of developing a property-owning democracy concur – including my colleague Martin O’Neill who is similarly sceptical that there is a deep distinction here. Significantly, this sceptical view is typically held by those “hybrid” theorists – including Martin – who take the goals of a property-owning democracy to be that of merely adding some asset based policies to the redistributive aims of welfare state capitalism. Let me set out some of the grounds for this kind of skepticism towards the distinction – construed as a difference in kind – before suggesting some lines of reply.
First, the most obvious reading of the prefixes “pre-“ and “re-“ are temporal, but that reading obviously has little to recommend it. Yet a temporal reading seems the interpretation most clearly implied in the original texts by Rawls such as this justification for his interest in a property-owning democracy:
“To prevent a small part of society from controlling the economy and indirectly, political life as well…. Property owning democracy avoids this, not by the redistribution of income to those with less at the end of each period…. but rather by ensuring the widespread ownership of productive assets and human capital (that is, education and trained skills) at the beginning of each period, all of this against a background of fair equality of opportunity.” (Rawls, 2001, p. 139)
Rawls here speaks of “periods” – so it looks as if the temporal reading is mandated. Unfortunately, that does not seem to yield much by way of a distinction and at best – as James implies – it yields a weak distinction of degree and not one of kind. Why is this?
Well, because predistributing and redistributing are both continual processes – they both go on all the time with intervals even if, if we implement a Tobin tax on all financial transactions, those intervals are going to be very short. Taxes of estates and assets are on-going and continual as are the various tax and transfer schemes that make up redistributive policies. If these two processes are temporally intertwined, how can there be a distinction of kind here? Furthermore, assets and income are clearly related: those with high incomes build up assets and returns on assets form part of income (loosely speaking). These two facts seem to point to a relatively shallow distinction of degree.
I think there is more to be said – the most important rationale for the distinction between predistributive and redistributive egalitarianism takes it to be a question of how we model, or analyse, economic agency and is not, in my view, primarily concerned with a temporal distinction. The question is how we model what agents bring to the market for labour and the predistributivist argues that if we are developing a conception of a fair market, then we need to focus on the equalisation of the bargaining power of the agents represented in it.
So “pre” here means: prior to market transactions where we are not restricted to temporal priority. This is a distinction in the way in which we model initial investments in agents that are prior to the transactions that they enter into with other agents. Specifically, economic rights attaching to citizenship place agents in a market position in which we strengthen their right of exit and thereby supplement their voice (to use two of Albert Hirschman’s concepts).
I describe my view as a whole as “liberal-republican” and that includes at least the republican’s focus on institutional design. As Bob Taylor notes, recent republicans “have generally made their peace with markets, but without much enthusiasm”. (Robert S Taylor, Exit Left, OUP, 2017, p. 7) Republic of Equals departs from this usual lack of enthusiasm for markets, but like all republicans – Taylor included – it tries to develop a conception of how markets can operate in such a way to preserve their informational and resource enabling advantages while avoiding domination and exploitation. The proposal is the pre-distributive investment in agents, via economic rights attaching to citizenship as such, allow the market to operate fairly by patterning its outcomes. That is going to require (temporally continual) adjustments to the “background conditions” against which the principles of justice operate, but that temporal distinction is not the whole point of calling the view “predistributive”.
It is particularly unhelpful to run this idea together with the temporal interpretation of the prefixes “pre-“ and “re-“ distributive: this deflationary reading of predistributionism is one that I argue against throughout the book – (you could summarise the argument as “no, this is not just about baby bonds”.) On this interpretation, we are speaking of “initial investments” in the forms of baby bonds at birth, or early years intervention, or simply education before entering the workforce. All of these are important, of course, but this is hardly the full extent of what is meant by predistribution. The more ambitious goal, as noted in the book, is to so structure market transactions – by appropriately contextualising them – as to make the domination of one agent by another structurally impossible.
There are other arguments to be made in favor of drawing a distinction between pre- and re- distributive egalitarianism, but this seems to me the most important one.
America Beyond Justice:
Critical Review of Peter Temin, The Vanishing Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy, MIT Press, 2017
Peter Temin’s ambitious monograph on the recent political history of the USA combines economic data about inequality, a complementary theory of politics, and a consequent discussion of how those politics have produced, and sustain, various negative social effects. It is no accident that the book opens with the economic data. In Temin’s view it is America’s radical inequality, with its persistent inter-woven strand of racism, that explains much else about America’s oligarchic form of government. [Gilens & Page, 2014; Temin, 2017, pp. 71–85, p. 115] (Temin gives his reasons for preferring the term “plutocracy” to “oligarchy”. [Temin, 2017, p. 94]) He believes that the negative social effects of both inequality and oligarchic governance follow ineluctably from Thomas Ferguson’s “investment theory of politics” that Temin endorses in the second part of this book. [Ferguson, 1995]
I will divide this Critical Review as follows: the first section describes some key economic data to provide a context for Temin’s discussion; the second section describes his characterization of his “bi-sectoral” model of the US economy; the third section turns to the key problem of social mobility. The fourth section discusses Temin’s account of the Investment Theory of Politics. Section five discusses the role of private debt in Temin’s argument while while section six addresses some of the broader issues raised by the book….