Waging Half the War

Nope, this isn’t another rant against this season’s topics. Though I admittedly haven’t observed any debates on the January-February iteration, it strikes me as one of the better ones. So you’ll have to forgive this particular missive for its cynical undertones.

 

Important as discussions about living wages—and their alternatives—may be, negative advocacies should adopt a firm critical stance. This is one of those occasions when one shouldn’t hesitate to go “further to the Left.” While wage laws appear to be progressive solutions in today’s political landscape, that says some pretty unfortunate things about that landscape.

 

The resolution’s modest advances toward some modicum of socio-economic equity is more than a gesture to be sure. It would make real differences in real lives, and that’s obviously a good thing from just about any policy-making perspective. Some may even argue that it’s a critical baby step toward more robust socially conscious solutions.

 

Maybe.

 

But the more probable product of this kind of discourse is significantly less appetizing. Piecemeal laws create a comforting illusion of progress. They immunize the status quo from more damning criticism, creating a readymade rebuttal maintaining that something is already being done—that the problems are already being solved. From social safety nets to middle class tax cuts, these are the leftovers that keep the rest of us just satisfied enough.

 

And they come at a moment in history when the gap between the rich and poor is as expansive as ever. No amount of scholarship is going to change that, not without the public exerting its will on a widespread basis.

 

Unfortunately, that public will almost certainly remain complacent so long as lawmakers continue making so-called strides. The systemic dimensions of capital formation will remain unchanged, because bandaid solutions like wage laws are offered as ostensibly dramatic change.

 

A moment of honesty is probably in order. I don’t think capitalism is an entirely bad thing. It’s probably the best option we have. To whatever extent it’s “evil,” it’s the least of those evils that seek to administrate the social space. Criticisms needn’t necessarily indict the entire edifice of capitalism.

 

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t without serious internal problems—problems that might be chalked up to something of an identity crisis. We believe in things like open markets and fair competition, but the reality of modern-day capitalism seems less and less familiar. With ever smaller fractions of the population owning greater shares of global wealth, it’s become harder to tell the difference between the capitalism we knew and love…and its arch nemesis alternative. Wasn’t the point of this whole free-market-thing to diffuse the concentration of power, to prevent a select few from exerting undue influence over the political process?

 

Negative debaters aren’t going to change any of that simply by saying living wage laws are bad. And chances are they’ll have difficulty articulating a truly viable alternative.

 

There’s still something to be said for thinking bigger, however.

 

From this perspective, most affirmative positions are conceptually myopic. Indeed, the very premise that incremental policy changes are capable of addressing what increasingly appears to be a runaway nightmare is shortsighted according to this account. A change in thinking is needed. If capitalism isn’t going anywhere—and it probably isn’t—then we should pursue some measure of radicalization from within. That evolution may be more cultural than legislative, and it’s important we don’t confuse the two—especially when adopting the latter obscures a need for the former.

 

Any law that helps the least of us is a good thing, and there’s no way around that. But nor is there any way around the uncomfortable fact that such would-be panaceas only wage half the war.