Many of those who are on the neoliberal left endorse what I call the globalize-grow-give school. Representing anyone else's views is always going to involve a bit of distortion, but with that caveat in mind, I think this is a fair representation of a standard view in online progressivism. First, you embrace the standard globalization model of reduced or eliminated tariff walls, large free trade agreements such as NAFTA or CAFTA, deregulation, and general trade liberalization. This encourages international trade and the exporting of jobs from highly-regulated, fairly well compensated, high worker standard of living places like the United States to the cheap labor, low regulation, low worker standard of living places like China or Indonesia. This spurs international economic growth in both the exporting and importing countries. Here at home, higher growth results in higher tax revenues which can then be redistributed from those at the top of the income distribution (who have benefited from the globalized trade regime) to those at the bottom of the income distribution (who have been hurt by the globalized trade regime that undercuts their wages and exports their jobs).
There's a lot to be said for this scheme, and a lot of criticisms can and have been made about each part. There is an important set of critiques, virtually unheard of on the mainstream blogosphere, about the coercion that happens in enforcing the globalized trade regime. There is a lot of evidence that third world countries are essentially forced into these trade agreements, in particular with the levers of the devoutly globo-friendly IMF and World Bank. There has been internal resistance from workers and indigenous peoples within the nations that are receiving the supposed benevolence of imported American factories, resistance that is often squashed quite brutally by the regimes of those countries. (One of the sadder elements of this model is that globalizing trade means dealing with, and often empowering, foreign regimes that are democratic and humanitarian nightmares-- but this authoritarianism is often quite convenient for enforcing the trade regime in the first place.) There are a lot of places you can read about this sort of thing online, though not in the mainstream political conversation, generally.
There are often serious questions about the role of globalization in economic growth, although that free trade spurs growth is axiomatic in most political circles. In particular, some make the case that many of the strongest economic actors in the world, notably the Asian miracle economies of Japan and Korea but also most certainly the United States and Britain, grew through the protection of infant industries until those industries were capable of competing on the international stage, and only then was trade liberalized. This means that the dominant economies of the world are essentially asking third world economies to undertake trade policies that they themselves didn't when it was to their advantage not to. I lack the economic literacy to really prosecute such an argument, but I'd recommend Ha-Joon Chang's Bad Samaritans for a sophisticated and in-depth examination of this argument. (You can see a video with Chang here discussing some of these issues.)
One thing that is frustrating about arguing about neoliberal doctrine is that positive world conditions are always seen as consequences of trade liberalization, but negative conditions are always the consequence of corruptions of trade liberalization. I bring this up because the global economic crisis that has afflicted us for several years certainly seems like it should be, at the very least, a troubling statement about neoliberal economic policy. But I rarely see an admission that, for example, the exportation of jobs overseas is a contributing factor to 12% true joblessness.
However, in the interest of comity, let's examine globalize-grow-give in the context of ideal outcomes. So let's say we've gotten the globalized economy and seen the growth. What's my issue? There are certainly worse outcomes than that, but here's my perspective: the goal shouldn't be to provide for the material well-being of the worst off. The goal should be to empower the worst off to provide for their own material well-being, and I think the best way to do that is to defend the right to organize which should, if workers desire it, lead to more powerful and prevalent trade unions. I'm not, of course, opposed to a social safety net, and one has to be maintained in particular for the unemployed or underemployed. But social safety nets can't produce equality of self-empowerment. And the issue, ultimately, is one of power.
I think g/g/g progressives are too sanguine about their ability to provide for the third g, the establishment of social programs to defend the worst off. Look at the health care debate. Certainly, access to quality health care strikes me as a minimal requirement for the kind of social program regime that we're talking about. But as we've learned, many, many people don't believe that. Many instead see health care reform as the creeping onset of socialism, even when almost everyone acknowledges that the status quo was a massive clusterfuck. I can understand, theoretically, the idea that advantages of an empowered and valuable labor pool could be replaced by redistributive social programs. But the Tea Party and the general American political strife seem to disprove the idea that we could consistently provide those programs to those who need them.
Suppose we were able to pass the ideal set of social programs to ameliorate the downward pressure on labor from globalization. The question is, what about tomorrow? Look, again, at health care reform. We've passed an inadequate but genuinely positive set of reforms. But one of our two major political parties and seemingly the combined conservative and libertarian ideologies are dead set on repeal. This is the condition that g/g/g progressives ask workers and the lower classes to live under: their material well-being is always subject to the whims of the political process.
You might suggest that there is no alternative, but I would argue that this contradicts history. The history of the American labor movement (and the great gains it secured for workers in the first half of the 20th century) is a history not of securing the blessing of the American political machine but rather of workers taking control themselves. Strikes, sit-ins, and various other forms of direct action were not appeals to the political process but the wresting of actual control of the means of production. The regulatory regime Americans now enjoy (and most third world workers, sadly, do not) came only after most of those advances were first fought for by the labor movement. Workers can organize to secure their own interests, but not if their jobs are eliminated and the value of their labor is relentlessly pushed downwards by sending jobs to places where workers are, frankly, brutally exploited.
There's a valuable insight in the power of markets: people know far better what they need and want than other people can predict for them. I ask that this thinking be applied to the needs of workers. I have no doubt that the well-meaning and enthusiastic bloggers that support the globalize-grow-give model want only the best for workers, but wanting what's best for others and allowing them to provide for their own needs are two separate things. The g/g/g model is inherently paternalistic.
Matt Yglesias writes
I bow to no one in my left-wing egalitarian convictions. I think taking tax revenue that could be handed to poor people and spending it on this instead is a waste. I think sales taxes on clothing are highly regressive. I know that the tariff system is not only complicated, but specifically engineered to tax luxury items at lower rates. And I agree with Karl Marx that the growth of factory job opportunities in formerly peasant societies is an enormous force for human progress.
I think there are a lot of people who don’t necessarily disagree with those points, but who find it somehow unseemly for progressives to point it out. After all, that’s the dread free market neoliberalism. There may be some things that the right-wingers are correct about, but it should be their job to do the heavy-lifting. The real left focuses its energy on highlighting the flaws with the market. But there’s something achingly naive about expecting the right to enact the sound free market ideas that would be beneficial to poor people. Since when does the right care about poor people? Since when does the right care about ideological consistency? If egalitarians want to advance egalitarian ends, then we need to advance egalitarian ends on all possible fronts, not try to divvy things up and expect Paul Ryan to reduce sneaker taxes for us.
But consider the assumption here: egalitarian means equity in material outcomes, not equity in power. I do want to advance egalitarian ends; egalitarianism starts with equality of power. If there's one change I'd like to see the left of the blogosphere take up, it would be a return to talking frankly about power imbalances, competing and balancing forces, and orientation towards winners and losers. It is undoubtedly true that politics and economics are not always zero sum, and I understand that part of building a better world is convincing those at the top that their interests can be served by helping those at the bottom. But too many well-meaning, liberal (in the best sense) bloggers have convinced themselves that all political or economic situations are non-zero sum, and that simply isn't true. Sometimes you have to choose sides, and when the time comes for side choosing, I know where I stand.
Finally, please read Ryan Avent. The question of cosmopolitan viewpoints on social goods and the needs of the international poor vs. the needs of the domestic lower class is an extraordinarily powerful and necessary question. It deserves its own post, and I'll have to write one up. The crux is that choosing between what is best for American workers and what is best for the third world workers is a false dilemma, but it's a complex question that requires great care.