This is exactly what I’ve been trying to say for some time now. Yglesias notes that the state is often used as a tool for the rich and powerful and entrenched at the expense of the poor and disenfranchised but that it still can be used to achieve good ends. This is what I was driving at with beer deregulation, or limiting the state’s power to coerce, surveil, etc. while still using government to enforce important safety regulations. Here’s Matt:
A colleague mentioned to me the other day that I’m “pretty conservative” on some state and local government issues, with reference to some recent posts on occupational licensing. Someone on twitter asked if I’m trying to score a date with a Cato staffer. I’m not. And I’m not. And I think that whole framing represents a bad way of understanding the whole situation.
I think it’s pretty clear that, as a historical matter of fact, the main thing “the state” has been used to do is to help the wealthy and powerful further enrich and entrench themselves. Think Pharaoh and his pyramids. Or more generally the fancy houses of European nobility, the plantations of Old South slaveowners, or Imelda Marcos’ shoes. The “left-wing” position is to be against this stuff—to be on the side of the people and against the forces of privilege. It’s true that some useful egalitarian activism over the past 150 years has consisted of trying to get the state to take affirmative steps to help people—social insurance, the welfare state, infrastructure, schools—but dismantling efforts to use the state to help the privileged has always been on the agenda. Don’t think to yourself “we need to regulate carbon emissions therefore regulation is good therefore regulation of barbers is good.” Think to yourself “we can’t let the privileged trample all over everyone, therefore we need to regulate carbon emissions and we need to break the dentists’ cartel.”
One thing I’ve realized over the past few months is that liberalism is a pretty big tent. This in stark contrast to contemporary conservatism which is, if anything, a few small embattled tents each trying to out-crazy the other. I’ve also realized, perhaps a little late, that a lot of people on the left think pretty much like Matt does here – a lot of people don’t but you’re not tossed out of the movement for it (not yet anyways). On the right plenty of people think that regulation can hurt small interests while benefiting big corporations, but they also think that any move toward government assistance in healthcare is socialism, any tax hike is tantamount to totalitarianism and that anyone who strays too far fromt he fold is a RINO or a closet liberal, etc. etc. ad nauseum.
Now, I think Matt takes this too far to some degree. The ‘state’ certainly has been used for great evil for many thousands of years, but democracy and liberalism helped create a much more limited state than anything previously. The sorts of bad things the modern liberal state creates are typically not on a par with the Egyptians. His central thesis, however, still holds. The state benefits the privileged classes the most, sometimes at the expense of the poor and working class. We should work to limit government where it benefits the powerful, and work to expand government where it benefits the least powerful, i.e. work to get government out of the economy and into the business of providing safety nets, which is essentially the balance they’ve struck in Northern Europe (hardly a bastion of socialism, but certainly a bastion of welfare liberalism where free markets and generous safety nets work together to create strong, stable economies).
Which brings me back to barbers: a lot of people pointed out that barbers/hair stylists work with dangerous chemicals, can cause some serious damage and so forth. Well, lots of people working with food face similar problems. Food poisoning is a much more likely health risk than hair dye gone wrong. But a food handlers permit is something you can take a test for, pay a small license fee, and then work on the job to gain experience. Why can’t a similar licensing process be used for hair styling? Likewise, first aid and CPR training require one day of instruction (typically a few hours each) and renewal every year for CPR and every three years for first aid. Again – why not something like this for hair stylists to cover the basic safety issues involved with their job? Then you can have them learn the rest of their trade at work (or at home!). If they want extra credentials to get a leg up in the job market or just to learn more about the trade, they could take optional courses at a community college. As it stands, the only ones profiting off current hair stylist regulations are the beauty schools and the competition.
Neither myself nor Matt, as far as I can tell, are suggesting that no licensing should be required for dental hygienists or barbers – only that the licensing should fit the job and should provide a reasonable test of a person’s ability to practice that job safely – not create unreasonable barriers to getting that job in the first place. If you aren’t going to shave with a straight razor you shouldn’t have to be licensed to shave with a straight razor. If you need to learn about hair dye safety then a simple safety course should suffice rather than nine months and twelve thousand dollars sunk into beauty school. A basic teeth cleaning could be performed by a trained hygienist without the supervision of a dentist because the dentist doesn’t actually do anything at a teeth cleaning anyways except charge the customer a fee.
These are issues which effect poor and working class people the most, both on the consumer side (cost of dental work) and on the provider side (cost of beauty school). However you look at it, improving how regulation works in this country, making rules more fair and equitable, and lowering the barrier to entry especially in the service economy are things that liberals should care about a lot. I’m anti-corporatist as much as anyone out there, but what worries me most isn’t the Corporations or the Government but rather collusion between the two. Whether that’s privatized prisons or government-backed medical cartels, these are hugely regressive issues that hurt the poor and working class the most.
For instance, who on earth could possibly benefit from this new licensing requirement for bloggers that the city of Philadelphia is imposing? For shame, Philly. For shame.