Two Cheers for Barbara Ehrenreich


So the blogosphere's all atwitter over Barbara Ehrenreich, and while I'm not about to dive into the several rounds of back-and-forth we've already got there, the Nation article from 1997 that inspired the bruhaha, reproduced here by Brad DeLong, is pretty interesting. In it, Ehrenreich urges a move away from the pursuit of "economic justice" by political means in favor of a focus on "our own brand of [civil] libertarianism" in the political arena and private, grassroots, civil society efforts to organize the badly off via unions or (she doesn't say, but it would follow naturally enough) mutual aid societies. With some very minor reservations, this sounds like a great idea. If the energy and brainpower devoted to trying to get government to help people were channeled at the local level to actually helping people on the ground, we'd all probably be happier.

NEXT: Johnny Walker Read

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  1. By coincidence, another article about the same person, by Thomas Sowell. Slightly different assessment...

  2. Sounds vaguely like a church.

  3. In fewer words but with the same theme: the best government is small and local.

    I couldn't agree more.

  4. Steve,

    You obviously have no experience of local councils. At least here in Australia they are known as little Hitlers.

  5. Amazing! I never would have thought Barbara Ehrenreich capable of something like that. I'm glad DeLong reproduced it.

    I wonder why there's no hyperlink to the original. Was there no online version of The Nation in 1997?

  6. While we're talking about unexpected surprises, seeing a Beito article at Heritage also ranks up there.

  7. But I always feel I can do something about my local Hitler, than my national Hitler in DC.

  8. R.C. Dean,

    In non-RTW states, the compulsory union shop derives entirely from a contractual agreement between the union and the employer. The RTW law is an infringement of the right of contract.

    It also has other unjust effects, like requiring the union to represent all members of the bargaining unit, regardless of whether or not they pay dues.

    Personally, I prefer the Wobbly ideal: the union represents only those who choose to belong and pay dues. I don't want people forced into the union against their will, because it means people who are scabs at heart will be voting on contracts and electing local officers.

  9. Iron law of Citizen Participation:

    That level government is worst which you have the most familiarity with.

    Thus, local activists deplore the citywide mafia, while the nationally-minded are aghast at federal machinations. Same crap, different level. And, listen hear, the tyranny of the school board can suck JUST AS MUCH and be JUST AS ENTRENCHED as the federal bureaucracy. Really. But, you're right, it is easier to move away.

  10. Brett: Ha! True, but I do have experience with an archaic form of democracy employed in Massachusetts called the "Town Meeting". The best that can be said about this form is that is slow to act on anything (only convenes once per year) - which I find to be a very good thing.

    I think there is value in having to look your neighbor in the eye and tell him that you can't support his variance request for a detached three car garage. Or bumping into the local selectman at a local restaurant and asking him why he advocates full reassessment of all the town's residential property. And answering the door when an elderly town resident shows up to ask if you could volunteer a few hours at the local Council on Aging.

    For me its about accountability and that objective is best served when we know each other.

    That said, I agree that local government isn't perfect, but I think I said it was best (of the alternatives).

  11. I did not read the original Barbara Ehrenreich article, but read the piece about fraternal societies and found it very informing. For one thing, a person is not forced to belong to a fraternal society (which of course is good). If I really don't care for their philosophy, I just don't join. The real dilemma is that we've been "brainwashed"...I use that term loosely...into thinking that only the government can provide a wholescale welfare system where vast numbers of people can be provided for and that nobody will fall through the cracks. True, each fraternal society only had a limited amount of resources to provide for a certain number of people. But if there were hundreds, if not thousands of fraternal societies on a local basis it is within reason to think that they could do as good if not better job than the government does without all the bureaucratic meshugass (or at least less of it). Face it, many people still fall through the cracks with our national welfare system which is primarily concerned with juggling numbers and maintaining the positions of the "social worker class" that has been created especially since the Johnson administration.

  12. Actually, I'm involved with the remnants of a mutual aid society in Tampa: Circulo Cubano de Tampa (the Cuban Club - Its history tracks the status of early Cuban immigrants here pretty closely. When they first arrived (as cigar factory workers), they lacked the means to do much individually. By pooling their resources, they were able to gradually get access to things they couldn't get in mainstream society--e.g., medical care and a place to socialize. Today, with Cubans in Tampa being socially integrated (for example, I'm a member of the club, and I'm not the least bit Cuban) and with more socialized healthcare and other services, there is not much need for the club as a mutual aid society. The club today is more important as a caretaker for the old clubhouse, which is pretty impressive (it still has a theater and ballroom). By the way, there were similar clubs for Italian, German, and Spanish immigrants, several of which still exist.

    The 1800s and 1900s have a number of examples of what a civil society can do without the government. Charities and mutual aid societies provided a lot of what people today assume only the state can provide. Sounds like a good research project for a libertarian academic to me 🙂

  13. Anyone who thinks unions in their current incarnation have much to do with civil society needs to learn more about unions. In non-right to work states, they are not particularly voluntary, and they can exist anywhere only because they have a special quasi-monopoly status granted by, and protected by, the government.

  14. This reminds me of something I read recently in Jonathan Schell's The Unconquerable World, about the decay of Soviet-based power in Eastern Europe. "Jacek Kuron, an intellectual advisor to Solidarity, counseled, 'Don't burn down Party Committee Headquarters, build your own.'"

    "Even before the rise of Solidarity, Havel had reflected on the potential for developing power by founding new associations and organizations. The natural next step for an individual already trying to live in truth his individual life was to work with others to found 'parallel structures.'"

    "[Adam] Michnik's words of 1976 fell on fertile ground. They anticipated (and helped to produce) a blossoming of civic and cultural activity in Poland. An early example was the Worker's Defense Committee. Its purpose was to give concrete assistance to workers in trouble with the authorities... Help was provided to the families of workers jailed by the government. Independent underground publications multiplied. A 'flying university', which offered uncensored courses...was founded. Organizations devoted to social aims of all kinds - environmental, educational, artistic, legal - sprouted. In both form and content, these groups were precursors to the ten-million-strong Solidarity movement that arose in 1980."

    Some interesting parallels there, although of course the US government of 2004 is not the Soviet or Polish of 1978 - we've already got a strong tradition of non-governmental civic entities, and sometimes I think the government prefers it that way: keep them numerous, scattered, and babbling at each other, and no strong countervailing voice will arise from them.

  15. Kevin C. is leaving out the reason RTW laws were introduced in the first place: the federal laws that require employers to negotiate with unions who have been authorized through NLRB elections. Those who voted "no" or refused to sign a union card and fall into the class of employee that is to be included in the "collective bargaining unit" are prevented from representing themselves or using other agents.

    The RTW laws are a case of the state government putting a thumb on the bottom of the scale, to offset the federal thumb put on its top. I agree with the late AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland who said "he would prefer `the law of the jungle' to today's pro-business labor law.' " (quoted in Z Magazine: 1989 Reforming Labor Law: Reforming Labor by Jeremy Brecher and Tim Costello)

    Here's a Libertarian sentiment: "Doing for people what they can and ought to do for themselves is a dangerous experiment. In the last analysis the welfare of the workers depends upon their own private initiative." And that from long-time AFL head Samuel Gompers!

    Ehrenreich's self-help impulse doesn't seem to be at odds with at least some of labor's tradition.


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