The last socially acceptable kind of prejudice, Sandel claims, is against the uneducated. Our meritocracy teaches us that it’s the most talented and determined who get to go to college, and that the educated are those who have the most to contribute to society. The ones who don’t make it to college didn’t have what it takes. And so the division between those who have a college degree and those who don’t is one of the starkest in our society. It has become as much a political division as an economic one.
As good jobs become scarce, areas of the country from which both companies and government have disinvested become poorer. As Reich writes:
Corporation after corporation began laying off workers in the 1980s without easing the often difficult transitions that followed—without providing workers with severance payments, job retraining, job search assistance, job counseling, help in selling homes the values of which predictably dropped when businesses left town, or help moving to where jobs existed; without aiding affected communities that were being jettisoned, or seeking to attract other businesses to make up for their losses of jobs and tax revenue, or finding other uses for the abandoned infrastructure of schools, roads, pipes, and real estate; without giving workers and communities sufficient advance notice so they could plan their own transitions.
The result was “a systemic change that would scar the nation for decades.” One of the largest predictors of support for Donald Trump in the 2016 election was whether one had a college degree. This fact became an obsession of elites. Perhaps they realized the effects of their last acceptable prejudice but were unwilling to take responsibility for the conditions their policies had created. “Since 2016,” Sandel writes,
pundits and scholars have debated the source of populist discontent. Is it about job loss and stagnant wages or cultural displacement? But this distinction is too sharply drawn. Work is both economic and cultural. It is a way of making a living and also a source of social recognition and esteem.
Sandel argues that what the United States lacks is not merely distributive justice—the equitable use of resources to provide for everyone’s material needs—but “contributive justice,” or the ability to contribute to the common good. For decades, Democrats have offered working- and middle-class citizens measures of distributive justice but devoted insufficient attention to contributive justice. People want “an opportunity to win the social recognition and esteem that go with producing what others need and value,” Sandel writes. Being without a job—or being without a job one considers meaningful—is not only a material deprivation; it can also deprive one of a sense of purpose, a sense of being useful to others. The result is often loneliness and despair, and the destructive behaviors to which these give rise: alcoholism, opioid overdose, or suicide.
In his seminal work The True and Only Heaven, Christopher Lasch lamented that our obsession with the bottom line has corrupted all kinds of working life.
At every level of American society, it was becoming harder and harder for people to find work that self-respecting men and women could throw themselves into with enthusiasm. The degradation of work represented the most fundamental sense in which institutions no longer commanded public confidence.
Instead, we equate social progress with the “indefinite expansion of the demand for consumer goods” and assume that “our future is predetermined by the continuing development of large-scale production, colossal technologies, and political centralization.”
In his analysis of previous generations of economic-justice movements, Lasch is critical of both Left and Right for assuming that unbridled industrialization and the endless division of wage labor were necessary ingredients of all economic progress. Mainstream labor movements like the Progressives or the Fabian socialists proposed only a redistribution of income, not a reconsideration of work. Today’s liberal and progressive movements also tend to emphasize fiscal redistribution rather than fostering economic conditions that wouldn’t funnel so much income to the top in the first place. Their focus is mainly on the purchasing power of consumers, not the security and dignity of labor.
How, then, do we regain a sense of what Sandel calls contributive justice? Most basically, we have to reprioritize understanding ourselves and each other as producers as well as consumers—as people with a need to contribute, to meet each other’s needs, and to be part of a community. “It is in our role as producers, not consumers, that we contribute to the common good and win recognition for doing so,” Sandel writes. Without this role, we are liable to become passive, surrendering to processes and decisions over which we have no control.
To this end, economic policy should be focused not only on prices but on creating jobs that provide adequate compensation and involve meaningful activity. One of the best ways for policymakers to do this is to reverse the trend toward consolidation that has come to mark so many industries. The ultimate goal is to “democratize the economy,” as Brian Callici and Sandeep Vaheesan write for Dissent. That requires “not only more choices over employment options among different employers, but also more voice and power within the businesses that employ them.” Businesses such as Amazon make decisions that can restructure a whole local economy, mustering an army of workers and delivery people—or, just as quickly, hanging them out to dry. Callici and Vaheesan argue that “employment should confer a kind of economic citizenship in the firm. Current law, however, structures business firms as authoritarian regimes with all power concentrated in the hands of boards and managers serving financial interests.” Cooperatives and employee-owned companies do exist, but they are far less common in the United States than in some other developed countries. Other policies could give workers more stability and better compensation—for example, a higher minimum wage, caps on the ratio of CEO-to-average-worker compensation, and better enforcement of the right of workers to unionize.
Keeping people in their jobs needs to be as important to central bankers as fighting inflation. For decades, employers have been used to a “slack” labor market, one in which workers are inexpensive and always available. A tight labor market, as we saw briefly during the pandemic, creates very different conditions: higher wages, better bargaining conditions, and more investment in training and employee benefits.
Ultimately, reprioritizing work as a social good puts the “political” back in “political economy.” Rather than allowing purely commercial indices to dictate our economic policies—whatever maximizes a company’s profit, whatever keeps prices low for consumers—we can deliberate together how we want to produce and distribute the goods we need. Our role as producers is not incidental for these deliberations; it is a fundamental component of our individual lives and of our communities.
Another way of putting this is in Sandel’s terms: the market can’t solve problems or answer questions that belong in the realm of democratic deliberation. Deciding what will contribute to the common good “cannot be achieved through economic activity alone…. It requires deliberating with our fellow citizens about how to bring about a just and good society, one that cultivates civic virtue and enables us to reason together about the purposes worthy of our political community.” Insisting, as corporations, lobbyists, and many of our politicians do, that the best policy is always whatever is best for consumers is a simplification that preempts true democratic deliberation. It reduces all social goods to one: the efficient satisfaction of appetites. It treats citizens as units, not agents.
Consumption, it should be acknowledged, is an important aspect of our lives. We need some basic things for survival, of course, but we also enjoy goods that rise above the realm of mere necessity: books, art, nice clothing. One can easily become too moralistic about the pleasures we get from the things we buy. The problem with consumption arises when the acquisition of more and more material goods—including goods that aren’t actually very good for us—is the only remaining activity that allows us a sense of purpose.
Of course, we can also risk over-romanticizing production. We must avoid the Promethean valorization of “creators”—the visionaries who rise above the riff-raff to produce, innovate, and crush the competition. This was the warped anthropology of Ayn Rand, for instance, and it usually entails a toxic elitism. Historically, fascists have been obsessed with the productive capacity of the population—to preserve the glory of the state, to win the never-ending war, to root out bourgeois weakness or halt a supposed decline of masculinity. This, too, can have the effect of reducing citizens to units.
We tend to think of the postwar decades as an era that struck a happy balance between production and consumption. Work paid well enough for most workers to afford to buy the goods they produced, and leaders of corporations saw themselves as benevolent lords providing for the good of their workers as well as that of society. As Eugene McCarraher writes in The Enchantments of Mammon, “All parties agreed that steady economic growth, distributed with unprecedented equity, would mitigate class conflict; all disagreements would be conducted within the parameters of Keynesian economics, a welfare state, and anti-Communism.” The material abundance the American economy produced would guarantee social stability, even if much of the (decently compensated) work was tedious and unfulfilling.
But there’s a reason that the counterculture of the 1960s emerged. A hollowness exists at the heart of this vision, one that confuses human flourishing with mere satiety. It is yet another substitute for politics—perhaps this vision was better than the neoliberalism that replaced it, but it was nonetheless incomplete. McCarraher argues that the seeds of our own era were already present in the postwar complacency: as factors like increased automation and the globalization of trade tempted us to sharpen our focus on consumption rather than production, we had few political or philosophical reasons to resist. The American Dream had long since been reduced to an idyll of material abundance. What we did mattered less than what we had.
What we need now is a reassessment of our priorities, a shift in the way we think about work, consumption, and justice itself. For decades, justice movements have argued that the price tag on all kinds of products doesn’t accurately capture the true cost of making them. Environmentalists point out that the price tags on Ikea furniture, for example, don’t take into account the ecological cost of clear-cutting. Workers-rights advocates insist that cheap groceries don’t reflect the poor wages and workplace hazards that farmworkers bear. If good work, and the protection of workers, were a priority, we would have to make fair prices, not low ones, our policy goal. It’s likely that, if we did this, the ordinary consumer wouldn’t be able to buy so much so cheaply. (As a model of political economy, producerism is probably not compatible with the business model of Amazon.) But more important than mere convenience and sheer accumulation is having the things we need to lead good lives, as well as the ability to do meaningful, satisfying work that contributes to our communities. Today, too many of us have neither.