Patronage and the Way Forward for Liberalism

James Heckman, Nobel Laureate and vaguely liberaltarian economist, had an op-ed in the New York Times recently on his proposals for early childhood intervention.  He concludes:

Quality early childhood programs for disadvantaged children . . . foster human flourishing and they improve our economic productivity in the process. There is no trade-off between equity and efficiency, as there is for other social programs. Early investment in the lives of disadvantaged children will help reduce inequality, in both the short and the long run.

The early childhood interventions he favors involve government and quasi-government employees visiting poor people’s homes; giving parents advice, encouragement, and parenting classes; putting children in special “enriched” daycare; and etc.  These interventions are to start at birth.

Much could be said about these ideas.  The evidence for their effectiveness is substantively weak, and they are sure to have unintended consequences.  Furthermore, they are a foreshadowing of the liberal order’s intent to continue its advance into domains previously reserved to parents.  And there is something off-putting about an economist claiming a program has “no trade-off.”

One thing is for sure, though.  There is an elite push for this kind of program.  None of Heckman’s many other ideas during his long and impressive career generated the kind of buzz this one is generating.  Taking for granted that the proposed program will not work, what is the elite’s motivation in putting it forward?  Why are we going to do it?

Some of it is old-fashioned patronage, of course.  Whether Heckman means it or not, the “quality” in “quality early childhood programs” will be cashed out in the form of requirements for lots and lots of programmatic staff with BAs and MAs in psychology and social work.  These people will be loyal leftist voters and will, when necessary, provide a convenient source of rent-a-mobs.  Similarly, the university staff tasked with training them.  Patronage, simpliciter, is not a satisfying explanation, though, since patronage employees can be employed in pretty much anything.

I think, in addition, that the elite is grappling with the problem of technology.  Technological advance is driving labor out of manufacturing in the same way that it drove labor out of agriculture a century or two ago. In prospect, it seems likely that this same advance will drive labor out of many service industries.

So far, the dislocation has had pretty modest costs for our elite.  Unemployable people get stuffed into prison or, what amounts to the same thing, Detroit.  This isn’t free, but it isn’t exactly expensive (for anyone who matters) either.  As the dislocation creeps up the skill distribution, problems may arise.  Detroit residents are capable of organizing gangs devoted to stripping copper out of abandoned houses.  College humanities graduates are capable of organizing months-long nationwide protests.  As the terminator between employable and unemployable moves upward, more and more dangerous people may become dislocated.

One apparent way out is to employ people who are good at managing things in managing the lives of people who are not good at managing things.  There is a significant domestic supply of people who are bad at managing things, and Heckman’s idea may catalyze mining this resource.  Immigration reform, likewise, is presumably partly about expanding this resource.

8 thoughts on “Patronage and the Way Forward for Liberalism

  1. I wonder if Heckman has spent much time around poor people. My experience is that they are not interested in advice from well-meaning busybodies. This doesn’t surprise me, since neither am I. I expect that you are right when you say one basic aim of this program is full employment for social workers. Another is the liberal belief that we must “do something,” even if the something we do does nothing.

    • JMSmith:
      I’d amend that to “the liberal belief that, faced with inequalities, we must ‘do something'”.

      Part of the engine that drives liberalism is the fact that equality is simultaneously an overriding imperative and impossible.

      • You’re right. And there’s no better employment program than one assigned an impossible task, where every setback and disappointment is answered with a cry for more resources and manpower.

    • Poor people, like everyone else, are often very aware that the stupid stuff they are doing is stupid.

      Managerial liberalism’s problem is that it really hasn’t come to grips with human nature.

  2. Yep.: “For every dollar we ‘invest’ today, in twenty years we’ll receive a return of $17.00,” or whatever the latest, greatest statistics show in terms of timeframe and investment-to-return ratio for the given thing we’re talking about. Then when it doesn’t materialize, well, we just didn’t invest enough to begin with so we have to do more. All of this coming, of course, from those whose livelihoods, or the maintenance thereof, depend on our collectively throwing more and more good money after bad. In other words, the totally self-absorbed. It’s a racket alright. But so is mandatory insurance and a lot of other things.

  3. The question I always ask is “How does this work toward the liberal endgame of communal childrearing?”

    Here I think the connection is pretty obvious. How easy it will be for being raised by experts or having one’s parents supervised by experts to go from being a grim necessity for some to a basic requirement for all.


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