Do we greatly over-estimate what governments can accomplish? This question occured to me during my holiday reading. This is because there's a common theme in Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century and in Greg Clark's The Son Also Rises. Although the two books discuss very different types of inequality - wealth in Piketty and opportunity in Clark - they share the same view that inequality is hard to change. Here's Clark:
The intergenerational correlation in all the societies for which we construct surname estimates...is between 0.7 and 0.9, much higher than conventionally estimated...The arrival of free public education in the late 19th century and the reduction in nepotism in government, education and private firms have not increased social mobility.
And here's Piketty:
France remained the same society, with the same basic structure of inequality, from the Ancien Regime to the Third Republic, despite the vast economic and political changes that took place in the interim.
Reading this reminded me of Landon-Lane and Robertson's paper, in which they argued that "there are few, if any, feasible policies available that have a significant effect on long run growth rates"
If we put all three claims together, we have a contention that should disturb leftists especially - that there is little that governments can do to radically improve the life-chances of the worst off, because there's no (feasible?) way of greatly increasing growth or of greatly increasing the redistribution of wealth or opportunity*.
I stress the words "greatly" and "radically" in that paragraph; it's quite possible that a government can nibble away at the edges of inequality, and this is not to be sniffed at. The point is merely that there might be powerful reasons why Labour governments have generally disappointed their supporters.
In this context, I suspect there has long been an excessive division on the left, the latter-day manifestation of which is between Blairites and the far left. On the one hand are those who are too happy to compromise with capital, and on the other are those who are over-optimistic about the prospects for radical change. There is, though, a third way: we can recognise that governments can only do a little to help the worst off, whilst at the same time deploring this fact and regretting the power that capital has.
In saying this, I do not intend to endorse Gramsci's phrase about “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”. This has long struck me as silly: willing things don't make them so.
* I'm using "feasible" ambiguously here. Infeasible might mean that policies won't work technically, or (as I suspect instead) that they are ruled out by the power of the rich.