“The government should be a referee, not an active player.” These words, uttered by the neoliberal economist Milton Friedman, would have baffled our pre-modern ancestors. For Plato’s contemporaries, politics did not stop where the workings of the invisible hand began. Instead, ancient political thought placed the question of the good life at the center of regime.
Politics shaped people’s way of life, their values and the social order in which they evolved. The ancient city-state was a tutelary community that enshrined a definition of the good life, a pantheon of heroes and a panoply of virtues. In fact, the very word “regime” comes from the Greek “politeia,” a term that Plato uses to convey both a system of government and the way of life of a political community.
For better or worse, we have largely abandoned this robust conception of political life. We no longer expect the government to provide us with meaning and purpose. Economically and otherwise, the state has abdicated its tutelary role, outsourcing economic and socio-cultural power to civil society and corporations.
Naturally, the retreat of state intervention need not be problematic — the American founders opposed boundless governments because they feared state-sponsored tyranny, and so should we. But since the rise of neoliberalism in the 1970s and ’80s, the state’s retreat has reached dangerous proportions. As Thomas Piketty notes in “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” the ever-widening gaps between the wealthy and the disenfranchised have been accompanied — and caused — by the inability of states to tax multinational companies, regulate corporate power and develop substantive industrial policies.
Nevertheless, as I wrote in a previous column for the News, neoliberal dogmas are crumbling from within. On both sides of the aisle, free market skeptics have garnered political momentum, from the Republican populist J. D. Vance to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
While moderate, the Biden administration has also moved beyond this vision of the state as a mere referee. After completing the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package this month, President Biden just announced a $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan. The plan allocates $621 billion to build and rebuild highways, roads, airports and other forms of hard infrastructure — a measure that the vast majority of Americans support.
After decades of outsourcing and deindustrialization, America is in urgent need of industrial renewal. The American Society of Civil Engineers 2017 Infrastructure Report Card gave U.S. infrastructure a D+ grade, noting the existence of 15,500 high-hazard dams, the wasteful decay of most power lines, the poor conditions of a third of urban roads and the decrepit state of 24 percent of American schools — among other things.
These malfunctions represent more than a set of missed economic opportunities. In different ways, America’s decaying infrastructure affects the daily lives of millions. Deprived of transportation networks, inhabitants of rural states do not have access to certain public services; students at underfunded schools suffer from structural disadvantages; a collapse of the home care sector would deprive the elderly of much-needed support. More generally, as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development notes in a recent report, dysfunctional systems of infrastructure disproportionately affect the most vulnerable segments of society. In all of these respects, Biden’s imperfect plan represents a step in the right direction.
More controversially, however, the White House proposes $980 billion in spending on the “care economy,” which includes subsidies for home care workers and K-12 schools, as well as facilities for both children and the elderly.
Conservative commentators rushed to mock the bill for its overly broad definition of the term “infrastructure.” In City Journal, Michael Hendrix wrote that “Joe Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan raises the question: is everything infrastructure now?” Similarly, hundreds of Twitter users mocked Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s claim that “caregiving is infrastructure” by turning “[insert literally anything] is infrastructure” into a meme format of its own.
Yet there is nothing unusual about using the term “infrastructure” beyond its narrowest definition. For decades, sociologists and economists have spoken of “human infrastructure,” this network of institutions that improve the productivity of our economy. Does the education of children affect the future of the American economy? Will home care workers allow parents to return to the office once the pandemic ends? The answer to both these questions is an evident yes.
Of course, the bill remains far from perfect. For example, we can ask why the plan allocates more than $180 billion to K-12 schools when the very same schools are still sitting on $180 billion in unused stimulus funds. But the reaction to Biden’s plan says more about its critics than it does about the plan itself. The very idea that state intervention could be used to support stay-at-home parents may seem baffling to those who hold on to Reaganite fantasies and equate all kinds of public spending to Soviet-style communism.
Ultimately, Biden’s infrastructure plan could also mark a wider paradigm shift away from our internalized aversion to state intervention. To do away with neoliberal dogmas, to allow public power to restrain private imbalances, to recapture the ancient conception of state as a tutelary community and an agent of human flourishing, are all laudable changes from which America would benefit.
MATHIS BITTON is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles college. His column, “Through the looking glass,” runs every other Wednesday. Contact him at email@example.com.