Why Liberalism Is Dangerous
Responding to Michael Lind.


Finally, Lind dismisses as “right-wing propaganda” “Voegeli’s claim, seconded by George Will, that liberals have a limitless appetite for addicting Americans to welfare.” He arrives at this nuanced interpretation by refuting a straw-man argument. The book uses “welfare state” as it is generally understood: to describe the entire array of government programs that seek to promote economic opportunity and security by redistributing income through “transfer payments, and by providing or subsidizing certain goods and services.” Following the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) organization of historical data on federal finances, Never Enough’s “welfare state” encompasses all the spending that falls within OMB’s “Human Resources” category: Social Security and other income-maintenance programs, Medicare and other health programs, and federal programs for education and job training.

The term “welfare state” is hardly a neologism, but by misconstruing it Lind can write as if the core issue is whether the government will assist poor people through transfer payments — “welfare” — or government employment: “Will and Voegeli to the contrary, liberals in the Rooseveltian tradition have always favored public work programs . . . as an alternative to welfare payments to poor people able to work.” Lind to the contrary, I never said they didn’t, not because I have a dog in that fight but because I consider the best mix of welfare and employment programs to be a third-order question, not the crux of the matter.

Lind ascribes great importance to government jobs programs in order to castigate conservatives for their indifference to “republican citizenship and the dignity of labor,” as well as their support for programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which uphold “crony conservatism” by providing a government “subsidy to the employers and customers of low-wage labor.” He neglects to mention that one of the right-wing stooges who support the EITC is Cass Sunstein, President Obama’s chief adviser on regulatory affairs. Where Lind endorses “living wage” proposals, Sunstein argues in The Second Bill of Rights that any such program “increases the income of many people who are not poor” while having the “unfortunate effect of throwing people out of work.”

What, then, should we make of Lind’s larger argument about liberalism’s benign pragmatism? Admittedly, I have less confidence in my opinion — that liberalism’s enthusiasm for a government that can pursue any social reform deemed humane by any means deemed necessary flouts the principles and jeopardizes the perpetuation of America’s experiment in self-government — than Lind appears to have in his opinion — that liberals’ initiatives really have made America a more decent, admirable nation, and that the economic and political costs of those initiatives are either negligible or, at worst, clearly worth the benefits they have engendered. 

One possible explanation for this disparity is that I’m wrong and he’s right. Another is that Lind is more confident about all of his opinions than I am about any of mine. Were he to experiment with self-doubt, Lind might entertain the possibility that his refutation of the conservative critique of liberalism comes up short for the following reasons.

(1) In order to dismiss the conservative argument about the meaning and importance of progressivism, Lind distorts it. He makes his case by observing that President Wilson re-segregated Washington, D.C., while liberals went on to champion the civil-rights movement, and that many progressives were partial to eugenics, an idea decisively discredited by Nazism. The conservative critics of progressivism, however, have always contended that it is more important as a body of ideas than as a cluster of policies. Pestritto’s book, Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern American Liberalism, for example, concentrates on Wilson’s quarter-century as a political scientist, touching only briefly on the decade he spent as a politician.

The key progressive idea was that America’s government of limited, enumerated powers, all of which were derived from and legitimated by the consent of the governed, was woefully inadequate to the task of governing an industrial nation spanning a continent. The resulting challenge, according to Wilson, was “to make self-government among us a straightforward thing of simple method, single, unstinted power, and clear responsibility.” In such a government, trained, disinterested administrators would have all the power they needed to make America conform with the constantly “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society,” to use Chief Justice Earl Warren’s phrase.