(3) Finally, in saying that all this graduate-seminar mumbo-jumbo about natural rights and limited government is a sideshow, Lind is, again, being a good New Deal liberal. The practicalities are what matter, he says. Peter Beinart of The Daily Beast recently concurred: “FDR’s greatness stemmed from his indifference to ideology.” Beinart approvingly quoted Roosevelt’s reply to a question about how he would explain the political philosophy behind the Tennessee Valley Authority: “I’ll tell them it’s neither fish nor fowl, but, whatever it is, it will taste awfully good to the people of the Tennessee Valley.” By the same token, Beinart praised Barack Obama for discovering and giving voice to his inner New Dealer in time to salvage health-care reform by turning “a theoretical debate into a tactile one.”
This tactile aspect of liberalism is the one that causes so many conservatives to pound their heads on the table in frustration. I refer to the moist-eyed, quivering-voiced, morally preening affirmation of the tautology that when the government gives people stuff, the people it gives stuff to wind up with more stuff than they had before the government started giving them stuff. After they calm down, conservatives say, “Fine. Stipulated: Benefits are (or at least can be) beneficial. Now, can we please talk about how we’re going to pay for all these programs? And how we’re going to make sure that the Santa Clausification of American government does not transform us from a republic of free and equal citizens into a nursery of wardens and wards? And, finally, what will be the governing practices that allow us to overcome the correlation of political forces that makes it so much easier to expand failed programs than to euthanize them?”
Given liberals’ disdain for specifying any sort of theoretical limit on how much the government should do, tax, spend, borrow, and regulate, the entire credibility of their assurances that we needn’t worry — that this affirmative government project of ours won’t spiral out of control — rests on the efficacy of the practical constraints, their ability to identify and eliminate instances of Big Government gone bad. It’s especially striking and important, then, that these ad-hoc limitations have also been so unavailing. “It is common sense,” Roosevelt said in 1932, “to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”
The problem is that liberals have been so much better about following the “above all, try something” part of FDR’s marching orders than the part about admitting and abandoning failures. Liberals have seen programs like the National Recovery Administration (NRA) or Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) eliminated as a result of political victories by their opponents. There is no credible case, however, that had the Supreme Court not put the NRA out of its misery in 1935, or had the Republican Congress not done the same to AFDC in 1996, the liberal consensus would have countenanced any changes bigger than perpetual adjustments to fundamentally flawed endeavors.
It’s not just liberal politicians who have followed the path of least resistance, perpetuating programs favored by organized and determined constituencies despite clear evidence that they impair the common good. Liberal writers and intellectuals, who don’t have to worry about primary challenges or vengeful interest groups, have also been reliable team players instead of fearless, let-the-chips-fall truth tellers. Even court-ordered busing for the purpose of racially integrating public schools had — and maybe still has — never-say-die defenders. As late as 1992, The American Prospect not only defended the wisdom and benefits of busing, but lamented a 1974 Supreme Court decision that fell one vote shy of imposing busing on entire metropolitan areas rather than confining it within the limits of individual cities.
“America does not need to choose between James Madison and Woodrow Wilson,” writes Lind. “But it does need to choose between Franklin Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover.” It needs, he is saying, to respond to modern challenges by rejecting a conservative government too hemmed in by rules and strictures to grapple with our problems. The alternative Lind endorses, however, is by-any-means-necessary liberalism, in which the consent of the governed is of far less political importance than the “vision” of the governors.
C. S. Lewis wrote that since progress means getting closer to your goal, when you’ve taken a wrong turn and are getting farther and farther from your destination, the truly “progressive” response is to turn around and go back to the right road. Most conservatives believe that America took a wrong turn in 1932, one that has led us farther away from the goal of preserving and strengthening republican self-government. Self-styled progressives talked us into that navigational error, and in the subsequent 78 years their liberal disciples have continued on the wrong road, superintending a rolling regime change that has steadily hollowed out our constitutional republic and replaced it with an administrative state, one increasingly indifferent to ordinary citizens’ concerns and insulated from their opposition.
The conservatives now reviving constitutionalism are rightly insistent on the need to retrace our steps, and to undo the mistakes that have supplanted limited with unlimited government. The point is not to go back to 1932 and stay there, compiling a list of things government cannot do and problems it cannot address. The point, rather, is to resume progress on the road not taken: toward a government that is both limited and vigorous, scrupulous about upholding the principles of republicanism but energetic and prudent about working within the framework created by those principles to respond to economic and social changes with policies that advance the people’s prosperity and security.
– William Voegeli is a contributing editor of The Claremont Review of Books and a visiting scholar at Claremont McKenna College’s Salvatori Center.