Politics & Policy

Why Liberalism Is Dangerous

Responding to Michael Lind.

In early June, George Will devoted one of his syndicated columns to a favorable discussion of my book, Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State. Three weeks later, Michael Lind of the New America Foundation devoted his weekly column in Salon to attacking Will for endorsing Never Enough and thereby supporting “the Orwellian project of rewriting American history in order to demonize liberalism.” Two months earlier, Lind had laid the foundation for his attack in a column on “Glenn Beck’s Partisan Historians.” It criticized “serious scholars on the American right” — including Harry Jaffa, Ronald Pestritto, Thomas West, and Charles Kesler — for lending “their scholarly credentials to the oldest trick of right-wing populist demagogues: denouncing liberals as amoral, state-worshiping libertines.” The “demagogues” Lind named were Jonah Goldberg for writing Liberal Fascism and Glenn Beck for . . . well, everything.

#ad#Messrs. Jaffa, Pestritto, West, Kesler, Will, Goldberg, and Beck do not need my help against Michael Lind. In speaking for myself, I acknowledge having a bit part in this movie: Lind’s acquaintance with Never Enough seems to encompass only what George Will had to say about it. My point here is not that a careful reading of Never Enough would disabuse Lind of his mistaken and melodramatic ideas about its critique of modern American liberalism. It is, instead, to ask that readers consider for themselves Never Enough’s critique — which is informed by the scholars Lind mentions, as well as by co-conspirators he leaves unindicted — rather than relying on Lind’s overwrought assessments.

Lind makes four arguments to show that people who find liberals’ words and deeds less glorious than he does must be wicked, stupid, or both.

First, conservative critics of liberalism “are correct when they point out that many progressive intellectuals like [Woodrow] Wilson rejected the 18th century ideas of natural rights and checks and balances as outmoded.” The mistake those critics make is to treat the history of liberalism since 1932 as an elaboration rather than a repudiation of progressivism. By ignoring “the profound differences between the Progressive movement and subsequent movements on the American center-left,” these critics can’t or won’t see that “New Deal liberalism broke with progressivism in many if not most respects.”

Second, Franklin Roosevelt and the liberals who followed him did not reject Madison and Jefferson’s idea that government exists to secure the inalienable rights that humans possess by nature but cannot safely exercise in the pre-political state of nature. To the contrary, the New Deal adapted the 18th-century understanding of natural rights to the 20th century’s vastly more complex economic circumstances. Lind takes FDR at his word when quoting his 1936 promise to “reaffirm the faith of our fathers” and “restore to the people a wider freedom” by preserving “the political and economic freedom for which Washington and Jefferson planned and fought.” How, Lind asks rhetorically, can George Will and I misunderstand or misrepresent such straightforward terms as “reaffirm,” “restore,” and “preserve”?

Third, despite all this, it turns out that the whole debate over whether FDR adapted the principles of the American Founding to the economics of his day, or whether he adapted progressivism’s rejection of the Founding to the politics of his day, is beside the point. To think otherwise is to commit conservatives’ gravest intellectual error: “They ignore any material factors — industrial revolutions, population growth, urbanization, geopolitics — and treat American and world history as a Manichaean struggle of abstract philosophies.” Lind instructs us to the contrary: “First principles” are politically insignificant. What matter are “practical subjects: how to provide healthcare, what kind of infrastructure we need. The Democratic healthcare plan can be criticized, but not because it is Hegelian state-worship that betrays the principles of the Declaration of Independence. There is nothing relativist or historicist about the hydropower dams of the New Dealers like Roosevelt and [Lyndon] Johnson.”

#page#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.

#ad#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.

#page#While New Dealers and subsequent liberals rejected ancillary items on the progressive agenda, they embraced the core concept of a government big, powerful, and unstinted enough to do all that progress requires. In 1937, Luther Gulick, an important New Dealer and leading proponent of the professionalization of public administration, advocated restructuring American government to reduce the typical law enacted by Congress to “a declaration of war, so that the essence of the program is in the gradual unfolding of the plan in actual administration.” And indeed, the political scientist Theodore Lowi assessed the sprawling governmental apparatus built up over the subsequent four decades by saying, “Liberalism is hostile to law.” That is, liberalism promotes “policy without law” by having Congress delegate real governance, and vast discretion, to administrative agencies that go on to regulate with “a vigor that is matched only by its unpredictability.” The consent of the governed, expressed through elections that let the people turn unsatisfactory officials out of office, is trivialized. Tired of waiting for the progress of a maturing society to do something democratically about global warming? Fear not — there’s a tenuously democratic Plan B. The Environmental Protection Agency’s life-tenured civil servants have already declared that greenhouse gases are within their boundless regulatory purview, and they stand poised to overrule Congress if elected legislators decide against mandating new limits on emissions.

#ad#(2) Lind’s insistence on the New Deal’s adaptive fealty to the natural rights of the American Founding rests on the perception of a guileless Franklin Roosevelt, a quality undetected by the overwhelming majority of FDR’s critics and admirers. This willed credulity allows Lind to declare that if FDR said his purpose was to preserve the freedoms that animated the Founding, it’s simply not possible that he had anything else up his sleeve. This argument leaves no room for the possibility, advanced by Sidney Milkis of the University of Virginia, that FDR gave “legitimacy to progressive principles by embedding them in the language of constitutionalism and interpreting them as an expansion rather than a subversion of the natural rights tradition.” Roosevelt agreed with Jefferson and Madison, but only in the sense that Roosevelt insisted Jefferson and Madison agreed with him, that the Founding was a proto–New Deal.

In 1932, FDR stated that under the social contract laid out in the Declaration of Independence, “rulers were accorded power, and the people consented to that power on consideration that they be accorded certain rights. The task of statesmanship has always been the re-definition of these rights in terms of a changing and growing social order.” Unlike the rights described in the Declaration, however, there is nothing natural or inalienable about the ones described by FDR: They’re not yours to begin with, and statesmen and historical changes can always alter, augment, or rescind them. 

By 1944, the social order had changed and grown enough for the statesman Roosevelt to explicitly redefine Americans’ rights to include jobs, housing, medical care, education — in short, a “Second Bill of Rights,” all of which “spell security.” That can’t be the last word, however; the prospect of future changes in the social order causes FDR to urge the recognition of “these and similar rights.” The governmental right to discover new rights could, for instance, someday lead to the development endorsed by FDR’s National Public Resources Board in 1943, when it called for recognizing the right to “rest, recreation and adventure.”

Who among us would disdain citizenship in that Club Med polity where safaris and sea cruises are guaranteed as a matter of right, where we might awaken any day to find that the changing social order has left us yet another shiny new entitlement in the driveway? The problem is that it turns out to be impossible to elevate every social-policy goal to a right without reducing every right to just one more policy goal. In 1994, the Clinton Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) enforcement of the Fair Housing Act was so zealous that it demanded that groups opposed to new homeless shelters or drug-treatment facilities in their neighborhoods turn over to federal investigators (who were seeking evidence of discriminatory motives or attitudes) every article,

flier, or letter to the editor their leaders had written, as well as the minutes of every public meeting they addressed. The HUD assistant secretary called upon to defend this thuggery compressed six decades of liberal rhetoric into a single op-ed, which explained how the department had to “walk a tightrope between free speech and fair housing. We are ever mindful of the need to maintain the proper balance between these rights.”

#page#(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.”

#ad#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.

William Voegeli — Mr. Voegeli is a senior editor of the Claremont Review of Books and a contributor to the American Project at the Pepperdine School of Public Policy.

Most Popular