The Corner

The Heart of Liberalism

I haven’t read Fred Siegel’s new book yet, but there’s a really interesting review of it in The Weekly Standard by my friend (and occasional NR contributor) Vin Cannato. He writes:

The assault on progressivism started with the writings of people associated with the Claremont Institute, like political scientist Ronald Pestritto, and reached a wider audience with Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism (2007). These writers explain how “progressives” turned away from older notions of individualism and believed that the Constitution was an increasingly archaic document in a modern industrial world. Progressives looked admiringly at Germany and other strong European states and built up an increasingly unaccountable administrative state to run the federal government. According to the Claremont school, liberalism does not consist of the stereotypically touchy-feely brand of politics we usually associate with it. Rather, it is more a corporatist alliance of big government and big business than a movement for reform and social justice. 

The great contribution of the Claremont writers has been reminding people that state power and social control are at the heart of modern liberal thought and that such power is too often dismissive of constitutional restraint and sometimes veers into authoritarianism. However, they miss a turn in liberal progressivism after World War I: The scars of war disabused many Americans of their positive feelings for government. For liberals, the disillusionment was even more pronounced. It was they who had built the state, who hoped to use it to counteract the power of corporations and provide protections for workers and the American consumer. The government, run by educated, middle-class professionals, was supposed to rescue America from an orgy of commercialism and ignorance; instead, it bumbled into a bloody European war, stirred up ethnic hatred at home against German-Americans, and used its new police powers to quash dissent. 

And then after providing a few examples (liberal support for Sacco and Vanzetti etc), he writes:

This is where Fred Siegel comes in. In The Revolt Against the Masses, he traces modern liberalism not to progressivism, but, rather, to the “rejection of Progressivism” and middle-class norms by a group of writers and intellectuals in the wake of World War I. Siegel sees prewar progressivism in a more benign way than do the Claremont folks, as a movement of middle-class reformers “committed to the purification of politics.” He argues that modern “liberalism was created by intellectuals and writers who were rebelling against the failings of the rising middle class” and who were critical of “mass democracy and middle-class capitalism.” 

It’s a very interesting review and it sounds like an interesting book too. But as I read Cannato I’m not sure Siegel’s hard distinction between progressive and anti-progressive liberalism holds up (obviously, I’ve got to read the book to know for sure. But it’s certainly not my view of the relevant history). That seems to be what Vin is hinting at here:

Having said that, Siegel and the Claremont group are each describing one thread of modern American liberal progressivism, which is at once aggressively focused on the expansion of state power to regulate the economy and provide “social justice” (often at the expense of individual liberty), while at the same time being radically civil-libertarian when it comes to personal freedoms, especially those related to speech and sex, and dismissive of bourgeois conventions that might limit individual expression or lifestyle choices. Siegel notes the contradiction when he writes that liberals are “anarchic when allies of the middle class are in power, authoritarian when their own allies are in power.” It is this contradiction that both defines modern liberalism and explains much of its incoherence. 

I guess where I’d disagree with Siegel’s formulation (and Vin’s) is the idea that liberalism is necessarily “radically civil-libertarian” about much of anything. Of course, individual liberals may be civil-libertarians. I can certainly think of plenty who are. But as an intellectual, cultural and political project, I think liberalism is better understood as a competing value system. Think of it this way. Social conservatism is very libertarian about all sorts of things, and not libertarian about other things. Constitutional considerations aside, where it believes the State shouldn’t interfere it is because non-interference advances a cultural agenda of traditional conservatism.

The same goes for liberalism. It celebrates certain lifestyles or cultural choices because it likes the content or fruits of those choices. It is a mistake, it seems to me, to say liberals are libertarian about much of anything. They are outraged about alleged intrusions into our privacy when it comes to the NSA, but utterly dismissive of potentially far greater intrusions into our private lives via things like Obamacare. 

Consider gun rights. Yes, conservatives believe in second amendment rights because they are in the Constitution. But they also value a culture of self-sufficiency, self-defense and a traditional understanding of individual sovereignty. (Relatedly, I think it’s fair to say that hunting culture is inherently conservative and, very broadly speaking, anathema to much of liberal culture). Liberals dislike gun rights, because they detest gun culture (their Constitutional arguments in this regard have always struck me as nearest-weapon-to-hand debating points and rationalizations given their general disdain for Constitutional literalism in nearly every other regard) and see gun violence as a kind of public health issue, which means the State should have an unlimited license to deal with it. The right of armed self-defense also offends the State’s monopoly on violence, and liberalism is a jealous guardian of State power. Liberals talk a great game about being libertarian when it comes to sexual politics, but have no problem politicizing other, equally personal, choices: like what you can eat, or what you can say (I’m thinking of things like campus speech codes). Moreover, the recent push to socialize the provision of birth control (and abortion) is hardly a libertarian enterprise.

Margaret Sanger seems like a good illustration of this point. Sanger was vocal proponent of sexual rebellion. As the founding mother of reproductive rights, she argued vociferously for the de-coupling of sex from procreation. But she was no libertarian. Aside from advocating sterilization of the unfit, she also believed that women should be required to obtain a license from the state before they could have a baby. Anyone who reads her “Code for American Babies” (which she pitched as an add-on to the New Deal codes) who still thinks there’s anything libertarian about her doesn’t know what a libertarian is:

Article 3. A marriage license shall in itself give husband and wife only the right to a common household and not the right to parenthood.

Article 4. No woman shall have the legal right to bear a child, and no man shall have the right to become a father, without a permit for parenthood.

Article 5. Permits for parenthood shall be issued upon application by city, county, or state authorities to married couples, providing they are financially able to support the expected child, have the qualifications needed for proper rearing of the child, have no transmissible diseases, and, on the woman’s part, no medical indication that maternity is likely to result in death or permanent injury to health.

Article 6. No permit for parenthood shall be valid for more than one birth.

This is a cultural and statist agenda. That she often sold it in the language of liberation speaks to the fact that she understood that the American people are receptive to offers of expanded liberty (even, alas, when it comes in the form of a subsidy). Once you keep in mind that the “civil libertarian” aspects of progressivism-liberalism have more to do with marketing a cultural agenda than actually expanded the sphere of freedom, the contradictions Cannato and Siegel write about largely (though obviously not entirely) melt away. 

Oh, a quick addendum, lest I be greeted with the usual scoffing at the suggestion that social conservatism is more libertarian than liberalism.

I would argue — and have argued for years — that mainstream conservatism is vastly more libertarian than liberalism for a number of reasons. I’ll list four. Law, Metaphysics, Economics and the Family.

1) Mainstream conservatism actually takes the Constitution seriously, which means that written into conservatism is a very real limit on what the State can do to advance a cultural agenda.

2) Metaphysically, conservatism draws heavily on Judeo-Christian values, and therefore has a constrained vision about the limits of social and individual perfectibility and the power of the State to achieve such things.   Liberalism, as Bill Voegeli, Thomas Sowell and others have argued, has no such limiting principles because at its core it is an unconstrained vision.

3) Economically, conservatism and libertarianism while not entirely identical overlap considerably. This means we actually believe that there’s a very limited positive role for the State to second guess the allocation of resources in the market place or to spend money better than the people who earn it.

4) Conservatism, unlike liberalism, considers the family a near-sacrosanct institution that should be an oasis from government meddling (barring instances of abuse and the like). The family, for liberals is the last nut to crack. Which is why people like Melissa Harris Perry can talk about “public ownership” of children or in the words of  Hillary Clinton talk about how we need to move away from the idea there is any such thing as somebody else’s child.

I could go on, but I think those four should do for now.


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