The Corner

Point 1

Jonathan writes: “That’s because liberals do not support bigger government as an abstract moral good in the way conservatives support smaller government as an abstract moral good.”

Jonathan has never offered any historical or philosophical evidence for this assertion. It’s always a bunch of projection about how he thinks liberals think based on the way he thinks he thinks. It’s all very convenient. So let’s get out of Chait’s head for a moment.

Is the above true of the founding fathers of American liberalism? Objectively and absolutely not. Herbert Croly, and the rest of the gang who launched Jonthan’s magazine, saw not merely “big government” but an all-encompassing State as an abstract moral good. Woodrow Wilson emphatically believed that the people must “marry their interests to the state.” John Dewey believed that the government must, as a matter of first principles, “direct” the people. Indeed, individuals are “nothing in themselves.” Virtually all of the founders of American liberalism believed this sort of thing. The “collective” came first. It was prior to the sort of mere “fact-finding” Jonathan boasts. Fact-finding was frosting on the cake. “[W]e must demand that the individual shall be willing to lose the sense of personal achievement, and shall be content to realize his activity only in connection to the activity of the many,” declared Progressive social activist Jane Addams. Richard Ely — the founder of the American Economic Association and the guiding intellect of the Wisconsin school of Progressivism — proclaimed that “God works through the State in carrying out His purposes more universally than through any other institution.”

All of this held true for the mid 20th century New Deal and Great Society liberals. FDR’s economic bill of rights — a lodestar for TNR contributor Cass Sunstein — tried to rewrite the constitutional order by replacing our negative rights with positive economic rights. In the 1930s the Committee of Social Studies of the American Historical Association proclaimed that “The age of individualism and laissez faire in economy and government is closing and a new age of collectivism is emerging.” The Great Society promised to provide “meaning” to every child. Intellectuals in the 1960s sought to “medicalize society” with the liberal intellectuals and bureaucrats serving as the physicians. Bill Clinton admitted that he more or less starts from the assumption that Americans will spend their own money “wrong” if they’re allowed to keep it. Pretty much all of the liberals mentioned above invoked William James’ “moral equivalent of war” as a rationale for how to organize society. If you’re going to start from the premise that the entire society needs to be organized into a unitary, militarized, mass of cogs ruled and directed by the state, it seems to me that “fact-finding” is a secondary concerns. Or if you think that’s too harsh, all one has to do is listen to the rhetoric of liberals who believe that doing things “together” is a good in and of itself. “Unity” is a positive value to liberals, even if it isn’t to Jonathan. Here’s Howard Dean describing the 1960s:

“Medicare had passed. Head Start had passed. The Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the first African American justice [was appointed to] the United States Supreme Court. We felt like we were all in it together, that we all had responsibility for this country…. That [strong schools and communities were] everybody’s responsibility. That if one person was left behind, then America wasn’t as strong or as good as it could be or as it should be. That’s the kind of country that I want back.”

According to Jonathan, this ideological preference for group action and collective solutions never poisons liberal fact-finding. I think that’s patently absurd. Sure, many liberals believed they were looking squarely at the data, but they did so in a context of profound collectivist group-think. Even his free-trade example — which is far more convenient to his argument than, say, welfare or affirmative action — fails him. He says some liberals look at the facts and come to different conclusions than he does. He writes: “…studies show that free trade raises incomes for both countries, but they also show that it can create losers among certain classes of workers. I’m generally willing to accept those tradeoffs. But those liberals who aren’t willing aren’t wrong, they just less willing than me to throw some industrial workers out of a job for the greater good.” Well, there you go. Liberals rely on something other than “just the facts” to settle important questions — “the greater good.” Only for some weird reason, Jonathan doesn’t see the concept of “the greater good” — as defined by fellow liberals – to be anything of significance. No ideological principles could ever stow away inside something called “the greater good” and no “true liberal” is defined by his or her understanding of such a concept. Silly, Jonah.

But Chait’s basic mistake is that he sees government intrusion as not only morally neutral but neutral in all other ways as well. He mocks and ridicules conservatves who think government intrusion has costs. But it is an empirical fact that government intrusion has costs. “Impingement on freedom” isn’t just pie-eyed philosophy it’s economics too. But both philosophically and economically, the value of “freedom” in his calculations is exactly zero. That in itself is not a sign of impartial green-eye-shaded fact-finding, but a sign of his own ideological biases. Whatever weight you assign freedom is an ideological decision as much as it is an economic one.

Which leads us to….

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