The Corner

Re: Making Liberals

A reader asks for a clarification:

Can you explain why your reader’s vision of liberality as “we ask government to do what we as individuals would do if we were rich and powerful like the government” translates to you as “what we like to think we’d do if we were all-powerful” and therefore “narcissistic”? I was under the impression, for example, that the government imprisons people so that I don’t have to. And it wages wars so that you don’t have to.

Me: A full explanation would require a book. But here’s a partial explanation, given with full knowledge that it’s a bit fast and loose.  A classical liberal in the tradition of Locke would agree that government should imprison people etc. But that’s a basic social contract obligation, like national defense. No conservative disagrees with this sort of understanding of the state’s functions. The modern progressive liberal believes in more than negative liberty. He argues that the state must do good for people, give them things, opportunities, and even, as in the case of Hillary Clinton, John Dewey and the Great Society liberals “meaning.” The state is there to do good — like a King or God-head. There are countless category errors and false assumptions to the idea that the state can play such a role or that it should in the first place. It’s narcissistic because it assumes that the government has the ability to make me whole or happy and if only someone like me were in charge the government would do the right thing because I am the measure of all good things.  The problem (or a problem) as I’ve said before, is that the State cannot love you the way a parent or even a King can. It is a sprawling mechanism bound to make countless errors and in the process of trying to do right by one select group or individual, it will of necessity do wrong to some other group or individual. There are no policy solutions only policy trade-offs. So, if you think the State should fix the lives of group A it will — as a basic fact of economics — come at the expense of group B. Many liberals acknowledge this. They just see no problem with taking my money to do what they think God or some abstract conception of Good or Progress requires them to do. In short, liberals think they have sufficient knowledge and moral authority to either take from me things I do not want to give or to tell me how I should live my life. See, for a small recent example of where such thinking leads, Bloomberg’s New York.

Update: Oh, since it’s relevant, some might find my latest column a good example of what happens when people assume the State is the source of all do-goodery.

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, will be released on April 24.

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