Conrad Black: The Decline of Liberalism

[Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, both published by PublicAffairs Books.]

American liberalism, synonymous today with big government, the exact opposite of the liberalism of Edmund Burke and other British champions of individual liberty, arose essentially from the use of the state to alleviate the most severe economic inequalities in society. In Great Britain this began in the competition between the Liberal and Conservative leaders, William Ewart Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli, between 1865 and 1880, and among major European powers with the quest for an unthreatening working class with the founder and first chancellor of the German Empire, Otto von Bismarck. Britain had a great battle over pensions under the chancellor of the exchequer just before the First World War, David Lloyd George.

The assassination in 1914 of the distinguished French socialist leader Jean Jaures, for advising against a headlong plunge into general war, was a grim harbinger of what was to come: ineffectual socialist pacifism that facilitated the advance of totalitarian regimes of hitherto undreamed of evil. Between the wars, in the aftermath of the hecatomb of World War I and through the Great Depression, there was a general drift to higher taxes, a more extensive social safety net, and the rise in Britain and France of democratic socialist parties to principal opposition status and a few turns at government (Ramsay MacDonald and Leon Blum).

In Germany, where the picture was much complicated by the bitterness of defeat in war and rampant inflation in its aftermath, the democratic socialists were outflanked and outmatched by the Communists, the National Socialists, and the principal upholders of Germany's fragile democratic heritage, the mainly Catholic Christian democratic parties that were revolted by the authoritarian paganism of the Nazis and the totalitarian and atheist materialism of the Communists. The triumph of the Nazis and the dithering and waffling of France and Britain between conservative appeasers and pacifistic socialists, when crowned by the most cynical alliance in world history between Hitler and Stalin, infamously catapulted Europe into the Second World War.

From 1865, while the more advanced European countries were slowly conceding a larger share of public policy concern and fiscal largesse to improving working conditions, tighter restrictions on commercial fraud and exploitation of consumers, wider franchises and education, and some concessions to organized labor, and financing these reforms with increased taxation on higher incomes, the United States was in the full flower of economic growth, fueled by a colossal 60-year wave of immigration: economic growth rates generally exceeded 10 percent annually for most of that time. In such a climate, nearly 28 million immigrants arrived in America between the Civil and First World Wars, helping almost to triple the country's population from 33 million to 98 million.

In this heady atmosphere, while there was labor unrest, individualism and pure capitalism reigned, and American exceptionalism had little time for what was generally considered proletarian, foreign-originated sniveling on behalf of the self-pitying indolent. Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson made a few gestures to restrain monopoly, assure a stable money supply, and discourage fraud in vital industries such as food processing and packaging. Several of these attitudes showed twitches of meliorism in respect of the working class, but it didn't go much further. Immigration was rolled back in the 1920s. Federal taxation of incomes was only made constitutional in 1913.

What is called liberalism in America today had scarcely seen the light of day in the United States until Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated president on March 4, 1933...

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