Fred Siegel: Insatiable Liberalism

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Fred Siegel is professor of history and humanities at The Cooper Union. He also taught at Columbia University, Queens College, Empire State College.]

President Obama's vertiginous fall from political grace, and the corresponding ascent of the Tea Party movement, have been the subject of extensive discussion. Strikingly, the account that sheds the most light on these developments mentions neither. William Voegeli's new book, Never Enough: America's Limitless Welfare State, was written just before Obama's outsized liberal aspirations provoked the Tea Parties to emerge. But it provides far and away the most substantial explanation to date of our current political condition.

Liberalism's most acute critics such as University of Virginia political scientist James Ceaser emphasize the centrality of crises, real or manufactured, in expanding the size and reach of the liberal state (as in the recent case of the supposedly imminent global warming catastrophe). In Never Enough, Voegeli, a visiting scholar at Claremont McKenna College's Henry Salvatori Center and a contributing editor of this journal, points to a complementary concept: liberalism, he argues, "lacks a limiting principle." This boundlessness, as it might be described, is familiar to Americans across the country who have watched, for instance, secondary school costs and college tuitions grow at roughly twice the rate of inflation for a quarter-century now. This boundlessness generates some of the apprehension that animates the Tea Parties. As a friend asked me rhetorically—referring to the fact that the failing schools in Washington, D.C., spend $28,000 a year per pupil while Harvard tuition costs $34,000 a year—"When will enough be enough?" The same question could be asked regarding federal and state spending. Liberals, Voegeli explains, sometimes avoid trying to answer these sorts of questions by execrating as greedy racists those who ask them.

Liberals found a warrant for expansive government in their reconceptualization of the American republic. The Federalist had grounded government and rights in the imperfections of human nature. The proto-liberals of the Progressive era, who had drunk deeply of Darwinism, disposed of the notion of an inherent human nature. Like Woodrow Wilson, they were done with "blind" worship of the Constitution. Their concept of rights flowed from the felt necessities of history as it unfolded. History required, as Wilson argued, that "[t]he government of a country so vast and various must be strong, prompt, wieldy and efficient." Highly trained, disinterested experts, the products of university education, were to wield this powerful instrument untethered from Madisonian restraints and guided by visionary insight into the direction of history. Of course, notes Voegeli, "the dubious authority asserted by those who claim they can see farther over the horizon than the rest of us is, among other things, a way to make their own political preferences cast a bigger shadow."

* * *

Those exercising the new science of government would (the Progressives argued) break with tradition through social experiments. And they would be bound, as a matter of disinterested intellectual honesty, by the outcomes of those experiments. In his 1932 Oglethorpe University Address, Franklin Roosevelt famously called for "bold, persistent experimentation" as a matter of "common sense." He promised that he would try one method and "if it fails, admit it frankly and try another." But when the corporatist program he adopted with the National Recovery Administration (NRA) failed to stimulate the Depression economy, it was ended not by an administration willing to acknowledge its errors, but by the Supreme Court. The New Republic's Jonathan Chait still peddles this shopworn argument, insisting that because liberalism is "rooted in experimentation and the rejection of ideological certainty" "everything works on a case-by-case basis." But as Voegeli notes, there is from the NRA to AFDC no known example of this adherence to the experimental method.

If the outcomes disappointed, Progressives could always claim good intentions. This now hoary claim received its classic formulation in FDR's 1936 "Rendezvous with Destiny" speech to the Democratic National Convention. "Divine justice," he insisted, "weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted on different scales. Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference." But as the writers of The Federalist clearly understood, self-interest so overwhelms evidence that no program will be deemed an unambiguous failure as long as it provides employment for those who work in it. That last category—those who work in government—has proved crucial for the Progressive project.

Neoliberals such as Charles Peters of the Washington Monthly tried in the 1980s and '90s to provide liberalism with a limiting principle. For Peters, neoliberals were Democrats who were "against a fat, sloppy and smug bureaucracy." "We want a government," he insisted, "that can fire people who can't or won't do the job." For a time President Clinton straddled the line between neoliberals and statist liberals, explaining that "more government is not an aim in itself." But the Clinton presidency, for all his electoral success, was for liberals merely an interregnum. Clintonism was denounced for failing to expand the welfare state, which was deemed the true purpose of an increasingly liberal Democratic Party. After Clinton, Voegeli explains, liberalism returned to the belief that "every genuine need corresponds to a right to have that need addressed." Or in other words, "every problem deserves a program," and since there is no end of problems, there must be an ever expanding public-sector work force. In the first decade of the 21st century, public-sector workers, with their propensity to expand the state out of their own self-interest, became central players in the Democratic Party.

After John Kerry's defeat in 2004, Michael Tomasky, then-editor of the liberal monthly the American Prospect, tried to introduce the limiting principle of "the common good" into liberalism. As a writer for the Village Voice and New York magazine, Tomasky had observed firsthand the self-destruction of David Dinkins's liberal mayoralty (1989-93) in New York, and he was disturbed by the tendency of rights claims to trump all other considerations. The rights of criminals and welfare recipients, he noted, flourished even as the city declined. Putting a more positive face on his call for the politics of "the common good" in the American Prospect, Tomasky argued that Democrats have "a more than respectable roster of policy proposals" but they lack "a philosophy, a big idea that unites their proposals and converts them from a hodgepodge of narrow and specific fixes into a vision for society." But Tomasky's efforts to promote a "common good" liberalism were overwhelmed by the interest-group energies unleashed by the 2004 Howard Dean presidential bid, energies which in turn helped propel Barack Obama to the White House....

Read entire article at The Claremont Institute

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Michael Schack - 6/16/2010

The Tea Part Movement has brings forth a good deal of emotion both in the supporters and opponents. The tea movement is not an isolated event. A grass roots organization springing up in the Mid-West was also started by local non political types who become dedicated to making change. The prohibition movement of the early 1900’s had some similar traits. The Prohibition movement started with a housewife Elizabeth Jane Trimble Thompson of Hillsboro, Ohio. Fed up with what she saw as the drunkenness, en men not going or to work or coming home she and a few women of the town asked to speak at her church. Never having given a speech she became too nervous to speak. As she walked off the dais she kneeled down in the aisle and sang “Give to the wind your fears.” With the women she came with accompanying her. That became their strategy. They would visit saloons, drug stores (also sold liquor) and hotels. Enter and sing hymns. It set off a torch. The Women’s Christian Temperance Movement was formed. You could measure their effectiveness by January and February a year after they formed liquor revenues were off by $300 thousand dollars. and that from just 2 districts in Ohio. More and more women were joining. Suffragettes linked with the WCTU.
Membership consisted of religious moralists, women’s rights, religious moralists, progressives, and xenophobes. As each WCTU was independent goals began to become wider in their scope. Some chapters lobbied for prison reform; free kindergartens; less restrictive clothing for women; and an 8 hour work day. This lead to some confusion about their purpose. They also successfully lobbied for a compulsory “scientific Temperance” education. School district text books on this had to be approved.
To describe the power the movement they could pick out candidates for office from either party and influence outcomes. Finally their power was demonstrated by the writing of the 19th amendment to the Constitution. The Prohibition Amendment made what was considered an individual right since the founding of the country, Illegal.