January 19, 2005

Liberalism: Propagation via Redefinition

Marc Comtois
Prompted by Don's recent post, I visited the Claremont Review of Books page and read the excellent essay by William Voegli that explains the "how" and "why" of the apparent aimlessness of today's liberal Democrats. Voegli reviews their confused reasoning as to why they lost in 2004. Starting from the original, knee-jerk, that's-no-way-to-get-votes, "stupid voter" excuse, then passing quickly through the predictable "bad candidate" excuse, liberals seem to have settled on the present "we need a narrative" solution. As Voegli explains, this is nothing new and the liberals were saying the same things shortly after Jimmy Carter lost. After detailing a bit of the history of modern progressive liberal thought, Voegli seizes upon the heart of their problem: They have no master plan with a finite goal to be reached.
Liberals have a practical reason why they won't say what they ultimately want, and a theoretical reason why they can't say it. The practical reason is that any usably clear statement of what the welfare state should be would define not only a goal but a limit. Conceding that an outer limit exists, and stipulating a location for it, strengthens the hand of conservatives—with liberals having admitted, finally, that the welfare state can and should do only so much, the argument now, the conservatives will say, is over just how much that is.

Keeping open, permanently, the option for the growth of the welfare state reflects the belief that the roster of human needs and aspirations to which the government should minister is endless. Any attempt to curtail it would be arbitrary and wrong. . .

This gets us to the theoretical reason why liberalism cannot incorporate a limiting principle or embrace an ultimate destination. Given humankind's long history of sorrows, most people would consider securing "abundance and liberty for all," ending poverty and achieving racial justice, a pretty good day's work. For LBJ it was, astoundingly, "just the beginning."

Liberal intellectuals who drew up the blueprint for the Great Society regarded peace, prosperity, and justice as achievements that were not merely modest but troubling. They lived with a strange dread—that if Americans' lives became too comfortable the people would decide that the country had been reformed enough, thank you, even though liberals knew there was still—always—work to be done. In 1943 the National Public Resources Board, which FDR hoped would chart the course for a renewed, enlarged post-war New Deal, advocated the recognition of various welfare rights, including the right to "rest, recreation and adventure." In a speech he gave to the Americans for Democratic Action in 1948, the group's first chairman, Wilson Wyatt, rejected "the view that government's only responsibility is to prevent people from starving or freezing to death. We believe it is the function of government to lift the level of human existence. It is the job of government to widen the chance for development of individual personalities."
As Voegli points out, it is this constant liberal redefinition and bar-raising of what makes a well-developed person, and by extension a "perfect" society, that keeps their political engine running. Remember, as the enlightened elite, they know best what is best for the rest of us, after all. As such, there is no end to what government is "morally" required to do because they constantly re-define the ideals they deem important. One check to this growth, to their ability to use government to "help" us, is the size of the burden that the taxpayers are willing to bear. However, on this point, Voegli worries
The threat goes beyond taxes, spending, borrowing, and regulating that increase without limit. It culminates in a therapeutic nanny state that corrupts both its wardens and its wards. Convinced that they are intervening, constantly and pervasively, to assist the growth of people who would otherwise stagnate, the enlighteners don't need coercion to enfold the people in a soft totalitarianism. The objects of this therapy, meanwhile, may grow accustomed to it, and ultimately prefer being cared for to being free; or conclude that being free has no value apart from being cared for.[emphasis mine]

Lyndon Johnson gave one other memorable speech in 1964. At a campaign rally in Providence he climbed onto his car, grabbed a bullhorn, and summed up his political philosophy: "I just want to tell you this--we're in favor of a lot of things and we're against mighty few." The Democrats' problem is not that they, like Seinfeld, are a show about nothing. It's that they are a show about everything, or anything. (At one point, the Kerry-for-President website referred to 79 separate federal programs he wanted to create or expand.)
Well, here in Rhode Island, it certainly seemed that the citizenry embraced Johnson's stance when he spoke that day in Providence. Yet, that was the past, and, with leaders like Cranston Mayor Laffey and Governor Carcieri, attitudes are changing.