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June 12, 2007

Divided by a Common Heritage? Reviews of Freedom's Power from the Right (1)

(Note: This is the first in a series of posts responding to four reviews of Freedom’s Power by critics on the right, or at least on my right. The reviews, in order of appearance, are Peter Berkowitz, “Proudly Liberal,” Policy Review (April-May 2000); Gary Rosen, “Brussels on the Potomac: Paul Starr tries to redeem American liberalism,” Wall Street Journal, April 12, 2007; Wilfred M. McClay, “The Right Left?” Commentary, May 2007; and Fred Siegel, “Blinded by the Left,” Democracy, Summer 2007.)

Anyone who writes a book attempting to reconstruct liberalism does not expect conservatives to read it and declare, “Oh my God, he’s done it.” But before Freedom’s Power came out, I thought that at least some conservatives would find some aspects of the book to be attractive. And that has turned out to be so.

Often emphasizing the shared ground between liberals and conservatives—or as he prefers to put, between the two “parties” within the larger liberal tradition—Peter Berkowitz has some generous words about what Freedom’s Power achieves:
[Starr’s] book demonstrates that liberals whose allegiance is to the party of progress have much of which to be proud. The book aims to “offer a historical interpretation of the liberal project and a defense of its modern inclusive and egalitarian form.” Its success in both the interpretation and the defense is rooted in an appreciation that liberalism combines rights with responsibilities, the need to create power with the need to constrain it, and large aspirations with practical solutions to urgent political challenges.
In the Wall Street Journal, Gary Rosen ends his review as follows:
Mr. Starr deserves credit, especially from his fellow Democrats, for consistently framing his argument in terms of American strength and purpose, at home and abroad. I somehow doubt that his own proposals will do much to further these ends--do we really need a "Young America" program to jump-start our apathetic teens?--but the language itself is refreshingly optimistic and forward-looking, even Reaganesque. It is, if nothing else, a first step in the worthy effort to rehabilitate the "dreaded 'L' word."
Although “Reaganesque” would not have been my own description—why not “Kennedyesque”?—I take it to be the ultimate compliment from a conservative.

Of course, Berkowitz and Rosen disagree with key elements of my argument and conclude that the book does not succeed in its central ambitions. Still, these are the kind of critical reviewers that any author should be glad to have: thoughtful, serious, and—not least important—generally accurate about what I say in the book.

I hoped that conservatives would read Freedom’s Power with interest partly because I thought many of them would find two aspects of it to be of particular value in informing their own perspective. The first is the argument in Part I of the book about classical liberalism’s theory of power. And the second is the effort throughout the book to understand the development of liberalism as a response to the pressures of the international system and particularly of war and state-building. These are also ways in which my historical account of liberalism differs from many others, liberal and conservative, which typically focus on rights and liberty and often describe liberalism as if it developed only in response to social and political forces internal to each country.

Conservatives are especially inclined to regard the constitutional tradition and classical liberalism as being almost wholly concerned with limiting power. But from its origins in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, constitutional liberalism has been a method, I try to show, not just for constraining power, but also for creating it. I emphasize that some forms of constitutional limitation contribute to the overall, long-term strength of the state (for example, by increasing its reliability and credit-worthiness). And in Chapter 2 (“The Creative Reluctance of Liberal Statecraft”), I try to explain why, despite originating in an effort to control arbitrary power, the two classical liberal revolutions—1688 in England, 1776 in America—led to the establishment of what became in succession the two most powerful states in the world. In both cases, I argue, the postrevolutionary governments quickly confronted international challenges (England in the 1690s, America in the 1780s) that induced them to make striking innovations in the machinery of power that proved effective over the long term in both war and peace.

Berkowitz appreciates that the approach I take here is substantially different from the usual conception:

In contrast to innumerable and proliferating academic discussions of the liberal tradition, which never get beyond examining the origins and scope of individual rights, and in opposition to the polemical charges hurled at liberalism by twentieth-century fascist and communist opponents that it promotes political weakness, Starr highlights constitutional liberalism’s “discipline of power.” The need to discipline power grows out of the liberal tradition’s understanding that “power is essential to liberty, yet power is also inimical to liberty.” The more familiar aspect of the discipline of power involves the imposition of constraints on government to protect citizens from tyranny and to defend the state itself from its own capricious or reckless decisions. The less familiar aspect — but central, Starr stresses, to constitutional liberalism as it developed in Britain and America — involves the creation of the conditions for the growth and more effective use of government power ...
I do not think that this view of constitutionalism and power ought to be abhorrent to conservatives. Part of my agenda in Part I of the book, however, is to establish a line of continuity between eighteenth- and twentieth-century liberalism both as to the content of liberalism and the forces that impelled its development. From the beginning, liberalism has involved the creation of what I call a “strong and capable constitutional state,” but throughout its development, as war and other crises have driven that process, there has been an ambivalence—a “creative reluctance,” to which conservatives have often contributed--that has tested state expansion and counterbalanced it with checks and balances and increasingly robust protections of individual liberty. And it is this combined movement driving liberal states toward a higher balance of power and liberty that is the central dynamic generating modern liberalism.

This is a substantially different view from the one that many early twentieth-century progressives had. Emerging from the era of laissez-faire, they self-consciously repudiated classical liberalism and the constitutional tradition (as it had been understood in the era when the Supreme Court regularly overturned economic regulation). But that conception, reflected in many historical accounts, mistakenly identifies laissez-faire with the entire tradition of constitutional liberalism. In fact, as a great deal of historical work has demonstrated, the Founders were not apostles of the free market, and the early state governments in America intervened extensively in the economy. Moreover, in the larger sense that I emphasize, early liberalism proved to be an extraordinarily effective strategy for state-building, not simply for state limitation.

That some reviewers either reject or ignore these arguments isn’t surprising. McClay just restates the conventional view of classical liberalism as limited government. And, in a comment typical of the tone of his review, Siegel sarcastically characterizes the first part of the book as a “primer-like exercise about the inevitable march of the liberal spirit” (despite my explicitly rejecting the idea that there is any inevitability to liberalism, much less to the “liberal spirit,” whatever that might be). His review never mentions, much less addresses, the book’s argument about the causal centrality of international politics in the development of both constitutional and modern liberalism. Perhaps Siegel, who has written primarily about New York City politics and contemporary history, knows all about British and American political development and state-building in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and expects readers to be so familiar with these subjects that they would find it tedious to be reminded of them. Or perhaps he just doesn’t take a discerning interest in subjects so remote from his own preoccupations.

Liberals and conservatives share a common intellectual and political heritage, but they are divided as to the ownership of the inheritance and what properly falls within the estate. But there is even greater disagreement about how the liberalism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries became the liberalism of the twentieth century and today—and whether that change represented progress, or came at too great a cost. It is to those modern disagreements that I turn next.

Paul Starr

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