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June 15, 2007

Modern Disagreements: Reviews of Freedom's Power from the Right (2)

(Note: This is the second in a series of thematically organized posts responding to four reviews of Freedom’s Power by critics on the right. The links to the reviews appear at the beginning of the first of the responses, “Divided by a Common Heritage?” )

At the crux of the right-of-center reviews of Freedom’s Power are familiar conservative objections to modern liberalism focusing on such matters as order, tradition, and the power of the state. In its classic form, the conservative critique applies across the board to liberal enlargement of the state’s social and economic role at least since the New Deal, if not the Progressive era. In the modified form characteristic of neoconservatives, the critique accepts the liberal innovations from the first half of the twentieth century but rejects moral and political excesses dating from or associated with the 1960s. The neoconservative critique comes in a mild form (in this case, Gary Rosen’s review in the Wall Street Journal) and a harsh form (in this case, Fred Siegel’s review in Democracy). The first rebukes liberalism for its ambitions; the second holds liberalism culpable for the radical left and claims that the experience of the Sixties and after demonstrates the deep flaws of liberalism—or at least of liberals.

Peter Berkowitz raises much of the traditional critique, though not in a traditional way. The key problem of my book, as he sees it, is a failure to recognize the contribution to liberalism itself of conservatives’ special concern for order, tradition, and excellence, all of which are necessary to counterbalance the interest of the “party of progress” in liberty and equality:

One hypothesis Starr does not consider is that over time, changing conditions in America may have made the changing conservative outlook more salient to the preservation of freedom. Indeed, he gives little credence to the conservative concern that progress in freedom and equality has a tendency to erode the foundations of social order, to erase knowledge of moral and religious tradition, and to impair the cultivation of excellence. And so he doesn’t ask whether conservatives, who take a special interest in these matters, might be well-positioned to collaborate with left-liberals in the formation of policies that strengthen constitutional liberalism in America by counterbalancing liberalism’s extreme tendencies. Which is a pity, because many aspects of his book could contribute to the forging of such an alliance.
I don’t disagree with Berkowitz on what I take to be his central point here. Freedom itself is in jeopardy in a disordered society that has no moral bearings, and the party of “progress” (as he defines it) may often need the countervailing perspective, pressure, and testing that conservatives provide. But this depends on what kind of order and tradition conservatives uphold. If it is a hierarchical social order that denies equal rights, respect, and dignity to all members of society, there is little possibility for collaboration. And if conservatives also insist that public policy must leave unfettered what is clearly one of the major sources eroding our common values—that is, the free market—the potential for collaboration will also be limited. But I agree that much of what government does must rest on a moral foundation that spans political divisions. As I write in the book:

A liberal government, like any other, must operate on the basis of substantive values .... Its policies regarding public health and welfare are necessarily based on moral conceptions of human well-being. A liberal education is properly aimed at cultivating integrity and other aspects of character as well as intelligence. A liberal politics is premised on the belief that citizens and their representatives are capable of virtues such as reasonableness and a willingness to entertain new ideas. A liberal state cannot legitimately compel those under its authority to worship the same way, mouth an official ideology, or follow a preferred way of life. But neither can a liberal state legitimately be neutral between disease and health, sloth and effort, deceit and integrity, cowardice and courage. There are excellences and virtues that a liberal society must promote if it is to survive. Far from being silent on the good, liberalism
is intensely concerned with it, though that concern is not always fully expressed or best conveyed through the state.
McClay in Commentary gives the classic conservative critique about state power. He writes that an adequate account of liberalism

... would especially require engaging the questions posed by the conservative critique of democratic liberalism. Is it really possible to use Hamiltonian means to achieve Jeffersonian ends? Is it not rather all too possible that the expansion of state power may result not chiefly in greater individual liberty but in the creation of a vast web of clients dependent upon that power, and the sacrifice of a vibrant civil society to a regime of unresponsive courts and unelected bureaucracies? As easy as it is to tick off the inequities to which laissez-faire economics can give rise, is there not an equivalent obligation to speak seriously of the inequities and trade-offs involved in the steady extension and intrusion of government?
McClay’s reference to Herbert Croly’s formulation—Hamiltonian means to achieve Jeffersonian ends—takes us back to the Progressive era, so I interpret McClay’s critique to apply to the full gamut of state activity since that time, including labor regulation (for example, of hours and working conditions, minimum wages, collective bargainig rights), antitrust law, environmental protection, social insurance programs (unemployment insurance, Social Security, Medicare), and much else. Although McClay complains that I don’t answer conservative objections, I do try to anticipate them by emphasizing that modern liberalism also calls for stronger checks on arbitrary uses of state power, more robust guarantees of rights to personal autonomy, and other countervailing measures to limit precisely the kind of dangers that McClay mentions.

But let us first take up McClay’s basic question: How can a Hamiltonian use of the state’s authority advance the Jeffersonian end of freedom for all? Here are a few examples:

1. Risks such as unemployment, sickness and disability, and impoverishment in old age threaten to destroy the ability of people to live independently. Modern liberalism’s government programs help to preserve the freedom of individuals as well as the security of their families at the most vulnerable moments in their lives.

2. Modern capitalism generates a severe imbalance in economic power, giving corporations, if unregulated, the ability to dominate individuals whether as workers, consumers, or investors. The liberal regulatory state is aimed at preventing corporations from excercising that kind of domination. Some of these regulations have a protective aim, shielding individuals from abuse, while others enhance their ability to make choices under conditions that more closely approach free and informed consent than those otherwise existing in the market. Requirements for disclosure of corporate information about consumer product ingredients, unsafe working conditions, and financial performance are particularly good examples of government action that enhances free choice.

Yet does the enlarged role of the state produce “a vast web of clients dependent upon that power, and the sacrifice of a vibrant civil society to a regime of unresponsive courts and unelected bureaucracies”? These risks are real, and some kinds of policies are dangerous precisely because of them. We have a variety of means, however, to combat those dangers:

1. Fiscally, modern liberal policy is concentrated in programs such as Social Security governed by rules and formulas that make benefits a right for those qualifying, sharply constrain the discretion of government officials, and thereby minimize the chances for a personalized dependency on government.

2. While the state’s role in economic regulation has grown, its role in moral regulation has diminished. The charity reformers of a century ago were actively concerned with the moral supervision of beneficiaries. Through its advocacy of civil liberties, modern liberalism has rejected this kind of condescending moral tutelage and the moral censorship that went with it. Stronger protections of civil liberties have reduced the scope of state intervention in aspects of thought, conscience, and private life where personal autonomy matters most.

3. It is simply wrong that a “vibrant civil society” has been sacrified as a result of government’s enlarged role. There is a healthy complementarity between civil society and the state in America. Much of the social spending in the United States has long been channeled through private nonprofit organizations. Civil society in America draws on public funds, which it combines with philanthropy—the one strengthening the other, not negating it.

4. Finally, modern liberalism calls for a broadened social system of checks and balances, involving a vigilant independent journalism, empirical research testing the effects of policy, and the relentless scrutiny of the claims of competing interests in the public sphere. (For the full discussion of these countervailing checks on the state, see particularly, in Chapter 6, “The Modern Discipline: Pluralism in Full.”)

While these mechanisms are far from flawless, the result is not simply to expand the state, but also to increase the constraints upon it. The strategy of modern liberalism has been to find means of government economic and social intervention that advance the goals of economic growth and stability, equality, and freedom without micromanaging either the market or civil society. And, by and large, liberal government has been able to do this—as some neoconservatives are willing to recognize, at least in regard to the measures from the first half of the twentieth century.

In his Wall Street Journal review, Rosen focuses on what he calls “the practical effects, and moral and social costs, of modern liberalism's most expansive ambitions.” Beginning with a thumbnail sketch of the key elements in twentieth-century liberalism (as I present them in the book), he grants that conservatives now accept a lot of what modern liberalism has brought:

In 20th-century America—from the Progressives to the New Deal, the Great Society and beyond—moving the liberal project forward demanded a new, more egalitarian agenda: active measures to redistribute wealth, social programs to provide the“basic requirements of human development,” expanded rights for blacks and women, and a general “deregulation of private life” in matters of sex and self-expression. As for foreign policy, it entailed a new emphasis on international institutions and cooperation, thus extending American power by accepting certain checks on its use.

To a degree, of course, most of these more recent liberal innovations now form a part of the American political consensus, even for conservatives. After all, no one on the right is agitating to abolish the income tax or the Department of Health & Human Services, to repeal the civil-rights laws, or to withdraw the U.S. from NATO and the U.N. (well, maybe the U.N.). What can be found on the right is a set of longstanding concerns about the practical effects, and moral and social costs, of modern liberalism's most expansive ambitions. Our own left-right divide, for all its partisan fury, is in many ways a family quarrel within the history of liberalism itself.

Mr. Starr seems at moments to recognize as much. He concedes that liberalism went off course during the 1960s in its uncritical embrace of anti-poverty programs, affirmative action, judicial activism and the "rights revolution." But he sees modern conservatism as a reactionary or self-interested "backlash," not as a reasoned critique ...
Just to be clear on this point: I don’t repudiate antipoverty efforts or the rights revolution, which I believe made America, on the whole, a more just society. Rather, I try to provide a balanced assessment of the achievements and limitations of the reforms of the Sixties, which has to include an acknowledgment of the respects in which they did go “off course.”

But this kind of balanced assessment isn’t enough for someone like Siegel, who wants to conflate all of modern liberalism with what he sees as its worst expressions: left-wing extremism, welfare, and a hide-bound adherence to failed policies. Siegel also objects to my historical account of how modern liberalism developed in the first place. According to Siegel, I “barely” discuss “the intellectual origins of liberalism as we know it today. Starr sees liberalism as an early twentieth-century reaction to the growth of monopoly corporations under the regime of limited-government liberalism. He’s right as far as that goes. But modern liberalism was much more than that. ...”

Well, of course, it was much more than that--and anyone who bothers to read what I wrote will see that my account of modern liberalism (Part II of the book) discusses far more than antitrust policy. I approach the intellectual and political changes at the turn of the twentieth century, not as Siegel does, only from the standpoint of American history, but as a transatlantic development embracing the New Liberalism in Britain and Progressivism in the United States, and I deal with a wider range of ideas (about democratic citizenship and education; the position of labor and the role of government; law, culture, and civil liberties; and internationalism and foreign policy). Siegel suggests that I fail to grasp that Progressivism involved a repudiation of the earlier constitutional liberalism: “The notions of continuity Starr insists on would have seemed odd to men like Herbert Croly ... who saw reverence for the constitution as a form of ‘monarchism.’” But I am quite clear on this point. In their reaction against laissez-faire, the Progressives went too far to the opposite extreme. “The Progressives,” I write, “were moral as much as social reformers, little concerned about free expression or other individual rights, as became all too apparent during World War I and its immediate aftermath.” Rather than simply extending Progressivism, modern liberalism, particularly in its concern for civil liberties, developed partly in reaction against it.

But Siegel’s deeper grievance concerns my treatment of liberalism’s relationship with the radical left. He quotes Lionel Trilling: “In any view of the American cultural situation, the importance of the radical movement of the Thirties cannot be overestimated.” Actually, the importance of radicalism can be overestimated—especially by former leftists like Siegel, who now declares: “What any rescue party for liberalism needs to come to grips with is why liberals, most notably in the 1930s and 1960s, were so vulnerable to the extremism and repeated quests for salvific politics that Starr has defined away.”

I have “defined away” the issue that Siegel raises only in the sense that I make a sharp distinction between liberalism and the radical left, and I do not believe that liberalism can be held responsible for left-wing extremism any more than I would hold conservatism responsible for fascism. During the 1930s, the United States had a liberal government by my definition, and it did not fall prey to extremism. During the Sixties, we also had a liberal government, and for all its faults, it also did not fall prey to extremism. People who were true to liberal principles and kept their nerve during these years did not become extremists. That some other people lost their nerve, not to mention their common sense, is not an argument against liberalism.

Siegel says that I never “come to grips” with the relationship of liberalism to the left, but we have a different sense of what the relationship has been. I distinguish liberalism from the left, but I admit to complexities that are no part of Siegel’s understanding:

The relationship of American liberalism to the left has always been ambivalent. While sharing some common ground with socialists and populists, liberals have favored a more circumscribed role for the state and often deplored the unwillingness to compromise, sentimental delusions, tendency to romanticize “the people,” susceptibility to authoritarianism, and occasional violence on the left. Unlike the socialist ideal, the liberal conception of equality does not call for a classless society. Economic inequalities are acceptable in a liberal framework if over time they redound to the advantage of all, including the poor, and are not so great as to undermine democracy. At times liberals have worried that the radical left would alienate potential supporters of liberal causes or, if left-wing third parties ran their own political candidates, that they would splinter progressive votes (as in the 2000 presidential election). Nonetheless, there has also been a productive tension between liberals and the left. Radical movements have often been quicker to take up the cause of the socially marginalized and sometimes broken through barriers to reform that liberals mistakenly accepted as unchangeable. As liberalism is a practical philosophy of government and politics, liberals are perennially vulnerable to charges from the left that they have violated sacred ideals for the sake of profane compromises—and sometimes the accusations are justified. Even when they are not, the mere existence of an uncompromising left has indirectly afforded liberals the rhetorical advantage of representing themselves as the reasonable center. Liberals sometimes lose their patience with the impatience of the left. But in attempting to defeat entrenched interests, liberalism without a left is missing a punch.
I am not sure whether it was a passage like this one that led to the accusation in the title of Siegel’s review: “Blinded by the Left.” Let the reader judge the condition of my political eyesight.

Siegel’s tendency to equate liberalism with what he sees as its worst expressions is again evident in his discussion of welfare:
... shunting generations of people off into welfare wasn’t an accidental byproduct of liberal policy, but its very expression. Starr may disagree with this argument, but he does his readers a disservice by not even addressing it.
There he goes again. In a section of the book called “Did Liberalism Go Wrong in the Sixties? (where I take up race and the rights revolution, antipoverty reform, and the changes in social and moral life in that era), I have an extended account of what went wrong with welfare. In fact, welfare did begin as an “accidental byproduct of liberal policy.” As I point out, it originated as a provision in the Social Security Act of 1935 that was expected to furnish assistance for widows and their children. No one at that time foresaw the changes in family structure that took place after World War II. Far from being the “very expression” of liberal policy, welfare was an exception.The core social-insurance policies of twentieth-century liberalism are based on earnings-related entitlement: rights gained through work. The core idea of the early War on Poverty, “equal opportunity,” also had nothing to do with welfare. But, as I argue in the book, just as many beneficiaries became trapped in welfare, so many liberals became trapped defending it, seeing no feasible alternative to preventing destitution. And they had much reason to be suspicious of conservatives like Charles Murray, who although they focused on welfare also wanted to eliminate the social-insurance and equal-opportunity programs that do not have welfare’s incentive problems. I write that “part of the conservative critique [of welfare] was correct,” but that the failure to provide benefits such as health coverage on a universal basis helped to generate welfare’s perverse incentives:

By aiding the nonworking poor while doing little for low-income workers, the safety net programs created incentives that discouraged work and personal responsibility. In some states with generous welfare benefits, unskilled mothers could not expect to earn as much if they held a job as they could receive from the state if they didn’t work. The failure to pass universal health insurance also produced an anomaly: the poor on welfare were eligible for Medicaid, while workers with low-wage jobs often had no health coverage. Other advanced countries avoided these incentive problems through universal health insurance and child allowances that parents did not lose by working or getting married. In this respect, the limitations of the American welfare state were partly responsible for welfare’s perverse incentives. By providing greater benefits to poor people who didn’t work than to poor people who did, welfare inverted the reasonable moral expectation that individual effort will receive its due reward.
Were liberals impervious, as Siegel maintains, to welfare’s failures? Some were, but others who saw these problems clearly, such as David Ellwood of Harvard, were able to devise an alternative, earnings-support model for antipoverty policy, centered on the Earned Income Tax Credit, which rewards work and responsibility. The passage of an increased EITC at the beginning of the Clinton administration was a crucial step in laying the basis for change. Yes, it is true that many liberals, including Ellwood opposed the welfare-reform legislation Congress passed in 1996. It was a tough call: the legislation did not have the funding for child care and other services that many analysts believed would be necessary to enable former welfare beneficiaries to go to work. But, as it turned out, Clinton was right to sign the third version of the bill (after vetoing the first two and thereby preserving food stamps and Medicaid as entitlements); the strong economy of the late ‘90s made the transition easier and faster than many had feared.

Here is how I conclude the discussion:
Welfare was the most grievous domestic policy failure of 1960s liberalism. The correction of that failure did not require cutting off all government support of the poor, as some conservatives wanted. But it did require fundamentally redesigning that support to change the incentives and satisfy the public that work and responsibility would be expected and rewarded. There was less novelty in the reforms of the 1990s than it seemed. The president who first characterized cash assistance to the poor as a “narcotic” was not Reagan but Franklin D. Roosevelt, who did so in the context of a plea to Congress to create three million jobs. FDR structured his most successful program, Social Security, as an earned entitlement; to this day Americans qualify through work, and their benefits reflect what they have earned. Lyndon Johnson never intended the War on Poverty to expand welfare; the aim was “a hand up, not a handout.” Replacing welfare with an employment-oriented, earnings-support system was therefore entirely in line with the liberal tradition. During the long battle over welfare, liberal advocates for the poor could have avoided a great deal of damage to their own cause by keeping in mind what the originators of the New Deal and the War on Poverty understood from the start.
What is puzzling about Siegel’s review is that it’s not clear that he disagrees with my assessment of welfare. What he objects to is my effort to distinguish welfare from liberalism more generally. Siegel seems stuck in the neoconservative gears of the 1970s, determined to keep liberalism wholly identified with the sins of that era. The world has moved on, but he hasn’t. This was his formative disillusionment, and it is highly personal. At the end of the review, he writes, “The ideal of liberalism Starr promotes is worthy of admiration, but our actually existing liberals are not likely to be governed by it.” At least he find something admirable in the book, but apparently no effort to reconstruct liberalism will satisfy Siegel as long as it depends on liberals, a deeply incorrigible lot.

As Siegel’s review illustrates, some of the right-of-center criticism of Freedom’s Power stems from different readings of recent history and contemporary experience. And while most of those differences concern American developments, there is also a conflict over views of contemporary Europe and the European Union. I turn to that subject in the next post.

Paul Starr

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