One of the distinguishing aspects of Freedom’s Power is that it deals with British and American liberalism as a single political tradition, albeit developing along different branches. The interplay between them has continued through all phases of the history of liberal thought and political activity. England’s Revolution of 1688-89 provided the template for the American Revolution, and the influence of British ideas on the American Founding was immense (regardless of whether one characterizes that influence as republican or liberal). Likewise in the nineteenth-century rise of laissez faire—and in its later reversal on both sides of the Atlantic. Britain’s New Liberalism of the 1890s and early 1900s had its parallels in American Progressivism, and Keynes and Beveridge were a direct influence on the New Deal. Even in recent decades, there have been mutual influences and parallel tendencies—for example, between Bill Clinton’s and Tony Blair’s efforts to adjust their parties’ policies in line with a neo-progressive, “third way.”
Strangely, much of this interplay is missing from historical accounts that focus on the development of liberalism in one or the other country. One of my objectives in writing Freedom’s Power was to bring the two sides together (though my publisher refused my offer to revise the Introduction and the final chapter for the British edition to address the book more directly to a British audience).
I gave attention to the British story because it’s essential to understanding liberal ideas and institutions, not because of any personal roots or experience; to my regret, I’ve spent little time in Britain and have few connections in its academic or literary worlds. For that very reason, I’ve been especially gratified that the book has received some serious attention from British reviewers. And in the near future, I’m going to be visiting Britain twice—to speak first at the Anglo-American Historical Conference at the University of London in early July and then at a conference on “comparative liberalisms” organized by Timothy Garton Ash in Oxford in January 2009.
Reviewing Freedom’s Power in the December 2007 issue of the European Journal of Sociology, Michael Freeden, professor of politics at Oxford and the author of several books about the history of modern liberalism, writes:
... this is the best short book on liberalism that has been written for a very long while. It is wonderfully concise, packing in insight and good sense into almost every page; it hardly misses a trick in assessing the variegated nature and impact of the traditions operating under the umbrella term liberalism; it combines a strong historical purview with an acute sense of the fine points of liberal theory; the author does not talk down to his readers; and it is punchily and elegantly written. All told, it is plumb in the tradition of L.T. Hobhouse’s Liberalism, published almost a century ago, and written with the dual purpose of spreading out liberal wares in all their richness and of providing a tract for the times—in this case for an American, rather than a British, public.
Hobouse’s Liberalism (1911) was actually my model for the book. It seemed to me that no one had recently done for liberalism what Hobhouse had done nearly a century ago—given a concise and persuasive account of liberalism that made sense of the continuities as well as the changes in the tradition.
In his review, Freeden gives a British perspective on American liberalism with which I have little disagreement:
Liberalism is a European product but, of course, its American incarnation has had its own moments of glory. The American constitution is, on the whole, an exemplary liberal document, remarkable for its resilience and prescience as one of the oldest working constitutions in the world. Under the name of progressivism, American liberals attempted to match the British new liberalism, though with a more pronounced patriotic edge. Roosevelt’s New Deal was a further instance of what a regulatory liberalism could do, even if its interventionism pushed liberal sensibilities to their limits. In the 1960s and 1970s US liberals showed impressive flair and courage in their pursuit of civil rights and women’s equality, securing international acclaim—a momentum currently, though one would hope temporarily, halted in its tracks. But, as Starr demonstrates, American liberalism has always been at its weakest in social policy, operating within an individualist and ethnocentric political culture highly suspicious of an egalitarian and redistributionary ethos, and of the frequent dalliances of liberalism with a mild collectivism. Instead of the helping hands offered by social democrats to liberals in the British and Scandinavian cases, a reactionary conservatism—of the likes long relegated to Europe’s sidelines—blunted the drive of American social liberalism. When the fingers of blame and fury are now pointed from outside the Western world at the US as the (satanic) representative of Western civilization, Europeans are prone to mutter to themselves that civilized Western thinking and conduct is mainly to be found east of the Atlantic. That gulf identifies the real American exceptionalism. Although Starr is bent on retrieving significant liberal practices in the US as a service to an uninformed citizenry, he tellingly does not mention the durability of the death penalty in the US—a practice that alone sets that country apart from all other current Western societies, and constitutes an acid test of the liberal texture of a country’s moral mettle. Though punctured by a short hiatus in the 1960s and 1970s, judicial murder is once again neither cruel nor unusual, and no liberal President has dared to voice public opposition to it.Freeden’s main disagreement with my book has to do with what he views as a “lack of clarity” that comes from my view that in the past several decades, Europe has been moving in a liberal direction despite the tendency of Europeans to identify “liberalism” with right-of-center free-market ideas. Here is how he introduces the criticism:
One point of correction: I never characterize the Churchill of World War II as a liberal, except in writing that Franklin Roosevelt and Churchill in 1941 “negotiated a statement of Anglo-American aims known as the Atlantic Charter, setting out the principles of a liberal world order.” And only a few pages later, however, I write, “While Roosevelt viewed the Charter’s language as a commitment to decolonization, Churchill rejected that interpretation.”
In a bravura survey of the history of English and American liberalism, Starr argues that the mixing of power (England) or the ring-fencing of certain rights (US) both gave rise to vigorous states. He is also insistent, and rightly so, that an account of liberalism cannot rest content with an isolated investigation of its ideas and theories but must incorporate liberal practices. On the whole, that task is very well discharged. Starr relates the redistributionary push of liberalism to economic growth policies, to earnings support, to the encouraging the free flow of information through bourgeoning technologies, to the regulation of pollution, and to international multilateralism.
But in emphasizing those features, a lack of clarity creeps into two areas. The one concerns a running boundary problem between the traditions and thought-patterns of liberals and the conduct and policy of states that are very roughly, and often questionably, assigned to the liberal domain. Take Europe as an example. In countries such as France, Germany and Italy, the liberal tradition has become almost invisible to their inhabitants and even to their intelligentsia. Liberalism is either considered to be limited to a right-of-centre market variety or hidden—in the French case—amidst strong republican or solidarist traditions that have promoted liberal ideas sans le nom. Those latter enclaves, past and present, notwithstanding, the continental political spectrum is packed too tightly for a party-political liberalism, even for its intellectual agenda, to find sufficient breathing space. Starr, however, verges on the other extreme. For him the entire European Union project is a liberal one. But is for instance the British state, led by New Labour, a liberal state? Its ostensible liberal credentials have been dented no less by its unitary moralism in the name of a national community than by its campaign against terrorists. At best it offers a hybrid between liberal and social authoritarian practices. Are states led by Christian democrats, or Gaullists, liberal states? Is Japan, forsooth, a liberal state (p.131)? Larger magnification might have allowed for more intricate configurations to emerge.
This leads to the second, related, problem area: Starr’s predilection for identifying as liberal any belief system that has some liberal components, without considering whether it has accumulated sufficient critical mass to be entitled to membership of the liberal family. Constitutionalism may have been liberalism’s gift to the world, but to embrace it no longer singles out a liberal from a conservative or a social democrat, even from some forms of populism. And when Starr writes perceptively that dissenting voices in Eastern Europe revitalized a pan-European awareness of human rights, civil society and democracy, he then over-eggs the argument by claiming that ‘the intellectuals and movements that … ultimately overthrew communist rule contributed to a renewal of liberalism all over Europe’ (p. 186). Rather than aver that socialists, populists, conservatives, greens—and the Churchill of World War Two!—are all liberals now, it would be more nuanced to suggest that liberal ideas have seeped into non-liberal viewpoints and groupings while performing very different work in each of them, and while being contained by a variable range of non-liberal notions that put a different gloss on ideas of liberty and democracy. Thus for many European conservatives the ‘social market’ is a method of ensuring not only justice but order; for many European greens the free individual choice component of democracy needs to be constrained by scientific expertise about the environment; and for many European populists liberty is harnessed to the unfettered expression of national values. Earlier Starr astutely noted the changing rankings liberals accorded to various liberties (p. 86), a comment that could have been extended to the latter chapters of his book. In sum, liberal ideology, liberal states, and liberal features shared with other ideologies are three analytically distinct categories.
I don’t disagree with Freeden that certain liberal ideas have been adopted so widely that an acceptance of them no longer distinguishes liberals from nonliberals. But I do hold to the case that the European Union is evidence of a liberal ascendancy on the continent, the result of which is a “hybrid ... perhaps best thought of as social-market liberalism.” Here is the relevant passage from Chapter 7:
The creation of a European liberal order on a continental scale has been the quiet, underappreciated revolution of our time. Differences in terminology ought not to diminish or confuse the significance of this achievement. Many Europeans use the term “liberal” interchangeably with “neoliberal” to refer to a political economy that relies on the logic of the market. The contrast is usually with a social-democratic or social-market economy in which the state plays a stronger role in social welfare, and bargains struck between representatives of organized business and labor provide a high level of economic coordination. This distinction highlights important differences in the workings of capitalism between the Anglo-American economies, on the one hand, and those in Nordic and continental Europe, on the other. Whether closer to the free-market or social-market models, however, all of these societies are liberal, constitutional democracies, and in recent decades even the social-market countries have adjusted their economic policies in a market-oriented direction. The resulting hybrid is perhaps best thought of as social-market liberalism. Recent attempts to update social democracy as the “third way” or “neoprogressivism” also typically emphasize such characteristically liberal ideas as competition, choice, and pluralism. In its intellectual and political life, Europe has become distinctly more liberal than at any time at least since 1914. Throughout the continent, except for the Balkans, aggressive nationalism has given way to a politics of conciliation, and the major political parties operate within the bounds of a constitutionalist consensus. Nowhere is this general turn toward a continental liberal order more apparent than in the pooling of sovereignty in the European Union, with its commitment to the free movement of capital, goods, and labor as well as the rule of law, democracy, and human rights.A second review from Britain, by John Lloyd in the Financial Times, begins:
Liberalism is a series of paradoxes. It weakens autocratic power, and strengthens the democratic state. As it builds a strong state, it limits that state’s power over its citizens. Classic, pre-19th-century liberalism held out the promise of rights for all, but in practice denied them to the majority. As liberal democratic practice developed in the 20th century, state intervention to provide welfare grew - and liberals became less censorious, and more respectful, of private behaviour. Private life became more truly private while public life, the practice of government, ecame more open.
Paul Starr has in his comparatively slim book, Freedom’s Power, provided an account of the historical flow and present state and travails of liberalism that is limpid in brevity and graceful in judgment. As an evocation of the central importance of liberalism to the modern world, and the shape it takes in democratic states, it will be very hard to beat.
He gives two warnings, which are apposite. First, that politics in the US (and less dramatically elsewhere) is increasingly dominated by the rich - who are now demanding more political power. And, linked to that, the fact that citizens are disengaging. “For some time,” he writes, “the imperative has been clear. Liberalism has no way to advance without a majoritarian politics capable of restoring the kind of inclusive democratic partnership that was the basis of modern liberalism’s achievements.” American liberals seeking the key to a “majoritarian politics” had better read this.
Where Lloyd disagrees with me is the Iraq War. “Here,” he writes, “[Starr] lapses from a tough-minded to a conventional liberal posture, and it is the most unsatisfactory part of the book. The arrogant, deeply illiberal and incompetent conduct of the war is a fit subject for any pen, liberal or conservative, but the responsibility of the critic is to consider the object of the attack - the regime of Saddam Hussein - and give some account of why refraining would have contained the threat.” In fact, as we now know, Saddam Hussein was already boxed in at the time of the war and did not represent a threat to the wider world, whereas the war itself allowed jihadists to find support in Iraq and has served to strengthen Iran. Refraining from an invasion would have been the wiser course
Finally, there have been two other reviews from Britain. One of them, by Stein Ringen, professor of sociology and social policy at Oxford, is unfortunately beyond my linguistic abilities, as it has appeared in Norwegian (the TLS apparently having turned it away). The other comes from The Economist and reflects the particular slant of that magazine. The reviewer notes that the first part of Freedom’s Power argues that from its beginnings in the eighteenth century, liberalism proved to be a basis for a strong and capable government. Then the reviewer writes:
Two things to note here. First, counterposing “freedom” and “equality” as two separate and distinct values is not, in my mind, a helpful way of understanding either one. Freedom means little without equality; equality little without freedom—although it is certainly possible to pursue one value in so partial and single-minded a way as to undermine and potentially destroy the other.
“Freedom’s Power” is worth reading for this first part alone. However, Mr Starr’s opponents could be wrong on their history but correct that freedom and equality are now in conflict. Arguing to the contrary—that the two ideals reinforce each other—is by no means impossible. But to do it convincingly is a tall order that would need a much broader conceptual and geographical framework than Mr Starr’s.
In his later chapters the timescale shortens and the policy detail grows denser as Mr Starr limits himself in effect to the contemporary United States. ... It ends, alas, sounding more like erudite and thoughtful notes towards a platform speech at a Democratic Party convention.
But the reviewer in the Economist also points to a genuine problem in the book. It is inherently difficult to write a general essay on liberalism and its history, while also addressing the immediate concerns of the moment. In Freedom’s Power, I have tried to do both, and there inevitably will be some readers who find the theory and history too remote and other readers who find the contemporary concerns too parochial. I have tried to connect the long trajectory of liberal ideas and institutions to today’s challenges in the United States, hoping to encourage a robust sense of liberal possibilities after a dreary era of political frustration. As I mentioned, I would have liked to revise the book for a British audience—indeed, I still hope someday to do an international edition that is less tied to American developments. But if readers from Britain and elswhere focus on the core of the book, I hope they will see that the arguments have broader reach and relevance. Perhaps, in their own work, they can pick out the elements that make most sense and pick up the story where I have been unable to go.
June 15, 2007
(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, liberalismMcClay in Commentary gives the classic conservative critique about state power. He writes that an adequate account of liberalism
is intensely concerned with it, though that concern is not always fully expressed or best conveyed through the state.
... 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.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.”
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 ...
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.
June 12, 2007
(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.
April 15, 2007
The April issue of The American Prospect carries a condensed version of some of the key arguments in Freedom’s Power. Triumphal conservatism had its moment. But, as I write in the piece,
No one, not even conservatives, doubts that conservatism is now in deep trouble:My article, “Why Liberalism Works,” attempts to outline that philosophy and relate to the challenges we face today. The full version of that argument is laid out in the book, Freedom’s Power.
divided, uncertain of itself, and with a lot of explaining to do for the fiasco
in Iraq. Yet the exhaustion of conservatism is not tantamount to a liberal
revival. The Bush administration's manifest failures and the Democrats' triumph
in the 2006 elections have created a new opening for liberal argument. The
question is now whether liberals can make their case not just for specific
policies and candidates but for an alternative public philosophy.
January 10, 2007
Modern liberalism has extended and revised the classical liberal understanding of freedom and its relationship to power. Through various strategies of exclusion and evasion, the classical liberals denied equal rights to unpropertied men, racial minorities, and women. Modern liberals have called for a democratization of citizenship--for equal civil rights and political rights. They have also come to understand freedom as involving a right to basic requirements of human development and security necessary to assure equal opportunity and personal dignity.
To guarantee those rights, liberals have supported an increased economic and social role for the state, but at the same time, they have insisted on stronger safeguards against arbitrary power. Modern liberalism calls, therefore, not just for broader social protections, but also for more robust guaratees of civil liberties and equal rights and greater transparency of governmental decisions.
In addition, whereas conservatives have treated private business corporations as analogous to individuals and deserving of the same liberties, liberals have regarded corporations as a phenomenon of power, requiring control like government itself.
In all of these respects--the extension of democracy and equal rights, the assurance of basic requirements of human development and economic security, stronger protections of civil liberties, and the regulation of business--liberals have come into conflict with conservatives.
So, too, have differences emerged in international relations, where liberals have been more supportive than conservatives of a system of international institutions and norms intended to thwart aggression and war and to protect human rights.
The split between modern liberals and conservatives involves fundamental differences in the conception of freedom and its relationship to equality. But the conflict also involves different theories of power. Modern liberalism has been a way of meeting the demands of power as well as justice. As I put in Chapter 1:
[L]ike constitutional liberalism, modern democratic liberalism seeks to promote
the creation as well as the control of power. Rights for the unpropertied,
racial minorities, and women are not simply a check on the powerful; full
inclusion also promotes a more creative and productive society. The expanded
sphere of state action has enabled liberal governments to contend successfully
with war and other crises and to promote economic growth and stability. In
disciplining the market as well as the state, the central liberal objective has
been not just to circumscribe power in private hands, but also to make the
market more productive within its appropriate scope. A liberal international
order promises to conserve and augment national power as well as properly
In describing these ideas as a theory of freedom’s power, I don’t wish to give the impression that liberals first formulated the theory and then carried out policies consistent with it. Rather, modern liberalism emerged during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in a series of ad hoc responses to the challenges of war, economic crisis, social degradation, despoliation of the environment--and political competition. Liberals are committed not just to high ideals, but to making them work in practice. In that sense, “theory” has played a more limited role in liberal politics than it has in the more ideologically driven spheres on both the left and the right.
In speaking of theory, therefore, I mean only to refer to the interrelated political ideas that gradually emerged as characteristic of liberal thought. Liberals continue to disagree about the deeper philosophical basis of these ideas--and some would not admit the creation of power as a relevant consideration. But liberalism would not be around today if the liberal democracies had not satisfied the imperatives of power and overcome the threats of totalitarian regimes and economic collapse. And liberalism will not be around tomorrow if it does not continue to summon the power to meet new threats to our freedom, prosperity, and survival.
January 9, 2007
I follow the historical convention of dividing liberalism into two broad phases of development: classical liberalism, dating from the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and modern democratic liberalism, beginning in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In discussing the classical phase, I emphasize the priority of classical political liberalism--constitutional liberalism--as it was elaborated in the work, for example, of Locke, Montesquieu, and the American founders. Classical economic liberalism--the liberalism of laissez-faire--was largely a nineteenth-century development. Modern liberalism rejected laissez-faire but built on the political foundations of constitutional liberalism.
From its beginnings, rather than simply being antistatist, constitutional liberalism offered a strategy for creating legitimate and effective governmental power. Indeed, the two classical liberal revolutions--1688 in England and 1776 in America--led to the rise of what became successively the two most powerful states in the world. But how did constitutionally limited states ever become more powerful than states with unlimited powers? A key part of the answer lies in the concept of an enabling constraint. As I put it in the Introduction:
By binding those in power, making their behavior more predictable and reliable,and thereby increasing the trust and confidence of citizens, creditors, and investors, constitutionalism amplifies the long-term power and wealth of a state. Constitutional liberalism imposes a further discipline by dividing power within the state and between state and society and requiring public disclosure and discussion of state decisions—all of these serving as limits on the ability of officials to pursue their own private interests and enabling the citizens to control their government. Liberalism wagers that a state so constructed can be strong yet constrained—indeed, strong because constrained. This is the classical theory of freedom’s power.
Chapter 1 adds the following:
[Constitutional] constraints protect citizens from tyranny, but that is not all they do. They also serve to protect the state itself from capricious, impulsive, or overreaching decisions. A central insight of liberalism is that power arbitrarily exercised is destructive not only of individual liberty but also of the rule of law. Limiting arbitrary power encourages confidence that the law will be fair and thereby increases the state’s ability to secure cooperation without the imposition of force. Limiting the scope of state power increases the likelihood of its effective use as well as the ability of society to generate wealth, knowledge, and other resources that a state may draw upon in an hour of need. That, at least, has been the theory of power—of freedom’s power—implicit in constitutional liberalism.
The enabling constraints of a liberal constitution work in a variety of ways. Guarantees of rights, including property rights, enable individuals to plan their lives and make long-term investments. Guarantees that the government itself will abide by its laws make it more likely to repay its debts and enable it to borrow at lower interest rates (a source of advantage to both Britain and the United States at key points in their history). Freedom of public discussion generates new information that makes it more likely that a government will correct its mistakes. The transparency of representative government makes liberal states more reliable partners for other countries and better able to assemble and sustain international alliances.
In other words, it is a mistake to believe that freedom comes only at the expense of power; constitutional liberalism is a method of using freedom to build a society and state capable of exerting immense power. I am not suggesting that liberalism is the only method of power creation or that it will always triumph over the illiberal alternatives. But for the past several centuries, it has been a surprisingly effective strategy for both the creation and the control of power.
The classical liberalism of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, had major limitations. It was not democratic: the great majority of people were excluded from political rights. Although it called for limits on arbitrary power, including equality before the law, classical liberalism left most people without an equal chance in life, and it had no effective means for dealing with the economic dislocations and periodic panics and depressions in an industrializing capitalist economy. These problems threatened the stability and survival of liberal states, Only by overcoming these problems was liberalism able to become the dominant strategy for building successful modern states.
Next: the modern liberal theory of freedom’s power