After a summer spent in our nation’s capital reading the blowzy literature of a blowzy movement, one of England’s foremost political philosophers expresses his astonishment.
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THE THIRD LIBERAL RESPONSE to the threat of nuclear war is to ask for unilateral nuclear disarmament. This view, widespread in Europe, has a relatively small following in the United States because it is too frankly pacifist. And we all learned during the Vietnam war that pacifism in America is seldom more than a facade: People who called themselves “antiwar” at that time nearly always turned out on closer inspection to be people who wanted North Vietnam to win the war against the South. Similarly, people today who are too discreet to suggest that America should get rid of its military nuclear installations suggest instead that America should get rid of its civil nuclear installations. It is a devious way of undermining American nuclear technology.
The pursuit of this objective brings the liberal Left into a curious alliance with the ecology movement, and adds to their program a strangely dreamlike quality. Tom Hayden’s book The American Future is a no-nukes manifesto, in which sweet thoughts derived from Rousseau and Thoreau are cynically put together with sour ones derived from Marx. Hayden speaks of the need for people to lead a more frugal life, which at least sets him apart from those liberals who go on and on about ending the frugality of people’s lives by ladling out more state subventions and welfare payments. He also looks for a revival of craftsmanship and depicts a world where everyone collects his own energy in solar batteries instead of hooking up to a nuclear-generated public supply. None of this is actually impractical. The Amish sect and other religious communities have long lived successfully in America on such principles; one has only to bear in mind that such societies are intensely disciplined and puritan, and not at all “liberal” in the manner of Hayden, whose attitude is one of pure self-indulgence, combining apologies for the worst totalitarian regimes with proposals for the restoration in the West of a medieval economy.
The fact of the matter is that no one who took seriously the ideals of Thoreau and the simple life of communal frugality could possibly accept any alliance with left-wing liberalism. For evidence of this we may turn to Murray Bookchin’s latest book, The Ecology of Freedom, which provides, among other things, a forceful refutation of Michael Walzer’s gospel of positive freedom. Walzer, for example, in his contribution to the New Republic, says that in the name of freedom, “It is time to defend the welfare state — taxes, bureaucrats, rules and regulations — the whole thing.” Bookchin argues, on the contrary, that freedom requires us to banish the whole thing in favor of a society held together by something other than taxes, bureaucrats, rules, and regulations. Speaking of the human predicament in present-day America he writes:
What has largely replaced the sinews that held community and personality together is an all-encompassing, coldly depersonalized bureaucracy. The agency and the bureaucrat have become the substitute for the family, the town, the neighborhood, the personal support structure of peoples in crisis…With no other structure to speak of but the bureaucratic agency, society has not merely been riddled by bureaucracy, it has all but become a bureaucracy in which everyone is reduced to a functionary. The legacy of domination thus culminates in the growing together of the state and society — and with it the dissolution of the family, community, mutual aid and social commitment.
Whether one agrees with him or not, Bookchin’s writing has an eloquence which recalls that of Camus; and paradoxically, although he would probably prefer to be called a philosophical anarchist, his thinking is closer to that of a nineteenth century liberal than the thinking of most Americans who call themselves liberals today. For one thing, he is still worried about the plight of humanity in general, and not merely that of the inhabitants of the United States.
FOR NARROWNESS OF VISION on the American liberal scene, few can match the feminists. The cause of women’s freedom is, in truth, a serious one. In the Moslem world, millions of women are subjected to greater oppression and humiliation today than they were a generation ago; in Africa, thousands of female children continue to be mutilated by barbarous clitoral circumcision. But this, one discovers from reading their publications, is not what concerns the American Women’s Liberation Movement. The recent tenth anniversary issue of their journal Ms. and an anthology of feminist writings Sisterhood is Powerful are taken up with such matters as the sexual harassment of female office workers in the USA and the reluctance of American fathers to nurse and feed their children while the mother finds fulfillment in a career. The special number of Ms. makes singularly depressing reading for anyone who really cares about freedom. A surface of professionalism is provided by the advertisements for gin, whiskey, cigarettes, automobiles, and a make-up “in a sexy new precision applicator” (Question: Is sexy make-up calculated to provoke sexual harassment in the office?); the actual articles are feeble and trivial. Gloria Steinem, for example, can proclaim as triumphs of Women’s Lib over the past ten years that “Ms.” is now an optional form of address for business and the U.S. government and that there are now more than 30,000 women’s studies courses in U.S. colleges. Other contributors gloat over the number of bridal-gown shows and Miss World pageants that have been disrupted. It is all grimly humorless. It could well be amusing, for example, to see a unit for the history of female homosexuality calling itself “Lesbian Herstory Archives” were it not for the deadly earnest hatred of the male which that silly linguistic innovation bespeaks.
Sisterhood is Powerful affords no relief from the gloom, but it does contain some better writing, and well it might, since literature is a trade where women have long proved themselves the equals of men. But it seems that the editor of this anthology has looked not so much for the voices of women as the voices of unhappy women. Sylvia Plath, whose poems are perhaps the best, committed suicide at the age of thirty. Ellen Strong, who contributes a brilliant essay, is a reformed junkie-prostitute. Of herself Ellen Strong says, looking back on a life that began as a “red-diaper baby” given a vigorously radical upbringing: “Perhaps I am lucky. I had my radical training before becoming a hustler, so that even while involved in the drug, hustling and homosexual life, I still was able to understand some of the dynamics of it.” The reasoning here is revealing: The author does not conjecture that a radical upbringing might have propelled her toward a life of drugs, prostitution, and lesbianism, only that it enabled her to understand it while she lived it. Self-knowledge is the one virtue still recognized. The irony is that self-knowledge is the virtue that American feminists seem in general most signally to lack. Their self-absorption is something altogether different- not a virtue, but a charmless and ruinous defect.
THE FEMINISTS OF THE PAST were wonderful women — working for political ends, such as the right to vote and own property, by political means. The great mistake of the present-day feminists is that of present-day American liberals in general, of seeking to use political means to solve problems that are either social or private. Joseph A. Califano, Jr., in his book Governing America, which is mainly about his thirty months’ experience as Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in the Carter Administration, remarks that HEW was “often charged by law to solve human problems that other institutions- the family, the schools, the economy, local governments — had failed to solve or even to address.” Califano ought not really to have been surprised. HEW was brought into being to take the place of those other institutions.
I suppose it would be generally agreed that it was the development of HEW which gave the USA the dubious honor of considering itself a “welfare state.” It is probably not so well realized how much the powers and functions of the state in America were at the same time enlarged and extended. Califano recalls that HEW in 1980, after he had been in charge of it, “accounted for more than 36 per cent of the total federal budget.” This amount was more than $200 billion, a greater sum than the whole national budget of any other country in the world, save the USSR. A detailed comparison of the budget of Carter’s Administration with that of the Mitterrand government in France — that is, of a socialist government which includes Communist ministers — would, I believe, startle some Americans by showing how far the United States had by 1980 moved to the Left: For example, whereas Mitterrand allocated 4 percent of his budget to health, Carter allocated 30 percent; Mitterrand allocated 1 percent to presidential administration, Carter 9 percent; and both governments allocated more or less the same proportions of their budgets to labor, veterans, science, agriculture, housing, and urban development. Americans still pay a greater proportion of their earnings in taxes than Frenchmen do. U.S. expenditure on health consumed 4.5 percent of the GNP in 1950 (about $12.7 billion); by 1970 it had risen to 7.2 percent of the GNP, and by 1980 it had risen to 9.5 percent or some $1,067 a person. With all this money being drawn from the taxpayers’ pockets, liberals have still to admit that the welfare state does not work.
Mark Green, for example, protests in his Winning Back America, “Despite Medicare and Medicaid, there are 34 million Americans who lack full-time year-round medical coverage.., and some 70 million who are medically indigent — unable to afford adequate coverage yet not poor enough for Medicaid.” Mr. Green seems to think that the answer lies in a more “comprehensive” national health scheme, but if that means more state control and intervention, the experience of Great Britain must refute his expectations. The British National Health Service, however admirable in its origins when the traditional independence of the professions was preserved, began to deteriorate rapidly as soon as the system became bureaucratized and when uncontrolled immigration put excessive pressure on its resources.
People would do well to reflect on Professor Bookchin’s observation — coming as it does from a source that no one could describe as “Reaganite” — that bureaucracy has eaten into the soul of American society. If Alexis de Tocqueville were to return to the United States today and could write a sequel to his Democracy in America, what title would he need to give it? I suspect it would have to be Democracy, Bureaucracy, and the Judiciary in America since democracy has to compete all the time against those two alarmingly powerful organs of government.
Mr. Califano calls his book Governing America. Perhaps a foreigner like myself may be allowed to ask, what was Mr. Califano doing governing America, spending 36 percent of its federal budget? Nobody elected him. The only connection he could claim to have with democracy is that a democratically elected President appointed him and a democratically elected Senate approved of the nomination. But it is very clear from his book — an honest and sympathetic record of a liberal intellectual’s life in office — that Mr. Califano did not think of himself as the servant of the President or of Congress. He saw himself as a minister of the government with a duty to serve the public interest as he best understood it.
From what Mr. Califano tells us, it seems that it was Carter who was made to feel bad when he disagreed with any members of his cabinet. Here is one of Mr. Califano’s anecdotes:
“UN Ambassador Andrew Young began to speak…the President’s face reddened. He interrupted Young: ‘You have repeatedly embarrassed the administration. I was told this again and again at Camp David…You have caused embarrassment to me by calling Britain the most racist country in history…saying Cuban troops in Angola were a stabilizing influence…saying there are hundreds of political prisoners in the United States.’”
Califano adds that Carter was so angry that he “had killed any other meaningful comment.” He does not tell us that Carter had the strength of will to fire Andrew Young; indeed we know that Carter took a very long time to undo that preposterous appointment. But at least the system allowed the President eventually to rid himself of Andrew Young — and indeed also of Mr. Catifano, for at the very top the bureaucrat has no tenure. The trouble with the American judiciary is that its members cannot be removed so easily. And the judiciary since World War II has taken an increasingly large share of what Mr. Califano calls “governing America.” How, for example, did American democracy settle the questions of egalitarian schooling, of abortion, of prison reform, of pornography? The answer is that American democracy did not decide; the American courts decided. Even if some judges are elected by popular suffrage, the judiciary cannot be a democracy. The allegiance of the judiciary is not to the people’s will but to the law, and the law is what the judiciary says it is.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
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