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Whatever Happened to Liberalism?

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.

By From the December 1982 issue

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Liberalism in America is thought at the moment to be unpopular. Its actual situation is much worse, for to judge from what is being written and said, by the leading liberals in the United States today, a once great system of political thought has degenerated into a sorry mess of contradictory opinion, prejudice, fantasy, passion, and trivia. How is this to be explained? Before his death in 1979, David Spitz, a distinguished American political philosopher who specialized in the theory of liberalism, wrote a number of essays which have now been posthumously published, exploring what he called the "authentic tradition" of liberalism and trying to ascertain how that tradition had come to be, as he put it, "sidetracked."

His argument was that liberalism, in its essentials, is a doctrine about liberty, a doctrine which assigns priority to the freedom of the individual, and notably to freedom from the constraints, of the state. This was the liberalism of John Locke and -- in some at least of his writings—of John Stuart Mill. David Spitz believed that this was still the only genuine form of liberalism, and the credo he devised for liberals in the twentieth century began with the maxim: "Esteem liberty above all other values, even over equality and justice."

Spitz did not, however, think that liberalism could, or should, be brought unaltered from the nineteenth century into the twentieth. Earlier liberals had fashioned their political programs in contrast with, and usually in opposition to, conservatives. But liberals were no longer in the same situation. "The decisive issue for our time," Spitz wrote, "is not Mill versus Burke, but Mill versus Marx; hence liberals and conservatives stand together, at least in the here and now, in defense of democracy against dictatorship."

ONE MUST, ALAS, question the wording of this important utterance. Liberals and conservatives ought logically to stand together against Marxism and Marxist dictatorship, and in some parts of the world they do. In America, on the other hand, this is manifestly no longer the case. American liberalism continues to define itself only in opposition to conservatism, and far from rejecting Marx, seems only to add more and more pieces of Marxism to the flimsy structure of its own ideology.

The process can, I think, be traced back to the introduction into liberalism of the "social question" -- the idea of using government as a means to resolve problems in the economy and improve the living conditions of the poor and disadvantaged. Translated into practical politics, this idea necessarily entails the enlargement of the state, of that very entity which traditional liberals had located as the central adversary of freedom. The whole idea, to put it plainly, is a socialist idea; and whether desirable or undesirable, it cannot be reconciled with the original liberal principle of keeping the state's powers to a minimum.

Nevertheless it has come about that the great majority of American liberals have taken over this essentially socialist concept without admitting that they have ceased to be liberals. They have not even assimilated the idea discreetly; they have reached the stage of proclaiming it as their very own. For example, in a liberal manifesto "A First Draft for 1984" published in the New Republic on March 31, 1982, we read: "historically, government . . . is the instrument by which the nation's people can guide their destiny and express their principles." And later in the same manifesto, Professor Michael Walzer alleges that "the demand that government 'get off our backs' has a short history. It is the ideology of modern selfishness." It is strange that a professor who made his name as a student of seventeenth-century political thought should imagine that the demand for minimal government was first heard only recently. But Professor Walzer is certainly not lacking in sophistication. He has expressed as adroitly as any American liberal the theory of "positive freedom," according to which, however much "negative freedom" may be diminished by the intrusion of government, "positive freedom" is actually increased by state activity which enables certain groups to enlarge their options, even at the expense of reducing the options of others. One has only to add that this doctrine of "positive freedom" was advanced, far more systematically, by Marx.

It is the lack of system, the absence of coherence, which strikes any impartial reader of the American liberal literature that is currently being published. It betrays an unwillingness to think clearly or think thoroughly, or even to think at all about certain subjects. Take the case of Indochina. Some ten years ago American liberals could speak of almost nothing but the sufferings of Cambodia under U.S. bombs: Cambodia's infinitely greater sufferings under different Communist regimes seem not to engage the American liberal's interest. It is as if America alone concerned them, or rather, as if the criticism of America were the only exercise that mattered. The old universal perspective of traditional liberalism has disappeared.

There are even liberals who now claim that Soviet militarism is an American delusion, a product of what they call America's "Cold War mentality." Here we can discern another striking characteristic of current American liberalism. Not only does it define itself by its opposition to everything conservative, it defines itself by its opposition to everything distinctively American, whether it is the America of Reagan (described by Walzer as "the chief spokesman of the ideology of selfishness") or the America of Carter (accused by Torn Hayden in The American Future of "planning to begin a war while the American people were literally asleep").

This attitude is the more unfortunate in view of the world situation in which we all now live and the Soviet strategy which threatens our peace and freedom. After Stalin's death the Soviets ceased to pin any hopes on people in other countries admiring the USSR or regarding it as a model to imitate. The Soviets ceased even to attach great importance to foreign Communist parties, so that the emergence of "Eurocommunism" and other manifestations of independent thinking among Party supporters broke no hearts in Moscow. In pursuing their ends, the Soviets since Stalin have relied almost entirely on building up hostility to "Western imperialism" rather than on fostering love for themselves; for this purpose the soft-thinking American liberal is infinitely more useful than any card-carrying Communist.

Before World War II the Soviet Union produced films designed to win sympathy for Communism in the outside world -- and very good films they were: The Battleship Potemkin, Bed and Sofa, We From Kronstadt, and others enjoyed a great success in the West. But in recent times, the Soviets have turned aside from this activity. Their propaganda purposes are better served by Western films which knock the USA: Missing, for example, which depicts American government officials as murderers, or The China Syndrome, which portrays American industrialists as gangsters. Of course, such films do not glorify Russia; but the Soviets no longer seek to glorify Russia. They even discourage the diffusion of socialist idealism, lest that should play into the hands of China, whose rival form of Marxism is cleaner and more appealing to the pure in heart.

China, however, is another subject about which today's American liberals are either silent or hostile. They do not trust a regime that has friends in Washington. Indeed we find Tom Hayden warning, in The American Future: "What the partnership with China can lead to . . . is the same danger as the first Cold War -- a hot war, or at least an unbridgeable tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union."

THIS DANGER OF HOT WAR or nuclear war, with the Soviet Union is one about which there is a great deal of talk on the American Left. But is there anything approaching a concrete policy? Two recent books are devoted to the problem: Nuclear War -- What's In It For You? which seems to have been written by team, and Freeze: How You Can Help Prevent Nuclear War, by Senators Kennedy and Hatfield. Both books provide detailed projections about the destructive potential of nuclear weapons~ and offer dramatic descriptions, complete with figures and charts, of the fate of various American cities in a nuclear war, however good a civil defense those cities might think they possessed. It is all very horrifying. And yet one wonders whether there was any need to spell it all out, since everyone must know that a nuclear war will bring a holocaust. What needs to be discovered is how to avoid a nuclear war. And here the voice of American liberalism is incoherent. Some liberals ask for a freeze on nuclear weapons, some ask for multilateral nuclear disarmament, some for unilateral nuclear disarmament.

Senators Kennedy and Hatfield plead the case for a freeze on all nuclear weaponry and suggest that this could be accomplished by agreement with the Soviet Union. Their proposal is to effect an immediate halt to the arms race, and to forestall any increase in weaponry while protracted negotiations are undertaken for a more permanent compact on arms limitation. "To freeze first and then negotiate reductions makes sense on many levels," they write. "It recognizes the urgency of taking a step that is as simple as it is practical, and that is more feasible now than it has ever been before, because both sides are so nearly equivalent in their arsenals of annihilation."

The weakness of the Senators' argument resides, in the unreliability of their claim that both arsenals are "so nearly equivalent." That is not the information we have in Europe, where Soviet superiority in nuclear installations at this moment is calculated by the best authorities to be substantial. Indeed, there is a large section of liberal opinion in America which cannot bring itself to swallow the Kennedy- Hatfield assertion. In the New Republic's "First Draft for -1984," Walter Laqueur and Charles Krauthammer set out the main lines for a new liberal foreign policy. They write scornfully of what they call "the current spate" of calls for an immediate bilateral freeze on nuclear weapons. "The 'freeze,'" they say, "is a slogan, not a plan, and even if it were practical, it would cancel the zero option offer to Europe. That offer, by correcting the massive inequality that has resulted from the Soviet installation of SS-20 missiles in Europe, would help stabilize the European frontier, and thus make nuclear war in Europe far less likely. On strategic weapons, Democrats should support immediate negotiations for drastic and balanced reductions in current arsenals, a goal that would be delayed, and perhaps prevented, by interminable debates over the meaning and enforcement of any "freeze."

Which of these two diametrically opposed liberal policies, the Kennedy- Hatfield or the Laqueur-Krauthammer, is likely to be supported by the majority of progressives in America? My guess is that the Kennedy:Hatfield "freeze" will make the running, just because it is a slogan and not a plan, and also -- dare one say it? -- because it is what the Soviet Union wants. The Soviets rejected Lyndon Johnson's proposal for a nuclear freeze in 1964 because America was then ahead in the arms race; if the Soviets like the idea now it is because they believe themselves to be ahead in the arms race. It is curious how, when the Soviets want a policy put into effect, all sorts of opinion groups -- church groups, community groups, service groups, all led by certified nonpolitical, nonleftist personalities -- spring up like mushrooms to promote it and collect signatures for petitions in its favor.

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.

WHEN ALL IS SAID and done, democracy offers America's only prospect of escape from the twin clutches of the bureaucracy and the judiciary, whose powers have been so greatly increased by the enactment of liberal legislation and the diffusion of the liberal ideology. So long as democracy has a voice there is hope for freedom. Senator Paul Tsongas's book is instructive in this respect, since it shows how he has had to change his tune in order to succeed in practical politics. A student radical of the 1960s at Dartmouth College, Tsongas rose swiftly in the Democratic party; a member of the House of Representatives in 1974, he stood in Massachusetts for the Senate in 1978, and while all the time asking for more blacks in politics, opposed the only black Senator, the impeccably progressive Senator Brooke, and defeated him. Obviously, Tsongas could not have moved so far so fast if he had stuck to the abstract dogmas of liberal theory.

In the old days, he admits, he encouraged his public to go on buying their German and Japanese cars "to save gas"; now he has learned the importance of helping American industry, if only to relieve unemployment. Once he voiced the liberal demand for all-out support for the public sector of the economy; now he urges that the government should "encourage the private sector." Once Tsongas was all against nuclear energy; now he argues that "there is no other alternative to nuclear power in the middle term." Once he championed workers' trade union rights above all else in industry; now he gives priority to productivity. He has moved from the antiwar rhetoric to calling-for a vigorous response to Soviet aggression in Afghanistan. There can be no doubt that he has changed his policy on all these matters because his political career has forced him to listen to ordinary people and seek their votes. Unfortunately, when it is safe for him to press a hard-left line, Tsongas still does so, and it is doubtful whether the leopard really has changed his spots. On the crucial question of foreign policy, Tsongas goes on advocating support for some of the worst Marxist-Leninist despots in the Third World, even in Ethiopia, where he has seen with his own eyes what is going on. He is a fierce exponent of the Marcuse doctrine of intolerance toward conservatives, and was a star performer in the Senate witch-hunt of Ernest Lefever.

The left-liberal ideology has less and less popular support in America, and to that extent democracy has halted its advance, at least in its overt and unequivocal form. But it is still fashionable in many quarters. It cannot be written off as out of date. It is deeply entrenched not only in the bureaucracy and the judiciary, but in the universities and the media, and in many of those places it has become a vested interest, as jobs, prestige, and advancement depend on adherence to it. So there is no ground for optimism. The left-liberal ideology will not die because it is incoherent and intellectually impoverished; the objectives are still fixed and the passions behind them are still violent.


Maurice Cranston is Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics.

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