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The Decline of the Liberal Faith

Liberalism is dying of old age. It has gone on too long and the world is changing. From our "Capitol Ideas" columnist.

By 3.22.05

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LIBERALISM, AMERICAN-STYLE, is dying on the vine. I refer to the faith of liberalism -- the belief in "the redemptive transformation of human society through political means," as William Pfaff puts it in his new book, The Bullet's Song. Programmatic liberalism -- Social Security, Medicare, government schooling, government science, and the like -- will continue, and on an expansionist path. But as a faith, liberalism is set to decline in the years ahead. It is already doing so, perhaps more swiftly than we know. What is left of it is filled with darkness and pessimism: sex, abortion, euthanasia, and death.

Like Communism, liberalism was put into practice. Better for the idealists if it had remained a dream. But as anyone who has lived within a mile of a government-housing project will know, real-life liberalism is a menacing thing -- anti-utopia. Neighborhoods menaced by young men without fathers, their mothers financed by the state, should by now have disillusioned even the most progressive minded. So should inner-city state schools, where parents play little or no role, and perhaps don't even know where the school is.

Although its adherents don't like to discuss the point, the liberal faith has much in common with Communism, including shared roots in the Enlightenment. Human nature, philosophers once believed, could be remade in the classroom. People could be improved by "legislation alone," to quote the 18th-century philosophe Claude Helvetius. Influenced by John Locke, he was in turn studied by the founder of Russian Marxism, G.V. Plekhanov, who befriended Lenin in Zurich.

Liberalism and Communism both regarded egalitarianism as an ideal and both were godless; Communism openly so, liberalism more obscurely. Democracy admittedly distinguished between them, but the liberal admiration for an ideological judiciary shows that they, too, would like nothing more than a government that is free to impose its will by fiat (provided it is run by the right people).

The liberal faith fell with Communism. Both were based on extravagant optimism -- admittedly an unwarranted optimism. Human nature was on the verge of transformation. Nineteenth-century thinkers really believed that people would soon be so good that the boundaries of property would no longer be required. The reversal of attitude today is most conspicuous in the environmentalists, whose rise coincided with the fall of the Soviet Union. Man now is widely perceived as a despoiler and menace to the planet.

AN UNWRITTEN PRINCIPLE OF THE LIBERAL FAITH has been that government must expand to whatever extent is needed to get the job done. No liberal has ever been heard to say that the government has grown too large, or should be reduced. But reality imposes its own discipline. At all levels, federal, state, and local, government now disposes of at least one-third of GDP. In European countries it is closer to half, and even some liberal journalists are beginning to accept that therein lies the explanation for the slow or non-existent growth in countries like Germany.

The costs of further government expansion are slowly sinking in. You might say that we are all capitalists now. More and more voters have retirement accounts that rise and fall with the stock market and the details of public finance are of growing concern to the middle class, not just to actuaries and budget analysts.

The hazard of government overreaching was recognized by President Clinton ("The era of big government is over"), and to give him his due, Clinton took more care to control federal spending than President Bush has done. The great re-education of liberals began early in President Reagan's first term, when supply-siders publicized the idea that the "price" of government could not be raised indefinitely; in fact, marginal tax rates were already way too high. I will never forget the rage of the liberals at that moment. They had blithely assumed that government finances were immune from the laws of supply and demand, and taxes, no matter how high, would have no effect on behavior.

Today, the freedom to launch new social-engineering schemes -- being "generous" with other people's money -- is severely constrained by these realities and will remain so indefinitely.

THE LIBERALS WILL FIGHT to keep their "gains," of course, and with the major programs they won't have to fight very hard. The logic of representative government ensures that transfer programs to the elderly will keep right on expanding. FDR boasted in the 1930s that "no damn politician can ever scrap my Social Security program," and he was right about that. Current and future beneficiaries have the power to decide not merely who their representatives are but how they are expected to vote. This is the great and largely unforeseen toll that a transfer society exacts. Those who receive benefits from the state have more influence with their representatives than the taxpayers themselves.

In fact, the massive transfer programs of the federal government have become millstones for liberals, too, because they are squeezing out every last drop of tax revenue that might otherwise have been available for new programs. With his prescription drug benefit, Bush only intensified the problem.

Those who seek an expanded government in the future will more and more depend on finding or contriving emergencies. Such crises will be said to require an immediate response, with fiscal prudence sacrificed to humanitarianism. Think tsunami-anthrax-AIDS-in-Africa. September 11, although a genuine tragedy, was treated as just such an opportunity by our big-government conservatives, or neoconservatives (ex-liberals, in many cases).

The contrivance of crisis has of course been a speciality of the environmentalists. The air is toxic, the water filled with lead, the globe cooling (or warming), species becoming extinct (even as subspecies multiply). New agencies must be set up without delay. It took the rest of us a generation to figure out that these scares, which continue in a steady stream, were not to be trusted: generated by activists, publicized by journalists with the same agenda, and quickly adopted and made permanent by government.

LIBERALISM IS DYING OF OLD AGE. It has gone on for too long and the world is changing. At its core, it was based on the idea that religious belief would give way to Enlightenment values. Faith would succumb to reason. Shorn of superstition, the human race would make its stately progress toward a brighter future. Well, that hasn't worked out. (Go back and take a look at one of those inner-city schools or housing projects if you don't believe me.) Christianity has indeed declined, especially in its self-confidence. Journalists have lost count of the times the Pope has apologized for the history of the Catholic Church. And in see-saw response to the Christian decline, Islam has risen up after a long dormancy.

Islam has been around for a long time, and it is not going to retreat into the Arabian sukhs any time soon. Meanwhile the American goal in Iraq would seem to be nothing less than the introduction of Enlightenment values into the Arab world. Not just elections but freedom of speech and toleration and a reformed education system and a role for women and equality before the law must be transferred to Mesopotamia and beyond. And the result will be?

The world would certainly be a nicer, safer, and more comfortable place if this mission were to succeed. Who knows, maybe it will. There is one thing that can be safely predicted, however. Success, if it is to come, will take a long time. Just guessing, but doesn't it seem likely that our own domestic politics will drive us out of the neighborhood before those good things can happen?

If it does not succeed, then we will face an energized and inflamed Islam. Enlightenment ideas have not taken root in the Arab world over the last 250 years -- a period when the West was more self-confident than it is now. So it may be that we will end up absorbing a lesson or two from them. I recall a line from one of C. Northcote Parkinson's books, this one about the Muslim world: "The onset of one religion can be resisted only by another." Perhaps a revival of Christianity is in the cards.

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About the Author

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).