Liberalism Unbound

William Voegeli has written a book, Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State, arguing that the Left has a boundless appetite; absolutely nothing would satisfy its desire for redistribution and the restriction of liberty. Fred Siegel, reviewing the book, writes,

Liberalism’s most acute critics such as University of Virginia political scientist James Ceaser emphasize the centrality of crises, real or manufactured, in expanding the size and reach of the liberal state (as in the recent case of the supposedly imminent global warming catastrophe). In Never Enough, Voegeli, a visiting scholar at Claremont McKenna College’s Henry Salvatori Center and a contributing editor of this journal, points to a complementary concept: liberalism, he argues, “lacks a limiting principle.” This boundlessness, as it might be described, is familiar to Americans across the country who have watched, for instance, secondary school costs and college tuitions grow at roughly twice the rate of inflation for a quarter-century now. This boundlessness generates some of the apprehension that animates the Tea Parties. As a friend asked me rhetorically—referring to the fact that the failing schools in Washington, D.C., spend $28,000 a year per pupil while Harvard tuition costs $34,000 a year—”When will enough be enough?” The same question could be asked regarding federal and state spending. Liberals, Voegeli explains, sometimes avoid trying to answer these sorts of questions by execrating as greedy racists those who ask them.

When will enough be enough? It’s a good question. Charles Murray pointed out its significance some years ago when he proposed the following thought experiment. Imagine asking a liberal concerned about the plight of the poor what would satisfy him or her. If we could improve the lot of the poor so that, in a few years, they were as well off as the average American is now, would that be enough? It’s tempting to answer “yes.” But Murray pointed out that we’ve already done that, repeatedly, throughout the past century. Someone at the poverty line in 1950 was better off than the average American in 1900. Someone at the poverty line in 1970 was better off than the average American in 1950. Someone at the poverty line in 1970 was better off than the average American in 1950. And someone at the poverty line in 1990 was better off than the average American in 1970. The upshot is that, by that criterion, liberalism’s mission has been accomplished.

Siegel explains why liberalism refuses to accept any bounds:

Far more than contemporary liberals like to acknowledge, liberalism was born of something like a full-fledged ideology. Liberalism’s seminal preceptors in America—Herbert Croly, Randolph Bourne, and H.G. Wells—saw it as a doctrine capable of competing with the other 20th-century “isms” of socialism, Bolshevism, and fascism. Liberalism, which distinguished itself in part by its call (not always respected) for freedom of thought, was joined to the other isms by its unattainable quest for a secular soteriology, a political path to salvation. Like the others, modern liberalism was born of a new class of politically self-conscious intellectuals who despised both the individual businessman’s pursuit of profit and the average individual’s pursuit of a conventional life, both of which were made possible by the lineaments of the limited 19th-century state. Like the others, liberalism was strongly influenced by the Nietzschean ideal of a true aristocracy that might serve as a counterpoint to what were seen as the debasements of modern commercial society shorn of traditional hierarchies.

I think this is a deep truth, one that flies in the face of the image liberals have tried to construct, and which the Left/Right dichotomy in 19th-century Europe quite different from that relevant to the contemporary world. The older division was basically Equality/Tradition. The contemporary divide, on one level, is Unlimited/Limited Government. At a deeper level, it is Hierarchy/Opportunity. Marx and Engels, in the Communist Manifesto, speak longingly of the medieval world in which people had a definite place. Their primary criticism of capitalism is that it has “torn asunder” those traditional relations. Nietzsche similarly has nothing but contempt for the common people and those (such as the utilitarians) who would let their welfare determine what ought to be done. The concept of an elite—a group Thomas Sowell calls “the Anointed”—is fundamental to this perspective. Marx and Nietzsche, perhaps surprisingly, say little about who gets to anoint the anointed, or what qualities they must have to be part of that privileged group. (To be fair, Nietzsche tries to, but his concept of the Übermensch seems hopelessly unclear.) But the idea of an elite, a “New Class,” a nomenklatura, seems essential to contemporary liberalism.

Siegel finds some grounds for optimism:

But the current attempt to stage a version of the liberal ballet on health care has been a notorious flop, despite the passage of Obamacare. The New Deal and the Great Society both took hold in eras without mass immigration. The attempt to expand the welfare state loses legitimacy in the midst of public anxiety about how to secure our borders. Most Americans see Obamacare as welfare of sorts, a transfer of resources from long-time citizens to new arrivals. The public is neither sufficiently guilty, nor the grievances of the “victims” sufficiently compelling, for the dynamic to work. New immigrants, a substantial number of whom are illegal, don’t engage the sympathies of moderately liberal swing voters whose acquiescence is essential for liberal schemes.

Liberalism’s moral appeal depends on having “have-nots” whose plight gets a grip on the imagination. There have been plenty of “have-nots” to select. We have advanced to the point, however, where it’s hard to find compelling instances. Illegal aliens, as Siegel suggests, aren’t a very compelling group, not only because they aren’t all that badly off—presumably they’re here because their circumstances here are better than they were back home—but also because their situation is plainly due to their recent arrival rather than to any persisting injustice. That suggests the possibility that liberalism has limits, even if it refuses to recognize them. Eventually, liberals run out of morally compelling injustices to use to justify their seizure of power.

I do not fully share Siegel’s optimism, however, The example of Western Europe indicates that the limit thereby reached may be very high. The cultural changes that liberalism leaves in its wake—reduced willingness to work, have children, or plan for the future—may impose financial limits on liberalism before the absence of compelling injustices limits it on different grounds.

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