Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Is ObamaCare the End of Liberal History?

According to yesterday's interesting (and depressing) post from Mickey Kaus, it just might be:

“With the enactment of a form of universal health insurance, is the edifice of the modern American welfare state complete? Sure, there’s tinkering to be done: Add a public option? Increase the Earned Income Tax Credit? But is there some huge badly-needed state-provided benefit or entitlement that’s not now on offer? Or is the job of New Deal Liberalism (Benefits Division) largely complete? … You have to wonder if this will have an impact like the closing of the frontier. Will the Democratic Party turn inwards, directing its now-diminished energy and idealism into satisfying the smaller concerns of its interest groups? (And how will we tell the difference in California? Just kidding!) … Will this be like the moon landing–not the beginning of dramatic achievements for NASA, but the end, at least for a long time. … ”
NASA owed its original mission to a cold war tactic—JFK’s decision to counter the propaganda advantage the Soviets enjoyed as a result in their early lead in manned space flight by challenging them to, and beating them in, a race to the moon.  It owed its institutional form to LBJ’s determination to direct a little pork to his friends in Houston. The heroic mission was fulfilled early on with success of the Apollo missions, leaving NASA to stumble along as just another bureaucracy looking for a pretext (e.g., the Space Shuttle and the Manned Space Station) to maintain its budget and keep the pork flowing to organized constituencies. Running NASA is now just a matter of unheroic public administration and political back-scratching.

New Deal liberalism’s original mission, as enunciated by FDR in his second inaugural address, was essentially jurisdictional: liberalism was about making “the exercise of all power more democratic . . . [by] bring[ing] private autocratic powers into their proper subordination to the public’s government.” That meant challenging a system of property rights that held a majority of Americans’ vital interests in securing a livelihood, a dignified old age and affordable healthcare hostage to the unintended consequences of private decisions in the market place. To that end, liberals have been waging a moral crusade to extend the jurisdiction of the welfare state for the last seventy years.

Kaus is suggesting that the enactment of ObamaCare signals that liberalism’s jurisdictional objectives have been realized. What does that mean for the future of liberalism? I'm not sure.  But after reading Kaus over the years I suspect he thinks it means that, henceforth, liberal politics will be less a moral crusade about promoting equality by extending the reach of government, and more an exercise in pedestrian public administration; liberal politicians will become less like Nancy Pelosi and more like Harry Reid; and liberal statism will become less a moral response to inequality than a matter of bureaucratic reflex and legislative logrolling.  And, strangely, if you're a liberal, all that should be a cause for celebration.

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