Wednesday, March 31, 2010

More on the End of Liberal History

Perhaps you’re put off by the idea, broached by Mickey Kaus and discussed in my last post, that the passage of ObamaCare is New Deal Liberalism’s swan song because it completes its historic mission. If so, you’re probably inspired by the words Ted Kennedy chose to concede the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination to Jimmy Carter at the party’s National Convention. As I recall, after Kennedy had finished, there wasn’t a dry liberal eye in the convention hall (my emphasis):

“The commitment I seek is not to outworn views but to old values that will never wear out. Programs may sometimes become obsolete, but the ideal of fairness always endures. Circumstances may change, but the work of compassion must continue. It is surely correct that we cannot solve problems by throwing money at them, but it is also correct that we dare not throw out our national problems onto a scrap heap of inattention and indifference. The poor may be out of political fashion, but they are not without human needs. The middle class may be angry, but they have not lost the dream that all Americans can advance together. . . .

“For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end. For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”
According to Kennedy, a liberal’s work is never done but it’s always doable. That only makes sense on the assumption that liberalism is fundamentally about promoting at least one value as to which there’s always room for improvement because there's no upper bound to its realization. That’s true, I suggest, of the liberal ideal of equality.

When evaluating any social arrangement, we liberals start with a presumption in favor of equality. We believes that, insofar as they can be socially distributed, the good things in life should be distributed equally unless there’s a good egalitarian reason why they shouldn’t. That’s why all distributive inequalities raise a red flag in our eyes. Any departure from equality stands in need of a justification that demonstrates that this unequal distribution of benefits and burdens should be acceptable even to those who end up with fewer benefits and more burdens. Liberals are ready to tolerate social arrangements that generate material inequalities where they can be shown to make the least advantaged better off than the least advantaged (not necessarily the same people) would be under alternative arrangements.

When inequalities pass that test, it makes sense to say that, however large the disparities of wealth, power and status may be, no advantaged social groups have prospered at the expense of their less-advantaged peers. All of society’s members have thereby been shown the respect to which they are entitled merely by virtue of being persons with their own life to lead.  “Liberal equality” is a complicated idea that invites endless explication. For present purposes, however, it won’t do any harm to reduce it to a slogan: the liberal is committed to make the worst off people as well off according to their own lights as possible.

When traditional liberal remedies prove ineffective in meeting this objective, liberals are obliged to champion more effective alternatives, even when they offend against received liberal wisdom about public policy. That’s not easy work under the best of circumstances. It’s harder still when social and technological developments have undermined a lot of what used to pass for conventional wisdom among liberals about how to administer a modern political economy. Yet, although it’s hard to measure up to liberal aspirations, I can’t see how they could ever be overtaken by events. There must be a best way of promoting the well-being of the least advantaged Americans, even if liberals haven’t yet figured out what it is.

To the extent any of this is approximately correct, it explains why Kennedy’s words make more sense to us than Kaus’s suggestion that liberalism is about to become anachronistic. But note that this way of getting around Kaus’s argument concedes one of his principal points: it should disabuse liberals of the assumption that there’s a necessary connection between promoting equality in the sense that matters and expanding the reach of government. Historically the two have been closely associated because (in FDR’s words) “bring[ing] private autocratic powers into their proper subordination to the public’s government” was the best available means of promoting the well-being of the least-well-off Americans.

The polling shows that most likely voters still aren’t yet buying that rationale when it comes to ObamaCare (or don't care as much about the least-well-off as liberals think they should). We'll probably have even a harder time selling it in the future.

No comments: