So I’ve been trying to divine the lesson that this Frum post holds out for someone with one foot outside the liberal tent. He takes off from something that Susan Sontag famously said to her comrades on the left in the early 1980s:
“Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Reader’s Digest between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who read only The Nation or The New Statesman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of Communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?”Sontag’s words provoke this question from Frum:
“Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Wall Street Journal editorial page between 2000 and 2011, and someone in the same period who read only the collected columns of Paul Krugman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of the current economic crisis? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?”Let’s stipulate that the answer to both Sontag’s and Frum’s questions is an unequivocal “yes.” Where, if it’s true, does that admission leave us? Not, I’m sorry to say, where Frum seems to think (or perhaps fear) that it does.
Sontag was challenging the American left (or, if you prefer, what passes for the left in America) about the time it was condescending to Ronald Reagan for calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and predicting that "freedom and democracy will leave Marxism and Leninism on the ash heap of history." The left’s derision was excited by both the normative and empirical dimensions of Reagan’s anti-Soviet rants: the reference to “evil” was not only archaic, but obviously misdirected inasmuch as everyone who was anyone knew that the Soviet and American systems were developing along a “convergence” course. So the idea that communism was on its last legs could only be delusional wishful thinking on the part of a bunch of right-wing hayseeds.
I remember all this very well because, at the time, that’s pretty much what I thought myself. We only remember Sontag’s question now because even people like me can see clearly in hindsight that, when she asked it, we were the ones befuddled by wishful thinking about the cold war. We were the last to know that we were standing on the precipice of a crushing ideological defeat.
I'd love to credit Frum‘s suggestion that the American right is now returning the favor. But look at the analogy he’s drawing between Sontag’s question and his own a little more closely. I'll grant that it holds up well enough on the normative side of things. Krugman makes the ethical case against conservative models of the political economy as staunchly, and arguably as effectively, as Reagan made the case against Soviet Communism.
Look, however, at the empirical side of what Krugman’s saying about the liberal welfare state (see, e.g. his column today). To hear him tell it, we and the countries in the Euro zone are going to hell in a hand basket not because a capitalist economy with a generous social safety net is economically unsustainable. Krugman's always happy to remind us that, if the people making monetary and fiscal policy are smart and ethically upright enough to listen to him, we’ll be fine. The problem is that people making the macro-economic decisions here and in Europe are indisposed to listen because they’re the creatures of structurally defective polities that systematically promote economic mismanagement by catering to special interest, rewarding the right's civically irresponsible behavior, etc.
Read enough Krugman columns and you could be excused for thinking that the actual liberal welfare state is headed for history’s ash heap. Does that make it sound like conservatives are the ones standing, unawares, on the precipice of a crushing ideological defeat?