My Weekly Reader B 19 June 2019.

What “gave” first was Nineteenth Century Liberalism.  First, the sudden advance of modern science and medicine after 1850 explained a host of public health problems in a new way.  These discoveries compelled liberals to accept a huge—for them—expansion in the role of government to address the problems of cities: sewers, clean water supplies, public baths, street cleaning, streetlights, mass transportation, and a police force.  Then came interference in the labor market through the regulation of hours and working conditions.  Then they accepted democracy in the form of votes for adult males.  Then they accepted universal, compulsory, and free primary education.  Then came higher taxes, focused at first on the very wealthy to pay for these new services and functions—and for the public employees who made them work.  The goal here lay not in expanding government power for its own sake, but in using government in a positive way to create environments in which the Individual could fully achieve his/her potential.[1]  This wasn’t just a Liberalism that broke down previous barriers to Individual achievement.  It was an adaptive Liberalism that broke down the established barriers to Individual achievement created by the effects of previous Liberal reforms and difficult social changes.[2]

Then came the immense crisis of the first half of the Twentieth Century: two world wars and the Great Depression.  The First World War introduced economic planning, conscription both for the military and for industrial work, an end to free trade, the beginning of “managing” the money supply, and passports to control the movements of individuals.  The Twenties saw capitalist experiments with a managed and planned economy.  The Great Depression made governmental control of macro-economic processes a “normal” thing.[3]  How to maintain full employment amidst price stability?  Keynesian “demand management,” that’s how.  Government spends to take up the slack in business-cycle capitalism.[4]  The Second World War’s financing showed how to do this in peacetime as well.

It didn’t stop there.  Liberalism shifted it gaze to breaking down the barriers—Beliefs and Behaviors–that stopped Individuals in marginalized groups from reaching their potential.  The “Warren Court” attacked the oppression of Individuals by government at all levels and in all forms: racial discrimination and “Jim Crow” laws; sexism and “privacy” (contraception); censorship; policing (Miranda, etc.); housing conventions that barred property sales to African-Americans and Jews; and abortion.

Did “Liberalism” over-reach?  Perhaps.  Only time will tell and all political prognostications (i.e. consulting the gizzards of dead animals) are without value.  (Sad day for the op-ed writers, No?)  The current anti-liberal argument would be that modern Liberalism has embraced “identity politics” (i.e. privilege), “statism” (i.e. executive branch decrees and rule making), and the suppression of free speech (i.e. “name and shame” campaigns).  “Ah dunno.”

[1] For English Liberalism, one key author here is T.H. Green (1836-1882).  I read one of his books in Matt Temmel’s class on English history at the University of Washington.  Didn’t understand a word of it.  Rediscovered Green later.

[2] OK, “a fighting priest who can talk to the young.”

[3] See: Alan Brinkley, The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War (1995).  Really good book.

[4] Great idea in a large sense, but—JMO—does that mean that capitalism loses some of the purgative effects that come with normal business slumps?  Do wages stay too high, do marginal businesses survive, do over-investment and poor choices go un-punished?

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