The Exhaustion of Liberalism?

Barton Swaim[1] describes modern liberal democracy in North America and Western Europe:

“Liberal democracies value divided governmental institutions, a regulated market economy, a generous welfare state, personal autonomy and the expansion of political rights to formerly excluded classes.”[2]

Both “conservatives” and “liberals” share these beliefs.  Where they differ is that “liberals” have a deep faith in the ability of government to improve the human condition, while “conservatives” harbor profound doubts.

The “liberal” achievement in Twentieth Century America has been immense: the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906); the enfranchisement of women (1920); the Social Security Act (1935); the Civil Rights Act (1964); the Food Stamp Act (1964); the Voting rights Act (1965); and the amendment of the Social Security Act to create Medicare and Medicaid (1965).  Most of these laws passed during brief periods when a fundamentally conservative country favored dramatic change.

Swaim sees the historical record as demonstrating the exhaustion of liberalism, although not of liberal democracy.  Much of the liberal agenda has been fulfilled.  There aren’t any more dis-franchised people to enfranchise—except for criminals and non-citizens.  Liberals have turned from defending free speech to curtailing it through campus speech codes, demands that social media censor speech that they characterize as “false,” and demanding that the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision be over-turned.  Increasingly, they place their trust in un-elected experts and bureaucrats to know better than do elected officials.  President Obama extended government regulation of business through federal agency rule-writing because he couldn’t get it through Congress, and President Trump is rolling it back in the same way.

Furthermore, he says, liberals haven’t passed any transformative legislation since the mid-Sixties.  The popular support among voters just isn’t there.  Instead, Swaim argues, liberal reforms have advanced along two lines since the Sixties.  On the one hand, liberal legislative reforms have become increasingly small-scale: the Clean Air Act (1970); the Clean Water Act (1972); and the Affordable Care Act (“Obama Care,” 2010).  On the other hand, and far more importantly, the Supreme Court has approved policies that would not have passed Congress: abortion (1973) and marriage equality (2015).

To the extent that the Democrats have “big ideas,” he says, they are not traditionally “liberal” but “radical.”  The “Green New Deal,” “Medicare for All,” and Senator Elizabeth Warren’s Plans-for-That all run well beyond conventional liberal policies.  Hence, the nomination of Joe Biden as the Democratic candidate for president in 2020 is the victory of the backward-looking “liberal” majority over the forward-looking “radical” minority.

Or perhaps not.

[1] South Carolinian (state flag has a half-moon on it that some people have interpreted as a closet endorsement of Islam); BA, University of South Carolina plus some study at the University of Edinburgh; speech-writer for the “intriguing” (HA!) governor, Mark Sanford; and now an opinion writer and book reviewer for the Wall Street Journal.

[2] Barton Swaim, “Joe Biden and the Slow Death of Liberalism,” WSJ, 11-12 April 2020.

The Socialist Boogie Man 21 September 2019.

When it comes to the trajectory of Socialism, critics of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are either ignorant or liars.  Historically, Socialism is an economic system in which 1.) society, not the private individual, owns the “means of production”; 2.) planning, rather than the market, determines the production of goods; and 3.) co-operation, rather than competition, is the guiding principle.

Socialism arose as a response to what people saw as the “injustices” of Capitalism; poverty, frequent unemployment; the destruction of the old handicraft industries, awful living conditions in factory cities, and a political system that tilted hard in favor of the capitalists.  Unions and strikes were illegal; there were high property requirements to be able to vote or run for office in most places; and real power belonged to the bourgeoisie.

Early Socialism (1820s-1848) argued that a humane economy and society could be created by building co-operative factories and towns managed by the people who worked and lived in them.  Many amusing stories come from this time.  (See: phalanstery; see: Brook Farm.)

In 1848 the German intellectuals Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto, creating the form of Socialism later called Marxism.  Marxism argued that a) capitalist greed would lead to a few owners gobbling up all their competitors so that ownership would end in a few hands; b) capitalist greed would lead to wages being forced down to the bare survival level; c) poor people can’t buy the things they produced, so capitalist governments would fight wars to conquer new markets and destroy surplus production that they could not sell; and d) all the miserable poor people would recognize that they belonged to one class (“those who work”) and the few owners belonged to another class (“those that don’t”); and e) revolution would replace Capitalism with Socialism.  Everyone would live happily ever after.

Marxian Socialism became the dominant movement in Socialism after 1848.  However, capitalism began evolving: unions were legalized, wages and living standards rose, governments created social insurance systems, and the bourgeoisie accepted political democracy.  In the early 20th Century, Marxism split into two opposing groups.  Reformist or Democratic Socialists said that Marx’s predictions hadn’t worked out, that revolution had to give way to participating in democratic politics, and that politics required a willingness to bargain with the other classes.  In contrast, Communists said that to achieve Socialism it would take a small group of professional revolutionaries to organize “the masses” and then to lead a continuing revolution.

In practice, Communism turned out to represent “prison camps, overalls, and a damned long march to nowhere.”  Communism is what contemporary American conservatives describe as “Socialism.”

In fact, the British Labour Party, the French Socialist Party, and the German Social Democratic Party have never been anything but guardians of political democracy.  They have never tried to create a monopoly on political power and they have never failed to yield power when they lost a democratic election.  Sanders and Warren clearly fall within this tradition.

Fight them on the real and many failings of Socialism, but don’t scare-monger and lie.