Sunday, December 19, 2010

Liberalism 1.0 Through 4.0

The political terminology of the United States is often at odds with the terms used in Europe and the U.K. When corresponding with colleagues, I've had to recognize terms such as "neo-liberal," "Anglo-capitalist," and several others. The greatest confusion, though, is the simple "liberal" — which is seldom a compliment in European commentaries. What I consider "libertarian" might be close to "liberal" in European usage, but not quite a perfect equivalent.

Regardless, this is an interesting column on the word "liberal."
Can The L-word Be Saved?  
Politically speaking, America may be the most confused country in the world.  Millions of people in this country are conservatives and even reactionaries who think they are liberals; we have millions more liberals and radicals who call themselves conservative.
It is an unholy mess and it needs to be cleared up.  It’s time for a language intervention.
Despite the mess so many “liberals” have made of this great political tradition, liberal and progressive are two of the noblest and most important words in the dictionary.  They describe essential qualities of the American mind and essential values in American politics.
But today the words have been hijacked.  They’ve been turned into their opposites: a liberal today is somebody who wants to defend and restore the Blue Social Model from the last century; a progressive is now somebody who thinks history has gone horribly wrong and that we must turn the clock back to make things better.
I'm not convinced that liberals want to restore or defend the social programs of the past, though many are locked into a defensive posture, especially as these programs relate to the Great Society. The American "left" has mythologized the Great Society, unfortunately. I believe the left is stuck in an idealism that doesn't recognize the realities of the twenty-first century. The general problem is that "progressive" liberalism anticipated a "scientific world" like something out of Star Trek, with rational thought controlling all human interactions. It hasn't happened and isn't likely to happen; Star Trek idealism is fiction.

This faith in logic and science, rationalism, can be traced to what Mead calls "Liberalism 1.0." This was the Enlightenment liberalism.
Liberalism 1.0 was the political expression of the original enlightenment philosophy that developed in Britain and shaped the Glorious Revolution of 1688.  
By the time the next incarnation of liberalism appeared, there was also an underlying shift in Western philosophy. In the U.K. and United States, the early seeds of what would become analytic philosophy and pragmatism were starting to take root. As a result, Liberalism 2.0 tried to reconcile economics, politics, and philosophy via unified theories of human nature.
Liberalism 2.0 as developed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was rooted in the thought of 1.0 liberals like John Locke, but thinkers and politicians like Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington developed and put into practice a set of ideas about how individual liberty could be reconciled with economic development and good governance.  Note how the names changed. 
Personally, I like Mead's definition of Liberalism 3.0, when individuals started to have the same rights, and responsibilities, as the educated elites. I personally believe modern libertarianism (small "L") can be traced to this moment in history, approximately overlapping the U.S. Civil War and the early Industrial Revolution.
3.0 liberals had much more confidence in the common sense reasoning power of ordinary people than earlier generations; their programs included once unthinkable ideas like universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery, an end to state-enforced monopoly corporations, limited government, free markets at home and free trade abroad.  
Eventually, Liberalism 4.0 appeared, about the time of Woodrow Wilson's presidency. I do not like Wilson or most of what he represented. There are some fantastic biographies of Wilson, in particular Cooper's Woodrow Wilson, Brands' Woodrow Wilson (notice the original naming), and Pestritto's Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism. I also suggest any number of books on the history of progressivism, though you should balance reading books by several authors since the biases do lead to either uncritical support (The Progressive Revolution) or extreme criticisms (Liberal Fascism).

The reality is that the progressive era was both necessary and prone to excess. We cannot ignore the positives of the progressive movement.
The progressives and liberals who created liberalism 4.0 did their best to address these and similar problems in ways that they hoped would preserve as much as possible of the old liberal heritage in a new and more difficult world.  The development of a professional, bureaucratic civil service and the regulatory state were intended to preserve individual autonomy and dignity in a world dominated by large and predatory corporate interests – and split into classes with most industrial and agricultural workers subject to very low wages, long hours and poor working conditions. 
Unfortunately, the excesses of the progressive mindset took over, especially faith in a managerial, scientific class. This mirrors the Marxist faith in "scientific history" and the notion that humanity can be perfectly logical and reasonable. Sorry, but that simply doesn't work in reality. Thankfully, American politicians of the left and right realized they could accept some Socialist Party goals and avoid the potential nightmares witnessed in other nations.
Although socialists and social democrats sometimes made common cause with 4.0 liberals, it’s important to realize that, at bottom, 4.0 liberalism was built as an alternative to socialism rather than as an introduction to it.  That is, many American liberals came to believe that providing benefits like Social Security and unemployment insurance would inoculate American workers against more virulent forms of socialist ideology, and attract the new immigrants and their children toward the American liberal tradition.
If there is to be a "Liberalism 5.0" it will have to take the best of "Liberalism 3.0" (libertarian individualism) and recognize that we cannot risk the Gilded Age 2.x at the same time. We have to create more opportunities for individual success and the small and mid-sized businesses that deliver new ideas and products. Instead, we are stuck in the Liberalism 4.0 that aligned massive corporations like GM and labor unions like the UAW. That model of "liberalism" (really nothing more than corporatism) must be undone if the U.S. is going to compete and prosper in the new world.

We cannot embrace the "public-private partnership" language of modern progressives because that leads to yet larger and more powerful central control. The government and industry are meant to be checks and balances on each other, and even the government is divided to limit its power.

The original progressive idea, that logic and reason would somehow reveal the perfect solutions to problems is absurd. First, people can be logical, reasonable, and still reach different conclusions. Even physicists develop competing theories and mathematical solutions to the same problem. In other words, "scientific" thought does not always lead to a single answer, however troubling that might be.

That is why a "marketplace of ideas" is so effective. We have to test ideas and theories. There is still nothing better than an open market to test products and ideas.

Also, even as the West has advanced, the world has not become more "logical" — wars, famine, crime, and so on prove we haven't advanced much as a species. People are not logical, reasonable, or scientific. The world is one of religious wars, ethnic / tribal conflicts, organized crime, and much worse.

Our values, our very cultures, conflict. The Western emphasis on the individual conflicts with the Asian concept of conformity. The Western theological trend suggesting all faiths lead to the same place is definitely contradicted by fundamentalist views in religious around the world.

So, we need a Liberalism 5.0 — but what will that be?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Obama & the Rhetoric of Progressivism

The following essay was one I read several times. It is interesting, regardless of one's particular biases because it does offer several important historical references to the nature of "progressive" political views.
Obama and the Rhetoric of Progressivism
December 10, 2010
By Peter Berkowitz
It seems Berkowitz is associated with the Hoover Institute, as a foreign policy expert specializing in the Middle East. He is a political scientist, it appears, with an interest in Western democratic trends and history. His introduction, then, to progressive political rhetoric, correctly begins with an acknowledgment that the movement of the early twentieth century was in many ways a positive force for change.
At their best, the original progressives responded to dramatic social and economic upheavals generated by the industrial revolution, opposed real Gilded Age abuses, and promoted salutary social and political reforms. They took the side of the exploited, the weak, and the wronged. They fought political corruption and sought to make political institutions more responsive to the will of the people. And they advanced programs and policies that, in a changing world, brought liberal democracy in America more in line with the Declaration of Independence's and the Constitution's original promise of freedom and equality for all.
There is little question that the time between the Civil War and WWII demanded political changes to address social and technological changes. As people moved from farms to cities, the Industrial Revolution changed much more than where we worked — it changed how we work, how we live, and how we interact as a people. But, the progressives placed too much faith in humanity and science. They thought humanity itself was evolving rapidly, improving in ways we now know mankind has not and might not.

However, the Founders had a proper, in my view, distrust of human nature. These men didn't assume that the social elites were any better morally than anyone else. Of course, they came from a Puritan time when sin and the Fall of Man was the primary theological bias, but that also meant that the Founders were rightfully cautious of placing power in the hands of a small group without restraints.
But progressivism went astray owing to a defect in its basic orientation. It rejected the sound principles of government embodied in the Constitution, because of a critical difference of opinion about human nature. Progressives believed that great improvements in the moral character of humanity and in the scientific understanding of society had rendered the Constitution's scheme of checks and balances - or better its separation, balancing, and blending of power - unnecessary to prevent majority tyranny and the abuse of power by officeholders.
Woodrow Wilson comes to mind as one who imagined a managerial class running the nation. The universities, the nurseries of modern progressivism, fed the myth that an educated elite could "scientifically" run the nation. This is the same mythology Marxist bought into: central planning, by the "right people" will work so much better!
Whereas the makers of the American Constitution believed that the imperfections of human nature and the tendency of people to develop competing interests and aims were permanent features of moral and political life, progressives insisted that progress allowed human beings, or at least the most talented and best educated human beings, to rise above these limitations and converge in their understanding of what was true and right. Indeed, according to the progressives the Constitution's obsolete and cumbersome institutional design was a primary hindrance to democratic reforms to which all reasonable people could agree and which upright and impartial administrators would implement. It is a short step from the original progressives' belief that developments in morals and science had obviated reasonable disagreements about law and public policy and dissolved concerns about the impartiality of administrators to the new progressives' belief that in domestic affairs disagreement is indefensible and intolerable.
The educated elite of progressivism earnestly believe they have the only logical and reasonable approaches to government. If you disagree with the great minds of progressivism, it is merely evidence of your ignorance and lack of critical thinking skills. This bias helps explain they drift leftward in universities over the last century: you can't be "intelligent" and not be a progressive.

Once you recognize the need for an elite corps of managers, you understand that "democracy" is much too messy for actual democratic votes and legislatures. No, the "social democrats" don't care about popular opinion, which is too often ignorant and misinformed. The "social democrats" have confused equal results with equal opportunity, but they are certain of their mission to rearrange our political system around results.
One of the virtues of the old progressivism was its clarity. Indeed, New Republic founder Herbert Croly could hardly have been more forthright. In 1914, in The Promise of American Life, a major statement of the progressive creed, Croly declared his faith that democracy was properly realized on the national level:
"The American democracy can, consequently, safely trust its genuine interests to the keeping of those who represent the national interest. It both can do so, and it must do so. Only by faith in an efficient national organization, and by an exclusive and aggressive devotion to the national welfare, can the American democratic ideal be made good."
Somehow, the notion that I can safely trust anyone to represent my interests is hard to believe. The progressives, at least since Wilson, have maintained that a managerial class knows what is best for Americans, even when we don't know what's best for us. That's how we ended up with a regulatory bureaucracy that seems to grow by feeding on itself.

The Founders would have been appalled by the notion of a permanent managerial class running the nation. There is a reason we have a House and Senate. These bodies are supposed to represent us and make the laws, based on popular impulse (the House) balanced by cautious reason (the Senate). Though the Senate was not directly elected, its membership was appointed by state governors to ensure elected officials were, in the end, held accountable for the direction of this nation. You can't easily hold a civil servant accountable for regulations, even if we toss every House member in an election.
Although he recognized that expanding its size had a cost, Croly nevertheless believed that the federal government in America was obliged to arrogate to itself greater powers. The necessity stemmed from serious flaws in American democracy and in the American people:
"To be sure, any increase in centralized power and responsibility, expedient or inexpedient, is injurious to certain aspects of traditional American democracy. But the fault in that case lies with the democratic tradition; and the erroneous and misleading tradition must yield before the march of a constructive national democracy. The national advance will always be impeded by these misleading and erroneous ideas, and, what is more, it always should be impeded by them, because at bottom ideas of this kind are merely an expression of the fact that the average American individual is morally and intellectually inadequate to a serious and consistent conception of his responsibilities as a democrat. An American national democracy must always prove its right to a further advance, not only by the development of a policy and method adequate for the particular occasion, but by its ability to overcome the inevitable opposition of selfish interests and erroneous ideas."
Yes, the progressive movement was founded on the notion that it is "democracy" that is flawed, not progressive ideals. If democracy must be tossed aside to create Utopia, so be it. Then, since the results will be so much better, more equalized, we can call this new-and-improved national system "social democracy." See, the word "democracy" can be changed!
The key is the claim that the policies that theoretical reason demonstrates are fair and just are democratic in a higher sense than the policies that the people have voted for, or want to adopt in the here and now, or may wish to enact in the future. Not content to conclude that the mismatch between the public policies they deduce from theory and the people's expressed political preferences reflects badly on the people, deliberative democrats go farther by decreeing majority preferences contrary to democracy, or at least the imperatives of democratic theory. It's not merely that deliberative democrats believe that their theories give expression to something better and loftier than what the majority of the electorate chooses. It's that the choices people would make - were it not for their poor education, combined with passions and prejudices corrupted by the imperfections of social life and the inequities of the market economy - are what deserve the designation democratic.
I have to agree with Berkowitz, having been in and around academia for much of my adult life. The educated class does believe that "democracy" is all about "social justice" and "outcomes" instead of having equal opportunities to rise or fall based on one's personal efforts and abilities. Life is unfair, but that is unacceptable to the progressives.

That is one of the problems I have with unions: no matter how hard I work, my pay is based on years of experience or educational achievement, not my actual productivity. Everyone gets equal results, regardless. This is somehow more "fair" because it supposedly prevents management from having favorites. That might be true in concept, but the reality is that you then work to please the union instead of management. If we are all going to receive equal results, why should I work harder? Why should I try harder?

And yet, the academic elites of progressivism surely don't hold themselves to this model. No, they are special and deserve special treatment in return for running the nation. You cannot look at the benefits of government employees and not wonder if they believe some are more equal than others.

The views of the public do no matter. The educated progressives know what is best for us. They are logical, reasonable, and schooled in all matters of "social justice" and modern political theory. After all, they give each other awards for their brilliance and scholarship. How can we question the wisdom of our educated elites? They must have overcome the human nature that infects the rest of us.
The professors' conceit was to suppose that their own education was adequate and that their theory yielded rational truths unsullied by rationalizations of their own passions and prejudices. Pleased with their analytic competence and persuaded of the purity of their moral intentions, deliberative democrats rarely considered the illiberal and antidemocratic implications of their approach to politics. But systematically disdaining the expressed preferences of majorities of your fellow citizens is disrespectful. Implicitly appointing yourself guardian of the fair and the just - who else besides professors can understand and apply the complicated theories that professors develop to determine just public policy? - promotes arrogance. And equating this self-aggrandizing arrogation of power with greater democracy encourages self-deception while making deception of the people integral to progressive politics.
Of course, these tolerant progressives are tolerant as long as you agree with them. They surround themselves with likeminded colleagues, all within the upper-class. Of course, they will seldom admit to being the rich, much less being elitists. 

I suggest reading the entire essay. Within it, I found the views of most of my colleagues expressed. These are the people who ridicule the working class, while claiming to care about the average American. These are the condescending elites who mock entire regions of the country. These are the progressives, the people who know how to run a nation… into the ground.
Note: Peter Berkowitz is the Tad and Dianne Taube Senior Fellow and co-chair of the Task Force on the Virtues of a Free Society at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His writings are posted at