John C. Goodman
President Obama is said to have made the case for a liberal public policy agenda in his State of the Union speech the other night. But what is liberalism?

The conventional view is that liberalism is an ideology. In fact it is a sociology.

An ideology is a set of ideas that cohere. Socialism is an ideology. So is libertarianism. Suppose I told you that socialists believe the government should nationalize the steel industry and the auto industry. You would have no difficulty inferring what their position is on nationalizing the airline industry. Right? Suppose I told you that libertarians believe in a free market for tinker toys and ham sandwiches. You would have no difficulty inferring that they also believe in a free market for Rubik's Cubes.

Sociologies are different. They represent a set of ideas that are often incoherent. These ideas are likely to come together not because of reason, but because of history or happenstance. Not only do the ideas not cohere, they may be completely contradictory.

Take the issue of preschool education — forcefully endorsed by the president the other night. As David Brooks explained, the issue is really about allowing poor children to escape from the anti-education atmosphere of their homes to a place that will at least give them a chance to learn. Given a person’s position on preschool education for four year olds, shouldn’t you be able to predict how he will think about allowing poor six- and seven-year-old children to escape from bad schools? As it turns out you can’t.

Brooks explains the preschool issue this way:

This is rude to say, but here’s what this is about: Millions of parents don’t have the means, the skill or, in some cases, the interest in building their children’s future. Early childhood education is about building structures so both parents and children learn practical life skills. It’s about getting kids from disorganized homes into rooms with kids from organized homes so good habits will rub off. It’s about instilling achievement values where they are absent.

Okay, so how is that different from the situation faced by slightly older children trapped in lousy schools where teachers couldn't care less what they learn? It isn’t. Yet so many of those who favor preschool education (a new and expensive entitlement) are reliable opponents of vouchers, charter schools, firing bad teachers, closing bad schools or any other remedy that offends the teacher’s unions. And that includes President Obama.


John C. Goodman

John C. Goodman is President of the Goodman Institute and Senior Fellow at The Independent Institute. His books include the widely acclaimed A Better Choice: Healthcare Solutions for America and the award-winning Priceless: Curing the Healthcare Crisis. The Wall Street Journal and National Journal, among other media, have called him the "Father of Health Savings Accounts.”