Is Liberalism Intellectually Bankrupt?

John C. Goodman
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Posted: Dec 20, 2014 12:01 AM
Is Liberalism Intellectually Bankrupt?

Howard Dean, who is thought to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party, told reporters the other day that he supports our policy of using drones to kill people (and all those who happen to be near them) without warning. He also has no objection to the National Security Agency listening to his phone calls and monitoring his email.

Donny Deutsch, the reliable voice of the left on "Morning Joe," told TV viewers that he supports the CIA’s torture activities – recently revealed in a Senate committee report.

These views are very different from what one typically finds in the unsigned editorials of The New York Times – causing one to wonder what exactly is happening to left-of-center thinking.

Meanwhile, three pillars of liberal thought – The American Prospect, The Washington Monthly, and The New Republic – are all in trouble. As Ezra Klein reports, the Prospect laid off much of its staff and is retrenching to its roots as a policy journal. The Washington Monthly has downsized to a bi-monthly. The New Republic is facing mass resignations and may not survive.

All this is happening against the backdrop of much soul searching and more than a few recriminations within the Democratic Party itself.

So this is a good time to ask: What does the Democratic Party stand for? And if the answer is: liberalism, what does it mean to be a liberal? Or if you prefer, what does it mean to be a progressive?

You would think that liberalism is a belief in a set of public policy ideas. But as it turns out, those ideas are hard to pin down.

Scott Sumner gives four examples of how easy it has been for liberals to completely flip flop their positions on important policy issues. And when they change they seem to do so like lemmings – all in lock step, without embarrassment or regret. (Warning: Summer says conservatives are equally malleable.)

  • In 1987, The New York Times editorial page called for abolishing the minimum wage. Today, the same newspaper calls for a higher minimum wage.
  • In the 1960s, John Kenneth Galbraith and the left wing Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) favored abolishing the corporate income tax and taxing shareholders on the basis of corporate profits. Today, liberal publications and columnists are defending our high corporate tax rates.
  • In the 1980s, Ted Kennedy and other liberals voted to lower the top personal income tax rate from 50 percent to 28 percent, while closing loopholes at the same time. Today, they are more likely to join Paul Krugman in defending high marginal tax rates.
  • In the 1990s, liberal economists abandoned the Keynesian idea that tax and spending policies could influence the behavior of the economy and focused on monetary policy instead. Today, old style Keynesianism is back in vogue.

I would add two more bullets. It was under Jimmy Carter, not Ronald Reagan, that the modern de-regulation movement began. The congressional push for it was led by Ted Kennedy and other liberal stalwarts. Yet today, Paul Krugman and others blame deregulation for many modern woes. And over the course of two decades (the 60s and the 70s) mainstream liberal thought went from being aggressively interventionist in foreign affairs to almost pacifist.

How do we explain all this? In What Is A Progressive? I proposed part of the answer: liberalism is sociology rather than an ideology. The same can be said of conservatism.

But what kind of sociologies are they? Years ago, David Henderson suggested that think tanks and others involved in the war of ideas are actually in the “market for excuses.” That is, politicians need intellectual justification for things they want to do for non-intellectual reasons.

For the whole of my academic career I have believed in the idea of a political equilibrium. There are underlying forces – independent of personalities and independent of ideology -- that push us to the public policies we have. Across the developed world, the political equilibrium in various countries is more similar than different – suggesting that the underlying forces are much the same from country to country.

From time to time, however, the equilibrium gets disturbed and in the resulting disequilibrium advocates of certain policies group together in predictable but not necessarily rational ways. For example, in the United States we historically have had those who want government in the bedroom but not in the board room aligned against those who prefer the opposite. If ideology were dominating politics, you would expect people who want government both in the bedroom and the boardroom to be aligned against people who want government in neither.

But ideology doesn’t dominate. In fact, it gets in the way. What is needed are ways of thinking that are not necessarily coherent, but provide intellectual excuses for the sets of policy positions that emerge. Liberalism and conservatism fulfill those roles.

And when I say they are not coherent I mean that you can’t find a book or an essay that explains how their various components rationally fit together.

The problem comes when the underlying forces change. For the sociologies to fulfill their social role, they too must change. And that’s not easy.

The problem for Democrats is that the party is increasingly ruled by the “new oligarchs.” In his review of The New Class Conflict, by Joel Kotkin, a lifelong Democrat, George Will explains that there is a:

growing alliance between the ultra-wealthy and the instruments of state power. In 2012, Barack Obama carried eight of America's 10 wealthiest counties.

Unfortunately for party harmony, the oligarchs are basically anti-job creation and anti-economic growth – which they see both as a threat to the environment and a threat to their life style. This puts them squarely at odds with the working class voters who used to be the backbone of the Democratic Party.

As I explained in “How Liberals Live,” once the plutocrats settle in a community like Boulder, Colorado or Portland, Oregon, they become fiercely anti-development and doggedly determined to shape their community in ways that price the middle class out of the housing market. As a result, wherever wealthy liberals tend to congregate, housing is more expensive and there is more inequality. Again from Will:

In New York, an incubator of progressivism, Kotkin reports, the "wealthiest one percent earn a third of the entire city's personal income -- almost twice the proportion for the rest of the country." California, a one-party laboratory for progressivism, is home to 111 billionaires and the nation's highest poverty rate (adjusted for the cost of living)….

California is no longer a destination for what Kotkin calls "aspirational families:" In 2013, he says, Houston had more housing starts than all of California.

We have already seen how powerful the oligarchs can be in the case of the vote on the Keystone Pipeline. Senate Democrats were so kowtowed by one billionaire environmentalist that they gave up a senate seat and voted against the labor unions – their traditional core constituency.

Not to be out done, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has banned fracking in his state – another blow to blue collar workers Democrats ordinarily rely on when elections are held. The Wall Street Journal adds: “And this fellow fancies himself a potential President.”

What Democrats now need is a new type of liberalism. One that apologizes for and defends the new Democratic Party reality.

That’s a tall order.