The rise of reactionary liberalism

Posted: Dec 16, 2004 12:00 AM

  "Please, don't change anything." That bids fair to become the liberal slogan for the early 21st century. Who knew government programs circa 2004 would have achieved an equipoise of perfection such that disturbing them in the slightest way would represent liberal heresy? And who would have guessed that "progressives" would become opponents of change so thoroughgoing that they would make Edmund Burke blush?
   Reactionary liberalism will be the order of the day in President Bush's second term. Take Social Security. The program was started in the 1930s. Back then, there were 41 workers for every retiree. Now, there are three workers for every retiree. Back then, life expectancy was significantly shorter than its current 78 years. In other words, in 70 years the world has changed, but the structure of Social Security hasn't -- and liberals desperately want to keep it that way.

    Never mind that dozens of countries have implemented some version of the Bush-proposed private retirement accounts. "It's just too dangerous" will be the mantra. We don't have the reform acumen of a Kazakhstan! We don't have the risk-taking verve of a Denmark! We don't have the keen governmental competence of a Chile! We don't have the reckless faith in markets of a Sweden! No, no. We are Americans, and all we can manage is a defensive huddle around the status quo.

    The same basic argument will apply to tax reform, tort reform, health-care reform and further education reform. No issue quite highlighted the left's reactionary impulse than when, during the campaign, Bush proposed redeploying American troops from their Cold War outposts around the world. Liberals immediately reacted negatively, making the argument, basically, that the troops should stay where they are, because they've been there for 40 years, and everyone is comfortable with it.

    It is in foreign policy that the new liberal orientation has been most stark. Liberals once believed in global change based on the advance of human rights. This was an admirable idea (if sometimes poorly implemented). Now it's been abandoned because Bush has picked it up, and liberals believe in little else in foreign policy except that whatever we attempt will fail. The left seems to have lost one of its historic attributes -- a belief in human capacities. When welfare reform was proposed in the 1990s, liberals warned that welfare recipients couldn't possibly hack being off the dole. In the war on terror, they implicitly suggest that Arabs can't manage living in democratic societies.

    Why the migration of old-fashioned, status-quo conservatism from right to left? It is partly a function of the current political dynamic. Republicans are on the offensive, so Democrats must play defense. It is also a hangover from recent political history. Conservatives, for decades, have told themselves that "ideas have consequences," and have set about through think tanks, books and magazines to find the best ones. During the period of richest conservative policy ferment, in the 1970s and 1980s, liberals could content themselves with relying on what was an increasingly sclerotic congressional majority. Liberalism was dependent on the fumes of the New Deal and Great Society, which were powerful, but bound to dissipate.

    Some liberals -- especially the cleverest bloggers -- realize it is imperative that Democrats re-brand themselves as the party of reform. But that will take some doing, as the party is simultaneously resisting every Bush-proposed reform. The Democrats will have to say "no, no, no and no" at the same time they try to rally the public around their innovative idea, say, to further erode the First Amendment with yet more campaign-finance "reform."

    It is the sheer resistance to change that will inevitably be emphasized. In Voltaire's classic "Candide," the character Pangloss insists, against all evidence, that it is the best of all possible worlds. Voltaire meant in part to skewer an impervious belief in the felicity of the status quo. In this sense, Pangloss is becoming the patron saint of 21st-century liberalism.

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