The Journey of Indefinite Government

So what is “liberalism” today?  Is it a mere grab-bag of miscellaneous policy preferences, or some coherent thing, with an intelligible cause and purpose?

In an ambitious project, historians Donald T. Critchlow and W.J. Rorabaugh aim to answer these questions.  In their book, Takeover: How the Left’s Quest for Social Justice Corrupted Liberalism, the authors argue that contemporary liberalism represents an coherent political project that was launched in the 1960s by the “New Progressives.”  These reformers rejected the modest aims of the old liberals, who, according to the Critchlow and Rorabaugh, had sought merely to mitigate the evils of industrial capitalism.  Instead, the New Progressives aimed for a comprehensive transformation of the American economy and even the whole society, by means of a massive expansion in the size and scope of the government.  Consequently, today’s liberal agenda “is much more radical and encompassing.”

As the title of their work suggests, Critchlow and Rorabaugh contend that both the methods and the ends of the New Progressives can be properly called a “takeover.”  The authors relate the successful efforts of young liberals to take over the Democratic Party, the public schools, the legal system, and urban communities.  Over four decades, a “left-wing base” was “built from the ground up.”  Relying on this base, Barack Obama achieved an electoral victory that was, for the New Progressives, at once both grand achievement and unprecedented opportunity— the chance to “remake” the United States.

Critchlow and Rorabaugh argue persuasively that the New Progressives have consciously aimed to transcend the old liberal project.  The goal has been not merely to complete the work of securing federal rights to education, healthcare, etc., but also to achieve more far-reaching goals, including extensive environmental protection, population control, legalized euthanasia, abortion, etc.

Indeed, as the authors explain, in some respects, the goals of new progressivism are not supplemental, but adverse, to those of the old.  This opposition is most salient in the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection.  The old progressives generally welcomed capitalistic economic growth and sought primarily to mitigate its negative effects all while making good use of capitalism’s massive tax revenue.  The New Progressives, in contrast, have been openly hostile to capitalism and consumerism.  Consider, for instance, the Grand Coulee Dam, one of the signature public works of the New Deal.  Although providing enormous benefits to public and private enterprise in the form of hydro energy and irrigation, the dam was harmful to various fish species, especially salmon, and submerged some ancestral burial grounds of the Spokane Tribe.  Progressives today would almost certainly block its construction.

Nonetheless, the book has significant flaws.  In several respects, Critchlow and Rorabaugh overstate what they call the “sharp break” between the older and new liberalisms.  Most notably, the authors fail to acknowledge that New Progressives relied on transformative principles already introduced by the old.  Central to the political thought of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, etc, was the rejection of the Founders’ notion of “natural rights,” according to which all human beings have by nature certain rights, which, in turn, must be protected by all governments, in all times and places.  Instead, progressives embraced an ever-mutating, historical definition of rights, substituting history for nature as the standard of rights.

Consider, for instance, Roosevelt’s commentary on the Declaration of Independence in a prominent campaign speech:

The Declaration of Independence discusses the problem of Government in terms of a contract. Government is a relation of give and take, a contract, perforce, if we would follow the thinking out of which it grew. Under such a contract rulers were accorded power, and the people consented to that power on consideration that they be accorded certain rights. The task of statesmanship has always been the re-definition of these rights in terms of a changing and growing social order. New conditions impose new requirements upon Government and those who conduct Government.

In grossly misrepresenting the actual Declaration, Roosevelt here prescribed a continuous redefinition of rights.  Circa 1932, history’s agenda demanded the contraction of individual property rights in favor a new set of positive rights, including the right to minimum prices, minimum wages, unemployment insurance, health care, and many other benefits.  But as Roosevelt indicated, future generations (say, three decades later) were invited to redefine these rights in new and unpredictable ways, whether by addition, subtraction, or otherwise.

The astonishing novelty of the old progressive project is manifest not only in their general principles but also in some of their policy prescriptions.  And in some ways, these policies were more radical than those of contemporary liberals.  For example, the National Industrial Recovery Act authorized the President to grant monopolies and promulgate extensive codes to regulate production, prices, wages, working conditions, etc.  Struck down by the Supreme Court, the law involved a degree of centralized presidential control over the economy that no leading Democrat would advocate today.  And nearly all progressives today would decry the forced sterilization of the mentally handicapped—a new practice successfully championed by progressives in the 1920s and continued until the 1970s.

Relative to the old progressives, the New Progressives were not really new.  They merely accepted, albeit impatiently, the old progressives’ standing invitation to redefine rights.

Far from resisting the next redefinition, the old progressives not only abetted, but enthusiastically aided, the establishment of the new rights.  Most notably, in 1964, Lyndon Johnson proposed a “Great Society,” where government would secure more than the mere bodily goods of liberty and material security (including the material rights of the New Deal), for that was “just the beginning.”  The new rights on the agenda included the people’s longing for meaningful “leisure,” their “desire for beauty and the hunger for community,” and other “needs of the spirit.”  Truly, the possible ends of government were limitless: “But most of all,” he explained, “the Great Society is not a safe harbor, a resting place, a final objective, a finished work. It is a challenge constantly renewed…”

The old progressives lent decisive support to the new in other areas as well.  For example, as the authors themselves note, the population-control movement owed its success less to young activism than to the institutions and money of the old progressive establishment: the Population Council, Planned Parenthood, the Ford Foundation, etc.   As to abortion, while it was, as the authors note, a 26-year-old attorney who launched Roe v. Wade, it was seven old men—six of whom were born before 1910—that established the purported constitutional right to abortion.  Curiously, it was the youngest justices (Byron White and William Rehnquist) who dissented.

Conversely, as the authors do acknowledge, the New Progressives did not abandon the old policy agenda.  Arguably the most important priority of President Obama’s first term was the long-deferred progressive dream of national governmental healthcare.  The authors themselves devote a whole chapter to the topic.  More broadly, contemporary liberalism now spends less of its political capital on making up new rights than on preservation of the rights secured decades ago, such as public-employee pensions, entitlement programs, etc.

While overstating the break between old and new progressivism, Critchlow and Rorabaugh understate this break in two respects.  First, nowhere do the authors mention the sexual revolution, which has informed so much of the modern progressive agenda, including the asserted rights to abortion, same-sex marriage, subsidized contraception, subsidized single motherhood, etc.  For the most part, the old progressives generally accepted the old mores that tended to treat marriage, sex, and offspring as morally interdependent—an “iron triangle” of mutually necessary conditions.

Second, the authors largely overlook the New Progressives’ rejection of the older progressives’ muscular nationalism.  Until the 1960s, liberals were unabashedly patriotic at home, and championed the projection of American diplomatic and military power abroad.  Yet nearly all New Progressives opposed militarism, especially in Vietnam, and most rejected patriotic nationalism, often in favor of ethnic pride or even ethnic separatism.  Critchlow and Rorabaugh note the prominence of the anti-war and ethnic-pride movements in the 1960s, but are nearly silent as to the enduring importance of these movements to contemporary liberalism.  The omission is particularly conspicuous given the two chapters devoted to Barack Obama, who had extensive ties with anti-integrationist black nationalism and whose electoral success depended so much on the reinvigorated anti-war movement.

These two omissions may result from what is perhaps the main flaw in Critchlow and Rorabaugh’s conclusion: the characterization of the New Progressive project as “statist” or “big government.”  These terms simply do not reflect how progressives, whether old or new, understand themselves.   It would be far more accurate to say that progressivism remains less a theory of government than a theory of human flourishing—a concept of human dignity involving an indefinite, historically-malleable set of rights.

According to this theory, government should not be big or small, but should be tailored and re-tailored to fit the size and scope of the most recent redefinition of rights.  If, for instance, the new right is the freedom of the pacific, expressive, and erotic self—one who made love but not war (nor too much money)—then governmental retreat as well as advance might be necessary.  Hence for decades the New Progressives identified the military-industrial complex as a problem; the solution was at once less government (less military) and more governmental regulation of industry.

Similarly the new sexual freedom did not demand “statism” simpliciter.  First and foremost, this liberty required less government, e.g., legalization of pornography, nonmarital sex (perhaps including prostitution), and abortion.  But conversely, this freedom has arguably mandated more government, viz., to ensure that women as well as men, poor as well as rich, have access to the technology and other means necessary for their full and equal participation.  Free love should be free of consequences, and free for all.  Government thus should provide, or force employers to provide, free contraception, discount abortions, etc.  Further, elective unwed parenthood should be subsidized in a similar way.   And should a full and rich enjoyment of any new right require a freedom from even private disapproval, then government might need to grow again and limit the anachronistic freedoms of speech, association, religion, etc.

In truth, the New Progressives, like their predecessors, have advocated not “statism” or “big government,” but “indefinite government.”  For good or for bad, the success of the New Progressives means government, over the next several decades, will likely expand and contract—in ways that even the New Progressives themselves cannot predict.  The journey is the destiny.

Still, as Critchlow and Rorabaugh conclude, the rights championed by progressivism, both old and new, have generated enormous, unsustainable costs.  These costs will, in turn, impose stern limits to future progressive projects.   So while in the twentieth century, History seemingly conquered natural rights, in the twenty-first, History will yield to Arithmetic.