Wall Street Journal
April 12, 20007
by GARY ROSEN*
Ronald Reagan gave the now-familiar indictment its classic formulation. Nearing the end of his presidency in 1988, he set his sights on Michael Dukakis, who had just won the Democratic nomination on a platform of pragmatism and technocratic competence. What this "masquerade" really promised, Reagan said, was something very different: a return to "policies of tax and spend, economic stagnation, international weakness and accommodation, and always, always, always, blame America first." It was time, he declared, to use "the dreaded 'L' word" and to tell the American people that Mr. Dukakis and his party were "liberal, liberal, liberal."
Paul Starr doesn't mention this bit of political theater in "Freedom's Power," but it is the necessary backdrop for his earnest, instructive effort to restore the good name of liberalism. For Mr. Starr, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton and a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, the relatively recent fashion of bad-mouthing liberalism is not just an obstacle to the future success of Democrats, whose leaders break into a sweat at the very mention of their own creed; it is also an offense against America's deepest principles, principles shared in large measure by the parties of Michael Dukakis and Ronald Reagan alike.
As Mr. Starr reminds us, liberalism in the broadest sense is the centuries-old political philosophy of the English-speaking West. The leading lights of "classical" liberalism--thinkers like John Locke, Montesquieu, Adam Smith and James Madison--sought to limit and constrain government in the name of freeing the individual. Their great instrument was a properly balanced constitution, one that would enshrine the rule of law and a wide range of personal rights. What Mr. Starr correctly emphasizes is that the founders of liberalism aimed not just to control state power but to create it too. It was no accident that the pre-eminent liberal regimes--Britain and the U.S.--rose to such heights. Their dynamic societies generated wealth and social capital that no prince or dictator could hope to match.
This much of Mr. Starr's account could be endorsed by any present-day conservative (though readers of every political stripe will regret that he doesn't relate his history with a lighter, less academic touch). Where Mr. Starr gets into trouble is in describing the transition between this "classical" phase and the "modern democratic liberalism" that most engages his own passions. Liberals of every era have aspired to create a "free, fair, and prosperous society," he writes, but "the ways and means of achieving that end have necessarily evolved."
In 20th-century America--from the Progressives to the New Deal, the Great Society and beyond--moving the liberal project forward demanded a new, more egalitarian agenda: active measures to redistribute wealth, social programs to provide the "basic requirements of human development," expanded rights for blacks and women, and a general "deregulation of private life" in matters of sex and self-expression. As for foreign policy, it entailed a new emphasis on international institutions and cooperation, thus extending American power by accepting certain checks on its use.
To a degree, of course, most of these more recent liberal innovations now form a part of the American political consensus, even for conservatives. After all, no one on the right is agitating to abolish the income tax or the Department of Health & Human Services, to repeal the civil-rights laws, or to withdraw the U.S. from NATO and the U.N. (well, maybe the U.N.). What can be found on the right is a set of longstanding concerns about the practical effects, and moral and social costs, of modern liberalism's most expansive ambitions. Our own left-right divide, for all its partisan fury, is in many ways a family quarrel within the history of liberalism itself.
Mr. Starr seems at moments to recognize as much. He concedes that liberalism went off course during the 1960s in its uncritical embrace of anti-poverty programs, affirmative action, judicial activism and the "rights revolution." But he sees modern conservatism as a reactionary or self-interested "backlash," not as a reasoned critique--and certainly not as an alternative to the European-style welfare state that fires his own imagination. For all his apparent appreciation of liberalism's classical past, Mr. Starr takes his bearings from Brussels, not from Locke, Smith and Madison. His longed-for liberal restoration gives a perfunctory bow to limited government, free markets and bourgeois virtue, but he does not take them seriously enough to grant a hearing to their most thoughtful contemporary advocates.
Mr. Starr deserves credit, especially from his fellow Democrats, for consistently framing his argument in terms of American strength and purpose, at home and abroad. I somehow doubt that his own proposals will do much to further these ends--do we really need a "Young America" program to jump-start our apathetic teens?--but the language itself is refreshingly optimistic and forward-looking, even Reaganesque. It is, if nothing else, a first step in the worthy effort to rehabilitate the "dreaded 'L' word."
*Mr. Rosen is the managing editor of Commentary. You can buy "Freedom's Power" from the OpinionJournal bookstore.
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