The Future of Liberalism

February 22nd, 2009 at 8:28 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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Somebody seriously mistitled this book. About liberalism’s past, Alan Wolfe has a great deal to say. About the evils and deficiencies of conservatism too. But he does not get around to addressing his stated topic — liberalism’s future — until about half-way down the second-to-last page of his book. Here is what he has to say then: “The challenge facing liberalism in the future, then, is not to beat out its rivals; . . . it has already done that. Its biggest challenge is to get liberals to once again believe in liberalism.”

So what is this “liberalism” in which liberals have so unaccountably ceased to believe? Mr. Wolfe offers his definition in the form of a series of discursive essays, heavy on quotation, light on suggestion. Liberalism is for artifice and against nature; for reason and against emotion; for equality and against ideas that claim qualities to be innate in any group of people; for religion in private but not in public; for international law and against international conflict; for progress and against pessimism.

Democratic members of Congress looking for guidance on the right and wrong way to stimulate the economy will find little assistance here. Nor does Mr. Wolfe offer help to liberals who want to avoid repeating the mistakes that, in the 1960s and 1970s, wrecked past liberal triumphs. As he sees it, liberalism — having been right all along about just about everything — has little to reason to reconsider anything.

Instead Mr. Wolfe urges liberals to continue just as they are, only more so. “It is unjust if one person gets to keep his job and an equally deserving person loses her job just because the latter’s firm was bought out by a cost-cutting multinational corporation and the former’s was not.” As that remark suggests, Mr. Wolfe’s vision of the role of the state is an ambitious one. Yet when it comes time to explain how that role can be realized, he tends to get hazy.

There are serious problems associated with Mr. Wolfe’s eagerness for a big and generous welfare state. How is it to be paid for? How do we avoid creating perverse incentives? What about the side-effects of government dependency: weakened families and atomized communities? Conservatives and liberals alike have done powerful work on such matters — one reason that it was a liberal president, Bill Clinton, who signed welfare reform into law. Mr. Wolfe brusquely shrugs off all such questions. “Critics of the welfare state [worry] that once people feel entitled to something, they no longer need expend much initiative to get it. If people feel entitled to things they do not deserve, such critics would have a point. But the rights historically associated with the welfare state are something that everybody deserves.”

But does everybody really deserve not to have their company bought by a cost-cutting multinational? Can it really be “deserved” that, in a welfare state modeled on, say, that of the Netherlands, one out of six workers collects disability benefits? How much unemployment insurance do people deserve if, as happens, too much insurance, going on for too long, causes people to reduce their work effort? At what point do regulations against the inequalities of wage or job discrimination open the door to the inequities of reverse discrimination?

Over these problems and concerns Mr. Wolfe glides with sublime abstraction. Unlike romantic environmentalists, he does not fear science and the supposed depredations of modernity. He has fun with those leftists who, as he puts it, “worry about the food we eat and go on from there to the air we breathe, the dangers to our neighborhoods posed by gentrification, the loss of jobs threatened by globalization, the effect of computer games on children, the gains in personal autonomy under attack from the religious right, the electromagnetic currents that bring electricity into our homes, the side effects of the medications we swallow and the diseases in store for us if we do not swallow them.”

Very funny, and good for Mr. Wolfe for saying so. But it is one thing to distance oneself from liberalism’s excesses, quite another to grapple with its deficiencies. Mr. Wolfe’s list of ridiculous leftist worries, you’ll note, includes one of his own: globalization’s threat to jobs. Elsewhere he acknowledges that affirmative action violates a “key liberal principle” by elevating group membership over individual achievement. But he is quite willing to support it anyway, because otherwise “the racism of others” (a group assumption he easily makes) will prevent various members of society from “reaching their full potential.”

Nobody would describe “The Future of Liberalism” as a tautly written book. It seems a product more of the author’s irritations than his aspirations, of his peeves than his passions. Those inclined to agree with him will enjoy his attacks on conservative populists, Straussian theorists and — most detested of all — the liberal hawks who supported the Iraq war.

But those liberals who have just gained the wide opportunity and heavy responsibility of a big political mandate will find little help in “The Future of Liberalism” for the work ahead. It is odd to hear that a politics that calls itself “progressive” will find its future in its past — and odder still to hear that a politics that thinks of itself as based on reason demands less questioning and more faith. What liberal leaders will find here in abundance is the thing they need least: an eagerness to flinch from practical problems, hubris about the capacity of government and good intentions, and condescension when it comes to valid criticism of the errors that have so often laid waste to their political hopes in the past.

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