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Our Parties, Part One

from the magazine

Our Parties, Part One

The Democrats: how progress became drift Winter 2015
Politics and law

President Woodrow Wilson, a progressive icon . . .

Our parties are the Democrats and the Republicans as electoral and governing bodies, liberals and conservatives in ways of thinking. Increasingly, Democrats are liberals and Republicans are conservatives, the phenomenon known as polarization, by which we more and more divide ourselves politically, in our parties, by our ways of thinking. We tend to think as partisans facing opponents. Our current polarized parties make this truth only more apparent.

Most obviously, our thinking centers on progress, for and against (and liberals have recently taken up their former name, “progressives”). On progress, an interesting problem appears in the facts of American politics: on the one hand, progressives keep gaining their point, the latest one being the growing success of same-sex marriage; on the other hand, their opponents keep resisting progress, own half the electorate, and win half the elections.

From the success of the idea of progress, one would think that resistance by “reactionaries,” as they are called derisively, would fade—that conservatives would realize that they are doomed to obsolescence, like racists and male supremacists, and give up. This is what progressives expect. They don’t understand why their opponents continue the fight, and they are tempted to think them foolish and inhumane. But such obduracy might also suggest that progressives do not control the progress they espouse and that there is something permanent in the nature of politics about resistance to progress that sustains conservatives, despite their steady losses.

In one party is the belief, necessary to progressivism, that the course of history will vindicate their rational proposals, that history is on the side of reason, and that they will win, if not immediately, at least ultimately. History in its function of supporting reason is a straight line to the known future: this is progress. In the other party, continuing resistance suggests that history is a cycle without such a future, that it gives comfort to both sides and therefore to neither, and that reason can be found in opposition to progress (which ought to be labeled “progress”) as well as in its promotion. To study our parties, both facts must be examined: the generally increasing success of progress; and the steady, occasionally successful, opposition to it.

I will begin with the linear progressive view in its original promise and then show its present-day degradation from that promise. (In the next issue, I will turn to the cyclical view in Aristotle, its greatest exponent, and in Tocqueville, Aristotle’s modern representative.) My analysis is a kind of political science quite different from the academic mainstream, which tries to explain our thought through its subservience to the self-interest of economic, racial, or gender groups. Analysis by self-interest, however, assumes that everybody has the same sort of self. I shall suppose that one’s self is a conclusion, as well as the basis, of one’s thinking, and hence, that self-interest may differ according to one’s thinking. We know that many people with the alleged self-interest of a liberal vote conservative, and vice versa. We may learn more by starting from what they think rather than dismissing their ideas and assuming that we know better. So I will take seriously the expression of partisan opinion that is usually dismissed or set aside as rationalization. What, then, is the thinking of, and behind, our parties?

At its origin, conservatism was a reaction to liberalism; and from its origin, it has kept to its role as critic of liberalism, thus yielding the initiative to liberalism. Liberalism does not wait for opportunities to arise or for its opponents to make a move. It pushes ahead with new programs of political and social reform, seeking further progress. But progress toward what? Toward equality, usually stated as greater equality. Yes, one can reply, but how much equality? Here liberals grow vague because they have not thought ahead as to how far they could go—or, if they have thought, they differ in the extent of their radicalism. Is it perfect equality they seek, or just more than we have now?

Strangely, we always seem to discover fresh inequalities requiring reform, even obvious ones such as the domination of the male sex, which was complacently accepted not only for millennia before there were progressives but also by progressives, too, until quite recently. What came next was the discovery of the domination of heterosexuals, also accepted for millennia, also only recently addressed, and, in fact, mostly overlooked, even in the program of equality for women just before it. Progressives seem to lack a vision of what lies further ahead. What, for instance, comes after we have attended to equality in sexuality? The inequality between the fat and the slim? The ugly and the beautiful? The stupid and the bright? Ignorant and heedless of what comes next, progress travels on a bandwagon, headed in a certain direction but without a destination.

Yet the idea of progress requires an end. Without a destination, the direction actually cannot be certain. How can one speak of “progress” without knowing the end to which one is progressing? The difficulty is not that progressives are unintelligent and thoughtless in the pursuit of equality; rather, the end of equality is necessarily unknown—unknowable—because equality by itself is formless.

Tocqueville said that democratic equality is, by its nature, revolutionary in desiring to equalize every aspect of life. No formal institution can stand up against this relentless desire. All representative institutions can be criticized as insufficiently equal and replaced with new ones bringing more equality and then those, too, replaced in turn. Institutions created to establish equality, such as elections, can be made more equal by substituting for them daily surveys to keep the government more responsive to the immediate wants of the people, or, as we see now, interactive media that permit watchers to register their instant reactions. Progress as equality acts like a solvent so powerful that it eats through every container formed to hold it. It is no respecter of forms because every form or formality of procedure is a limitation on the immediate expression of everyone’s equally sovereign will. The form of an election, for example, forces the individual will to compromise with others and gives both time and space for the government to act on its estimate of that will, rather than submit to immediate, peremptory commands or whimsy in the electorate. The “electorate” is a formal restatement of the people; it is the people as a certain, constructed, constitutional concept.

Well, then, if equality by itself cannot be kept still and defined, progressives can turn to democracy as a form of government devoted to equality, but not only to equality. Liberty is a progressive ideal that can cooperate with equality, as it did in the women’s movement for equality, which was also a movement for women’s liberation. But liberty also has unequal consequences when inequalities of intelligence, ambition, and talent are freed to do their work. With women’s liberation, women became more unequal among themselves as they were freed to become professionals, superior to the common equality of housewives. The consequence as a whole we call “liberal democracy,” which is no longer solely devoted to equality and equalization. In the need for democracy, now considered as a form of government, the idea of progress acquires definition.

Yet making the world safe for democracy requires making democracy safe for the world. For this, equality must be restrained in order to protect liberty as well as the necessary and useful inequalities resulting from opportunity in a liberal democracy. The idea of progress is caught between democratic majority rule, which often sanctions inequality and requires stable institutions, and its own formless drive toward ever-increasing equality. If supporters of the idea of progress define and transform their reckless desire for equality, they must suffer the accompanying departures from equality necessary to establish it.

Progress toward equality thus raises the question of the relation of equality to democracy. Democracy is the rule of the demos, the people, over all—in practice, according to the ancients, the rule of the many over the few. In modern conceptions, however, the people includes everybody, all men having been created equal; so democracy is a form of self-government in which all have the right to consent. The right to consent is equal, and each person counts as one; hence, the rule of the people is the rule of the majority. But suppose the majority votes to maintain certain inequalities? This has been called “false consciousness,” using the Communist term for opinion that theory says should not exist. If the people are sovereign in America, one could say that existing inequalities remain in place by consent of the sovereign. Yet, besides deciding by vote, democracy also aims at equality and wants more of it. Then a question arises for progressives: Is democracy far off in the future because we are today so tolerant of inequalities, or does democracy exist now because majorities vote for that toleration? Is democracy more its end or more its form of government?

If perfect equality is impossible to know or live with, we have to consider where and how to restrain it. This is what the Framers of the U.S. Constitution did. They took the statement in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal and made it politically viable. To do so, they considered democracy as a form of government (actually calling it a “republic,” as opposed to a direct democracy) and to make it viable gave it certain oligarchical features, such as a Senate and separation of powers, impeding direct majority rule. The Framers criticized the existing government of the Articles of Confederation because it was not viable, not because it failed to supply enough equality. Their political science, argued beautifully in The Federalist, aimed at improving the existing form, not at heedlessly attacking every form. Later changes in practice and to the Constitution made American government more democratic, but always within, and without challenging, the Constitution. In the early twentieth century, progressives promoted a “living Constitution” that changes with the times, but they appear not to know, though surely they must care, what changes the times will bring.

The irrationality of ever-greater equality as an end, though, does not prevent the progressive view from claiming to be more rational than reliance on tradition. Reason can be advanced with applied sciences by experts with specialized knowledge of how to improve society—experts possessing not wisdom but “expertise.” With progress, society will come to depend less on custom, tradition, common sense, and superstition, and ever more on unanswerable argument based on first principles apparent to all, and on science evident to the most enlightened and appreciable by all. Progressives claim to have reason on their side, as against prejudice on the opposing side. Yet if reason cannot identify an end to progress, we return to the difficulty that it cannot define progress along the way. When faced with a demand for change, we need to know whether it is toward the end of progress. The end of progress would be the end of progressive history, synonymous with “the end of history.”

Progressives today do not realize that they have a stake in the “end of history” debate, on the side of there being an end. They are more likely to take the other side and to think that infinite progress is more progressive than definable progress. The same egalitarian impulse that depends on reason and uses it to attack prejudice has now attacked reason itself. It has become “anti-foundational” and wants to deny the solidity of reason as elitist. “Who are you to tell me you have reason on your side?” It is manifest that liberalism as it ages has become relativistic, rejecting not only conservative dogmas of the quiet past but also its own liberal dogmas of the stormy present. Its relativism is, of course, selective, as it exempts liberal virtues such as toleration and policies such as affirmative action, which are solid and true. It also maintains liberalism’s early intolerance of those it regards as intolerant—the conservatives. But the distinction between reason and prejudice, so necessary to progress, has lost its firm grounding. That is why one does not see the word “progress” in academic discourse any more without quotation marks. The professors hedge their bets with the terms “change” or “social change,” which always point toward greater equality—without the necessity of proving that such change is progress.

Progressives still believe in science, to be sure. They believe in science without believing in the intelligibility of things, however, just as the mathematical imaginations of modern physicists show that they, too, have lost sight of a secure connection between science and reason: it seems that science has decided to describe the chaotic openness of the universe in a way that comports with the unpredictable openness of the progressive vision of society. Like the progressives, scientists don’t know where they are going. Scientists, as scientists, don’t know whether science is a good thing or not, as “goodness” is not a scientific term. It’s not a scientific fact, just a value. So there’s no scientific proof that science is good. The same with progress. But scientists, in practice, dismiss these doubts and proceed as if science—and hence, progress in science, at least—were good and reason were reliable.

The progressives, with the same backing from science, proceed with almost the same confidence as they had in their heyday, before they turned their doubts on themselves. Even their early optimism did not reflect confidence in the capability of the average person to absorb and act on science. Progressives believed that reason could act most effectively through the use and management of the irrational nature of man, which is not dependent on most people’s reasoning power. They offered as maxims: Do not argue or exhort, but use incentives, appeal to vanity, scare with fears, remind of reputation. Reason provides for rational control of human life through unreason; it does not mean that we can all know what we are doing. We need experts to show us how civilization can make us all enlightened, as opposed to wise. Being enlightened means being amenable to enlightened experts.

This progressive notion of rational control begins with the earliest modern philosophy in Descartes and Hobbes, and it came to America most prominently in the ideas of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson thought that liberty and science could work together to make society freer and more rational, shaking off “monkish superstition” and advancing man’s twofold capacity to know and to produce. He promoted public education, in which “the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually”; and to refine those who survived the raking, he founded the University of Virginia. He was also the founder of the first American political party, based on the inevitability of progress but called, after its voters, the Democratic-Republicans.

Those early in the twentieth century who called themselves progressives looked to the future to identify their supporters, who were not confined to the so-called Progressive Party but could be found among Democrats, Republicans, and independents. They conceived of a new political science, a science of public administration that would zealously but impartially—in the spirit of scientific progress—put progressive programs into effect. These were partisan programs, of course, but of a sort that would do away with the need for partisanship. Reason made available for scientific application would result in the formulation and administration of programs that eliminate any reasonable cause for dispute—and even any unreasonable cause. Opponents would be out-argued, and if that were not enough, shamed into silence when the prestige of science overpowered the boastful assurances of common sense.

. . . sent American troops overseas on a mission to democratize the world.

After the Progressive Era, the science of administration broadened to comprehend all social science. Economists, led by Lord Keynes, became prominent during the New Deal, when they were needed to guide and justify increases in government spending. Their forecasting would tell government when to borrow and when to repay loans so as to bring the excesses in the market under rational control. Earlier, in the system of Adam Smith, it was thought rational to liberate the market from the sort of supervision in feudal times that put economics in the service of morality (generosity) and politics (glory). This earlier stage of progress fashioned bourgeois morality, based on saving and thrift (think Benjamin Franklin), to replace noble virtue, based on magnanimous pride and magnificent spending.

In our time, since progress improves on progress, spending can return to favor, both for government and for individuals, in a democratic guise. Government can, by its taxation, displace the function of the rich, puffed up as they are with their aristocratic pretensions, by substituting its justice (see John Rawls) for their philanthropy. Democracy under Democrats becomes a society of consumers rather than producers, spenders rather than savers.

And, since economics has little to say to the soul, the sciences of psychology and sociology come to the fore as well, ministering to the poor—and the poor not so much as they are honest and good-natured (as Aristotle said) but as vulnerable. A society devoted to security for the vulnerable learns to focus on human weakness and looks to means of alleviating stress, as well as, and more than, providing security of one’s body. Or both together: shopping is healthful for the overstressed soul. As progress begins to rely more and more on social science, it grows impatient with the formalities and traditions of the law. It was progressives who invented “legal realism,” the pragmatic understanding that law is an instrument of democratic policy, not an authority over democracy with a majesty that must be respected. Social science is the new authority burrowing within the law, coming to the aid of the living Constitution with its confident new findings, helping to overturn precedent (as happened in the 1954 school desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education). Law professors increasingly use social science rather than jurisprudence, considering themselves agents of progress while calling themselves social scientists and forgoing the dubious respect due to law as such. In general, “studies show” is a desired (if not necessary) feature of every presentation in the society of progress, giving the required sense of nonpartisanship to our endeavors, public and private. This is not to dismiss all social-science studies but only to locate them, at least in their original intent, on the side of progress.

The social science of progress, besides being nonpartisan, claims to be experimental—open-minded and tentative. Particular experiments may fail, but, progressives think, we can learn from our mistakes as long as we keep trying. This thought reveals that, though progress proceeds through experiments and experiments are tentative, the experimental method (or “pragmatism”) itself is not experimental. It is fixed; it is not “falsifiable,” as scientists (taught by Karl Popper) like to say. It is a dogma no less optimistic than that of the existence of God. Science may not be omniscient, but it is satisfied that it can correct all its mistakes.

With the support of science, the original Progressives hoped to rise above partisanship and to put their program of progress beyond the party conflict in which it first appeared. In their theory, there would be no going back. They would repeat the “revolution” of 1800 in the election of Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans. That was an event with the ambition to put an end to the partisanship with which it was forced to begin. Progress is not progress in the required sense unless it is irreversible. A later, better time does not constitute progress over an earlier time, unless its better character is secure, and there is no going back. An improvement that left partisans of the old way willing and able to return to, say, the horse-and-buggy era, would be insecure. Changes in technology, such as the automobile, the computer, and the cell phone, however, are easier to make unanimous than changes in culture or thinking. Modern art is far inferior to the painting of the Renaissance, yet it has the power to render that higher level unattainable—even unimaginable—by us. The very idea of progress, one could say, is meant to replace the possibility of renaissance, or rebirth of an older, better time. Thanks to modern progress, we can look at and admire the works of the Old Masters, whose beauty we can preserve and reproduce—but cannot match.

The main feature of liberal progress, therefore, is that it is intended to be irreversible. When President Obama introduced his signature proposal for universal health care, he said: “I am not the first president to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last.” It was the same in President Roosevelt’s New Deal: for all its partisanship, its purpose was to narrow the range of partisanship and to put entitlements such as Social Security beyond further dispute. Progress makes defenders of the old orders and the old virtues not just wrong but obsolete, “on the wrong side of History.” History with a capital H has a direction that reasonable people cannot deny and will not struggle against.

With backing from History, progressives play the role of conservatives, thus making conservatives unnecessary. Progressives take over the guardianship of whatever has been established (by them). They hold to the order decreed from on high, their social science replacing theology and their experts and intellectuals replacing priests. Progressives are in, or have become, the mainstream, the moderate center, and their conservative opponents are the outliers, the radicals out of touch with reality. To be noted, “History” in this expression has a wrong side that permits the freedom of a bad choice. But the wrong side cannot prevail against the superior rationality, which supplies superior power, on the side of progress.

Now that we have considered difficulties in the idea of progress, it is time to enter the politics of progress. Progress reduces the scope of politics and thus minimizes the relevance of the common good. The common good tends to become the sum of individual benefits, in which the “common good” is that of individuals similarly benefited, and not sharing and cooperating in a common life. Government promises security—in comfort, of course, not bare survival—for individuals as such; it places this goal above promoting a certain democratic way of life. Americans learn to put their security, meaning each one’s own security, first—ahead of public-spirited thoughts and actions for the whole. Consider Social Security, America’s largest entitlement, which actually individualizes society, rendering security less “social,” by giving each retired worker independent means. Social Security is quite different from the idea of “national security,” which brings Americans together in a whole. The democracy of progressives leads toward the society that Tocqueville described as the soft despotism of “individualism,” in which individuals, out of a sense of their own impotence in the face of vast social change, excuse themselves from pleasures and sacrifices prompted by public-spiritedness.

The overall political consequence of irreversible progress is to create “entitlements.” In the narrow sense, “entitlement” is the government’s budgetary term designating expenditures for defined benefits that it has promised to deliver, as opposed to undefined benefits called “discretionary,” though they are just as necessary or even more so. National defense, a common need perhaps requiring sacrifice, is not regarded as an entitlement. Feeling “entitled” is used in a wider sense now of a general expectation that one will be taken care of as an individual. In a commercial country based on the practice of trade and the idea of the social contract, it is strange to find a term for a social good that is so far from a bargain or deal implying mutuality.

“Entitlements” are enactments of benefits that have the character of irreversibility. One must be qualified in some way to receive them, and they are so many and diverse that while some are obvious and easily claimed, others have to be discovered. They are yours by right and by law, their payment by the government being secure (assuming that one is qualified for them), regardless of circumstances, no excuses accepted. They have the first claim on common resources. Some must be supplied by employers or other private parties, beneficiaries having a “private right of action” to sue for them in the courts. They belong to everyone as an individual; the relationship is between the government and each citizen. Entitlements regard each citizen as equally deserving and sometimes extend to resident noncitizens or (as we shall see) even beyond. They create a society structured with a powerful central government connected to individuals dependent on it, though the benefits are often delivered through mediating institutions such as charities, employers, or other nongovernmental associations acting for the government. Employers, especially, are required by law to provide benefits or protections that expand the welfare state without requiring more public employees (though plenty of private ones) or raising taxes.

Since entitlements exist regardless of circumstances, they cannot be changed to suit changing conditions, such as hard times. If hard times come, the situation would be that of an old man at the family table entitled to a steak dinner every night, while the rest of the family gets what is left in the common purse after paying for him. Entitlements are designed to circumvent consideration of the nation’s common good; in the federal budget, they are “nondiscretionary.” The leftover is “discretionary” to meet society’s common, current needs.

All is not rosy in the society of progress, however. Entitlements have three drawbacks that have already appeared or are looming on the near horizon, and they have already attracted much attention and criticism from conservatives: their administration by bureaucracy, their cost, and their effects on foreign policy. Each drawback has given opportunity to conservative opposition against the liberal progress that wants to be inevitable.

In the delivery of entitlements, bureaucracy is liable to the disease of hardened arteries. The political scientist Steven Teles calls it “kludgeocracy,” a name for clumsy, complex, incoherent means of administering law that are somehow effective but in a minimal and costly way. Often the law sets a general policy (such as “clean air”) that requires regulation to accomplish through thousands of pages of specific commands, enforced with varying degrees of discretion by multiple government agencies, each with its own practices and ethos. These commands impose costs of compliance and reporting on businesses in what is called “the private sphere” but are, in fact, not independent from the public sphere and must coexist with its ministers and its demands. The costs amount to a kind of taxation hidden from the view of taxpayers and voters, unless one wonders who pays all the agents and officers of bureaucracy with whom one has contact. Many are professionals, and most do not carry guns, but behind their helpful suggestions (“significant guidance,” to use a recent term from the Department of Education) stands the power of the law. They can be kept at bay only with lawyers, another expense and cause of delay in big government.

Progressive government controls an increasing fraction of our lives, as formerly private concerns such as (most recently) health become subject to public regulation and public concerns such as education are taken over by the federal government from state and local governments (or state and local governments become agents of the federal government). Such regulation goes well beyond the budget items classified as entitlements, and, in the wider spirit of providing protection to which citizens are entitled, it offers guarantees to consumers, purchasers, and owners of all kinds against being cheated or injured or being discriminated against or offended. “Affirmative action” is not just a euphemism for preferences by race or sex but also an accurate name for the government’s eagerness to help as well as a warning sign, in its language, of the clumsiness with which it will act. The government encourages by example (and requires by law) that private companies and universities administer this policy outside the government’s bureaucracy with its own private facsimile bureaucrats, also eager and clumsy, and also likely to be experts of some type.

In sum, progressive government is increasingly responsible for our lives and will increasingly be held to account by a generally ungrateful citizenry. For what is yours by entitlement does not prompt anything more than a nod of satisfaction when you get it but justifies loud complaint when you do not.

To carry out its increasing responsibilities, required for the service of entitlements, government is tempted to fix problems by expanding its regulation of the lives of free citizens. It begins to forget that to let free is to leave alone. It starts to think that rational administration is not a means to freedom but an improvement on it—and that citizens should not be free to make big or even small mistakes in their lives.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, liberal philosophers like John Locke, Adam Smith, and Thomas Paine conceived of a free market as a way of limiting the responsibility of free government so that it confined itself to maintaining the basic common conditions of freedom, rather than trying to make its citizens believe and behave as they should. Now, however, liberals turn on the market as an enemy of public good and common well-being, identifying “market failures” as occasions for government intervention. When this happens, progress can start to look like too much of a good thing. Progress, too, can have its failures, when rational administration displays its incapacity to run your life better than you do. Today, conservatives favor the market and liberals the government, but both the market and the government are intended to produce a more rational administration of our lives. Conservatives want us to be accountable to the market through the competition of self-interests; liberals want to make us accountable to a democratically elected government, using bureaucracy. The trouble is that each gets in the way of the other.

Conservative opposition to the progressives has featured attacks on the ills of bureaucracy—at its best, by the late James Q. Wilson in his book Bureaucracy (1989), an accomplished work of social science that is at war with the progressive origins and goals of social science. Wilson’s discriminating analysis classifies types of bureaucracy rather than protesting bureaucracy as one vile enemy, and it excels in sympathetic understanding of its various ways. But the effect is all the more powerful as criticism of the experts coming from an expert and of bureaucracy from one who knows it well. Wilson’s book was one of the highest expressions of neoconservatism, infamous in progressive circles, to be found in the celebrated journal Public Interest, edited by Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, and Nathan Glazer. For 40 years (1965–2005), every issue of that journal arrived with a fresh exposure of the failures of progressive entitlements, from the New Deal to the Great Society, more through their chosen method of delivery—bureaucracy—than for their overall ambition. The older, traditional conservatives, led by William F. Buckley, Jr., took on the principle of progress itself. In his notable definition, a conservative is “a fellow who is standing athwart History, yelling ‘Stop!’ ” But will History run him over?

Besides requiring bureaucracy, entitlements (in the wide sense) are costly. Not only are they costly; they are also not fully paid for—and not only unpaid for, but the means chosen to pay for them are systematically designed to hide the cost from taxpayers and voters. The result is a gradual increase of debt, greatly accelerated under the Obama administration, to a dangerous size susceptible to a sudden crisis. How or when that crisis might occur remains to be seen. In the 2008 financial crisis, the science of economics—on which the promise of progress relies—once again proved, despite its boasted advances, incapable of forecasting based on what it claims to be knowledge. Yet progressives continue to push for more spending, reckless of cost or reckoning; conservatives resist with limited success, fearful of taking the blame for rolling back the benefits that they had always opposed as unaffordable.

To finance the entitlements they enacted, progressives relied on the urgent advice of Keynes in the 1930s. With fervor and wit, he opposed the cautious “classic” economics of thrift and staying within one’s means, and provided instead a compelling rationale for public spending and deficit financing. The consequence was debt eagerly incurred, not just for long-term investment or to protect the country in war but to cover the current expenses of entitlement benefits. As one example, when originally passed in 1935, Social Security featured what was later called a “lockbox,” in which tax receipts would be saved for future benefits so that the program would pay for itself. But since 1939, the lockbox has been regularly emptied and used for general purposes, including payments to present beneficiaries. These beneficiaries are not guaranteed promised payments from their past savings but have to depend on funding from present taxpayers. This situation is, with exaggeration, likened to a Ponzi scheme, a swindle in which promises are made to suckers on the bet that they will be made good by finding more suckers to pay for them. The Social Security Administration, with more than 60,000 employees to administer its rules, is regarded as the one showcase success of caring government, and yet its return on investment is very poor, much lower than could be gained through private saving, though higher than a confidence man would leave you with.

Thanks to Keynes, the whole welfare state is run on borrowing—not only for investment but also to cover current expenses. Keynes himself argued for deficit spending in hard times paid for by budget surpluses in good times, but his overconfidence in economics failed to account for the difficulty of predicting hard times. The deficient political sense arising from his overconfidence left him unprepared for the further fact that human beings live by habit and are not equipped to switch flexibly from spending, when required, to thrift, when required, and back again. And even if they were flexible, they would be inclined by common sense for their own household to believe that it is better to save in hard times and spend in good times, rather than the reverse. Without thinking out the consequences, Keynes proposed a change in public morality away from responsible self-restraint and toward greater ease. He made fun of thrift and taught others to despise it. His sophisticated calculation stirred the political ambition of economists and buoyed the hopes of progressive politicians, who immediately appreciated the change in economics from a largely conservative profession, arguing caution, to a largely liberal one, demanding spending in government and raising the expectations of citizens for the largesse that results.

In summing up the cost of entitlements, one cannot overlook the cost of those who work for government and are not satisfied with the mere prestige of public employment. In cities—of which Detroit may be only the most prominent example—the wages and pensions of public employees have proved to be not mere incidental expenses, but the overwhelming factor leading to bankruptcy. For public employees, once allowed to organize in unions, have barged to the head of the line of those they serve. No constituency is more demanding. No fact is more revealing than their exorbitant benefits of the selfish essence of entitlements lurking under the surface of generosity, a common good composed of overpaid individuals. They mean well, and many work hard and know their jobs. But they are expensive, and they are now the most shamelessly entitled individuals in the system of entitlements.

New Deal progressivism still believed in the importance of work . . .

The third drawback of progressive entitlements applies to foreign policy. The two original progressive presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, took diverse paths. Both departed from America’s self-absorption, taking their country into the world to achieve something more than an experiment in self-government, conducted on behalf of mankind (as in Federalist 1), but isolated from the rest of mankind. Roosevelt, with his enthusiastic manliness, shook his country into an aggressive policy of mini-imperialism in Panama, Cuba, and the Philippines, whereas Wilson set forth a different, humanitarian drama, renouncing imperialism, when he led America into war with the aim of making the world safe for democracy in general, not only for itself. Franklin Roosevelt took up the cause of the democracies versus the dictators, and he was followed by his progressive successors Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson. But Johnson was forced into retirement by the “peace movement” in his own party against the war in Vietnam. Since then, progressives have been pacifists, and Democrats have wavered between pacifism and responsible, yet reluctant, support for military action. They are uncertain whether America has a cause that justifies putting itself first and going to war. This means that they are uncertain whether progress has occurred, is under way, or is worth defending and promoting.

Such uncertainty produces a foreign policy, now seen in the Obama administration, that looks weak to allies as well as enemies, and therefore is weak. “Soft power,” its unofficial self-description, is effective in tandem with hard power—that is, when accompanied with the threat and occasional use of coercion—but when it is seen as on its own, enemies smell weakness. The test of belief is the willingness to stand up for it, and the test of standing up is willingness to fight. A country that does not believe in itself enough to fight will not be believed by others. The party leading that country may find itself in trouble with a more resolute electorate, as did the Democrats in 1980, when they failed to resolve the Iran hostage crisis. That crisis was resolved by the American people’s electing Ronald Reagan president, an instance of successful menace, or soft power.

Ultimately, then, the inevitability of progress undermines itself. Progress was founded as the overall aim of modernity to apply reason to human society in order to overthrow the unreason of custom, prejudice, and superstition. But progressive reason has lost control because it no longer believes in the power of reason to state clearly and convincingly what progress consists in. Modern reason wanted to bring civilization out of feudal barbarism, but what is civilization now? It is nothing but “multiculturalism,” a hodge-podge of irrational and inconsistent beliefs, and the progress toward it is described by progressives themselves as value-neutral social change. This fundamental unbelief is reflected in the three weaknesses in practice of the idea of inevitable progress: submission to bureaucracy, self-indulgence in debt, and loss of control in foreign policy.

With so much vulnerability for conservatives to take advantage of, it might seem a surprise that the Democrats do as well as they do in elections, winning at least half the time and sustaining without a single major loss the entitlements they had been responsible for enacting. Conservatives like to think that the drawbacks in progress represent reality obstructing the way of wishful liberal progress, but are they enough to stop it or kill the belief in it? Belief in the inevitability of progress is a major part of the reality that conservatives must address, for they, too, have their delusions—particularly, the one they share with liberals: that people will rationally adjust to reality. They may indeed adjust—but not rationally, or in time to prevent a crash or crisis by electing conservatives. To explain this, one must keep in mind the ease of enjoying entitlements together with the political advantage of the Democrats in what is, after all, a democracy. We have entered but not yet described the politics as opposed to the idea of progress.

It is an agreeable thing to be taken care of by someone else, and it is not difficult for a democratic people to conclude that such care is a right of those not so well off against those better off. Facilis descensus Averno. Under the original Progressives and in the New Deal, people accepted that the benefits of government care should preserve the incentive to work; but in time, this point was no longer sustained. In 1972, the Democratic presidential candidate, George McGovern, went so far as to proclaim his clever slogan, “A job for every American who wants one.” Here is the manufacture of an alliance between the working class and the hippie class, a sign of political skill in the Democrats, even if it didn’t work for McGovern. In the entitlement society, attention shifts from producers to consumers, which is also a shift from workers to nonworkers, and if the suggestion is permitted, from men to women. It is not that less work is done; in fact, middle-class, educated women work much more than they used to, as they explore rewarding careers while still slaving away at home.

Feminism is the larger and now-dominant aspect of progress toward equality in American politics. It illustrates the typical character of that progress from idea to entitlement to partisan defense, and it provides the deepest reasons that explain progress’s character. Feminism reached America in 1963 with the publication of Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique, a powerful but nontheoretical statement based on the theorizing in Simone de Beauvoir’s earlier work The Second Sex (1949; first English translation, 1953). That theorizing challenged the notion that equality is to be found in human nature, that all men are created equal, and hence that progress is motion toward realizing a fixed and achievable goal. The trouble is that nature seems to leave women as the second sex, enslaved in motherhood and family, allegedly because, as it seemed naturally, they were inferior to the other sex, the first sex, which appears to run the world.

Beauvoir’s feminism, which became the feminism of the whole women’s movement in America, did not complain that male chauvinism was contrary to nature. Instead, it seemed to concede the naturalness of male conceit, and so proceeded to attack nature itself. It said that the differences between men and women are not at all natural, at least not in any important matter, and that they are entirely made by “social construction,” a new term that dignifies what used to include prejudice. Feminism concluded that what humans had made entirely, they could change entirely. To accomplish this change, it was necessary only to “raise consciousness,” which the feminist movement set out to do and has largely done.

Feminists mounted a political campaign to achieve women’s equality by constitutional amendment, which failed because of conservative women’s opposition, but they won their point by insistent reminders to men that, in a short time, readily gained their consent. Then they proceeded to “socially construct” women’s equality through affirmative action programs, borrowing and free-riding on a concept intended for civil rights for blacks. Those programs ensure by law or by policy that women are treated equally—not quite guaranteeing an equality of result but aiming toward that goal. These programs require or encourage numerous officers to run them inside and outside government, ready to insist that women be treated equally, so that equality for women has become an informal entitlement, similar to the formal entitlements of money in the government’s budget. Women, it turns out, do not give themselves an “identity” on their own; instead, they replace the definition that nature fixed for them with “recognition” from society, “support” from counselors and mentors, and identifying role models of how to succeed. Instead of depending on men, they depend on Big Government; and unmarried women, especially, tend to vote for the party of Big Government, the Democrats.

Progress in action differs from progress in conception or enactment. As progress proceeds, it must defend itself against its opponents, the conservatives—and they have the dependable arguments that we have seen. Inexplicably, yet somehow surely, the irreversibly progressive state appears in danger of being reversed. Soon after the enactment of the New Deal programs, or maybe even in anticipation, the Democrats developed the famous political strategy (attributed, perhaps wrongly, to Harry Hopkins, FDR’s political advisor) of “tax and tax, spend and spend, elect and elect.” So progress can be used to win elections, and the Democrats, following this strategy, have beaten up on Republicans at every opportunity and have always inflicted political damage, if not always winning. Still, the bravado betrays a certain unease—for see what happens to the idea of progress.

In defending progress, the end of making democracy more democratic recedes from view and gives way to the fact of democracy as already existing in the will of the majority. The end of progress is set aside in favor of the means to the end, which is the form of majority rule. In the sense of form, democracy exists already (not in some utopian future) and needs defense against its enemies, those who would keep it imperfectly democratic or make it less so: the conservatives. It could be, and has been, the case that the democratic majority could consent to “takeaways” from progress, a term that the public-employee unions use to denounce the reactionary moves they fear. Would this democratic decision be just as democratic as one that sends democracy toward its inherent goal of more equality? To prevent this untoward result, the Democrats can offer new increments to existing entitlements in order to sustain the interest of their beneficiaries, who may be taking their benefits for granted and voting Republican. Machiavelli advises punishments all at once, benefits little by little. Sweetened benefits from the government will remind the people to be grateful for the original Provider of benefits (not God) and, at the same time, keep alive the thirst for innovation that is part of progress. Yet on the whole, despite these increments of progress, when it comes to partisan debate over progress, the parties switch roles. The Democrats become conservative defenders, and the Republicans become progressive reformers.

The most electorally successful method of reforming the welfare state that Republicans have found is to starve it of tax revenue. Rather than attack entitlement benefits directly, which is unpopular, Republicans, led by the example of Reagan, have cut taxes, which is popular. This partisan success has scared the Democrats away from their slogan announcing new taxes; as political scientist Russell Muirhead has remarked, Walter Mondale, running for president in 1984, was the last liberal forthrightly to propose new taxes. Since then, Democrats, who have always argued for higher taxes mainly on the rich, have kept quiet about the levies that their programs require. They raise taxes by means of costly regulations that impose burdens on producers and corporations (including universities), which get drafted into the role of auxiliary bureaucrats for the federal government. These expenses do not appear in public view and are counted up only by conservative economists. But the liberal Obama administration has not dared openly to demand or even ask for new taxes on the middle class.

With this partial success, however, Republicans have put themselves in the anomalous position of loudly complaining of the cost of entitlements, while reducing the means to pay for them. They excuse themselves for this apparently irresponsible behavior by pointing out that their opponents won’t use higher taxes to reduce entitlements but rather to expand them. Republicans refuse to make themselves “tax collectors for the welfare state,” in Newt Gingrich’s memorable phrase. This means that they have not come to terms with the welfare state by deciding whether they want to abolish it—hardly likely—or how much of it they want to retain. And of this much, are they eager or reluctant? Can they Republicanize the welfare state, make it their own so that they like it, and still get the people to pay for it? If Republicans show themselves reluctant to keep the entitlements at all, Democrats can argue that they, who favor them, are the most reliable when it comes to cutting them. Reluctance to cut them shows faith in the rights of an entitled people that is more appealing, if less effective, than eagerness to cut them. If a crash comes, the people may in effect blame the Republicans for being right about the unbearable cost of progress.

. . . but this principle declined in the entitlement-based vision of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society.

Thus, it is not at all clear that Democrats will suffer electorally for the failures of their schemes of progress. Nor is it likely that their consciences will bother them; they are more flexible than Republicans and freer to maneuver. In any case, the crisis may be looming, but it is not here yet. Who knows whence it will come—another financial meltdown, the fall of the dollar, the mountain of debt, the cost of entitlements, the weight of pensions, the failure of foreign policy, or something else? The country may not be doomed, as these are the ills of progressive policy, not of American principles. Nor are the Democrats doomed, for they existed long before they decided to burden the country with their “progress.” Their multicultural, entitled progress is not the only progress that Americans have known: there was an original progress in the American Founding of a new form of constitutional republic, from which the progressives of the early twentieth century wanted to depart. Whereas entitled progress with government care substitutes for virtue in citizens, the original progress claimed for the newly founded American republic made a place for virtue and was accompanied by virtue.

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Principles That Don’t Change

Remarks on accepting the Bradley Prize Harvey Mansfield May 17, 2011


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