Hubris wed to coercion

February 18, 1996|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Few American books published in 1909 are still in print. One of them has never in 87 years been out of print and its influence on American governance goes marching on. Herbert Croly's ''The Promise of American Life,'' a manifesto for the Progressive movement, is this century's most influential book on American politics, and now it is again newsworthy.

It is because last year Lamar Alexander co-edited (with Chester Finn), and contributed to, a collection of essays published by the Hudson Institute. ''The New Promise of American Life'' is a rejoinder to Croly. It also is a clue to Mr. Alexander's conservative credentials, and a reason for him to insist that Pat Buchanan's conservative credentials are bogus.

A concise summation of conservatism in this century is ''contra-Croly.'' Although few conservatives understand the pedigree of their creed this way, modern conservatism is a sustained reaction to policies engendered by Croly's arguments for ''a new nationalism.''

Teddy Roosevelt adopted that phrase, and adopted Croly as an adviser, after reading the book during an African safari. But it was the Democratic administrations of Woodrow Wilson (whom Croly endorsed in 1916), Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson that were animated by Croly's belief that ''national cohesion'' required the emancipation of Americans from ''traditional illusions,'' especially the Jeffersonian tradition of ''individualist and provincial democracy.''

Croly spoke for a growing class of ''progressive'' intellectuals and politicians for whom progress meant movement away from local institutions and attachments, which they regarded as retrograde. Progress meant increased conscription of the people into a national consciousness and collective undertakings, including, in Croly's words, ''increasing control over property in the public interest.''

Improving ''human nature''

He believed that ''human nature'' -- human nature, not just behavior -- ''can be raised to a higher level by an improvement in institutions and laws.'' But if that is so, there really is no human nature, only malleable human material taking whatever shape institutions, and the elites that command them, choose.

In 1909 progressives were full of faith in modernity, meaning, among other things, experts applying science, including political science, to society. Three years later a former professor of political science was elected president.

''Unregenerate citizens''

Wilson was the first president to criticize the Founders -- because their system of separation of powers, checks and balances and federalism prevented government, in the hands of modern elites, from acting with proper boldness and dispatch for the improvement of what Croly called ''unregenerate citizens.''

Croly meant most citizens. He was candid where later, more circumspect liberals would be cryptic. He said ''the average American individual is morally and intellectually inadequate to a serious and consistent conception of his responsibilities as a democrat.'' So national life should be a ''school'': ''The exigencies of such schooling frequently demand severe coercive measures, but what schooling does not?'' And ''a people are saved many costly perversions'' if ''the official schoolmasters are wise, and the pupils neither truant nor insubordinate.''

Croly's book was a blueprint for 20th-century liberalism's aspiration, the state as schoolmarm. Against this stood the conservatism of William Howard Taft, his son, Sen. Robert Taft, and Barry Goldwater -- conservatism aiming to minimize the role of government, and especially the federal government, in the lives of individuals and communities. But Mr. Alexander's co-editor Chester Finn says that today the ''cult of governmentalism'' is so pervasive that it is finding followers among conservatives.

Social engineers

He says the Republicans' 1994 Contract with America, with its call for Washington action to change the behavior of welfare recipients, enforce child support and increase parental involvement in education, reflects the attitude that Washington should try to shape people's behavior, attitudes and values. Mr. Finn says attempts by conservatives to use Washington to alter those aspects of society that displease them mirror the hubris and centralizing impulses of liberal, Crolyesque social engineers.

Mr. Alexander largely agrees with Mr. Finn, so this is a reason for a spirited argument among the Republican candidates, immediately. Here is another.

The crux of Pat Buchanan's ''conservatism with a heart'' (i.e., conservatism thinking with the wrong organ) is protectionism and other ingredients of what liberals celebrate as ''industrial policy.'' President Buchanan would pick the industries that should flourish even though they cannot flourish without the subsidy of protection, and to finance his picks he would tax (by tariffs) American consumers.

Never mind the mockery this makes of Mr. Buchanan's flaunting of his Southern heritage. (The South's experience with protectionism was indicated by the name Southerners gave to the 1828 Tariff of Abominations which, with the tariff of 1832, stimulated secessionism.) Mr. Buchanan's protectionism is Washington-knows-best hubris married to coercion. It is a policy that disciples of Croly could salute. But no conservative can, and it will be interesting to see with what vigor Mr. Alexander will say so.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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