How liberalism began, and how it can come back

May 20, 2007|By Glenn C. Altschuler | Glenn C. Altschuler,Special to the Sun

Freedom's Power

The True Force of Liberalism

By Paul Starr

Basic Books / 276 pages / $26

By 1988, when George H.W. Bush derided Michael S. Dukakis as a card-carrying member of the ACLU, "the L word" occupied a privileged position in the demonology of the American Right and, to no small extent, in the country at large. Dismissed as weak, feckless, process-oriented relativists, liberals began to call themselves progressives or disavowed any label at all. The Democratic Party lost its way - and its majority in both houses of Congress. And Karl Rove, Bush's brain, set his sights on creating a permanent conservative majority.

Then came Iraq - and Katrina, Abu Ghraib, Jack Abramoff and Alberto Gonzalez. Brilliant in achieving political power, Paul Starr observes, the Republicans showed "little of that genius in using it." A professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University and the co-founder of The American Prospect magazine, Starr is convinced that the "conservative default is liberalism's opportunity." Before it can reclaim power, however, liberalism must re-establish its credentials as a relevant, reliable and practical political philosophy, with elbows sharp enough to prevail in a dangerous world. "Nothing has to be re-invented," Starr believes, "yet everything has to be re-imagined."

In Freedom's Power, Starr provides a remarkably clear examination of liberalism, from its origins in the 18th century, when it provided "a deeply resonant vocabulary for claims against the state," to its modern form, emphasizing democracy, inclusiveness, individual self-determination, civil liberties and equality as a social and moral imperative. Modern democratic liberalism, Starr emphasizes, is not a sharp break from classical liberalism because liberals were never laissez-faire purists. They've always been willing to improvise, test, and mix government and market-based approaches. Starr makes a persuasive case that at its best liberalism is potent and great because, unlike socialism or conservatism, the liberal state "can be strong yet constrained - indeed, strong because constrained."

Freedom's Power explains why the two preeminent liberal societies - the United States and Great Britain - rose to prosperity and world power in the 19th and 20th centuries. In both nations, taxes were applied uniformly and transparently across all classes. Legislative scrutiny reduced peculation. With the state held accountable by the people's representatives, Starr suggests, government actions, including declarations of war, tended to be accepted as legitimate. Constraints on the state, especially the protection of private property, fostered growth by encouraging citizens to make long-term investments. And by providing universal public education, a defense of the autonomy of science against political and religious critics, a free press, and freedom of movement, liberal states developed the infrastructure and human capital to outperform more authoritarian governments.

Modern liberals, according to Starr, believe that private corporations, like the state, benefit from the countervailing pressure supplied by labor unions, consumer groups, environmental organizations, and legislatures. Liberals hold government accountable for a stable economy, a robust rate of growth, and a more equitable distribution of resources. But, Starr reiterates, the liberal state fosters a dynamic tension between the public and private spheres. Liberals don't believe in rigid five-year plans. They support a tax structure that retains incentives, releases entrepreneurial energy and reduces, but does not eliminate, economic inequalities. Liberals implemented deregulation and a market in emission rights, Starr notes with pride, because their core values include freedom and justice, individual rights and the general welfare.

But liberalism, of course, hasn't always been at its best. And when he moves from political philosophy to recent political history, Starr is less comprehensive and compelling. In a "fundamental sense," he argues, liberalism worked in the 1960s, helping fulfill the "promise of opportunity and a decent life for millions of people." In igniting a "rights revolution" for African-Americans, women and gays, however, it generated a backlash. True enough. But why didn't "the vital center" hold? Why were liberals blamed for the breakdown in law and order?

Some liberal policies, Starr concludes, were not working. Some were politically unsustainable. He doesn't always make clear, however, which was which. Did Great Society liberals give too many handouts and not enough hands up? Did Vietnam destroy the credibility of government? The Sixties showed that liberalism - when it's not bathed in Starr light - can crack under stress. What repair work should liberals have undertaken?

If liberals are to return to power in 2008, Starr asserts, they must contest conservatives as the rightful guardians of morality and patriotism. They should address rising income inequality and the need for universal health insurance.

Rather than simply defending Social Security, "they ought to be calling for a New Deal for the Young," with government subsidies for higher education and home purchases in return for national service. Democratic candidates may well do what he suggests. But, then again they may say as little possible and decline to call themselves liberals as Republican incompetence and a wildly unpopular war sweeps them into office.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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