Statism: The Temptation of Liberal Elites


Conor, you got my wheels turning this morning with two competing posts at the Dish. In the first, you continue your longstanding criticism of Mark Levin as a prisoner of Manichean thinking. By viewing American politics as a permanent throwdown between the forces of liberty and their opponents, you say, Levin makes the mistake of assuming that “today’s liberals are fundamentally driven by Statism, whereas actually what motivates most of them is a substantially different project.” Later in the same post, you seem to use liberal and progressive interchangeably — about which more in a moment.

In the second post, you hint that if liberty vs. tyranny is the wrong way to frame our ruling political conflict, rule by citizens vs. rule by elites might be the right one. And you end with the right provocation:

Here’s one succinct way to put the question to Tea Party leaders: if we’re choosing our ruling class the wrong way now, what alternative do you recommend?

My answer would begin with Tim Carney’s latest for the Examiner: “The Republican Divide: K Street vs. the Tea Partiers.” Tim lays bare the nature of the divide, which is more profound than mere politics:

Lott’s proposed co-opting is not primarily ideological — Norton and Grayson, and their inside-the-Beltway patrons are all fairly conservative. The main distinction between Team Lott and Team DeMint might have less to do with policy platforms and more to do with a politician’s attitude toward the Washington nexus of power and money.

I think it’s consistent with the intuitions and judgments powering the tea parties to answer your pregnant question like this: it’s not that we’re choosing our ruling class the wrong way; it’s that our ruling class is the wrong kind of people. They have the wrong character, the wrong disposition, the wrong objectives, the wrong — values. The problem isn’t that ‘politics is broken’. That’s a symptom of the real problem, which is that the ruling culture of our ruling elites is broken.

If that’s right, how did we get here?

The answer takes us back to the difference between liberalism and progressivism. Those who would remind us of this difference range from Claire “I’m a liberal” Berlinski to avowed lefty liberal public intellectual Alan Wolfe. As I wrote in my American Spectator review of Wolfe’s revealing book The Future of Liberalism,

Wolfe recognizes that liberalism is most threatened today not by boring conservatism but by fashionable progressivism, in its twin emotional and scientific strains. This is true in spite of his parallel claim that, with “communism now dead and socialism on the defensive, ideology is more likely to make an appearance from the right, whether in the form of free market utopianism or unrealistic hopes in what military power can achieve.”

[…] Wolfe distinguishes between the ideology of big-L Liberalism, which conservatives uniformly oppose, and the political philosophy of small-l liberalism, which conservatives criticize as friends. As Harvey Mansfield has persuasively argued, conservatism is the political philosophy that best cures liberalism from its own defects. It is a refinement of liberalism, not an alternative to it.

[…] This refined element is of great significance to conservatives. It teaches them how to be better critics of the left by showing that progressivism seeks to capture liberalism entirely and cleanse it of any and all conservative wisdom. Progressivism tempts liberalism with a paradoxical vision of perfection—perfect progress, so perfect that it is perfectly immune to criticism. For Wolfe, “progressivism’s firm insistence that it knows what is right conflicts with temperamental liberalism’s lack of certainty, and its preference for ends undermines procedural liberalism’s respect for means.”

This is true, but Wolfe then blames the progressive ethos on the necessary evil of government. “The curse the state visits upon liberalism,” he claims, “is Progressivism.” But political progressivism, as he by then has already established, isn’t the great threat to liberalism today. It’s antipolitical progressivism—in the forms of emotivism, for which politics is incidental to the insistence that all demands and desires be recognized as rights, and scientism, which frees us “from a supernatural power” only to make us “enslaved to a natural one.”

In a philosophical project all conservatives should support, Wolfe’s liberalism rejects the progressivist proposition that we have no choice but to accept the raw, unbounded power of our beastly desires and our ever-more-godlike power to appease them.

You’re right to want to probe deeper than the truism that statism appeals to liberals for political reasons. But doing so reveals that progressivism appeals to liberals — both liberal elites and everyday liberals — for cultural reasons. And progressivism tells liberal elites that the practice of politics is an obstacle to perfecting liberal culture. As Bill Voegeli’s remarks suggest, if elites with a more conservative philosophy are vulnerable to a different set of temptations, they’re much less susceptible to this one. The issue is simple: what is the foundation of that more conservative philosophy? What are the principles that fuel the right culture among conservative elites?

The central philosophical proposition of the tea parties is that the Republican Party establishment has too many elites who have become untethered from those principles and have been born and raised in the wrong culture of elitehood. Whether by coincidence or for some other reason, this organizing conviction resonates extremely powerfully with the contention that the central conflict in American politics is between those who see political liberty as our most precious possession and those who see political liberty as an outdated obstacle to true justice and flourishing.

From the standpoint of the lover of liberty, there is a punchy and potent shorthand for that conflict ready to hand: liberty vs. tyranny. That’s a slogan that must be unpacked, to be sure. But is it — to use your phrase — “almost completely useless?” I report, you decide.

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    What’s the difference between God and a Progressive? God allows free will.

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    I’m too dumb to work all that out.

    I just know that guys who have hair like Trent Lott or John Boehner make me queasy.

    God, I miss William F. Buckley.

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    Ok, I’m with you on Conor’s pieces. In his posts and Carney’s we trace through what are probably symptoms of the root problem, like a turn towards statism, back towards that root. That the “ruling elite” (the term needs quotes, since the group is “elite” and “rules” more in its own mind than reality) is wrongly constituted is clear, but I’m less sure if it is the wrong people or an all-enveloping political/government/lobbying environment that changes people into somethign alien to the rest of the country. It’s that “Washington nexus of power and money” that Carney referenced. It’s like a cult.

    Your quote from Wolfe hits the at the root cause, when he speaks of how progressivism’s “preference for ends undermines procedural liberalism’s respect for means.” I’ve italicized the key phrase, a “preference for ends” without respect for means. That’s why statist solutions can be used, even though democratic solutions would be preferred. When the people choose wrongly, the new elite feels called to intervene. It’s all about getting the right result.

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    G.A. Dean: […] I’m less sure if it is the wrong people or an all-enveloping political/government/lobbying environment that changes people into somethign alien to the rest of the country. It’s that “Washington nexus of power and money” that Carney referenced. It’s like a cult.

    […] When the people choose wrongly, the new elite feels called to intervene. It’s all about getting the right result. · Aug 24 at 10:40am

    All the more tragically hilarious, G.A., that when the all-enveloping environment ’causes’ elites to get the wrong result, they — feel called to intervene. (“No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”) I don’t pretend we can sweep away the system simply by putting Good Virtuous People in office. There’s only so much we can do from the top down without compounding the problem — which is the very notion that without perfecting the top-down approach, all is lost.

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    How ’bout we forget the ‘top down approach’ altogether?

    It’s no great secret what happens to the virtuous people sent to Washington. they move into a cult-like new world where “vital” and important” people speak only other vital people and then speak only about each other. They may resist for a while but sooner or later they crack. They come home to the district and their old friends find them speaking like political cyborgs. “What’s happened to you?” the old friends ask. “You wouldn’t understand,” they reply, “I’m so busy with vital and important things and vital and important people.” In other word, “I’m a part of the important class now. You are not.”

    Someone in this state of delusion will always get things wrong, even if well intentioned. It cannot see that since the problems are “out there”, the solutions are also “out there.” They just can’t see that far, and they don’t have any faith in people outside the beltway. So they grab for the only tools available in Washington, they make deals, spend money and regulate. None will work.

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    Not to monopolize the thread but I just wanted to mention Richard Fernandez’ brilliant piece on the “Professional Left”, which is closely related to this point. A quote:

    “The Left, along with the other power structures of our society are our secret rulers. The disquiet created by the information revolution stems from the fact that it has allowed the “amateurs” to briefly glimpse the professionals at work, perhaps for the first time in their lives.”

    and another…

    “The Left has always been just another kind of establishment. Their “revolution” was a term of art for a campaign for dominance of over other elites… In practice most revolution is not about the wretched of the earth overthrowing their masters. It is about the ordinary man trying to keep from being told what to do by self-appointed and highly paid busybodies.”

    Someone please get a thread started on this brilliant essay.

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    Can you give me an example of a policy dispute that we can understand most clearly through the frame of liberty versus tyranny?

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    The opening paragraphs of this essay, America’s Ruling Class–And The Perils of Revolution, by Angelo Codevilla succinctly point out that there is a distinction without a difference in the elites of left and right:

    “As over-leveraged investment houses began to fail in September 2008, the leaders of the Republican and Democratic parties, of major corporations, and opinion leaders…on the right to…the left, agreed that spending some $700 billion to buy the investors’ “toxic assets” was the only alternative to the U.S. economy’s “systemic collapse.” In this, … Bush and his… McCain agreed with … Obama. Many… people around them also agreed upon the eventual commitment of some 10 trillion nonexistent dollars in ways unprecedented in America. They explained neither the difference between the assets’ nominal and real values, nor precisely why letting the market find the latter would collapse America. The public objected immediately, by margins of three or four to one.”

    Continued below…

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    Here’s the second paragraph:

    “When this majority discovered that virtually no one in a position of power in either party or with a national voice would take their objections seriously, that decisions about their money were being made in bipartisan backroom deals with interested parties, and that the laws on these matters were being voted by people who had not read them, the term “political class” came into use. Then, after those in power changed their plans from buying toxic assets to buying up equity in banks and major industries but refused to explain why, when they reasserted their right to decide ad hoc on these and so many other matters, supposing them to be beyond the general public’s understanding, the American people started referring to those in and around government as the “ruling class.” And in fact Republican and Democratic office holders and their retinues show a similar presumption to dominate and fewer differences in tastes, habits, opinions, and sources of income among one another than between both and the rest of the country. They think, look, and act as a class.”

    Precisely, a class whose interests are inimical to those of me and my family.

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    Conor Friedersdorf: […] Can you give me an example of a policy dispute that we can understand most clearly through the frame of liberty versus tyranny?

    Most clearly is a bar that most frames — including competing ones — are sorely challenged to clear. But the times being what they are, here’s an illustrative (vs. exhaustive) list of possible answers: (1) Universal health care with an individual mandate. (2) The national security state/permanent Patriot Act. (3) The tax code and the structure and purpose of our tax policy. (4) The war on drugs. (5) Entitlement spending. (6) Philosophizing from the bench. (7) The endless Fannie & Freddie bailout.

    Let me emphasize the point I closed with above: liberty vs. tyranny is a potent, punchy approximation of, and shorthand for, a serious, even central, debate about some of the most basic issues surrounding the nature of justice in a democratic environment. This is true in theory, but it is also true in contemporary political practice. The case for taking the liberty vs. tyranny frame seriously isn’t (simply) academic — it’s a practical one that should, I think, have a special appeal for more libertarians right of center.

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