A Liberal’s Definition of Liberalism

By: Thomas E. Brewton

Professor Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., is a highly regarded liberal icon. His views of American liberalism in the 20th century reflect the domination of our nation’s political and social mores by liberal-socialism between the end of World War II and the Vietnam War.

Professor Schlesinger’s views on American liberalism are backed by strong credentials. He was a Harvard history professor, twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize for works of history, the author of one of the definitive studies of the New Deal, and a member of President John F. Kennedy’s White House staff.

In “The Vital Center” (1949) and “The Politics of Hope” (1963) Schlesinger depicts American political liberalism as a moderate and responsible mean between a failed conservatism and a revolutionary, radical socialism. He sees Teddy Roosevelt’s New Nationalism, Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom, and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal as parts of a Progressive continuum aimed at bringing politics back to a compromise center. On balance Schlesinger sees liberalism as the party of hope, of commitment to change to meet the problems created by ongoing economic and scientific change.

This, of course, is the picture espoused by liberals even today, when their goals and methods have become considerably more radical than in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Schlesinger rejects the 1920s purer socialism that coalesced around the views of John Dewey and Thorstein Veblen, who wanted revolutionary changes (not necessarily by violent means) in the nature of society, with social and economic order planned and directed by a central government elite on purely rational principles. Those of the Dewey-Veblen tradition, Schlesinger says, were disappointed that the New Deal did not go far enough.

Schlesinger says that liberalism is not socialism, because it rejects the “…classical connotation of state ownership of the basic means of production and distribution.”

This, however, is an intellectually dishonest dodge. Henri de Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte, who first codified socialism as a coherent doctrine, explicitly identified government regulation alone as both the essential element of socialism, and as sufficient to effect it. The social engineering mechanisms they proposed were precisely the sort that were imposed directly or indirectly in the 1930s New Deal and subsequently: a managed currency; control of farm output and prices; regulation of industrial output, prices, and wage rates; steeply-graduated income tax rates; welfare-state benefits, and, above all, PC control of education, so that only liberal doctrine might be taught.

Moreover, the central theological goal of classical socialism, as well as today’s American liberalism, is egalitarianism, and state ownership is no more than one possible means of effecting equal distribution of property. Political liberalism, especially since the 1960s, is focused squarely on egalitarianism (e. g., emphasis on “fairness” in taxation, denunciation of “tax breaks for the rich,” fixation on poverty, multi-cultural education, and affirmative action).

In the middle 1800s, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Schlesinger says, saw the basic difference between conservatism and liberalism as that between the party of the past and the party of the future, the party of memory and the party of hope. Emerson’s vision clearly was a utopian one based partly on Victorian optimism in perfectibility of man and society as a product of the growth of scientific knowledge, as well as a reflection of German Idealistic philosophy. Yet, contradicting himself, Schlesinger specifically rejects utopianism as part of the liberal philosophy and says that liberals in mid-20th century, for example, Reinhold Niebuhr, recognized the reality of human imperfection.

Schlesinger’s image is that “…Liberalism in America has been a party of social progress rather than of intellectual doctrine, committed to ends rather than to methods.” Laissez-faire was good when Jefferson introduced it; regulation was good when Franklin Roosevelt implemented it. “The ideological content of American liberalism has been less coherent than its political and administrative evolution.”

Experience, however, belies this picture. Schlesinger’s liberalism is a purely mechanical construct aimed at superficial political rules of conduct, without any moral content (e.g., the liberal push for absolutely unrestricted speech, no matter what is said, even if it is a call by socialists and anarchists for violent overthrow of the Constitution, and liberals’ push to remove any vestige of religion from public life).

As he says, liberals are concerned with political results, not ideology. But far from a realistic pragmatism of the theoretical John Dewey sort, in practice liberal government creates gigantic regulatory bureaucracies whose inherent dynamic is self-perpetuation and self-aggrandizement, bureaucracies that become special interest groups themselves, whose constituencies’ votes have been purchased by liberals’ dispensation of tax revenues from the conservative middle class (bourgeoisie).

Claims to moral high ground in Schlesinger’s variety of liberalism have two problems: (1) the moral concepts used to justify liberalism’s preoccupation with ends rather than means are Christian morality, not liberal socialist doctrine; (2) in practice, without a religious, moral rudder, New Deal regulatory government has turned into “pluralistic democracy,” a system based on every interest group seeking to maximize its own personal wants, motivated by pure greed, without a unifying concept of the public good in the sense of the Constitution’s preamble.

By definition, in a liberal society that eschews value judgments, there can be no principle other than raw political power upon which to make choices between competing public demands. As long as the mechanical procedures of “democracy” are observed, literally anything goes. The Federal judiciary can arbitrarily demote certain fundamental rights, such as the Bill of Rights protection of private property, to secondary status (an action that is an unacknowledged value judgement).

Liberalism discards Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” operating through individuals guided by religious morality under a constitutional government, substituting collectivized license under a government in which “value judgments” are permitted only when they conform to current liberal ideas. Such a government can be no more than a registrar of fleeting public opinion and momentary political power.

New Deal liberalism transformed the media, by default, into the the creator and shaper of public morality. Whatever “wrong” the media chooses to publicize and whatever “remedy” it chooses to support tends to become public opinion. As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (and Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels) said, there being no independent standards of truth or morality, truth is whatever wins out in the marketplace. And when public opinion in that sense is the mode of government, with no value placed on a conservative respect for morality, religion, and tradition, we are under the sway of Tocqueville’s tyranny of the majority.

This, of course, is the process we have seen recently when throngs block public streets to demand “constitutional rights” for illegal immigrants.

Liberal socialism worked in the 1930s and after World War II purely on the momentum of past cultural morality and religion, but lost its mooring in the 1960s with the new generation of students that understood nothing of the past and had no connection with its cultural traditions.

Today’s young adults and children have reverted to a pre-civilization state of nature, Thomas Hobbes’s war of all against all. Liberalism has come to mean unfettered materialism and hedonism, the more disgusting and degraded the better. Far from being Professor Schlesinger’s theoretical, moderate center between conservatism and radical socialism, liberalism has become synonymous with any action or doctrine that tends to destroy existing standards of morality and decency.

Liberalism is moving rapidly toward nihilism, the “anything goes” doctrine of Mikhail Bakunin aimed at freedom in the sense of removing all restrictions on thought and action. The measures for that purpose, some of which are now being employed by liberals, are obliteration of God and religion, along with destruction of private property, marriage, and moral codes, all aimed at letting personal sensual gratification be the only guide to conduct and thought.

That is hedonistic license, not liberty of the sort understood in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Thomas E. Brewton is a staff writer for the New Media Alliance, Inc. The New Media Alliance is a non-profit (501c3) national coalition of writers, journalists and grass-roots media outlets.

About The Author Thomas E. Brewton:
Thomas E. Brewton is a staff writer for the New Media Alliance, Inc. The New Media Alliance is a non-profit (501c3) national coalition of writers, journalists and grass-roots media outlets.

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