The core institutions, ideas and expectations that shaped American life for the sixty years after the New Deal don’t work anymore. The gaps between the social system we inhabit and the one we now need are becoming so wide that we can no longer paper over them. But even as the failures of the old system become more inescapable and more damaging, our national discourse remains stuck in a bygone age. The end is here, but we can’t quite take it in. --Walter Russell Meade
Last Spring, Walter Russell Mead from Bard College wrote a piece in The American Interest entitled "The Once and Future Liberalism." The first part of the article gives the impression of a standard Libertarian critique of big-government overreach, but he's attempting something more interesting and raises some important questions.
The article is long, so I'll try to summarize his argument here, and then, if I have time this week, I will write some follow-up posts to dig a little deeper into some of the issues he raises. He starts out by describing the history of political liberalism in the Anglo-American world using the Operating System software update metaphor:
Liberalism 1.O: England's Glorious Revolution in 1688. Estabishes a constitutional monarchy and asserts the primacy of parliament over the King. Hobbes and Locke were 1.0 Liberals. Crown-and-altar narrative still essential for national identity
Liberalism 2.O: American Revolution in 1776. Replaces constitutional monarchy of L1.0 with a republic founded on Enlightenment ideas about natural rights. Crown-and-altar narrative and traditions are abolished. Benjamin Franklin starts out as a L1.0 but converts to L2.0. (Limited suffrage. Slavery tolerated.)
Liberalism 3.0: Manchester Liberalism. "Programs included once unthinkable ideas like universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery, an end to state-enforced monopoly corporations, limited government, free markets at home and free trade abroad. . . . More likely to be evangelical than either 1.0 or 2.0 liberals. . . . believed that capitalism, individual rights and a culture of virtue supported by a tolerant, non-fanatical Protestant Christianity could provide ordered liberty. (They also, by and large, believed in the superiority of the white race, thought that “too much” Jewish influence was bad and believed that Catholic countries could never become effective modern democracies.)"
Liberalism 4.0: Late-19th century's Progressive movement that developed in repsonse to social imbalances created by industrial capitalism. Rises to policy during the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. If an unholy alliance between church and state was the chief threat to liberty for L1.0-3.0, "the rise of huge industrial corporations seized pride of place as a threat to individual liberty; 20th-century, 4.0 liberals began to think about the state as a possible ally to defend individuals from unaccountable private power. The liberalism of Theodore Roosevelt and men like William Allen White was defined by their response to these challenges. Democratic government needed to ensure a level playing field, to fight for basic equality of opportunity."
Liberalism 4.1: In response to Great Depression and WWII, "turn-of-the-century progressivism was revamped and retweaked into liberalism 4.1, the big government, Iron Triangle system [Feds, unions, large corporations] that most Americans think of when they hear the word “liberal” today."
Mead argues that the whole mentality behind Liberalism 4.1, the mentality that I have been defending on this blog as the "New Deal Compromise" is obsolete:
Today liberalism 4.1, blue liberalism, is increasingly outdated and backward-looking, but in its time it was a genuinely positive attempt to realize old values in new circumstances, and many of its achievements still demand our respect. The driving force shaping the agenda of 4.0 and 4.1 liberals before and after the New Deal were a series of powerful and profound historical developments that changed the world under their feet. The earlier versions of liberal politics had been built in societies that, while beginning to urbanize and industrialize, were still predominantly agricultural. Both Jeffersonian and Jacksonian liberals saw independent small farmers as the basis of American freedom and democracy.
. . . Although socialists and social democrats sometimes made common cause with 4.1 liberals, at bottom, blue liberalism was built as an alternative to socialism rather than an on-ramp for it. With the onset of the Great Depression in particular, most American liberals came to believe that providing benefits like Social Security and unemployment insurance would inoculate American workers against more virulent forms of socialist ideology and attract new immigrants and their children toward the American liberal tradition. It worked.
. . . Programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps and later the GI Bill, along with the experience of mobilization and rationing during the war, convinced many liberals that government could and should do more than ensure a level playing field, that it could plan, regulate and control well enough to at least bracket a rough equality of economic and social outcomes, not just opportunities. . . . In time, with the advent of the Great Society programs of “the best and the brightest”, liberalism 4.1 became more explicitly redistributionist, and more deeply convinced of the superiority of the technocratic ethos.
Mead talks about how all the earlier versions of Liberalism--1.0 through 4.1--are inadequate for our situation today, and points to the as yet to be realized "Liberalism 5.0":
None can serve as the political program for the heirs of the two great revolutions today. We don’t want the constitutional monarchy and Anglican establishment of William III; we don’t want the aristocratic, limited-franchise republic of George Washington; we don’t want the Manchester liberalism of the 1860s; and we don’t want the managerial state that liberals and progressives built in the first two-thirds of the 20th century. That doesn’t mean we should not admire, learn from and build on each of these liberal traditions, but our job today is to synthesize enduring liberal values in a 21st-century liberalism 5.0.
As with earlier versions, liberalism 5.0 must build on the best of what has gone before while making adjustments—radical when necessary, though never gratuitously so—to existing beliefs and institutions. 5.0 liberals must challenge the right of blue [4.1] liberals to own the L-word, seeking both to convince 4.1 liberals to come back to the future and denouncing those who won’t as the blinkered reactionaries and speed bumps they are.
And I agree with him when he says
. . . Many believe that the real ideological contest in America today is between “red” liberalism 3.0 (the more individualistic, laissez-faire, often evangelical kind of liberalism of the 19th century) and the more state-oriented, collectively minded post-World War II 4.1 blue liberalism. Red liberals denounce blue liberals as betrayers of the liberal legacy, as ideology thieves who have taken a philosophy grounded in individual freedom and limited government and turned it into a charter for “big” government. Blue liberals respond that red liberals don’t understand how the complexities of modern life make the outmoded pieties of liberalism 3.0 inadequate to today’s problems. But common to both these positions is the belief that the American debate today is between two versions of the past: the (presumed) free market utopia of the 19th century versus the (presumed) social utopia of the New Deal/Great Society of more recent times. If that were true, this would be a nation of conservatives fighting reactionaries—the status quo of 1970 fighting the status quo of 1880.
I agree that a society dominated by a technocratic ethos is not a good thing, and I am never going to defend government overreach, but the fundamental problem that the early progressives recognized has not gone away: If there is no big government to protect the public interest, a huge, powerful private sector will dominate, and the key players in that sector care only about their own interests, not the public interest. Until the problem of bigness in the private sector is solved, bigness in the public sector is a necessity. Until the disruptive, destablizing effects of market capitalism can be tamed, there must be an adequate way to support the people whose lives have been disrupted and destabilized by it.
If you want to argue that capitalism is so great because it's the most effective wealth engine the world has ever seen, then there have to be mechanisms for distributing that wealth fairly and sanely, and if private market mechanisms fail in that regard, then the public sector must step in to provide the remedy. But if the task now is as Meade puts it to make "a genuinely positive attempt to realize old values in new circumstances," a 5.0 solution cannot be found if the public sector is locked in an ideological argument that pits 4.1 thinking against 3.0 thinking.
So my argument in defense of the New Deal Compromise is not one that seeks a return to mid-20th Century arrangements--that was then; this is now--but that the New Deal provided for its time a much healthier balance between the interests of the private sector and the public interest that we need to emulate in principle now. This is a balance that was destroyed in the period since 1980, and we saw the destructive impact of this imablance in 2008. Whatever Liberalism 5.0 might be, it must restore this balance. Most of what we think of today as "crisis" derives not from uncontrollable structural changes, but from regressive 3.0 thinking poorly adapted to the real world in which we are living that dominated policy in the first decade of this century.
I would argue that, yes, there are structural issues that we need to deal with, but they could not have been handled worse by the Reagan/Norquist/Cheney resgressive 3.0 mindset. Real problems emerged in the 1970s; the weaknesses of L4.1 were exposed, and the worst possible approach was taken in trying to solve them. A saner approach would have been to make gradual adjustments to 4.1 thinking that might have slowly ratcheted us throught 4.2, 4.3, 4.4, etc., in a more orderly progression toward an eventual 5.0 realignment. Instead we've had reactionaries in the driver's seat dominated by 19th-Century 3.0 thinking. Meade correctly points out that it's a mistake to think that the argument is between 4.1 and 3.0 thinking, but seems not to be willing to point out the obvious, that 3.0 thinking ought not to have a place at the table at all. The real debate should be about finding ways to push basic 4.1 arrangements to be more adaptive to the changing global economic realities.
Whenever anybody tells you that there is no money for entitlement programs like Medicare, Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, or Medicaid, they are talking ideological nonsense. The fiscal crisis at the federal, state, and local levels was engineered by no-taxes/no regulation ideologues on a mission to destroy the legitimacy of government. There is plenty of room for debate about how to find the right balance between the private and public sectors, but you cannot find that balance with people who think that the government has no legitimate role to play in redressing social and economic imbalances created by private markets. We don't have a resource problem; we have a thinking problem.
Anyway, Meade talks about five things that Americans want from American socieity. When I have a chance, I want to examine them, show where I agree and perhaps lay out a few other things that I think will be necessary for a workable 5.0.