Liberalism Unlimited? Finding the Boundaries of Policy is What We're All About

Jan 13, 2012Mark Schmitt

Liberals aren't seeking a limitless welfare state, but the right balance between competing approaches.

Breakthrough Journal, which I predicted would offer a significant contribution to the political debate when it launched last summer, has doubled down on expectations by publishing a companion to their challenging  "Modernizing Liberalism" article from the first issue with "Modernizing Conservatism" by the Reagan biographer and AEI scholar Steven Hayward. The path forward for the country won't be found just by identifying some middle ground between two unyielding ideologies or some magical third way. It will be found by creating some real conversation among people who are fully engaged in reevaluating the future of their own assumptions.

The editors of Breakthrough invited my comments on Hayward's essay, which I tried to offer in a respectful spirit, although of course I'm not a conservative and conservatives don't need my advice. Hayward's main point was that conservatives should back down from the "starve the beast" strategy of cutting taxes and hoping that government will shrink as a result and acknowledge that they aren't going to crush liberalism forever. But before conservatives can make those compromises (which seem more like common sense than compromise), Hayward insists that liberals would have to back down from our aspiration to extend the "welfare state" to infinity.

I had a couple of comments on Hayward's first points, which you can read at the site, but the main point of disagreement, particularly in his reply to me, had to do with the question of whether liberalism's aspirations for the welfare state are limitless. This is worth digging into at length because it's quickly becoming a major theme on the right. William Voegeli of the Claremont Institute has written an entire book, which Hayward draws on extensively, contending that liberalism knows no limits, that for us progress is "Never Enough." It's the central premise of Mitt Romney's new stump speech, which argues that Obama's "entitlement society" economic policies have as their goal "equality of outcomes," rather than "equality of opportunity," and won't stop until they (we) achieve that radical leveling. This is the central charge in the economic culture war: As Hayward puts it, "the absence of any principled limit to the reach of egalitarianism is implicit -- and occasionally explicit -- in modern liberalism. The insatiable egalitarian impulse is only held in check by practical politics, not by any discernible principle."

Here's Hayward's killer piece of evidence: That liberals once talked about "comparable worth" -- that is, a system to adjust pay scales to reduce discrimination based on job classifications. "The idea almost made the 1984 Democratic platform," he says. That's it? An idea that didn't make it into a party platform 28 years ago proves that we're boundless egalitarians? (Actually, it was endorsed in the 1984 platform, and several states were implementing comparable worth standards for public employee job classifications without controversy. But it died such a quick death that most people under 40 have probably never heard of the idea.)

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It's really a pretty good example of where liberalism finds its limits, and why the process of finding those boundaries makes liberalism such a vital and adaptive political philosophy. Employment discrimination was and is a real problem, and formal job classification systems that systematically underpaid women were part of it. The market wasn't getting rid of this discrimination any more than the market eliminated racial discrimination before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A number of ideas were on the table, some of which worked. (Collective bargaining turned out to be a good way to fix discriminatory job classifications.) Ultimately, most liberals decided that a formal, government-mandated system of classifying the "worth" of different occupational categories across the private sector would be a solution worse than the problem. (I remember that being my view, even as a naïve college student at the time.) Liberalism is always about finding the right boundary between market and state, public and private, fairness and liberty. The process of considering and rejecting an idea like comparable worth is the process of finding that boundary.

Hayward would say that's not a "principled" limit. A principled limit presumably would be obvious and not argued about. But what's the principled limit to libertarian conservatism? Is it the minimal "watchman state"? I know that in practice most conservatives don't go that far, but why not? Part of the answer is "practical politics," as Hayward says of liberalism. But what's wrong with practical politics? In a functioning democracy (which ours, in which money plays a huge role and institutional quirks such as the filibuster play an outsized role, is not), ordinary politics -- elections, debates, fights over values, legislative struggles -- are a perfectly valid or even ideal way of defining the limits of the governing party's philosophy. We even internalize the limits of practical politics. For example, I've never been a supporter of single-payer health care, and most of the liberal wonks I know haven't been either. If pressed on the point by one of the few single-payer supporters I know, I can't give a very good answer on policy grounds. I understand that single-payer would be fairer, more efficient, and would lift the burden of health insurance costs from employers. But it's never going to happen and so I don't waste much time or energy on it. That's a limitation on my aspirations imposed by practical politics, but it's no less real a limit.

Egalitarianism (of opportunity) is one element of liberalism, but it's not the only one. Democratic practice is part of it, too, so the limits of practical politics are real -- not just the way we achieve other social goals, but an end in themselves. It's why making democracy work better is more than just a process concern. At the end of my comments on Hayward's essay, I suggested that the key to "modernizing conservatism" would be for conservatives to rejoin the democratic process, to get over the all-or-nothing impulse that led them to opt out of the health care debate entirely, or to attempt "nullification," to use James Fallows' word, of laws already passed. Hayward, like Romney, is basically saying that no real debate or compromise will ever be possible, that we face a pure clash of irreconcilable worldviews. That's simply not true of modern liberalism, and it shouldn't be true of conservatism either.

Mark Schmitt is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Fellows Program at the Roosevelt Institute.

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