walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: February 9, 2013
What’s Wrong and How to Fix It, Part 14: Dreaming the New/Old Liberalism

Some of my ten ideas are compatible with a “small is beautiful” or “government is the problem” ideological perspective. I affirm subsidiarity and the return of appropriate government authority from the Federal to state and local levels. But other of my ideas demand that government, including the Federal government, do more, not less. This may seem contradictory to small or rigid minds, but it isn’t contradictory at all to the sort of liberal, now evidently all but obsolete, who thinks that government’s role is to insure a level playing field and maximum feasible democratic participation where it matters most to citizens in their communities.

I am not for government “getting out of the way”, as libertarians would have it, but I am also not for government “getting in the way”, as when government doesn’t level the playing field but occupies, dominates and smothers it with social engineering schemes that never work as intended. The original 19th century liberalism tilted to the former impulse, postwar American liberalism toward the latter. I prefer the more balanced kind in between the extremes, the kind championed by the first Roosevelt. It is the balanced liberalism whose progressive goals need to be approached carefully, that is, with a conservative temperament: the “pave the way” approach, let’s call it. We tried the “get out the way” approach and it did not suffice; we tried the “get in the way” approach but now that tack is or ought to be exhausted. Goldilocks to the rescue: The “pave the way” approach is just right. We already have a model that works; it just needs to be retooled for the 21st century.



“Is that all?”, you ask. No, of course not.

We need to rationalize immigration policy to attract educated, economically valuable newcomers and to discourage others, mainly by enforcing the laws already on the books. We also need to partner with relatively small, innovative nations that are perfect complements to the United States; we get their ideas, they get our investment capital and huge market. I’m thinking of countries like Israel, Singapore and Finland.

Our drug laws are stupid and counterproductive.

The way we deal with student loans is somewhere between shady and imbecilic, embroiled as it has become, especially via the “for-profit” universities, in an extractive banking system that bases its profits more on bribing people into debt than in financing the creation of genuine value.

Our agricultural subsidies are a destructive rip-off that, among other things, contributes to an increasingly dangerous food safety problem.

Speaking of food safety, there is no good reason—and a significant, plutocratic bad one—for inspecting meat via the Department of Agriculture but all other food through the FDA; and we need to split the FDA into its food and drug parts. And then we need to give the refashioned FDA the authorities it currently lacks to actually do its job. That would be nice, for a change.

We need to split away and privatize the non-military activities of the Army Corps of Engineers, which have become hopelessly entangled with corrupt Congressional deals and which, just by the way, is the root cause of the failure of the levees that nearly destroyed New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.

And there is more, much more.

But we should not think mainly in terms of the policy categories before us. We need instead to think in terms of the source of the dysfunction we suffer and go for the torque points that can make a systematic difference across all policy categories. That’s why creating social capital is so important as the main focus of Federal policy, because, as before, it’s the only way to create the political basis for balancing against the plutocratic plundering of the nation. If we try to solve all of the messes one by one, we will never get anywhere; that’s a fool’s errand.

And as I have already indicated, it’s foolish to advise striving for impossible or illogical quick, silver-bullet fixes like banning all private money from politics—that’s impossible, even with a Constitutional amendment—or levying a 100 percent tax on campaign contributions above a certain amount, which goes beyond impossible all the way to completely illogical.1 If a contributor gives a campaign $20,000, and the tax on the recipient is $20,000, the campaign ultimately ends up with zero—so what is the point? A far more sensible proposal is to invert the hidden-contributor norm into one of full disclosure, since that, at least, would not abrade on the Supreme Court’s increasingly daffy interpretation of free speech. All contributions to a campaign above, say, $10,000, would have to be a matter of public record, allowing voters to follow the money and reach their own conclusions about tangled motives. But this is also impossible as things stand now; Congress would never vote to overturn a system that so well serves its members’ interests.

Some people swear, too, that term limits alone can break the cycle between lobbying money and congressional suborning, but that won’t work; it will probably just speed up the revolving door and force the exit from Congress of the few people who learn overt time how to use seniority to make the system work for the best interests of the country. Indeed, as Michael Barone has shrewdly pointed out, “safe seats” in a time of polarized politics allow compromise across the aisle, and indeed we have at least slightly less gridlock because of that than would otherwise be the case.2

The larger point is that we will never be able to right our damaged political economy and our country with it unless we fix our political institutional frameworks, and we will never, ever be able to do that unless we confront and defeat the plutocratic menace that is stalking our country from, as Damon Runyon once put it an admittedly different context, dimple to duodenum.

That, above all, is what we need to fix. We’ve done it before and, while past achievement is no guarantee of future success, we can do it again. We have to try. To give in to despair is deadly. I, for one, am not yet ready to stick a fork into the American project.

Past Entries:

Part 1: Introduction, and Globalization/Automation

Part 2: Political/Institutional

Part 3: Corruption/Plutocracy

Part 4: Television and Politics

Part 5: The Financial System

Part 6: Tax Reform

Part 7: Health Care

Part 8: Repeal the 17th Amendment

Part 9: Government Design

Part 10: Institutional Reform

Part 11: National Service

Part 12: Relocate the Culture Wars

Part 13: The New Homestead Act


1Ratigan suggests both, proving that his analysis of the problem is far superior to his capacity to think about solutions.

2Michael Barone, “The Gridlock Myth”, The American Interest (November/December 2010).

show comments
  • Anthony

    Your ideas infer interest of broad public (Dreaming of New/Old Liberalism) tied to a formal political-legal system. Yet, the operative system that has developed reflects popular inadequacy rather than complete institutional inadequacy. That is, the cleverness of the plutocratic menace (to use your phrase) has derived largely from the fact that they benefit from a generally confused public; a public operating under rule of external freedom (free to choose in their own way) but without equally as much knowledge and insight as plutocratic operatives and their agents. So, perhaps what we also need to fix it is recognition that people in general are far more responsive to blandishment than to reason.

  • John Barker

    One element for hope is that the ideas presented here are reaching a far larger audience and quicker and cheaper than would have been possible in the heyday of the print media. Anyone can alert his friends to this series and send a link; nothing comparable could have been done 20 years ago.

  • Brendan Doran

    The New Deal went very bad. Because bad, selfish people inherited it’s tools. It was a sudden steep fall by nearly the entire elites of American society. Who would you trust with these powers again?

    Not to mention that libertarian bare bones government is all we’ll be able to afford, or trust.

    Dear Sir America will be fine. It’s government must go for her to survive and recover, but she will.

    A word about the plutocratic menace: you’re transferring guilt to them that properly belongs to the sainted agents of our blessed state. It’s more a matter of the stalker of the plutocrats [and their evil money] being outsmarted by their prey. Coyote wasn’t the super-genius he sold himself as nor is he pure. That hardly makes Road-Runner a public menace, or the seat of evil. He just doesn’t want to be eaten.

  • Brendan Doran

    Upon much reflection Mr. Anthony I will take my chances with the people, as opposed to their betters. Who aren’t.

    Mind you the people are very slow to realize the New Deal is so over, so betrayed. Also very slow to realize they have administrative government and not democracy. It’s happening slowly however.

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