Can The L-word Be Saved?
Published on: December 15, 2010
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  • PB

    Reading this post was very exciting and I look forward to reading the next installments. My own thinking is moving in the same direction and it is comforting to know that I am not alone. We are in a rare period that offers great opportunities for intellectual and cultural achievement. The people who are alive today will create the conceptual frameworks, institutions and rulesets that will govern our society until the next transition period occurs. I agree that defining liberalism for the new era will be an important part of this process. The kind of liberalism that we need going forward is a “startup liberalism” or “entrepreneurial liberalism.” As you have pointed out, the old, industrial, managerial liberalism built around big government, big business and big labor was appropriate for its era, but that era is passed. In the world that we are in now, the societies that will thrive will be those that embrace a culture of entrepreneurship and re-organize their political, legal, financial, and educational institutions in a way that allows entrepreneurship to flourish. The old liberalism sought to use government as an agent for improving society and people’s lives and while there will still be a need for an active government to provide a variety of services, we are reaching the limits of what government can afford to do. A key element of this “startup liberalism” will be using entrepreneurship as the agent of improving society and people’s lives and do the kinds of things that governments can no longer afford to do. We are already seeing seeds of this in the rise of the social entrepreneurship movement to create for-profit enterprises to solve social problems.

    We’ll also need to think anew about a liberal international order for the 21st century…

  • WigWag

    I will be interested to read WRM’s take on all of this over the next several weeks, but I am highly suspicious of his thesis. 4.0 liberalism as he calls it has been on the decline in the United States since the days of the Reagan Administration; during that period of time income inequality has dramatically increased, American power in the world to either compel or inspire other nations to do what we want them to has been continuously declining, real wages for the vast majority of Americans have been stagnant and most recently we have actually become poorer not wealthier as a nation.

    All of this suggests that Mead has it exactly backwards; the more the blue state model dissipates (with, for example, the decline of trade unionism and the reduction in marginal tax rates) the poorer most Americans get and the more unequal our society becomes. Unless Mead can furnish an explanation, all the data seems to indicate that it’s not 4.0 liberalism that’s causing America to crumble, it’s the decline of 4.0 liberalism that is making America weaker both internally and externally.

    The other thing that Mead doesn’t mention in this essay is the role of Keynesian economics. The economic realities discovered by Keynes are embedded in 4.0 liberalism. Many of these realities are counterintuitive (e.g. the idea that in times of economic decline the government shouldn’t do what a family does when it is in bad economic straits and cut back on spending).

    It is not surprising that the world is full of simpletons who can’t grasp the idea that what works for their family shouldn’t dictate government economic policy. Any future form of liberalism that doesn’t fully incorporate the lessons of Keynes is bound to fail. The idea that Keynes had it wrong is just about as legitimate as the idea that Einstein’s Theory of Relativity should take a back seat to Newton and his falling apple.

  • Randy

    Another interesting question: which version of liberals will be receptive to v5.0?

  • Peter

    Good points, Mr. Mead.

    And one of the propaganda victories for the Left (where Left = Democrats =`liberals) is the designation of conservative states as “Red” and Democrat states as “Blue.”.

    Red — the symbol of revolution — is the true color of today’s liberals (Democrats) as they are intent in overturning 1) traditional society and their godless secularism and 2)the republic with their Big Brotherism. .

  • Tom Kinney

    Yes, an exciting piece, but I would challenge, or at least temper the comments on race. Bruce Bartlett’s exceptional book, Wrong on Race: The Democrat’s Buried Past, would beg to differ. In a review of it, Vanderbilt’s Carol Swain notes: “Bartlett offers a thorough, well-documented account of the racial roots of the Democratic party. This book should be required reading for African-Americans of all ages, and especially for the nation’s youth.” Swain, an African-American herself, is Professor of Political Science and Law at Vandy.

    It’s also not inappropriate to point out that Lincoln was a Republican, nor that TR used to regularly invite fellow Republican George Washington Carver, TR’s advisor on race, to the WH until the press started to badger him about it. Thereafter, he simply entertained Carver in TR’s own home. There are many many more claims to positive racial works by Republicans, past and present, and recent charges of racism directed at the Tea Party and throughout the media, continue to understandably gall conservatives.

    Republican presidents Grant and Cleveland appointed Frederick Douglass, but a Democratic president at the time refused to do the same.

    Further, racism in the south was ironically expressed most vividly, and captured most memorably in the media, by the very people who never owned slaves, poor whites. The ravaging of the southern economy post Civil War–an economy that didn’t begin to recover until the 1950s–was the legacy of the north’s exploitative post-war behaviors and as such created the conditions under which racism flourished for the next century. Former slave owners, the wealthy, stayed above the fray, and I’m guessing that today many of their descendants, having enjoyed continued prosperity in many instances, are educated liberals–but that doesn’t exonerate their ancestors and it clouds any claims of southern racism as a sole phenomenon among disenfranchised whites who had to compete for the same jobs as freed slaves.

  • Adam Garfinkle

    Quite a tour d’ force, Walter, and I think fairly compelling. I would quibble with only one analytical point: your liberalism 4.0 seems to me to contain within it an historical development that should move us either to define a liberalism 4.0/1 and a liberalism 4.0/2, or to divide your whole skein into 5 instead of 4 versions.

    Here is what I mean. The liberalism of TR and William Allen White was a level-playing-field liberalism, an attempt to use the state as a vehicle to control the market distortions and outright plutocratic greed o the trusts that developed after the Civil War (and to some degree because of the Civil War). But the Liberalism of the New Deal, and the managerial state that developed out of WWII was, in my view, qualitatively different enough to deserve a separate number or label or status. That was not a level-playing-field liberalism but a redistributive liberalism. Just look at the difference in the tax systems in, say, 1920 and 1950 and you get a sense of the shift–marginal tax rates on the wealthy were dramatically higher and the government share of GDP was, too. The blue social model you point to was a product of this New Deal/post-WWII liberalism, not that discussed and debated in the key election of 1912. I think these outward differences also reflect an inward difference in attitudes, as well, moving from the state as protector of ordered liberty to the state as director of ordered liberty. To me, the differences are too marked to lump both types into the 4.0 category.

  • PersoninGrey

    @Peter: Yes, the decision to use blue and red to represent the Democratic and Republican parties respectively by all major news networks during the 2000 election was definitely a propaganda victory by the Left. I should know, I was the one that blackmailed Murdoch into submission.

  • Randy


    Follow-up question (also building on WRM’s idea of liberalism as an alternative to socialism): would you say that there is a third version of v4.0 (or in your words, 4.0/3) that arrived in the sixties which attempted to extend FDR’s redistributive liberalism into socialism?

  • A healthy democracy needs both liberals and conservatives if we wish to conserve what is good and reform what is bad in our existing institutions.

    What is not healthy is when liberals wish conservatives would just disappear and vice versa, which is where we are now.

    Liberals and conservatives need each other just as liberty needs justice and vice versa. As hard as they are to reconcile, it turns out that over the long term you can’t have much of one without the other: Freedom without justice degenerates into freedom for the few; justice without freedom leads to tyranny.

    This is why it is wrong when Republicans define themselves as the party of freedom and Democrats define themselves as the party of justice.

    The biggest challenge, today at least, is how to reconcile the general welfare with free trade in a world divided between very wealthy nations (like the United States) and very poor ones (like China).

    Unless we can find a way both fair and efficient to redistribute income between capital and labor this may not be possible in a free market economy such as the one we should hope to preserve.

    We are learning the hard way that a conventional welfare state financed by the progressive income tax is not a viable way to go. Might there be another?

    I suggest we take another look at the problem of implementing a graduated expenditure tax (as outlined by Irving Fisher), using the proceeds to subsidize market wages via an expanded version of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which Reagan described as the best welfare program ever conceived.

    Our goal should be to preserve the efficiency of a market economy without destroying the incentives to work and invest. It is the challenge of the next generation, and I hope Meade addresses it.

  • DaveM

    WigWag says:

    “It is not surprising that the world is full of simpletons who can’t grasp the idea that what works for their family shouldn’t dictate government economic policy. … The idea that Keynes had it wrong is just about as legitimate as the idea that Einstein’s Theory of Relativity should take a back seat to Newton and his falling apple.”

    – – – –

    Here’s a perfect example of a “liberal” characteristic that the author failed to point out: when a liberal argues a point, he will rarely attack the substance; instead, he attacks the opponent.

    Rather than say why he thinks Keynes was correct, WigWag says that any non-Keynesian is a “simpleton.” Well. That certainly settles the matter, thanks.

    This is followed by an argument that Keynes is the only “legitimate” point of view, the support of which is a nonsensical comparison of the theories of relativity and gravity. Note to WigWag: neither theory “take a back seat” to each other; they’re both true.

    There is nothing liberal-minded about the way WigWag reasons. He calls his opponents names. He attacks the authority of his opponents rather than address the issue. This is a pattern I have seen repeated over and over again in liberal circles.

  • Patrick Hume

    This man is completely imagining things. What is it about $847 BILLION in pork barrel spending that “preserves liberty”? I mean, is he serious?

    FDR once set the price of gold at $21 because “3 and 7 are lucky numbers and 3 x 7 is 21.” This is a man who knew what he was doing?

  • robert siegler


    Excellent distinction; the two approaches merged into 4.0 do need to be distinguished. Walter’s arguments against 4.0 liberalism are aimed primarily at the FDR version; does this suggest that we should return to a more inclusive variant of TR style liberalism? We could (and have) done worse.

  • ed

    I am looking forward to the upcoming columns on very interesting analysis, which I think reflects similar, although not as deep, thoughts of my own. The terms liberal and conservative are very often misleading when you examine the relative positions of the major parties of this country. What are often described as conservatives take that view on social issues such as abortion and sexual orientation. Those same people, however, are not in favor of conserving in their present form social programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, while those who are considered liberal champion the continuation of those programs in largely their present form.

  • Mike Wilson

    I would say that WRM has it about right. The true legacy of what he calls 4.0 Liberals is the belief that government can solve all social injustices and provide for the individual’s personal security and happiness. It seems to me that leads to his central point: an increase in the size and power of government, and its expanded exercise of control over individual’s lives was a viable solution to the social, technological and economic problems that afflicted society. But, like a kid who eats too much candy, what was good to begin with has become too much, and now we are being sickened by the excess. Like the kid, the solution is to 1) stop eating more candy and 2) puke most of it up and resolve to learn how in the future to eat in moderation.

  • Peter


    How could Murdoch be blackmailed into submission to the Left?

    I don’t doubt you, but I am courious.

  • Thank you for another great insight into the nature of the U.S.


    To wax philosophical about what ‘liberal’ means, has meant in past, and will mean in future, is a sophist’s errand. I.e. a fool’s errand in a sophisticated garb. More important and relevant question is what exactly various groups preach/practice. You can call it Big Mac, for all i care. Thus there are essentially two threads—one that preach/practice more and more meddling in individual lives—by government and by ‘public interest’ groups, and the other which hate it, and instead preach/practice near-zero levels of meddling. It is this latter that is codified in the Constitution, AND is an ethical position, (and i call it Big Mac), the former being unconstitutional AND unethical (which i call Mickey Mouse). Treating both as legitimate at-par parts of some ever-mixing contiguous spectrum—historically, politically and/or morally—is a dogma preached and practiced by the Mickey Mouse people (also known as the Left), because in a Republic founded on the Big Mac (i.e. Rightist) position, that is the ONLY way the former can succeed. Those ‘intellectuals’ who, without question, buy into such nonsense are the Humes and Russells of their times—mainly useless, but often damaging because of their intellectual laziness and/or chicanery, as the case may be.

  • I too look forward to future installments setting out liberalism’s future, but the dog that has not barked here, at least so far, is conservatism. Does WRM believe, following Hartz, that sort of by definition we’re all liberals all the time? If so, what are conservatives — failed liberals? liberals who fail to understand liberalism? backward-looking reactionaries too wedded to the past to “move on” to the next stage?

    Also, I can’t quite wrap my mind around Liberalism 4.0, our current version that in this telling nobly advanced the causes of free speech and racial equality … even though today most “liberals” support speech codes on campus, limits on political speech that no doubt have Alexander Meiklejohn and Hugo Black spinning in their graves, and are so committed to racial preferences that they regard those of us who support colorblind racial neutrality as either closet or overt racists.

  • Don Pelayo

    The key question is: How did Liberalism based on principles of inherent individual freedoms become hijacked by communitarians (socialist-social democratic etc.) of the Left.

  • blackdog

    I agree, to disagree.
    Long article, lots of words, long thoughtful replies.
    Lots of ego about how this line of thinking makes us and the writers more fit to live life as an esteemed being.
    Doesn’t make a hill of bean for making us schlubs in the trenches have a better life and only veneers over the pain for the thinkers until some other force in our world (islamic fundamentalism or the debt police) pulls you back into the muck.
    Life is not without effort and pain.
    It is easy to to buy into the “things are going to keep going up and up and better and better” by taking advantage of the efforts of good valued people before you who created equity in our country.
    America was once the anomaly to this Karmic battle between the lower nature of men and this brand of higher (?) thinking.
    But since the ego-centric, pat-yourself-on-the-back thinkers have got it all figured out, we don’t need that strange not to be understood thing called God or faith that was the strength that allowed us to chart a course different from the rest of the world.
    So is it welcome to 5.0?
    Keep thinking and believing in your self-importance.

  • Dave

    I suggest A reading of Chris Hedges book, “Death of the Liberal Class.”

  • wyn

    Regardless of the history of “liberalism” or “progressivism”, the people operating under those labels have an agenda that is counter to our republican form of government – the res publica. A fine old Roman term (Rome when it was a Republic). Our current batch of Liberals/Progressives are so in love with issuing rules – all in the nature of perfecting what is clearly imperfect, that they are in danger of crossing the line into dictatorship.

  • Charlie Tips

    Useful analysis, and, to a child of the Enlightenment like myself, thought-provoking.

    I’d caution some of the commenters not to try to retrofit today’s hackneyed labels (left, Dem, Repub, conservative, etc.) onto Mead’s model. What US conservatives are conservative about, after all, is liberalism, and the Republican party has shouldered much more of the load of advancing liberal (in the proper sense) causes, ideals and concepts over the years.

    I believe Adam is onto something with his differentiations within Liberalism 4.0. But I see it more as a progression with age, analogous to geology, each iteration becoming increasinly more complex, folded, layered and studded with occlusions.

    Living in the SF Bay Area for 30 years, I certainly found it hard to distinguish, even among specific individuals, between the liberal and the socialist concepts harbored. Indeed, I can hardly relate those people to Mead’s claim, “There is a belief that an open, dynamic society will lead to a better life for all and that promoting ordered liberty is the morally obligatory as well as the pragmatically desirable thing to do.” They were not liberals, merely anxious inheritors of a jumble of post-modern notions.

    I found them risk-averse, looking for protective authority and pessimistically convinced that, left to our own devices, we’d surely go astray–hardly a liberal mindset. To me, a key criterion of the liberal outlook is the belief that the locus of control properly rests with the individual. Today’s “liberals,” believing as they do that control should reside with right-minded elites, don’t fit that bill, having more in common with progressives like Dewey and Wilson who, far from contributing to liberalism as Mead says in passing, were largely anti-liberal.

  • John Rhodes

    An interesting piece. I would welcome comments and opinions about another philosophical and political dichotomy – between liberty and equality. Both are fundamental American values, but, in practical terms, they are often in conflict.

    It seems to me that many of our current debates are about the balance between the two. For example, the tax code, in part, attempts to increase economic equality by constraining the economic liberties of the affluent.

    Without taking sides on that issue, I wonder how liberalism 5.0 addresses the balance between liberty and equality, and on what ‘declaration of principles’ will 5.0 be based?

  • Anthony King

    W.R.M. writes an elucidating treatise on western historical development of qua liberalism. Now, will 5.0 incorporate and meet challenges of invidious racial caste constraining 21st century economic and social synthesizing vis-a-vis dated blue model?

  • DavisJohn

    Walter, you obscure the real issue. The problem isn’t that liberals are misunderstood. We do know what a liberal is. We just know that they are destroying our country. Certainly, classical liberalism helped bring about our modern democracies. However, modern liberalism is basically a branch of socialism or communism.

  • Harpotoo

    LIEberal and Oppressive progressive!

    Words I equate with [rapid, uncontrolled emissions of an unpleasant bodily substance –ed].

  • Keith Kempton

    Can we please bury the tired canard of “income inequality” in our society?

    (Wig-wag #2)

    What exactly do you people want? The government to force everyone to have, say 40% of Bill Gates’ net worth?

    In 1947 nearly half the homes in the US had outside toilet facilities. I myself attended a public school in the early 60’s that did not have plumbed restrooms.

    Today the number of homes without modern plumbing is vanishingly small. Nearly everyone has a car, television, microwave, cell phones, DVD players, and yes, access to historically unparalleled medical care (at least until the looming bureaucracy destroys it).

    It is ridiculous to imply that somehow we are abusing the lower classes of our society.

    It is also ridiculous to measure inequality by networth ratios in dollars. Bill Gates’ life is no doubt slightly more comfortable than mine, but at some point all those dollars are just numbers on a piece of paper.

    The important thing is whether or not the wealthy are becoming so as a result of a significant contribution to our society. In Bill Gates’ case it’s clear that he has.

  • Patrick in ABQ

    1. I hope that the word “globalized” will appear in WRM’s next postings.
    2. Perhaps he will be able to critique conservatism in future postings and opine about its future. I am one of them; regrettably, if there are any futurists among us, they are silent. It seems that if “tax cuts” are not part of the discussion, we’re disinterested.

  • Bill

    A liberal is someone who seeks ordered liberty in politics: who seeks to reconcile humanity’s need for governance with its drive for freedom in such a way as to give us all the order we need (but no more) with as much liberty as possible. In this sense liberty isn’t divided into freedoms of speech, religion, economic activity or personal conduct: real liberals care deeply about all of the above, and seek a society in which individuals enjoy increasing liberty in each of these dimensions — while continuing to cultivate the virtues and the institutions that give us the order without which there can be no freedom.
    Funny, this sounds a lot like today’s Conservatism to me. Possible historic irony: Republican party morphs into party of Liberalism 5.0.

  • Lehmamaki

    Yes, very nice words.

    But does the author really believe that belief in limited government was introduced by Liberalism 3.0? Or that they believed in it more than Liberalism 2.0?

    Also, nominating the Progressive movement as a continuation of classical Liberal thought invites nothing but scorn. Progressives were no more than American technocratic socialists. Plato’s Republic for the New World. Leading Progressive figures made no secret of the Socialist influences of their philosophy, many of them were quite radical even by today’s standards.

    Mr. Read is not stupid and is most certainly aware of this. He only believes we are not. If he wishes to pose as our moral and intellectual superior, that is his right. It is also my right to treat him as an insulated, dishonest ruling class tool.

  • thibaud

    Mr Mead – a superb history lesson, but you lose me (and the majority of Americans) here: “we don’t want the progressive, managerial state that liberals and progressives built in the first two thirds of the twentieth century.”

    I know most Americans reject the liberal _label_, but all the polling data indicates that most of the state agencies and programs you identify as part of the “progressive, managerial state” remain not only popular but untouchable politically.

    In particular, the fiscal bind we’re in is almost entirely due to two programs aimed at the needs of that demographic whose share of the population is soaring and will become dominant under any realistic scenario for the next quarter century: the elderly.

    Unless you have a magical formula for transforming the over-70 population into healthy, productive employees who contribute vastly greater sums in monetary contributions than at present, with vastly reduced late-stage (especially end-of-life) medical care costs than at present, you will not make any meaningful dent in the biggest problem faced by the “progressive, managerial state.”

    Which makes me suspect that you are either going to spring a plan for medical rationing– esp re end-of-life treatments and care– or else seriously disappoint….

  • mutantbeast

    I disagree with Mr Mead in many respects. Starting with Woodrow Wilson and the introduction of the 16th and 17th amendments, liberalism became nothing more than a quest for government power and groupism. The entire New Deal of FDR was a redistribution scheme designed to cement power for the Democrats for generations, and the ideological leanings of the media cemented that power. The real reason Reagan turned around the 50 years of leftist attacks on America was simple-he spent a career in the media, and few, if anyone , knew better how to make use of the media. The internet and talk radio have largely maginalized the medias control today, henceforth the excesses of the left have for the first time in a century, finally been exposed en masse. The classic “liberal” has been dead since the Vietnam era. The hardcore, ideological leftist has replaced them.

  • Simon

    Interesting thoughts and I am curious to see the next piece. However, the fact that the far right, starting with the Reagan presidency was able to totally discredit liberalism, even making it into a “bad word”, does not necessarily mean that liberalism 4, as you call it, was wrong and outdated. It certainly means that the right outflanked the liberals in tactics and especially their in successful destruction of the independent and relevant media, including anything anyone can call “news”. I am wondering whether the right wing’s success was because of some radically new ideas (i.e. rev. 5) are needed (as this analysis posits), or because the liberals were just too busy building their families, carriers and lives and not motivated enough to got back to the basics: organize and fight back against the opportunistic misleading rhetoric of the Reagan administration and their follow-on right wingers. So, I agree that we, who call ourselves liberals, need to make some changes. But I am not sure it should be a rev. 5. As most of the liberals of today are middle class, and as the right wing seems to be bent on destroying our livelihood, they might have just given us the impetus to wake up finally from our slumber.

  • g50

    Love it, so glad that you are reaching a broader audience through You are right on the money. I have this discussion a lot, it may very well be a losing fight. I consider myself a liberal in the sense you are going for, but am routinely insulted as a conservative or even a fascist, by radicals who truly scare me, and who I don’t want to identify with. I think they are wrong, and are hurting the cause of liberalism, but I don’t know – is it worth it to fight for this term?

  • Anthony

    It appears that thoughtful analysis on this subject (and like this analysis) often invokes individual virtue as required for the hoped-for outcome. I would say that perfect virtue is required, not as if attainable but ever sought, first and resolutely by at least more than a few.

  • Nathan

    I shared this article with my brother and his comments were as follows:

    I especially like his tracing a variety of meanings of the word “liberal” (1.0, 2.0, 3.0, 4.0) through history. I would like him to write a similar (and similarly appreciative) article about the variety of meanings of the word “conservative” through history.

    I, of course, am even more interested in someone who could write a similar article, but about the variety of meanings of the words “liberal” and “conservative” in church contexts. One interesting question is whether these two sorts of meaning are related–whether there is an inherent reason that someone who is “liberal” in their religious beliefs would also vote for “liberal” political causes, and vice-versa.

    I thought you might agree with my brother’s curiosity. Please let me know if you want to share any thoughts that address his questions.



    @ Patrick Hume +1

    After listening to your lecture on Grand Strategy it is striking that for all the talk about liberalism and open society there is absolutely no discussion of the global monetary system. It on this very point that the anglo model was built and has sustained itself. In practice, the moment the US swooped in to assume empire during Suez it was monetary threat that sealed the deal. One can agree with your assessment of the global balancing with the most recent policy by Japan Defense Forces supporting such a supposition, but forecfully disagree on the flip dismissal of “this time is different.” Liberalism x.x will have to be defined not by a redefinition of trade deals with Columbia (lol) but a fundamental rethink of the entire monetary architecture. This is to say, the British used troops and subversion, while the US has enforeced a quasi usury (with defense/shiping lane offset) via an overvalued currency. Putting aside technological innovation arguments,a growing global consumption base means that the comparaiitive US advanatege has to fade. This may have nothign to do with the progression of liberalism in 2012+ but surely it has profound implications for Grand Strategy. Soft power only works with hard backing – which holds just the same in the FX markets. Nial Ferguson has it 100% correct.

    Your make an interesting point in your presentation suggesting as long as there is vitrol on the Hill there is no threat to the grand strategy, which is should we say tilted liberalism. It is perhaps useful here to revisit the series of bailout measures and the TARP vote for the true state of liberalism today.

    Finally, as relates to Anbar, any discussion of “free will” without an inclusive discussion of the religious and ethnic undertones not to mention regional politics paints a half finsihed portrait.

  • Tom

    There is nothing wrong with Liberalism 4.0 – as you call it – that would be solved by returning to the eternal verities of the progressive income tax. Our great nation is corroding away before our eyes and its future will become an enormous version of Argentina if we keep to the fiscal prescriptions of that quack Howard Jarvis and his equally loopy successors.

  • rkj

    You’re absolutely correct, DAVEM. People like WigWag spend their entire existence spouting off about the infallibility of Keynes and Krugman and ignore any evidence to the contrary. When anyone dares to disagree, Wigwag and his ilk revert back to the elementary school tactic of calling people names. Wigwag, why don’t you thoughtfully consider the ideas of other very learned economists (e.g. Hayek, Friedman and Sowell) and actually dispute their conclusions with evidence?

  • Jim Cohen

    It’s nice to see a liberal like Mead admit that modern “liberalism” is essentially reactionary in its attempts to preserve an economic structure that is inexorably declining. It’s also nice to see a liberal concede some of the illiberal tendencies of modern American leftism. This is a frequent topic of conversation on the right, but I’ve never seen before it on the left.

    Frankly put, contemporary American liberalism isn’t particularly liberal. Mead traces this correctly back to the decision to use the state as a counterbalance to the public power of private wealth that was so abused in the 19th century, but this liberal impulse of Theodore Roosevelt was quickly hijacked by the Progressives, who had something very different in mind. Mead’s description of Liberalism 4 is closer to how liberals want to see themselves than to how they actually behave. Progressivism tainted liberalism with the same statism that produced fascism, and it has not yet recovered. Jonah Goldberg’s book Liberal Fascism provides fascinating insights into this phenomenon.

    I agree with those who have said here that Liberalism 4 was really divided into the 4.1 of Theodore Roosevelt, the 4.2 of the New Deal, and the 4.3 of the 1960s. Goldberg shows how 4.2 and 4.3 bear a closer kinship to fascism than to classical liberalism, despite the liberal desires to free people from the tyrannies of monopoly and racism that inspired them. It is in reaction to this that classical liberals became conservatives, in the sense of wanting to preserve the spirit of the American revolution and of Liberalisms 1-3 in the face of the onslaught from statism dressed up as liberalism.

    It will be the job of Liberalism 5 to at last purge the fascist elements from contemporary liberalism and return it to its roots of valuing individual freedom and equality of opportunity over Rawlsian justice and Rousseauian radicalism. When that happens, it will be interesting to see how the Whigs and the Tories, currently allied as conservatives against the statist Progressives, reorder themselves.

  • Glen

    John Maynard Keynes’ inexorable linkage to Liberalism 4.0 – and widespread ignorance of economics among leading politicians and intellectuals – led this epoch away from core liberal thought.

    Yes, society was changing due to massive immigration and the economy was reordering from agrarian to industrial. But centralized bureaucratic planning didn’t work then, and it certainly isn’t working now. Until critics can genuinely distinguish FDR, any analysis will be found wanting.

  • I think Mr. Mead has not taken stock of the massive influence of German philosophy on what he calls Liberalism 3.0. I would argue that Progressives, who were the exponents of German philosophers of Kant, Hegel, and Marx, cynically stole the title Liberal from those who rightly had it.

    Whereas the original Liberals were always advocates of individual choice, “Liberal 4.0” overtly deprecated individual choice in economics, and accompanying institutions like property rights, in favor of government regulation by one form of fascist government board or some “czar” or other.

    To save the “L-word” it is only necessary that the word represent full and total individual choice in society. The “only” here is decidedly ironic, since it would turn a good part of current culture virtually upside down, yet, rightly understood, it is practical and a moral imperative.

    For those who are puzzled that statement, I hope this makes it clear: If ever government or “corporations” constitute a threat to individual choice, then individual choices and contracts are not being honored. The fix is DEFEND the INDIVIDUAL. If one tries to use government against corporations or ethnicties, by definition the focus on the individual is lost. In fact German philosophy is a drumbeat of the motto that the individual is not important or even be evil as such. Needless to say, this is not the position that advocates actual freedom, but only state power.

    In short, to save “liberalism” it must truly be liberal.

  • WigWag

    WRM has a tough road to hoe to demonstrate that the Blue State model or what he calls 4.0 Liberalism is no longer suited to facilitate strong economic growth and a just society where the vast majority of people can count on economic security and improving living standards.

    The Blue State model has been in decline ever since Ronald Reagan became President in 1981. It was briefly resurrected, at least partially, during the Presidency of Bill Clinton. Even a cursory look at economic performance during the years when the Blue State model was in disrepute (during the Reagan Administration and the Administrations of George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush) show significantly poorer performance than in the years when the Blue State model was temporarily ascendant again (during the Clinton Administration). In fact, the statistics amply demonstrate that economic performance during the Clinton years was far superior to economic performance under his two Republican predecessors or his Republican successor. This suggests that it’s not the Blue State model that’s at fault; it’s the rejection of the Blue State model that makes Americans poorer. It seems to me that WRM would be wiser to write a series of essays on the failure of the Red State model.


    The poverty rate in the United States climbed continuously throughout Reagan’s first term and though it declined during his second term, Reagan left office with the poverty rate higher than he found it when he took office. The poverty rate climbed every year of the George H. W. Bush Administration but it declined seven of the eight years of the Clinton Administration. Clinton left office with a poverty rate significantly lower than he found it. Unfortunately the poverty rate increased in six of the eight years of the George W. Bush Administration. (Source: US Census Bureau Current Population Survey 1960-2009; Economic Supplement) Score one for the Blue State model.

    Income Inequality

    From 1950 until 1980 the percentage of national income controlled by each fifth of the income scale tracked by the census bureau was essentially flat; income growth in each quintile was remarkably stable. From the time Ronald Reagan took office until today, the percentage of national income controlled by the top quintile has grown every year; the percentage of national income controlled by the bottom three quintiles has flat-lined. During the Clinton Administration, this trend abated somewhat, with the top quintile growing at the expense of the rest of the population far less than during the Reagan years or the years of either Bush Administration. (Source: United States Census Bureau: Income Distribution 1947-2007) Score another one for the Blue State model.

    Real Income

    Real Income fell continuously during the George W. Bush Administration. During the first year of Bill Clinton’s second term, median household income (adjusted for inflation) was $51,295. In 2007 as the Bush Administration approached its demise, median household income was $51,095. Amazingly, this was before the economic calamity hit (of course that calamity was caused in large part by the rejection of Liberalism 4.0’s regulatory schemes that had worked so well for a generation). The economic performance turned in by a Bush Administration that eschewed the Blue State model was dismal; in fact it represented the first decade since the 1930s where real income in the United States failed to rise. The second worst period of real income growth was Ronald Reagan’s first term. Real income was also stagnant during the George H. W, Bush Administration but did rise, albeit modestly during every year of Clinton’s term except the last year. (Source: Census Bureau Report: Income Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States, 2008). Once again, the Blue State model proves superior to a Red State oriented model.

    I am sure that WRM’s essays will be brilliant and fascinating and that he has some strong arguments to make. But merely asserting that the Blue State model is so fatally flawed that it needs to be scrapped in favor of some hypothetical Liberalism 5.0 isn’t something he can merely assert if he wants to be taken seriously. He needs to provide real data which suggests that the model he claims is outdated is inferior to other models that already exist in the real world or ones that he makes up in his head.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      An earlier comment used some fairly harsh language about our friend WigWag. I like the comment area of this site to be a clean, well-lighted space. In the future the ‘comment police’ will be not only be vigilant to ensure that the comments are clear and clean in language; they will patrol for unnecessary vitriol as well. As usual, more latitude will be given to readers to say unpleasant things about me than about other people; this policy is not about censorship but about making this site a suitable home for vigorous and intelligent discourse. May I remind those readers who need the hint that it is more effective to turn up the reason and style of a comment than slather on statements of disdain for the intelligence or the morals of others?

  • PersoninGrey

    @Peter: Let’s just say that it involves koalas. I promised Murdoch I wouldn’t tell if he promoted the illiberal leftist marxist-fasco tradition by choosing the right colors.

  • nb

    Even though the article pretends to get the flow, it is a flow in the darkness. Thus the libralism 1.0 was responsible for colonialism. Thus the liberalism 3.0 was responsible for stealing and assault on cultures, instigating war in third world countries…anti-semitic and anti-eastern racists.

    Just speak it plainly, you would doubt yourself, as do so many friends, humans who have become ‘liberals’. Humans who became liberals don’t know the racist stuff that went in britain and was exported – even by liberals who believed in white supremism.

  • Die Fledermaus

    Contemporary “liberalism” and “progressivism” connote a collectivist mind-set, elevating the state above the individual, abrading privacy and private property rights, and empowering the state’s intrusion into virtually any/all nooks and crannies of individual life. This is opposite the plain intent of the U.S. Constitution and the clear spirit and intent of the Declaration of Independence. The names by which this malignant philosophy may have gone in the past have no useful bearing on what it’s called now.

    Similarly, when you arbitrarily impose onto others your judgment of what’s “unnecessary vitriol” or what language is too harsh, you’re engaging in censorship. The terminology in which you choose to cloak the behavior does not change its nature. Despite your assurances that “this policy is not about censorship,” you’re engaged in censoring poster’s comments, and saying you’re not doesn’t make that true or the practice any less despicable.

    I routinely skip and ignore statements in which I perceive no value. Nobody needs to do that for me. Your proclivity to substitute your judgment for others’, and your apparent acceptance of it as a practice, establishes your position on one of the defining issues in the entire cultural dispute in which we’re engaged. And you’re on the wrong side of it.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      You can’t please everybody, but I’ve noticed that many people comment on the intelligence and civility of the comments on this site. The object of the vitriolic criticisms, by the way, was someone who had written a long and thoughtful post expressing profound disagreement with my own point of view. I’m trying to create a space where people who disagree with me can speak up and be heard with respect.

  • phil g

    I’ve always considered myself a ‘classical liberal’ which puts me about as far away from the Democratic party as possible. Unfortunately that leaves me with the Stupid Party as the better of two poor choices.

  • Cicero

    This has already been attempted.

    It was called the “neo-Conservative” movement. It combined a strident foreign policy that advocated for democracy everywhere, (the most well known of their beliefs), with a economic policy of liberation from government regulations that benefited large businesses instead of the individual, and a social policy of supporting cultural institutions such as marriage that are beneficial to the well-being and happiness of the poor and middle class (anything that encouraged bourgeoisie values such as thrift, hard work, moral uprightness, the sanctity of the family, and respect for private property and the law).

    Most of the original neo-Conservatives were disillusioned communists and dissatisfied liberals. Rather then the traditional conservatives who came at this from more basic “don’t change things” attitude, neo-Conservatives were in favor of improving society, they just saw these “conservative” methods as being the most effective ways of increasing equality and liberty. (They were particularly concerned about the statistics on the increasing underclass of unwed mothers.) Because of this different approach traditional conservative have always been suspicious of neo-Conservatives being to willing to tax and spend and intervene in society.

    Liberals however, came to have a special hatred for those hey viewed as traitors, and used “neo-Conservative” as slur, until it is currently used today to attack any conservative- even those who are not in the neo-Conservative tradition. (For example, the Tea Party is mainly a reaction against the neo-Conservatives, yet many liberals do not understand this.)

  • Cicero


    As an economist I am always frustrated at the way Keynes is used as a club to silence those that disagree with their economic policy.

    First of all, liberalism 4.0 regularly ignores Keynes. Most noticeably by borrowing money during times of prosperity instead of saving. Keynes himself noted this tendency when he complained that FDR listened to him when his theories justified what FDR already wanted to do, and ignored him when his theories opposed what FDR wanted to do. Economists have learned that this is common behavior for all politicians.

    Additionally there is the constant rejection of any development in Economics after Keynes. As if the Chicago Revolution never happened. As if the various neo-Classical models haven’t become the dominant economic models used today. Heck, most of the time even the neo-Keynesians updating and revising of Keynesian theories is ignored, and instead it is insisted we keep using the model from the Great Depression Era.

    Nor is there any recognition that the American economy is different now then it was during the Great Depression- most notably in the fact that America is now a debtor nation, while in the 1930’s America was a creditor nation.

    Of course America didn’t have to worry about savings or deficits in the 1930s. Calvin Coolidge had been running budget surpluses prior to the Great Depression. So it made sense to borrow money to jumpstart the economy. But it does not make sense to do the same thing when the government has been borrowing money for half a century.

  • Lazaros Parasidis


  • George Seay

    Walter – Wow. What a spectacular article. Can I get on an email list so I automatically get your stuff? I think you are the best opinion writer operating today. Well, well done.

  • Doug Page

    In Massachusetts, where I live, the liberals are the conservatives, working as hard as possible to remain in control of the state government. And the conservatives, or the version that’s get elected here, might very well be considered the liberals and/or the rebels. How do you explain that?

  • WigWag

    @ Cicero (December 18, 2010 at 10:34 am) says,

    “First of all, liberalism 4.0 regularly ignores Keynes. Most noticeably by borrowing money during times of prosperity instead of saving.”

    I agree with you entirely, Cicero; Democrats have been very good at running deficits in recessionary times but very bad at running surpluses during prosperous times. I would point out, however, that in my comment I contrasted the approach taken by President Clinton with the approach taken by Reagan and Bush (father and son). President Clinton did run budget surpluses during the prosperous 1990s. In fact, the surpluses he ran were precisely what Keynes would have called for. As a result of those budget surpluses, the U.S. sovereign debt was being paid down at an extremely fast rate (the government actually stopped selling 30 year bonds) and notables, including Alan Greenspan pondered aloud what the consequences might be if the federal debt was eliminated entirely.

    If Clinton’s policies had been continued and the debt retired, imagine how much easier it would be today for the government to reflate the economy and prop up aggregate demand in precisely the manner that Keynes called for. Had Clinton’s Blue State policies been continued and the federal debt retired, today’s fiscal deficits might bring the level of federal debt to the single digits or low double digits as a percentage of GDP. Instead, largely as a result of the Bush tax cuts and his dramatically increased military spending, the Bush deficits and now the Obama deficits threaten to push federal debt to nearly 100 percent of GDP.

    As for your comment about the Chicago School; whatever the merits of their point of view, practitioners of this point of view have virtually nothing of value to offer in terms of solutions to today’s economic problems; anemic economic growth in the face of rock bottom interest rates and the threat of a deflationary cycle.

    Clearly President Clinton was not a pure “Blue Stater;” like Tony Blair in the UK he was a proponent of the “third way.” His ardor for deregulation of the financial industry is proof enough of that. But economic policies under Clinton and Bob Rubin were clearly more “progressive” than under either President Bush or President Reagan. Clinton’s results were superior. Clinton also benefited from other realities; enhanced productivity associated with the internet revolution and generally peaceful times. Not all of his success can be attributed to the superiority of the Blue State model; but I think some of it can be.

    One other thing; I wonder if WRM has noticed that for all its failings, the Blue State model has produced far better results in the American states that practice it than the Red State model. All of the Blue States, including the ones in the depressed industrial heartland and now the imperiled State of California do better on measures of economic success than states such as his ancestral homeland, the Palmetto State. Whatever parameter you look at, from literacy rates, to divorce rates, to state GDP, to college graduation rates, to percentage of people covered by health insurance, states like New York, California and Massachusetts do far better than states like South Carolina, Mississippi and Alabama.

    If there is even a single state in the nation where cleaving to the Red State approach produces superior economic results in terms of development parameters to the Blue State approach, I would be happy to hear what it is.

  • rob verdi

    I would add the rise of the environmental movement and the religious like fervor some of its adherents have adopted as one of the causes of giving liberalism a bad name.

  • Snakeoil Salesman

    What a convoluted load of [bad stuff].

    Liberals have little interest in liberty. They are all about control, power and class warfare. They are contrarian by nature, and reject “common sense” and logic as bourgeois and pedestrian. “Nuance” is their way to justify their twisted beliefs (in their own mind anyway) in spite of not having truth facts and reality aiding their argument.

    Our country is populated by a majority who understand and are the embodiment of common sense. They have, and will continue to reject the illogical liberal mindset, every time it weasels its way to the forefront.

  • Diann

    I hope in future posts on this very timely topic you will give your readers your definition of what “conservative” means.

    I think we will need a new word for what you describe historical liberalism to be about. Now everyone has his own definition, as Snakeoil Salesman demonstrates. We can’t really discuss something rationally until we define our terms and then use them as we’ve defined them.

  • I hope that in developing this new political philosophy Professor Mead doesn’t intend to classify the need to control giant rapacious corporations, the need for a decent social safety net, and the need not to have eneormous gaps in wealth in society, with what he calls “the Blue State model” that has failed. These are the real core values of what he terms “liberalism 4.0,” not any particular regulatory or bureaucratic structure. If there is no respect for these values, you can count me out.

  • I was born into the mid-century Liberal consensus. My father was a Keynesian economist who feared in the 30s that the US would turn to fascism or communism and viewed FDR and the Keynesian middle way as having saved America from a totalitarian revolution. He was also quite clear by the 50s that he thought that the New Deal didn’t work as hoped economically and that it was only the economic activity generated by WW2 that brought us out of the depression. I am aways amused when this idea is put forward as a recent discovery by some anti Keynesian. But with that said I think that mid century (liberal 4.0) consensus ran into the conservative revival led by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. They most important point they made was that you can’t go on expanding government indefinitely. I never heard it said better than when Benjamin Netanyahu told Charlie Rose that the trick was to restrain the public sector from getting too big for the private sector to sustain. Reagan certainly was a poor practitioner of financial restraint despite much of what he said. But he did get the critique of big government rolling. There was I believe a magic moment during the Clinton administration when the issue was joined productively. Newt and Bill had a friendly debate about the Federalist Papers and their contemporary application. As we all know the Republicans overplayed their hand and Clinton prevailed politically, but the surpluses that followed were, I would argue, a result of the limits on public spending demanded by the conservative critique and a Liberal president who successfully accommodated that critique. Successfully, I repeat – those surpluses were real. Then things went to hell in a hand basket. Lewinsky and trivial impeachment leading to further damage to the institution of the presidency on top of that caused by Watergate. Followed by the bitterness of the indecisive election of 2000 and a Republican president who showed no sign of having any comprehension of the idea that government can’t be expanded indefinitely. He spent on the war of course but he also pushed two major initiatives that were right out of the mid century Liberal 4.0 playbook. That is, no child left behind and the prescription drug program. His Republican congress made small government Republicans so angry with their plutocratic spending that “Porkbusters”, led by libertarian blogger Glenn Reynolds arose on the internet supported by an Army of Davids – myself among them. Then we got Obama who we hoped would put forward some new ideas. The beginnings of Liberalism 5.0. Instead we got a mid century Liberal 4.0 Congress that had no notion of the need for fiscal restraint and no adult supervision from Obama. As a consequence the small government Republicans have coalesced into the Tea Party and the Democratic congress has a well earned 13% approval rating in a recent Gallup poll. I think the way forward is to find a balance between what we want government to do and what we can afford. I don’t think we can cut government quickly in the throes of the economic debacle and I don’t think we can afford things like 16% of GDP for medical care. (I live in Australia where we have both a full public system AND an excellent private system with medical outcomes among the best in the world on 8.5% of GDP.) The only thing I’m pretty sure about in the future is that we will use inflation to hide a necessary cut in underfunded pensions whether national, state or corporate. Perhaps a hostile house of representatives will help Obama raise his game. The prospect of being a one-term president wonderfully concentrates the mind. But I doubt that Our Lord himself in league with all the demons of Hell (in the form of pitchfork wielding Tea Partiers of course) could drive the moneychangers out of Sodom on Potomac.

  • G.K.Mishin

    Some problems for future Prof. Mead’s work:
    1. We need Credo of the World-Ahead Alliance too. We need a Program for Civilization.
    2. There is a deficit of the discipline in the governance and Government (WikiLeaks…). Open society’s model needs any limits.
    3.”Postmodernization” (decay) must be ended in the culture first of all. No barbarism.
    4. Islamism is not religious but political phenomenon. Islamism not been “tolerated until it died a natural death”.

  • Russ Mitchell

    Previous comment didn’t get approved, but wanted to emphasize the importance of liberalism 4.0’s biggest feature: it fit with the economic circumstances of the post-WWII world. Prof. Mead is absolutely correct to point out that the economics of the world has changed radically in the mean time, and that liberalism as an ideology must either adapt to that change, or wind up discarded (which would be a tragedy, in my opinion).

  • Louis Wheeler

    Thank you, Mr Mead, your explanation resolves some of my concerns. You see, I have ample evidence of a financial debacle ahead of us in the next 6 to 24 months. There are a number of ways which events can play out, but the most likely one is a hyper inflationary depression where the dollar become worthless.

    If there truly is a Liberalism 5.0 ahead, then this hyper inflation turns into a grand blowout of a bankrupt fractional reserve banking system. That puts the nail in Liberalism 4.0’s coffin. The welfare state dies when it can no longer create money out of thin air. All the unsustainable social systems and bureaucracy fold like a house of cards.

    But, what is going on with liberalism 5.0?

    Liberalism 1.0’s best exponent was John Locke who said that our leaders rule with the consent of the governed. He said this 50 years after the Glorious Revolution, but someone had to say it. The idea that the people were the source of a government’s legitimacy was new and was borrowed from the Protestant belief that a person was responsible for his own salvation.

    Liberalism 2.0 extended the idea that the people could rule themselves. But, the founders were wary of the mob. They believed that a Democracy eventually turns into a tyranny. This is why they created a constitutionally limited Republic and allowed only the most stable members of society to be in the voting class.

    I suspect that Liberalism 3.0 came during the Andrew Jackson era. The franchise was greatly extended and the laws were greatly liberated.

    Liberalism 4.0 sought to deal with industrialization. The problem with 4.0 was the increasing use of government to solve problems due to population shifts and the abandonment of rural support mechanisms.

    This went along fine until the early Twentieth Century. The Democratic Party’s slogan had been “Equal Rights for all, Special Privileges for none.” But the Democratic Party leadership was taken over by the Progressives in 1906. The Progressives have slowly lead us down a Corporativist (Fascist) path toward State Capitalism.

    I had feared that the Progressives would use the coming chaos to achieve turning us into a social democracy. It seems less likely now.

    The welfare state will collapse when the government can no longer fund it. The areas worse hit by the coming debacle will be places controlled by the progressives. California, Illinois and New York are already up to their eyeballs in debt. Their administrations are top heavy with trade unions who retard any solution. The big cities which the progressives control will become dangerous. I expect to hear of starvation and extreme lawlessness.

    The world has changed, so Liberalism 4.0 must end, but what is to replace it? We are in a post industrial society; we have less need for centralized factories to build things. We are on the verge of a new industrial revolution. Nanobots which can build useful items one atom at a time are not far distant. We will telecommute to work and school.

    When work no longer needs to be centralized then our adaptations to the industrial age become obsolete. Good communication and transportation systems lessen the need for cities. Pollution, crime and bureaucracy caused by crowding are diminished and people can choose a lifestyle which they think is most wholesome.

    I suspect that we will be turning to civic associations and local politics to serve most of our needs. A dollar collapse will produce a massive population shift closer to where food is grown. The Federal government, without credit to fund the welfare state, will be greatly cut back. There will be a huge shift of power back to the individual.

    The lawless and risk of the coming years will create a new understanding of freedom coupled with social responsibility. The people who survive are unlikely to place their lives in the hands of public officials again.

  • tillurdizzy

    While the Policies of Liberalism 5.0 will be different from what came before, it seems to me we need to go back and remember the foundations that Liberalism 1, 2 and 3 were built on. The policies may be outdated, but the wisdom of Locke, Burke, Smith, the Founders and many others spoke to human nature and are eternal truths. We seem to have lost these principals somewhere between Liberalism 3 and 4. They must be an integral part of version 5.

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