I admit it. Back in the ’60s I went to Columbia University and emerged as a modern liberal. I had a belief in government by the best and brightest, though my politics were otherwise somewhat vague. In the cloistered halls of my college, I didn’t meet many nonliberals. I assumed they were mainly denizens of totalitarian states and third-world sinkholes, plus a few misbegotten souls somewhere in the deep South.
Later, when I actually spent time in the South, I met people
who styled themselves conservatives and who were, surprisingly to me, both compassionate and intelligent. This presented something of a conundrum, given my view that only modern liberals so qualified. I solved it by deciding that these people were really liberals; they just didn’t like the word. How’s that for logic — when confronted with facts that challenged my beliefs, I simply changed the facts. Liberal dogma stayed intact. As I was later to learn, I was not alone in my conceit cum political philosophy.
The term “liberal” does have cache. I sometimes discover people who are not really modern liberals in any ideological sense of the word but who are enamored of the label and refuse to see themselves differently. The very idea of doing so engenders a bad reaction; it’s like waking up in a Kafkaesque nightmare to discover you are a giant cockroach.
Modern liberals derive their political philosophy not from classical liberalism but from late-19th-century progressivism, though they are typically unaware of this. Nevertheless, while vague on the provenance of their ideology, they are supremely confident of their compassion and intelligence, and often, like many modern conservatives, eager to force their political vision on those who do not share their mental and moral advantages. For a long time, I had no idea what liberalism really meant. I thought it was a political philosophy; I discovered it was a state of mind.
Ask modern liberals, “What is the purpose of government?” Almost invariably they will treat it as if it were a trick question. When pressed, their answer is usually some variation on “To make people healthy, wealthy, and wise.” Fair enough, but that is not what the founders of our country had in mind. As they stated in the Declaration of Independence, governments are instituted to preserve our rights. That is the purpose of government, no more and no less. It’s hard to understand how people can read the Declaration without realizing how far they have strayed from its precepts. It’s almost as if they visualized a different Declaration, a Declaration of the Divine Right of Liberals:
“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that some Men are created more compassionate and intelligent than others, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Welfare, Redistribution, and the Pursuit of Cosmic Justice. That to manifest their Paternalism, Governments are instituted among Men, basing their populism on the Politics of Envy; that whenever any Rule of Law becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of Liberals to reinterpret it, and to institute new meaning, laying its Foundation on such Prejudices, and in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Will over others.”
Winston Churchill famously suggested that liberalism is an affliction of the young and idealistic, an affliction that in a healthy individual runs its course with age.
I was still in college when JFK issued his famous dictum, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Now, I was OK with the first clause; I had a long wishlist for my family, friends, and especially for my girlfriend, but little that I actually wanted from my government, other than to keep the streets safe. Okay, maybe subsidized student loans, but that was about it.
On the other hand, what was I supposed to do for my country, except to pay taxes on my small earnings and stand ready to put on a uniform when my student deferment was up?
I had volunteered for Civil Defense, though I was unimpressed with its leadership, its clarity of mission, and its pitiful resources. I remember being promised that in the event of a national disaster, civil defense wardens would be taken care of first. That made a kind of sense, but it left a bad taste in my mouth.
I thought of signing up for NROTC (the Navy version of ROTC), but I couldn’t qualify because of my uncorrected vision. That seemed idiotic to me, since there would be plenty of room for my eyeglasses on a battleship, and even on a smaller vessel if such was my lot.
After I graduated I took an interest in the Foreign Service. I went through an inept screening process and met some very mediocre people. Doubts began to creep in. The final straw was a pamphlet entitled “Protocols for a Junior Foreign Service Officer.” The chapter on seating people at a table expounded the various rules, but for groups of a certain size it was impossible to meet all of them. So it was suggested that one simply not have groups of those unfortunate sizes. What was one to do – not invite someone who should have been invited, or invite someone who shouldn’t have been? I decided that perhaps this was not an organization in which I would prosper. I finally despaired of any job in the public sector. Noble as government service might be, I could best serve my country by being a good citizen, paying my taxes, and adding to the GNP.
I learned a lot about liberalism over the years, sometimes in surprising circumstances. I once attended a private showing of a film called “Prejudice.” It was supposed to be a study of racial discrimination. It centered on a group of men of various races discussing how they were either the perpetrators (the whites) or the victims (everyone else) of prejudice. No one fitted into a neutral category. Just perps and victims. The group made short work of one man who steadfastly held that he was neither. I remember one black man complaining about how uncomfortable he felt walking through a certain community. Well, it just so happened that a few weeks earlier, I had found myself driving in that same forbidding community. I had locked my car doors, hunkered down in my seat, and fingered my can of Mace. And I’m not black. Some neighborhoods are just not that friendly. Prejudice? Sometimes a cigar is only a cigar.
The discussion period after the documentary was what I would label “a liberal guilt wallow.” Virtually every attendee was beating his breast and confessing personal responsibility for racism, even slavery. A number of white-haired women who looked like Norwegian grandmothers confessed to all kinds of guilt, though always nonspecifically. When it was my turn — we were all expected to confess — I started by pointing out, no insult intended, that the overwhelming majority of the people there appeared to come from good peasant stock, like myself. I stated categorically that I owned no slaves, and neither had my father or his fathers before him. Otherwise, I’m sure someone would have mentioned the fact.
I tried to make clear that I was not insensitive to issues of prejudice, having, as a Jew, been on the receiving end of both subtle and unsubtle forms of it. Nevertheless, not all the problems in life are attributable to prejudice. The fault, dear Brutus, lies in ourselves sometimes. I even pointed out that I had black friends, and that my fraternity in college was the first to pledge blacks. I was Pledge Master at the time, and I might add that I scrupulously saw that they had to swallow exactly the same number of goldfish that everyone else did. Disclaimer: No goldfish were harmed in this event. No matter; thereafter I was treated like an unrepentant sinner at a revival meeting.
So what is modern liberalism? It has a murky history and it has a dark side — a willingness to force solutions on people who do not want them. A complete definition of modern liberalism might read as follows:
Modern liberalism . . . the heartfelt desire to impose one’s values and choices on the powerless for their own good (cf. conservatism, which also sanctions coercion, but heart- lessly); in politics . . . the belief that all human problems can be solved by wise government and tax dollars; in philosophy . . . the Platonic ideal of a government of the best and bright- est, without a clue about how to achieve it; in economics . . . the belief that free markets are suspect and that capitalism is inherently immoral (cf. Marxism-lite); in psychology . . . the self-congratulatory delusion that one holds a monopoly on compassion and intelligence; in race relations . . . a modern belief in “the white man’s burden”; in law . . . a belief that the Constitution is a mere collection of words, given mean- ing only by current political appointees, based on their social- political prejudices and without reference to original meaning or intent (cf. Newspeak); in morality . . . a belief that good intentions are more important than consequences; in govern- ment . . . a belief that any government program is workable, given good intent and more funding; in theology . . . the New Age belief that we can heal the world through wallowing in guilt; in public policy . . . a curious belief that consenting adults should be free of government interference in the bed- room but not in the workplace.
There you have it — not a pretty sight.
For a depiction of the darker side of modern liberalism, there is none better than “Rabbit Proof Fence,” a movie about Australian aborigines who were taken from their families to give them the putative advantages of white culture and, through selective breeding, white color. That was 1960s Aussie liberalism. The roads to hell are usually paved with good intentions. An inquisitor crams something down your throat (or up the other end) to save your soul; a conservative does it for the good of society; but a liberal does it for your own good.
Fortunately, as Churchill hoped would happen to all young people, my infatuation with liberalism ran its course. The decline began with a question I posed to myself while still in college: If legislators are so smart, how do we get such bad laws? I couldn’t come up with an answer.
Admittedly, it was a complex question. The answer awaited my reading of Henry Hazlitt’s treatise on concentrated benefits and distributed costs, “Economics in One Lesson,” many years later. But that question was the first chink in my liberal belief in the concept of government by the best and brightest.
I had another aha! moment when I spent three months in the South on a training assignment. I shared an office with a Bircher. On the one hand, he had the most distorted world- view of anyone I had ever met. On the other hand, he was intelligent and willing to engage in discussions without rancor. I found that he had a consistent (if sometimes odious) belief system, he spoke with candor, and he possessed a lively wit and sense of humor. He referred to the new base metal coinage that had entered circulation under President Johnson as “LBJ slugs.” Imagine that — a sense of humor on an ultra-conservative! Of course, the only thing really surprising was my surprise, but such was my own inexperience and prejudice. We parted, if not friends, then at least friendly.
I met a lot of other conservatives during that sojourn, people whose worldviews were very similar to my own, without the government intervention part — decent, hardworking, educated people. The oddity, to me, was that they rebelled in horror against the notion that they might actually be liberals. I was amused at the time. Here were liberals in all but name, but hating the name. Later, I came to realize that it was I who was bemused; I wasn’t listening to the differences between us. I fell back on my prejudice that only liberals were intelligent and compassionate, and if you met people who measured up, then, well, they were liberals. I’m embarrassed just recalling this episode. Nonetheless, it was clear that conservatives were more varied and complex than I had imagined.
Then I discovered the Cato institute. From there it was all downhill: Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, Thomas Sowell, F.A. Hayek. Funny how none of them was on my list of prescribed readings in college. I checked. There was a bit of Adam Smith, but only a small fraction of the pages devoted to Karl Marx. Really. (I still have the books; I counted the pages.) I should add that there was also a bit of Locke and Hume and other classical liberals who bore a similar name though otherwise no resemblance to modern liberals.
But it was with the classical liberals that I eventually found my roots: the sovereignty of the individual, self-ownership, individual responsibility, free association, free markets, voluntary exchange, limited government, inalienable rights, the rule of law. Heady stuff. A set of concepts worth living by — and fighting for. I had gained a political philosophy.
So now I can go to liberal guilt wallows with impunity — as if anyone would ask me back.