Freeman

BOOK REVIEW

Return to Greatness: How America Lost Its Sense of Purpose and What It Needs to Do to Recover It

Wolfe Thinks Welfare Statism Is the Answer

JULY 10, 2010 by RICHARD EBELING

Alan Wolfe is a professor of political science and the director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. In the pages of his new book, Return to Greatness, we learn about one of the great disappointments and frustrations of his life: “An entire lifetime can pass–my adult lifetime actually–without the existence of a single president both willing and able to leave the United States a greater nation after he left office than he found it upon assuming his position.”

Wolfe bemoans the fact that he did not have the good fortune to have lived under the political leadership of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, or Teddy Roosevelt in the “enlightened” years of the American progressive movement, or even better, through Franklin Roosevelt’s heady New Deal days of reform and regulation, and global greatness during World War II.

Wolfe wishes his life could have been made thrilling with the drumbeat of “great national causes” bigger than the simple affairs of his ordinary personal existence. If only he had been lucky enough to live during a time of a wise and good American Führer, who would have given his life purpose and meaning at home and abroad in the pursuit of “national greatness.” Now in his mid-60s, he still dreams the “greatness” dream that he so badly wants to experience before he passes away from this earth.

Of course, the central question is: what makes for “national greatness”? Most of the book is devoted to telling us what set of ideas and actions do not make for such greatness. In this, he is an “equal opportunity critic.” He takes to task American conservatism, libertarianism, and modern liberalism. He detests conservatives the most. He parades before the reader all the usual charges: conservatives are mean-spirited and only interested in lining the pockets of their country-club buddies. Moreover, dressed in their religious garb, they are self-righteous demagogues who use faith to feather their own financial nests. He disapproves of current American foreign policy, but only because the present Republican administration will not cooperate with other countries for a joint effort to make over the world in our own image. This “go it alone” business is not a basis of “greatness.”

Libertarians come under attack because, well, they think “small.” They believe that individuals should direct their own lives and that any network of human relationships should arise out of the spontaneous interactions of people in the marketplace. For Wolfe, libertarians therefore don’t appreciate that America cannot and will not be “great” unless the nation has a common set of goals directed by a central political authority. Only Big Government can make us “great.” And, of course, he shakes his head in shock that libertarians should still believe in the “absurd” idea that free, unregulated markets can be fair and just.

Modern liberals come under attack as well. Wolfe thinks they are so depressed that the Republicans are in control of the White House and Congress that they just want to hunker down and minimize the damage from conservative domination of American politics. He thinks this is symbolized by the number of liberals who have become extreme environmentalists, wanting to keep the forests and wetlands of America pristine so the conservatives will not cut down every tree, wipe out every endangered species, and drain every pond to build a Wal-Mart. Wolfe harks back, instead, to the happy days of Teddy Roosevelt’s conservation movement in the early twentieth century, under which wise and farseeing government planners managed the forests for a proper balance between man and nature, while preventing greedy loggers from ruining the planet.

What he also dislikes is any presumption of universal and abstract principles that should limit the powers and actions of the federal government. He rejects the notion that the “truths” of the Founding Fathers should in any way influence the role and scope of government in the 21st century. How can government undertake great things today if it is constrained by an out-of-date constitution written more than 200 years ago? Great government leaders must have the discretion to do bold things with American resources and lives, so we can be molded into something larger than our little individual existences. In Wolfe’s eyes, expediency and pragmatism are the hallmarks of great nations and great leaders.

Typical of too many political scientists,Wolfe seems to be blissfully ignorant of what economics has to say about the political process. Public Choice theory, as this branch of economics is called, has been lucidly demonstrating for many years the perverse effects that arise when governments are not narrowly restrained by constitutional limits in what they may do, and for what. Once the political system is “freed” from being guided by abstract truths and principles concerning individual liberty, politics soon sinks into a destructive game of special-interest groups dividing up favors and privileges at the expense of the taxpayers and consumers.

So what does Wolfe want the American government to do to guide us back onto the path of national greatness? Well, after waiting with bated breath until the last chapter, we finally find out: He wants government to enact an array of “fundamental economic rights” that include national health care, a “living wage” for every American worker, a “right to decent schools,” and guaranteed social security. And, oh yes, he calls for some new backbone in modern liberals so they once again will be stirred to support American political and military interventionism in order to make the world a better place through benevolent Big Government.

There it is. “National greatness” equals the same old laundry list of welfare statist and socialist programs, without which Americans will remain puny. Indeed, Wolfe arrogantly says that Americans are getting the less-than-greatness they deserve because they refuse to give the government far greater power over their lives. Or should I say that Americans show their “smallness” by not voting for politicians who have the foresight and wisdom to impose on us Alan Wolfe’s vision of what’s good.

Only when we hand over power to a Führer of whom Wolfe approves will he finally be able to say he has lived in an epoch of national greatness. Unfortunately, it will require the rest of us to give up our individual dreams so Alan Wolfe can have his big one.

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July/August 2005

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