All Commentary
Friday, February 1, 1985

A Reviewers Notebook: The Liberal Crack Up

Not so long ago R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., the editor of The American Spectator, wrote a very funny book called Public Nuisances. Its humor was Menckenian, which is to say that it relied on hilarious burlesque. Whereupon his editor, Midge Decter, began chivvying him to deal in more systematic terms with the ideas behind the proliferation of the nuisances. Tyrrell, an accommodating soul, capitulated at once.

Surprisingly, in his review of origins, Tyrrell found little fault with such liberal pragmatists as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy. It was a good thing in his estimation that Roosevelt had stood up to Hitler and that Truman had moved to “contain” the Soviets. As for welfare, there was reason behind FDR’s desire to get apple sellers off the streets.

No ideologue, Tyrrell is actually a believer in the idea of the “vital center,” which once allowed for reasonable compromises with doctrines coming from the extremes. The Americans for Democratic Action could have been his brothers-in-arms. He could have broken bread with the Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. of 1950. But, alas, the New Day liberalism that developed in the Sixties couldn’t stay on the common sense level. It went off the track by indulging all manner of enthusiasms that actually perverted the aims of the Roosevelt-Truman-JFK past.

Tyrrell’s concessionary offering to Midge Decter, The Liberal Crack-Up (New York: Simon and Schuster, 256 pp., $16.95), is the story of how the enthusiasms of “post-JFK times” combined to make up a crazy set of blotches of ideas that Tyrrell thinks were noble in their first manifestations. Number One is the blotch the New Age liberals made of civil rights. Number Two is their perversion of welfare. Number Three is the mess they made out of Southeast Asia, where we had a just cause in our desire to save the South Vietnamese and the Cambodians from a Red-inflicted genocide that has outdone anything decreed by Adolf Hitler himself.

Civil Rights to Special Rights

The civil rights movement went off the rails because the New Age liberals turned it into a movement for the promotion of special rights. “Reverse discrimination” fostered a new racialism by its insistence on ethnic quotas. Where the New Dealers had tried to save capitalism by Keyne sian means that, unfortunately, had devastating monetary consequences, the New Day liberals were secretly enamored of a more fundamental socialism. They hid their basic animosity for the “system” by devious stratagems. Their undiscriminating environmentalism went the Barry Commoner route of blaming pollution on the big corporations. Their anti-nuke enthusiasm was a derivative of their larger preoccupation with the notion that wicked profit takers were bent on killing off their own purchasing clientele. The feminists—“women of the fevered brow,” as Tyrrell calls them—were as chauvinistic as any gang of macho males. The peace-mongers agitating for a nuclear weapons “freeze” without considering the record of the Soviets for systematic violation of previous agreements put the whole West in jeopardy by leaving it vulnerable to blackmail.

Legacy of Fabianism

The Liberal Crack-Up is such hilarious fun to read that it leaves one with no desire to criticize its basic acceptance of the idea that special laws were necessary to save us way back in the Nineteen Thirties. Nevertheless, as a more doctrinaire libertarian than Tyrrell, I feel duty-bound to point out that the liberal crack-up was an inevitable legacy of the older Rooseveltian and Kennedyesque Fabianism. There was a whole group of libertarians in the Britain of the Eighteen Eighties who accurately predicted what would happen if the voters were to accept the State welfarist philosophy that was being promulgated by Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells and Sidney and Beatrice Webb. The idea that socialism would founder because it would fail to solve the problem of calculation without a free market system (including private property) was known in the Eighties. This was some thirty years before Ludwig von Mises had worked it out in detail.

So let not readers of The Liberal Crack-Up be deluded into thinking that there is any safety in returning to a New Dealism that predates John Fitzgerald Kennedy.


Must we be ready then to say farewell to compassion? Actually there is nothing the State can do for us in terms of offering welfare that couldn’t be done much better by privatization. Unlike public welfare, private welfare does not involve what William Rickenbacker has called the death of the dollar. It became ridiculous for Geraldine Ferraro to complain of the lack of “compassion” among the Republican rich when she, as a Democrat, had three houses to live in and a few million dollars at her disposal. She and like-minded friends could have set up private foundations to help the poor without seizing other people’s money to do it. Teddy Kennedy might have helped her. As for Social Security, it ought to be floated off in some sort of private insurance that would leave large blocks of capital available to the economic system that supports us all. It was a liberalism that predated Tyrrell’s “crack-up” by many years that gave us a social security scheme that is headed for bankruptcy as the elderly live longer and the young are subjected to taxation and inflation that drastically limit the jobs that are available to them.

The liberalism that is so wonderfully spoofed by Bob Tyrrell was abotch from the very start. To begin with, it stole its name of liberalism from the much sounder anti-State liberalism of the Adam Smith followers in England and the Austrian economists of the European continent.

The liberal crack-up as it has manifested itself in the colleges is the substance of another delicious book, Poisoned Ivy, by Benjamin Hart, foreword by William F. Buckley Jr., (New York: Stein and Day, 254 pp., $16.95). Hart, the son of National Review editor Jeffrey Hart, loves Dartmouth as F. Scott Fitzgerald loved Princeton. But, as a founding editor of the dissenting Dartmouth Review (a paper that the college administration sought to kill), Hart was scandalized by the way the “ethos” of the American university would allow for only one opinion when it came to discussing “race, feminism, pacifism, homosexuality, the Third World, U.S. oppression, reverse discrimination—the whole McGovern menu.”

What Ben Hart does not tell us is that the “ethos” is already crumbling on the American campus insofar as faculties are concerned. Burton Pines, in his Back to Basics, has discovered that Keynesianism is no longer the rage in the economics departments. If the news hasn’t reached Dartmouth already, it won’t be long before it does.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.