All Commentary
Sunday, November 1, 1998

Achieving Our Country

Is the Left Becoming Nonpolitical?

George Leef, president of Patrick Henry Associates in Michigan, is book review editor of The Freeman.

Do leftists have anything new to say? Any interesting responses to the many arguments advocates of freedom have lodged against their coercive nostrums? Any novel socio-economic analysis to which we ought to pay attention? The only way to find out is to read them.

Richard Rorty is a proud, thoroughbred leftist (his parents were well-known socialists in the interwar and postwar years) and professor of humanities at the University of Virginia. This book is a collection of lectures centering on Rorty’s conviction that the American left is no longer playing the role that it should in the nation’s politics. He writes longingly of bygone years: “when an intellectual stepped back from his or her country and looked at it through skeptical eyes, the chances were that he or she was about to propose a new political initiative.” Today, Rorty frets, the left is becoming “spectatorial.”

Before taking up the question of whether the book contains anything freedom lovers ought to take note of, the absurdity of complaining that today’s left is insufficiently political needs a response. There has certainly been no slackening of the torrent of leftist proposals for achieving their country. No, we haven’t had anything as bold and exciting (to Rorty and his ilk) as Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society recently, but that is mostly because the left now advances its control through the stealthy means of regulatory edicts and judicial rulings. They seldom make headlines, but they augment the power of the state just the same. Worrying that the left is becoming nonpolitical is just as silly as worrying about free-market monopolies, global warming, and other hobgoblins.

All right, so the premise behind the book is nonsensical. There is a lot more to it than that, and Rorty’s writing gives us a good look at the leftist mind at work.

He complains that the old alliance between the intellectuals (to Rorty, leftists are the intellectuals) and the unions has broken down, thus impeding the realization of the goals so dear to his heart. Wise up, Professor Rorty. The unions were never really interested in the misty-eyed socialist vision. What unions have always wanted, as Samuel Gompers said, was simply “More.” Union rhetoric on “justice” and “equality” may have taken in some ivory-tower types, but their agenda has and always will be narrowly self-interested. Rorty, incidentally, has no criticism for union-backed laws and regulations that drive up prices for poor people and restrict job opportunities.

Rorty also says that Marxism was bad in practice, but that was not due to any inherent flaw in the theory. “Had Kerensky managed to ship Lenin back to Zurich,” he writes, “Marx would still have been honored as a brilliant political economist who foresaw how the rich would use industrialization to immiserate the poor.” He drags out old warhorses such as the idea that capitalists use “the reserve army of the unemployed” to keep wages down to subsistence levels. We have more than two centuries of evidence that capitalism inevitably leads to rising real incomes for rich and poor, factory owner and janitor alike, but Rorty is among those people who say, “My mind is made up; don’t confuse me with facts.”

Clichés are generally a substitute for serious thought, and Rorty liberally sprinkles them throughout his lectures. He calls the left “the party of hope.” Never mind that millions have fled countries ruled by that party, and young people in nations such as Sweden are more accurately labeled “bored” and “listless” than “hopeful.”

The most annoying thing about this book, though, is that the author writes as if free-market intellectuals had never said anything in criticism of the socialistic notions of which he is so fond. Consider “social justice.” The phrase is used repeatedly throughout the book, but never does Rorty acknowledge the writings, to cite only the most prominent critic of this vaporous locution, of F. A. Hayek. Hayek’s The Mirage of Social Justice (volume 2 of Law, Legislation, and Liberty) was a devastating attack on the term “social justice,” arguing that it does not and cannot have any meaning. If Rorty has ever read Hayek (or Mises, Rothbard, Nozick, or any other serious critic of welfare-state interventionism), there is no evidence of it here.

Rorty loves to imagine the political system riding in on a white horse to rectify all the world’s injustices, but a large body of free-market analysis—public choice economics—says that this expectation is hopelessly naïve. Naturally, you find no reference to James Buchanan or any other public choicer in the book.

Leftists seal themselves off from criticism of their ideas. Marx set the standard, saying that anti-socialist ideas couldn’t have any validity because they came from the class enemy. Rorty basks in the imagined glow of the wonders of leftist activism, oblivious to the fact that his intellectual adversaries long ago demonstrated that welfare-state interventionism is harmful to the very people he thinks he is saving. It’s like a teenager insisting that Santa Claus exists.

So, to answer my original question: no, you won’t find any new ideas or arguments in this book, testimony to the bankruptcy of leftist thought.

  • George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.