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Thursday, March 1, 2007

Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America

Vintage • 2005 • 257 pages • $14.00 paperback

Robert Reich, a Brandeis University law professor and former secretary of labor in the Clinton administration, fancies himself something of a public intellectual. This book offers his views on the state of affairs in America. Reich says that he’s frightened by the rise to power of the broad coalition that doesn’t like left-interventionist policies. He labels the entire group “Radcons” (radical conservatives), thus placing under the same imaginary tent Rush Limbaugh and Milton Friedman, Robert Bork and Ron Paul, the Moral Majority and FEE. All the Radcons, you see, have villainous designs on America, but Reich is here to save the day by exposing their ideas to the light of reason. Once people have been shown the true way—kindly “liberal” laws and regulations that help people and bring about fairness—they will abandon the Radcons and the nation will once again be safe.

That’s how Reich and his publisher want people to see things, but I dissent. Reason has precious little reason in it. Rather than confronting Radcon positions with argumentation, Reich is content to pound away at straw men. And by painting all his opponents with a wide, coarse brush, Reich avoids confronting his most formidable adversaries—libertarians. For an intellectual, this book is an embarrassment—or should be.

First, Reich complains that Radcons have distorted “liberalism” (meaning interventionism of the FDR-LBJ sort) and have “demonized” their opponents to gain the upper hand. They win by cheating, in other words. Of course, some opponents of Reich’s liberalism resort to language tricks. Plenty of its defenders do the same. The point Reich deliberately obscures is that many opponents of his political agenda use nothing except impeccably honest, scholarly arguments that don’t distort anything. The battle of ideas has always had its hatchet men, but in a book that purports to confront the opposing case, they’re irrelevant. In fact, Reich is guilty of the very thing he accuses Radcons of—trying to make easy points by demonizing those who disagree with him.

Reich’s tactic of putting all his opponents in one easily sinkable boat is especially annoying. He writes that Radcons are in favor of launching preemptive wars, stifling dissent, and restricting civil liberties. That’s true about some of the people Reich wants to discredit, but is he so ill informed as to be unaware that libertarians (and some conservatives) consistently oppose foreign military escapades and all laws that interfere with free speech and civil liberties?

Speaking of civil liberties, I can’t resist mentioning that as secretary of labor, Reich once said that during strikes labor unions need to be able to “strap their members to the mast”—that is, prevent them from returning to work if they conclude that the strike is not in their best interest. How’s that for a restriction on civil liberty? To “liberals” like Reich freedom is a good thing when they favor the result (say, opposing a war they don’t like) but not when the result isn’t to their liking (say, undermining “labor solidarity”).

Organizations like FEE are part of Reich’s rampaging Radcon horde, and he calls those of us who favor a limited state that only protects life, liberty, and property “free-market fundamentalists.” The term is intended as a put-down, implying that we have an irrational attachment to economic liberty. You would think it child’s play, then, for Reich to crush the arguments of the fundamentalists against his beloved left-interventionism. But in one of the very few instances where he deigns to mention a serious free-market thinker, Milton Friedman, here’s how it goes. He quotes Friedman as saying that the trouble with governmental welfare is that it “has a bad effect on the fabric of society.”

Does Reich provide a counterargument to prove that politicizing the support of the indigent actually has no harmful effects on the social fabric? No. Instead, he delivers this little pep talk to his faithful readers: “To [Friedman] and his followers, the free market has the same intoxicating quality that religion has to born-again Christians. Facts aren’t especially relevant. The perfection of the market has to be accepted as a matter of faith.”

That’s it. No refutation, but just an inaccurate generalization pretending to be a refutation.

Reich simply won’t admit that his “liberal” paradise might be flawed. Typically, he blames the defeat of Clinton’s plan to take the nation into government-run health care on an evil cabal of Republican politicians who merely wanted to hand Clinton a political defeat. He never mentions the great volume of scholarly work which showed that the plan would have many bad effects.

  • 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.