All Commentary
Tuesday, October 1, 1974

Why Is Liberalism Endemic?

Mr. LaDow, of San Diego, recently retired as a teacher of social studies in high school.

Let it be clear that the liberalism here in question is not classical liberalism, which is quite properly endemic throughout history among the minds and works that last. The question refers to what has passed for liberalism in the past century, mostly. This brand of liberalism has enjoyed such popularity, flattering the wish-fancies of the average mind as it does, that the distinction seems unneeded. But, the way words are misused today, it is best to nail it down. The new liberalism is socialism; or, as John Dewey put it: “Liberalism must now become radicalism.”

It is not easy to understand the persistence of the socialistic brand of liberalism in the United States. When the failures of any system of control are as glaring as those of the leftish leadership during recent decades, it is difficult to see why the electorate allows it to proceed. However, this it does and, not inconceivably, may continue to do — even to the point of national bankruptcy. Why?

Willingness of the habitually poor and handicapped to see the welfare state grow is understandable, if ill-advised. They are bound to suffer most in any beheading of the “hen that lays the golden egg”: capitalism. Even the current inflation hits them hardest of all classes, just as the inordinate government spending which feeds them is the main cause of it. However, without aid of the vast middle classes, they would not be able to maintain the policies at the polls, especially since so many of them do not even trouble to vote.

Another reason given for the persistence of the political phenomenon is the guilty conscience of our population, which leads a majority to vote for policies of economic leveling. There is some evidence that this is a factor; but it is still hard to understand. The record of rising private philanthropy belies the reason for widespread guilty consciences. At the same time, a certain public callousness tends to make the matter moot. Although people feel concern for victims of chance or crime, there is still much disdain for those living in deserved squalor. Society’s perennial pecking order is alive and doing well.

Labor unions have been the most conspicuous beneficiaries of the welfare state, having, perhaps, the most clear-cut interest in its survival. However, their rank and file represent an elite among the working force of the nation, most of whom have moved well up into the middle class. Although their dues may be used for liberal political purposes, their leaders may hardly count their votes at the polls. (Questioned at a student seminar in Claremont during the Goldwater campaign, a Teamster official admitted that many members in Los Angeles would vote for Goldwater.)

Tocqueville Saw It

Nearly a hundred and fifty years ago, French observer Alexis de Tocqueville noted that American sentiment favored equality even above liberty. Although this estimate seems to have been borne out in our subsequent political history, with its rise in populism, coincidental rise in extremes between wealth and poverty begs a question about the sincerity of the sentiment. Especially this is so when we recall the rapt admiration of the crowd for the more fortunate, ranging from movie stars and professional athletes to the Kennedy family. Since this occurs with no evident regard for individual excellence, one may suspect that equality is a shibboleth. At any rate, since the voting pattern seems to lead toward enthronement of the superstate, the question seems to arise whether there is any real sentiment for either equality or liberty.

The late Albert Jay Nock wrote, some decades back, that “The simple truth is that our businessmen do not want a government that will let business alone. They want a government that they can use.” Perhaps Nock got to the root of the matter of why government has grown so big. People want to use government to obtain benefits which the free choices of their fellows would not give them. Honest work and trade do not pay enough to satisfy their greed. What a grand shortcut it is to get the government to send out tax collectors, enforcers, raise tariffs, institute public programs — all to benefit the activities in which one is engaged!

Businessmen who once sought political benefits for their “infant industries” were not wise enough to see, or did not care, that such tactics in a nation with a popular government could, in the long run, be practiced by most anyone. It was only a matter of time until a Franklin D. Roosevelt would arise to open the public purse to “the forgotten man.” Although Roosevelt was an innovator, he was certainly not the inventor of the ancient scheme of public welfare which marked the fall of Athens and Rome. However, our politicians of both parties have since made Roosevelt look like a piker. We must be very close to the state of Athenian democracy at its nadir, when every third person was, somehow, on the public payroll. The ubiquitous civil services, public retirement, Social Security, Medicare-Medicaid, miscellaneous “programs” and public relief, as well as the necessary military, make it most likely. The tax load and national debt bear out the assumption.

It might be well to take time out to answer those who object that our taxes are lower than in other developed nations. When we consider that most of those other nations are in even deeper trouble than we, that is not much of an argument. Misery may love company; but who wants to be miserable? We were once a model of economical government, and should be so now.

Private Greed

To return to the point: It is private greed which has supported the growth of the welfare state. The pittance received by those at the welfare base is in sharp contrast to the millions amassed by those who play the bull market of inflation successfully. Hamburger chains, hula hoops, and frisbees; cheaply made goods, made for a day. Eight-lane freeways, at millions per mile, to be replaced by monorails? Scarce goods and resources wasted as if supply were endless. And yet, we cannot blame either the tycoon or the welfare recipient. Each is operating in obedience to the law of supply and demand. We take what we can get any time. To do otherwise is to fail to survive. If a sane economy is desired, with conservation of resources and a happy population, different policies are required. The legalization of greed must be replaced by the free market, where no one is allowed the aegis of government support in taking advantage of others. They will still compete, and that is good; but they will not be aided by outside force. But self-interest is also guided by ideas. Any person with no moral concepts is a monster. “From each, according to his abilities; to each according to his needs,” is a moral concept. Taken at its face value, perhaps it would be acceptable to all persons of good will. In the good family, father and mother use their best abilities to see that the child gets all it needs. Other relatives, friends, or even strangers may similarly care for an individual’s needs. Such services sometimes include the sacrifice of life itself. Then why, asks the liberal, should not the state perform similar services for us all? Apparently, many people do not have a clear answer to this question, because there is much confusion about politics. The answer is very simple. In the case of father, mother, relative, or stranger, there is no civilized society which would legally condone theft as a means of helping another. If government universally enjoins citizens against thievery, even of the Robin Hood variety, on what grounds is government enabled to act as a thief, taking from one and giving to another? The business of government is to prevent thievery and fraud and keep the peace, the expense of which covers its legitimate taxing power.

The nineteenth century saw the ascendancy of romantic ideas of politics and morals. The ideas of Rousseau and Marx replaced those of Locke and Adam Smith. From Horace Mann to John Dewey, public education in the United States has been dominated by the social ideas of Rousseau and German philosophy and pedagogy. Many generations have become adult with scant tutelage in the empiricism of individual responsibility.

Everett Dean Martin

In his 1930 Book-of-the-Month, Liberty, Everett Dean Martin wrote:

In proclaiming the natural goodness of man, Rousseau gives primacy to instinct and emotion, and minimizes discipline and reason and distinction of worth among men. One man is by nature just as good as another. But the wisest men have taught that goodness is excellence; it must be achieved; it is that which marks distinction between higher men and lower, and between men and animals. It is not so with Rousseau. “Happy the people among whom one may be good without effort and just without virtue.” As men are naturally good, it is not necessary that they excel in intelligence in order to do good. Indeed Rousseau seems to find that it is the simple-minded people who are the best. Therefore let men follow their natural inclinations, be inspired by noble sentiments, and they need have no doubts as to what is right. The sovereign people can do no wrong.

In the remainder of the chapter on “Romantic Ideas of Liberty,” Dr. Martin continued a devastating criticism of the romantic notions of modern liberalism. It is interesting to conjecture upon the chances of such a book to be Book of-the-Month now, over four decades later. In 1930, men of the caliber of Martin, Nock, and H. L. Mencken were accorded wide audience — except on the platforms of public schools. In the meantime, the rising acceptance of Marxism and behaviorist psychology has hardened the environmental determinism of Rousseau into virtual orthodoxy. This is the philosophical basis of liberalism’s strong hold.

In 1939, this writer attended a Claremont Colleges dinner-debate at which Everett Martin took on most of the top brass of the California State school system. Any witness to that discussion would have clearly seen the differences between the classical liberal, which Martin was, and the more recent pretenders to liberalism. There was no doubt that Dr. Martin was the winner on points of reason; but the schoolmen, to a man, went away preferring their instincts and emotions to disciplined reason. Since 1939 the public schools have regressed even farther into Rousseauism, as more orthodox teachers have gone into retirement, to the point where they have bred large groups of children at war with their parents and society and who worship at the shrine of primitivism.

The Role of the Schools in the Persistence of Liberalism

If one were to point to the most potent reason for the persistence of liberalism, one would have to choose our system of public schools. Whereas individual school-men may represent every school of political or philosophical thought, the general effect of the system is completely in accord with statism — which is a matter for no wonder at all. Besides having its roots in the romanticism of Rousseau and German philosophy, the huge system is a chief beneficiary of public funds. Unsatiated by state and local coffers, it knocks continually on Washington’s door. Demise of liberalism would destroy the organizational game plan which proceeds regardless of individual educators’ beliefs. The National Education Association is one of our most statist organizations. It is largest too!

The very success of organized public education may be its undoing, as well as the undoing of the welfare state. Because of its vacuous theories, it is doing such a poor job of bringing up articulate generations that there is a question of whence its future defenders may come. Able persons who find no education in school are likely to seek it elsewhere. Elsewhere is where most of the critics of liberalism are. Any self‑respecting able mind is likely to be turned off, eventually, by the mawkish sentiments and illogicality of the liberal line. Watering down of the curriculum has proceeded to the point where there is much more froth than substance to the whole operation. The time for liberalism may be running out, right at its grassroots.

But some would say that it is the media which holds the liberals in power just now. Certainly, the press and electronic efforts lend an air of omniscience to the liberal cause. Invading each household twenty-four hours a day, they exhibit such an overwhelming slant of liberalism that they would seem to be the propaganda force which carries the day. But this begs the question: Why do they do it? The answer would seem to lie in the previous suggestions here offered. Most managements, writers, and commentators are moved by the same motives and have been reared in the same intellectual tradition as their audiences. (Once asked what he thought was wrong with the movies, Everett Martin answered: “Mostly the audience.”)

Muckraking Journalism

The social astigmatism which makes the persistence of liberalism possible could not survive without the press. That segment of literature and journalism which lives on violence, gossip, innuendo, and the bizarre keeps alive the most execrable crowd suspicions which deny the good and emphasize the evil in the enterprise system. They carry on the work of Lincoln Steffens, Upton Sinclair, and the gaggle of muckrakers who set the standards of criticism for today’s liberalism. So little do the observations of the original muckrakers apply to our era that even Norman Thomas came to feel that socialism was proceeding satisfactorily. Nevertheless, our pundits continue to whip a bewildered, if not dead, horse: American capitalism. Chapter 7 of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914 shows the same ghastly appearance of a vacuous journalism in late Tsarist Russia. This suggests reminding our publishers that, although a great deal of money may be made by toadying to the basest tastes and prejudices of the crowd, the end of such a policy may very well be not only the loss of a fortune so made, but even the loss of such freedom of the press as made it possible.

However, public opinion shows many signs of overkill. Extremism of so much of the sources of public information has eroded credibility to the knowledgeable and surfeited the ignorant. It would be folly to predict just when the long nightmare of monomania will be over. But, end it must before we can begin to achieve economic and social sanity. Until that day, gestures toward cutting corruption in government will be empty gestures, calculated only to mislead fools, because the corruption to be found in any government, as Lord Acton suggested, is in direct proportion to the power it wields. In this respect, our government is very close to becoming Leviathan.

Signs that Public Opinion May Be Changing

We are indebted to Winston Churchill for an insight regarding absolute government. He suggested that if Hitler’s Nazis were able to kill off all the men with free minds in Germany, a new crop would spring up in a generation. History has borne him out, relatively speaking. Although Adenauer and the founders of West Germany were not killed off, and were hardly of a new generation, still the political economy of renascent Germany more nearly approaches free trade than those of many of her erstwhile conquerors. Harsh lessons are well learned. Even the long dark night of Soviet Russia has produced the likes of Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Because opinion polls have done so much to create, as well as measure, the points of view of individuals, one hesitates to cite them affirmatively. After all, it may be that the “average mind,” whatever that is, accepts ideas very much as it accepts clothing styles. Certainly, many individuals look upon politics as they do on a horse race, trying only to pick a winner. Nevertheless, so many polls have, over a period of years, discovered an underlying conservatism in most American voters that they may be redeeming past error. They now tell us that most New Yorkers are conservative; although Senator Javits and the New York Times do not appear to play to that constituency.

Be that as it may, rumblings of tax revolt, outrage (both black and white) over school busing, school boards firing striking teachers, businessmen (down to the smallest) crying out against government red tape, independent businessmen (the vast majority of business) becoming adamant against the excesses of labor unions (representing a minority of the working force), households harassed by taxes and prices raised by government bungling all suggest a tidal wave that our legislators may ignore to their regret.  

  • Mr. La Dow of San Diego, is a retired teacher of social studies with an ongoing concern for maximizing the freedom of the individual.