August 20, 2010
Never Enough by William Voegeli
Never Enough is an analysis of the history, politics, and economics of liberalism. You'll find nothing better. William Voegeli's perceptions are keen, and his wry humor exposes the liberal bent for espousing contradictory positions simultaneously.
Voegeli's thesis is that liberalism has no limiting principle. As Samuel Gompers once famously said, "We do want more, and when it becomes more, we shall still want more." Liberals insist that government must do more to help the poor, provide economic security, develop social justice -- fill in the blanks -- but they are unable to say how much more is enough.
In 1964, Lyndon Johnson said, "We're in favor of a lot of things and we're against mighty few." That's about as rigorous as the liberal theory of the welfare state ever gets.
The author reviews the premises and strategies that accompanied the growth of the welfare state, as well as conservatives' (unsuccessful) efforts to thwart it. In the first chapter, he defines and measures the growth of America's welfare state and compares it to thirteen other democratic nations. The information may surprise, but it will not bore.
Voegeli traces liberal policies and strategies that began with Woodrow Wilson and were enshrined by FDR. He writes that despite Roosevelt's losing the battle to pack the Supreme Court with liberal justices, the Court began doing his bidding even before he was able to appoint a majority of its members. Beginning in 1937, the Court
dismantled every one of the constitutional impediments to government activism. ... The New Deal changed America's Constitution from one where the powers of government are enumerated into one where they were innumerable.
Wilson and Roosevelt sought to replace the Constitution that confined government with a more malleable "living constitution."
The interpretation of a constitution of enumerated powers meant to secure inalienable rights had been a matter of applying timeless principles to changing circumstances. A living Constitution denied the existence of timeless principles; its fundamental principles changed as the nation's economic and social circumstances changed.
In the popular vernacular: "If you have a problem, government has a program." Pete Stark's and Nancy Pelosi's disdain for the idea that the Constitution limits their legislative prerogatives is the result.
Roosevelt's genius was to present progressive goals as an expansion, rather than subversion, of constitutional principles. While claiming to be faithful to the Constitution, Roosevelt enlarged it to encompass a vast array of new economic and social "rights" that were not inalienable, but bestowed by government. According to the first national chairman of Americans for Democratic Action, "It is the job of government to widen the chance for development of individual personalities. It is not enough for society to guarantee the physical survival of its inhabitants; it must nourish the dignity of an individual human being."
Voegeli comments, "Given such expansive understandings of the government‘s obligation to its citizens, it's no surprise that FDR insisted -- and liberals have availed themselves of -- the right to discover new rights."
If Roosevelt accomplished liberal goals by oratorical misdirection, those who followed him used other means. The author describes the transformation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 from "a law requiring all citizens to be treated equally to a policy requiring that they be treated unequally as one of the most audacious bate-and-switch operations in American political history."
Senator Hubert Humphrey assured opponents that "Title VII [of the act] prohibits discrimination ... it says that race, religion and national origin are not to be used as the basis for hiring and firing," However, President Johnson charted a different course when he announced "the next and the more profound stage in the battle for civil rights" is "equality as a fact and equality as a result."
President Clinton extended this logic in 1995 by citing a study showing that although white males "make up 43% of the work force," they "hold 95%' of senior management positions in the nation's largest companies." Thus, Voegeli observes:
The percentage of Puerto Rican orthodontists should equal the percentage of Puerto Ricans in the population, so that a Puerto Rican is as likely as anyone else to be an orthodontist, and an orthodontist is as likely as anyone else to be a Puerto Rican.
The welfare state expands because poverty, in the liberal lexicon, is a relative term. Its present-day meaning is quite different from the economic dislocations of the Great Depression.
According to a federal study, "91% of households classified as poor in 2001 owned color televisions, 74% had microwave ovens, 55% VCRs and 47% dishwashers." Far from indicating a need to reconsider taxpayer support, one liberal pundit averred they these people are poor because "they live in a society in which many families also possess DVD players, cell phones, desktop computers, broadband Internet connections..."
If the economic trends of the past seven decades continue for the next seven and beyond, however, then it's only a matter of time before the vast majority of poor people own second and third homes equipped with broad band Internet access, and can drive their SUV's to get to them.
Merely equalizing incomes is not sufficient, either. Liberals must solve the problems of obesity, bullying, lack of self-esteem, and whatever else is essential to "nourish dignity of an individual human being." Voegeli writes, "in the logic of limitless liberalism the individual's pursuit of happiness has been transformed into the government's burden of delivering it."
Liberals' emotional attachment to "doing good" as justification for doing anything (they think) needs doing runs aground on their refusal to contend with the problem of paying for all this goodness. The author observes:
The welfare state manages people's perceptions of its costs and benefits to encourage them to believe an impossibility: that every household can be a net importer of the wealth redistributed by the government.The liberal response to the question of paying for the welfare state has been a protracted exercise in intellectual dishonesty, borne of a conviction that the question doesn't need to be answered if it can be made to go away. Liberals have, generally, been happy to tell people what they want to hear[.]
The program "will pay for itself" (as President Obama claimed about the health care bill). Or the money will come from "the very rich and big corporations." These responses, however, cannot withstand even cursory scrutiny.
Liberalism eschews the idea of having to decide between more and less deserving programs and, when confronted with economic reality, either frames the outlays as "investments" we cannot afford not to make or identifies opponents as "greedy bigots," or worse.
Voegeli, however, sees the real danger of the ever-expanding welfare state as more profound than its unsustainable economics. He concludes that its worst aspect is the threat that it poses to the very existence of self-government.
The danger liberalism poses to the American experiment comes from its disposition to deplete rather than replenish the capital required for self-government. The operation of entitlement programs leaves the country financially overextended, while the rhetoric and rationale for those programs leave it politically overextended. They proffer new "rights", goad people to demand and expand those rights aggressively, and disdain truth-in-advertising about the nature and scope of the new debts and obligations those rights will engender. The moral and social capital required by the experiment in self-government is the cultivation, against the grain of a democratic age, of the virtues of forbearance, resolve, sacrifice, and restraint. ...For self-government to be viable, both citizens and rulers must regard themselves as custodians who will determine whether self-government endures, rather than as consumers of what government provides and redistributes.
It is not possible for a review to do justice to Never Enough. Voegeli's book should be read in full, preferably by both political camps. The author's lucid and engaging style makes that a pleasure, not a hardship. He explains how we got to where we are, and suggests a way out of "the hundred years war ... between left and right over the growth of the welfare state -- a war the left has been slowly winning." He offers not a way back to where we started, but the possibility of a future.
Marcia Sielaff blogs at What Would the Founders Think.com
Marcia Sielaff blogs at What Would the Founders Think.com