July 14, 2005

by Joe Sobran

[Originally published by the Universal Press Syndicate, 
May 1, 1997]

     Conservatives spent the Reagan years congratulating 
themselves on having vanquished liberalism. I was there. 
I joined in all the victory parties, swilling champagne 
and rejoicing that socialism was on the skids.

     I call it socialism because that's what liberalism 
boils down to. Most liberals don't like to be called 
socialists; they think it's some sort of "McCarthyism." 
Then again, half of them think Joseph Stalin was a victim 
of McCarthyism.

     Since I don't want to use the word "socialism" as 
loosely as liberals use the word "McCarthyism," I should 
explain. Though few liberals think of themselves as 
espousing socialism, they have socialist reflexes. At 
nearly every practical juncture, they take the left turn 
toward centralized government. Their pragmatic response 
to every problem is more and bigger government. They are 
what might be called retail socialists, as opposed to 
their European cousins, who are, or were, wholesale 

     Now we are told that Bill Clinton and his 
ideological cousin, Tony Blair of the British Labor 
Party, have "moved to the right." Just as Mr. Clinton has 
assured us that "the era of big government is over," Mr. 
Blair has assured British voters that Labor no longer 
aspires to control the economy. The interesting 
development is that the European Left is starting to 
imitate the pragmatic approach of the American Left.

     With good reason: the old socialism has been a flop. 
It could run concentration camps when the need arose, but 
it spectacularly mismanaged railroads and steel mills.

     Today the socialist impulse has shifted ground. It 
has moved from industry to culture: the family, sex, 

     As we have just seen, President Clinton's conception 
of "voluntarism" means "partnership" between big 
government and private charity. "Federalism" now means 
the federal government subsidizing state and local 
governments. A "pro-family" policy means, of course, 
federal legislation mandating benefits for children, 
parents, and "domestic partners."

     It doesn't take a genius to see that in every case, 
the federal government is the senior partner in these 
partnerships, dictating the terms of formerly private or 
local arrangements. No doubt "libertarianism" will soon 
come to mean federally subsidized liberty.

     Far from being vanquished, liberalism still has a 
stubborn grip on the minds of educated people. I'm not 
using "educated" as an honorific term; I simply mean that 
the more time people have spent in classrooms, the more 
likely they are to hold certain embedded assumptions.

     Chief among these assumptions is that the "solution" 
to any dissatisfaction that is defined as a "problem" 
(especially if it's a "national" problem) is a federal 
program. The problems are usually given new names to 
signify their politicization: Sexual pressure on the job 
is now "sexual harassment," wife-beating is "spousal 
abuse," cruelty to children is "child abuse," abortion is 
"reproductive freedom," and so on. And of course all 
education, formerly local and private, is coming under 
federal supervision.

     Another underlying assumption of the new liberalism 
is that all rights come not from God, but from 
government, and that only the federal government can 
really protect them. So we are getting new rights, with 
such names as "gay rights," which, unlike the old Lockean 
rights, are not limitations on government, but just the 
opposite: authorizations for new areas of government 
control. The more "rights" the government itself 
stipulates, the more government is needed to enforce them 
and to protect new categories of "victims."

     Newly created "rights" may even drive out 
traditional rights. Formerly private freedoms of 
association may now be stigmatized and banned as 
"discrimination." The unborn child's right to live is 
trumped by the mother's right to abort. Parental control 
of education is displaced by the child's right to "sex 

     So even as the classical socialist vision of a 
state-managed economy, with five-year plans and promises 
of a "workers' paradise," has fallen into disrepute, a 
state-managed morality is coming into being. We are 
moving from industrial socialism to cultural socialism.

     Though it uses the idiom of "rights," cultural 
socialism has its own totalitarian potential. In fact, 
since culture is more pervasive than economics, cultural 
socialism may prove at least as lethal as the Stalinist 
version. If tens of millions of abortions count for 
anything, it's already catching up fast.


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