spent the Reagan years
congratulating themselves on having vanquished liberalism. I was
joined in all the victory parties, swilling
champagne and rejoicing that socialism was on the skids.
I call it socialism because thats what liberalism boils down to. Most liberals dont like to be called socialists; they think its some sort of McCarthyism. Then again, half of them think Joseph Stalin was a victim of McCarthyism.
Since I dont 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 socialists.
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, abortion.
As we have just seen, President Clintons 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 doesnt 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. Im 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 its 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 childs right to live is trumped by the mothers right to abort. Parental control of education is displaced by the childs right to sex education.
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, its already catching up fast.
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