[This is Chapter Eleven of Murphey's book Liberalism in Contemporary America.  The chapter was also published as an article under the name "Modern Liberalism and the Growth of Big Government" in the August 1992 issue of Conservative Review.]


The Process of Politicization

After all we have seen about modern liberalism's relationship to socialist aspirations, it would hardly seem necessary to include a chapter on "the process of politicization."

A discussion of "politicization" will have the advantage, however, of talking about liberalism in the form in which it has been most directly perceived by the American public. Since dissimulation has obscured liberalism's socialist core, the public has seen liberalism primarily as a movement that has pressed insistently for what we might call the "de-privatization" of most human problems. A great many aspects of the human condition -- problems that in the past and within the perspective of classical liberalism have been seen as private, to be solved or suffered by the individuals themselves -- have been redefined as public in nature, to be addressed by a combination of social science and the state. As seen in this light, liberalism has constituted an on-going process of absorption of the private into the public.

Such a process relates directly to liberalism's underlying socialist premises and to the gradualistic Fabian method. We will not fully understand it, though, if that is all we notice about it. We must appreciate the dimension that brings together social science, the state, and the rationalism of intellectuals who wish to impose order on the subjects they study. The New Republic was seeing liberalism in this light when in 1920 it spoke of "liberalism [as] the offspring of the coalition between science and humanism." When this mixture is combined with a willingness to use the state as something of a "social church," the result is what Hubert Humphrey referred to as "the humanitarian state."1

Through most of the twentieth century this process has produced some major secular trends in the political sphere: the size and power of the state have increased enormously; this power has become centralized as liberalism has sought to focus it in the national government; and much of the newly-found power has come to reside in the hands of the "expert" in the many independent agencies and the bureaucracy.

There are two points that should be mentioned before we begin our discussion of this process.  The ideology of the Left calls into being an alliance of the intellectuals with the "havenots," and invokes the power of the state, of a movement, or of a collective of one sort or another on behalf of this alliance. This in itself accounts for much of what I have just described. And yet there is more. Reformers such as Dorothea Lynde Dix campaigned for state-supported asylums for the insane before the Civil War. Could this be attributed to "an alliance with the have-nots"? Maybe very indirectly, as an offshoot of the mental set that resulted from the alliance that was in fact coming into existence; but certainly there was no evident political or power-enhancing value to the intellectual from an alliance with the insane. Such a movement points to the other factors that this chapter will explore.

The second point is that both the Left and modern liberalism have had an anti-statist dimension. This is a dimension that has certainly not predominated; but it is one that should be kept in mind if we are not to oversimplify. Much nineteenth century socialist thought talked in terms of decentralized collectivism: communes, mutual associations, cooperatives, and the like. We have seen that this was important to the Guild Socialist movement in England and to the "industrial democracy" vogue within American liberalism around the time of World War I. Another major source was the anti-modern, anti-scientific, anti-rational Romantic movement that was so powerful in Europe after the disillusionment with the French Revolution. This was to become a central inspiration to the New Left, a diverse phenomenon that included significant elements repudiating both rationality and the "rational state" that springs out of the desire to "rationalize society."

The intellectual, social mindscape that underlies the absorption

There is a passage in Lester Ward's Applied Sociology (1906) that is one of the best examples I have seen of the mentality that has mixed science, a planning-type rationalism, and the state in a process that absorbs all of life into it.  Ward wrote that "legislation will consist in a series of exhaustive experiments on the part of true scientific sociologists and sociological inventors working on the problems of social physics from the practical point of view. It will undertake to solve not only questions of general interest to the state,... but questions of social improvement, the amelioration of the condition of all the people, the removal of whatever privations may still remain, and the adoption of means to the positive increase of the social welfare, in short the organization of human happiness...." (Emphasis added)2

This is precisely what Ivan R. Dee had in mind in 1973 when he wrote that "politically such men as Chase, Soule, Alfred Bingham and Adolf Berle longed for a coherent social order, a rational community that would be 'liberal in strategy, socialist in ultimate aims.'" Dee added that "this is why the seeming confusion of the [Franklin] Roosevelt administration bothered many intellectuals."3 

It is also what Kimball Young had in mind when he described John Dewey's main thesis: "when we learn to observe, correlate and deduce laws of social phenomena, we shall be able to construct a consciously controlled society."4

One nuance of all of this was that the image of a thoroughly planned society led the intellectual culture, as we have seen, to its embrace with the Soviet Union. For many, the infatuation persisted for as long as thirty years. In 1957, Gus Tyler wrote that "for many years -- almost up to the present -- it was widely believed that, whatever the faults of the Soviet Union, it was dedicated to true internationalism, national autonomy and cultural equality... Then too there is the captivating illusion popular for a time among Western progressives that intelligence and human engineering had come into their own with the Five Year Plan."5

This infatuation was shattered eventually by a number of events, but the one that most shocked the scientific-rationalist mentality that I am now discussing was the Lysenko affair. In 1949, Julian Huxley wrote in The New Republic that "the U.S.S.R. has officially rejected some of the essentials of scientific method itself." The Soviets, holding to a view that science reflects "the class struggle" and that there are therefore such things as "bourgeois science" and "proletarian science," suppressed Mendelian genetic theory for several years after World War II. During that period, the theory formulated by Trofim D. Lysenko that an organism passes environmentally-acquired properties on to the next generation was given official Soviet sanction. To scientists around the world, this seemed an unpardonable injection of dogmatic ideology into science, comparable to some of the worst actions of the medieval Church.6

Another noteworthy nuance is that the mentality makes certain assumptions about human nature. These are assumptions that are not universally accepted. We see the contrast if we compare the views of, say, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bruce Bliven. In early 1915, Percy H. Boynton wrote in The New Republic that Emerson had held back from the pre-Civil War reform movements because he felt "that in considering man as a plastic thing they were all in error." Bliven, on the other hand, wrote in 1931 that "If anyone observes that 'you can't change human nature,' the only intelligent answer is... 'Yes, you can so.' Human nature is one of the most malleable things in the world." The Bliven viewpoint is consistent with Ward's and Dewey's, as well as with that of such a thinker as B. F. Skinner, who in Beyond Freedom and Dignity postulates a system in which human beings are totally the subjects of deterministic manipulation.7

Identification of private conditions as scientific, political problems

The essence of what I have called "the 'de-privatization'" was expressed by C. Wright Mills when he wrote that "it is the political task of the social scientist -- as of any liberal educator -- continually to translate personal troubles into public issues."  This is a process that has been at the heart of American liberalism. We recall how Senator Edward Kennedy once made a trip to Alaska and in effect discovered the plight of the Eskimos, for the solution of which he then urged a federal program. He was actively engaged in "translating personal troubles into public issues." To a classical liberal, the "plight" of the Eskimos would seem to follow from their choosing to live within the Arctic Circle; he would see it as an unenviable condition -- but not as a subject for political solution.8

Examples can be cited endlessly, since the Ward, Dewey, Mills rationale envisions the broadest possible embrace of the human condition. I have marked a passage in which Walter Mondale (U.S. Senator and 1984 Democratic presidential nominee) commented on the plight of rural migrants: "They move all over. They belong nowhere. They don't vote. Often their children don't even go to a school. It's a disgrace... These people just go on being exploited." I would direct the reader's attention to the last point, the reference to "exploitation." The idea that millions of people are trapped and exploited, and that the state serves a liberating function as the vehicle for overcoming the exploitation, is one of the key concepts in the ideology of left-wing socialism, such as we see it, say, in the writings of Ferdinand Lassalle. (I say "left-wing" socialism because rightist forms of socialism tend to seek collectivism on other premises, such as a tribalistic appeal to a nation or a race rather than to the "have-nots" as such.) Since much of what we are discussing is a seamless web, the interconnection between exploitation theory and the process of politicization cannot be surprising. In the 1990s, the general public has shown an awareness of this century-and-three-quarters-old theme when popular writing speaks of liberalism's current "victimology," which seeks to interpret many people's situation as that of "victims."9

The discovery of "problems" often reflects a utopian mentality that drops the historical context. The process is then oblivious to the fact that instead of becoming worse, the particular condition has often been improving. Action is called for to solve "problems" that have been fading out rather than increasing. Probably the most important example of this has to do with the condition of blacks immediately before the Civil Rights movement began. Anyone listening to the rhetoric of the movement would not have known that there had been a substantial improvement in that condition. Another example was the legal prohibition of child labor. Such a prohibition only became thinkable (and politically possible) when affluence had risen to a level at which families could afford not to have their children work. The whole movement to abolish child labor was necessarily a "tag-end" movement, coming as the "problem" was already disappearing. Along the same lines, the "Occupational Safety and Health Act" (OSHA), establishing a structure for minute safety standards in places of employment, was passed after industrial accidents had been on the decline for several years.

Edward C. Banfield has cited the "school dropout problem" as an example. "At the turn of the century," he says, "when almost everyone was a 'dropout,' the term and the 'problem' did not exist. It was not until the 1960s, when for the first time a majority of boys and girls were graduating from high school and practically all had at least some high school training, that the 'dropout problem' became acute."10

Modern social science has fashioned various intellectual tools to serve the combined needs of rationalistic empiricism and politicization. It is not coincidental that statistics developed as a discipline in response to the planning requirements of the German state during the Cameralist period. L. L. Bernard and Jessie Bernard inform us in their Origins of American Sociology that "statistical work was early developed in Europe, and especially in Germany in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, due to their strong emphasis upon state administration. The Cameralists found quantitative measurement and recording indispensable to efficient administration...."11

Daniel Patrick Moynihan has written about the United States that "the national government began compiling economic statistics that were to make economic planning feasible years before such planning became politically acceptable." He goes on to say that "the truth of John Kenneth Galbraith's observation remains: statisticians are key actors in the process of social change...." Galbraith, he says, attributed this to the fact that "it is often only when it becomes possible to measure a problem that it also becomes possible to arouse any political interest in solving it." I would add that the process is more subtle than this last comment suggests: before there is even a perceived need to "arouse the public," a human condition must come to be seen as a collective "problem." Statistics, bringing together many otherwise isolated cases into a perceivable aggregate, are at the heart of that transmutation.12

Other techniques that have been developed both as modes of analysis and as planning tools have been input-output analysis and its descendant, linear programming. Jacob Oser tells us that "input-output analysis would have been irrelevant in the days of atomistic competition and laissez faire." He cites its uses in a modern corporate setting, but adds that it "is probably more useful in a socialist economy than in one based primarily on private enterprise." We are told by Heinz Kohler that linear programming "is a lineal descendant of input-output analysis" and "was developed in 1939 by Kantorovich in the USSR."13

The split within the intellectual culture over social science

Much of American social science has possessed a distinctly liberal content, both because of the worldview its practitioners have held and because of the process I have just described. This is true generally despite the fact that many social scientists have taken seriously the teachings of Max Weber to the effect that sociology should be value-neutral. Philip M. Hauser has made a telling point in this regard. He says that "my training in sociology at the University of Chicago during the late twenties and early thirties led me to accept the Weberian model of sociology. That sociology was a science, not a vehicle for social action, was a tenet of faith on the part of the faculty...." He adds, however: "Yet, ...it was clear that many members of the faculty... were making major contributions to action programs... I reconciled the apparent contradictions... by accepting the proposition that the sociologist could play multiple roles...."

I do not mean to overlook the fact that a number of social scientists have been one form or another of conservative. These would not wish to be included within my general description. But they will almost certainly agree with the description I am giving of the impact of social science in general.14

Even though most American social science has been related to liberalism and to the de-privatization, there has been a wide difference in the way members of the Left have perceived it. This is a difference that almost certainly tells us more about each of those making the critique than it does about social science itself. Those who have been well attuned to the Fabian process and have been willing to bear with the reverses that liberalism has suffered will have had no difficulty seeing the main bulk of social science as an ally. Those, on the other hand, who have been more impatient, as the more overtly alienated and socialist have been wont to be, will have found the "scientific neutrality" and gradual politicization almost intolerably slow. One would expect them to denounce American social science as having been insufficiently socialist

Many modern liberals have praised social science's contribution to liberalism. Herbert Croly wrote expectantly of "the idea of a social science which would be useful in supplying a technique of social progress." In 1926, The New Republic was effusive about the development of social work as a profession: "The forward rank of social workers is creating a new technique, a new philosophy, and a new spirit which, if it succeeds in winning the day, will transform old-style philanthropy into a genuine social therapeutics." I recall how George Soule made himself one of the main protagonists for "national planning," to which "professionally qualified experts...putting together the statistics" were essential.15

There has been a steady drumbeat of criticism, however, by those who have wanted an overt expression of "values," heavily socialist in orientation, rather than a "scientifically neutral" approach. We are mistaken if we think that such criticism arose mainly during the years of the New Left. It has been in evidence for many years; the New Left merely continued an existing critique.

In 1931, Benjamin Ginsburg had this to say in a review in The New Republic of a book about social science: "One begins to wonder whether there is not also present a motive of social conservatism, a motive which uses social science as a sort of Penelope's web to put off the demands of the suitors for social reform." He criticized a "policy of providing millions for research and not one cent for philosophy."16

It is interesting that, from a conservative point of view, I have made the same criticism of the positivist fashion that is insisted upon in high school debate competition. The national debate topic has almost invariably centered on one socialistic proposal or another. Students tell me that they are discouraged from arguing on the basis of social and political values, and that they must confine their arguments to matters of cost, administrative feasibility, and the like. In that context, the positivism is a way of "doing without conservative values." It may seem strange that leftist critics would complain of a lack of socialist values in the broader realm of social science. To understand it, we need to remember their impatience with dissimulation and gradualism. It is a matter of the perspective that the observer brings to the critique.

John Dewey himself was dissatisfied with the non-socialist preoccupations that he saw in the social science of his day. In 1931, he wrote bitingly about "the present zeal for 'fact finding.'... For the most part, the data... are not social facts at all. For their connection with any system of human purposes and consequences, their bearing as means and as results upon human action, are left out of the picture." He wanted social science to be much more consciously geared toward "social planning and control."17

In a New Republic article in 1933, George E. Novack applied a Marxist perspective to severely criticize the mathematical economics of Walras, Jevons, Marshall and Clark. He said that this economic theory was too abstract, having "only the remotest connection with the real capitalist world of class societies and imperialist states, overproduction and recurrent crises...." The "unacknowledged premise," he said, is "that there was nothing fundamentally wrong or unjust about the operation of the price system...." In 1938, Max Lerner authored a review of a book by Robert S. Lynd about the social sciences. Lerner complained about "American social scientists keeping their placid tenor amid disaster," and spoke of "the fairly patent fact that the 'detachment' and 'objectivity' that they have exacted of themselves have been excuses for keeping quiet... devices for saving their skins."18

In 1957, Merle King posed the question "What of social scientists?" In answer, he said that, "confusing form for content, they assume that resort to the forms of the calculating machine, the questionnaire, the interview, and the quantified formula indeed will enable them to travel toward the future with the natural scientists and engineers." To King, their "visions [were] blocked by a massive wall of technology, science, mathematics and expertness." He wanted more "vision" and less technique.19

The New Left, which had already begun germinating by that time, continued this theme. Years later, Morris Dickstein looked back and said "I can remember the impact that C. Wright Mills' work had on us as undergraduates in the late '50s. He seemed like the one bold spirit in the gray, gray crew of American social science." Mills' position was summarized by Staughton Lynd in 1962: "C. Wright Mills has called modern American social science 'an elaborate method of insuring that no one learns too much about man and society.' Mills argues that the great tradition of George, Bellamy and Veblen has disgraced itself by turgid definition-splitting on the one hand, and the statistical exegesis of trivia on the other."20

Edward Chase joined in the criticism in 1968 when he wrote about "academic economists who insulate themselves from troublesome doubts about fundamentals by their absorption in econometrics and data manipulation." In 1975, Martin Duberman referred to "the sharp challenge of recent years to the claims of 'value-free,' 'objective' social science."21

A substantial part of the New Left's criticism took on a different tone from that that we have just traced back to the 1930s. The "counter-cultural" side of the New Left was not mainly criticizing the lack of an effectively socialist social science; instead, drawing deeply from sources in the early nineteenth century's Romantic revolt against modernity and the Enlightenment, it was in profound opposition to the very existence of science, technology and rationalism. In 1968, Martin Duberman said of "today's student radicals" that "their disgust with traditional procedures is grounded in a growing distrust of rationality itself." Duberman looked on this favorably, saying that it meant that the activists wanted men "to become something more than minds."22

New Left activist Jerry Rubin said it most graphically: "Abstract thinking is the way professors avoid facing their own social impotence. Our generation is in rebellion against abstract intellectualism and critical thinking. We admire the Viet Kong guerrilla, the Black Panther, the stoned hippie, not the abstract intellectual vegetable."23

A more thoughtful, literary expression of the same perspective came from Theodore Roszak in Where the Wasteland Ends. Roszak said that from "the Romantic movement... we inherit a stubborn counter cultural resistance to the pre-eminence of science." He argued for a return to a magical, mystical way of seeing the world, and said that "it is the culture of science from which we must liberate ourselves." He spoke of "urban-industrial society [as] having hopelessly lost touch with life lived on a simpler, more 'primitive' level, and [as being] convinced beyond question of the omnipotence of technical intelligence." Roszak concluded that "we should undertake to repeal urban-industrialism as the world's dominant style of life" and substitute an "anarchist brotherhood and sisterhood" that would be "shot through with mystical sensibility."24

During the radical resurgence of the 1960s, the proponents of "behavioral science" were spurred to a point at which they were bidding to become the avant garde of academic radicalism. This was especially in evidence in the mid-western College of Business in which I was teaching. The movement was reflected in Reed Whitemore's observation in late 1969 that "social and behavioral scientists are ambitious and expansionist. They see their revolution coming."25

As the New Left faded rapidly after the tumultuous events of the spring of 1970, American radicalism retreated into various forms. One of the more important of these was the rise of academic Marxism, which prefers to call itself "radicalism". As early as April 1969, Martin Duberman was able to speak of "a new generation of radical academics." An organization called U.R.P.E. (for "the Union of Radical Political Economy") has published a prolific literature.26

Before I leave this subject, I should interject that some of the criticism of social science has been of a sort that would have been present even in the absence of ideological motivations. Various commentators within liberalism have been fully aware of the pseudo-scientific quality of much of the work that is done, and of the stifling neo-Scholasticism and credentialism that is imposed. Thus, Benjamin Stolberg wrote in 1922 that "the truth is that to compare actual to social science,... without an acute sense of poetic license is to commit one of the gravest of fallacies." Under the unfortunately partisan-sounding title Social Sciences as Sorcery, Stanislav Andreski has written an elaborate and thoughtful dissection of the trivia that so commonly clogs the social sciences as we came to know them during the middle half of the twentieth century. Here is a representative statement from his critique: "What is particularly dismaying is that not only does the flood of publications reveal an abundance of pompous bluff and a paucity of new ideas, but even the old and valuable insights which we have inherited from our illustrious ancestors are being drowned in a torrent of meaningless verbiage and useless technicalities."27

Irving Kristol has told how the statistical method has been abused and has become a vehicle for ideology rather than of science: "That the concept of poverty should be continually and vigilantly redefined so that 20 percent of the population is always 'poor' is a function of ideology, not sociology." He points out that this reflects the attitudes of people who are "considerably more interested in the perpetuation of a critical attitude toward liberal-capitalist society than in any particular set of objective accomplishments."28

The rise of the social-scientific professional

What I have described has become an institutionalized part of American society. Beginning with the formation of the distinct branches of social science in the late nineteenth century, every part of social science and of social work has become the domain of its own profession and bureaucracy. Referring to "the young economists who in 1885 founded" the American Economics Association, The New Republic in 1915 commented that "it is to these innovators... that we owe the fact that today the specialized economist... is at work for the state, the industrial corporation and the trade union." The journal saw clearly the implications for liberalism: "Social work will be a vocational school where the community learns constructive collectivism."29

No doubt this institutionalization can be seen as "in aid of democracy." That it can also become an elitist threat to it became apparent quite early. In 1915, a New Republic article called, for example, for teachers to share power over the schools with the elected Boards of Education. It is an easy matter to see the professional as more qualified than outsiders representing an amorphous and "not specially qualified" public. In the United States, we have insisted that military professionals remain subordinate to civilian authority; a similar subordination of domestic "experts" to elected representatives is not nearly so easy to recognize as a democratic imperative, or to delineate once it has been recognized.30

Despite the institutionalization, which suggests that the processes of "social therapeutics" have become regularized, the divisions within the American Left and within the groups that have constituted its alliance have been such that the road has not been one of smooth acceptance. The radical Left has upon occasion attacked social workers as representatives of the bourgeois establishment. As early as 1917, for example, Rebecca West complained that in England "the welfare worker is a failure... The welfare workers are drawn almost as exclusively as the philanthropic workers from the middle classes. Labor regards this with a resentment that is entirely reasonable."31

Even those who have been the subjects of social work, as so many blacks have, have been bitter critics. Reporting on the Watts ghetto shortly after its 1965 riot, Lewis Yablonsky wrote that "there was a uniform attitude that people trying to do social work in the neighborhood who lived outside were 'fools,' to be exploited as much as possible." In his "autobiography," Malcolm X said that "if ever a state social agency destroyed a family, it destroyed ours... They had looked at us as numbers and as a case in their book, not as human beings." There is, of course, a lesson in this: harmony does not inevitably exist between a professionalized Welfare State and its beneficiaries.32

The effects of the de-privatization on American political life

It is in its political effects that the process I have described has been most obvious to the American people.  The ideology that has sought the centralization of functions in the national government has had a distinct aversion to local or private or market solutions to the problems it has perceived. In this, it has differed sharply from classical liberalism, which sought solutions precisely in those areas.

If a classical liberal, for example, were to look at the history of labor-management relations and were to hope for the improvement of the condition of labor as it existed in the nineteenth century, he would welcome the development of job-related amenities by private employers. In contrast, here is the reaction that The New Republic expressed in 1915 to any improvement that came from a private employer: "The despot becomes benevolent. Hospitals, swimming pools, Y.M.C.A.'s, 'profit sharing,' are bestowed, evidently in complete oblivion of the fact that there would be little manhood in men who accepted these benefits at the price of submission."33

A classical liberal approves of private education as an expression of freedom and as a decentralization of power over the public's thinking. Here, though, is what another 1915 editorial said in The New Republic: "Universities, whether supported by the state or privately, are becoming too vitally institutions for public service to be much longer directed on the plan of a private corporation... Irresponsible control by a board of amateur notables is no longer adequate for the effective scientific and sociological laboratories for the community that universities are becoming."34

Before Medicare was established, an alternative that conservatives preferred was the Kerr-Mills Act of 1960, under which the federal government would subsidize a state-initiated insurance plan, operated through a private insurance company, for elderly persons in medical need. Eric Goldman tells us that "proponents of Medicare responded in unveiled disgust." They preferred a program that was both compulsory and federal.35

During most of the twentieth century, this preference has caused liberals to take a dim view of state and local government. The exceptions have come during the periods, such as the 1920s, in which liberal action has been blocked at the federal level. The more usual view was stated by William Orton when he wrote that "mobilization [for social purposes] is frustrated by the existence of forty-eight separate political and legal jurisdictions... American liberalism... must undoubtedly look increasingly toward the federal power, the only power that is adequate to the largest problems." With this as the premise, it is no wonder that in 1935 The New Republic was able to call for "a new form of government that will... abolish the present states..., substituting flexible regional divisions." This was consistent with Herbert Croly's views years earlier. Charles Forcey has summarized those views: "Since the states were largely artificial political units with no real relation to industry, Croly suggested that they be deprived of virtually all control over economic matters. To the towns and the cities would be given the control or ownership of local utilities, while the rest of the economy would be regulated by a much strengthened government in Washington." In Progressive Democracy, Croly had written that "the state governments will be needed and valued, not as independent and coordinate centres of authority, but as parts of an essentially national system."36

Nor were these views held only by liberals in Croly's generation. In 1966, Walter Heller described the "federalism" he favored:  "States and localities... will continue to be the service centers through which important national purposes are achieved." This subordination of the states to federal policy has become quite pronounced -- and continued even under the Reagan and  George H. W. Bush administrations. (We recall, for example, how the Reagan administration used strings attached to federal spending as a way to force the states to change their laws about the age at which young people were allowed to drink beer).37

Why has modern liberalism favored centralization? For a combination of reasons. First, the influence of the intellectual culture can most effectively be brought to bear at the national level. Second, as some of the commentators themselves have stated, the type of planning liberalism has wanted does not lend itself to geographical limitations coinciding with state boundaries. Third, the statistical aggregation of erstwhile individual problems into collective problems provides no rationale for decentralized solutions. Fourth, there has over a long period of time been a progressive weakening of local loyalties, and of the romance of providing local political leadership, due to such objective factors as increased mobility, broadened communication, and the like. And fifth, the quality of local and state leadership has for over a century been notoriously low, a fact that reflects perhaps more than anything else the unwillingness of most people even in a democracy, absorbed they are by their daily lives, to devote any time (or contribute any money) to politics.

In addition to liberalism's movement away from the local and state units of government, liberal thought has had as one of its premises the assumption that little or nothing will get done without "planning." Senator Hubert Humphrey was thus able to look out upon the world, armed with statistics about current numbers of graduates, and say that "the cold fact is that the number of engineering graduates is declining -- as are Ph.D.'s in education and government. We cannot permit this to continue." To Humphrey, there was no "invisible hand" that leads to the automatic flow of resources in response to the free choices made by many individuals. This is one of the profound differences between Humphrey's brand of liberalism and that of the classical liberals, such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo. Those who see chaos in the marketplace of free choices are bound to seek order in other ways.38

Another example can be seen in the statement Senator Edward Kennedy made on June 17, 1971. "Between now and the year 2000," he said, "the population of America will increase by nearly 100 million people... The increased population is the equivalent of building 200 new cities with populations of 500,000 or 100 new cities with populations of 1 million. In fact, the development of such new cities, using advanced new technologies and systems analysis, may be the most important challenge we face...." This passage illustrates not only the absence of a "vitalist perspective" (which looks to the on-going vitality of private processes) within modern liberalism, but also the mentality of planning and of a collectivistically-applied social science.39

The result of all this has been that modern liberalism has, at least until its post-New Left disillusionment, called for an ever-expanding role for government. I compare this to "blowing air into the balloon." Many of the specific programs have been of a "foot-in-the-door" nature, carrying an intent that they be expanded once they are started. In 1964, TRB spoke of "the steady expansion of government," and said that "there is no doubt in my own mind that this expansion ought to go on, and will go on." A description of the specific programs could fill several volumes.40

Before the collapse of liberal morale in the 1970s and '80s, there was an assumption of irreversibility -- that a governmental function, once embraced, would not, indeed could not, be abandoned. Henry Fairlie could say in 1966 that "departments like Health, Education and Welfare are developing a character which will survive changes in the political climate." He described at least one of the factors that would press for permanence and growth when he said that "the lever of federal funds, once it is given to a bureaucracy, is unlikely to be left unused for very long." Another factor of perhaps equal importance has been that each program has developed its own constituency -- and voting bloc. This has placed a premium on political opportunism and has made political competition increasingly difficult (or well-nigh impossible) for those not given to the opportunism of a "spend and elect" politics.41

It is a mistake to think that federal power has been manifested even primarily through direct legislation. Ubiquitous webs of influence and control have come into being.

Of course, legislation has played a part. But there has been a universe, so to speak, of regulation coming out of the massive independent agencies, to which vast realms of power have been delegated. In 1915 The New Republic exulted about the Federal Trade Commission Act that "a Democratic Congress has actually delegated the broadest kind of personal discretion to a commission of 'experts'" and that "the Act achieves a very happy but a most amazing delegation of legislative function."42  

In addition, intricate control has been exercised through strings attached to spending. "Affirmative action" programs have been probably the foremost example of this. Every firm that has had government contracts of a certain size has had to have an "affirmative action plan" for the recruitment of minority employees. It has been required that part of the firm's plan be that the businesses with which the firm deals must also have a plan. The principal lever for the enforcement of all of this has been the threat of cutting off government funds and contracts.

Another avenue has been through abjuring all pretense of neutrality in taxation. The tax system has existed only partly to raise the hundreds of billions of dollars that have been needed to fund governmental programs; it has equally been adapted to "social intervention," by which countless activities are encouraged and many others discouraged.

The Jacksonians before the Civil War argued strenuously against the use of the tariff for other than the raising of revenue, and feared the "consolidation" that would result from unrestrained federal spending. But the high-tariff parties during American history always favored the use of taxation for interventionist, not simply revenue-raising, purposes. This was one of the leading issues throughout the nineteenth century.

Then, relating to a more modern context, we were told by Felix Frankfurter that "Theodore Roosevelt was the first President avowedly to use the taxing power as a direct agency of social policy." Robert LaFollette, another of the major figures of the Progressive era, said in his Autobiography that "I argued openly that the Constitution authorized the federal government to use the taxing power, that there was no limit to that power for police purposes...." In 1935 The New Republic advocated an interventionist system of taxation when it called for "a thorough-going program of social reform through taxation." 43

The loss of confidence; the critical reevaluation after 1965

As a result of the divisions that occurred within the American Left during the 1960s, a fact of considerable significance was reported by James MacGregor Burns in March 1968: "For the first time in decades the power of the Presidency is undergoing critical reevaluation by American liberals... Liberal political scientists are reconsidering the need for institutional checks and balances against the man in the White House."44

The old magic was gone. Implicit faith was no longer reposed in the presidency, as Burns' statement shows -- or in any of the rest of the massive federal enterprise. Many of the factions on the Left began seeing the gigantic apparatus as evil or incompetent or both. There was a turn inward, as during the 1920s, and toward proposals for decentralized collectivism, such as worker control.

Lee Benson voiced a common New Left theme when he wrote that "1968 showed that the fatal weakness of modern bureaucracies is precisely their inability to satisfy humanist needs." A New Republic editorial in 1970 reported that "black America's confidence in the national government has rapidly, dangerously diminished." In 1972, TRB told his readers that "there is an undercurrent of disassociation, a feeling almost of despair that it really won't matter much. This lack of confidence in the capacity of government to solve problems is rather terrifying." The New Republic's editors in 1974 stated the problem this way: "[The] national Democratic party has a tradition of benevolent big government. But how sure can our 1976 candidate be that an extension of the New Deal, the New Frontier, the Great Society, will produce more well-being for more people or a federal bureaucracy that's more responsive and benevolent?"45

Although there has been some clinging to the old faith, as when the editors said in 1979 that "we still have the faith... that the government can play an aggressive role in improving the national welfare," expressions of doubt have continued. In a New Republic review in 1980, Ira Glasser wrote that "since Progressive reformers themselves meant only to help, they saw the expanded power of the state as unambiguously good basic assumptions." In May 1980, attempting to explain why Senator Edward Kennedy "is simply out of his time," Henry Fairlie said that "there seems at last to be an end to the belief in the ability of quick if not deep or penetrating minds -- seducible or purchasable or both -- to identify real problems and their possible political resolution." Then in December 1984, following Senator Walter Mondale's defeat by President Reagan the month before, a New Republic editorial declared that "the old liberal confidences... now lie shattered... We will have to admit [that] there may be some problems that can't be solved, even with... a hefty bit of cash." "American liberalism," the editors said, "is in crisis." 46


1. New Republic, June 30, 1920, p. 139; Hubert H. Humphrey, The Cause is Mankind (New York: MacFadden Books, 1965), p. 21.

2. Lester Ward, Lester Ward and the Welfare State, Henry Steele Commager, ed. (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1967), p. 368.

3. New Republic, July 28, 1973, p. 32.

4. Harry Elmer Barnes, ed., The History and Prospects of the Social Sciences (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1925), p. 185.

5. New Republic, November 4, 1957, pp. 12, 14.

6. New Republic, December 5, 1949, p. 11.

7. New Republic, January 30, 1915, pp. 16-18; New Republic, December 23, 1931, p. 151.

8. Louis A. Zurcher, Jr., and Charles M. Bonjean, ed.s, Planned Social Intervention (London: Chandler Publishing Company, 1970), p. 14.

9. New Republic, December 25, 1971, p. 22 (Senator Mondale is quoted by Robert Coles).

10. Edward C. Banfield, The Unheavenly City (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1970), p. 20.

11. L. L. Bernard and Jessie Bernard, Origins of American Sociology (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1943), p. 807.

12. Zurcher and Bonjean, Planned Social Intervention, p. 43.

13. Jacob Oser, The Evolution of Economic Thought (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 2nd ed., 1970), pp. 298, 299; Heinz Kohler, Welfare and Planning: An Analysis of Capitalism Versus Socialism (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1966), p. 106.

14. Zurcher and Bonjean, Planned Social Intervention, p. 27.

15. New Republic, June 18, 1918, p. 168; New Republic, June 2, 1926, p. 48; New Republic, March 4, 1931, p. 62.

16. New Republic, March 11, 1931, p. 104.

17. New Republic, July 29, 1931, p. 276.

18. New Republic, July 19, 1933, p. 258; New Republic, July 5, 1939, p. 257.

19. New Republic, April 8, 1957, p. 15.

20. New Republic, January 29, 1977, p. 36; New Republic, March 12, 1962, p. 30.

21. New Republic, February 24, 1968, p. 37; New Republic, March 8, 1975, p. 23.

22. New Republic, June 2, 1968, p. 27.

23. Jerry Rubin, Do It! (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970), p. 213.

24. Theodore Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1972), pp. xxv, 37, 73, 414, 425, 428.

25. New Republic, December 20, 1969, p. 21.

26. New Republic, April 19, 1969, p. 30.

27. New Republic, December 13, 1922, p. 75; Stanislav Andreski, Social Sciences as Sorcery (London: Andre Deutsch Limited, 1972), p. 11.

28. Irving Kristol, Two Cheers for Capitalism (New York: Mentor Book, 1978), p. 202.

29. New Republic, January 2, 1915, p. 9; New Republic, August 28, 1915, p. 108.

30. New Republic, April 3, 1915, p. 229.

31. New Republic, October 13, 1917, pp. 298-300.

32. New Republic, January 1, 1966, p. 10; Alex Haley and Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Grove Press, 1965), pp. 21, 22.

33. New Republic, January 30, 1915, p. 6.

34. New Republic, July 17, 1915, pp. 269, 270.

35. Eric F. Goldman, The Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson (New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1969), p. 341.

36. New Republic, January 29, 1930, p. 267; New Republic, June 12, 1935, p. 117; Charles Forcey, The Crossroads of Liberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961), p. 33; Oser, Evolution of Economic Thought, p. 37.

37. Walter W. Heller, New Dimensions of Political Economy (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1967), p. 123.

38. Humphrey, The Cause is Mankind, p. 40.

39. Thomas P. Collins and Louis M. Savary, ed.s, A People of Compassion: The Concerns of Edward Kennedy (New York: The Regina Press, 1972), p. 82. 

40. New Republic, October 31, 1964, p. 12.

41. New Republic, January 1, 1966, p. 19.

42. New Republic, January 9, 1915, p. 8.

43. Howard Zinn, New Deal Thought (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1966), p. 359; Robert M. LaFollette, LaFollette's Autobiography (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1968), p. 53; New Republic, January 30, 1935, p. 319.

44. New Republic, March 16, 1968, p. 25.

45. New Republic, January 18, 1969, p. 20; New Republic, July 18, 1970, p. 8; New Republic, January 1, 1972, p. 6; New Republic, June 29, 1974, p. 6.

46. New Republic, January 20, 1979, p. 13; New Republic, March 8, 1980, pp. 36-37; New Republic, May 31, 1980, pp. 18, 19; New Republic, December 10, 1984, p. 12; New Republic, December 10, 1984, p. 9.