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Thursday, October 30, 2008
A Tale of Two Liberals, or Is It Bad to Be a Socialist?

One of those two liberals is now called a conservative.

Yesterday I explained that Barack Obama's known views classify him as a social democrat, which is a type of socialist. I postponed until another day my discussion of whether being a socialist is a good thing or a bad thing. Today's the day.

A Tale of Two Liberals

To answer my own question, I have to make (or must have already made) a moral choice -- a value judgment, if you will. This is really a tale of two liberals, and I have to choose which one to be and which one I think is wrong for America and for humanity generally. One of these liberals embraces an old, technically not-quite-classical variety of liberalism, the sort which prevailed at the American founding. The other prefers a newer kind of liberalism that is more typical of the last several decades of American politics. When I tell you that the older type of liberal is now considered a conservative, and that the newer type of liberal tends at least to lean in the direction of some sort of socialism -- usually the Barack Obama, social democratic sort -- you'll see how stark the contrast between my two liberals can be.

The older type of liberal -- my type, a choice I made ages ago -- is of the "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" variety, a partisan of individual freedom, personal responsibility, private charity, and limited government. His favorite kind of constitutional right is the sort that limits the government's power to diminish his freedom -- of speech, of religion, whatever. Libertarians are near the extreme of this sort of liberalism; anarchists are the extreme. (I am neither.) This old-style liberal tends to be fairly content with our current Bill of Rights, and would be more so if the Ninth and Tenth Amendments were seriously enforced.

This older liberal is the Ronald Reagan liberal, we might say. Reagan had been a Democrat, and he used to say that he did not leave his party; his party left him. The Ronald Reagan liberal is, as I said, currently known as a conservative in American politics.

The newer liberal, who is really a social democrat, is the Franklin D. Roosevelt sort. Roosevelt advocated a "second bill of rights," as some have mentioned recently in our presidential campaign. These are not rights which protect citizens from government intrusion -- which Barack Obama called "negative rights" in a now-infamous 2001 interview, with negative not meaning bad. These are rights which would entitle citizens to have their basic needs, such as housing, employment, medical care, and education, guaranteed by the government. That translates in many cases as paid for by the government, if not actually provided by the government. Social security, Medicare and Medicaid, universal health care proposals, and food stamps are examples of this sort of liberalism, as is the Community Reinvestment Act, which is implicated in the current housing and banking crisis.

The older liberal, today's conservative, insists that private charity can answer these needs better, much more efficiently, and less destructively than government. The newer liberal either does not trust private benevolence to handle these matters or wants to expand the power of government.


In the mid-1830s a French nobleman, Alexis de Tocqueville, came to the United States to figure out why democracy and revolution were faring better here than in his home country. The product of his study, a thick book entitled Democracy in America, remains one of the classic and most important works of democratic (small "D") political theory and sociology.

Tocqueville set himself the task of discovering and explaining not only how American government worked, but how American democratic society functioned. His book is brilliant and, for the most part, surprisingly readable.

One of Tocqueville's concerns was the long-term future of American society. He thought he foresaw the manner in which it would eventually decay. He predicted that the decay would begin when the people discovered that they could vote themselves benefits out of the public treasury.

The essence of this decay is the change from the older liberalism (the new conservatism) to the newer liberalism (social democracy). See if this doesn't sound at least a little bit familiar:

I think that the type of oppression which threatens democracies is different from anything there has ever been in the world before. . . .

I see an innumerable multitude of men, alike and equal, constantly circling around in pursuit of the petty and banal pleasures with which they glut their souls. Each one of them, withdrawn into himself, is almost unaware of the fate of the others. . . . He exists in and for himself. . . .

Over this kind of men stands an immense, protective power which is alone responsible for securing their enjoyment and watching over their fate. That power is absolute, thoughtful of detail, orderly, provident, and gentle. It would resemble parental authority if, father-like, it tried to prepare its charges for a man's life, but on the contrary, it only tries to keep them in perpetual childhood. . . . It gladly works for their happiness but wants to be the sole agent and judge of it. It provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, makes rules for their testaments, and divides their inheritances. Why should it not entirely relieve them from the trouble of thinking and all the cares of living?

Thus it daily makes the exercise of free choice less useful and rare, restricts the activity of free will within a narrower compass, and little by little robs each citizen of the proper use of his own faculties. . . .

Having thus taken each citizen in turn in its powerful grasp and shaped him to its will, government then extends its embrace to include the whole of society. It covers the whole of social life with a network of petty, complicated rules. . . . [I]t hinders, restrains, enervates, stifles, and stultifies so much that in the end each nation is no more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as its shepherd. . . .

Under this system the citizens quit their state of dependence just long enough to choose their masters and then fall back into it.

They think they have done enough to guarantee personal freedom when it is to the government . . . that they have handed it over. (de Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. Ed. J.P. Mayer. Tr. George Lawrence. Garden City, NY: Anchor-Doubleday, 1969, pp. 692-93, italics added.)

For a conservative (the old kind of liberal) like me, this is a description of how free people become slaves. To a social democrat, the new kind of liberal, the evolution described here is toward a more just, more compassionate society. To a cynical politician and his party, this is how to guarantee reelection: a combination of the people's dependency and the leaders' indispensability to answer the people's basic needs.

The Choice

That's the basic choice in American government these days, on a much broader scale than just next week's election. Barack Obama is firmly on the side of larger government and enhanced dependency. John McCain is not firmly in the opposite camp, but at least he's on the free side of the middle.

Europe made the Obama choice decades ago, and the economic and social cost has revealed itself to be so large that much of Europe is gradually and with great difficulty backing away from that choice.

On Tuesday we will see whether Americans have been sufficiently blinded by class envy, befuddled by rhetoric and bad math, and enticed by promises of free benefits (with enormous, thinly-veiled costs) that they will take a large step towards democratic socialism in their selection of a president, representatives, and governors. Whatever the result, it will not be the end of the choice or of the struggle between my two liberals. But it might be a big step away from one and toward the other.

On Tuesday -- forgive the stark, almost apocalyptic thought -- we will begin to learn whether Americans have, either temporarily or finally, become too lazy or stupid to remain free.

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