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Crooked Paths: Reflections on Socialism, Conservatism, and the Welfare State, by Peter Clecak

Skeptical Socialist

Crooked Paths: Reflections on Socialism, Conservatism, and the Welfare State.
by Peter Clecak.
Harper & Row. 206 pp. $10.95.

Peter Clecak is a chastened socialist. In his previous book, Radical Paradoxes, Clecak was critical of some influential American left-wing thinkers, arguing that they were insufficiently committed to democracy. In Crooked Paths he is critical of the democratic-socialist tradition itself. He comes to the camp of his conservative, neo-conservative, and liberal enemies with white flag in hand—not exactly surrendering but at least willing to admit that he is “more skeptical than ever about the theoretical coherence and moral aptness—not to mention the political utility—of democratic socialism.”

He comes, moreover, with a bill of particulars: democratic socialists have been self-righteous, presuming their notions to be morally superior to all others; they have been simplistic, grouping all opponents of an extended welfare state with the reactionary forces of the Right; and they have been evasive, not facing up to the difficulties inherent in governmental responses to social and economic problems.

Clecak also shrewdly acknowledges that a growing number of persons have a vested interest in an expanding public sector: media people, administrators, social scientists, consultants, educators, public-advocacy lawyers, urban planners, and mental-health professionals. As Clecak knows, many people—including many poor people—are sick of the government’s continual meddling in their lives. Governmental intervention, he insists, is not necessarily the best medicine for all our social ills, but one would not know that if one only read liberal and Left commentators who, Clecak says, “have brushed aside far too cavalierly” legitimate questions about the proper nature and degree of state activity.

A democratic socialist’s “confession”—for Clecak still thinks of himself as a socialist—is unexpected, useful, even appealing. Many people, I suspect, will praise this book for its absence of ideological passion as well as its ecumenical piety, since Clecak asks “liberals . . . to reconsider becoming democratic socialists, and democratic socialists . . . to adopt elements of a conservative vision, [and] conservatives . . . to entertain socialist ideas. . . .” Who can resist this truism dressed up as political wisdom?

Yet at the risk of appearing to shoot a man when he is humbly offering a peace pipe, I should like to argue that Clecak’s book is not only slipshod, it is also much less critical of socialism than it at first appears to be. (In addition, the prose is dreary—the book often reads like a committee report.)

Taking a cue from Robert L. Heilbroner, Clecak argues that the notion of relative scarcity has forced socialists to change their long-range strategies and short-run tactics. Because the future promises to be one of diminishing resources, it will be impossible to realize a society where, as Marx would have it, each will be rewarded according to his needs. Yet Clecak never clearly says what, precisely, is required of socialist theory now that it cannot lure mankind on with dreams of an abundant future. In fact, it is hard to know where Clecak stands theoretically, since his book exists in that dim zone where politics, economics, and culture intersect—a zone that befuddles all but the most rigorous of thinkers. And Clecak is not rigorous.

As a political theorist, in fact, Clecak fails badly. Though generous to liberals and conservatives, he does not seem to have grappled with the best liberal and conservative thought. It is not true, for example, that those who question socialist assumptions are those who “stress moral visions above all,” for the most sophisticated defenders of limited constitutional government and the mixed economies of the West—men like Raymond Aron and F.A. Hayek—are suspicious of moral approaches to politics and political economy. And Michael Oakeshott, the English conservative, explicitly eschews any connection between politics and morality. It is not enough to pay one’s respects to one’s enemies; one must know the precise nature of their argument against socialism.

In any case, Clecak’s theoretical generosity is somewhat misleading, for when he gets down to making practical proposals we discover the old socialist animus against the marketplace. Clecak wants to find a mechanism of allocation that can provide a “just distribution of goods and services”—one that displaces the “supremacy of the economic marketplace” as the final arbiter of a person’s intelligence and ability. According to Clecak, once a basic portion of income and wealth is distributed equally, the state should “develop genuinely meritocratic criteria for allocating the rest.”

Clecak assures us that these criteria should be arrived at by democratic means, yet the implementation of such criteria would enormously increase the ressentiment of the country’s citizens, placing constitutional democracy under a well-nigh intolerable burden. People are inclined to accept their economic fate when it is the result of their luck in the “neutral” world of the marketplace—and when they know it is not directly related to their intrinsic worth. They would be less inclined, I think, to accept their share if it were seen as a judgment on their social and personal worth. And it would not matter if that share were to be assigned to them by democratically-elected politicians, since Americans tend to distrust even those whom they vote for.

Such ressentiment, moreover, would probably exist even if there were no question of relative scarcity, for even in a cornucopian society people would be envious of someone else’s bigger portion if they thought it came by way of political connections or deals. It is doubtful, then, that the state could maintain its authority and legitimacy if it ventured so extensively into distribution. Does not the experience of the past twenty years in the United States support the following “iron law”: the more the government tampers with the daily lives of its citizens, the less authority it ends up having?

Clecak not only thinks the government should assign people their income, he also thinks that it should at times tell them how to spend their money. The state, he says, should get rid of “tasteless opulence,” and it should also make sure that there are “fewer plastic goods.” Finally, like many socialists, Clecak conjures up “rights” that are ill-defined and virtually meaningless—e.g., “the equal right to a secure life and the equal right to live well.”

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If clecak is less than satisfactory in his reflections upon domestic questions, he is even weaker when he comments upon foreign affairs—something, I should add, that he does only in passing, perhaps because he is convinced that this area is much easier for a socialist to deal with. For Clecak socialism means supporting a reduced defense budget and fighting militant anti-Communism—which is, he says, the stock-in-trade of “ambitious political figures.” Clecak sees anti-Communism as a tedious American pathology that has been used to bolster defense spending and that has resulted in “protecting a host of tottering, often corrupt regimes. . . .” One hates to bore him with historical details, but he seems to have forgotten about the Marshall Plan.

Like an instant breakfast food, Clecak’s recipe for American foreign policy has a few simple directions. Most of the world, it seems, is rapidly turning socialist; therefore, if we want to get on with them, we too must turn socialist. American socialists, unlike American conservatives, can negotiate these rapids because, qua socialists, they have a better understanding of global currents. They also have a better rapport with their fellow socialists throughout the world.

Clecak’s sketch of a socialist foreign policy is simply inadequate—less a sketch than a few random jottings. The carelessness with which he treats the subject is puzzling, since one assumes that a socialist would be especially concerned about the global problem of an unequal distribution of income and resources. Some socialists, in fact, see this as the main item on the socialist agenda; Richard Lowenthal, the German social democrat, has recently argued that socialism must concern itself with negotiating “a fairer deal for the poor, underdeveloped countries. . . .” Yet, preoccupied with devising strategies of absolute fairness, Clecak scants this question and others—détente and international trade, for example—that have a direct bearing upon domestic socioeconomic arrangements. Perhaps it is not fair to ask Clecak to have written a different book, but one can say that Clecak’s brand of “conservative democratic socialism” is not adequate to the task at hand. The paths to the future are crooked indeed—more crooked and more various than Clecak cares to consider.

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