Commentary Magazine

Liberalism and Purpose

Unpopular doctrines, even despised ones, have rarely lacked for defenders; for every heresy, there is a heretic. Contemporary liberalism, however, seems peculiarly without spokesmen, even though it is everywhere reviled and allegedly discredited. Radicals, of course, scorn liberals; but even Democratic Presidential candidates, most of whom have by some test a “liberal” record, vie in expressing their contempt for or indifference to the policies of their Democratic predecessors in the White House. Mr. Muskie tells us that liberals have accomplished little or nothing since the New Deal and implies that they have not even tried very hard. Scarcely a voice is heard in dissent.

Perhaps it is because liberalism, for the last three or four decades, has been the ruling philosophy that it so conspicuously lacks a reasoned explication. Doctrines are formulated by those otherwise without power, by outsiders. Liberals have not been outsiders for a long time. Indeed, if one searches for any statements that might be regarded as a more-than-pedestrian presentation of liberal ideas, one may have to go back as far as Herbert Croly’s The Promise of American Life and, before that, to John Stuart Mill.

The reason for regretting the absence of a contemporary and serious defense of liberalism is that the leading criticisms of it are based on the assumption that liberal doctrines are essentially correct but that the will to implement them has been lacking. We are asked to take on faith that there are attainable goals all enlightened liberals seek; we are then shown, ostensibly, how liberal governments have failed to attain them because these governments are based on institutional incapacities (“interest-group pluralism,” in the phrase of Theodore Lowi, or brokerage parties and a weak Presidency, in the view of James MacGregor Burns), or because they are operated by men who have been corrupted by power or made captive by self-seeking forces (the “military-industrial complex,” in the phrase that Malcolm Moos put into the mouth of Dwight Eisenhower).

Those who once called themselves liberals and who wish to call themselves that again without embarrassment or qualification are turning increasingly to the subject of institutional reform. This is the message of both James MacGregor Burns1 and David S. Broder2 in their recent books. It is also, in a curious sense, the message of Richard M. Nixon; much of his domestic program has been animated by a desire for institutional renovation—cabinet reorganization, welfare reform, revenue sharing, and block grants.

The renewed interest in organization is perhaps an improvement over the recent efforts to explain the apparent stasis in American politics as a failure of “will.” This was the message of the Kerner Commission in discussing riots and the plight of blacks; it was also the message of Ramsey Clark in discussing crime.3 “Will” is nameless, shapeless, Hegelian; while it provides a splendid rhetorical device for assigning guilt, it supplies little sense of concrete direction or organizational process. And in any competition of wills, those elements of our society that bespeak pure will—pure love, pure hate; pure self-indulgence, pure terror; Consciousness III in the communes and calculated violence among the Weathermen—will always appear to have the advantage of greater commitment, greater “authenticity.”

Liberals like Burns and Broder have seen that brink and are struggling back from it. Both books go to great pains to criticize the “dogmas” and “myths” of both the Left and the Right and to reject the revolutionary sloganizing of the various political cults. Pervading both books is a common urgency—the desire to restore a sense of responsibility to politics.

To these men responsibility means action guided by principle with due regard for consequences. The defect of the American government, they believe, is that it defeats such action, ignores such principles, and produces at best unintended consequences. Public policy is piecemeal, incremental, disjointed because our governing institutions are patchwork, decentralized, and uncoordinated. As a result, liberal Presidents are elected, each of whom is a “rhetorical radical, policy liberal, fiscal moderate, and institutional conservative.” Large problems are not addressed by correspondingly bold actions; there is a failure of strategy and of priority at the outset and, with respect to the strategies that are adopted, the energies behind them are rapidly diffused in the endless maze of Congressional committees and bureaucratic agencies. As a result, we have “failed” to deal adequately with civil rights, medical care, poverty, housing, environmental control, economic management, and almost everything else.

The answer offered for this problem is a strong President—far stronger than even FDR or LBJ at his boldest—and strong, ideologically realigned political parties. Burns and Broder are in substantial agreement, though where Burns’s account is romantic in tone and blurred in outline, Broder’s is grainier, sharper. Neither has much to say about what history may someday call the “liberal deviation”—the flirtation with radically decentralized, highly participatory political structures. “To fragmentize is to conservatize,” writes Burns. Most local governments, writes Broder, are “costly, inefficient, and undemocratic.” Both authors even provide a few phrases of grudging admiration for the ability of Mayor Richard Daley to govern Chicago, perhaps the first kind words written about Mr. Daley by a leading journalist and a popular academic in five years.

By defining our present problems as ones of institutional capacity, Burns and Broder attempt to place the liberal creed back on the track from which it was dislodged by the war in Vietnam and the urban riots. A liberal Democratic administration could do nothing to prevent or control the domestic insurrections of the mid-1960′s. It is not hard to understand why many people decided that such administrations were either weak, incompetent, or uncaring and why they then turned to anti-executive structures (Congress, decentralized bureaucracies, citizen participation) or to alternative ideologies. If a liberal Democratic administration was a bad thing, it must be because it was liberal, or Democratic, or administrative, or all three.

The Burns-Broder thesis is that things went wrong because these governments were not strong enough—they needed to be more Democratic (i.e., all parts of the government should be under the control of a single party) and more administrative (all parts of the government should be under firm executive leadership). One may not agree with this analysis, but it has a long and honorable history. “Energy in the executive,” wrote Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist Papers, “is a leading element in the definition of good government.”

The central question, in Hamilton’s time and in our own, is: energy toward what end? The striking feature of the Burns and Broder books is that they have no well-worked-out answer to this question. To the extent they discuss it at all, it is either in moderately apocalyptic language about the collapse, decay, confusion, and disorder of the system and the loss of popular confidence in government (all of which may be real enough) or in quick summaries of the “ignored” recommendations of Presidential commissions set up to deal with crime, disorder, poverty, education, and the like. But these are not goals, they are problems.



A quite different analysis of the last decade is possible: it is not that government failed to address these problems, but that it did not know how to, and it would not have known any better if parties had been realigned and executives had been restructured. We do not know how to upgrade the educational levels of schoolchildren; we do not know how to reduce street crime in any substantial degree; we do not know how to mend broken families; we do not know how to get people off welfare and back into self-sustaining roles in society; we do not know how to change slums into clean and attractive living areas and keep them that way; above all we do not know how to get people to stop being bigots. On the plus side we have begun to learn a little bit about how to deal with drug addiction and pollution and there is not much doubt we shall soon be learning a great deal more.

The reforms proposed by Burns and Broder may or may not be worthwhile, but they are directed toward no clear purpose and thus are not stated in a way that permits evaluation. If they believe, as I think they do, that wholesale institutional change is impossible—that no new constitutional convention will be held—then they are under an obligation to tell us how their retail changes will better serve the ends they seek. In short, the resurrection of liberalism requires first a restatement of liberal objectives and a delineation of the means that exist to serve them. Any other kind of reform-mongering is the substitution of form for substance of the sort that made, in quieter times, the proposals of the Hoover Commission seem so strangely lifeless.

Burns and Broder advance at least one clear goal to which questions of means do not apply: the redistribution of income. There is no doubt that the government can do this if it wishes to—taking money out of one pocket and putting it into another is a skill that the Internal Revenue Service has sharpened to a fine edge. Burns and Broder repeat the well-known facts: the allocation of income shares has not changed appreciably in this country for at least two decades, and the total effect of the present tax system is to maintain, and possibly even worsen, this pattern of allocation.

They thus hint at what is in fact the central domestic issue facing liberalism: whether to endorse massive income redistribution or to continue instead to emphasize oiling the hinges of opportunity. Equality or liberty, that is the choice. It is a matter of the utmost gravity, with consequences hard to foresee. An important change in the existing method of income distribution will affect fundamental matters: the conception of work, the rationing of amenities, the incentive structure of many occupations, the price of many goods and services, the nature of class consciousness. There is no reason to believe we cannot redistribute income; the issue is, should we?

Our failure to think through this matter is reflected in the failure of the one attempt so far made to achieve a measure of redistribution—the Family Assistance Plan, at least as it was originally proposed. We will never understand the decade of the 1960′s, the changing meaning of liberalism, or the behavior of the institutions of government unless we first understand how and why it happened that a Republican President proposed to redistribute income and was defeated in his effort to do so by the Democratic party, and especially by those elements of it normally thought of as essential to a “realigned” party (blacks, Northern white liberals, and organized professionals).



The central foreign-policy issue facing liberalism is addressed in somewhat more detail by Burns (but scarcely at all by Broder): whether liberals will continue to believe that the United States has important international obligations or whether it will endorse a return to benign isolationism (disguised, of course, by such phrases as “we cannot be the policeman of the world,” or “we should not support unpopular governments,” or “the cold war is over”). Except for a commitment to Israel, liberals today have no clear policy at all with respect to international peacekeeping or to expansionist regimes. And a verbal formula will not suffice: other than military capacity, the crucial variable in a credible foreign policy is determination. Altered institutional arrangements may make it easier or harder to express that determination, but they are not likely to remedy any substantial shortage of it.

One can argue that strengthened institutions are essential regardless of the goals one seeks, that realigned parties and a more powerful President are important in and of themselves. Perhaps. Some of the reforms suggested by David Broder might commend themselves to us without regard to the question of objectives, or because we are in substantial agreement on objectives. But I doubt it: any institutional change implies an objective, and if the objective is there implicitly, why not explicitly? And as for the general consensus, I thought that is where we all began: with the shattering in the 1960′s of an assumed agreement on fundamentals.



But let us suppose that we know what we want: will a strong executive backed by a realigned party with disciplined Congressional members produce a distinctively greater capacity to achieve certain ends? To a degree, it no doubt will; Great Britain has for decades had the party and political structure that Burns and Broder recommend, and it has accomplished things that we have been unable to do: it has controlled more rigorously the use of private land, cleaned up more expeditiously its polluted air and water, and adopted much earlier certain welfare services, such as a national health plan, toward which we are only now struggling. But these are precisely the tasks that are easiest to do, because the technology for them exists, and I suspect that we are already moving fairly steadily in the required direction—although certain structural changes would be desirable if these and no others are thought to be the central issues of our time. I doubt that either Burns or Broder thinks that this is the case; with respect to what remains, however, it is far from clear that strengthening our political structure will address the problem in its essence.



The moving final chapter of Broder’s book expresses his despair with the public drift that led Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann to ask, fifty or sixty years ago, for a greater national sense of mastery and destiny. Their purposes were also unclear, or at least not clearly stated, and they also were aware that there are things no government could or should do, though they did not dwell on them. Liberal thought has always been at its sharpest when dealing with manageable problems (“by what means do we protect the environment”) or with fragile processes (“free speech has a preferred position”). It has always been least clear on matters of fundamental purpose; in truth it has always taken those for granted or assumed that purpose would emerge out of process. Thus, the most serious statement of liberalism remains that bloodless, perpetual-motion machine of utilitarianism constructed in the last century by John Stuart Mill.

I think Broder implies this when he notes the aspects of American life where he finds a sense of purpose and of responsibility. “In the small society of Beaver Island,” he writes, “family ties, a shared religious faith, and a fierce . . . determination to survive impel men and women spontaneously to clean and paint the schoolhouse, build a medical center, and put up a new dock.” The larger society, rejecting religion, tradition, and the authority of law-givers, is a country “lost to [the] senses” of the people, and they in turn, in Tocqueville’s words, “retire into a narrow and unenlightened selfishness.” It is this loss, more than governmental incapacity, that disturbs Broder and perhaps also Burns, as it must disturb us all.




1 Uncommon Sense, Harper & Row, 196 pp., $6.95.

2 The Party’s Over, Harper & Row, 280 pp., $7.95.

3 See my review of Clark’s Crime in America in COMMENTARY, March 1971.

About the Author

James Q. Wilson, a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY, is the Ronald Reagan professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California.