Commentary Magazine

Dreams of Their Fathers

To Promote the General Welfare:
The Case for Big Government
Edited by Steven Conn
Oxford University Press, 256 pages

Conservatives often complain that liberal politicians obscure their true agendas when campaigning only to unleash their redistributive legislative visions once safely in office. There, they offer certain constituencies taxpayer-provided benefits that give a plurality of voters just enough incentive to keep them in office.

The progressive academics whose essays make up To Promote the General Welfare are ostensibly proposing a break from this bait-and-switch. To these big-government enthusiasts, polls showing that Americans consider themselves conservative instead of liberal in near 2-to-1 ratios constitute a branding problem—and, as such, something that can be rectified. This collection, edited by Steven Conn, is a bid to rehabilitate the liberal brand through an unapologetic defense of progressive aims. Whatever the book’s faults, and they are both profound and numerous, To Promote the General Welfare is an interesting experiment in ideological extrapolation.

The authors overwhelmingly make their case by citing what they see as progressive success stories from the past. The essays almost entirely focus on the efforts of progressive reformers from the 19th and 20th centuries, with little effort spent defending liberalism’s present-day agenda. It’s as if the writers hoped to justify their preferred policy proscriptions on the grounds of precedent alone.

And they see precedent everywhere. Essays cover big-government “successes” in transportation, education, banking, industrial safety, housing, health care, arts and entertainment, communications, and more. 

This broad range of claims, however, gives the reader ample opportunity to identify the book’s intellectual blind spots. And these blind spots serve to distort the true tale of government activism. Consider Zachary M. Schrag’s essay describing how federal mandates wove the nation together via a network of canals and rails and eventually highways and air corridors. “The country started out big, got bigger, and—even in the age of jet travel—remains big,” Schrag writes. “And it may take big government investment in and coordination of transportation to make that big country function as a single republic, to make the states united.” While much of Schrag’s piece is passable history, it excludes entirely the contributions of private citizens to the American transportation project. He treats railroads in particular as though they were the fruits of the earth, only waiting for a regulatory regime to ensure equal enjoyment. Schrag ignores those who conceived, funded, and created the railroads, making no mention of the industrialists, such as Cornelius Vanderbilt and J.P. Morgan, who actually built and ran them.

Conspicuous omissions also sink a chapter on government intervention in homeownership. Thomas Sugrue praises progressive housing policies. “Tens of millions of Americans owned their own homes because of government programs,” he writes, “but they had no reason to doubt that their homeownership was a result of their own virtue and hard work, their own grit and determination—not because they were the beneficiaries of one of the grandest government programs ever.” He doesn’t mention that progressive policies created the rotten mortgages at the heart of the derivatives-market collapse, and thus bear some responsibility for the ongoing economic crisis. He also attributes the widespread perception of inner-city projects as dismal and dangerous to public-relations failure. But several scholars, most notably Craig Steven Wilder, have written that government intervention in the inner city not only gave us housing projects but created the racially segregated ghettoes in which they are often erected. In his A Covenant with Color, Wilder outlines how the process of “redlining” financed the development of the suburbs by making it financially undesirable for middle-class whites to reside in the cities. With the best of intentions, big government created racially defined ghost towns inside sprawling modern metropolises. 

Other essays in To Promote The General Welfare follow similar trajectories. They praise government intervention; assert the fallacy that achievements occurred independent of private individuals; ignore the failures of government intervention; and, finally, present the triumphs of past progressives to justify future expansion of government. 

Apart from following this formula, the essays also promote a number of fallacies. The most prevalent of these is that public works advance the private good—not the other way around. But any true understanding of public-sector achievement must proceed from the recognition that so many public works are made possible by private largess. 

The second fallacy is that conservatism in its modern incarnation is allergic to all government (as opposed to government that is wasteful, confiscatory, and rent-seeking). With this mischaracterization in place, the authors only need remind readers of government-directed achievements to refute conservative ideology and open the path for more government. In effect, by noting that progressive reforms halted Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fires, the case is made for a single-payer health-care system. 

The third fallacy is perhaps the most irksome. It is that progressive concepts are intuitively true and, once understood, must be universally accepted; disagreement can only result from misunderstanding. 

In order to proffer such an unquestioned and untarnished progressivism, the authors indulge in an impossible contradiction. The book celebrates central planners and the achievements of the last century’s public-works projects, but they ignore structures that have preserved an undesirable status quo and enriched the beneficiaries of the Democratic Party’s patronage. Those who continue to prosper from this system—trial lawyers, labor unions, environmental activists, etc.—have made public projects far more difficult to undertake. Costs have spiraled beyond the ability of municipalities to pay for them, largely as a result of excessive regulation.

Despite its implicit claim of direct argumentation, To Promote the General Welfare suggests that advocates of big government should advance their aims in secret and push the public sector covertly into the private one. “Progressives should also master the art of turning the legal, regulatory, and fiscal resources of the national government toward redistributive ends,” writes University of Virginia history professor Brian Balough in the book’s lead essay. He cites Medicare, Social Security, and the Earned Income Tax Credit as examples of programs that hide progressive government “in plain sight” through private institutions.

To Promote the General Welfare is a carefully timed pep talk for the academic left, which is sorely in need of one. After the halcyon days of 2008, having elected what they knew in their hearts to be the most liberal government with the broadest electoral mandate they were likely to see in their lifetimes, the leaders of the progressive movement became dispirited by the legislative results. There has been no universal health care, merely a watered-down expansion of the already vilified private insurance industry. There has been no real banking reform, nor have there been criminal prosecutions of Wall Street figures or former Bush administration officials. Worse, the wealthiest Americans still pay Bush-era tax rates. President Obama and the 111th Congress could not produce a carbon-emissions cap on industry or comprehensive immigration reform with an eye toward automatic voter registration. Progressives fear that they may not see these achievements for at least another generation. 

To Promote the General Welfare is a long and telling look in the mirror for discouraged liberals. But the reflection it offers is not their own. Rather, it is that of their parents and their grandparents. The authors laud the successes of generations past because their own have proved far less notable.

About the Author

Noah Rothman is an editor at This is his first appearance in COMMENTARY.

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