Restoring a true American vision of government (DCV, Part 4)

In my previous post in this series, I examined the premises that lay behind the conservative/libertarian “small government” vision. That vision has proved quite potent as a rallying point for conservative attacks against New Deal liberalism. Surrounding the core vision, iconic metaphors related to heroic self-reliance and personal responsibility help provide a consistent worldview (see George Lakoff’s Moral Politics) and thus the “values” so prized in conservative political discourse.

I finished the last post by claiming that the “small government” vision is a mirage — a philosophy which rests upon several fallacies. First among these fallacies is the apparent conflict between “negative” rights and “positive” entitlements. This dichotomy creates a cleavage point between an apparent “true” tradition of liberal natural rights, and a “false” and illiberal addition of entitlements, and allows modern conservatives to claim to be the heirs of the true Founding liberal tradition, and depict the New Deal as a regrettable (and unconstitutional) expansion of state power to create the modern regulatory welfare state. Not only is the dichotomy false (as amply documented by Holmes and Sunstein in The Cost of Rights), but it rests upon a second, more damaging fallacy.

The deeper fallacy is that classical liberalism — the basis of our Founding tradition, as well as the “small government” tradition of many modern conservatives and libertarians — is inherently “anti-statist” and exclusively focused on limiting the evils of government. This is a drastic oversimplification of a rich political tradition, and not at all how the Founders thought. Stephen Holmes says it better than I can: “liberals were as wary of anarchy as of tyranny. They advocated not merely freedom from government, but also order through government.” (1) Far from being anti-government, the aim of a classical liberal order is to limit all forms of power which may tyrannize citizens. Madison wrote, in Federalist No. 51:

It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of society against the injustice of the other part.

No less a capitalist icon than Adam Smith agrees:

The second duty of the sovereign [ed note: after national defense] is that of protecting, as far as possible, every member of society from the injustice or oppression of every other member of it.

In other words, classical liberalism is concerned to protect society against the ill effects of power — whether that power is public or private; regardless of whether the effects of power are intentional or a by-product of normal social and economic activity.

Modern liberalism, with its concerns about economic justice (2), civil rights, and equal dignity, is the true inheritor of the liberal tradition. Milton Friedman’s perceived conflict between freedom and equality is just that — a perceived conflict, and misperception at that. (3) This is good news for modern liberals and “progressives” of all stripes. The conservative narrative which depicts the New Deal as an unfortunate departure from Founding principles is a myth. There is essential continuity between Locke, Madison, Montesquieu, and Franklin Roosevelt. The “libertarian” vision seeks to return us to a past which, alas, never existed.

The job of liberals today is thus one of reclaiming the full liberal heritage, and using its history and precedents wisely to ground our policy agenda. Part of this must be accomplished by changing the “frames” of today’s discussion, along the lines discussed by George Lakoff in his new book; another effort will involve reconciling our policy goals with everything we’ve learned since FDR’s time about the effectiveness of 20th century constitutional innovations.

I’m finishing my original series of posts on a “Democratic constitutional vision” here, and moving on to specific explorations of constitutional attitudes and innovations in light of the structure discussed in this post. In particular, I’m exploring whether the “presumption of constitutionality” and “Footnote Four” approach to government action and individual rights currently in force is wise in the long-term, or whether it allows various forms of illiberal government action as a byproduct of its original intent. In other words, is it possible to reconcile Randy Barnett and Cass Sunstein, using the best of modern libertarian and modern liberal thought to form a new, and more effective, constitutional “action plan”?


(1) Stephen Holmes (1997) Passions and Constraint: On the theory of liberal democracy. University of Chicago Press, page 241.

(2) Note that “economic justice” does not imply egalitarian redistribution of wealth; no classical liberal theorist and few contemporary liberals believe in “levelling.” Liberals believe that society has an obligation to itself to ensure a healthy opportunity to each member of society, not a free ride. Conservative rhetoric would say otherwise, but it isn’t difficult to show that the rhetoric is simply borrowing time-worn criticisms of socialism and communism and applying them to liberalism in a shallow effort to discredit.

(3) Milton Friedman (1962) Capitalism and Freedom. University of Chicago Press.


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