Modern liberalism in the United States—meaning the liberalism of Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Lyndon Johnson, and Barack Obama, the liberalism of the Progressive Movement, the New Deal, the Great Society, and Hope & Change—not to be confused with the classical liberalism of John Locke, Adam Smith, the American Founders, and Abraham Lincoln—is now old.
Far from being whatever liberals feel at the moment and whomever they love or hate today, modern liberalism has a history that can be studied and analyzed for patterns, trends, and recurring themes. Modern liberalism has a beginning, and the way a thing begins reveals much about how it will go and how it will end.
The history of modern liberalism now stretches back well over a hundred years. It emerged from the ashes of the Civil War, offering Americans a new founding, an alleged improvement upon the American founding connected with the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. The modern liberal re-founding of the United States promised to be more stable, more just, and more parental than the original American founding that led to the violent crisis of 1861-1865.
While there are many aspects to modern liberalism, many of which have been modified, extended, and enlarged as the liberal 20th Century welcomed the liberal 21st Century, there is a consistent core to modern liberalism, a goal at which modern liberalism aims, in all its iterations: A scientifically managed society.
Let’s unpack what that means.
WHO SHOULD RULE?
The central question of classical political philosophy was: Who should rule? And immediately there was a follow-up question: Why?
Ancient thinkers understood that every possible answer to the first question—the one, the few, the many, the wise, the rich, the holy—is inherently disputable. Disagreements begin the moment the second question is addressed. Political rule is and will always be controversial among human beings for the simple reason that some human beings will always be inclined to say, “No! That’s not right!”
The same question can and should be asked about modern liberalism. Why should rule? Modern liberalism has been clear in its answer: Scientific experts.
This leads to the second question: Why? Why should some number of scientific experts rule over the lives and control the property of others? In short, what makes the rule of scientific experts over others legitimate?
The modern liberal answer is: The expertise of scientific experts.
Modern liberalism began with a dream that democratic-republican society, which is led by the wishes, wants, and demands of the unscientific many—or what the Greeks called hoi polloi—would be replaced by a society guided, perhaps even centrally planned, by scientific experts.
As Woodrow Wilson explained in an 1880 essay, titled “The Political Scientist,” modern liberalism “seeks to substitute the person whom we call ‘the man of the people’ with the men of the schools, the trained, instructed, fitted men, the men who will study their duties and master the principles of their [bureaucratic] departments.”
The old-fashioned “man of the people” who gets elected to, say, a state legislature, or Congress, is likely a mere uneducated rube who happens to be the most popular among uneducated rubes. Often, the “man of the people” gets elected by flattering others, lying, talking out of both sides of his mouth, or promising things he cannot possible deliver.
The “men of the schools,” however—the PhDs, the scientists, and other experts who will issue regulations that have the power of law—are knowledge-seekers. They are smart. They are experts. They are above corruption, beyond demagoguery and sophistry.
And that’s why they must not be elected. The uneducated, non-expert many—the hordes of uneducated rubes who vote—are simply not qualified to choose among highly educated experts.
Rather, modern liberalism proposes the creation of large bureaus within government, where unelected experts recruit and hire other unelected experts, and their work can be done surrounded by intelligence, science, and knowledge, uncontaminated by the ignorance of voters and the fleeting passions of mobs.
In short, government by consent must be eclipsed to a large degree with government by unelected experts if modern liberalism is to achieve its goal of a scientifically managed society.
MANAGING IS CONTROLLING
Second, to manage society requires that society be planned and controlled. Planning and controlling require power.
If the whole purpose of modern liberalism is to achieve a society that operates according to the lights of modern science, then no part of society can be left out of the control of scientific, bureaucratic experts. At the level of the individual citizen, this means that the realm of privacy must be absorbed into the public realm.
Any part of life that used to be considered private—how family members interact, how to run one’s own business, how children are raised, what medical treatments to try when one is sick, what to do and not do with one’s own property—must become part of the public realm, subject to the regulation, supervision, management, control, and subsidization by experts. This is why many early progressive social scientists in the United States looked to the Soviet Union as a model of a centrally planned society worth imitating.
What is said from church pulpits, what is said in schools, what is said everywhere else, what people produce, what people consume, how much people earn, the prices of the goods they purchase, the entire economy, the entire global environment, and everything else, must become subject to the planning and control of experts in government.
Politically, modern liberalism makes “progress” by offering ever-increasing government protection from ever-growing threats to individual safety, whether real or made up, small or large. Modern liberalism will protect you from being paid too little at your job, from the economic fears that attend old age, and from catastrophic global weather. Part of protecting you, of course, requires that modern liberal governments assume responsibility for the housing, food, education, and health care of the people.
EVERY DESIRED THING BECOMES A GOVERNMENT-GRANTED THING
Modern liberal governments promise to solve the problem of poverty and most other problems by providing virtually everything anyone wants or needs. Modern liberalism asks only that it be authorized to take the wealth created by some and transfer it to others, while those in government put a “fair share” into their own pockets.
The 19th Century French economist, Frédéric Bastiat—a classical liberal economist who saw clearly the beginning of what would become modern liberalism—noted in his 1850 pamphlet, The Law:
[Modern liberalism], like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the [modern liberals] conclude that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of state education. Then [modern liberals] say we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then [modern liberals] say we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then [modern liberals] say we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if [modern liberals] were to accuse us of not wanting people to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.
What Bastiat wrote in 1850 is truer today, in the United States, than it was when he penned those words. Every government policy, program, regulation, and subsidy is now identified by modern liberalism with a cause: fairness, income equality, clean water, climate change, the poor, the children, women, racial minorities, education, health care, affordable housing, etc.
Oppose any modern liberal government policy or program, challenge any modern liberal regulation or subsidy, and one is instantly labeled as being a hater of children, a hater of clean water, a hater of health care, etc.
The bottom line is that modern liberal governments are quite happy to accept responsibility for, well, everything. All modern liberal governments ask in return is the removal of any limits on their power. And that political opposition be silenced.
THE POWER TO DO GOOD MUST NOT BE LIMITED
As the great modern liberal reformer John Dewey put it in 1935:
[M]odern liberalism takes an active interest in the working of social institutions that have a bearing, positive or negative, upon the growth of individuals who shall be rugged in fact and not merely in abstract theory.It is as much interested in the positive construction of favorable institutions…as it is in the work of removing abuses and overt oppressions.
Modern liberalism is about much more than simply arresting criminals who steal, batter, or murder, or providing civil courts to adjudicate disputes over contracts and torts.
Modern liberalism is interested in the “positive construction” of whatever institutions the experts think the many need, including government-managed schools, government-managed health care—even government-managed entertainment!—as well as government-managed subsidies for the businesses, organizations, and research preferred by government experts.
This means that the Constitution’s limits on government power—and all other limits on government power—ultimately, must be removed. Any limit on government power limits the ability of government experts to control the lives and property of citizens, which limits the ability of government experts to manage society.
From the modern liberal point of view, limiting the power of government limits the good that only government can do.
That is why the Constitution was and remains a serious problem for modern liberalism. The Constitution, after all, was framed upon the premise that government power is both necessary and very dangerous, always, regardless of who is in government at any given time. The Constitution, therefore, greatly limits and directs government power.
But modern liberalism rests upon a fundamentally different premise: Government power is good, period. Modern liberalism also adds this caveat: Unlimited government power can never be dangerous—government power will always be a force for good—so long as modern liberals control the levers of government power.
EVERY POLITICAL EVENT IS POTENTIALLY EARTH-SHATTERING
Add these features of modern liberalism together—unelected experts exercising unlimited government power over every aspect of our lives, while the entire modern liberal project depends on modern liberals being at the helm of government and inside government bureaus—and one begins to understand why every election, every appointment, every nomination, becomes an epochal, pivotal, fateful moment in the world of modern liberalism.
There’s just so much on the line when government controls everything! That's why every political event in the world of modern liberalism seems Earth-shattering.
Elections become downright scary for modern liberals after they’ve built a modern liberal state and society and then someone they view as non-liberal is elected to a position of great influence over the government.
That, however, rarely seems to shake the faith of modern liberals in the project of modern liberalism. They’ll spew invective at non-liberals, they’ll call them names, they’ll mock and deride them in their favorite modern liberal cultural venues, they'll do their best to diminish the credibility of non-liberals, and they'll work tirelessly to defeat them at the next election. But modern liberals rarely if ever question the wisdom of the modern liberal goal of a scientifically managed society.
Modern liberals remain confident that everything will be back on the track of “progress”—everything will be safe, subsidized, universal, and equal—everything will be under the control of experts—citizens can again live as children as soon as the modern liberal state again offers parental protection and guidance—once they get modern liberals back into the offices of power within the modern liberal state.
Modern liberals still will have ambitions and aspirations, to be sure. The modern liberal project can always be improved, tweaked around the edges, adding more regulations there, more subsidies here, another layer of government oversight somewhere else. But, after government power is put back into the hands of modern liberals, modern liberals can at least experience the peace of mind knowing that nothing truly bad can happen so long as government controls every aspect of our lives.