The Modern Left Abandons Classical Liberalism

Upon reading part two of Rick Moran’s series, Intellectual Conservatism Isn’t Dead, I found myself nodding in agreement with many portions which both criticized current, “movement” conservatism and praised classic conservative theory. What was lacking in this analysis, however, was a parallel look at some of the high points of liberalism in our country and the sorry state to which much of it has devolved today.

I’ve long felt that many of the core tenets of classical liberalism were the better angels which are needed to glare over the shoulder of sound conservatism, preventing the excesses which can result from extremism in either direction. Classic liberalism realizes that there exists a proper function of government to temporarily protect and support the weakest and most vulnerable among us when disaster strikes. It understands that unchecked power can and will be used to the detriment of those who have been historically oppressed without the protection of a big brother. It is willing to open the public purse, where appropriate, to ensure that the needs of the many are met while still providing opportunity for the energetic few. It holds a heartfelt conviction -- this one really sticks in the craw of modern conservatives who crow at length about American exceptionalism -- that peace is always preferable to war.

Unfortunately, experience has taught us that each philosophy, when taken to the apparently unavoidable, absurd extreme, can turn into a pox upon us all. Each and every time we hand unchecked Washington power to a liberal majority, it winds up being akin to giving the car keys to a drunken teenager. While your noble intentions may have been to ensure that everyone had a good time and an adequate supply of beer, the family car inevitably winds up in the ditch and the best we can hope for is that everyone manages to crawl away without serious injury.

In considering the first liberal virtue above, that being the role of government in a “great society” to protect those at risk, I was prompted to recall one passage from Moran’s essay.

Reformists -- and I include intellectual conservatives in that mix -- have, as neoconservatives have done, accepted the New Deal and many elements of the Great Society. But their overall critique of both lies not in a rejection of the role the state must play in a modern industrialized society as so many movement conservatives do, but in the belief that value-based reforms as well as more efficient allocation of resources can be achieved without destroying the “safety net” while promoting virtues such as self-reliance and independence. In short, conservative reformists want to alter the liberal culture in the bureaucracy that seeks to expand their clientele rather than reduce it.

Indeed, there are few serious thinkers who would deny that a fundamental thread in the fabric of a free, democratic, capitalist society is the idea that we strive to ensure an equality of opportunity, not of outcome. Everyone, if they are willing to pour in the requisite blood, sweat, and tears, will have the chance to rise to the top, but the vast majority will not do so. However, the sympathetic (and yes, socialist) aspect of our great experiment dictates that we provide a safety net for those who fall through the cracks and face the prospect of starvation or exposure to the elements.

But too many modern liberals bristle when we suggest that checks, limits, and restrictions must be placed on this government largess. “Why,” I have been asked, “should I have to provide proof for some sort of means test in order to receive assistance funded by tax dollars?” Indeed, these same people will question why there should be limits on welfare payments or how we can expect recipients to begin working after a period of time in order to receive such benefits.