Franklin Foer, editor of the sensibly liberal The New Republic is not happy to see his world, or better his world view, crash and burn around him.
While President Obama’s flacks claim that all is well with Obamacare, Foer joins those of us who believe that its failure will undermine the basic premise of modern liberalism.
In Foer’s words:
Liberalism has spent the better part of the past century attempting to prove that it could competently and responsibly extend the state into new reaches of American life. With the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, the administration has badly injured that cause, confirming the worst slurs against the federal government. It has stifled bad news and fudged promises; it has failed to translate complex mechanisms of policy into plain English; it can’t even launch a damn website. What’s more, nobody responsible for the debacle has lost a job or suffered a demotion. Over time, the Affordable Care Act’s technical difficulties can be repaired. Reversing the initial impressions of government ineptitude won’t be so easy.
But, if liberalism wants to extend the power and the influence of the state, and not the freedom of individuals, why call it liberalism? Why believe that it has anything to do with liberty? Wouldn’t illiberalism be a better term?
Modern liberalism is a misnomer and a sleight-of-hand… kind of like Obamacare.
One might argue that liberals defend First Amendment freedoms, but, too often, they believe that its purpose is to relieve us of all social constraints. They want to control the economy, but they see the free market in ideas as a free-for-all.
Modern illiberalism was founded on this incoherent proposition.
And yet, where old school liberals defend everyone’s free speech, modern illiberalism cannot resist the temptation to take control over the free market in ideas. They are for freedom of expression but draw a line at what they call “hate speech.” Often that means, any opinion they disagree with.
Increasingly, today’s illiberalism is more about freedom from the market than about freedom to participate in the market.
It’s not just about the state. It’s really about allowing our betters, that is, government officials to make our decisions.
Today, academic experts in behavioral economics are leading the charge to enhance state power. Since they know what’s good for you and know what is good for the collective, they certainly know better than the unwashed masses who participate in the free market. They will protect you from the evils that are necessarily going to be released when too much freedom is given to the wrong people.
It’s not a new idea. It refers basically to what Plato called the guardian class of philosopher-kings. Foer credits Woodrow Wilson with the modern version of the idea.
Wilson believed that society should hand regulatory power to university professors because they were smarter than everyone else. But he also believed that since they did not obey the law of profit they were also more virtuous than everyone else. Thus, they were eminently qualified to bring justice to the world and save people from the excesses of capitalism.
Illiberal liberalism believes that the state is morally obligated to control the free market and free enterprise… because free people making free decisions in the marketplace can only become vulnerable to predatory capitalists.
Obviously, Foer is seriously unhappy to see that a Democratic administration, unhindered by Republican interference, resting on the greatness of liberal politicians and enlightened functionaries cannot even get a website to work.
Foer describes Wilson’s theory:
Wilson imagined technical experts, the new breed of social scientists emerging from the universities, who could help steer the economy. He would come to see these experts as a bulwark against the predations of corporations and protectors of the “man on the make.”
Wilson wanted to protect the people from freedom. He wanted to protect them from the consequences of their own decisions and to release them from responsibility for their own actions.
Woodrow Wilson notwithstanding, the American president is not charged with steering the economy. He is charged with steering the ship of state.
Take the example of President Wilson. During his tenure in office Wilson was the only world leader who might have stopped the senseless slaughter of World War I before it got completely out of control. True enough, Wilson did manage to enter the war in 1918. Within a matter of months the fighting was over.
Had he intervened in early 1915, when he famously declared himself “too proud to fight” the course of history would have been changed radically, for the better.
As George Kennan pointed out, World War I was the defining catastrophe of the twentieth century.
Of course, we are not indulging in hindsight here. When war broke out in 1914, retired president Theodore Roosevelt—who apparently did not get the memo about retired presidents not speaking ill of their successors—wrote newspaper columns, week after week, until the end of the war, in which he pointed out the catastrophic incompetence of the Wilson foreign policy.
Faced with a major international crisis, the man who is now touted as the father of modern liberalism stood by and did nothing. As an academic thinker, Wilson had no experience with the marketplace or the battlefield or even with diplomacy.
So much for the superior wisdom of academic thinkers, especially when compared to that of what Theodore Roosevelt called “the man in the arena.”