Those who are interested in the debate on whether or not Barack Obama is a liberal (and if so what that means), which I touched on a couple of weeks ago, might enjoy an article by Michael Kazin in this week’s New Republic – although you also might find it frustrating.
Kazin basically takes the same view that I did, namely that Obama is a liberal in the traditional sense of a commitment to freedom and human rights, but is not an ideological supporter of big government. But he’s on the opposite side to me: whereas I think this is a good thing, Kazin thinks it’s a bad thing.
Here’s how he makes the distinction:
But to believe that Obama has truly revived the great tradition of egalitarian reform is to neglect the distinction between two species of modern liberalism: that which promotes the equality of rights and that which works toward a greater equality of opportunity and wealth. The latter, the social variety, emerged from the class tumult of the Gilded Age and inspired such key New Deal measures as Social Security, the WPA [Works Progress Administration], and the National Labor Relations Act. The former harks back to the abolitionists and early feminists; it demands that the promise of individual liberty be extended to every American, regardless of their skin color, national origin, gender, or whom they happen to love.
And he blames the president for focusing on equal rights to the neglect of economic equality. He particularly laments the absence of any help for the trade unions, “the only collective institution through which workers can act on their own to improve their lot.”
I think the founders of the political tradition known as liberalism would have been deeply mystified to be told that “work[ing] toward a greater equality of opportunity and wealth” was an integral part of the doctrine. But of course words change over time, and Kazin could certainly cite many precedents of American “liberals” over the last hundred years using the term the way he does.
Nor, for that matter, do I think “a greater equality of opportunity and wealth” would be a bad thing – quite the contrary. But I’m sceptical of the ability of government to provide it by the sort of activist measures that Kazin obviously has in mind. To his credit, it seems Obama is too.
Kazin points out that poverty and inequality remain major problems in modern America. He neglects to note that they persist despite unprecedented expansion in the size and scope of government; if pressed, no doubt he would say that government has been doing the wrong things, and what’s needed is people in government who care about the poor and want to do something for them.
And there would be some truth in that. But it’s not quite so simple.
You can’t just magically endow government with whatever properties you’d like. It always tends to serve its masters, and its masters are manifestly not the people that Kazin wants to help. The more power government has, the more it’s likely to be used in the interests of the rich and powerful.
And so we get a sterile debate between those who believe the state will bring us equality of opportunity, regardless of the evidence, and those who are opposed to equality of opportunity in the first place, and therefore happy to believe the worst of its proponents. Neither side finds Obama an easy person to pigeonhole.