Liberal Sins

As an admirer of both the Claremont Review of Books and Jonah Goldberg, I took delight in reading Goldberg’s witty, enlightening review of the new anthology of the CRB‘s first ten years (“AmeriCons,” Summer 2012). I was struck, though, by this passage:

After being so rudely interrupted by Lenin’s arrival at Finland Station, liberalism is returning to its roots. Barack Obama and his followers have been forthright in their desire to resurrect the arguments, rationales, and premises of the Progressive Era (minus, for the most part, the racism, imperialism, and eugenics).

That “for the most part” excuses a lot!

Racism: What is one to make of today’s progressives’ virtual caretaker relationship to members of racial minorities—what some black conservatives have called the “government plantation”? President George W. Bush was right about liberalism’s “soft bigotry of low expectations.” From affirmative action’s “goals and timetables” and voting-rights measures that impose racial gerrymandering, to substituting cries of racism for policy analysis and slandering black and Latino conservatives, I’d say that today’s progressives are at least as obsessed with race as their intellectual forebears, and ultimately unable to judge people except by the color of their skin.

Imperialism: Progressives may be opposed to what they call the “military-industrial complex,” and were less than enthusiastic about opposing Communism, but when they decide to stiff an ally, they do so with gusto, whether it is Israel, Poland, the Czech Republic, Honduras, Colombia, or Taiwan. No nation inspired or influenced by our examples of self-government or free enterprise is spared the progressives’ wrath.

Eugenics: What is being “pro-choice” on abortion but a backdoor approach to keeping the world free of “undesirable” or “unwanted” children? In her day, Margaret Sanger was especially concerned about blacks. Under the current pro-abortion regime, blacks are aborted at three times the rate as white babies among the estimated 1 million abortions carried out each year in the United States.

Finally, nothing better proves the progressives’ racist, imperialist, and eugenic tendencies—both then and now—than their explicit repudiation of the natural rights principles in our Declaration of Independence. Given their history and the limitless possibilities of moral relativism, there’s no telling how much farther they’ll sink.

Richard Reeb
Helendale, CA

Jonah Goldberg replies:

Richard Reeb makes some fine points, and I thank him for his kind words.

Although I agree that one can find continuities between contemporary liberals and the Progressives of yore, particularly in the area of racial paternalism, the differences amount to distinctions of both degree and kind. Contempt for our allies is not the direct modern corollary to the Progressives’ often full-throated desire to subjugate the lesser races and nations of the world. It is certainly true that there is a eugenic component to the liberal support for undiluted abortion rights underRoe v. Wade. As Ruth Bader Ginsburg told the New York Times in 2009,” at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of.”

And of course I agree with Mr. Reeb—and the Claremont Review of Books—that the greatest continuity between the Progressives of yesteryear and today’s liberals is their enduring contempt for the principles of the American Founding and a limited government constrained by the Constitution. Today’s self-styled progressives are indeed descendants of their Progressive forebears, but that means there is only a family resemblance. We are not talking about clones.

Economic Inequality

My thanks to William Voegeli for his review of my book, The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do about It (“Not Leveling With Us,” Summer 2012). His review is crisply written, thoughtful, and witty. It’s also unfavorable, of course, and wrong, but he did me the great favor of paying the book close attention, grasping its subtler points to a degree that some favorable reviews (the book received mostly favorable reviews) did not. How refreshing to answer a reviewer on the basis of honest disagreement rather than error or bad faith. The sentence, “The obligation to consider differing viewpoints can’t hide Noah’s irritation at their existence” was alone worth the $6.95 cover price. I winced (because it’s true), then laughed out loud.

Our chief disagreement is about whether income inequality matters. I think it does; Voegeli thinks it doesn’t, and that the book never presents a compelling justification for itself. Rather than litigate what the book says or doesn’t say—I don’t want to sound like one of those people who complain about bad reviews in the New York Times Book Review (“I did too point out that Krakatoa was west, not east of Java, right there on page 137, damn you!”)—let’s start afresh.

It’s important to begin by pointing out that “Why does economic inequality matter?” is not a question that many people asked 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago. It wasn’t asked 100 years ago because the U.S. was closer than it’s ever been before or since to being violently overthrown by radicals. The ruling class assumed it had to be mindful of inequality in order to keep the government out of the hands of anarchists, socialists, and other troublemakers. The question wasn’t asked 50 years ago because the U.S. was competing for hearts and minds with the Soviet Union and our leaders understood that too much economic inequality would hurt the American argument (which we ultimately won). Today there’s no chance the government will be overthrown by radicals, and Communism is, for all practical purposes, dead. Consequently, the question must be addressed on the merits.

I think there are two reasons to worry about income inequality. An economic reason is that in a capitalist economy you need to incentivize people. Conservatives have little trouble grasping that principle with regard to rich “job creators,” but it seems to elude them when we’re talking about ordinary workers. Growth in median income has been pitiful since 1979 compared to what it was in the postwar era, and also compared to what it was after 1979 for the affluent (especially the top 1%). For the past dozen years, there’s been no growth in median income at all, even as productivity has been rising briskly. Why should an ordinary worker care whether his company thrives—indeed, whether the country thrives—if he won’t get a piece of the action? His only reason to care is fear of losing his job. The lack of proper incentives for middle-income workers endangers the economy. Indeed, it may already have weakened it.

There’s also a sociological reason. Historically, societies that are dramatically unequal—where the middle class disappears—have seldom thrived as democracies. “No bourgeois, no democracy,” sociologist Barrington Moore famously wrote, and I think he was right. Why should this be so? Because we’re social creatures. Yes, it’s great that everybody’s living standard rises over time. I’m very happy that I, a mere commoner, have access to antibiotics that were previously unavailable to King Henry VIII. But vast disparities in wealth and income create dangerous social gulfs. Charles Murray does a pretty good job illustrating that in his recent book, Coming Apart, when he documents how the affluent and the white working class have become strangers. Murray stubbornly insists that the cultural divergence and mutual estrangement has nothing to do with economics; instead, he blames it on the permissive 1960s. But of course it has everything to do with the economic gulf that’s opened up between these two groups.

Timothy Noah
The New Republic
Washington, D.C.

William Voegeli replies:

The chief disagreement between Mr. Noah and me is not about whether economic inequality matters, but about how and how much it matters. That is, if given the choice between citizenship in two countries that were very similar in terms of freedom, prosperity, and civilizational attainments, but had markedly different degrees of economic inequality, I would prefer the more equal one. One of my favorite passages in The Great Divergence has the British journalist Henry Fairlie celebrating the informality of an America where everyone, from a kid on a tricycle to a bishop or U.S. president, greets a stranger with the same jaunty and direct, “Hi.”

Noah and Fairlie are correct that sustaining a democracy requires the respect ungrudgingly offered and confidently expected by countrymen who believe their common, equal citizenship trumps differences of rank, wealth, ability, and attainment. I don’t take The Great Divergence to be arguing that social equality is simply and solely a function of economic inequality, so that any reduction of income differentials will necessarily bind us together more closely. But Noah’s rejection of the null hypothesis that economic inequality has no bearing on social equality is persuasive. The questions, then, concern: 1) economic equality’s importance, vis-à-vis such other factors as family cohesion, civic beliefs, and the strength of social mediating structures like churches and bowling leagues, in sustaining social equality; and 2) the justice and prudence of public policies that promote economic equality, for the sake of social equality, by enhancing the government’s powers to regulate the processes or redistribute the results when consenting adults buy and sell goods and services. Noah thinks economic equality is more important to social equality than I do, and that vigorous government interventions for the sake of promoting economic equality are less ominous.

We are indeed social creatures. An entailment of that sociality can be that “vast disparities in wealth and income create dangerous social gulfs.” But it’s not the only one. Another is the desire to treat and be treated by other people in accordance with procedurally fair, neutral rules. We don’t want to find out after the game, whether we’ve lost or won, that the umpire was using a compressed strike zone when the team he admired was at bat, and a spacious one when the team he disapproved stepped up to the plate. Further, social creatures—especially don’t-tread-on-me American ones—are likely to fear that empowering government to rearrange economic outcomes to better conform to distributive standards, which are always as hazy as they are lofty and urgent, compromises not only fairness but freedom.

Finally, as social creatures we employ a framework for assessing our own circumstances and prospects that does not emphasize how penicillin has made our lives better than Henry VIII’s. That doesn’t mean we live completely in the moment, however. Economists and sociologists analyzing America’s income statistics during the long economic boom after World War II may have been right to call it the Great Compression, but I don’t think many Americans at the time regarded it that way. Rather, they liked the direction their lives were headed because people who had grown up on isolated farms or in crowded city apartments, relying on streetcars and laundries, were raising their children in single-family suburban houses, with the family automobile parked in the carport and a washer and dryer in the basement. I see little evidence from the scholarly literature or popular culture of the boom years that approval of historically low ratios between CEO’s compensation packages and median incomes, as opposed to tangible improvements in the quality of life, figured prominently in popular confidence about the future. As John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in The Affluent Society, “the facts are inescapable. It is the increase in output in recent decades, not the redistribution of income, which has brought the great material increase in the well-being of the average person.”

I close by remarking on Noah’s wistfulness about the absence of internal radicals or external Communists who might prod us to equalize incomes. It is in keeping with his hopes, now certainly flagging, that Occupy Wall Street would catalyze a politically irresistible redistributive movement. In his book’s final sentence—”The worst thing we could do to the Great Divergence is get used to it”—Noah is trying to say something to the Americans indifferent to that great crusade. But perhaps they, in their reluctance to enlist, are trying to say something to him about their abiding desire for economic vigor and absolute mobility, and their abiding fears about the power and decency of redistributive government.

For the full exchange between Timothy Noah and William Voegeli, visit our online feature, “Upon Further Review,” at

Making Sense of Federalism

In acceding to the CRB‘s request for a response to Michael Uhlmann’s review of The Upside-Down Constitution (“Right-side Up,” Summer 2012), I am violating a cardinal rule of prudent authorial conduct: never respond to published criticism. When the reviewer “gets” the author’s work as completely as Uhlmann gets my book, the rule is most easily obeyed. But it is alsodis-obeyed at virtually zero cost, and perhaps to some benefit: the response is simply a way of inviting readers to a conversation that the author and his critic would and will continue in any event, in due time and over martinis.

Uhlmann asks the right questions about my project of understanding the founders’ federalism as a competitive form of federalism (and our history, especially the New Deal, as an inversion of that model). Am I simply “grafting the idea of jurisdictional competition (which is in part an invention of contemporary public choice economics) onto the scheme that Madison and Hamilton, for example, had in mind?” Similarly, is it credible “that the federal judiciary was effectively charged with the mission of keeping the Constitution in sync with the idea of competitive federalism—or is this, too, a Procrustean projection of a modern concept onto past events?”

To a large extent, Uhlmann notes, the plausibility of the enterprise hangs on the execution. The Upside-Down Constitutionis the umpteenth riff on the oldest question of American constitutional law. There will never be a last word on that subject. However, not everyone will want to sit through the entire “rhapsody” (Uhlmann). Let me hum a few additional bars, then.
One cannot ever comprehend the Constitution without “grafting” something onto it. The text counts big time, as does the structure, as does the history: we cannot invent our own Constitution. However, the Constitution does not state its own organizing principles or provide rules for its own interpretation. Hence, one has to go to the Constitution’s “genius”: what does the Constitution rest on, and what is it supposed to do?

The founders had a worked-out theory of some of the Constitution’s principles, such as the separation of powers. Even here, the theory requires a grafting and construction in light of future developments (for example, the emergence of political parties); but at least the founders’ writings bound the discourse. Not so with federalism: in a very real sense, the founders had no theory of federalism. The Federalist has a critique of the “federalism” of the Articles of Confederation and of “federalisms” from Greece to Holland, all to the effect that surely we don’t want any of that. Publius has a theory of an extended republic, which strongly suggests that the states should go out of business. He (or they) also speculates as to whether the Constitution might or might not produce the “consolidation” feared by the Anti-federalists. But as for a positive theory of what states might actually be good for, The Federalist contains little beyond the suggestion that they might be fine places to organize armed resistance, should the need for another 1776 arise. That is not a theory of ordinary politics; it is a theory of rebellion.

As Jeremy Rabkin has pointed out to me, the Anti-federalists did not have a theory of federalism, either: at most, they had a theory of small states that is neither coherent nor attractive. (Would Rhode Island be happier if it were Kosovo?) Thus, any contemporary theory of the Constitution’s federalism will engage a debate that was never really had at the time. The immediate suspicion is, “you made it up.”

My reply is, I don’t see the alternative. The founders created a “compound republic” whose political economy they could not know and knew they could not know. As the federal system operates over time, it proves to have properties the founders could not have grasped. As we recognize those properties, we come up with theories to comprehend their system. And we need some theory: without it, all we have is a bunch of clauses.

Despite the spirit of clever invention that hangs over the enterprise, it is subject to conventional and stringent plausibility tests. For starters, the theory has to be a theory. It must do better than the Supreme Court, whose federalism jurisprudence consists entirely of textually ungrounded slogans (“balance”), metaphors (the “split atom of sovereignty”), and bare and demonstrably false assertions (“federalism protects liberty”). The theory has to make sense of every clause and give each its full and fair meaning. It has to cohere internally; with the constitutional structure; and with the founders’ ascertainable principles and commitments—with the spirit as well as the letter of the Constitution. And it has to account for our constitutional traditions.

The point of borrowing political economy theorems from James Buchanan and Ronald Coase is to meet those tests, not to make things up. The enterprise will get you closer to the Constitution than do more conventionally originalist accounts and modes of understanding: that is the contention and the bite of this book.

Michael S. Greve
American Enterprise Institute
Washington, D.C.

Michael M. Uhlmann replies:

Michael Greve and I are, as the saying goes, in heated agreement. My reason for questioning whether the framers intended to instantiate competitive federalism (or some reasonable facsimile thereof) arose from the fact that Greve’s argument is only partly an exercise in jurisprudential analysis. It is in part an historical inquiry as well, and to this latter point I thought originalists of a certain stripe might take exception.

As an analytical tool, competitive federalism can stand or fall on its own merits, and on Greve’s showing it is far superior to the feckless alternative understandings of federalism that dominate our jurisprudence today. I concur with Greve’s argument concerning the limits of textualism. As he says, “the Constitution does not state its own organizing principles or provide rules for its own interpretation.” Lexicography cannot do the work of political philosophy, no matter how many 18th-century dictionaries one consults.

Greve rightly reminds us that James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Marshall exhibited a fairly well-developed and coherent understanding of political economy—an understanding that led them to oppose, at almost every turn, the parochial and frequently anti-competitive tendencies of state factional interests. And he demonstrates better than anyone ever has before how deeply their understanding of political economy was embedded in constitutional text.

The problem—as Greve knows—is that the magisterial, pro-competitive nationalism of Madison, Hamilton, and Marshall was alloyed from the git-go by partisans of state and local interests, who, although they lost the ratification battle, lived to fight again another day. Did they ever. Greve correctly notes that neither the Federalists nor the Anti-federalists had a coherent theory of federalism of the sort that is commonly attributed to them. But to many minds, the 10th Amendment established a kind of sacrosanct dividing line that limited the authority of the federal government and the federal courts to “impose” uniform federal standards on what the states might or might not do. Never mind the Commerce Clause, the Compacts Clause, or the Contracts Clause, and never mind that the 10th Amendment was neither sacred nor clear about where or how the dividing line between state and federal authority should be drawn. Opponents of national supremacy read it that way for political reasons, and notwithstanding the 14th and 17th Amendments, they continue to read it that way today, albeit in less boisterous form. My questioning of Greve’s “grafting” was simply an effort to remind the reader that any theory of contemporary federalism is necessarily written on a palimpsest which still bears the imprint of all that has gone before, including laws, customs, and court decisions that never understood or had much sympathy with competitive federalism to begin with. Welcome to the endless permutations of Mr. Madison’s “compound” republic.

Competitive federalism of the sort Greve advocates seems to have prevailed for a time and then gave way, assaulted on one side by the perpetual efforts of local factions to insulate themselves against competitive requirements imposed from above, and, on the other, by diverse Progressive nannies for whom the states are little more than sub-units of consolidated national government. Whether competitive federalism can be revived in some reasonably viable way remains to be seen. If it does succeed in capturing the imagination of leading political actors, the credit will belong to Michael Greve.

Eisenhower as RINO

Michael Nelson rightly points out in his excellent review the lengths to which some historians have gone to make President Eisenhower, a Republican, more acceptable to liberals (“Eisenhower as Statesman,” Summer 2012). I believe, however, that the books discussed in the review accurately portray Ike’s strong liberal leanings during much of his presidency.

Nelson mentions only three major incidents from the books he reviews: Eisenhower’s naming of two liberal judges to the Supreme Court, his foreign policy during the Suez Canal crisis, and his acceptance of blame over the shot-down American U-2 spy plane. Nelson fails to address the president’s response during the 1956 Hungarian uprising, the seriously bungled American effort to oust Castro from Cuba (which he partially left to President Kennedy for even more bungling), and his aggressive dismantling of the “military-industrial complex” that had enabled the U.S. to win World War II.

Eisenhower didn’t counter the Soviet Union’s bloody invasions of Poland and then Hungary. Instead he sent a secret assurance to Khrushchev six days before the American election that America would not interfere with his effort to crush the Hungarians. Eisenhower also supported the Arab dictator Nasser, an ally of the Soviets, against America’s erstwhile allies, England and France, for whom the Suez Canal represented their lifeline. Ike took important steps to reduce America’s military capabilities—while the Soviet Union surpassed us in missile production.

Looking back to 1956, when Eisenhower concentrated all his efforts to get reelected, one is reminded of the ailing Franklin Roosevelt, who a decade before also sacrificed everything to get reelected. Just as FDR supported “Uncle Joe” in taking over Eastern Europe during the last years of the war, Eisenhower extended his support to the internally disturbed Soviet Union, even though Stalin’s death in 1953 was a unique opportunity for America to drastically reduce the USSR’s worldwide political influence. Such an opportunity did not come again until three decades later, when President Reagan—a real Republican—took advantage of the Soviets’ internal problems.

Robert Denes
Kalamazoo, MI

Rusher’s Influence

Many thanks to Daniel Oliver for his favorable review of my William Rusher biography (“Intelligent Design,” Summer 2012). It’s especially pleasing that Mr. Oliver, a former colleague of Rusher and William F. Buckley, Jr., cites Rusher’s “sense of mission” in helping to build conservatism and thus “the politics of saving America,” his “intermittent sparring” with Buckley over such questions as how focused on politics their magazine should be, and the fact that he didn’t completely fit in there as a personality.

Those are three key themes in my book. Oliver also highlights Rusher’s great significance as a strategist, along with some especially telling details about his perspective and the political contexts in which he operated.

We differ, though, on a few points. American politics circa 1950, five years before N.R.‘s founding, does not strike me as “a vast cruel sea of liberalism.” The Lionel Trilling observation used here, and by others, to support that estimate involved an alleged lack of “ideas” on the Right, meaning well-articulated insights and principles. Oliver acknowledges a much stronger “impulse to conservatism” than Trilling seemed to suggest. But in major ways the basic political situation, too, was more conservative than is often described.

In addition, Rusher wasn’t quite “the prime mover” of the Goldwater campaign. He may have been, as my book suggests, the most important person in getting Goldwater to run; and he probably kept it going at more than one early juncture. But it was mainly Rusher’s close associate F. Clifton White who started it, then marshaled it in the primary and pre-primary phases.

I certainly share Oliver’s view that William Rusher was a crucial leader. Conclusions about just how much he influenced things or made them happen are elusive, so I mostly didn’t draw them. Instead, I attempted—to quote from my introduction—the “extended study in political choice and judgment” that his long, admirable career invites.

David B. Frisk
Annandale, VA