Do liberals think that conservatives' fundamental ideas are wrong? Or do they think that having fundamental ideas is wrong? In the intramural debate over liberalism's meaning and future these questions have become contentious. But whether this is a real debate between distinct alternatives or just much ado about nothing remains to be seen.

Certainly, the liberal world is abuzz with the idea that it needs Big Ideas. Kenneth Baer and Andrei Cherny, the editors of the new quarterly Democracy, seek to revive liberalism by "grappling with essential questions about how the world works and how it should work." According to Michael Tomasky, writing in The American Prospect, "What the Democrats still don't have is a philosophy, a big idea that unites their proposals and converts them from a hodgepodge of narrow and specific fixes into a vision for society." He calls this "the crucial ingredient of politics, the factor that helps unite a party (always a coalition of warring interests), create majorities, and force the sort of paradigm shifts that happened in 1932 and 1980."

Big Idea Liberalism

The editors of Democracy deserve an incomplete rather than a passing or failing grade, since their journal is new. The biggest idea they've come up with so far is that big ideas are a good thing. Tomasky has more to say about liberals' ultimate concerns. The thesis of his widely discussed article in the May 2006 American Prospect is that "Democrats need to become the party of the common good." He calls for a "new philosophy" that "attempts to enlist citizens in large projects to which everyone contributes and from which everyone benefits."

For Tomasky, the common good will revive a liberal ideology that has been dominated since the late 1960s by just two principles: diversity and rights. He offers a carefully hedged critique of the liberalism defined by identity politics and the proliferation of non-negotiable rights. He allows that busing maybe wasn't such a great idea, and that calls for "law and order" were sort of about law and order rather than being code words for racism. He has nothing bad to say about Roe v. Wade but, interestingly, praises pro-choice activists in South Dakota who are trying to overturn its new abortion law by referendum rather than litigation. "Using the political process in this way is a huge improvement over running yet again to the courts. In the long run, showing faith in this kind of democratically negotiated outcome is far better for liberalism."

Apart from a few substantive hints around the edges, however, Tomasky's advocacy of the common good is long on exhortation and short on rigor. He rings as many changes on "all for one and one for all" as a single essay can stand. ("We're all in this…together, and…we have to pull together, make some sacrifices, and, just sometimes, look beyond our own interests to solve our problems and create the future," he writes breathlessly.) 

Common-good liberalism, it turns out, is about saying things differently rather than doing things differently, much less doing different things. He says that many of the agenda items of the liberal constituency groups are "laudable"—he doesn't identify one that isn't—but if they can't "justify" that agenda "in more universalist terms rather than particularist ones, then they just shouldn't be taken seriously." For example, "immigration policy can't be chiefly about the rights of undocumented immigrants; it needs to be about what's good for the country." Fine, but Tomasky gives no hint that his view of what's good for the country will be any different from the National Council of La Raza's.

No known liberal constituency is likely to embrace the common good as a defining idea, even if someone makes an argument for it that, unlike Tomasky's, is clear and compelling. Guy Molyneux, a pollster who works with Democratic politicians and labor unions, says:

The most powerful way to talk about Social Security…is to frame it in terms of a contribution people make through their payroll taxes…. I've contributed to this same system all my working years. Having done that, the government owes me back…. I wish the generational compact, the social solidarity [arguments] were as powerful. But they aren't, they simply aren't…. [The first idea] brings it much more to you—what you have a right to, as opposed to this sense of obligation to one another.

Tomasky tells us that he had his "epiphany" about the common good during the 1981 strike by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization. It was then he realized that PATCO's determination to break the law, threaten the transportation system with chaos, and put thousands of travelers at risk in order to extract higher salaries, was a clear violation of liberalism's fundamental principle: "Citizens should be called upon to look beyond their own self-interest and work for a greater common interest."

Just kidding—that's not what he realized at all. Tomasky's actual epiphany led him from PATCO to thinking about "history and money and power…about the precept that real thought and engagement on my part required looking beyond first assumptions, examining a problem from points of view other than my own, and considering any action's impact on the whole society." On the basis of this soggy banality Tomasky sets aside any misgivings about PATCO's actions, saving his reproaches for President Reagan and the "TV loudmouths" who "aped" his "line" about the strike being illegal.

A similar incoherence can be seen in Tomasky's criticism of busing and endorsement of affirmative action; he's oblivious to the fact that his arguments could just as well be transposed. Busing was one of the bad policies that "were pursued not because they would be good for every American, but because they would expand the rights of some Americans." Affirmative action, however, "has served us well as a whole, enriched us." As Tomasky sees it, "All over the country…attitudes…have changed dramatically for the better," because liberals "decided to demand of citizens that they come to terms with diversity." Demanding that citizens come to terms with diversity was exactly what liberals said in defense of busing 35 years ago. By the same token, bright students kept out of colleges they wouldn't diversify, and contractors denied government business they would have secured in a color-blind competition, will be gratified to learn that affirmative action is not one of those liberal mistakes that expands the rights of some Americans while disregarding what's good for every American.

Case-By-Case Liberalism

It should come as little surprise that the call for a new liberalism of Big Ideas and the Common Good has not been well-received by those liberal thinkers and pundits who uphold the reigning orthodoxy of pragmatic progressivism. Certainly, the New Republic's Jonathan Chait is having none of it. "Big ideas won't save liberalism," he writes, because the fight between liberals and conservatives is asymmetric. While conservatives believe in principles like free markets and limited government, for liberals "everything works on a case-by-case basis." Liberals will just have to live with the fact that nobody knows what they stand for because, Chait asserts, "you cannot, and should not, formulate sweeping dogmas when you're operating on a case-by-case basis." Thus, "any debate that takes place at the level of ideological generality…inherently favors the right."

Liberals' rejection of "sweeping dogmas" has a long pedigree. In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt argued for concentrating on practical results through "bold, persistent experimentation." "It is common sense," he said, "to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something."

Spurning dogma makes liberalism flexible, but also incoherent. Voters are rightly suspicious of politicians who promise, if given the keys to the government car, to choose whether or not to stop at intersections on a case-by-case basis. "Should government provide everybody's education?" Chait asks. "Yes. Should government manufacture everybody's blue jeans? No. And so on."

And so on…what? Where? "And so on" suggests continuation in a defined direction, the application of a general approach to new particulars. But there are only political particulars for Chait—generalities have no bearing on the business of governing—so there's nothing to be said about how liberalism will move from one issue to another. The implication is that since liberalism doesn't really have a theory, it will acquire all its meaning in practice: "Liberalism" will be the accumulation of policy choices that cause the sort of bright, decent, well-intentioned people who attend editorial meetings at The New Republic to say, "That sounds about right," before they go on to the next case.

Consider taxation. Conservatives have a principled (or if you prefer, dogmatic) position against the progressive income tax. The argument, as spelled out by F.A. Hayek in The Constitution of Liberty, is that the rule of law requires universality. Once you make different people pay different tax rates, or obey different speed limits, there's nothing to stop the government from enacting the most arbitrary, capricious, or burdensome policies it can get away with. The liberal "principle" that people with higher incomes should pay higher tax rates is useless: it's impossible to obey a principle if it's impossible to say what it would mean to exceed it. 

And, indeed, under case-by-caseism the top income tax rate stood at 70% in 1980. Inflation pushed growing numbers of un-rich Americans into tax brackets ostensibly meant for the wealthy. When Ronald Reagan reduced the top rate to 50%, and indexed tax rates to inflation, liberals denounced this "reckless giveaway to the rich." But the 1980 election really was a paradigm shift, one that has constrained the policy options available to "that-sounds-about-right" practitioners. It is impossible, a generation after Reagan's election, to find a liberal who has a good word to say about his tax cuts; but it's also impossible to find one who proposes to restore the 70% bracket or discard indexing. 

Liberals resent that so many of their aspirations have disappeared from the national agenda. (No one talks about Marshall Plans for our cities anymore.) For liberals, the silver lining of this paradigm shift is that the democratic principle might yet rescue the case-by-case approach from the taint of elitism. Governance according to, "That sounds about right to us," will be less high-handed if the "us" includes cashiers and electricians instead of just Kennedy School graduates. If those cashiers and electricians met those policy wonks on a frequent and equal basis to discuss the range of choices facing the government, liberalism would take forever to formulate but would emerge with increased legitimacy. 

In the absence of that communitarian fantasy, however, democratizing case-by-case liberalism means entrusting it to the implacable demands of an endless array of interest groups, thus making it even more confused. A self-governing republic is a dubious laboratory for bold, persistent experimentation. The "try something" part isn't hard. Admitting failures frankly and moving on, though, is. It is rare for failed programs to be widely popular, but they can flourish for decades by beingnarrowly popular. Once a bad program acquires a determined constituency, the gates of cost-benefit analysis shall not prevail against it.

In a book celebrating FDR's "Second Bill of Rights" as the greatest speech of the 20th century, Cass Sunstein specifically repudiates Roosevelt's call to recognize "the right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living." (The idea of a Second Bill of Rights, as proclaimed in the 1944 State of the Union address, sounds too dogmatic to be consistent with the pragmatic imperative to "above all, try something." Suffice it to say that FDR was flexible about being flexible.) On the contrary, says Sunstein, "[Some] farmers should go out of business. There is no more reason to guarantee 'every' farmer a reasonable profit than to make this guarantee for computer companies, airlines or real estate agents." It is impossible to find a liberal writer who takes the contrary position defending farm subsidies. With thousands of beneficiaries but no justification, however, the farm programs go on and on—an old, persistent experiment that can never fail enough to be abandoned.

Tweedledum and Tweedledim

Case-by-case liberalism reduces governance to messing around. We shouldn't be surprised when the result turns out to be a mess. Whatever the weaknesses of Chait's argument, the burden on the liberals who disagree with him is to offer a compelling alternative. Big ideas won't help if they're bad ideas—thin, confused, or impossible to flesh out. And, on this score, the hazy worldviews offered by liberals who proclaim big ideas help us understand why Chait disdains them.

If common-good liberalism is pliable enough to endorse rather than condemn the PATCO strike, then it can lend itself to any demand of any liberal interest group, provided that someone ponders history and money and power long enough to come up with a common-good rationale for the policy. Chait is honest, at least, about making it up as he goes along. Tomasky wants to have it both ways, for liberalism to acquire the high seriousness that comes from having a philosophy, while retaining the plasticity to be about whatever circumstances, political pressures, or the latest bright idea dictates.

Noam Scheiber of The New Republic recognizes the problem, arguing that it's impossible for liberals to invoke the common good whenever it's convenient and ignore it when it's not. It would be better for Democrats not to bring the idea up in the first place, he says, rather than go to the voters as the party fervently dedicated to advancing the common good—except when they aren't. National health insurance, for example, can't be mandated by the common good if abortion remains solely a question of inviolable privacy rights. But the latter position, clearly, is not open for discussion among liberals. At a recent forum of the liberal Center for American Progress, Rachel Laser, an abortion rights activist, said that 1.3 million abortions in America each year is too many. She reports that when she asked how many people in the room felt the same way, "It was only me and maybe one other who raised our hands."

Ultimately, a public philosophy based on the common good won't work unless it can make useful distinctions about what is and isn't common, and what is and isn't good. As it stands, common-good liberalism is just case-by-case liberalism on stilts. In the fight between those who say big ideas are indispensable to the resuscitation of liberalism and those who say big ideas are incompatible with the essence of liberalism, the scorecard shows that, so far, both sides are right.