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Freedom's Power: The True Force of Liberalism Hardcover – April 3, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Part political theory and part intellectual history, this book tracks the development of liberalism as the world's dominant political tradition and argues for its continued ascendancy as the best guarantor of individual rights and prosperity on the global stage. Starr, a Princeton sociology and public affairs professor and founding editor of the American Prospect, explains modern liberalism as an evolutionary process, rooted in classical laissez-faire liberalism, and gradually accreting a greater role for the state to provide a social safety net, defend equal rights for all and institute true democratic pluralism. Defending liberalism from its socialist as well as its conservative critics, Starr sees his ideology as a middle path, harnessing the creative power of the free market while tempering some of its capriciousness. A central thesis is that "[t]he peculiar internal tension of liberal constitutions is that they constrain power even as they authorize it—that is, they attempt to curb the despotic power and ambitions of individual rulers and officials and, by doing so, to permit stronger systemic capacities." The first section of the book discusses the causes and consequences of liberal revolutions in Britain, America and France, while later chapters cover recent events, including the 2006 congressional elections. Complex macroeconomic, demographic and philosophical trends are presented engagingly and understandably for casual readers and political buffs alike. (Apr.)
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Paul Starr is not only a professor of sociology and politics at Princeton, he is also one of the founding members of " The American Prospect." On the political spectrum, that would place him to the left of "The New Republic" and to the right of "The Nation." In this book, he attempts to rehabilitate modern liberalism from being a term of abuse. He traces its origins back to the 17th century. According to Starr, the first phase of liberalism was known as "classical liberalism" or "constitutional liberalism," forged by the Glorious Revolution in Britain and the American Revolution. In this phase liberals sought to contain state power in the name of individual liberty. A balanced constitution would guarantee rule of law and individual rights.
It is from this historical milieu that conservatism also springs. They also trace their origins back to these two revolutions. (Read Michael Barone's Our First Revolution: The Remarkable British Upheaval That Inspired America's Founding Fathers.) It can be said that the Anglosphere as a whole can attribute its wealth and social capital to the discipline and power constitutional liberalism.
Starr goes on to describe how, at the end of the 19th century, classical liberalism became "modern democratic liberalism." This phase of liberalism ushered in with the Progressive Movement. The reach of government expanded and continued to expand during the 20th century with the New Deal and the Great Society programs. The goal of the so-called Liberal Project was to make society more egalitarian through activist government. This was done by income redistribution, extending rights to women and blacks (rights were by definition universal but not in practice), and by "deregulting private life" (namely artistic and sexual liberation).
There was a consevative backlash against this unprecedented government intrusion into the economic and private life. Conservatives sought to preserve the status quo, to "stand athwart history." Eventually, however, conservatives came to accept the civil rights movement and certain forms of freedom of expression, though they still have a problem with income redistribution.
The crux of Starr's argument is that liberalism believes that an activist government is needed to further individual liberty. Conservatives, on the other hand, believe that liberty can best be achieved when government gets out of the way. This is the central back and forth of the liberal/conservative divide, someday they might realize that they are both right. Take capitalism, for example. Capitalism unregulated or laissez faire would lead naturally to monopolitistic practices. Liberals can come in with regulatory rules to keep markets competative, but not to many rules as to stifle growth, and so on. It's a question of balance.
Today conservatism is going through an identity crisis, it is displaying all the excesses of the liberalism of the the 1960s and 70s. The Bush administration has expanded government spending - homeland security, prescription drug benefits - not seen since the Johnson administration. They are borrow and spend conservatives, rather than tax and spend liberals. Borrowing is actually a more expensive and dishonest way to finance social programs. It has actually gotten to a point where neither liberals nor conservatives can muster the political will to stop the inexorable growth of government. It would be good for both camps to pick up a copy of this book to become reacquainted with their historical origins.
Starr wrote this book because "there was no cogent, concise, accessible, and up-to-date account of the liberal project." (p. x) Starr overall perspective is to illustrate the continuity between classical liberalism, with its stress on individual freedom, private property, limited state, and market competition (Starr calls this constitutional liberalism), and contemporary American Liberalism (I'll write it with a capital L to distinguish it from the classical variant), with its egalitarian objectives and support for extensive state intervention in ameliorating the vicissitudes of the capitalist marketplace (Starr calls this modern democratic liberalism). The link for Starr is that the freedom for self-realization cherished in classical liberal thought can be realized in modern society only with a powerful state that offers a relatively level playing-field---something not guaranteed by classical liberal institutions. Modern Liberalism, says Starr, is the application of classical liberal principles to modern social conditions and a heightened presence of democratic institutions.
I think this representation of modern Liberalism is essentially correct. Classical liberalism arose as a progressive reaction against the aristocratic and clerical ruling classes of Eighteenth century Europe, but upon the consolidation of capitalist society following the Industrial Revolution, liberalism faced the new threat of socialist collectivism. Modern Liberalism embraced the social goals of collectivism---equality and material security for the working classes---but held that these goals could be achieved within the context of classically liberal institutions by expanding the role of the state sector. The success of modern Liberalism in bringing about this vision has be astounding and thorough-going, to the point that we now see that the socialist critique of liberal society was simply incorrect and misguided.
Starr's defense of modern Liberalism is powerful and accurate. The years since the Great Depression have seen the consolidation of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, widespread employer-based health insurance, the abolition of official racial discrimination and the progressive integration of minorities into American society, the rise of gender equality, and increased tolerance for non-standard life-styles and sexual preferences. This is a magnificent set of achievements because each and every one of these accomplishments can be justified as moves to improve the ability of citizens to lead creative and fulfilled lives. "The liberalism of the 1960's," says Starr (p. 160), "brought about an immense moral and political transformation that, for all it limitations, rectified long-standing injustices, expanded freedom and democracy, and helped to realize America's promise of opportunity and a decent life for millions of its people."
I am personally amazed at how perfectly correct this appreciation of our recent political history sounds to me. I am amazed because I would never call myself and liberal, and indeed, I am more often disgusted by liberal social policy than by conservative idiocy. Liberals, to me, are big spenders who abjure family values, believe in a bloated state bureaucracy that dispenses goodies independent of the merit of the recipients, hates entrepreneurship and business creativity, treats labor unions as bastions of freedom rather than the grubby special interest groups that they are, panders to the welfare state insiders, supports the rapacious, decrepit, and venal teachers' unions, favors old-boy protectionism over progressive globalization, and prefers ease and comfort to fighting for freedom and democracy around the world. Of course, our recent Democratic presidents, Clinton and Obama, do not fit into this characterization at all. But rank and file Democrats and their political and intellectual leaders certainly do. I stopped reading The Public Prospect because I could not stand its self-serving, ideologically laden, commentary on American life.
Starr correctly locates Liberal welfare policy as the most important liberal failure in the years from Roosevelt to Carter (p. 174). Not only was this policy defective in failing to provide the poor with the incentives and instruments to overcome their condition, it consistently favored its bureaucratic union supporters in situations where these supporters were part of the problem. This includes the teachers' unions, which consistently have opposed reform and competition, and are satisfied only when more money is thrown at the schools (being, of course, quite adept at spearing the dough as it flies by). Indeed, Liberals responsible for the failure of the War on Poverty because they saw the issue as one of distributional equity, whereas in fact (and as emphasized by Michael Harrington in his marvelous The Other America, 1962), the real issue is one of cultural renewal and popular empowerment.
I would add to this failure of Liberalism the failure of Liberals to recognize the Soviet threat to democracy, and to preach mutual toleration with totalitarianism. Carter was of course the wimp to beat all wimps (his reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was to withdraw from the Olympics!), and made the rise of Reagan conservatism possible. Reagan was a breath of fresh air, promising to fight totalitarianism to the death and to pursue America's enemies relentlessly to the ends of the Earth.
The key failure of Starr's otherwise completely successful book is his analysis of where Liberalism has to go from here. Of course, the fight for gender and ethnic equality must continue, reproductive rights must be consolidated, and the fight for the freedom of people to follow a variety of socially responsible life-styles must not flag. However, I see these goals as pretty much social goals whose success depends more on demographics than on political power. The fact is that liberals have no higher-level vision of the possible. Perhaps that is not a problem though. It would be lovely indeed if political competition in the future was based on who can better run the country, not who has the most attractive political philosophy. I also hope Liberals can ally with American conservatives in extending democracy around the world, and fighting poverty and ignorance perpetrated by predatory states and their corrupt occupants of position of power. Extremism in the defense of liberty, Barry Goldwater once said, is no vice. Sounds good to me.