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October 26, 2009

an alternative history of 20th century liberalism

From the 1940s to the 1960s, American liberalism had everything that an ideology should: millions of active adherents, heroes and leaders, supportive organizations (from the AFL-CIO to the ACLU), legislative victories and an unfinished legislative agenda, empirical theories and supportive evidence, and moral principles. The principles could be summarized as the famous Four Freedoms, but we could spell them out a bit more, as follows: The individual liberties in the Bill of Rights trump social goods, but it is the responsibility of the national government to promote social goods once private freedoms have been secured. The chief social goods include minimal levels of welfare for all (the "safety net," or Freedom from Want), equality of opportunity (achieved through public education, civil rights legislation, and pro-competitive regulation in the marketplace), and consistent prosperity, promoted by Keynesian economic policies during recessions.

These ideas had empirical support from sociology and economics and could be developed into a whole philosophy, as John Rawls did in The Theory of Justice (1971). Rawls' theses of the "priority of the right to the good" and "the difference principle" really summarize the whole movement.

Rawls hardly mentions modern history or policies, but he cites and argues with major theorists, such as Kant, Mill, and John Harsanyi. So we could tell a story about American liberalism--understood as a set of ideas--that emphasizes its origins in theoretical debates. Franklin Roosevelt constructed a monument to Thomas Jefferson because he wanted to show liberalism's debts to that enlightenment philosopher; the inside of the Jefferson Monument is bedecked with quotes favorable to the New Deal. Other parts of the liberal synthesis can be traced back to Jefferson's less popular contemporary, Hamilton. Keynes, Brandeis, Gifford Pinchot, and Felix Frankfurter were more proximate intellectual sources. We could understand the New Deal as a development of Victorian liberalism that added arguments in favor of federal activism to combat monopoly, environmental catastrophe, and the business cycle. A story of liberalism as a set of principles, theories, and proposals implies that a revival will require new ideas and a new intellectual synthesis.

But I would tell the story an entirely different way--as the "scaling up" of concrete examples and experiments that were undertaken originally in a highly pragmatic vein. Think, for example, of Jane Addams in 1889. She is a rich and well-educated person who has no possibility of a career (because she is a woman) and who is deeply troubled by poverty in industrial cities. She is impressed by the concrete example of Toynbee Hall, a settlement house in London. She and Ellen Gates Starr move into a house in a poor district of Chicago without a very clear plan for what to do. They launch projects and events, many of which have a "deliberative" flavor--residents come together to read challenging books, discuss, and debate. Out of these discussions come a kindergarten, a museum, a public kitchen, a bath house, a library, numerous adult education courses, and reform initiatives related to politics and unions. Some 2000 people come to Hull House every day at its peak, to talk, work, advocate, and receive services.

In the 1920s, when progressive state governments like New York's start building more ambitious social and educational services, they literally fund settlement houses and launch other institutions (schools, state colleges, clinics, public housing projects, welfare agencies) modeled on Hull House and its sister settlements. Then, when Roosevelt takes office and decides to stimulate the economy with federal spending, he creates programs like the WPA that are essentially Hull House writ large.

Here, thanks to Nancy Lorance, is a WPA-funded recreation worker singing with a group of children who live in the Jane Addams public housing project in Chicago during the New Deal:

The combination of culture, education, public investment, and the very name "Jane Addams Housing Project," pretty much sum up this story of American liberalism as discussion, followed by experimentation, followed by public funding. At the heart of the ideology, so understood, is not a theory but a set of impressive examples.

This is not to deny the intellectual achievement of the movement--Jane Addams, for instance, was an extremely learned and insightful writer. But it suggests that intellectual reflection follows practical experimentation, not the reverse. Even John Rawls can be read as a defender of the concrete reforms of 1930-1970, although he never mentions them. If you find The Theory of Justice persuasive, it's not because you have imagined yourself in the "original position" and reasoned your way to a set of principles that would apply anywhere. It's because you think that a government can make a positive difference by guaranteeing the First Amendment, taxing people to a substantial but not overwhelming extent, and spending the proceeds on education, welfare, and health. If you agree with those theses, it's because of what the actual government has done. The basis of The Theory of Justice is thoroughly experimental.

Today, we have different challenges from those that FDR's America faced in 1932. Climate change, terrorism, de-industrialization, crime, the lack of social mobility over generations, the close association between economic security and educational attainment, and rising health-care costs would make my list of our challenges. If it's right to see mid-twentieth-century liberalism as an expansion of pragmatic experimentation, then we should be looking to today's charter schools, innovative clinics and health plans, land trusts and co-ops, and socially minded business for the concrete cases that merit expansion. We are less in need of major theories than of what Roberto Mangabeira Unger calls a "culture of democratic experimentalism."

October 26, 2009 8:47 AM | category: revitalizing the left | Comments


From Louise W. Knight, via email:

I always enjoy when you write about Jane Addams in your blog, as you did yesterday. It is important for the progressive pragmatists to receive the credit they deserve for launching the movement for which FDR, and then the liberal theorists, have been given so much credit.

It might also be noted that the progressives had theories too -- about the centrality of experimentation as the basis, or starting point, for successful reform. Thus they rebut the 50s liberals in two ways - through their actions and their ideas about their actions.

I tell this story in a new biography I have written about Addams that will be published by W. W. Norton on September 6, 2010, the 150th anniversary of her birth. (My earlier biography of Addams, Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy, covered only the first half of her life; this book covers the full life --i.e., it is not volume 2). The new book is titled, Jane Addams: Spirit in Action.

October 27, 2009 11:19 AM | Comments (1) | posted by Peter Levine

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