The Democrats “articulate no basic philosophy to guide their decisions,” complains Linda Hirshman on the New Republic website, and their lack of “a clear and coherent message” means that even if Democrats run the table in November 2008 “they will never build a political movement.” Worst of all, this lack of coherence “is a totally self-inflicted wound. For more than 70 years, the Democrats have had a perfectly good philosophy: liberalism.”
It may surprise NLT readers to learn that Democrats have forsaken liberalism. Hirshman complains that Democrats avoid calling themselves “liberals,” a word FDR used proudly but which Democrats have locked in the attic since the Dukakis debacle of 1988. Her real complaint, however, goes beyond semantics. “For more than three centuries liberalism has meant the belief in increased sharing of social goods,” says Hirshman, and Democrats who don’t embrace this belief will squander their chance to realize “a liberalism of collective responsibility” like those in western Europe.
It’s always annoying when a tenured professor (or, in Hirshman’s case, a retired one) scorns the timidity of politicians who have to win contested elections. By the time Hirshman has completed her argument for liberalism, however, the Democrats who distance themselves from it seem more like statesmen than cautious vote-seekers. Her ideas about sharing are the heart of the problem. It’s a word that conveys a quality of volition not . . . well, entirely germane to dealings between citizens and governments that can imprison them. Hirshman’s is an old wish, that communitarian-sounding words will dispel any fears of authoritarian-sounding actions. Try skipping your Social Security “contributions” for a year, though, and see how much understanding you get from the IRS about declining to share your paycheck with the other kids in the lunchroom.
What circumstances justify the enforced generosity Hirshman calls “sharing?” The real challenge would be to imagine any that don’t. Pre-industrial liberalism was about sharing power, she says, so it worked to limit absolutist governments. The Industrial Revolution promoted a new liberalism based on a “new sharing,” one “grounded in a deep belief . . . in the significance of the human capacity for pleasure and pain and meaningful work.”
A government whose agenda is constrained by the breakthrough discovery that people prefer pleasure to pain, and meaningful work to drudgery, is a government constrained by nothing. Thus, Hirshman’s argument for national health insurance rests on the premise that a “large segment of [the] population, who can feel pain,” aren’t able to alleviate it on their own. Chances are, however, that an even larger segment of people feel they’re stuck in a crappy job. Hide your wallet before you ask Prof. Hirshman what we should do for them.