Michael Tomasky has written a dismissive review of Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism for The New Republic. “Tedious,” “inane,” and “deeply frivolous” are among its bouquets. Despite his contempt, however, Tomasky acknowledges that Liberal Fascism raises a serious question, one for which neither Tomasky nor liberalism generally has a comparably serious response.
The question is whether there is a slippery slope between liberalism’s social reforms and totalitarianism. It is a danger that conservatives have been warning about for decades; The Road to Serfdom and Capitalism and Freedom are two books that remain on conservatives’ shelves because they sounded this alarm. Liberal Fascism extends Hayek’s and Friedman’s arguments by contending we’ll have a more acute awareness of the possibility that liberalism and totalitarianism will converge beyond the horizon in front of us if we understand the ideas and language they shared beyond the horizon behind us. Goldberg excavates the intellectual origins of modern liberalism to reveal a disturbing contrast between its zeal for social reforms and a petulant impatience with all the ways liberal democracy can thwart those reforms.
Tomasky responds to this point by insisting that the slope between liberalism and totalitarianism is just not that slippery. Something “deep within liberalism . . . prevents it from degenerating into fascism, and that is its explicit recognition that the state must serve both common purposes and individual liberty.” When social reform “crosses the line into coercion,” true liberals “get off the train, and do their noncoercive best to derail it.”
Tomasky’s reassurance is a pretty good Rorschach test. If you find it so obvious and commonsensical as to wonder why the point even needs to be made, your politics and instincts are reliably liberal. If, instead, you find it as smug and condescending as the official spokesman who blandly announces, “Yes, we’re aware of the problem and have it under control,” while smoke seeps out from beneath the closed door behind him, you are a conservative.
The reason Tomasky’s reassurance does not reassure is that the more you examine the theory and practice of modern liberalism the less you understand why the slope is not slippery. You might think, for example, that if he had more time or space, Tomasky would describe, tangibly, the “something” that keeps liberalism from degenerating into fascism. Or that he would give us the coordinates of the “line” that defines the degree of coercion that liberals simply won’t tolerate, no matter how laudable the social reforms being advanced. But Tomasky’s other writings, and those of liberal advocates and theoreticians generally, do not make these distinctions any more distinct. The reassurance, such as it is, comes down to postulates about liberals’ sensibilities and character: We’re nice people, not thugs, who want to do good things, but have no interest in resorting to force to get our way.
Most liberals are nice people, not ogres pretending to be nice. But niceness isn’t always enough; principles can be useful, too. Put together enough nice people, determined to do enough nice things, and the line defining the sort of coercion that must not be used gets pretty elastic. Think of the nice professors and deans who have enacted speech codes at dozens of colleges to promote the nice goals of tolerance and self-esteem.
Or think of the nice officials in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, promoting the nice goal of better facilities for the mentally ill. When, 15 years ago, civic groups responded to this initiative by protesting plans to put such facilities in their neighborhoods, the humanitarians at HUD demanded the groups’ membership lists, any letters they had written to public officials or newspapers, and “any petitions, names, addresses, and phone numbers of anyone who had indicated support for the group’s efforts,” according to James Bovard. Roberta Achtenberg, the Assistant Secretary of HUD, defended the department’s actions in terms indistinguishable from Tomasky’s: “In every case of this nature, HUD walks a tightrope between free speech and fair housing. We are ever mindful of the need to maintain the proper balance between these rights.” If you liked Achtenberg’s sense of balance then you’ll love Tomasky’s sense of limits, and join with him in rejecting Goldberg’s overwrought hysteria about liberalism’s ominous possibilities.