The Necessity of Doubt

Source: The Necessity of Doubt
June 06, 2010

Why are welfare state liberals like our president and his congressional allies perpetually seeking to appropriate the income and manage the lives of productive citizens? Why can’t they tell us when they will have taken all that it is right to take, so we can relax, secure in the enjoyment of our property?

In a series of essays written for the Claremont Review of Books, William Voegeli has explored the course and meaning of welfare state liberalism. Voegeli seems to understand welfare state liberalism like Whitaker Chambers understood Communism, from the inside. Jonah Goldberg has written of him: “Bill Voegeli has become my new James Q. Wilson — the egghead I always read even if I don’t think I’m interested at first.” Thus the publication of Voegeli’s new book on the subject — Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State — is something of an event.

Liberals and conservatives, Voegeli observes, have been arguing about the welfare state for 80 years, each side going so far as to define itself in terms of its stance on big government. In this context he has noted: “If the expansion of the welfare state is the reason liberals get up and go to work in the morning, its contraction is the reason conservatives do.”

Voegli’s explorations pose difficult questions for liberals and conservatives. He has observed, for example, that federal spending on “human resources” programs since 1940 have increased under every president since FDR. Real, per capita federal spending on such programs was 15 times greater in 2007 than in 1940. Even the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who called for cuts to federal spending more than any other recent president, saw a slight increase.

The welfare state has massively increased in scope and size since 1940, and it is undergoing another vast expansion under Obama. Despite this massive growth, the left keeps calling for more. Since the beginning of the Progressive era, no liberal politician has suggested the ultimate or sufficient size of government. Instead, liberals demand more growth, refusing to consider the limits to growth of the welfare state.

What is to be done? Voegeli follows Lincoln’s adage: “If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.”

The estimable Fred Siegel has reviewed Voegeli’s new book in “Insatiable liberalism.” Siegel finds that Never Enough is “the best book written on liberalism in recent decades,” and “an essential read for understanding how we came to this pass.” It is clearly one of the books of the year.

We have invited Voegeli to expand on the themes of his new book in something special for Power Line readers. Perfectly adapted to the moment are Voegeli’s reflections on the oil spill and the Enlightenment:

Is the Deepwater Horizon oil spoil President Obama’s Katrina? Probably not. Leaving aside the coincidence of Louisiana bearing the brunt of each disaster, history rarely repeats itself with such tidy, edifying precision. The political arguments we had over Katrina, however, tell us important things about the nation’s reaction to the current catastrophe.

Ross Douthat, who was a blogger in 2005 before he became a writer for theAtlantic Monthly and then the New York Times, argued that the criticism of the Bush administration after Katrina was overwrought, because “even had the governmental response been perfect, Katrina would have still been a disaster of epic proportions.” In the final analysis, he wrote, “The only lessons of Katrina are that life is dark and death is everywhere, that nature isn’t our friend and that Americans, too, can behave like savages under duress, and that all the blessings of liberalism and democracy and capitalism can’t protect us from the worst.”

Noam Scheiber, then and now a writer for The New Republic, rejected such fatalism. The real lesson of Katrina, he insisted, one that justified all the denunciations of George W. Bush and his administration, was “that a robust, efficient government can mitigate, if not completely eliminate, much of the chaos and nastiness in the world.” (Emphasis added.)

Scheiber’s boundless optimism about what government can do, and therefore can be expected to do, is not an excitable moment from a journalist on deadline, but a useful summary of the core tenet of the liberal faith. The poet and ardent New Dealer Archibald MacLeish said much the same thing in 1943: “We have, and we know we have, the abundant means to bring our boldest dreams to pass – to create for ourselves whatever world we have the courage to desire…. We have the tools and the skill and the intelligence to take our cities apart and put them together, to lead our roads and rivers where we please to lead them, to build our houses where we want our houses, to brighten the air, clean the wind, to live as men in this Republic, free men, should be living.”

It’s not hard to understand why, less than five years after Katrina, Barack Obama’s maladroit response to the Gulf oil spill is causing so much agitation among his admirers. Obama was supposed to be the un-W., fluent where his predecessor was tongue-tied, affirming in word and deed that a sufficiently robust and energetic government could rid the world of chaos and nastiness.

The impotence, confusion and cluelessness of the Obama administration’s response to the oil spill present liberal America with a painful dilemma. Those who admired and verged on worshiping Obama during 2008 and 2009 have to wonder whether the oil spill is Obama’s 3:00 a.m. phone call, and Hillary Clinton’s warnings that the kid just wasn’t ready to hit big-league pitching have been proven correct.

Alternatively, the way — the only way, really — to judge Obama leniently is to take the position that there’s very little he could have done before or after the Deepwater Horizon blew up that would have made a difference. There’s much good sense in that conclusion, but few liberals have embraced it. Not only does it retroactively vindicate Douthat’s 2005 defense of the Bush administration’s Katrina response. It calls into question the whole notion that if we just build a government that is big, and busy, and smart, and idealistic enough we will make the world a cheerful haven.

The indispensable Walter Russell Mead recently reminded us that the 21st century is posing a crisis for “the religion of Enlightenment,” the 18th century faith that human reason, unleashed from all constraints and unburdened by ancient superstitions and doubts, would lead mankind to ever greater levels of health, prosperity, security and harmony. The Enlightenment religion won so many converts because it delivered so much of what it promised. We really do enjoy lives that are vastly more comfortable and congenial than humans throughout nearly the entirety of history experienced or even imagined.

Inevitably, the progress we grow accustomed to we eventually believe we are entitled to. We treat every oil spill, mine explosion or plane crash as an outrage, an inexcusable breach of the promise that technology, planning and robust, efficient government would make life perpetually safer and nicer. Such transgressions against the religion of Enlightenment elicit a fundamentalist reaction: Human reason hasn’t failed us. Rather, we have failed it, and must redouble our commitment to better technology, smarter planning, and organizations that are shrewdly designed and expertly managed.

Unlike some religions, Enlightenment fundamentalism readily lends itself to hating the sin and hating the sinner. A personal-injury attorney in Russell Banks’ novel The Sweet Hereafter voiced these hatreds perfectly. Arriving in a small town to find clients and file lawsuits after a school bus skidded into a river, the lawyer says, “I knew at once that it wasn’t an ‘accident’ at all. There are no accidents. I don’t even know what the word means, and I never trust anyone who says he does. I knew that somebody somewhere had made a decision to cut a corner.”

A world without accidents might sound appealing, if for no other reason than it would be a world without personal-injury attorneys. It is highly doubtful that such a world can be created, however, or that we would like living in it if we did build it. Every accident, especially every well-publicized disaster, brings new regulations, technologies, systems, and procedures. These responses are often efficacious, individually and for a time, but the accretion of rules and processes eventually becomes self-defeating. Labor unions enjoined by a court from going on strike have sometimes responded by “working to code,” doing every part of every job exactly by the book. The results are as disruptive as strikes, and proof that people who have to get the job done are going to be as creative about finding ways around rules and regulations as the people who write them are about coming up with new ones.

Anne Applebaum asks, “Given that he cannot stop the oil from flowing, why has President Barack Obama decided to act as if he can?” The problem, she says, is that “when angry words — anti-BP, anti-British, anti-oil-company — reflect the absence of any alternative policy whatsoever, they just sound pathetic.” It will be one of American history’s most ironic comeuppances if the One chosen to instruct us in the audacity of hope winds up reminding us of the necessity of doubt. In the Gulf of Mexico, as in so many other venues of American life, the politician who was supposed to find new ways to vindicate the liberal project is instead finding new ways to vindicate those who doubt the worth and feasibility of that project.

« »